I was awoken in the night by the pain returning. It was dark out and I didn’t see anyone else in the room. Maybe my roommates hadn’t gotten in yet. This was proven true about five minutes later when Cross, Eric and John staggered into the room.
“Killer…” Eric slurred, flipping on the lights, “You’re here… you’re our fourth roommate… That’s great.”
“Yeah,” Cross said, also drunk as a skunk, “we were worried you’d end up roomin’ with Salim or that Nazi guy. Fuckin’ Nazi cowboys… thinkin’ they can come here and tell me what to do…” As he spoke, I noticed that he was getting… handsy with Eric and John. Eric seemed to be too drunk to notice it.
John on the other hand, wasn’t having any of that. “Get your hand off my ass!” he said, slapping Cross’s hand away. John turned towards me, after Cross’s hands had been removed, and asked, “Did we wake you up?”
“No,” I said, “it was my pain meds wearing off.”
John spent a few seconds processing that. I guess that while he was more sober than Cross and Eric, he was still kind of drunk. “Oh,” he said, “ok. Maybe you should take more.”
“I would,” I said, “but if I take it too early, apparently my nervous system shuts off.”
“You need that, right?” John asked.
“Pretty sure,” I replied as Cross and Eric staggered further into the room.
“I call top bunk!” Eric shouted.
“Fuck you, man,” Cross slurred back in response. “I get the top bunk.”
“You realize,” I said, somewhat annoyed, “that there are two top bunks?”
Cross and Eric stared at me drunkenly for a second. They had been preparing to climb up to the top of the bed near the dressers. Finally, Cross said, “Shut the fuck up, Killer! Who the fuck asked you?” Then he and Eric began fighting to get onto the top bunk.
“I call bottom!” John said, crawling into the one free bottom bunk. Kind of stupid of him, since Cross and Eric were still playing king of the hill. He got a few kicks for his trouble, but he finally was on the mattress. “Oh man,” he said, “it’s so soft…”
That was saying something about the beds in Hell Semester. These were the kind of cheap mattresses you find in college dorms. The beds in Hell Semester were still nowhere near as comfortable, though.
Eventually both Cross and Eric were lying on the bed. After a while Cross asked, “Soo… you wanna spoon?”
There was a pause, then Eric pushed him off the bed. Things got quiet after that, and I was able to return to the pattern of last night. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but I eventually got to sleep. When I woke up, the others were gone. From my bunk hung a post-it, reading: Nathan, we’ve gone to get breakfast. We’ll be back soon. Actually, we’ve gotten back and we think we’re going to get some stuff done like turning in our fatigues and getting our stuff. You looked like you needed sleep more than food. Apparently, its Kiritimati time, so if you have an iPod or phone or something, that’s what you should set it to.
I took the note down. “Huh,” I said. “They ditched me.” I wasn’t too worked up about it. I had been surrounded by people, many of them who wanted to kill me, for the past three months or so. I could use some alone time.
I was starting to get into the idea when I realized I could do fuck-all. I couldn’t connect to the internet because I needed an appointment with IT, which meant web surfing and video games were out of the question. My leg meant unpacking would be really difficult, and since all my pencils and pens were in my bags, I couldn’t write in my diary. Finding and charging my devices or accessing my books were out of the question for the same reason, and there were only so many times a guy could, well, you know.
That left the meds. I picked them up and stared at them. On the one hand, yesterday had been so good once I had taken the meds. Everything had just stopped hurting, and I’d been able to sleep.
On the other, the idea of taking the meds just to pass the time scared the shit out of me. That good feeling was being high. I really didn’t want to end up addicted to whatever these things were.
These thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. “Coming!” I yelled, dropping the pill bottle. I then began the process of hobbling over to the door, careful not to apply pressure to my legs. I also noticed, to my displeasure, that moving my arms caused my chest to hurt. “Don’t go! Seriously, I’m coming!”
