When we had been revived from the gas, we had been forced into disinfectant showers. We cooperated only because we were still woozy from the gas and were outnumbered, outgunned and out-trained. We got new, clean uniforms and the people like me who took a drink of the gray-green stuff got some pills.
“What do they do?” I asked.
“They make ye vomit,” the medic handing them out said. He was Irish (or maybe Scottish, again, I’m terrible at identifying accents from the British Isles.) I raised an eyebrow. “Basically,” the medic said, “it’s a choice between barfing constantly now or shitting and barfing blood and bits of yer digestive track later.”
“Ok,” I said, more than a little horrified, “I guess I’ll take these… how many times a day?”
“Two pills now,” he said, “then continue it for every meal until you run out.” I took two pills. I started barfing halfway to the barracks. Well, technically, it wasn’t barfing because usually nothing was coming up, and when I did get something out, it would be stomach acid. It got so bad that I had to lean on Eric and Doc for support.
When we were in front of our barracks, Eliza asked, “Oi, what’s happened? You were in there longer than anyone else. And why’s Nate in such rough shape?”
A guard behind us said, “No talking!” I heard someone spit in response. We kept moving back to the barracks. I got into bed, head leaning over the side so I wouldn’t vomit onto the floor, then promptly passed out. Then woke up approximately two seconds later because I was dry-heaving.
The next few days were spent in a very similar state, with people dragging me out of bed occasionally to get something to eat and drink. I’m not sure how long this went on, maybe not even a day, maybe a week. Because of the whole constantly vomiting thing, I was kind of going a little insane from lack of sleep. After a while, I got to the point where I wasn’t sure what was real and what was my unhinged imagination. If I had to guess, whenever the few bits I do remember involved vengeful talking wolves, famous singers with hook hands trying to kill me, or the penis-stealing magical girl were times when I was completely out of my mind.
Then, one meal, I looked in the bottle of pills and realized that there were none left. I remember everyone at the table sighing with relief. I then went back to my bunk and passed out. I didn’t dream, just enjoyed the sleep.
When I woke up, Sergeant Krieger was staring at me. “God damn it…” I moaned. “Can I wait, like, a week to deal with you? Or at least until I’ve had a few more hours of sleep?”
“You hurt me, Boyke,” Krieger said. “You hurt me right deep.”
I debated doubling down, offering an apology, or remaining silent. I chose to remain silent. I really didn’t want to push my luck by being snarky or hostile, and a fake apology (which was the only type of apology I was capable of giving at that point) can piss people off more than a real one.
After a pause, Sergeant Krieger asked, “Aren’t you a little bit curious about why I’m here?”
I looked around. “A little,” I said. “I’m more curious about where Ray-Gun is. After all, you’re sitting in his bed.” It wasn’t just Ray-Gun who was missing. All the rest of the crew was gone as well. I wondered if this was pre-arranged. I also wondered where Eliza was.
“They’re just talking to security,” Krieger said casually, “they’ve got a few enemies, and we want to ensure them that they’re safe. They shouldn’t be back for a while.” It was pre-arranged. The entire point of this camp was to kill off the weak. I looked over his shoulder to see if Eliza was there.
Krieger noticed it. “Are you looking for someone, boyke?”
“Eliza Henderson,” I said. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to tell him something he already knew. In fact, why not tell him something he might not know? “She has the tendency to… follow me. I’m almost as scared of her as I am of you.”
“Really?” Krieger asked. “How am I scary, boyke?”
“You’re just like her,” I said. “You seem to have some interest in me. That, in and of itself isn’t worrying. The amount of attention you pay to me, however is… paranoia-inducing.”
“You know,” Krieger said, “it was my dream to see one of you fresh meat walk into this grinder and come out of it ahead of some of the scariest motherfuckers in the world.”
“Was?” I asked.
Krieger laughed. “You know, most of the people here are actually not fresh meat? Almost all have had some kind of combat training before coming to this program. It also would be easier to list the people like you who haven’t killed anyone before this camp. And you…” here he leaned in close, “you’re the freshest meat of them all, aren’t you boyke?”
