I did my best to get out after that. After answering what felt like fifty of Bai’s questions, I asked, “Look, not that this isn’t fun, but can I go?” My stomach was feeling much better, and I had stopped vomiting, but I could feel myself shaking.
“One more question,” Bai said. “This Mubashir you mentioned. Where is his room?”
“Look,” I said, “Mubashir is one of the few UNIX people left. If you’re going to kill him…”
Eliza sighed. “She’s not gonna kill…”
“It won’t be for a long time,” Bai said. She glanced around to see the dirty looks we were giving her. “First off, I don’t know how to kill something like The Architect. Second, I’d need to wait for a good opportunity.” Noticing our dirty looks, she grudgingly added, “Also, it might not be Mubashir.”
“Plus,” Eliza said, “if it isn’t Mubashir, killin’ one of the Architect’s target’s a dead giveaway we’re on to ‘im or ‘er, innit?”
“Yeah,” I said, “whatever. Can I go?”
Bai shrugged. “I suppose you don’t know any more. You may leave.” Eliza cleared her throat dangerously. “And I suppose that there are no hard feelings anymore.”
I nodded, then got up. “Best I could have hoped for. If you’ll excuse me…”
Ignoring Eliza’s protests, I left the apartment. When the door had closed, I began to run. I only got to the next room before the flashback started. I was back at that alley… except this time the hands weren’t feeling me up. Instead, they just held me while the world rearranged. The walls fell, revealing a vast expanse of Arabic architecture and desert rising up from the ground.
However, I noticed that there was… something weird about the buildings out of the corner of my eyes. It was like texture pop-in in a video game, except instead of blurry textures, I could swear that they were different textures. Disturbingly, when I managed to focus on the areas, they were the bright, brownish yellow that they should be.
“Too soon…” a voice muttered. It wasn’t one of the Architect’s, but still, it sounded familiar. Yet it was so quiet I could barely make it out. “He’s coming too soon.”
I gasped, and abruptly I was back where I should be. “Nate…” It took me a few seconds to realize a) I was on the floor, b) I couldn’t draw either of my guns fast enough, and c) the person speaking was Eliza, so I was perfectly fine. “Did… did you see that?”
“If you mean the hallucination about the buildings and the girl talking about how it’s too soon,” I said, getting shakily to my feet, “Yeah, I saw that.”
As I did, I noticed that Eliza was leaning on the doorframe, her face was paler than usual. She still seemed concerned about me. “Y’need any ‘elp there?” she asked weakly.
“I should ask you the same thing,” I said. I was almost up, but I was shaking so much I thought I’d fall back down again. I could also taste something salty and smell a weird coppery substance. I must have fallen harder than I expected. “You look almost as terrible as I feel.”
Eliza laughed. “You sure know ‘ow to make a woman feel beautiful, Nate. Besides, if you’re well enough, I still ‘ave to buy you dinner.” She paused. “If you’re feelin’ well enough for it, that is.”
“I’m going to try,” I said. “There’s about half a bottle of honey-flavored whiskey I’d be happy to split with you, assuming I can get off work.” My cPhone beeped. “Apparently I can. My boss just canceled.”
The rest of the night was pretty good, albeit a little tough to remember. I vaguely remember John briefly opening the door, politely declining the offer of honey-flavored grain alcohol, then leaving as suddenly as he come in. I think he may have said something along the lines of “You two have a serious problem” before he left, but we didn’t care. Instead, we went back to playfully arguing whether it was bourbon or whiskey.
Around four in the morning, I woke up from a nightmare only to discover that I had a somewhat bigger than medium hangover and the lights were still on. Also, Eliza and I were lying against the bed, my head resting on her shoulder, her arm draped protectively on my shoulder. In front of us, lying on its side and completely empty, was the bottle we had been drinking. I could still smell the paint-thinner-like stink that came with it.
My dream, as usual, wasn’t something I really wanted to remember, which was good, because I felt it slipping away from me like water through a sieve. Still, I had the feeling that if I went back to bed, the dreams would come back. As much as Eliza’s firm grasp was comforting, I felt that if I wanted to maintain my sanity, I’d have to get up. Plus, there were things that I could be doing.
After I had carefully wiggled out of her grasp, I grabbed a sketchpad and turned my laptop on. I figured that now would be a good time to make some preliminary sketches for how I wanted the SMG and the assault rifle to look. As the computer was powering up, I heard Eliza grunt worriedly and mutter something. Her fox ears flicked back and forth, as if trying to find me, her face contorted with worry, and the arm that had been holding me began searching for me. In response, I walked over to my bed, pulled the comforter off, and draped it gently around her.
“Hey,” I whispered, “I’m ok. Don’t worry.” She relaxed, but I waited a bit to make sure she was fine before I went back to my desk.
I decided that the SMG would have an MP-5N/G-3K-style collapsible stock and would take Uilon Mangchi magazines to save parts, the assault rifle would use Pilum magazines and detachable barrels, and both systems would have M-4 style ergonomics and AK-based internals. I had written all that down and had made rough sketches of two versions of the SMG’s lowers (one with a forward magazine and another with a magazine in the pistol grip) when Eliza woke up.
At first I didn’t hear her. Then I heard her move around in a panic. I turned around in my chair to see that she had thrown off the covers. When she saw me, she sighed in relief. “Christ, Nate,” she said, breathing heavily, “you scared the livin’ piss outta me.”
“Sorry,” I said, my head still splitting, “I couldn’t sleep.” There was an awkward pause. “You want to get some breakfast with me?”