Finally, I managed to open the door. At first, all three of the women standing there were unfamiliar. In the far rear was a tall Asian girl wearing a red peacoat, red blouse, and dark fitted blue jeans. Her hair was up in a high ponytail, and two strands of hair framed her face, with an amused smirk playing across her dark red lips. She was leaning up against, pretending not to notice what was happening, but you could tell she was very amused by what she saw due to the way her light brown eyes gleamed.
Standing directly in front of the door were the other two. One had long, straight blond hair that stretched down past her shoulders. She wore a black jacket, black leggings, black riding boots, and a shirt emblazoned with the Union Jack that looked like one of those shirts that should be cheap, but turn out to cost about $200. Her eyes were hidden by red aviator glasses, but I could tell she was appraising me. She was standing behind and to the left of the third girl who was…
“Eliza!” I said, my face brightening. I seriously hadn’t realized it was her for a second. Partly it was that she just didn’t match my definition of what Eliza was. For the past months I’d known her, Eliza had always worn her hair in a messy ponytail and that and her fox ears were usually covered by a Kevlar helmet. When they were visible, they were usually straight up and pointing forwards, or rotating, trying to locate a sound she couldn’t place. Now, her hair was down and very well combed, and her ears were pointed down in embarrassment. Her body language was also much more awkward, instead of the sly, confident personae she usually presented during Hell Semester.
Also, she dressed more girly then I would have expected. She was wearing an unexpectedly cute red top with a neck line that, while not really exposing obvious cleavage, was still lower than I would expect. It was also empire-waisted and had some white lace trim. She also had a short denim skirt and calf-high boots. The boots weren’t high-heeled, but they still were quite feminine somehow. The only visible concession to my mental image of Eliza was a vintage army coat.
“I didn’t expect you… to be here!” I said. If it wouldn’t have brought me intense pain, I’d have kicked myself. “Good to see you.”
Eliza, suddenly gaining a lot of her confidence back, lightly punched me in my shoulder. “You mean you weren’t expecting me to dress like a girl, were ya?” She smiled. “Anyway, how’s it goin’ ya wanker?”
The blond girl shook her head and mumbled something under her breath.
“You’re actually just in time,” I said. “I was going to take some meds. Another few minutes later and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than mumble and giggle.”
“I don’t quite get how you bein’ a vegetable is different from ‘ow you are normally,” Eliza said innocently. I laughed. So did Eliza and the girl in the rear. The blond girl standing behind Eliza looked somewhat surprised. “Anyways,” Eliza said, “I forgot to introduce you to some loveable rogues from the Rogue program. The blond ‘un dressed in the Union Jack’s me adopted sister, Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. She’s a touch more posh than me.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. I held out my hand for her to shake.
She gripped it cautiously. “Charmed,” she said breezily. “Eliza’s talked quite a bit about you. How did you meet, again?”
I laughed. Eliza cringed. The one remaining girl I didn’t know looked up. “Now I’m curious,” she said, in a low, seductive voice as she walked towards us, “just how did you meet?” As she moved, for some reason, I was reminded of Eliza. There was the same slyness, the same lithe movements. However, there was something… different about her. There was something more sensual about her and less direct, but that wasn’t the core of the difference.
“That’s Jennifer,” Charlotte said icily. “There’s no excuse for Jennifer.”
“No excuse for me? What about getting me you two lovely ladies in here without the correct ID?” Jennifer asked. She leaned in close to Charlotte, her body language and faux-innocent smile making me wondering if she was flirting with Charlotte. Or teasing her. Something told me that if I figured this out, I’d be closer to understanding her.
Anyway, not wanting the conversation to drift further into awkward territory, I decided to interrupt. “So, Jennifer,” I asked, “is that an American accent?”
“Why yes it is,” she said, somewhat taken aback. “I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is pleasant. Too many people ask me if I’m from China or some other place I’ve never been to. It gets wicked annoying.”
“Hey,” I said, “a fellow Masshole!” Jennifer nodded to confirm.
Eliza’s ears drooped a bit. I could tell why she didn’t like them. They were an awful tell. “So, Eliza,” I said, desperately trying to make everyone in the group happy, “is there anything in particular you wanted to see me about?”
“Well,” Eliza said, “five other friends are having little get-together for lunch in about an hour or so.”
