As I mentioned before, Nowhere Island is an L-shaped sandbar. On the corner is an airfield that heads west towards the main campus. The main campus itself is kind of a small town. I know this because we run through it twice every day on our run. It’s gated off and is on a raised, rocky area, probably in case of attack. The buildings inside are that fusion of Modern and early 20th century architecture that schools back home tend to be nowadays: all brick, but with huge glass windows for the lobbies. However, looking at how weathered the bricks are, one tends to get the feeling that they’re from way before the style became popular. Also, the non-lobby windows tend to be smaller, more like murder holes in old castles. My guess is that in a pinch every building there can be turned into a bunker of some sort.
I’m not the best judge, but I’ve heard some people say that up to 20,000 people could be in that section. I guess I can see that, because except for some of the staff houses, the living quarters seem to be mostly multi-story apartment-style buildings.
To top it off, on the gate that led to the campus, there was written in bronze: “Any man may rob a railcar, but an educated man may steal the entire railway.” After the first run, I started hearing people joke that the gate to our camp should read “Arbeit macht frei.”
Speaking of our camp, it was quite different from the campus. On one side were five large buildings, designed to hold 200 people each. Opposite that were the cafeteria and the showers. To the south (that was actually one of the things we had learned, how to tell directions based on the sun and stars,) were the staff quarters, an armory, and a mysterious building which smelled like rotting carcasses called “The Chamber of Horrors.” In the center was the parade ground with a dirt floor. (Well, currently it was a mud floor.) That was where Fight Night would take place. Surrounding it was a wall that was meant more as a token defense than as a way to keep people in or out. Strange as it sounded, everyone wanted to be here.
That didn’t mean we didn’t complain. Popular topics of our moaning included grueling physical labor, baking heat, our instructors, the near-constant torrential rains, and our fellow students. These complaints were not without reason. Each one of these topics seemed like it was actively trying to kill us.
As John and I walked through the gates, completely out of breath, an announcement from the loudspeakers played. It was from the Head of the Advanced Combat & Military Science Academy, Professor Blunt. Great. Just what we needed to hear while being pelted by rain so heavy it felt like we were swimming.
“So you candy-ass fresh meat are all finally here!” Yep, he was another drill sergeant, all right. “Well, we’ve got a real treat for all you ladies! You get the rest of the day off for R&R! That means a whole day of hopscotch and knitting for you before you finally get your first real fight. Or maybe that isn’t tame enough for you snowflakes, I don’t know. Meals are at the usual time!”
“This has been another inspirational message from Professor Blunt,” I said. “If this message has made you feel uncomfortable in any way, you may call our toll free number 1-800-URAPANSY.” I must have said it louder than I intended because John wasn’t the only one who laughed. Sergeant Krieger, who was only slightly farther ahead of me, didn’t seem to care. Someone else did.
“You’re a funny guy, aren’t you, Jew-boy?” the voice asked. I stiffened. I would have kept moving, but John had stopped as well. John turned around slowly, and I did as well, wiping off my glasses. Whatever was happening, I wanted to be able to see.
“I’m sorry,” John asked, “but who the fuck are you?” We were face-to-face with the kind of person you see in old Army recruitment posters. I suppose his hair was too dark for a Nazi recruiting poster, but he was more KKK. He also did kind of look a bit like a younger version of those old Civil War Generals, I suppose.
“This is Richard Forest Taylor the… third, I think?” I said. He nodded. I continued on. “A few days ago, I was saying how I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. He suggested I join what he views as a prestigious part of American heritage. I call it the KKK.”
“I see.” John said. He was breathing harder now, and I doubted all of it was because of the marathon.
Richard, or Dick, as I liked to call him, cut in. “I like,” he said, “with all your limp-wristed talk of respecting others, you still talk over me.” Normally, I would have tried to reason with him, or point out that he hadn’t been saying anything, or maybe even walked away. However, I had just run twenty-five kilometers, I hadn’t eaten or showered, it was raining, and I had not had enough sleep. So, in retrospect, I think I can be forgiven for asking him, “Who fucking said anything about respecting you, bedsheet-face?”
In the moment, however, Richard called me uppity and something that begins with K, while punching me in the face. John, in response to that, tackled Richard and began rapidly punching him before I had time to process anything.