“I’ve taken Tae Kwon-do for ten years!” I protested.
“Aye,” he said, “that you have. But I think we both know that a green belt and a few sparring sessions is nothing compared to an actual fight.”
I nodded. “If by actual fight, you mean trying to kill someone, then yeah.” I was about to add how most people hadn’t, then considered what I had seen since I got here. Maybe being forced between dying and hurting was a lot more common than I thought.
“Even a playground fight’s much different than your sparring,” Krieger said. “In your sparring sessions, you get in trouble if you hurt someone. You wear pads to protect everyone involved. In a playground fight, or any other real fight, it’s all about hurting the other person.” He seemed genuinely impressed. “Do you know how hard it is to go from a life like yours, trying to never hurt another person, to straight up bashing another person’s head in with a rock?”
“Disturbingly easy,” I said. “I did it, remember?”
Krieger laughed heartily. “So that’s why they call you Killer, eh? You’re fucking cold, boyke.”
“Don’t call me that!” I snarled.
Krieger’s smile disappeared, but the glint of madness in his eyes grew brighter. “You want me to stop, Killer?” His voice was very dangerous, but still conversational.
Krieger considered me for a moment, then said, “Then make me.” After a pause he added, “Killer.”
I sized him up and down. I considered going for his throat. A blow there might shut him up. However, if it didn’t work, he was bigger, faster, stronger, more experienced, and quite possibly smarter than me. Therefore, he could probably beat me to a pulp and not even draw the Colt, knife, or taser strapped to his hip. “In this situation?” I asked. “Not likely.”
“See?” Krieger asked. “You’ve only been doing this since September, and already you’re better than some people who’ve been doing this since they came in. You think Salim would have bothered to size me up before he went for my throat?”
“My mother will be so proud,” I said sarcastically.
“However,” Krieger said, “there is one question I have for you: Why are you here?”
I stared at him blankly. “You mean,” I asked, “why am I at NIU?”
Krieger nodded. “Yes. What do you hope to achieve? What is your goal in life?” I didn’t respond, so he added, “I know most people can’t be specific, but it helps to be honest. Telling someone what you want, or admitting you don’t know what you want can help you get it.”
I shrugged. “Guess I got super hero syndrome,” I said. “When I started, I had this idea that I’d be ‘saving the world’ once I got out of here. Now… I’m not sure if I took the right path. I can’t see myself doing any good using the stuff this program taught me. Problem is, I’m reasonably sure I’ve made too many enemies to leave the program and return home.”
Krieger nodded. “You’re right in that you can’t go back to your old self,” he said. “But you’re wrong in that you can’t do good work. For instance, we’ve had plenty of our graduates join agencies like Interpol and the Society of Genocide Relief. Hell, UNIX was founded by NIU graduates!”
I almost gave myself away there. Or maybe he already knew. UNIX didn’t just have alumni, it was created by them! “I…” I said, “I didn’t know that.”
“If you want my advice, though,” Krieger said, “you shouldn’t hitch your wagon to just one group. You might be glad to have the option of saying no.” He got up, then added, “Oh, you might not have heard, but you guys are on break until Saturday. After that, we’ll start you guys on night patrol.”
He got up and adjusted his winter jacket. It was weird that I hadn’t noticed that before. I was wondering why he had one when he opened the door. As soon as Krieger opened the door, a howling wind and a huge amount of snow blew in to the room. He staggered out, the wind trying to push him back into the barracks. Wonderful.
A bit latter, Eliza came in, her face red from the biting cold and a hood pulled over her head. She walked directly over to me. “Nate!” she said, “You’re up! Think you’re gonna live, then?” She was flashing her trademark grin and her tone was as mischievous as usual, but for some reason I thought I detected a hint of actual concern.
“Potentially,” I said. “I doubt I’ll be vomiting up pieces of my stomach, but I kind of just lied to Sergeant Krieger.”
“Oh really?” Her smile became a bit forced at this. She leaned on Eric and Ray-Gun’s bunk and took off her hood. I hadn’t seen her for a long time, so this was the first I’d gotten a good look at her real ears. Instead of human ears, they were more cat or dog-like. They were facing towards me, so I could only see that the borders were black, and the very tips were white. Eliza continued, asking, “And what, pray tell, is your reason for lying to Krieger?”