“In that case,” I said, “give me some time to get dressed. Also, I’d need you to push the wheelchair.”
“Not a problem, Nate!” Eliza said.
“Your friends sound very interesting.” Jennifer said. “Mind if I tag along?”
“Sorry,” I said, “but this particular gathering has a few people who… aren’t as social as me and Eliza. Plus, this isn’t kind of the meeting where you meet new friends… more the kind of meeting where you remember old ones and talk about the awful shit that happened to you.”
Jennifer stared at me for a moment, as if she was trying to find a tell. Then she smiled. “Such a shame,” she said, “but there’s always next time.” She turned around and began walking off. “See you later,” she said over her shoulder, a seductive smile playing across her lips.
After Jennifer left, Eliza said darkly, “She comes on like a freight train, don’t she?”
It was my turn to punch her shoulder. “Says the woman who stalked someone for several weeks.”
“It’s not like I’ve got a shrine or something!” Eliza. “I mean, I do have a file on ya, but I’ve got files on loads of blokes!”
“Eliza, dear,” Charlotte said, covering her face with her hands, “you aren’t exactly helping your case.” The motion revealed dark blue eyes underneath the red shades.
I laughed. “We’re cool. It’s all good. I still have to get changed, though.”
“Oh, yes, of course!” Charlotte said. She and Eliza backed away and I closed the door. As soon as it closed I realized that my fly was kind of… loose. Also, if any of the girls (especially Jennifer) had been closer, it would have been obvious to them as well. As such, Charlotte’s British etiquette seemed to have formed a shield for my personal space.
I sighed in relief and began the arduous process of getting actual clothes on. Underwear and pants were the hardest, due to the fact that I was sitting down and had a bandaged leg. My shoes and socks were much easier. After pulling on an orange Maynard High School shirt, a grey hoodie, a jacket, grabbing my wallet and ID card, and shoving my laptop in my backpack, I then began trying to wheel myself over to the door. When I got to the turn, I gave up. No way I could make the turn between the dressers and Cross and Eric’s bunk while in the wheelchair. Instead, I hobbled over to the door.
“Hey,” I said to Eliza and Charlotte, “I’m going to need your help. I can’t get the wheelchair out and the only way I’ve been able to get around this room is that there’s lots of things to lean on.”
“No trouble at all,” Charlotte said.
I limped back. “Sorry I can’t let you in first. That’s how it’s done, right?”
“Nate,” Eliza said, somewhat annoyed, “you’re a bleedin’ yank. You shouldn’t be apologizing for getting’ shot. That’s our job!”
“Quite right,” Charlotte said as she and Eliza followed me into my dorm. “Although we do share that honor with many Asian cultures. My goodness, these freshmen rooms are small. It’s even smaller than ours.”
I sat down in the wheelchair. “Seriously,” I said, “this is a massive step up from the barracks. I have locks on the door, internet access, and a mattress that might actually be more a tenth of an inch thick. It’s heaven.”
“Don’t I know it, mate,” Eliza said. “Well, at least in a fortnight, you’re gonna be home with your mum and dad.”
“Actually,” I said, “my dad got laid off a few years ago. My folks might not have the money for me to fly home.”
“Well then,” Charlotte said, “you’ll just have to come with us, then, won’t you?” I began to protest, but Charlotte cut me off. “No, I insist! No friend of ours misses Christmas with their family when we have a perfectly good, mostly empty aeroplane heading in the same direction.”
Eliza leaned in close to me and said, “Don’t argue with her, Nate. You’re not gonna win.” She then addressed her adopted sister. “Right, then. Let’s get movin’. On the way back we can ‘ook Nate up to the wi-fi. Got your laptop, Nate?”
“Right here,” I said, patting the backpack on my laptop. “Let’s roll out!”
When we were in the elevator, Charlotte suddenly asked, “So how’s UNIX treating you?”
I did a double-take. “You know,” I said, “if I was a UNIX Agent, which I’m not, I’d be fucking pissed you outed me in an elevator. Seriously, all they have to do is rewire the emergency phone and…”
“Listen, Nate,” Eliza said, cutting me off, “They know. Hell our people were able to find out your deal with UNIX. You and your friend are getting a hundred thousand dollars a semester, right? Do you want to know how long it took our people to find out about it?”
