Track 2: End Run

We left the office and headed to one of the dorm rooms in the Harvard quad. On the way, we passed the executed JTF2 operators. I had been hearing some things about Canada and how they were dealing with the fallout of the Dragon’s Teeth War. Mexico was being cautious; after all, they had their troubles before the war. Canada, meanwhile, had taken two strategic plasma forces when they had advanced south before retreating. The first thing they had done after signing the armistice was make a compact with New Zealand and Australia that was very much like what had been the EU, except they also were uniting under a join military structure.

“So,” I said, “You planning on taking the fight to Canada?”

“No,” Olaf said. “We’re using the Swiss strategy.” When I shot him a quizzical look, he said, “Switzerland was one the only European country to resist longer than a few months. After we defeated this country, we decided that if they didn’t want to submit to the Death Mother, we didn’t have to feed them. The problem is, their population was too bloated to be maintained without assistance and they’d forgotten how to grow their own food. Besides, their soil is pretty much completely barren. We didn’t say it, but their choices were to join with us, starve to death, or find… other means of sustenance.” He turned to me and smiled. “They just agreed to join us last week.”

“Your idea?”

“Of course,” Olaf said. “Shame that we are reconsidering using the tactic.”

“Well,” I said, “considering it’s technically genocide, I’m glad you aren’t doing that.”

“It’s the only way to win,” Olaf said. “The Jacob’s Project put us on this path, and we have to complete it or die. We can change course slightly so the Death Mother isn’t too pained, but I will put the lives of my brothers over her comfort.”

“Alternatively,” I said, “you could always leave Earth and go back to whatever planet you came from.” We had entered one of the dorms just as I said this. Dragon’s Teeth lounged in the various tasteful chairs and their boots had scuffed the fine wood floor. Guns rested against richly paneled walls, wood tables and leather chairs. If the Dragon’s Teeth ever left, it would take a fortune to restore it.

Two Legionnaires in full body armor frog-marched a pale, red-haired woman with green eyes and fox ears down the stairs. She stared at me hesitantly, and looked back and forth from me to Olaf, as if she wasn’t sure I was real. It was Eliza.

“Eliza,” I said. “You ok? Have you heard from the others?”

“They say they put me in isolation a week ago,” she said slowly, as if she’d forgotten how to speak. “but they lie ‘bout that. ‘Aven’t heard from any of them since.” She paused. “Where were you?”

“I was in solitary for probably about six months,” I said. “Then they let me out.”

“I think it was only a few days we held you,” Olaf said.

“Fucking liar,” I said. “The leaves were falling when you brought me in, they were blooming when you brought me back out. Where are the rest of them?”

“I have a deal for you,” Olaf said.  “When the UN makes its little inspection, you can get everyone back. All at once. Just be cooperative.”

“When?” I asked. “I want a concrete time frame.”

“I was thinking that the first stop on our tour would be to release some prisoners,” Olaf said. “They see how well we’ve kept prisoners, and that we’re reintegrating them into society.”

“Such as it is.”

Olaf rolled his eyes. “Such as it is. We will fix much of this by the time they arrive.”

Eliza was looking at us questioningly, so for her benefit, I said, “Mass starvation and multiple outbreaks aren’t something you can fix in… how long? A month? A week?”

“Sounds like fun,” Eliza said, some of her normal sardonic behavior coming back in. “Can I go back to isolation?”

“He’s getting full rations,” Olaf said, “despite being an ungrateful little shit. And if you really want to go back to isolation…” Eliza’s face went even paler and she began to tremble. “Thought not,” Olaf said. “It’s amazing how normal humans think brutality is the end-all be-all to horrible things. The success rate for making people talk just by locking them in a room with no human contact or knowledge of the outside world astounds people.”

“The UN inspectors will realize its torture,” I said, “and they will ding you for it.”

“Ooooh, scary,” Olaf said.

The room went yellow and things began to blur. “I am going to ding you.” I didn’t need to see all the Dragon’s Teeth drop to their knees to know it was Alma. The creepy leader of the Teeth was pretty much a ghost at this point. “Olaf,” she said, her monotone voice more dangerous than usual, “of all clone commanders, you seem to be the one having the most difficulty adapting. It’s almost like you prefer the old ways, if not the old commanders.”

“The old ways are satisfying,” Olaf said.