I didn’t really know how to react then. On the one hand, I wanted to ask John to move out of the way so I could take a turn beating the crap out of him. On the other, I felt my duty as a good human being would be to say something like, “That’s enough, John.”
“What’s this, eh?” Sergeant Krieger asked. I nearly crapped my pants and made a note to add motherfucking ninja to the good sergeant’s list of skills. Also, a few people were stopping to watch the show. Showers could wait, apparently.
John stood up, and looked directly in Krieger’s face. To his credit, he managed not to look scared. “The fucker on the ground insulted my friend and punched him in the face.”
“The ad’ole provoked de!” Richard shouted through a bloody nose, pointing at me. His eyes also kind of looked like at least one would be puffy in a few hours.
“By ‘provoking,’” I said acidly, “he means ‘responding to his BS.’”
Krieger regarded each of us with a disturbing intensity. Whatever animosity we felt towards each other, however intense, we all had a feeling that Krieger wanted us to put it on hold. Continuing hostilities would… annoy him. Annoying Krieger would result in the offending parties watching bemusedly as their blood watered the grass.
“Names.” I suppose it was a question, but it sounded more like a threat. A threat from Krieger was something you took seriously. We told him. Richard, I noticed, didn’t mention his middle name or the fact that he was version 3.0. I guess he realized that Krieger wouldn’t be impressed.
Finally, he came to a decision. “All right,” he said, pointing to us, “you two go shower.” He pointed to Richard. “You go to the canteen and get some ice.” Not being stupid, we obeyed. Apparently, they let people in the Soldier programs off easy for fighting, especially in basic training. As long as you could still fight, they were ok with it.
“Meet me behind the barracks after we eat,” John whispered to me as we headed off to shower. It made sense. While I had normally spent all my running with John, I spent mealtimes trying to talk to people. I didn’t want to break this streak for fear of attracting attention.
I was in the middle of my shower when Amir sauntered up to the shower head next to me. Amir was… very different from Richard. He was Al-Qaeda, so I suppose there were some similarities. However, unlike his cronies (he seemed to be the senior Al-Qaeda guy here,) his was an almost cordial hate. Whenever he talked to me, he would usually ask if I wanted to convert and join Al-Qaeda. I would decline. He would then politely threaten my life, then segue into polite conversation. Even his compatriots in terrorism thought he was odd. They just wanted to kill me and have done with it.
“So,” he asked, “have you given any thought to your future?”
“You’ll be happy to know I’ve ruled out Mossad,” I said, somewhat jokingly. He brightened, his foxlike face seeming hopeful. “Does this mean you’ve considered my proposal?” he asked, attempting to be neutral.
“Not really,” I said. “I figure law enforcement’s my speed. I was thinking FBI or Interpol, maybe UNIX.”
“Amir…” another Arabic-looking person asked cautiously, “what is this accomplishing?” He then asked another question in Arabic. It was a question that Amir’s men asked a lot around me, and I believed it could be translated as “Why don’t we just kill him?” I could be wrong, I don’t really speak Arabic, but the context was usually with one of them brandishing a shank in my direction.
I tried not to look, but Amir then threw his arm around the shoulders around the other man and began talking animatedly in Arabic, with exuberant hand gestures. The contrast between Amir’s taller, thinner body, and the other’s stocky 5’5” was made all the more distinct by the fact that they weren’t wearing clothes. Amir’s subordinate seemed a little disturbed by this, but wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise for a few minutes. When he finally was able to get a word in edgewise and protest, Amir withdrew, apologizing furiously, covering his crotch.
I continued showering while Amir and his friend kept talking. The guy I didn’t know, seemed to be making his point now. When I was just about done, Amir turned back towards me. “You should thank Mubashir,” he said very seriously, “he may have found a way to save your life.”
“Thank you, Mubashir,” I said, holding out my hand. He shook it with a medium grip. “They would probably make me do it,” he said, “and I don’t really want to kill people.”
“If that’s the case,” I said, “you may want to rethink your life.” With that, I decided to put on some pants before things became more awkward. At least no one got a boner. I think the bro code demands some form of ritual suicide at that point. I only had my underwear, pants, shoes, T-shirt, and jacket. All the various equipment and armor was put in a pile in the parade yard to be stored.