Not waiting for me to answer, Charlotte said, “I started the search around two in the morning after Eliza gave me the details. We did a background check and looked at the only agency that would fit your description. By five, they had found a Swiss account in your name with the agreed-upon amount sitting inside it. There was only a small paper chase between the account and something called ‘Operation Rider.’ Excellent taste in children’s books aside, they didn’t cover their tracks very well. The faculty and staff at NIU have to know that you’re with UNIX. If they hadn’t from the beginning, I’d be very shocked.”
“Why’d the do that?” I asked, completely shocked.
“We don’t know,” Charlotte said, “but our hacker says that Project Rider looks a bit sparse to him.”
“Don’t you see? You’re bait, Nate.” Eliza said sadly. “Or a distraction. You were never meant to survive the Hell Semester.”
My illusions of UNIX being staffed by a race of happy kitten-people died with the bing of the elevator door opening. Doc and Cross were standing there, waiting to get in.I
“Anyway,” Charlotte said as Eliza wheeled me out, “I’m terribly sorry about your leg. Just remember who your friends are, Nathan, and you should be fine.”
“Yeah,” Cross said hurriedly as he and Doc got into the elevator, “We’re here for you, Killer!” I didn’t really notice that much as I was wheeled out the door.
They used me… No, why would they do that? Bad voice in my head!
Why would they approach you, then? Why did they throw you into Hell Semester with no knowledge of how to work a gun or how to handle yourself in a fistfight? Why would they not give me a means of contacting them? Why didn’t they give you any means of escape? Face it, something’s not right about all of this.
By the time we got to the restaurant, I had pretty much decided that as long as I got the hundred thousand, I didn’t care. We were in a smaller side street when Eliza said, “Well, that’s interesting, innit?”
I looked up. There was Ulfric and that creepy girl from the other night. They were walking down the street, Ulfric listening intently. “I know that girl,” I said. “Did I tell you about the psychic who used an illusion to stalk me, Ulfric, Salim and Richard while we were on patrol? That was her.”
“We do too,” Charlotte muttered to me, “she’s our other flat mate. Her name’s Alma Hebert.”
“This,” I said, “raises too many questions. I’ll ask them later, because they’re both right there.”
After a little while, Ulfric veered off and walked into the Back-Home Bar and Grill. Alma continued walking forward like nothing had happened. “Is that the same place we met last time?” I asked, nodding towards the sign. It had the same style as the menu of the place where the last meeting of the Seven had taken place.
“Naturally,” Eliza said. “Charlotte even sprung for the back room again.”
“Least I could do,” Charlotte said. “Anyways, go have your novelty-sized food. I shall return to Squire Hall. There is this wonderful café there. Eliza, I’m sure you’ve seen it.”
“Yeah,” Eliza said, “Not really my speed, though. Anyways, ‘ere’s where we part ways.” She then wheeled me into the Back-Home Bar and Grill, pausing for the handicapped doors to swing open for me.
Personally, I was just glad to be inside. A coat and a sweater, while warmer than the uniform coat, was still not keeping me warm enough. Judging from her sigh of contentment, Eliza was also happy to be out of the cold.
The host quickly opened the interior door up for us. “Hi there,” he said, “welcome to the Back-Home Bar and Grill. Have y’all made a reservation?” As we entered the room proper, I was suddenly how much like a chain restaurant in America it looked. Light wood booths, chairs, and tables with red vinyl upholstery, soft lighting from tasteful lamps… it was all very welcoming.
“Eliza Henderson and Nathan Jacobs for the back room,” Eliza said, flashing her student ID.
“Oh yeah!” The guy said. “You guys are the only ones using the room today, so you don’t have to get out of here by two. Follow me.”
“That’s nice of you guys,” I said as he led us into the back room.
“You guys are the second ones here,” he said. “There’s already this big guy, Ulfric, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “we saw him come in.” The door behind us chimed. I turned around. Bai and Oro had just come in. “Speaking of people coming in, Bai and Oro are here.”
