The weather was so bad that school was basically canceled for the most of the week. The math class, however, found a way. I swear, the math professor decided to double the workload. We also had to do the run down to the Hell Semester barracks around ten at night, the snow at its worst. Thankfully, the snow had let up by Friday for us. The last time we had some fun, but that was because we didn’t have to deal with the Rogues.
This time, we were teaching the Rogues how to use rifles and submachineguns. Apparently, though, the Rogues were a pistol-only class. Somehow, this lead to them not knowing the first thing about how to use anything other than pistols.
“Really?” Jen exasperatedly asked a scared black man in a suit handling Bai’s P-90. “How are you not afraid of that giant pistol you have that’s knocked you out twice, but you’re scared of that?”
“Jennifer,” Bai said, “I’m the one teaching. Please let me teach.”
Jen just rolled her eyes and went back to firing the MP-5 someone had let her borrow. I sighed. These sessions with the Rogues were pointless. As much as some of this stuff was second-nature to me, I had to remind myself that the only reason I felt that way was because I had been through Hell Semester. I also had to wonder what the point was of giving drills that I had trouble with to people who had never held a rifle before.
After we left, Eliza tapped me on the shoulder. “Nate,” she said, “there’s going to be a meeting at The Back-Home. Lose any tails and meet us there for dinner by five.”
“Sure,” I said, but Eliza had already disappeared into the crowd. I sighed, wishing I knew how to do that.
At 4:55, I was standing outside The Back-Home Bar and Grill, waiting behind a group of people from the Business school. Suddenly, I realized that this could have been happening during Hell Semester. On my twice-daily run, especially the ones in the evening, I had occasionally noticed people walking around campus, the only apparent notice they took of us was to get out of our way. I suddenly wondered how they could not know what had happened, what we had done. I was reasonably sure that they had access to footage of Fight Night. But none of them had done anything to help us.
Suppressing the wave of anger, I walked over to the host and told him my name. As he was guiding me to the back room, one of the business majors loudly said, “Guess AMS privilege is holding up.”
I stiffened, but kept walking. The business major, seeing his barb had almost hit, continued on. “I mean, this is the second time this semester they’ve used the back room here. The staff always pull strings for them.”
“Actually,” I said, continuing to walk to the back room and not glancing back, “we paid for it ourselves. Apparently, you can’t.” None of them had a comeback to that.
“You know,” the host said as he held the door open for me, “they probably didn’t appreciate that.”
“Anything I should be worried about?” I asked.
“Business guys…” the host said cautiously, “…can get kind of vindictive. I don’t think you’re in any physical danger, though.”
I nodded. “Thanks for the tip.” Then I walked inside. As the door closed behind me, I recognized the people there. Bai, Eliza, Oro and I had been hanging out with a lot. Bai’s brother, Li, though, I hadn’t seen that much. It wasn’t a big loss, in my opinion. He was kind of an asshole. Neither had I seen much of Ricardo or Ulfric. I was neutral about Ricardo. On the one hand, he seemed like a decent enough guy. On the other hand, he had worked for the Mexican cartels as a hitman and had the feel of a politician on campaign. In other words, he was fake and dangerous.
Then there was Ulfric. Ulfric Trollbjorn was a giant, baby-faced killer. I hadn’t seen him in person during Fight Night, but they had shown footage at the award ceremony. Apparently, not only was he the tallest person I had ever seen, but he could also rip a person’s head off and use them as a club to beat eleven other people to death. Looking at him, you could see that his stout body was muscular, but not body-builder level. It was as if he had bulked up enough to rip limbs off and crush bones, but not so much that he would be slowed down by his own biceps.
That wasn’t the worst thing about him. The worst thing about him, the thing that made everyone terrified of him, was his insanity. He rarely talked, and had this childlike smile constantly on his face. When he found something amusing, he would let out this high-pitched giggle that raised the hairs on the heads of everyone who heard it. When he wanted to convey something more complicated than giddy happiness or minor annoyance, he would drop his child-like mannerisms and, in a way mimicking the person he was addressing, he would say what was on his mind. Usually, it was a very accurate assessment of that person’s character. The only person I had knew of who had willingly gone near him was Alma Hebert. That just made me even more scared of him.
