Track 7: School Store

As I awoke, I came to the sudden realization that I was passing out a lot. Not mysteriously, thankfully. I just seemed to keep getting into situations where that’s just what you did. Still, it was something I didn’t think I should make a habit of. As I lifted my head, I suddenly realized I had a headache. “Why?” I groaned “I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol on the flight…”

“Stop putting your socks in the vents…” John moaned. I moved out from under my bed to see that John on the top bunk. His eyes were closed and he was drooling a bit. In other words, he was stone cold sleeping.

I suddenly realized that the sun was out. I took my iTouch out. It was out of batteries. I then took out my phone. It was also out of batteries. I tried to go back to sleep, but that wasn’t really possible with the sun shining through the windows. I then decided that showering was a nice goal.

After getting the clothes I wanted to wear, something buzzed in my desk. Before it could wake up John, I opened it up. There was the student-issued phone I had been given.  Known as the cPhone (or Campus Phone,) it had a lot of features that I had completely forgotten about because I had been in a sort of haze due to all the meds I was on when I got it.

On the screen was a picture of a man with shaven head, giant beard and chiseled jaw. Text on the image said “Call from Dmitri Arkadyvich Popov.” Below that, there was a graphic indicating for me to swipe right to accept and left to hang up. It also told me it was 7:00 AM on Saturday. It should have been Friday. Then I remembered time zones. Suddenly my headache made much more sense.

I accepted the call and moved the phone by my ear. Before I could get my greeting out, a thick Russian accent asked, “Hello? Is this Nathan Jacobs?”

“Yeah,” I said groggily. “I… I mean, good morning.”

“Hello,” the man said, “I am Popov. I run Drunken Mercenary and am calling about your application.” Oh yeah. All Freshmen not taking Hell Semester were expected to take a campus job and do an extracurricular. I had done some applications, mostly to jobs I thought would allow me to become virtually invisible and pick up some interesting information, like janitor duty or waiter. The man, Popov, continued, “If you are still interested in working at bar, please come down to Drunken Mercenary.”

“Sure,” I said, “when do you want to see me?”

“Now is good,” Popov said. “Please come immediately.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, “just let me shower first.”

“Is not needed,” Popov said. “Drunken Mercenary is not fancy. Neither am I.” He then hung up. I stared at the phone for a bit, then decided that it was best to not keep Popov waiting.

Luckily, my dorm room was in the same building as The Drunken Mercenary. I just had to walk down the aggressively white corridors, take the elevator and walk down the hall. The interior entrance to the bar would be a bit before the main exit from Marine. Something told me that alcoholics liked living in Marine Hall.

Just as I was about to head in to the bar, the main door opened. In stumbled Cross, carrying his luggage. “Oh,” he said, “hey Killer. How’re things going?”

“I’m just going to do an interview for a bartending position at The Drunken Mercenary,” I said. “It seems like…”

“Please,” Cross said, holding up his hands, “Do not mention alcohol, bars, or planes until after I’ve barfed a few times.”

“Well, have fun I guess…” I said, stepping hurriedly into The Drunken Mercenary to avoid any projectile vomit.

To call the Drunken Mercenary a dive was a bit of an understatement. There was a bit of an effort to make it look like a medieval tavern, with stone walls and floors, and rough-hewn wood furniture. However, that was where the niceness ended. Covering these objects was a sheen of dirt, dust, and spilled alcohol. The windows, due to them being frosted so passers-by couldn’t see though them, didn’t let in as much light as they should have. Combine all this with a mild stench of various kinds of booze and undertones of BO, blood, and what may or may not have been sexual fluids, and you had quite the dump.

I also noticed that there was other entertainment than libations. A few televisions were scattered across the room and there was a pool table near me, and a poker table a little farther towards the door. I leaned closer to investigate. Blood and something else had stained it. I had been in worse places, but none of them had been designed to serve food.

“Ah,” said a voice from somewhere in the back. I turned around to a guy who looked like Popov’s picture emerging from a door marked as a bathroom. I noticed he was a little short and had a bit of a belly, but the arms under his blue NIU t-shirt were extremely muscular. “You are here! Come, talk with me.”

He moved behind the bar, a rough-hewn wood thing that matched up with the bar’s medieval aesthetic. I followed him over there. When I accidentally caused a scraping noise by moving a chair, I flinched.

“You need hair of dog?” Popov asked.