“Well, that makes things easier!” He turned around and motioned for them to follow. Oro shrugged and both followed, Bai with some trepidation. Eliza, satisfied that they were coming, started pushing me along again.
Finally, he brought us to a corner. On one side were the men’s rest rooms, on the other was the women’s. Directly ahead was an unmarked wooden door. “Here you go,” the host said, opening the door to let us in.
Inside was the room we had been in when the Hell Semester Faculty had rewarded us. Ulfric was sitting at a round table, smiling goofily and humming to himself. Once we were all in the room, the host said, “Now that you’re all here, I’ll let y’all get settled. Your server will be right with ya in a bit.” He then hurried out of there, but to be fair, if I was a worker at a restaurant and Ulfric was a diner, I honestly would’ve noped the fuck away much sooner.
Ulfric looked up and beamed at us. I noticed he was fiddling with something. We began to cautiously sit down. I noticed that Eliza parked me somewhere she could sit next to me and also move to intercept Ulfric if he decided to freak out. Everyone else just sat as far away from him as possible. I had heard something about Lupines having very strong protective instincts. This seemed to confirm it.
“So,” Eliza said brightly, “when Ricardo and Li get in, we can get started.” She paused. “Not rightly sure what we’re gonna do for this meeting other than have a nice chat…”
“I do,” I said. Everyone turned to face me. “Most of us, I assume, spent yesterday celebrating the fact we were alive. I think we should spend a few minutes of remembrance before we go back to partying.”
Everyone, including Ulfric, nodded. Eliza said, somewhat huskily, “Yeah, Nate. A toast’s in order, I think.”
“Yeah, man,” someone from the door said. Eliza, Bai, and I looked up. Ulfric didn’t need to, and I’m pretty sure Oro had heard the newcomer enter. It was Ricardo. He and Li had arrived together. Neither looked particularly happy about being with each other. “I got some people I need to mourn.”
Ricardo and Li sat down, trying to avoid both each other and Ulfric, which was hard in a table this size. After they had somehow managed to accomplish this feat, I asked, “So did you two end up roomies?”
“Happily,” Li said, “we did not end up… ‘roomies.’” He said that last word with complete and utter disgust.
“Yeah,” Ricardo said, “I guess I haven’t sinned that much.”
“Oi!” Eliza said warningly. “Don’t you bloody start!”
Silence reigned supreme until the waiter came in. After he introduced himself, we all ordered drinks, all alcoholic. I guess we decided it was appropriate. Besides, being a Star Wars fan, I just had to try Imperial Stout Trooper. I noticed that Ulfric had ordered an entire bottle of Knob Creek. I also noticed that the beer we were served came in huge glasses. Eliza smirked when she saw that I hadn’t expected to get that much beer. Apparently, this was a standard size for beer.
“Today,” I said, “we mark the ending of a traumatic, brutal chapter of our lives. Even some of us who have been fighting our entire lives have been shocked by the barbarism that was displayed during Hell Semester. Yesterday, we celebrated. Today, we mourn those that didn’t make it. Some of us lost friends. Some of us saw or did things that we weren’t prepared for.” As I spoke, I gazed out at the rest of the people there. Only Oro met my eyes. Some like Bai couldn’t meet my eyes. Others like Ricardo looked at their drinks to avoid me. Even Ulfric seemed… guilty, I guess.
I continued on. “We will go clockwise around the table with things we’d like to say to those who have died that we never got to say to them when they were alive. I’ll go first.”
I paused for a bit, considering what I would use. Would I apologize to Amir? Would I mention the burning corpses by the crater? Then I realized what bothered me the most had happened before any of that. “Michael,” I asked, “what the hell did Krieger say to you? I didn’t hear it, but I heard you asked Ulfric for a mercy kill at Fight Night. I just wished you had talked to me, or, well anyone. Maybe you would still be here.”
