The day before we were going to go back, we had a meeting scheduled with our UNIX handlers. Originally, they had wanted to meet with us separately, but we had campaigned hard, even refusing to show up if we were separated.
We were meeting at the Sao Paolo Grill, a local Brazilian barbeque joint. It had gotten famous when I was in seventh grade. The owner had been attacked by a gangster of some sort, and everyone had come to show support. John lived in New Hampshire, but he figured he had to drive down here anyway since we were all flying out of Plymouth, so his parents dropped him off at my house the day before the meeting. Then, around 11:30, we began walking to our meeting.
“So,” John asked, bundled up tightly in his winter coat, “have you been to this place before?”
“Nah,” I said from inside my many layers, “but apparently, if you want meat on a stick, it’s the place to go.”
“Sounds good,” John said. “Any other places you eat at around here?”
That started a whole conversation about the various places to eat at Maynard. There are a lot. We’ve got several pizza joints, a couple standard family places, a bunch of bars, and a few ethnic restaurants.
Around the time we got into the downtown, city-like part of Maynard, I ran into an old friend. “Nathan?” a voice called out. I turned around. There, coming out of the street by the Town Hall/police station, was Mai Lau. Mai had moved from Beijing to Maynard in 2010. She was in my grade, but I didn’t really know her that well until we took a theater class in our senior year. It was hard to believe that was something that happened less than a year ago.
“Mai!” I said happily, “How are things going?”
She laughed. “Very good. Do you and your friend want lunch?”
“We’re actually heading out to the Sao Paolo Grill,” I said. “We’re meeting up with some scholarship people.”
“Oh yeah,” Mai said, “you went off to college. Where did you end up?”
“This international school,” I said. “Kind of in the middle of nowhere, but you meet all sorts of interesting people.”
John laughed. “You can say that again.” I instantly thought of all the people I had met. The Al-Qaeda terrorists like Amir (also the first person I had killed,) and his psychotic second-in-command Salim. Richard Forrest Taylor the third, a legit KKK member. Eric, Ray-Gun, Doc, The Monk, MC Disaster, former child soldiers who somehow became millionaires. There were also people like Eliza, Oro Okoro, Bai and Li Feng, and Ricardo Montana, people who, along with me and one other person, formed a group called The Seven Supreme. There was also May Riley, a certified genius with an eccentric personality and mutilated face, and her sister Mary, a no-nonsense girl training to become a combat medic. Then there was the horror in human form known as Ulfric Trollbjorn.
“Sorry we can’t meet up at the moment,” I said. “I’d love to, but this is kind of a private meeting.”
“Don’t worry,” Mai said. “I’m having lunch with Jesse there. After you’re done, we can talk, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “Oh, before I forget, this is John Marshall. We met this semester. John, this is Mai Lau, the only person in MHS who’s more interested in set construction and choreography than improv.”
After that, we had this big conversation about our year in theater class. It ended with me doing my beached whale impersonation as we walked into the parking lot where Sao Paolo Grill was located. It wasn’t exactly the same, due to the fact that I couldn’t lie down. Two people in trench coats and sunglasses looked up. It was Takashi and Brosnan.
“That,” Brosnan said with amusement, “must have an interesting story behind it.”
“It does,” I said. “Are we going to do this out here, or are we going to go outside?”
“Is she going to be here?” Takashi asked.
“Actually,” Mai said, “I see Jesse right inside. I’ll catch up with you later!” I looked inside the Sao Paolo Grill. There was Jesse, a small black girl who I think was a Junior in high school at the time. She waved at us. Mai and I waved back.
After Mai hurried off, I turned to Brosnan and Takashi. “So,” I said, “are we going to go in?”
“Actually,” Brosnan said, “this won’t take long.” He took out a wad of cash and handed to me. “Your work was substandard.” He kept a cheery tone of voice as he did so.
“Where’s John’s?” I asked.
Brosnan shrugged. “He didn’t do anything,” he said. “If you disagree, you can give him money from what we’ve given you.”
While he had been talking, I had been counting. There were ten fifties in the roll. “I’m sorry,” I said, “This is five hundred dollars. To split. You said a hundred thousand for each of us…”
“If you did a good job,” Takashi said. “Compared to the other students, your… essay was unacceptable.”