“No,” I said, “it’s just jet-lag. I’m actually the only one in my group who didn’t touch any alcohol.”

“Do you drink?” Popov asked, a look of suspicion on his face.

“Not on a f… not on a plane,” I said. “Especially if you’re going to be trapped with a bunch of people carrying guns.”

“Good,” Popov said. “I am never trusting of people who don’t drink yet work in bar. Often, they lie and are alcoholic. Or they sabotage beer.” He stretched, then said, “Now, we have position for second shift bartender for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Shift starts at nine PM and is ending at two. Can you make it?”

“Yeah,” I said, suddenly hesitant due to his views on sober people. “I don’t remember having any early morning or late night classes. Do you need any qualifications?”

“Is not needed,” Popov said, waving his hand dismissively. “You fill up beer from tap or pour from bottle. Is also some refiling of popcorn machine and swiping cards. However, there are special rules.” He then motioned me to come behind the bar. I did so, and noticed that there was a Kel-Tec KSG shotgun and a key ring underneath in a small alcove. There was also a glass case with some high quality booze.

“Shotgun is for when patrons get out of hand,” Popov said, “Right tube is rock salt, left is buckshot. Keys are for switching shit beer in taps, and accessing good stuff. You are in control of access to good booze. Only friends of yours get good booze. Not teachers you want to get good grades from. Not comrades from your program. Not my friends. Not bouncer or waitress friends. Your friends. Understand?”

“The rules, yes,” I said, “but why…”

“Wonderful!” Popov said. “Now, pay is five point five campus credits an hour, which would be eight point two-five US dollars. You take job, da?”

“Sure,” I said. “I just have…”

“Other bartender will answer questions,” Popov said, “now shoo! Go enjoy your weekend! Class begins Monday, and your new job is starting Tuesday.”

After I was hurried out, I decided to fiddle a bit with my cPhone. First, I went to preferences. The first thing I noticed was the Privacy and Security features. The first was Geolocation and had the options of Public, Friends Only, Personal, Obscure, or Hard Off. I flicked it to Hard Off, which apparently completely disabled the GPS chip.

I then looked at Password and Biometric Protection. That was a bit more complex. Options included just a simple four to twelve character password, to just reading the print of a finger, to a system that would require you to insert four to twelve characters and each character having to be put in by a specific finger. You could also choose for your phone to delete all data, explode, or both if a person entered a wrong code enough times. I decided that a five character password (no I’m not telling you what it was) with any finger. For good measure, I added the data wipe. I wasn’t sure I wanted to mess around with enabling the bomb.

Exhausting the security features, I went into the sync. I suddenly realized I could sync my phone to INTRA, NIU’s proprietary social network. It was sort of cross between Facebook and Reddit. Apparently, I had to turn on the GPS to access that one, though. After I got my personal email, INTRA, and calendar all synced up to the phone, I decided to head up to go shower.

After heading through the weirdly white corridors (seriously, I couldn’t tell where the floor ended and the wall began) I got back to the room. John and Cross were out cold. Again, I got out my clothes, towel, washcloth, soap and shampoo. I then headed to the bathroom. After the shower, I realized that I needed to do some shopping for school supplies. And get something to eat. Leaving behind my iTouch and my cellphone, I grabbed my wallet and coat and headed out to the Newell-Howard Student Center.

The Newell-Howard Student Center was the biggest student center on campus. It was west of the main gate and was right next to President Newell-Howard’s mansion. Like most of the buildings on campus, it was that good-looking mix of brick and large amounts of glass that many public buildings that seemed to be really popular in the states. However, unlike the ones back home, all these buildings seemed to be old, possibly from the eighties. That style seemed to have only gotten popular in the states in the late two thousands.

The weather wasn’t great. Like the last time I was there, the sky was gray, the air was cold as fuck, and snow was everywhere. At least the wind had decided to fuck off and it wasn’t actively snowing. Plus, the snow had actually been plowed.

On the other hand, the snow and gray sky made everything look eerie and abandoned. Added to the fact that no one was out on the road, and things were looking very creepy. Normally, I kind of liked being the only person on the street early in the morning or late at night, but that was in normal places. In NIU, it made me extremely nervous. For all I knew, someone’s experiment could have gone horribly, horribly wrong (or horribly, horribly right) and I was the only survivor.