Li was next. He was silent for a moment. “I do not know your name,” he began, “I never asked and you never told me. Our only interaction was that on the run before The Chamber of Horrors, you were crying. It annoyed me, so I told you to be quiet. The next time I saw you, you were floating face up in The Chamber’s muck. When I went to investigate your corpse, I saw that all your wounds were defensive. I apologize for thinking you were a coward beneath my notice.”
Bai was next. “During The Chamber of Horrors,” she said, “I thought I could defend myself. I did very well on my own. But then a wolf grabbed my pant leg. I was off my mountain. Then you came down. Amina, I believe your name was. I don’t know you, and it is possible you had every reason to hate me. But still you saved my life, and ultimately sacrificed your own to do it. I owe you a debt I can never repay.” Throughout the entire time, she had been staring at her mug of beer. “I don’t even know you!” She was now crying openly.
Oro, for her part, waited for Bai to calm down before speaking up. “To the people we fought at the crater. I have heard that before you fought us, you were mostly cowards and monsters. If that is true, I weep also for your victims because now they will never see the justice owed them. But I also recognize that most of you fought well at the end. You died as you fought: Honorably.”
Very interesting. I had heard nothing about who, exactly, we had slaughtered for our finals. It only made sense that they had done something to embarrass the school. It was excellent timing. All the school needed to do was feed them to us.
Ricardo interrupted my anger with his grief. “Eduardo,” he said, his voice trembling a bit, “amigo, I thought that if either of us would die, it’d be me.” He laughed. It should have been humorous. “You were always better than me. Better at shooting, better at hand-to-hand, better with explosives, better with knives…” he paused, trying to beat back tears for a moment, then decided to just soldier through. “…Better with jokes, and just better at being kind and merciful.” Here he broke down.
“Despite doing what we do,” he continued through his body-wracking sobs, “you were probably the best human being I’ve ever met, man. Then some no-talent thug throws a rock at your head. And you don’t get up. And I still don’t understand why.” He then buried his face in his hands and sobbed.
After a respectful pause, Ulfric said, “To those of you I killed on Fight Night: You fought well. Continue on in Valhalla.”
Eliza let Ulfric’s statement hang and Ricardo finish sobbing. She began. “Fight Night was… rather hard on me,” she began. Instantly, I could tell she wasn’t going to make it through her speech. Weirdly enough, I was jealous. She still had enough of her humanity left to do that.
“I had to come to terms with some things about meself,” she said. “For the safety of others, y’know. I also lost most of you girls that night.” She was desperately trying to choke back her tears.
Meanwhile, it took us a minute to figure out that she was talking to the other girls in her section. So she had grown attached to them. I remembered what she had said about them. However, she had said, for some reason, I got put in a section with all the silly little bitches who knew nothing about fighting. I guess she had been trying to distance herself from them.
“Well,” she continued, “I decided to do the stupid, noble thing. I tried to save the ones of you who were left.” Here she broke down just as much as Ricardo had. “I… I… I promised I would save the rest of you. And then those wolves made me a liar. I just…” She then collapsed into incomprehensible blubbering.
I touched her shoulder. “It’s ok.” I said. “Well, maybe it’s not, but I think you did really well. You did more than I could.” I then turned towards the rest of the people there. “A full cup,” I said, my voice catching, “or bottle,” I nodded at Ulfric’s bottle of Knob Creek, getting some weak laughter, “is a sign of happiness. However, today we mourn. In memory of both the ones we left and the parts of us we lost, let us pour out some of our drink to signify our grief.”
I tipped my glass, and so did everyone else. After a small bit had flowed out, I righted my glass. “To those we’ve lost.”
Everyone echoed me. “To those we’ve lost.”
As we drank our various alcoholic beverages, I considered my own feelings. I wasn’t feeling sad. I hadn’t lost anything. No, thinking about Hell Semester made me mad. So many had lost their lives, and for what? Seriously, I didn’t even know what justifications were being given for this. Because someone said so, I guess.
I took a sip of my beer. I wondered if I was bitter, just like this swill. No, I decided. Bitter people just wallow in their misery.
I’m going to do something.
Also, this is the end of Book 1. It is dead now. You killed it. For the Post Mortem, click here.