The bathroom was near the lobby. That’s how they found me. Andy had just walked in and May was waiting in line for the cafeteria. Andy waved and began walking towards me. May did too, but there was a lot more bouncing involved.
“Hey guys!” I said, “Glad you got the memo about where we’d meet!”
“Not a problem,” May said. “Mary couldn’t make it tonight, she’s got other engagements.” She turned around to come face to face with Andy. Well, actually, it was more like face to solar plexus. “Uh,” she asked, “who’s this guy?”
“He’s Andy Sebaldi,” I said. “He’s…”
“Ohmigod,” May said, “I totally know who you are! You’re the guy who turned his room into a factory! I could never, in a million years, do anything like that. By the way, what are you planning on making?”
“Eh… school administration wants to see if I can make robots,” Andy said. “I’ve got some ideas for automated security and robots that can walk.”
“Can you make chemicals?” May asked. “Because NIU are trying to buy the rights to the stuff I made. Also, if I can’t ‘put it into effect under my own power within two years,’ the rights go to the school.”
“How do you know who I…” Andy began to ask, then his face lit up. “Wait a minute, you’re May Riley! You’re one of the Triple-As in the Med program! Yeah, I might be able to do that. I’d need to know how to mix the stuff but I take it can tell me what I’d need to do, right? By the way, how did you know about me?”
We paused to swipe our student IDs at the entry. A bored guy I had seen occasionally exiting Squire was manning them, and didn’t seem to notice our entrance. I wondered if I could have just walked past. After all, his swiping our card was just as automatic as our handing it to him.
Andy and May were still involved in their own conversation. “I know who you are because I read the school newspaper,” May said. “When Taylor Smith isn’t spewing his hateful bullshit, there actually is the occasionally interesting and/or useful article.”
“I actually heard about you from some guys I know on campus,” he said. “Something about medical genius, severe injuries, and weird porn you didn’t know you were filming.”
“Oh God,” May groaned, “Why won’t that video die?”
Trying to butt in, I asked, “Who’s Taylor Smith?” Judging by the impression he left on May, there was a strong chance that he was the person Kyle and Richard were talking about appeasing.
May sighed. “Smith’s this fucking asshat who writes articles in the NIU Universal complaining about anyone who isn’t white and Protestant. He also keeps talking about ‘the grand rebirth of Rhodesia,’ which basically means killing and enslaving the people of Zimbabwe. Anyway, he wrote this long screed about how Asian people were genetically inferior to white people (he used less polite terms,) and I posted a comment disproving every single one of his talking points. I may have been a bit rude, but he decided to basically go nuclear in his response to my response, saying that this is why women shouldn’t be involved in politics and wondering about whether it was my period or if I was just mentally deficient.” She smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t have responded to his response, but telling him to go back to writing songs about kissing boys in the rain felt… so poetic. It was almost worth the threats.”
“Wait,” Andy asked, “what kind of threats?”
“Oh, look!” May said, “That’s where we’re sitting! Come on!” Near the window, I could see that Eric, Doc, Ray-Gun, The Monk, MC Disaster, Eliza, Bai, Charlotte, Jen, Cross, and John were all sitting at one of the longer tables. Ray-Gun, John, Eliza, and Cross were waving us over. Outside I could see that it was snowing like crazy.
“Wow,” I said as we sat down, “this is crazy. There’s fourteen people sitting down here.”
“Yeah,” Cross said. “We had to get the Jesus table because there’s still more people coming. Oro and Eliza’s other roomie are coming, too.”
“Oh,” I said, “before I forget, let me introduce you guys. Ok, Andy, May, this first guy is Eric the Entertainer. He likes to make nicknames.”
Eric nodded. “A pleasure to meet you two.”
“This next guy is Ray-Gun. He’s an excellent spotter. Also really likes Silver Age superhero comics.” Ray-Gun smiled, his frizzy Afro shaking a bit as he nodded his head. “And this guy’s Doc. He’s a little prickly, but he’ll fix you up if you get shot.”
“Not as good as May,” Doc said. “Your inventions saved a lot of lives.”
“I wouldn’t play favorites,” I said, “but I was probably one of them. Salim, this one asshole from Al-Qaeda, stabbed me in the stomach. Your surgical glue had me doing the run the next day.” Ignoring May’s protests, I continued with the introductions. “MC Disaster. Explosives expert. Doesn’t talk much.”