“Basically,” I said as quietly as I could without whispering, “if I was a hundred-percent honest when answering his questions, he’d learn about my employer, my partners, and a group of seven people I’m supremely scared of.”
“Ah. I see.” Eliza looked somewhat terrified.
“To be fair,” I said, “it was more of a congratulatory pep-talk. Apparently, he’s always wanted to train some person with no history of violence into a brutal death machine, and I’ve done pretty well except for some motivational issues.”
“Is that all ‘e wanted?” Eliza asked.
“There was some stuff about what I missed, like guard duty and…”
“And what?” Eliza asked, cocking her head to the side.
“I think I’m way too paranoid,” I said, “but I think he knows who I work for, and he definitely knows more about them than me. It’s not anything tangible, or at least not anything I consciously recognized.” I paused, considering confessing that I was seriously worried that I was going insane. Instead, I asked, “So, how’s the weather?”
Eliza laughed. “Bloody awful. For some ungodly reason, it dropped from ten degrees to below freezing and started blizzarding. That’s Celsius, not whatever bleeding arbitrary bullshit you yanks use.”
“‘Blizzarding:’” I said, as I flipped open my compass/thermometer to get a rough “‘The act of working on something for four times as long as another competitor before announcing it, then delaying it multiple times.’” Eliza gave me a funny look. “Sorry,” I said. “Gamer humor. Anyway, apparently in Fahrenheit that’s a twenty-degree drop in… how many hours?”
“Four.” Eliza said wearily, her ears drooping.
“I can’t believe it was around eighty for a week after we got here,” I said. Eliza nodded in agreement.
From there, the conversation kind of died down. Neither of us really wanted to talk about the last event. Eliza came close to it when she accidentally mentioned that her section was entirely gone. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She said no. That pretty much killed the conversation.
I saw Eliza more than I used to over the next few weeks. It was still not a lot, seeing as she tended to like hanging out with Bai and Oro more than any of the people in my group. We also were very busy. In addition to all the craziness of gun and hand-to-hand combat, there was the fact that they were introducing grenades and rockets. I was lucky I went first for grenade throwing, because in the second group, some idiot nearly blew himself up. The girl who was standing next to him kind of laughed her ass off. Eliza’s response, when we were at dinner, was to say, “I want to be that girl when I grow up. If I was right next to some bloke who dropped his bleeding grenade right next to me, I’d shit myself.”
Luckily, I didn’t have night watch duty for a few weeks. I’d hear someone come back in at an awful hour, shivering from the cold and crawl into their bunk. Then there was also having to deal with the people you were patrolling with. John had the best story.
“So, how many of you guys saw the guy who knocked me out of the ring?” He asked, sitting down at breakfast one day.
Everyone shook their heads, except Cross. “That big fucker with the Jewfro? You know, the one with the unpronounceable Polish name?”
“Yeah, that’s the one!” John said. “I was on patrol with him tonight!”
We all laughed. “Seriously?” Doc asked. “The guy who almost broke your nose? Did he want to finish the job or something?”
“No, actually,” John said. “You wanna hear the crazy part?” Everyone answered with a resounding yes, but John hadn’t really waited. “The crazy part was that he was apologizing constantly! He was like offering to buy me drinks and stuff and I was like, ‘no dude, it’s cool, I totally get it!’”
“Really?” Doc asked.
“He is,” The Monk said, “as our American friends would say, a ‘chill dude.’”
“I sincerely hope,” I said, “that I get someone as chill as that guy.” At two in the morning, someone woke me up to tell me that I’d be patrolling with Richard, Salim and Ulfric. I grumbled in a mixture of dismay and annoyance as I pulled on as many layers as I could. The girl who had woken me up then went to go find Salim.
After we were both up, we trudged out into the courtyard. We both pretended to ignore each other while secretly preparing for a fight as we met up with Richard, Ulfric, Sergeant Burra, and a group of eight other students standing in the huge blizzard.