“First off, how was it unacceptable?” I asked angrily. “The prompt was to write about the other students. I think I got a very good picture of the student body. Second,” my voice dropped to a whisper, “I almost died several times. One of the only reasons I’m alive is John.”
“We told you,” Takashi said, “that this would be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. If you can’t do this…”
“Yeah,” John said, “you said it would be hard. You neglected to mention the projected casualty rate!”
“Don’t you mean dropout rate?” Brosnan asked.
“Oh please,” John said, “you knew that they fucking aim for a fifty percent death rate. We didn’t. There’s a difference between…”
“Please Mr. Marshall,” Brosnan said neutrally, “control yourself.”
“Fuck you,” John said. “There’s a difference between knowing the risks and not having basic information! Next time, fucking tell us if we’re going to be thrown into a fucking meat grinder with a bunch of psychotics! That way, we don’t have to have conversations like this!”
“Are you done?” Brosnan asked politely.
“He didn’t mention,” I said, “how you just tried to turn us against each other by stiffing me.”
“You’re right!” John said. “You know, I’m starting to think you don’t want us to succeed.”
“Now you have.” Takashi said, handing us each a small camera. “These microcams can take pictures with the big button on the right. If you hold down the small one on the left, it can translate a document to a PDF. Use it. Maybe this time, your fellow scholarship student won’t run rings around you.”
“Are you sure there’s only one other?” I asked.
“Of course,” Brosnan said, getting into his car. “Why would we lie to you?”
As the two UNIX agents drove off, I commented, “Y’know, I’m glad I don’t have a gun on me. I’d hate to explain why I just shot two UNIX agents on American soil in front of a bunch of witnesses.” I then handed him half the bills.
“Yeah,” John said, taking them and putting them in his pocket. “Those guys are assholes.” We then walked into the Sao Paolo Grill.
When we entered, Mai and Jesse immediately waved us over to their table. “What was that about?” Jesse asked. Both she and Mai were giving me concerned looks, though I noticed that Mai’s expression of concern was masking… something else.
“There was a bit of a disagreement on the scholarship front,” I said.
“Really?” Mai said. “I didn’t think disagreements over scholarships got that bad.” Suddenly, I realized where I had seen that look before. I had seen it on Bai’s face when she had considered killing me and I had seen it on Doc’s face when The Monk had executed a prisoner during our final. I suddenly realized that I had seen some… interesting things in Maynard.
They were things I had been things that had been there for a long time. Every time I had entered Maynard, there had been people with the tell-tale signs of having seen combat together. It was hard to see, unless you looked for it. It was an attitude, a way of moving, a look. The problem was that this wasn’t proof. It wasn’t even circumstantial. These telltale signs were often extremely contradictory.
There was also a sort of uniform a bunch of young people were wearing consisting of hoodies, baggy jeans and green t-shirts. Jade green t-shirts. I quickly took a look around. I noticed several other people in these t-shirts. One, I recognized as Jamie Washington, another person I knew in school. His t-shirt had a Chinese-style dragon, much like the kind Lang and his flunky had been wearing as lapel pins at the Kagemoto’s party. Suddenly, I felt very nervous.
Jesse reached over. “Hey,” she said, “are you ok? You’re looking pretty pale.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to regain my poker face. “I’m fine.” It was hard. I was now in a weird state of hyperawareness that would be hard to describe to someone who’s never been in combat. I’m sure John noticed it, but he said nothing.
“If you’re worried about paying the bill,” Jesse said, “Mai’s got us covered. I mean, didn’t you just inherit Lau Holdings? You kind of own this building.”
“Through some intermediary company,” Mai said dismissively. “Honestly, it took some digging to find out I actually had holdings here.”
That was quite interesting. We made polite conversation for a bit. Apparently, Mai was planning on opening a theater where the old DEC building had been. “It’s better than the Walmart they were going to place there,” she said. “Besides, you know me. I love theater.” That was Mai. Patron of the arts and math genius.
“Are you going to college?” I asked. “Because the college I go to would love to have you.” It was true. Even discounting my formless suspicions, I knew she was some kind of genius.
Mai shrugged. “Not at the moment. I actually have some things that I have to do right now, and college would just be a distraction.” She smiled. “Besides, there are cheaper ways to learn.”