“The old ways are going to kill millions,” Alma said. “I only allowed Switzerland because it was a back door into Europe. Never again. If you fail the UN inspection, I will send you back to Thebes. Are we understood?”

“Nobody’s going to pass,” Olaf said. “No matter what we do. And eventually, you’ll need me. So everything you’re doing here is pointless.”

“You have your orders, Commander,” Alma said. “Follow them.”

Olaf glared at her for a moment. Then he said, “Yes. Ma’am.”

Alma turned to me. “I have something to tell you, Nathan.”

“No, you don’t,” I said. “I think we’re done talking after you let him” I jerked my head over to Olaf, “run roughshod over my home for about a year. Now if you’ll excuse me-”

“Mayu Nakashima is not accounted for.”

“What?” I asked. “How can she not be accounted for?” If there was one thing that could be worse than the Teeth, it was Mayu Nakashima finding what she was looking for.

“We don’t know,” Alma said.

“If she’s in the US, and if I were her, I wouldn’t be anywhere else, she’s somehow managed to avoid thousands of checkpoints manned by highly trained individuals equipped with tech she couldn’t have thought up while she was in stasis,” Olaf said. “She’s been… a pain.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “she’s killed a few more Berserkers than I have?” Olaf glowered.

“We decided,” Alma said, “that it was safer to have her go after you than have her head straight to Mubashir. That’s why we’re releasing Eliza.”

“Wait,” Eliza said, “I can barely bloody walk, and you’re asking me to do 24/7 protection on someone? I mean, I’ll do it, but ‘e’s a fuckin’ goner.”

“She won’t kill him,” Alma said. “She needs him to get to Mubashir.” Mubashir Mubarak (also known as Moob) was the thing that could make Mayu worse than the Dragon’s Teeth. He had powers that could reshape reality and seemed to control him rather than the other way around. He could avoid unleashing them, but Mayu might have a way to change that.

“She won’t mean to kill ‘im, but she’ll flip for ‘alf a bloody second an’ he’ll be chokin’ on ‘is own blood!” Eliza yelled, incensed. “Did you fuckin’ see ‘er when she went for ‘im in Hawaii?”

“I know you didn’t,” Alma said. “And I know that when I can make contact with her, her mind is becoming rapidly more organized.”

“Wait,” I said, a sinking feeling in my stomach, “you can’t find her with you power? And she’s becoming functional but still trying to find Moob?”

“It’s her only way of focus, I think,” Alma said. “Her obsessiveness is letting her do incredible things. I just have a suspicion that if someone doesn’t let her down gently, she’ll snap. Or she’ll somehow shape Mubashir into what she thinks he should be.”

“You can’t pay me enough to get close to her,” I said. “Being around her, no matter what my history with her is, is pretty much an end run at this stage. The likely scenario, no matter what safeguards you put in place, no matter how much progress she’s made, is that she will kill me. She’ll find out I don’t know where Mubashir is, or she’ll snap like Eliza said, or you’ll send the Teeth to try and rescue me, and I will die. And I’d be fine with that, but you decided to release Eliza just in time for… for this. Fuck you.”

Alma stared at me for a long time. “You,” she said, “are not the only one with a death sentence. I am trying to fix that, but I need help.”

I sighed. “I know, something worse is coming.” I looked at Eliza. If I pushed this, she would probably be sent back to solitary. “Fuck. I have no choice, don’t I?”

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Track 33: This is the End

I take a deep breath and say to the Berserkers, “If I surrender, will you let everyone else surrender as well?”

“Take a look,” the Berserker said. “I know your cameras are up.” I did, and quickly notice that the defenders who aren’t fighting back, the injured, the tired, and the ambushed, were being zip-tied and secured. “If I had it my way,” the Berserker talking to me said, “I’d drop a tactical plasma bomb on you and piss on the ashes. But the Death Mother wants you alive. Oh, and don’t think about fighting back. Your little rip-off guns may work on the other Believers, but not on our armor.”

I looked at the fight again. Sure enough, they were doing fairly well except against the normally armored Deet soldiers, but were bouncing off the Berserkers like spit balls. It didn’t really affect my decision. I was done. I turned to the intercom once again, and said, “Ok, the Teeth have offered a deal. Basically, unconditional surrender. Do what you want with it.”

I then turned to Eliza. “Well, we might as well give up.”