“G’evening, everyone!” Burra said, her voice much more chipper than should be allowed at that time. “So, I assume you all know which groups you’re in?” Everyone nodded and vocalized an affirmative. “Right then,” Burra continued on, “Group one, you lot get the inner perimeter. Your job is to go around on the inside here and check the buildings for break-ins and damage. Also, if you see any bloke out of bed, call it in on the radios we’ll give you. We’ll then get a drill sergeant to come help you secure the person. Just make sure you maintain visual contact.”
She then turned to the next group. “Now, group two gets the cushy gig. You lot get to wait by the barrels outside the main gate. No one gets in or out. Also, make sure the fires in the barrels stay lit. They’ll keep you nice and toasty, I here.”
She turned to Ulfric, Richard, Salim, and me. “That leaves you sorry bastards,” she said sympathetically. “You’ve got to go out and patrol the outer perimeter. Call if you see anyone besides yourselves out, would you?”
“Wait,” I said, “the outer perimeter? The place where there are unexploded mines?”
Burra shrugged apologetically. “The mines aren’t so much the problem if you keep within three hundred meters to the wall. Even then, you’ll probably be fine. It’s the bloody cold that’ll get you. It’s actually a couple degrees cooler out there than it is in the camp’s interior.” I assumed that she was speaking in Celsius. That would be a bigger drop than Farenheit.
She pointed to a cart filled with radios. “Here’s the radios. Take them and make sure they’re set to channel two.” After the radio check, she said, “Good job. Now off you pop!”
We popped off. Group two relieved the previous group at the entrance and we began heading off on our appointed rounds. I was in the front, Salim and Richard behind me, and Ulfric bringing up the rear. Needless to say, I was worried. I wondered if (or more specifically when) Salim and Richard would stab me in the back. That had to be the reason they were standing behind me, right? And then there was Ulfric.
“Ok,” I said, “before we turn that corner, I need to know who’s planning on killing me tonight. You know, just for the sake of my paranoia.”
“Not tonight,” Salim said. “I am a patient man. I can wait until the university no longer protects you. Until then… I can wait.”
“Maybe I’ll do it,” Richard said. “If Salim doesn’t squeal I…” He then made a squeaking noise. Salim and I turned to look at him.
Ulfric had reached out and grabbed Richard by the shoulder. He leaned in to Richard’s ear and said, with a slight southern twang, “I like Nathan.” After he was sure the message had gotten across, he let go of Richard’s shoulders.
“Thanks, Ulfric,” I said, my voice cracking. Ulfric giggled in response.
We continued walking for a long time. The cold bit at us and the silence gnawed at the backs of our minds. I had it especially bad because I was worried that Richard or Salim might stick a knife in to my back before Ulfric could stop them. Or Ulfric would decide that he was bored and painting portals to hell in our blood, marrow and grey matter would be fun.
Apparently the silence was getting to other people as well. After starting the second lap, Richard finally broke down. “Ok,” he asked, “are we just going to just ignore each other?”
“Well,” I said, “seeing as we how we all hate each other, I don’t think we’d have the most relaxing or educational conversation.”
“As always,” Salim said acidly, “You westerners fail to grasp even the most basic aspects of life. Conversation is not supposed to relax or teach, it is there to pass the time.”
“And as always,” Richard said, “you Arabs act like god speaks to you personally.”
“Hey, assholes,” I said, “can we not act like we’re getting high off the smell of our own shit? Salim, Richard may be an asshole, but he’s right about how much of a prick you are. Richard, you also described yourself in that statement. Get the fuck over yourself.”
We past Group 2. They were huddled around the fire in the barrel. They pointed at us and laughed as we walked by. They were speaking some far-east sounding language. We ignored them. A little while later, Richard spoke up again.
“So why are you here, Nathan?” he asked.
“Because I’m a fucking moron!” I shouted over the snow and wind.
“Thought Jews were supposed to be smart,” he said in a self-satisfied, sneering way. God, I wanted to punch him.
“If you know everything,” I asked, “why are you here?” It took all I had from adding asshole. I was kind of proud of myself I didn’t.
