Things quickly settled back into a routine. Like an idiot, I had decided to get as many of the tough classes I would absolutely hate out of the way this semester as I possibly could and not go insane. That was physics, chemistry, and calculus. Anything more, and I’d go insane. I also had English II, because it was required, and over the summer, I had managed to get Computer Aided Design I and a course called Weaponsmithing: AKs and ARs included as well.
The reason for the last two was because I had an extracurricular activity I needed to do. Those Dragon’s Teeth were already way too far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of tech. The only problem was that their basic infantry weapons sucked. So, in my spare time, I was going to design a weapon that would be competitive with the Pilum assault rifle, maybe throw in a few other kinds as well.
The problem with this idea was time. Not only was I taking six really hard classes, but I was also tending bar four nights a week and had decided to do my radio show with Andy again. Functionally, that only left the weekend to design, prototype and test a range of modern weaponry with new ammunition designed to compete with something that was twenty years ahead of every weapon made on Earth. And the person making it would never have designed a gun before.
Needless to say, I hadn’t really thought this through enough. The one thing I did do right was decide to make the ammo first. That mean figuring out what the hell was in the bullets I had recovered. That meant getting them to May.
I met her the Sunday before class started. It was supper (which gave me ample time to recover from my hangover,) and we met at Sun Tzu. “Any particular reason you wanted to meet here?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, setting her stir-fry down at the table we had chosen. “I wanted an excuse not to eat in a place where nutritionists go to fight.”
“Sounds fun,” I said.
May shot me a withering look. “It’s not,” she said. “It feels like the menu changes every day, usually either to some completely artificial meal to entirely fruits and vegetables with no regard for the other three food groups.” She pointed to her stir-fry and glass of milk. “I need protein, I need grain, and I need sweets. This place has that in healthy portions. That’s not to say artificial ingredients, fruits and veggies are inherently evil. A girl just needs a little more than that. I also need the other food groups and food that tastes good. I admit, when I made Power Sludge, I didn’t take any of that into account, but I see that more as proving my point seeing as how miserable it made my life. But there were worse things I could do, y’know? I could have forced my new wonder diet on everyone because I’m perfect and can do no wrong just like that dumbass Ulrich! Or I could be like Tiffany Parker and throw a fit every time something other than joyless new-age crap… excuse me, ‘organize protests over Paleo-uncompliant meals.’ God, Paleolithic diets are the most…”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, sensing that May was going to go into one of her signature rants, “but I was wondering if you could help me analyze these.” I held a box. Inside was the bullets I had collected in North Korea and a note explaining how to open them and what I wanted them tested for.
“I guess,” May said. From the look of it, she didn’t seem exactly thrilled by the idea of helping me make a weapon.
“It’s going to a good cause,” I said.
“Yeah,” May said, “and so was the Gatling gun. Why do you need to fight… them? Because it sounds like more lives could be saved just by surrendering.”
I paused, considering my words carefully. “When I was… away,” I finally said, “I saw only one civilian. There was also only one surviving soldier, but his mind was so damaged by chemical weapons, I’m not sure if he counts as a survivor. Apart from soldiers on both sides and that one civilian, there were no signs of survivors.”
May gravely considered this horrifying news for a few seconds, then said, “Fine. But this does not end up on the civilian market, got me?” As she said this, she grudgingly put the package in her purse.
“I’ll delay it as long as I can,” I said.
We ate in silence, pursuing small talk for a bit. Suddenly, we were interrupted. “Hello, my friends!” boomed a voice with a strange accent. I looked up. There, standing next to our table, carrying their food, were two men I knew only as Eric the Entertainer and The Monk.
“Eric! Monk!” I said happily. “How’re you two doing? And where are the rest of you guys?” Eric and The Monk were two African child soldiers I had met in Hell Semester. They were part of a group of child soldiers that had some vague adventures. Eric was the leader and heavy machinegunner. The Monk was designated marksman and the calmest human being I know. MC Disaster was a reclusive demolitions expert who rarely spoke. Ray-Gun was an excitable sci-fi nerd who usually spotted for The Monk. Doc was the somewhat crotchety doctor.
It would be very hard not to look at any of them and not guess their history. Between their accents and skin tone (The Monk had the lightest, with dark brown skin) it would be very easy to tell they were from Africa. Their height and build suggested constant malnutrition, with only The Monk and Ray-Gun being around the height of an average American. However, their most striking shared feature, at least to me, was their shared predatory poise. These were people who had been killing since before I could read.
They had also really helped me during those first few months of school. For that, John and I both owed all five of them a hell of a lot.
“We,” Eric said, sitting down, “are doing fine. Also, we’re… enjoying hanging out with different people on occasion.”
“Ray-Gun is watching every single episode of Ultimate Spider-Man,” The Monk said, “MC Disaster is listening to those CDs May loaned me,” he turned to May to quickly add, “by the way, thank you for those. I particularly liked Fearless. If you want them back…”
“If like it,” May said, “you can keep all of them, except for K.O.D. I got that signed by Krizz Kaliko and Tech N9ne.”
“What about that one signed by Justin…”
“Keep it!” May shouted. “Please! Dad got me so many embarrassing CDs. I wanted K.O.D, he’d get me My World 2.0. I ask for The Rose That Grew From Concrete, he’d get me Up All Night. Ugh! It was so annoying!”
“Where’s Doc?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” May said. “Thanks for reminding me, Nate. Where is Doc? I heard he did pretty well over summer semester in a few of his med classes.”