She stood up and began to roll up the Kevlar panel. “I don’t think of it as giving up,” she said, her voice so quiet I could barely hear. “I think of it as living to fight another day.”

She then opened the heavy security door, revealing the massive frames of two Berserkers. They were too big to fit through the door, so the stepped aside and gestured for us to come out. I pushed myself out, and Eliza, after realizing I was moving out under my own power, exited before me.

The Berserkers quickly searched us and took any weapons they found. Then, one threw Eliza over his back and another did the same to me and the group began heading downstairs. When we got to the basement, I saw all the injured and captured defenders were brought down there. The one carrying Eliza threw her on the floor, but the one carrying me continued to walk off.

“OI!” Eliza said, getting up, “THE ‘ELL YOU TAKING ‘IM?” The Berserker, in response, kicked her in the stomach and stood on her.

“Hey!” I yelled. “What the fuck?”

The two Berserkers carrying me just continued on. We went through the sewers, eventually, after a good long while of walking, coming up around the train station. That station was now crawling with Charons, vehicles that seemed specifically designed to imitate Chrysler Escalades, and a new tank that looked like one of those WWI landships, except bigger. The vast majority of Dragon’s Teeth were Legionaires, and I could see that they, at least, were still mostly carrying their Pilum bullpup rifles and Gladius SMGs. Their distinctive Roman-inspired armor was either in a pixelated urban pattern, or a shiny chrome-like color polished to mirror finish. I saw a few armors change color.

There were a few of the new type of Dragon’s Teeth in what I now saw was African-inspired armor, and I noticed that many of them carried Pilum and Gladius as well, but they seemed to use my weapons when they could get their hands on them. I also saw Picts in their darker than black armor inspired by Gaelic designs, and to a man they had ditched their primary weapons for AK and AR-pattern weapons with the occasional MP5, MPX or FAL.

I was taken up into an office. The only other Berserkers I had seen were standing by the door, three on each side. Two had miniguns and ballistic shields and their Norse-inspired armor was bulkier and appeared to have a more powerful exoskeleton system than the others. The other four seemed to have taken their machineguns from dead US soldiers. Unlike the other Dragon’s Teeth soldiers who had only looked at me in passing, these guys had their glowing red eyes locked on me.

Inside the room, was a wooden desk and several bits of creature comfort. I knew this because the Berserker threw me down onto the desk, shattering it. A picture of what had to be the children of the office’s owner fell onto my face, and an LCD monitor clattered to the ground. Underneath my back, I could feel wooden splinters lacerating my back and a smashed plastic keyboard. My back hurt like hell. Above me, the fluorescent lights set in cheap, ugly asbestos ceiling tiles vibrated and other lights danced, mocking the pounding in my head.

“Please try and escape,” the Berserker said. I looked at him. He was wearing the bigger armor, but his ballistic shield was missing and his minigun was holstered on a backpack-like device. He then kneeled down and leaned in close so his huge mask was almost touching my face. “The Death Mother might want you alive, but I want you dead. You and your little team were the first infantry unit to kill one of us with small arms, and then you scrapped my mission to Japan.” All I could do in response was groan in pain.

He stood up suddenly. “Excuse me. I need to talk someone. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give him a retirement present.” He then left the room. His exiting through and closing of the door was surprisingly graceful for someone who had to exit at sort of an angle while ducking. His boots, however, caused the entire room to shake and dust to fall off the walls.

I, on the other hand, was dealing with what had to be a concussion. My back was also in such bad shape to the point that I was surprised to be feeling my legs. Even if I wanted to leave (which I didn’t,) it would have taken a superhuman effort just to sit up. I rolled off the desk, hoping to be able to find some painkillers in the shattered drawers, but instead spent the next several minutes crying in pain.

To distract myself from the pain, I began to wonder what kind of person had used the office. Not whether or not they were alive, no. That was too depressing. Instead, I tried to guess what kind of person they were. For instance, did they get that original Star Wars poster because they became a fan when they were a kid like I had, or did they watch it in theaters? Or, as the other posters indicated, did he just like to collect advertisements and propaganda? What was that award with the statue of a train in recognition of? Those certificates, were they for graduation? Awards? Something else? When I tried to get a better look at the framed pieces of paper, pain shot up and down my spine.