“I talk!” MC Disaster protested.
“That’s the first thing I’ve heard him since November. Anyway, this guy is The Monk, chillest guy I know.” The Monk made his traditional bow. “Michael Castellan. Everyone calls him Cross. Don’t ask about his family business.”
“Hey, man,” Cross said, “Don’t scare away my clients! They’re nerds! Nerds always want some jock whacked.” I noticed Andy and May’s eyes widen. They exchanged nervous glances.
“He’s joking, right?” Andy asked anxiously. I could see the scenarios he was imagining. They all involved the FBI knocking on his door.
“Possibly,” I said, “but not about the killing people for money thing. Moving on, the redhead with the cool ears is Eliza Henderson and the blonde girl with the Union Jack scarf is her adopted sister, Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. Charlotte’s English nobility of some kind.”
“Charmed,” Charlotte said.
“Nice t’meet ya!” Eliza said at the same time.
“Man,” I said, “do I know a lot of people here. Ok, home stretch! The girl who looks perpetually amused is Jennifer Kagemoto. She’s a little… famous where I live.”
“For all the wrong reasons,” Jen said playfully. “Cross is nowhere near as bad as I am.”
“And the girl openly carrying a Glock is Bai Feng,” I said. Bai was carrying her G26 in an armpit holster. Her coat and sweater had been taken off and hung over her chair, revealing the gun, holster and plain tank top she wore. Not only did this violate school rules about only carrying concealed weapons, but it also made me nervous.
“After what happened at Weapons Handling,” Bai said coolly, “I thought having a deterrent would be prudent. I thought you’d understand better, seeing how that wasn’t the first time you’ve been caught off-guard.”
“What happened?” Andy asked, looking more and more unnerved by his present company. So was May.
“Nothing,” I said, with a little too much false cheer, “just assholes being assholes!” May and Andy exchanged worried glances. Again. “Anyway,” I said, “this is John Marshall. One of the two people who had no idea what the fuck he was getting into. Out of all the people, I think the only person to save my life more is Eliza.”
“That’s me!” John said. I noticed he was sitting directly across from Bai. He was also marginally more comfortable with her than the last time I had seen them together.
“Ok,” I said, “now, is there anyone who doesn’t know May?”
“Be polite and introduce us to her anyway, Nathan,” Charlotte said.
“Ok,” I said, “this is May Riley. She’s a Triple-A at the med school. If you were in Hell Semester 2015, she probably saved your butt directly or indirectly.” There was a round of applause. May blushed a bit. “And this is my co-host for Flounder, Andy Sebaldi. He’s a Triple-A Computer Science major.”
“Basically,” he said, “they kind of want me to build Skynet.”
“Please tell me you’re joking,” John said, somewhat terrified.
“I am,” Andy said, “that’s the only way I’m able to deal with the fact that they want me to build fucking Skynet.” After that, it kind of devolved into a bitch session about how the school was morally bankrupt, expensive, dangerous, and difficult.
“I’ll say one thing,” I said after swallowing a bite of my third bratwurst, “I am learning a lot.” I got a minor chuckle from that.
Oro and Alma eventually showed up. Neither of them were talkative and both exuded a passive sense of menace. Oro Okoro, another child soldier from somewhere in Africa and member of the Seven Supreme, was actively suspicious of Andy for a few minutes, but finally relented.
Alma, on the other hand, simply took an interest and did her best to appear non-threatening. However, Alma being mildly interested and trying not to be threatening was like a horror movie building up to the scares. There was just something wrong with her. I tried to tell myself that it was just the idea of her power or her weird monotone, but something told me it went deeper than that. I decided not to focus on that.
Instead, I focused on the camaraderie. Eliza was one of the people who vouched for Andy. (I was another, but she obviously didn’t trust me as much.) John ended up being the only person who had a prayer of keeping up with Andy and May’s conversation on how the brain could be used as a model for artificial intelligence. Cross was giving Charlotte advice on alternatives to her Webley. Things like that. I decided to just sit back and eat my food.
Finally, it was time to go. We all got a cup of the crappy hot chocolate the cafeteria and began the trek to building Graham’s Game Bar was located. Luckily, it was pretty close to the main circle. We only had to walk through winds that felt like being constantly punched for about five minutes.
“HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE WITH THIS WEATHER?” Oro yelled above the wind. “I LIVE IN A COUNTRY WITH AN AVERAGE LOWEST YEARLY TEMPERATURE OF THIRTY DEGREES!” I quickly realized she was measuring in Celsius. Why does America use English measurements again? Not even England uses English measurements.
“THEY KEEP A STIFF UPPER LIP, I SUPPOSE,” Charlotte mused loudly. “REMARKABLY BRITISH OF THEM!”
Finally, we got into Graham’s Game Bar. It was located in an apartment-style building called Lovelace Hall. “Blimey,” Eliza said, when we all got into the foyer, “It really is nerd heaven, innit?”
The bar was double-storied. Downstairs was a dancefloor (which most people were ignoring,) a bar (which was only slightly busier,) and a bunch of arcade cabinets and pinball machines. I saw some classics like Star Wars: The Arcade Games, Pac-Man, and most of the Time Crisis series. They all seemed to have been modified to take campus credits.
Upstairs, I could see that there was another bar and an area for people who wanted to join in a LAN party. TVs scattered around were displaying various matches. To top it all off, the DJ was playing the original Pokemon theme.
“This is heaven…” I said, somewhat in awe.
“Yeah,” May said as we wandered further in. “Each of the schools has at least one hangout. You AMS and Shadowhaven guys have The Drunken Mercenary and The Gunporioum. The students at the Frankenstein Medical School get hammered at the A&E and cure the hangover with caffeinated beverages at Greenleaf. Rogues have Café Charlemagne and The International Casino. The CompSci guys get The Nerd Shop and this place. Lucky bastards.”
“Hey,” Eliza said, “wanna see if they’ve got bourbon? I’ve never had any before.”
“I will watch you drink it,” Bai said. “But I think I’ll pass.”
“Fine, you pansy,” Eliza said. “Nate, John, you want t’sample some Yank culture with me? Could be quite educational.”
“You know what?” I said. “Sure. What could go wrong?”
We walked over to the bar. A red-headed girl in a Graham’s Game Bar branded apron was tending a somewhat abandoned section. “What’ll ya be havin,’ ya bleedin’ Monarchist?” she asked with a bored Irish lilt. My guess is that she noticed the Union Jack patch on Eliza’s old army jacket.
Eliza smiled, slapping her student ID on the counter. “Three shots of your mid-range bourbon on the rocks for me and my mates, Lucky Charms.” I noticed that a crowd had begun to form around. Most of them were our friends, but there were a few curious nerds.
The bartender asked, with mock-innocence, “You sure you want to be going that fast? You sure you don’t want some nice non-alcoholic beer? Or some milk?” There was an “oooh!” from the crowd. I, on the other hand, got the impression that this was as fake as professional wrestling. Mostly due to the fact that both of them were trying to suppress smiles.
“Did I ask for commentary?” Eliza asked, “Or did I ask you TO POUR THE BOOZE?” As she asked the last question, she turned to address the crowd. A person actually whooped.
“Fine, ya cockney arse,” the bartender said. “Three shots of inferior American rotgut for the Englishwoman.” She quickly swiped the card and poured the whiskey. The shot glasses looked bigger than I expected.
I picked mine up, and sniffed it. It smelled like paint thinner. “Right,” Eliza said, “on three. One. Two. Three.”
In unison, we all lifted it up to our mouths and took a sip. I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I got some in. Each drop seared my throat on the way down. “Oh God,” I said, “This burns.”
“Yeah,” Eliza said, “You’d have to be propper wasted beforehand to drink this.” After a pause, she said, “I’m going to finish it.”
A few minutes later, we were on the upper floor. I had finished a good chunk of it, and, God help me, I somehow decided I liked it. I don’t know why. The only reasonable explanation I could think of was that I subconsciously hated myself and realized that this devil drink was killing me. That, or I liked how being buzzed made me almost forget Hell Semester. It also helped me to deal with the fact that some people playing Counter-Strike were using speakers.
Suddenly, through the light fog in my head, I realized something. “Hey Andy,” I asked, “If I wanted to find out more about someone, could I just look it up on cNet?”
Andy looked up from the glass-bottle soda he was drinking. “Sure,” he said. “People have all sorts of stuff on their default profile. What majors they take, some brief tidbits why they were selected, stuff like that. Why?”
I smiled. It must have seemed a little terrifying because Andy flinched. “Oh,” I said, “just an extra-curricular project I have…”