Ricardo smiled up at me. “Hey Killer!” he said. “Come on, have a seat, amigo!” I sat down. The only seat left at the round table was right next to Ulfric. Eliza looked worried. She had arranged things so that if Ulfric had wanted to go after Bai or Oro, he’d literally have to go through her first. Eliza, on the other hand, had sat so that Ulfric would have to go through me to get to him.
Sitting down, I noticed that underneath Ulfric’s tent-sized army jacket were large chrome pistols with drum mags. He noticed me staring. In a fluid motion, he pulled one out. Ignoring the fact that everyone else at the table had either pulled out their guns, or had at least reached towards them, he offered it to me. When everyone noticed that Ulfric was holding the gun by the barrel, most of them relaxed. Eliza, however, still kept her Hi-Power pointed at Ulfric’s head.
“Take it,” Ulfric said, his child-like smile wider than ever. “The safety’s on.”
I took it, careful not to grasp the trigger. When Ulfric’s hand let go, I could instantly see it was a Desert Eagle, due to the distinctive triangular barrel. When I saw the markings on it, I did a double-take. “Jesus,” I gasped, “this is a fifty caliber handgun!”
“Would you believe he modified it to be fully automatic?” Ricardo asked. “And he’s a better shot duel-wielding those things than I am with my pistol?”
“Seeing as it’s Ulfric we’re talking about,” I said, “yes. Yes, I definitely believe you.” I handed it back to Ulfric. When it was back in his holster, everyone except Eliza breathed a sigh of relief. At the very least, she did holster her gun.
“So,” Li asked, “can we talk about why we are here? Or have we just come here to threaten people?”
Bai gave her brother a dirty look. I could understand why. Every time he had been in a meeting with us, he had done something to disrupt it and contributed very little. I did get the idea she wasn’t that enthused to be here, but she was warming to the idea.
“Well,” I said, “there’re these guys I’m interested in, Kyle Rockford and Richard Forrest Taylor.” I reached into my backpack to pull out my notes. “They’ve been planning something. I’m not sure what, but you might know my history with Richard. He’d like nothing better than a clear shot at me.”
“Well,” Eliza asked, “what do you know?”
I took out the piece of paper where I wrote everything I knew. “Take a look,” I said. “Here’s a list of everything I know about what they’re doing and some guesses.” I handed it to Ricardo to pass around.
When Li got it, he looked at me incredulously and said, “Have you really called us here to waste our time with your mad scribblings?” He slammed it on Bai’s placemat. “Here! Read it yourself.”
“It isn’t crazy,” Ricardo said, rubbing his temples. “But keeping you in the group is.” Again, this hatred between the two of them was starting to get annoying. If push came to shove, I would support Ricardo all the way, but I’d keep an eye on him just the same.
Bai, meanwhile, said something in Chinese. It sounded neutral, but it pissed off Li. He yelled something in Chinese and slapped his sister. She cried out, more in astonishment than in pain.
In that instant, Eliza stood up. “You,” she whispered, her face white with rage, “Get out. Now.”
“I’m sorry,” Li said, completely unapologetic, “but I don’t take orders from…”
At that moment, a waiter walked in. “Sorry if I’m interrupting,” he said, “but I was wondering if you wanted something to drink? I can come back later, if you want.”
“Later would be good,” I said. We all stared at the poor guy until he backed out. After he was gone, I turned to Li and said, “I’m sorry, but Eliza organized this dinner and her sister is paying for the meal. Her words do carry weight. Plus, you assaulted another member. If I had any sympathy for your position, it would be diminished by your constant abuse.”
Oro nodded. “He is right. Please leave peacefully. After you’re gone, we will talk about whether or not you are invited to the next meeting.”
Li looked at us all angrily. After he yelled at Bai in Chinese for a bit, she finally cut him off. I didn’t understand what she said, but I did see how tired she looked.
After he left, Bai said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but I need to contact my masters. I need to tell them my side of the story. I would also like to apologize for that disgraceful display.”
The waiter came back in. We quickly ordered our main course and our drinks. Then, once the waiter left, Oro took a look at my paper. After she considered it, she said, “So… what does this have to do with us?”