Eventually, we had ate the food. Mai paid, and John and I excused ourselves. Once we got down the street a bit, John asked, “So what was that about?”
“Later,” I said sharply. I was still noticing things. That teen in the hoodie taking a picture of the store we were walking by. The beat up Pontiac with a bunch of guys in it driving right past. The black Dodge charger with blacked-out windows driving in the other direction. Stuff like that. “We’re being watched.”
“By who?” John asked, suddenly stiffening. Thankfully, he didn’t look around.
“Not here,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Let’s go back to my house and play some video games.”
“Sounds relaxing,” John said.
I was able to keep him from asking about it until we (we being me, him, Charlotte and Eliza) piled into Charlotte’s Maybach. “So,” he said, “who did you think was following us?”
I laughed. “Everyone. We’ve come to the attention of the Kagemotos and the FBI. I’m also pretty sure there was a Jade Empire presence as well.”
“Are you sure?” Charlotte asked. “I mean how do you know you were being watched?”
“I’m I can’t prove it at the moment,” I admitted, “but I know it. Besides, the FBI and Kagemotos watching us makes sense.”
“I don’t know…” Charlotte said. “You do sound a bit paranoid.”
“Well,” Eliza commented, “they are interested in ‘im. Just ‘cause ‘e’s a little paranoid doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”
“Thank you, Eliza,” I said.
We then began the journey to the airport. The sun was not out yet, so we were all tired. Surprisingly, when we got there, we could board the plane, a Boeing 747 with NIU markings, directly. As we did, I noticed that Eliza’s only carry-on item was a tweed and brown leather guitar case. “Huh,” I commented, “I didn’t know you could play guitar.”
“It isn’t a guitar,” she said as she walked up the plane’s boarding ramp.
When she got in, a guard asked, “You carrying any weapons?” I was right behind her.
“Yeah,” she said. “I got an L1A1 in the case and a Browning Hi-Power in my pocket.”
“Ok,” the guard said, somewhat bored. “Next!” I stepped forward. “You carrying any weapons?” the guard asked.
“Why would I be carrying weapons on a plane?” I asked.
“Are you going to be this way, mate?” the guard asked. “Because you can either reveal the weapons you’re carrying, or I can get someone to strip-search you.”
“I’m not carrying anything!” I protested.
“Oi, Artyom!” The guard called out, “We’ve got a yank claiming ‘e’s not packing! Want to verify?”
“He isn’t armed!” John called out from behind my back. “His dad would freak if he brought guns into the house.”
“Ok, fine,” the guard said to me. “Go on, into the plane.” I walked into the plane, somewhat annoyed. I noticed that there were only a few people there, most of them white and/or sleeping. I walked over to where Eliza was struggling to insert the case containing her L1A1 into an overhead compartment.
“Need help stowing it?” I asked.
“Nah,” she said, finally shoving it in, “I got it. Thanks for the offer, though.” She had chosen a lounge area with four seats on each side facing each other.
Before she could close it, John came running up. “Wait,” he said, “I’ve got something, too!” It was a black ABS case.
“What manner of death are you illegally bringing aboard a plane?” I asked.
John smiled. “Mossberg 500 Hunting in the case, and a Browning Hi-Power under my coat. This means you’re going to have go out and buy stuff for us at the commercial airport stops.”
Charlotte, who had just come up behind him, said, “Yes. If you possess a firearm, you are not allowed to leave the plane until we get back to the university. Something to do with firearm laws. Shame, I rather like seeing new places.” I took this to mean she had brought her Webley with her.
“I should think so!” I said. “I mean, think about it. Some guy gets off the plane in, I don’t know, whatever international airport they have in the Midwest, then loses his temper and pulls his Glock on someone. By the way, I call window seat.”
“Yes, of course,” Charlotte said.
About a half an hour later, I saw a Lexus pull up. I was unsurprised to see Jennifer get out. Eliza, who also had a window seat, saw her as well. “Lovely,” she growled, her ears flattening, “Ms. Kagemoto’s ‘ere.”
“Actually,” I said, “I’ve got some questions to ask her.”
“Is this about yesterday?” John asked, “Because I still think you’re ever-so-slightly paranoid.”
“Paranoid about what?” We turned around. Jen was staring at us innocently.
