Walking back to my dorm, I considered the weather. Now, if you live in a place like California or Wales, the weather is pretty constant. If you live in New England, the weather is constantly changing. However, my time at NIU taught me about a different kind of place: one where the weather was constantly trying to kill you.
For instance, in August and early September, the island’s weather had been humid and hot, with the sun constantly baking your skin. Slowly, throughout September and into November, the temperature had dropped. The precipitation, however, had increased dramatically around the second week of September. Then, during the very end of November, General Winter had begun a near-constant bombardment of snow.
Today was particularly bad, with wind battering me and the snow alternately reducing my visibility to about four or five meters or blinding me completely. I was just wondering if I should bother going to lunch when my phone dinged. I took it out. It was an automated text message saying that the dining hall was closed. My stomach growled.
My phone rang again. It was Popov. I answered it, yelling, “HEY, BOSS, WHAT’S UP?”
“Nathan,” Popov asked, “where are you?”
“I’M WALKING BACK FROM AN APPOINTMENT WITH MY ADVISOR!” I yelled. “MARINE IS PROBABLY STILL A GOOD DISTANCE AWAY!”
“Next time someone tells you to go somewhere in blizzard this bad,” Popov yelled angrily at me, “tell them to fuck their mother! You hear?”
“Good!” Popov said. “Now once you get back to Marine, help yourself to popcorn and big soft pretzels. Invite friends.”
That was at 11:45. It was 12:00 when I got back to Marine. I opened the door, and staggered into the hallway. I was surprised to see Andy standing there in clothes significantly nicer than usual. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I live here,” Andy said, “just like you.” His eyes narrowed. “Why were you outside?”
“Meeting with my advisor,” I said, as I struggled to close the door. It was actually a little hard, due to the snow falling into the building.
“And neither of you canceled?” Andy asked, a look of wonder on his face. “Man, you AMS and Shadowhaven people are friggin’ insane.”
“You realize,” I said, “that this is an AMS/Shadowhaven dorm, right?”
A look of dawning comprehension passed over Andy’s face. “So that’s why no one was here first semester,” he said. Then he paused. “They said I might get new roommates. Did…?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. I did hear that three people dropped out after Hell Semester was over. Those could have been your roommates.”
“But it’s more likely they’re dead, right?” Andy’s boyish face was in shock. “I mean, less than half of you guys were killed.”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “There were a few people who were just too injured to continue Hell Semester.”
Andy cocked his head as if to say, “Yeah, right.”
“Ok,” I admitted, “they’re probably dead.” I looked at the ground. “Hey, why are you waiting around here?”
There was a knock on the door behind me. “Well,” Andy said, “I was waiting for a different breed of crazy person.”
When I turned around, I wondered why there seemed to be no one there, but then the knocking stopped and May bounced up. Then there was more knocking. I sighed and opened the door. May came tumbling in, accompanied by snow and howling wind. “May,” I asked, “why are you out in this weather?”
“I come bearing gifts,” she said, holding up several grocery bags while I closed the door. “Now you won’t starve! You’re welcome!”
“Andy,” I said, looking at him with some annoyance, “why didn’t you stop her?”
“I can’t use lethal force,” he said, “and I didn’t really want to.”
I nodded. “Fair enough. Anyways, Popov said I could get some friends and snack on the pretzels and popcorn in The Drunken Mercenary. After that, I’m going to get the rest of the crew down here.”
“Gee,” May said as I let her in, “how healthy.”
Thirty minutes later, all my friends based in Marine were in The Drunken Mercenary. I had taken position behind the bar. “Ok,” I said, “popcorn and pretzels are free, but you still have to pay for the drinks. Good news is you can get the good stuff.”
“What is the ‘good stuff?’” Cross asked. “Patrόn, maybe?”
I looked in the cabinet. “It appears to be mostly Russian vodka, rum, and Scotch. There’s also some other kinds of beer, again, mostly Russian.”
Cross sighed. “You’re living up to your fucking nickname, Killer. Is their seriously no tequila? Just commie juice?”
“You don’t like it,” I said, “you don’t have to drink it.”
“Besides,” May said, “you guys all drink too much. I mean, Cross, if you drink like you did at the back-to-school party regularly, there’s all sorts of problems including dementia, weight gain, skeletal fragility…”
“Any guarantee we’ll live long enough to experience the effects?” Eric asked, genuinely curious.
May shrugged. “Depends. Your body chemistry and how much you drink all factor into it. Personally, if I were Cross I’d sober up now before you find yourself behind enemy lines going through withdrawal. Your crew, except for Doc, actually had a healthy amount.” She paused. “Anyway, why do you drink that stuff?”
“It helps me sleep,” Doc said.
“Maybe, like, see some counseling?” May said. “That might help with the whole not being able to sleep thing.”
“Sure,” Doc said.
There was then a knock at the window. We all looked up and saw Eliza standing outside, wearing a heavy coat over her army jacket, but still looking cold. John got up from hooking up an PS4 from one of the TVs to let in Eliza. “Bloody ‘ell!” she said as she staggered in. “They don’t ‘ave snow like this in England.”
“Why did you even come out here, then?” John asked, as they both struggled to close the door.
Suddenly, Jen appeared right by John, casually leaning on the window. Everyone jumped. “Well,” Jen said, “she is a little nuts.” I noticed that she had taken advantage of her abilities as a Jumper to wear a thin, dark red blouse, high-heeled boots, and a short black skirt.
“God,” John said, “I thought Jumpers made some kind of noise when… y’know, teleporting.”