“Well,” I said, “if he’s anything like most white supremacists, this Taylor guy hates us just for existing. I mean, I’m Jewish, Ricardo’s Hispanic, Bai and Li are Asian, Eliza’s a Parahuman, you’re black, and Ulfric’s…” I paused, considering a way to say why they wouldn’t like Ulfric in a way that wouldn’t offend him. He let loose his signature high-pitched giggle that caused everyone to flinch. “…Ulfric.” I finished, eyeing him nervously.
I continued on. “Now, at the moment, you’re perfectly justified in not working with me on this, but I’m disturbed that there’s a network of people who hate us. If they’ve reached out to Richard and Kyle, I’m also worried that they’re planning something.”
Eliza sighed. “It’s great that you don’t want us to act on any of this,” she said, “because there isn’t much to act on. In fact, the information you’ve given us seems to indicate that the best thing we can do is to let these blokes do their own thing. I mean, this Kyle character seems to be working against them. For all we know, we’re better off not touching this. Just let Kyle give ‘em a good one-two from the inside.”
“That’s assuming that my guess is correct,” I said. “Or assuming whatever Kyle’s planning on doing after destroying these guys isn’t worse than business as usual.” I paused. “I’m actually not saying we should do nothing, I’m saying we should investigate.”
“Well…” Eliza said reluctantly, “I might have ‘eard May talk about a Kyle Rockford. Something about a sex-change operation. Explains why Richard was callin’ him Karen, don’t it?”
“If it’s true,” I said, “this all just raises more questions.”
“I’ve got one answer,” Ricardo said. “The punching bag they’re using? She’s a Lupine named Camilla Riviera.” He handed me a picture of a Hispanic woman with long hair and a headband. She was wearing a Hell Semester uniform and a goofy smile. “She was into all sorts of stuff in Juarez. Started out doing small-time hustles in Juarez, then eventually moved into assassination, bounty-hunting, and being a punching bag. She was really good. I didn’t even know she was here until I looked.”
“Bet she decided not to show off,” I said. “People might try and avoid showing off to avoid attracting attention. Or maybe someone paid her to take a fall. I know Eric and his group only did three matches, then left.”
“Maybe we should bring in some new blood,” Eliza said. “Just a thought.”
“I would not be opposed,” Bai said, “but I would like to keep my brother in.”
Eliza’s face darkened. “Bai, you’re my friend, so you should know this: if your brother gets back in, it’ll be conditional. If ‘e continues to act like a knob, ‘e can fuck off. If ‘e hits you again, regardless of whether or not I see it…”
“I understand,” Bai said, “but would appreciate you not assaulting my brother.”
“So, anything else?” I asked.
“This girl, May,” Ricardo said, “is she a friend of yours?”
“Yes,” Eliza and I said in unison.
“Because,” Ricardo said, leaning in conspiratorially, “she’s working on a project assigned by President Newell-Howard himself. All people know is that sometimes late at night, around eleven or twelve, she checks into the morgue. It’s a shame you’re protecting her, because I know some people who’d pay top dollar for that stuff.”
“We said we were protecting her,” I said. “Our beloved president and his pet research projects aren’t something I particularly give a shit about.” This was somewhat of a lie. For all I cared, President Newell Howard could shower in sulfuric acid. However, whatever he was researching interested me to say the least. Noticing Eliza’s dirty look, I added, “We still would want some guarantees that you aren’t stealing research that benefits her or are doing it in a way that would place suspicion on her.”
“Well,” Ricardo said, “If that’s all the business taken care of, who’s excited for Culture Fest?”
“Culture Fest?” I asked. “What’s that?” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what the Culture Fest was, because everyone else at the table looked at Ricardo expectantly.
“Man,” Ricardo said, “don’t you read the emails? Culture Fest is this gathering where students organize by country or ethnicity or religion or whatever to put on exhibits showing off how awesome they are. This happens like the last week before finals.”
“That sounds like fun!” Eliza said. “Wonder if England’s doin’ anything?”
“They probably are,” Ricardo said, “but Japan are the people to beat. They’ve all been doing something similar since they were in middle school. All the Central and South American countries are teaming up this year, though, so I think we’ve got a shot.”
As the table burst into interested conversation, I suddenly got excited. Perhaps this school wouldn’t end up being so nightmarish. I was starting to believe it, too, until Ulfric giggled, killing the happy feeling in record time.