In the cafeteria, the lines had mostly died down. Basically, the way it worked is you grab a bowl and a cup, put them beneath their respective nozzles, swipe your student ID, then watch as your cup fills with water and your bowl fills with an unidentifiable sludge that looks suspiciously like diarrhea. You then stick in a spoon into your soylent green, and, if you have something to celebrate, grab one of those bendy straws that change color when you use them. The one I grabbed was yellow, but turned green in the water.
After you did that, you had the problem of finding where to sit next to. I knew that there was only one more infiltrator UNIX. I also knew that he wasn’t American, but I had gotten the hint that he wanted to be one.
“Hey, Nate!” a voice called. I turned and saw Cross. I smiled. Michael (not the Michael that Kreiger had broken) Croccifixio Castellan, “Cross,” to those who knew him, was a New York native with a… colorful network of family and acquaintances. I knew him because he shared a bunk with other Michael behind me. He was somewhat tan, with sandy blond hair and brown eyes and a perpetual friendly smile. That smile was a sharp contrast to that hard look his eyes had. It was a look I had never seen before coming to NIU, but now that I was here I saw it every day.
“Hey, Cross,” I said, “what’s up?”
“Not much,” he said, indicating the seat opposite him, “come on, man, pop a squat.” I obliged. “So,” I asked, “what’s this about?”
He laughed. “I’m homesick, man,” he said. “I miss New York, I miss my mom, and I sure as shit miss food that isn’t… this.”
“I hear you,” I said.
“That reminds me,” he said, “you got any paras up in Massachusetts?”
“Actually,” I said, “we’ve got the Minutemen on the hero side. On the villain side, they mostly work for the Triads and the Yakuza. The Bulger gang and the local Italian mafia can usually just drown them in men.”
“I actually heard about those guys,” Cross said. “The Kagemoto and the Jade Empire, right? Those guys are pretty much legends in… in my circle.”
“You’d know more about that than me,” I said. “I just here what happens when someone important dies or gets arrested.”
“Probably,” he said. “A lot of what gets in the news is the spillover. I actually met one of the Kagemoto kids at a party once. His name’s Sam and he’s a little older than we are. Dude was going to this private school, Fessenden, I think…”
“Holy shit,” I said, “my mom works there!”
“Really? Did she know him?”
“Probably,” I said, “She’s worked there literally for decades.” I paused, realizing my mistake. “I don’t really want to tell you what she did, you understand?” He nodded. “Probably shouldn’t even have told me she worked there,” he said. I nodded, but hopefully the fact that she had a different last name should put anyone off for a bit. Probably not, but it was nice to hope. Anyway, I already was using my real name.
“Anyway,” he said, “the guy has a sister who is our age.” He thought for a minute, then said, “Maybe we’ll meet them here,” he said. “This would be probably the best place for them to go.”
I kind of hoped not. While they weren’t the Jade Empire or ISIS, the Kagemotos were not the kind of people I wanted to deal with on top of Al-Qaeda, the KKK and whatever other dregs of humanity had come here.
We ate in silence for a bit after that. Eventually, Cross asked, “Hey, are you doing anything after this?”
“I’ve got someone to meet after breakfast,” I said. “Part of my secret stuff.”
He nodded. “Explains why you’re eating so fast. No one’s excited to eat this stuff.”
“Actually,” I said, pausing to slurp down the last spoonful, “this is kind of my normal speed. See you later, I guess.” I left him looking at where my bowl was, a look of shock on his face.
I walked towards Derek’s barracks. His was B2, mine was B3, the only co-ed barracks. They also seemed to be testing some TVs that had been built into the walls of the buildings facing the parade grounds. Due to the fact that the buildings were shiny black monoliths on the outside, I hadn’t really noticed them before.
The narrow corridor between the two buildings was a little scary. There was no place to hide, but you still got the feeling someone could jump out at you. Combined with the now-torrential rain, and the narrow corridor had the atmosphere of a horror movie. On the bright side, I was shielded from the worst of the rain if I walked on one side.
Ahead was a wall made out of the same black material as the buildings it encircled. Just above the sound of the rain, I could barely make out the sounds of two people fighting. Thinking it was Derek, I hurried forwards. When I finally got to the end, I was a little embarrassed.