“Partly because my dad made me,” Richard said. “Partly because there’s a bigger problem that need to be dealt with.”
“What, bigger than Jews and black people walking about unmolested?” I asked. “Must be transsexuals.”
For someone Richard laughed. “No,” he said. “Trust me, you’re going to be really surprised at who’s in this little fight of mine, and what side they’re on.”
There was a pause for a moment while we processed that statement. “That was almost as evasive as my answer,” I said. “Congratulations.”
“And that’s all you’re going to get,” Richard said.
“I think” Salim said, “I will share more than you two.” He paused. “Aside from the elderly and people here, have you known anyone to die? Violently?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” Richard said.
“Who?” Salim asked.
“My sister,” Richard said. “I was there when it happened.” His voice was very flat.
“I am sorry to hear that,” Salim said. “When did it happen?”
“Last year,” he said. “I saw it happen.” He paused. “I thought this was about you. Why don’t you tell us whatever sob story you have?”
Salim shrugged. “I was getting there.” He then began to tell his story, an air of false geniality masking seething anger. “When I was sixteen, I was still living in my village. I never really wanted to leave, you understand? All my family and friends lived there.”
I nodded. While I had always wanted leave home, I could understand not wanting to leave somewhere where everyone you ever knew lived.
“I remember the day everything changed,” Salim said. “It should have been a good day. A wedding.” His voice lost all pretense of friendliness. “I guess someone forgot to tell your government that. They must have seen the guns my family was going to shoot off or something, so they had a drone launch a missile into the crowd.”
“Oh,” I said. What else could I say.
“They saw that there were still people moving,” he said, “so they fired a few more. I was one of three survivors, and I was the one the least scarred. That was when I decided that I would not rest until you Americans learned terror. You too will learn the pain of losing everyone you care about seemingly at random and the terror of knowing it can happen again at any moment.”
Before anyone else could formulate a response, Ulfric giggled and said something in Arabic. We all turned to face him. Salim said something in response, possibly the Arabic version of “Say that again.” Ulfric said something different in Arabic.
In response, Salim threw himself at Ulfric, screaming in Arabic. Ulfric just grabbed Salim by the face and held him at arm’s length, muttering bits of Arabic between his signature high-pitched giggles.
“Jesus,” Richard said “what the fuck’d you say to him, Ulfric?”
Ulfric, his accent now Middle Eastern, said, “He was set free, now he’s like me! Violent and happy as can be. Trouble is, he doesn’t want to admit the truth, you see.” He giggled again, maybe at the cleverness of his own rhyme, maybe because he thought he was right, maybe because he was picturing squeezing and crushing Salim’s head (I had seen him do it before on his highlight reel,) or hell, he could just be giggling because that’s what Ulfric does. I didn’t know, and honestly I didn’t want to find out.
“HE’S A LIAR!” Salim yelled. “HE’S WRONG! HE’S SICK!”
“Do you want to hear why I’m here?” Ulfric asked.
“Not at the moment,” I said. “Richard, help me hold him back.”
“Got it,” Richard said. We each grabbed one of Salim’s arms and began to drag him away from Ulfric. Salim began kicking and squirming.
During this time, I was forced to look in Ulfric’s face. I didn’t like that, because his face… it’s not ugly, quite the opposite in fact, but there’s something about him that’s just off. Maybe it’s how childish he seems. Maybe it was the constant smile. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it. I especially didn’t like it when Ulfric’s smile grew wider. “I’m here because of all the funny people.” He then let go of Salim’s face.
This surprised me and Richard, giving Salim the opportunity to wrench free with a blood-curdling scream and launch himself at Ulfric. Ulfric then grabbed Salim by the coat and flung him a few yards into the wall. Salim’s torso and head slammed into it, then he slid down a few feet.
Richard and I looked from to Salim, to Ulfric, then finally each other. Ulfric just giggled. I think Salim may have groaned, but the wind drowned it out. After a while, I said, “So it looks like they’re done. I’ll go check on Salim.”
“You do that,” Richard said as he eyed Ulfric warily.
I walked over to Salim. As got closer, I could see his eyes were opened, but unfocused. I shone my flashlight in his eyes. They were different sizes.