When I finally was standing outside Newell-Howard, I was gladdened to see that, if you looked over the snow-covered, fence-enclosed patio and through the large window, you could see people in uniforms moving around the cafeteria. I opened the main door, which got me into a lounge area with couches, high tables, barstools and a TV. On my right side was the entrance to the cafeteria. I was about open the door, when I noticed a sign on the door. It was the dining hall vacation schedule in English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. Apparently, the dining hall didn’t resume normal hours until Monday. That meant the dining hall wouldn’t open until 11:30 AM for brunch. My cPhone said it was 8:03.

With that, I went to a couch in front of the TV. I picked up the remote. I didn’t have to flip through the channels at all. As soon as I turned the TV on, it said that normal broadcasts were suspended until school resumed.

Sighing, I decided to go to sleep. After all, my headache was still there, though not exactly in full force.

“Oi,” a familiar voice queried sometime later, “what are you sleeping around for?”

I opened my eyes. There, brushing snow off themselves, were Eliza, Jen, Charlotte, and their other roommate, Alma Hebert. Well, Eliza, Jen and Charlotte brushed snow off themselves. Alma didn’t seem to notice the snow and just stared ahead with weirdly dead gray eyes, her stringy black hair obscuring her pale face somewhat. I supposed she had been even creepier the last two times we had met, but there was still something just wrong about her.

“Eliza!” I said happily. “Jen! Charlotte! Good to see you… and Alma.” Alma nodded, seemingly forgiving me for forgetting to mention her. However, something told me that forgiveness was misleading. In order to forgive someone, you have to care about the crime that’s been committed against you. Distracting myself from these thoughts, I asked, “What are you girls doing here?”

“Well,” Charlotte said, as the girls sat down on the couch perpendicular to me, “We were getting some breakfast at Café Charlemagne when Eliza picked up your scent.” I noticed that Eliza was carrying a tray of four hot drinks and Charlotte was carrying a white paper bag, and they were laying them out on the coffee table. “So she went out, got a good whiff and deduced you were headed here to get some food. Jen realized that they weren’t serving food, so we decided to bring you some food. Does hot chocolate and a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit sound acceptable to you?”

“Definitely!” I said. “How much do I…?”

“Nonsense!” Charlotte said. “You are a friend in need. We aren’t about to let you go hungry.”

“Have you heard the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch?’” I asked, only a little jokingly.

“Of course, Nathan,” Jennifer said, smiling predatorily. “That’s why we got you breakfast.” I smiled back nervously as Charlotte and Eliza began to distribute the food.

“Egg and cheese croissant for me,” Charlotte said, “Egg and cheese English muffin for Eliza…”

“Thanks, sis,” Eliza said, accepting the paper-wrapped sandwich.

“Bacon, egg and cheese bagel for Miss Kagemoto…” Charlotte continued.

“Thank you, Miss Blackmoor-Ward,” Jennifer said with a smile as she took her sandwich.

“And sausage, egg and cheese for you, Mr. Jacobs.”

I took the paper-wrapped sandwich. Surprisingly, it was still somewhat warm. “Thanks,” I said, starting to unwrap it. Suddenly, a thought came into my head. “Hey, Alma,” I asked, “didn’t you order anything?”

She shrugged. “I don’t really eat that much.” I noticed that instead of sitting on the couch with us, she had instead opted to lean on the wall next to the TV.

“If you say so…” I said. I took a bite out of my sandwich. Man, was it good. The meat was top quality, and the biscuit was nice and buttery.

“Oh, Nate!” Eliza said, handing me my drink. “Before I forget, here’s your hot chocolate. It’s some kind of fancy hot chocolate, has a higher level of cacao, I think. Also has some whipped cream and marshmallows in it.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking it from her hands. I was intrigued. I always liked the darker chocolates like Hershey’s Special Dark and Ghirardelli’s Intense Dark. I took a sip. It was so good I actually sighed. “This,” I said, “is the best fucking hot chocolate I have ever tasted.”

“Need t’change your pants?” Eliza asked innocently. There was a loud stomping sound. “Ow!” Eliza said. “Don’t do that when you’re wearing bloody heels, Char! Bloody ‘ell!” Meanwhile, Charlotte was regally sipping her drink, pretending nothing had happened. Jen was suppressing a laugh, and Alma’s impassive face shifted to show a minute amount of interest.

“Maybe,” I said, deepening my voice for comedic effect. “It was very good chocolate.”