There were two girls there. Both of them were engaged in some kind of sparring match. I knew this because they were obviously very good, but none of their blows seemed to be hurting the other. I was only a Green Belt in Tae Kwon-Do, but I knew enough to see that. They also were doing moves that, while fun, weren’t the kind of thing you’d do in a real fight. For example, a jumping axe kick might score you extra points when breaking a board on your promotion test, but it was something that was real easy to block and easily dodged.
The combatants themselves seemed to be in a world of their own. One was a small Asian girl with dark shoulder-length hair in a straight cut and a tattoo of two dragons, one black, one white, forming a yin-yang symbol on her left shoulder. The other was a tall red-head with her hair in a messy bun, taller than me. Both, however, were built like gymnasts. Looking up, I could see that they had chosen this spot because of an overhang over the rear shielded them from the rain.
I cleared my throat. They both turned to face me, their faces both unreadable. “Hi,” I said, “I was just wondering if someone else had been back here recently. I was supposed to meet him back here and…”
Their expressions didn’t change a single bit, nor did their gaze waver. That left me in a bit of a quandary. If I left, John might not be able to find me. If I stayed, they could beat me or even kill me. If I told them to tell John I had gone somewhere else, well, there were a million ways that could go wrong. All told, leaving would be the safest bet.
Before I could make my apologies and leave, the redhead spoke in what seemed to me (who can’t tell the difference between an Australian and a British accent) to be Cockney accent. “I’ve seen you before.” It was weird. Most people believed that Cockney accents would be hard to make threatening, especially if it was coming from a pale, skinny girl with a lightly freckled face. However, this girl had just proven she knew a bit about fighting, and there was something menacing about the stare her green eyes were giving me.
“Probably,” I said, in what I hoped was a conversational tone of voice. “We are in the same program. If you’re in the co-ed barracks, that’s probably where you’ve seen me.”
“You’re right ‘bout where I bunk,” she said, “but I’ve seen you poppin’ up all over and I’ve rarely seen you speak to the same person twice. It’s a little funny, innit?” The Asian girl gave her friend a surprised look at this, then turned back towards me, her look more calculating and violence-implying now.
“Well,” I said, “aren’t you a little curious about what’s going on here?”
“Random yank starts sticking his nose into everyone’s business, keeps telling the same joke to every person he meets, then the little bugger follows me here? I am bloody curious. You might say I’m right intrigued.” My eyes had widened when she mentioned the joke. Screw it, the last UNIX plant could contact me. Or John. Preferably John. My cover was blown.
“I was talking about the bigger picture,” I said, changing the topic. “I mean, yeah, I’m asking questions. But that’s because this is a weird place. I’ve talked to people who want to join Islamic fundamentalist groups, law enforcement, hate groups, organized crime, mercenary groups, military organizations… Normally, these people would only be in the same room together to kill each other, but we’ve all come here to learn.
“And the weird thing? We aren’t being encouraged to change our views by the staff. They aren’t trying to forge us into an army. So what are we here for? Why does this place exist?”
“Interesting questions,” the redhead said, nodding in agreement. “’Ere’s another: who’s funding your little study?”
“Is it ok if I assure you that I have no interest in you personally?” I asked. “I really can’t tell you anything about why I’m here, or how I intend to answer my questions. But as an act of good faith, maybe I can share some of what I’ve learned? My name’s…”
“Nathan Jacobs?” the redhead asked.
It was at that I started to become paranoid. Dozens of scenarios began to run through my mind, each more horrifying and implausible than the last. “I’m sorry,” I said, beginning to edge towards the alley, “you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
“Surprisingly well-mannered for a sneak, ain’t ya?” she asked cordially. “I’m Eliza, an’ this ‘ere’s Bai.” Bai just stared at me, still probably calculating the best way to make me talk. I got the feeling if she came to a decision, she could move very fast. “She don’t talk much,” Eliza added.
I calmed down somewhat. If they had been waiting for me, they wouldn’t have been sparring. I had just been really unlucky. “So,” I said with relief, turning on my heel to leave, “I guess I’ll be going. If you…”
“Not yet.” I turned to look at Eliza and Bai. “Yes?” I squeaked. Eliza was leaning against the perimeter wall, seemingly at ease. “You were going to tell us what you’ve learned about this camp.”
