I woke up the next morning wondering why I was feeling so good. By all rights, I should have a pounding headache. Well, two shots probably wouldn’t cause a headache. I suddenly realized that this was the first time in a long time I had just slept peacefully.
When I looked out, my roommates were still sleeping. However, I was completely awake. It was weird, but I felt too awake to go back to sleep. Instead, I went over to my desk and booted up my computer. I had some work to do.
It was hard to resist booting up Steam. It was hard not going to YouTube when I opened my browser. I had been working pretty much constantly for the past week. Instead, I opened up the Campus Network. I decided that first I’d do some actual work and set up an appointment with my advisor. I looked at who it was. Professor Karl Krieger.
When I had met him, he had been Drill Sergeant Krieger. On the one hand, he was one of the few people who believed I could make it through the Hell Semester. Not even I had believed it. On the other hand, every time I looked at his face, I could see his eyes sparkle with madness and he had an uncanny read on me.
I sighed. Well, no use fighting it. I quickly saw that the nearest appointment we could conceivably make was around the first week of February, almost exactly two weeks away. I then started my own research project.
First, I decided to check out Kyle. That would be the hard, since I didn’t actually know his name. When I typed his name into the search bar, I wasn’t surprised to get more than one result, even when I narrowed it down to people. I narrowed it to AMS/Shadowhaven students who had their first semester Fall of 2015. There was only one result, Kyle J. Rockford.
I clicked on his profile. It was very bare, but by no means unhelpful. Name: Kyle J. Rockford. Gender: Blocked. Country: USA. State: Blocked. Town: Blocked. Age: 19. Date of Birth: Blocked. Recruiter: Karl Krieger. Sub-School: Shadowhaven and Madam Antionette’s Finishing School. That last school was the rarely-used official name of the Rogue school. Major(s): Assassination and Subterfuge. Dorm Room: Blocked. There was also a feed of comments and status updates and options to friend, follow or block.
I stared at it for a moment. Then, I opened my profile and privacy settings in a different tab. It turned out that the things Kyle had blocked out were also blocked out on my profile. I checked several other people. Most had unblocked a lot of the information on their profile. I decided to unblock my gender and leave it at that. I also noted that the information was locked and couldn’t be changed. I briefly wondered why anyone would block gender. Kyle himself was obviously male. I mean, I had seen him in the shower, much as didn’t want to.
“So,” I muttered to myself, trying to talk myself through this, “you’ve blocked everything you can possibly, you haven’t put anything in your About Me folder, you don’t post updates, you only comment on class posts…either you haven’t bothered to change your settings or you’re hiding something. You also seem to be keeping Richard in line through intimidation.”
I thought back to Fight Night. In order to make him surrender, I had to beat the crap out of him, including breaking his nose and stomping on his privates. “Now, how are you intimidating Richard? He doesn’t intimidate easily, and you’re doing it in a way that makes it look like he’s in charge of you. That must be really hard. Richard isn’t scared of physical violence. Why are you putting in that much effort?”
I suddenly realized that I’d need to write this down. I got out a piece of paper and began writing down facts, conjectures and questions. I also decided to put in how strong the conjectures were.
I looked through the list. If Kyle was intimidating Richard, it couldn’t be threats of physical injury. Therefore, it had to be blackmail. I tried to think of the conversation Kyle and Richard had. The only thing I could remember was that they talked about someone called The Punching Bag. Also, Richard had called Kyle “Karen,” and in response, Kyle warned that anyone could have been listening. More questions, still no answers.
I sighed, and decided to look at Kyle’s profile some more. I found that I could see his friends list. Most were people in Kyle’s group, three with a bright red “deceased” stamped across their photos. Only two were left alive. There was also Richard and… now that was interesting. Taylor Smith was also listed as a friend.
One possibility presented itself: Kyle wanted to get close to Taylor and possibly the campus’s white supremacist community. To do that, he was using Richard, he would then…
I sighed. I had nowhere near enough information to determine what the next step of the plan was. Nothing Kyle had said made me think he was a virulent racist. However, he could agree with everything Richard and Taylor said. But if he agreed with them, why was he blackmailing Richard?
Another sigh. For all I knew, I could be completely wrong about a dozen things. I updated the document one last time and saved it. Then I gathered my stuff to have a shower.
After showering and having breakfast at Newton-Howell, I logged back into cNet. I eventually discovered I could make a list of friends or people I followed. I could also make notes on the people I was following. I quickly followed Kyle, Richard, the people in that immediate circle, and Taylor. I put them in a list I titled “White Supremacists on Campus,” and made some notes about their perceived positions.