Eliza threw back her head and cackled and Jen doubled over. Charlotte, meanwhile, set her coffee down and rubbed her nose as if staving off a headache. “Oh God,” she muttered, “there’s two more of you…”

“You know it, baby…” I said, still speaking deeply. After Jen stopped laughing and Eliza calmed down, I said, “Seriously, though, it is really is good.” Eliza and Jen burst out laughing again, and Charlotte chuckled a bit as well.

“So,” I asked, after eating some of my sandwich, “what are we going to do after this?”

“Well,” Charlotte said, “the school store opens at ten. It might be nice to go there in a bit.”

I nodded. “Sure thing.” I then took a back seat in the conversation. A lot of my attention, however, was focused on Alma. I had first met her the night before Hell Semester’s final. I was patrolling the base when I had seen a ghost. I even had a brief conversation with said ghost. Apparently, that ghost was a sort of projection of Alma. She was a psychic and her dorm’s heating had broken. Somehow, that translated to her haunting my patrol.

Needless to say, I was curious… and slightly disturbed. “So,” Alma said, startling the rest of us, “Nathan, you have some questions for me.” It was weird. It was like I was the only one who had remembered she was still there.

“Sorry,” I said, “it’s just…”

“You don’t know much about Psychics, right?” Alma asked. “Don’t worry. Apparently, not many people know about psychics. Even people who study psionic powers for a living have only a limited understanding how our powers work.”

“So,” I said, “are you saying you don’t know how you ended up observing my patrol?”

“I’m surprised,” Alma said, her voice still monotone and her expression still bland. “Most people ask me if I’m reading their minds.”

“Actually,” I said, “you might need to explain some of the basics. That is, if mind reading is basic.”

“Here we go,” Jennifer said rolling her eyes.

“You’re right,” Alma said, “you do need to know the basics. First off, mind-reading both is and isn’t really a thing.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “After all, scientists know very little about the brain. It’s too complex to really get a good read on.”

Alma nodded. “Right. Your mind isn’t really a book. It’s more a transmitter. Some of the information is conscious thought. The vast majority is unconscious thought. This includes things like your body telling your lungs to inhale and exhale, your heart to beat, your blood cells to clot a cut.

“The difference between me and the rest of you is that I’m also a receiver as well as a transmitter. Because I am more powerful than most psychics, my range is… considerable. Most psychics would have a range about the size of this room. They might be able tell general things about you, like if you’re angry, or more advanced things, like you have cancer. Some of the lucky ones might not be able to tell you how they know.”

I nodded. I actually knew a bit about psychics. One of the thing I had done when not having dinner with English nobility over winter vacation was do some research. One of the topics of my research was about psychics. I admit, some of what I had said may have been designed to obfuscate the fact that said research had taken place. So far, there was only one thing that didn’t jive with my research.

“Why would it be lucky?” I asked. This is what I was curious about. The articles on the ACLU and WebMD I had read about psychics were very vague on something they called “psionic contact,” other than that it was extremely dangerous.

“Well,” Alma said, “If you don’t know you’re psychic, you can’t press further, try to sort out some of the confusing things you’re… well, I won’t call it hearing or seeing. Honestly, it’s not something I can explain.”

“It’d be like trying to explain sound to a deaf person,” I said.

Alma nodded. “Exactly. Anyway, if you can figure out how to focus on someone, they also see you. Also, when you focus on things people… things get weird.” She paused, then asked, still in her somewhat disturbing monotone, “Have you ever heard of people going on an LSD trip and never coming back? It’s a lot like that in some cases. When a Psychic makes contact with a normal human, both start to hallucinate, usually severely. Sometimes, it becomes hard to stop seeing things. I find, though, that the risk decreases if you focus on multiple people at once.”

Odd, I thought. Much of what I read implied that was impossible. Or at least very difficult. Then again, the only other way she could appear in far-off places is if she was also a Jumper, which have been notoriously difficult to cross-breed with other Parahumans.

“But enough about me,” she said. “My roommates have been talking about you. I’m a little curious now.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure what there is to talk about. There’s Hell Semester, which I kind of don’t want to talk about. There’s my family, who I’m afraid to talk about in case one of the psychos I’ve pissed off decides to take their frustration out on them.”

“Please,” Alma asked, her voice still monotone, “just answer one question.”

I shrugged. “I suppose I owe you a few. Shoot.”