I took a deep breath. “Well,” I said, “I haven’t really learned anything about the motives behind the staff. That would be a huge tip-off. I have been looking around, making connections, seeing if anyone here knew anything.”
“You thought any ‘bout this Fight Night thing?” Eliza asked. “Fellow like you’s got to ‘ave a plan or two.”
I laughed. “My plan? My plan’s to tap out as soon as possible. My bet is that most people will too.” Everyone knew the rules to Fight Night. If you were eligible for Fight Night, you had to attend. If you were attending, you would either have to be in three fights or beaten until you couldn’t fight anymore. Fights would last as long as the Drill Sergeants wanted them to. After winning three fights, you had three options: spectate, go to bed, or stay in the ring. If you stayed in the ring, you could call in whoever you wanted. If you spectated, you could end up being called back in. The person with the highest win streak got some sort of prize.
“However…” I said, noticing the look of disappointment on both their faces, “If one wanted to go for the prize, I might have an idea.”
“Go on…” Eliza said. I had both of them. I had the feeling that if I gave them good advice, at the very least I’d get a few more weeks of life. In the meantime, I’d have some time to prepare for any bad scenarios. Maybe find a weapon.
“Ok,” I said, “I’ve never been a fan of dividing the world into two groups. It rarely tells the full story. For instance, you could divide the camp into the people who’ve been in combat before and the people who obviously haven’t.” I paused for effect. My audience leaned in. “But that would be a mistake.”
“From what I’ve seen, there are four groups of people. There’s the group I’m in: the cautious. We’ve probably never been in a fight in our lives, and we’re definitely scared of it.”
“So,” Eliza said with a straight face, but some humor in her voice, “you think we should take people like you out first?”
“Not really,” I said, “and not entirely because I don’t want to fight you, though that is a big part of it.” She nodded, and I continued. “You have to remember that we can’t run. That is likely to make a few of this group panic and go full berserker. Therefore, you’ll want to win quickly. If they go down, only beat on them if they try to get up.
“The next group are the bullies. They have only been in fights against unarmed people who won’t fight back, and never without a gang to back them up or a crowd to watch them.” I smiled. “These people are really easy to spot. They go around bragging how great they are, or trying to go back to being the school bully. Then they meet up with the former soldiers.” The reason I was smiling was because in the first week there was this guy in our barracks who just did not get it. He had apparently been some kind of athlete at his school, and had gathered a small posse. He also seemed to like picking on my bunkmate.
My bunkmate and his four friends, as I believe I’ve already said, are probably former child soldiers and all in some sort of unit. Somehow, this guy didn’t pick up on that or didn’t care. One night, he was walking in, and heard my bunkmate and his friend talking in their native language. He then made some monkey noises. His friends laughed. To my surprise, so did my bunkmate.
The guy, or Dumbass McRacist as we’ll now call him, whispered something to his friends. He then walked up towards my bunkmate. My bunkmate’s on the top bunk, so I couldn’t really see his reaction, but I could see Dumbass McRacist and two of my bunkmate’s friends. Dumbass had a fake smile on his face. My bunkmate’s friends both had the same look as Bai had.
“You think I’m funny, do you?” Dumbass asked, his friendly tone of voice not really disguising his malice.
For the first time I could remember, my bunkmate said something in English. “Why yes, my friend,” he said in a booming, friendly, voice. He sounded genuinely puzzled. “Surely that was the intent, yes?”
Dumbass, living up to the name I had given him, pulled out a switchblade. “The thing about comedy,” he said, “is it requires suffering.” My bunkmate sighed. Then he kicked Dumbass in the face with both feet.
Apparently, that was all the warning my bunkmate’s friend’s needed. One of them caught Dumbass in a chokehold and shoved a clear, sharp piece of plastic into Dumbass’s neck. I could tell it was sharp because it was drawing blood, adding to what was already leaking out his nose. The other three formed a perimeter, using the beds to form chokepoints, pulling out shanks made from toothbrushes and shouting at everyone to keep back.