“Sssstop it…” he slurred.
“Salim,” I said, “I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.” He nodded. “Ok,” I continued, “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“That can’t be right…” he said, staring at my hand.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” I asked again, now scared.
“Eight?” I was holding up three, and only showing him one hand.
“Ok,” I said, “what did we have for breakfast?”
“The same thing we have every day,” Salim said, “that disgusting sludge.”
“Ok,” I said, “close enough.” I reached out my hand. “Come on, let’s get you moving. Don’t want to freeze to death, do you?” It was probably ten below in Farenheit (or -23 Celsius.) I doubt Salim could survive long if we just left him.
“Hey, Jacobs…” I heard Richard say, “I think I see someone.”
I turned around. Richard was pointing his flashlight at a point in the distance. I got up, telling Salim, “Wait here, don’t go to sleep.” I squinted as I walked to where Richard was standing. It took me a while, but I eventually could make out a pale figure with long dark hair in the snow.
“Yeah,” I said to Richard, “I see it too. I’m going to call this clusterfuck in. Unless you want to?”
“Go ahead,” Richard said.
I raised my radio, and looked back at the figure. It was now closer. “Sergeant Burra, come in. Repeat, Sergeant Burra, come in.”
“‘Allo, soldier,” Sergeant Burra’s cheery Australian accent came in over the radio. I could barely here her over the radio. “What’s up?”
“We’re kind of in a weird situation,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on the figure in the distance. “Ulfric and Salim got in a fight, and now Salim is concussed.”
“God’s still looking out for the fools, I see.”
“That isn’t all,” I said. “We’ve got visual contact with a person. Definitely brunette, possibly female Caucasian.”
“How close is she to your position?”
I checked. We were at the shooting range, a little ways away from where the shooters were supposed to stand. The contact was halfway between the wall and the shooter location. “About a hundred fifty to two hundred meters,” I said.
“Huh,” Sergeant Burra said. “That’s unusual. The contact usually keeps about three hundred meters back. Anyway, Spooky’s never hurt anyone so far. Carry on.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but has Spooky ever been closer than three hundred meters before?”
There was silence on the other end for a long time. Finally, Sergeant Burra said, “Continue on your rounds. If there is any change, contact me. Burra out.”
We looked at each other. Finally, Richard said, “I’ll get Salim. You can deal with Spooky.”
I glanced at Ulfric for some reason. A weird, dreamy look was coming over his face. I looked back at Spooky. Spooky was now seventy-five meters away. Now that she was much closer, I could see that Spooky’s hair wasn’t moving, despite the howling wind.
“Richard…” I called out, not taking my eyes off Spooky, “You got Salim yet?”
“Working on it!” he yelled back.
I took out my walky-talky again, and said, “Contact now seventy-five meters, repeat contact is now at seventy-five meters!”
The only response was static. I was now completely freaked. I was also losing feeling in my extremities. “Richard,” I yelled, “We need to go now!” I was now afraid to turn away. Every time I did, Spooky was significantly closer. Maybe she was like that sub-atomic particle that exists in multiple places at once when you don’t look at it.
Maybe Spooky had read my mind, because she (at least, I’m pretty sure Spooky was a she) started walking towards me. I raised my radio, and began yelling, “Contact is coming towards me! Send back-up now! Repeat, send back-up now!”
I began backing away. The snow suddenly picked up and changed directions, and I blinked. That was all the time it took for Spooky to disappear. I turned around clockwise, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Ulfric was still standing with a zoned-out look on his face, and Richard was trying to get Salim up.
When I finished a full rotation, Spooky was back.
Right in front of my face.
She was definitely a she, and she was extremely pale with a weird bluish tinge. Her body looked mildly mummified, but her eyes were somehow still functional. We stared at each other for a moment, her blankly, me in complete terror.
“You don’t trust anyone, do you?” She asked, her voice hoarse and monotone. I shook my head. “Very smart of you,” she said. As I watched, she turned into dust and blew away.
I picked up the radio. “This is Jacobs,” I said. “Boy, do I have a story for you guys.”