“Cross got in this morning,” The Monk said. Michael “Cross” Castellan was a son of a New York mafia hitman. He also was the kind of guy you never would suspect of being gay… until he got drunk and started feeling up dudes and talking about sleeping with Triad bosses. “He and Doc are having… quality time.”
“By ‘quality time’” Eric said, “we mean butt fucking.” From the way he said it, I could tell he was trying to gross May out.
It flew right over May’s head. “Speaking of long-distance relationships,” she said to me, “how are you and Eliza doing?”
“We actually haven’t talked since yesterday,” I said. “She said something about having to cancel her meeting with me today.”
“I see,” May said with a disturbing flatness.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “She’s just busy, that’s all.” May, meanwhile, just nodded.
The rest of the meal was fine enough. I left early, smartly realizing that this night would be the last chance I had at a full night’s sleep and freedom to do whatever. May was able to talk me into doing a study group that she was setting up, something to do with wanting to help “idiot sophomores who’d bitten off more than they could chew.” Despite getting the impression that she had just had the idea a few seconds ago, I accepted.
That turned out to be a very good idea. As soon as class started, I quickly realized my mistake. Everything was hard.
The CAD class, for instance, assumed you had used something similar before. There were three things that saved me that first class. The first is that I had spent the portion of Sunday I hadn’t been hungover playing around with the CAD software and reading the book. The second was that I had touched on CAD programs as part of the Maynard Public Schools curriculum and my misguided quest to become a game designer. The third thing was that Nari was sitting right beside me. By the end of the class, we were all able to create a plastic, spring-loaded… thing.
The most interesting thing about that first class (not that it was boring, quite the opposite in fact,) was an announcement at the end. “Now being in this program allows you certain privileges,” she said. “During this course, and upon passing it, you will have a set ration of plastic and cardboard for 3D-printing at your discretion.”
Plastic and cardboard. Damn. I couldn’t make a gun out that. I was so busy worrying about how I’d get some actual materials that I almost missed what the instructor said next.
“If you feel like you need better materials,” the instructor continued on, “you may ask your student advisor to sign off on the materials.” I smiled. Suddenly, I had a way to make a gun. It all depended on Kreiger.
Physics, chemistry, calculus and English were also shaping up to be hellish. The bright side was that the chemistry classroom had a similar deal: you could access a variety of compounds and elements, and more if your advisor authorized it.
However, the best class was the armory class. As soon as I got in, the teacher said the most beautiful words I had ever heard all week. “Hey y’all,” he said, “I’m Don Haliburton. Now, this is the first day and we’ve got plenty of time, so I’m gonna take it slow for a few sessions.”
It was Friday. The only thing any of us had been hearing was “You guys! The semester only has twelve weeks! We need to hurry!” I swear, as soon as we heard this, the entire room had to suppress a cheer. I turned to look at Doc and Cross. All three of us had huge grins on our faces.
When Professor Haliburton was done with the lecture and had us start work on stripping some weapons, Nari said, “Honestly, I am somewhat sad. I would like to have been challenged.”
“Wait,” Cross said, his tanned face wrinkling in confusion, “aren’t you like, ten, or something?”
“You’re off by about a week, sir,” Nari said, a blank expression on her face. “My birthday is on Saturday.” From what I knew about her, that look and tone of voice indicated either contempt or annoyance, tinged with a fear that contempt or annoyance would get her disappeared. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear, either back in North Korea or at NIU.
“But you’re in college…” Cross said, somewhat stunned.
“You’re in college,” Nari said, “and yet somehow you got a C in Algebra last semester.” She suddenly went white with horror, realizing she had just insulted a Hell Semester graduate who had just finished re-assembling an AK.
“Oooooh,” Doc said. “She got you, man!”
“Shut up,” Cross said. “I got honors in high school!”
“This isn’t high school,” Doc said in a sing-song voice.
“Oh yeah,” Cross asked. “What’d you get in English again, genius?”
“Cross got a C! Cross got a C! C is for Cross, that’s good enough for he!”
“Oh yeah?” Cross asked, elbowing Doc (unadvisable, seeing as Doc was holding an M-16A4.) “This is from the guy who got a D in English and a D up the butt!”
“Guys,” I said, “not in front of the mini-person, ok?”
“Are…” Nari asked, now even more concerned, “…Are they… homosexuals?”
“Nah,” Cross said, “we just like sucking each other’s dicks.”
“Hey! Lovebirds!” Professor Haliburton shouted from across the room. “Am I gonna have to put you two in separate pre-schools?” Professor Haliburton was an older man, with a bit of a paunch, but he had been in Special Forces. Plus, he was faculty. You had to be an idiot to disrespect him.
“No, sir,” Cross and Doc said in unison. Professor Haliburton glared at them for a few seconds. After what felt like an eternity, he moved on.
A few seconds later, Cross said, “So, Doc’s group is going to watch the run-down of the Fresh Meat. We’re also inviting a few others, too. You want to come, Nate?”
“Can’t make it,” I said, looking up from my sketch of an AK-107 counterbalancing mechanism. “I’m going to be doing overtime at The Drunken Mercenary. Apparently, anything to do with Hell Semester, soccer…”
“You mean football,” Doc corrected.
“…and the last few days of finals are the busiest days for the bar and all hands have to be on deck.” I shook my head. “Sorry guys.”
After class was finally over, I was one of the last to leave. I had gotten the actual assignment done extremely quickly and had spent the rest of class examining the counterbalance mechanisms of the AK-107 and AEK-971. From what I understood, their design was both more effective and simpler than the Pilum. All I’d have to do was copy the design, and I’d have a better weapon. The future was looking bright, if only for my designs.
I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice that Nari had been watching me take notes the entire class.