The weekend itself was relaxing, once I had finished my various bits of homework. I discovered that there was a laundry room in the basement for the people in Marine. The best part about it was that it was free.
The rest of the week, however, wasn’t relaxing. I discovered that the mid-week period of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were going to be particularly brutal because I had both classes and my night job at The Drunken Mercenary. At least The Drunken Mercenary had calmed down a lot after the first week. I also got my first paycheck from Popov on Saturday. I was now richer by two-hundred and forty-seven dollars. That was a nice feeling. I remembered smiling a bit before heading back to the salt mines that were my classes.
I did manage to talk to Eliza sometime in the third week. “Hey, Eliza,” I asked during lunch on Tuesday, “do you know anything about a person called The Punching Bag?” We were sitting with Bai, Cross, and Oro because everyone else was in class, sleeping, or having a panic attack.
“I don’t know,” Eliza said. “I kept me eyes open, but I probably missed quite a bit of stuff.”
“Well,” Cross said, “I think I can probably tell you what this guy does.”
“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t even know if it’s a guy. Could be a girl.”
“Actually,” Cross said, “this guy probably is a chick. You see, a punching bag is, at least in my world, someone you hire to beat up. Say you’re being initiated into a gang and you want to prove you’re cold. You hire a punching bag, and you and the people you wanna impress go up and mug them. You get a wallet with some cash, a few canceled credit cards, and a hell of a lot of street cred. They get north of five hundred bucks.”
“That sounds… really dangerous,” I said.
“I know,” Eliza said. “But us Lupines could make a bit o’ money, couldn’t we?”
Cross laughed. “My dad was insurance to a Lupine punching bag for a while. She was an ex-prostitute. For ten grand, you and the people you wanted to impress could ‘rape’ her. If you wanted to ‘murder’ her, the cost ranged from five to fifteen grand, depending on the method of execution and an extra fifty if you wanted to move her somewhere. If the client went too far, my dad would step in. He’d also collect late fees. All in all, he could earn five grand on a bad night.”
“It sounds as dangerous and degrading,” Bai said.
“I would not look down on her until I know how her story ended,” Oro said.
“She’s living in a nice house in Connecticut,” Cross said, “she put all three of her kids and two of her grandkids through college and still has enough left over to drive a Porsche. I think she’s doing pretty good.”
“Have you asked her if she thinks it was worth it?” Oro asked.
Cross opened his mouth, closed it, thought about it, then finally said, “I’d have to ask her.”
“When you do,” Oro said, “I’d be very curious what she says.”
Finally, the meeting with Krieger came around. It was the first Saturday in February and I was desperately hoping I could get it over with quickly and enjoy the rest of my weekend. His office, annoyingly, was on the top floor of Patton, meaning I had to walk halfway across the campus in a blizzard. To make it worse, when I finally got to Patton, I was I late and the elevators weren’t working, forcing me to run all five stories.
Panting, I began the walk to his office on the other side of the building. This part of the building, unlike the grey, dimly lit concrete basement corridors where the firing range were, was actually quite nice with red wood paneling and dark green wallpaper.
“I hope you’re not out of breath, boyke,” a voice with a South African accent said, coming from somewhere behind me. I turned around. There was Professor Karl Krieger, his bushy brownish-blond beard and unkempt hair making him look as lion-like as ever. He was wearing a shirt with a South African flag that revealed his lithe, muscular arms. His eyes sparkled with their usual mix of intelligence and madness. “You realize we’re going to be doing a run today?”
“Sorry,” I said, “I was a bit late eating breakfast and had to run here.” I was quite proud of myself for not panting.
Krieger nodded. “Fair enough.” He then began to the hallway in a completely different direction from where I had been going, motioning for me to follow. “Come, step into my office.”
When we finally got into his office, it was very simply decorated. There were a few pictures. They were all quite interesting. “Is that you with Nelson Mandela?” I asked. Mandela himself was easily recognizable. The person the great leader was shaking hands with wasn’t. I mean, it could have been Krieger, but his hair was too short, and he had no beard. Also, the smile he was giving the camera was one of a man meeting a hero.
“Not like I got to talk to the man,” Krieger said sadly. “He just showed up for a speaking role at my university.” He sighed. “Do you know the saying ‘never meet your heroes?’” I nodded. “Don’t listen to them. I already respected the man. It only grew after that.”