“How did…” John asked.
“Jumper,” Charlotte, Eliza and I said in unison.
“Aww,” Jen said, “you spoiled the fun. I wanted to see how long it would take for him to figure it out.” She sat down besides Charlotte. “So,” she said, suddenly business-like, “what did you want to ask me?”
“Just curious,” I asked, “does there happen to be a big Jade Empire presence in Maynard? I went home, and I suddenly start noticing a lot of people wearing green.”
“Interesting…” Jen mused.
“What?” I asked. There was something ominous about how intently Jen was processing this information.
“Well,” she said, “there are some who believe that’s where the Empire was born. In fact, some of their most feared lieutenants come from there. It’s been considered Empire territory since 2010. You say you live there?”
“Yeah,” I said, “and I didn’t notice anything until yesterday. But looking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was active in Maynard around 2010. There’re a few kids in my school who started wearing all green back then.”
Jennifer nodded. “Was it around spring?”
I shrugged. “Not sure.” After that there was a bit of silence. Then the plane took off. Apparently Cross was on a different flight. We also learned we’d be doing a sort of criss-cross with a couple other planes, stopping at a bunch of different airports. That translated to a lot of stops, many of which were in the kind of airports without restaurants. Apparently, I was the only person in the plane who didn’t deal with it by getting drunk as a skunk.
Charlotte, surprisingly, was the first. When the flight attendant came by, a massive Russian dude, Charlotte ordered some kind of mixed drink.
“Charlotte…” I said, “It’s nine thirty. AM. That cocktail has, like, three servings of alcohol in it.”
“But it seems so interesting!” Charlotte protested.
By the time we reached California, I was the only one who didn’t have a hangover. It was… unpleasant, to say the least. I thought people were going to start murdering each other. Or worse, they’d start vomiting.
“Never,” Eliza moaned as the plane landed, “let me drink this bloody much on a plane again.”
“I tried to stop you,” I said, getting up. “I tried to stop you all.” I hurried away as they all groaned. As I left, I realized that some of the accumulated stink was mine. God, did I want to get off this flight.
I saw them as soon as I was in the waiting area. May and Mary Riley. The twins were a year older than me, but May was both more intelligent and more childish than I was. She bounced up, her scarred face lighting up. When she was just a kid, she had been in a car accident, leaving one side a patchwork, except around her mouth. Also, an eye had been damaged, so now they were mismatched, one green, one brown. To complete the weird look, she had dyed her hair blond and frosted the tips purple.
She shot off at me like a rocket. “Wow, you’re here!” she said. “Man, I didn’t expect it, but I should have. I mean, you live in the states and go to the same school and you’re probably going to the same place, right? Wait, never mind, where else would you be going. That’s kind of stupid of me. I just made a hangover cure and…”
“Wait,” I said, interrupting her before her rant could gain any more momentum, “you made a hangover cure?”
“Why?” May asked. “You don’t seem to have hangover syptoms.”
“My friends do,” I said. “Please. I have to sit with them the entire flight.”
“Do I know them?” she asked, now business-like.
“Yeah,” I said, “you’ll know John and Eliza. You might not know Jen and Charlotte.” May brushed by me, moving with a determination I hadn’t seen. “Also, could you ask them not to drink so much?” I called after her.
“Don’t worry,” Mary said, “if I know my sister, they won’t touch a drop for the rest of the trip.”
“I believe you,” I said. “I’m going to get a pizza and fries.”
When I got back, everyone was fully recovered. They were also staring at May warily. I wasn’t surprised. May had an excellent death glare when she wanted something. Speaking of May, she had a tendency to rap songs from memory when bored. That is how some of us were introduced to people like Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Tech N9ne, The Geto Boys, Kendrick Lamar, and Lupe Fiasco. She was really good, from what I could tell.
However, it was still about forty-eight before we finally got to Nowhere Island. When we finally touched down in that hell hole in the Pacific, I was exhausted. I was done. It was in a daze that John and I got back to our dorm room.
Eric was the only one in the room when we got in. He looked up from his desk. “Ah, John! Killer!” I winced as he used my hated nickname. “You are back! This calls for a celebration! Would you like to go to The Drunken Mercenary?”
We stared at him for a second. Then we both shouted, “NO!”