My bunkmate landed on the ground. He was surprisingly shorter than someone with such a booming voice should be. He had a buzz cut, and was dressed in his boxers, showing that he, like his friends, was dangerously underweight. He knelt down and grabbed the knife, then stood up.
“This is a nice knife,” he said. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but judging by Dumbass’s whimper, I was guessing it wasn’t anything good. Also, everyone was now watching. I swear you could hear a pin drop. “What is your name?” my bunkmate asked Dumbass. Dumbass muttered something. “Kyle?” my bunkmate asked, “Is that your name, my friend?” Dumbass must have nodded, because my bunkmate continued on.
“Well, Kyle,” he said, his voice rising to fill the barracks, “this may be a nice knife, but it is a PATHETIC weapon!” He raised the switchblade into the air, as if to show the world, or at least the barracks, how pathetic it was. He then turned to me. “You, Journal-man, do you have a marker?” His big brown eyes and skeletal features were strangely friendly.
I shook my head. “I have a pencil…” I said, unsure where this was going.
“I do,” Michael said. This was before he had been broken. He was surrounded by my bunkmate’s friends on three sides, so he had been paying attention just as long as I had. He held out a large black sharpie. My bunkmate took it. As he walked away, I saw Dumbass (seriously, what had he expected would happen?) take the opportunity to spit out a few teeth. They plinked onto the floor.
When my bunkmate took the sharpie, he held it above his head. “THIS,” he shouted, “is an extra-large sharpie! It was first designed by the Sanford Manufacturing company in 1957 and is produced in Downers Grove in America! IT IS MIGHTIER THAN ANY SWITCHBLADE!” I laughed. I couldn’t help it, and apparently a few others couldn’t either.
My bunkmate took a bow. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, just loud enough to be heard above the strangled giggles. “I, Eric the Entertainer, shall now prove to you its awesome power. With this, I shall write the word ‘loser’ on Kyle’s head. If I simply kill him, I could be expelled. Worse, one of his friends might stab me in the back. However, by humiliating him, I safely eliminate him.”
“You’re insane,” Dumbass said.
“And you, my friend,” The Entertainer said, “are a moron.” It took a week for the word “Loser” to come off Kyle’s face.
Getting back to the present, where Eliza and Bai were giving me their undivided attention, I said, “Then there’s the people like The Entertainer and his minions. They’re possibly the second worst people to fight, maybe even the worst, depending on the individual. I’m guessing they’re child soldiers.”
Eliza smiled. “They’ll be used to fighting with guns. That makes ‘em easy.”
“They’re also used to killing people,” I said, “and the people who kidnapped them when they were five probably only taught them how to fight dirty. Can you say the same?”
Eliza looked startled for a minute, then softly said, “They’ll stop the fights before that ‘appens.”
“They’ll try,” I said, “but you know that even a good punch to the stomach can kill someone. Or you should.”
“And the fourth group?” Eliza asked.
“That’s the good news,” I said. “You’re it, and you’re probably the odds-on favorite to win. My guess is that you’ve been training just as long as the fourth group, but some of you have never been in life-and-death combat. The other difference is the quality of your training and goals. You’ve been trained as a more long-term asset, I believe? It’d probably hurt the sponsors more if you die now then it would’ve hurt Eric’s recruiter if he had accidently blown himself and several of his comrades up in training.”
Bai spoke up for the first time. Her voice was quiet, but hard. “But the people who trained me for the cause say I should treat my life as meaningless next to our goals. Surely my life is worth a similar amount?”
“How long have you been training?” I asked.
“Since I was born,” Bai said, “and I won’t be finished for another four years.”
“The Entertainer’s training probably was just enough to learn how to use an AK,” I said reassuringly, “and you’ve probably had more experience in one-on-one fights. You’ve got an advantage.” I didn’t add that any child soldier who made it this far probably was very lucky. There wasn’t any way to plan against luck. “This kind of advantage took a huge amount of time and resources to give you. While they do want you to be loyal, you are not easily replaced.”
Bai nodded, apparently satisfied. “Anything else, mate?” Eliza asked. “That’s all I could come up with in a few minutes,” I said.
“Good job, then,” she said. “We’ll do this again some time.” The two girls left. I stood there wondering what Eliza’s next little chat would be about.