“What happened?” I asked. “You don’t really seem to agree with his pacifistic ideals.”
Krieger pointed to the next photo. Krieger was in that photo as well, this time as the link between the starstruck man and the somewhat insane man who stood before me today. However, Krieger was pointing at a large, potbellied man with a shaved head and a sort of Gandalf beard. There were several other people of various nationalities, but they were all united in that they wore camouflage and carried large guns.
“I met this man, Rolf Larsson,” Krieger said. “He was very interested in finding ways to make humanity a better while making a profit and having fun.” He shrugged. “Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about you, Nate! Come on, sit down, take off your coat.”
I sat down in a red vinyl chair. “So,” I asked, taking off my coat, “what did you want to talk about?”
“Well first off,” Krieger said, “you haven’t declared a major. I know it could take a while, but the sooner you figure it out, the better.” He paused. “How about covert ops?”
I laughed. “No. No, no, no. God that would be awful. Not knowing who I was supposed to trust, worrying about being asked to betray I actually care about more than my superiors? No thanks.”
Krieger nodded. “So I see you would be more interested in the Academy of Military Science. Any particular areas you’re interested in?”
I considered it for a bit. Finally, I said, “I kind of want to retire from the whole killing people thing. Yeah, I want to save the world, but then I want to go into some desk job where I can work regular nine-to-five hours.”
Krieger nodded. “Well, if you wanted to look into coming back here as a teacher…”
I stared at him. “I’ve been here for a semester, and already I know how fucked up this school is. I’m not planning on coming back.”
“What if things changed?” Krieger asked in an overly-casual fashion.
“Are you going to change things?” I asked.
“The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice,” Krieger said cryptically, “but sometimes it has a jump start, I suppose.” He then changed the subject. “Anyway, if you are continuing with AMS, one of the requirements is to obtain a driver’s license. Obviously, the lessons won’t begin for a while.”
I looked out the window. The snow was falling down in sheets. “Yeah,” I said, “it’d be pretty hard.”
I considered the things that Krieger was saying. Somehow, I doubted that he was on the team of white supremacy. If so, I doubted he’d be keeping a picture of him shaking hands with Nelson Mandela or quote Martin Luther King.
“If I don’t believe you about this place changing,” I said, “what major do you recommend, outside of a sub-school transfer?”
“Officer Candidacy,” Krieger said without hesitation. “It has a lot of logistics training, business classes, plus engineering courses. I know plenty of people who took that course and transitioned into being a suit.”
“Cool,” I said. “I think I’ll take a few major-specific classes, then I’ll see. Anything else you want to ask me about?”
“Just want to congratulate you,” Krieger said. “Popov says you’re doing a great job at The Drunken Mercenary and I’m enjoying your radio show. You and Andy have… interesting chemistry.”
I nodded. My most recent show, I had made a lot of weird animal noises. Andy just laughed because, honestly, when the person you’re trapped in a small room with is making cat sounds, what else do you do? Apart from calling the insane asylum, that is.
“No,” Krieger, “this is the part of the interview if I ask if you have any concerns.”
I decided to take a gamble. “Well,” I said, “there is something I think you should know. I was looking at the cNet profile of someone you recruited, Kyle Rockford. He’s hanging out with some kind of dangerous people and…”
Krieger nodded. “I know Kyle. He’s a tricky bastard. Even I have trouble figuring out what’s going on in his head sometimes. But his intentions are almost always more noble than they appear.”
“Really?” I asked. “Do you know what his plan is?”
“That would be telling,” Krieger said. “Now come, I want to show you something.” He stood up and motioned me to follow him.
I did so. We walked down the hallway to the front of the building where there was a window looking out at the nearby buildings. Krieger, however, turned around to look at the wall. On it were dozens of photos. “If you believe that all of the teachers here are sociopaths, I hope this makes you reconsider.” He walked towards one in particular, this one of an old man in a US Army dress uniform with several medals pinned to his chest. “Some of us are bloody heroes. This man in particular nearly lost his hand tossing a Nazi grenade away from his unit. He was also one of the first Americans to enter a concentration camp.”
I took a closer look. The man’s face was very familiar, like an older, scarred version of someone I knew. I took a gander at the plaque that said his name. It read Kyle Chapman.
Suddenly, I realized that the person he looked like was also named Kyle. I turned to Krieger. “Thank you, sir,” I said. “You’ve been a big help.”
Krieger smiled. “Anytime, boyke,” he said.