Her question made my blood run cold. “What’s it like to kill someone?”

Everyone stared at her for a bit. Finally, I said, “It’s weird. Sometimes, the actual act is the easiest thing in the world. Working up the… I don’t want to say courage… to actually do it is a lot harder, but it gets easier. Living with it, now that’s the hardest. I still have nightmares from the first time.”

I paused, remembering the rock striking Amir on the temple, his blood blinding me, his body limp and unmoving. “You’re remembering your first, aren’t you?” Alma asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “What are you getting off me?”

“You were stressed at the time,” Alma began, still in her monotone. I nodded. “Scared. Was it self-defense?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think the situation I was designed to break down norms like ‘don’t kill.’ Self-defense is a pretty efficient way to do that.” Making an effort not to stare at the floor, I decided to observe everyone else’s reactions. I noted that Eliza was starting to fidget. Charlotte and Jen were looking at me with interest, Charlotte’s more horrified.

She nodded. “Close-range?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He was choking me to death. I had a rock and…”

She nodded. “This was sort of an experiment. I’ve taken a few psych classes to see if I could focus my power, figure out how to understand what it was telling me. Sorry if that hurt to talk about.” Again, she was speaking in her weird monotone, but I got the impression that she was genuinely sorry.

“It didn’t hurt…” I protested.

“Really?” she asked. “Is that why you’ve been moving into a defensive position? Why you couldn’t look at me while talking about it? Psychological pain is no less valid than physical pain.”

When the bookstore finally opened, we all headed up the stairs. I consulted my cPhone (seriously, why hadn’t thrown out my dumb phone?) to see what course materials I’d need. First up, I’d need a grammar guide and literature textbook for College English (NA-ENG 1000.) I’d also need a generic textbook for Algebra (MATH-1100) and Military History (AMS 1100.) Intro to Sociology and Philosophy of Government required actual books. For Philosophy of Government, I actually knew most of them: Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli, The Republic by Plato, and The Communist Manifest by Karl Marx. For the sociology class, I’d already bought Parahuman Varieties and Cultures. That was one of my sources about Psychics.

I’d also, apparently need a travel case for my weapons and holsters. Campus required that weapons remain either secured or concealed. I’d be taking Weapons Refreshment (WPN 5100) as well having to shoot five hundred rounds a week. I thanked the NIU scholarship for paying for all of the textbooks, then started to browse.

The first thing I got was the case. That, I figured, might be able to hold all the various crap I had. I was wrong, but I figured out that I could get foam inserts for my various guns, plus several magazines. As the lady behind the counter was making the inserts, I happily went to shop for books.

As I was searching through the books, Jennifer walked up next to me. “Good job,” she said. “I remember the first time I tried to pull a fast one on Alma. She saw through it. You, however, spent most of that plane ride reading Parahuman Varieties and Culture, yet she thinks you know nothing about Psychics…”

She continued talking, but as she did so, she dissolved into dust and blew away. As she did so, my vision turned sepia and blurry. Somehow, I knew someone was standing behind me. I turned around. There was Alma, backlit by an odd source of light. For some reason, her outline was flickering. “So you did know something about Psychics…” she said, her voice still monotone.

“So is this what you meant what you meant by how things get… trippy when you make direct contact with someone,” I said as she walked towards me. As she did so, I noticed that she looked mummified. That’s how she appeared when she had first talked to me during my patrol. Deciding that this was important, I asked, “So, why do you look like you’ve been dead for a couple decades?”

“None of your business.” The anger in her voice was barely perceptible, but some of the shelves bent in response. Her next words were much calmer. “Anyway, you have a friend. A… little bird has told me that a certain Al-Qaeda member by the name of Mubashir Barak has been helping you at great risk. Be on the lookout for him.”

“Why are you telling me this in this way?” I asked.

“This is the most secure way of communicating,” Alma said. “From what I can tell, you don’t trust many people.” Suddenly, she began to blow away, just like Jen had. My vision also returned to normal. “I hope this helps,” she said as she blew away. “You could be very useful to me…”

I heard a sigh behind me. I turned around. There was Jen, obviously not turned to dust. “You just talked to Alma, didn’t you?” she asked. “Did she figure it out?”

“She kind of overheard you, I guess,” I said.

“Damn,” Jen said. “I really hate how everyone here seems to have their own mysterious agenda here…”

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