Eliza checked her watch. I noticed that a lot of the AMS and Shadowhaven people were more likely to carry watches than any other branch. These watches would also be very functional and sturdy looking, but were mostly cheap foreign knockoffs. The only other students in the school to use actual watches were Business majors, but much of the time their watches would be the kind of thing rappers would brag about owning, not the kind of thing that could take a direct hit from shrapnel and still keep time. Eliza’s looked like it was the best of both worlds.
“Jesus Christ, Nate,” she said, “it’s six in the bloody mornin’! Sun Tzu don’t open for ‘bout another hour’n a ‘alf!”
“You can go back to sleep if you want,” I said. “Thanks for staying with me, by the way. You didn’t have to.”
“Come off it, Nate,” Eliza said. “You were sick ‘n all. ‘Sides, that was some nice bourbon you ‘ad.”
I gave a comically exaggerated stink eye for a minute, remembering our playful argument last night. She laughed. It was so infectious I had to join in. When we were done, I said, “Seriously, though, we should keep it down. Other people are sleeping.”
“Yeah,” Eliza said, giving her trademark mischievous smirk. “We don’t wanna piss off a buncha armed lunatics.”
“Wanna see what I was working on?” I asked. I hadn’t really showed anyone outside this company that May, Andy, Nari and I were working on, but no one else. If I was honest with myself, it was out of paranoia. But I figured I could show Eliza some sketches.
“Sure,” she said. “What is it?” I sat down and showed her the book. “So you’re the gunmaker May’s been talkin’ about, eh?”
“One half,” I said. “So far, I’ve been creating the first prototype and Nari’s been fixing them.” I considered that statement. “Actually, it’s probably more like a quarter. I’ve been mostly ripping off existing designs and changing them around just enough to not get sued.”
“Oh,” Eliza said. She then began to look at them. “Also, your art skills are a bit shit.” I elbowed her playfully. In response, she stuck out her tongue, then went back to looking it over. After a while she said, “So, what’s a Pilum? I mean, I know it’s usually some kinda spear, innit, but you aren’t using it that way?”
“Let me show you,” I said. I got up and walked to the weapon’s cabinet and got out the captured Pilum. “One of my souvenirs from North Korea,” I said, bringing it over. “Here. It’s unloaded and the safety’s on. From what I can tell, it uses sixty round magazines and hundred-round drums.”
Eliza took the gun. “Blimey,” she said, somewhat in awe, “it’s an ugly bastard, innit?” Carefully keeping her hands off the trigger, she aimed down the now dead sights. “An’ where’s the bloody iron sights? Or did the designer figure this fancy scope ‘ere’d never run out of batteries? And it’s fat. A bloody assault rifle’s got no need to be this wide!”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. This is the most technically impressive gun I’ve ever seen in my life, but whoever designed it had no idea how to make guns.” I paused, suddenly remembering that every death the recon team had suffered had been inflicted by Dragon’s Teeth. “That being said, their soldiers are way too good.” I looked up and saw that Eliza had turned her head and her ears had flattened. “Sorry to bum you out,” I said. “I guess your summer was better.”
“It actually ‘ad some weird parallels,” Eliza said. “Like the fact that I ended up getting’ shot trying to save Charlotte.”
“I didn’t…” I began.
“‘Course you didn’t know,” Eliza said. “We kept it kind of hush-hush, and I never told you. Char noticed something weird goin’ on in Father’s secret society thing and she decided she needed to get involved.” She leaned the captured assault rifle up against the bed, continuing her story. “I was ‘appy to ‘elp out with it, but Char blames ‘erself for me bein’ shot an’ all. Ever since, she’s been all weird.” She sighed. “I miss her. It’s weird, she lives in the same bloody apartment I do, yet I miss her.”
I sat down next to Eliza. Slightly cautiously, I draped an arm over her shoulders. She responded by cuddling up to me. “Everything sucks,” she said.
“What about last night?” I asked.
Eliza shook her head. “Becomin’ an alcoholic doesn’t bloody count, and you know it.” After a pause, she said, “I don’t mind bein’ here with you, though.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said. “We should do this more often… minus the part where we try to kill ourselves with hard liquor.”
“A-bloody-men!” Eliza said. “How about when Fight Night starts, we sneak away from all the ghouls ‘oo’re watching it and get a nice meal at The Veranda. I think those coupons we got for acing the driver’s test last semester are still good.”
“From what I hear,” I said, “that’s still going to set us back quite a lot. Don’t meals cost upwards of two hundred campus bucks or something? We have…” I brought up the phone and looked into the wallet app for the campus coupons. “Wow. They gave me a free meal for two, including an appetizer, entrée, drinks, and dessert. That must be, like, four hundred US dollars if you pig out.”
“I probably have the same…” Eliza said.
“Yeah,” I said, “but it sounds like you’ve got some stuff to talk out with Charlotte, and I don’t exactly have anyone else to take to a fancy restaurant.”
“So it’s a date, I guess?” Eliza said. “I mean, ‘date’ as in…”
In that moment, I made the smartest impulse decision of my life. I leaned in and said, “Yeah.” I kissed her on the cheek. Her face turned as red as her hair. “It’s a date.”
Eliza shot to her feet. “Oh my bloody God!” she said. “I ‘aven’t showered in two days!” She then began heading towards the door. “I… I… mean, that sounds wonderful, Nate. I just need to do a thing!” Just as she was about to close the door, she stuck her head through and asked, “See you at lunch?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely.” As the door closed, I suddenly realized I had secured a date with the prettiest, funniest, smartest girl in my program. I leaned back against the bed, everything else completely forgotten. For the next five minutes, I was happier than I had ever been in my entire life.