“They don’t,” Eliza and Cross said in unison. Both had looks of exasperation on their face, like they had experienced this phenomenon a lot.
“Don’t Jumpers have to be careful where they jump?” May asked. “I’ve read a lot about ‘coating’ and how badly anti-jump fields can mess up jumpers. The results, at least based on the literature I’ve read, can get… messy.”
Jennifer smiled. “Have you heard of course correction?”
May’s eyes widened. “That… that involves keeping your eyes open while jumping. Don’t a lot of people who open their eyes… go insane?”
“Wait,” I asked, “what are you talking about?”
Jen disappeared. In the instant she did, I heard the sound of weight shifting subtly behind me and I could smell her lightly applied perfume and feel breath. “Well, Nathan,” her voice, lowered seductively, came from behind, somewhere very close to my ear, “we Jumpers don’t just appear and disappear. We go to a sort of in-between, and then we return, albeit in a different spot.” I turned my head slowly, trying to suppress the instincts that told me to punch her. I didn’t turn far when my face brushed up against the silky smooth strand of hair that framed that side of her face.
“As if you weren’t creepy enough,” Cross muttered. From behind me, I could feel Jen’s gaze harden. Cross gulped, but he held her gaze. “Just sayin’, people like their personal space. Killer looks nervous. Maybe back off a bit.”
I wondered what Jen’s reputation was with the underworld. Cross didn’t really seem to fear much. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Jen wore a costume. Or maybe she had a few kills under her belt.
After making sure Cross was at least somewhat cowed, Jennifer took a few steps out of my blindspot. “Sorry, Nathan,” she said. “I’ll admit, personal space can be a problem for me. Anyway, where was I?” I noticed that she was dividing her attention between apologizing to me and shooting dirty looks at Cross.
“The dimensional theory,” May said. I noticed that she had been scrutinizing both Cross and Jennifer. “And how you can jump somewhere without having line-of-sight.”
“Well,” Jennifer said, “It’s actually quite simple.” I noticed that she was doing something to subtly imitate May. “When I jump somewhere, I actually keep my eyes open to search for where I want to go when I’m between. That’s known as mid-adjust jump. There’s downsides, of course, but the upsides are too good to ignore.”
“You know,” May said, “that the downsides include rocking back and forth in a padded room, muttering about tentacles and right angles not acting like right angles, right?”
“Assuming I live to be eighty,” Jennifer said, her smile getting somewhat cruel, “I’ve probably made a profit if I go insane right now.”
May just nodded and said, “Mmm.” It was weird. May wasn’t her usual happy-go-lucky self around Jen. In fact, she seemed downright hostile at times.
“Hey guys!” John said, breaking the tension, “Anybody want to play Surgery Simulator?” Everyone moved to crowd around the TV. However on my way there, Eliza intercepted me.
“I need t’talk to ya for a bit,” she whispered. “In private.”
“Sure,” I said, leading her out the door and into the hallway. I also walked her down the stairs into the basement laundry room. The machines were only one high, and also made nice chairs. When we were seated opposite each other and sure no one was there, I asked, “So, what did you want to talk about?”
“Apart from Jen bein’ bloody creepy?” Eliza asked. “Char thinks she’s flirting with us, but…”
“Wait,” I said, kind of weirded out, “what do you mean, us?”
“Well,” Eliza said, “she sometimes gets, y’know, like that with me. All touchy-feely. Char’s theory’s that she’s bi and either wants a threesome or can’t choose ‘er bloody targets.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, the real thing I wanted t’tell you is that Ricardo says ‘e knows ‘oo your punching bag could be. However, ‘e wants payment.”
“What kind?” I asked.
Eliza sighed. “Says he’ll think of something. Bloody gangsters.”
“Guess I’ll deal with that when it happens,” I said. “I’m already so far in over my head, a few more feet won’t hurt anything.”
“You’d be surprised,” Eliza said. “Just, be careful, Nate…” She leaned in close, like she was about to confess something. “After all, I…”
She was interrupted by one of the elevator doors sliding open. There was Mubashir, of all people. “Oh,” he said, “I am sorry. I am here to do my laundry. Hopefully, I did not interrupt anything.” He quickly hammered the door close button. I noticed that he had no laundry basket.
We both sighed as the elevator doors closed. “Bloody bastard ruined the moment,” Eliza said. “Well, best be getting back up. Don’t want people asking too many questions.” I noticed she didn’t seem to be too happy about that. Maybe she wanted to tell me something a bit more personal.
I considered asking her about it all the way up the stairs. Finally, just as we got up the stairs and were almost to The Drunken Mercenary, I said, “So, Eliza… I got the idea that before Mubashir interrupted us, you were going to…”
“Yeah,” Eliza said, “I was about to cock somethin’ up.” She turned towards me, somewhat sadly, as joyous shouts and raucous laughter drifted out. “Listen Nate,” she said, “the moment’s gone.” She cocked her head in the direction of the celebration. “But this moment sounds fun, don’t it?”
“Sounds good,” I said, opening the door. “Just… tell me when you finally work up the courage, ok?” I kind of had an idea of what she wanted to say, but I didn’t want to guess and get it wrong. Besides, something told me that she wanted to tell me on her own terms.
“Sure,” Eliza said, opening the door, “It… might be a while, though.”
“That’s ok,” I said, holding the door open, “If it’s not something like ‘you’ll die in twenty-four hours, here’s how to stop it,’ take all the time you need.”
She smiled as she stepped through the door. “Thanks, Nate,” she said.