I decided to turn back to the desk. Well, apparently this guy had some chronic pain. First drawer had a bottle of prescription-grade ibuprofen. The bottle said “Take one every 12 hours,” but I took two. They did nothing.

For fifteen or so minutes, I waited for them to kick in. I also waited for my head to stop spinning like a dreidel. The sound of a landing VTOL didn’t really help matters. At least the telepathic communications and electric motors made the Teeth relatively quiet for a military. Then I heard shouting and stomping.

The door flung open and a man stomped in. “Your rules of engagement don’t allow the taking of prisoners! And you’re only allowed to use weapons provided by the Jason Project! What the hell is going on, Commander Olaf?” He then paused, and asked, “and why is that person still alive?”

A Berserker, possibly the one who had brought me up, said, “Orders. Wish I could kill him, make it nice and violent.” I could almost hear him shrug as he said that.

“Wait…” the man said, “Who ordered you?”

The Berserker, or Commander Olaf as he was apparently known, laughed. “You know who.”

“Capsaicin Umbra,” the strange man said in clear voice that was doing a very good, but not quite convincing, impression of someone who wasn’t panicking.

“What,” Olaf said, with a barely contained chuckle, “do you think she was doing for the past ten years? Do you really think Ulfric or any of the others leaving was an accident? She was weakening our triggers.”

“Olaf,” the Jason Project member said, “You can’t trust Subject One-Four-Eight. She… she…”

“She’s been in my head since before you started your brainwashing,” Olaf said. “Comforting me and my brothers. Even the dead. Even people who we’ve been forced to kill for your stupid little quest to destroy the world or whatever.”

“We aren’t destroying the world,” the Jason Project member said, “we’re saving it.”

In response, Olaf sighed. “You’re lucky that She ordered the retribution to be painless.”

“Wait! No no-!”

There was a crack of a pistol, and the Jason Project member began screaming. “Whoops,” Olaf said. “That round didn’t go where I wanted it to. Too bad, we’re low on ammo and I don’t really want to waste another bullet.” I heard the thump of Olaf walking to the window sill. Eventually, I could see Olaf’s armored body appear in my field of view. He took his helmet off with a hiss and turned around. “Shame I couldn’t do that to you.”

Seeing his face finally confirmed something I had suspected for a while now. “Ulfric’s a Berserker, too, isn’t he?” I asked. “That guy I knew at NIU. He looked a lot like you, except with crazy eyes.” The square, baby face, the gray eyes, the brutally short hair… Physically, he looked exactly like Ulfric. However, there was something more… there about him, if that makes sense. If he ripped off someone’s head, I wouldn’t be wondering if he knew what had done.

“Exactly like me, I’d bet,” Olaf said. “Luckily he’s…” Suddenly his face went extremely pale.

“He’s here, isn’t he?” I asked. Olaf, meanwhile, began to pace nervously. “Hey, Olaf?” I asked. “You ok?”

“Yes,” he said. “But not for long.”

The door smashed open. A large whirlwind of blue NIU hoodie, black cargo pants, and combat boots ran around and smashed Olaf through the window. The figure let Olaf dangle through the window for what had to feel to the victim like an eternity, the newcomer’s other fist raised, ready to smash into Olaf’s face. I couldn’t see either one’s face or even much of Olaf’s body, and I definitely couldn’t make out any psionic conversations. Eventually, the figure I assumed to be Ulfric pulled in Olaf and threw him away one-handed like garbage. Olaf seemed to be thankful nothing worse had happened.

Ulfric, meanwhile, turned around to survey the scene with a look of horror on his face. I must have looked like shit and the Jason Project member was now moaning horribly. “Please…” he whimpered, “help me…”

Ulfric’s look of horror turned to one of disgust when he saw the Jason Project member. He then turned to me and picked me up like a baby. I screamed and groaned as my back moved. Ulfric, with his typical grace, managed to get us out the door without bumping my head. As we walked down the stairs, he said, “Sorry.”

“You seem… better than you were,” I said.

“Still have trouble talking,” he said. “Because of my meds. I’m more alert. More aware.” He paused, then said, “I hate it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I have to live with the stuff I do when I have a ‘good’ day,” he said. “And I realize the stuff I don’t have.”

I suddenly was reminded of what I had seen in Japan. The hallucination of what seemed to be a representation of the Dragon’s Teeth hive mind. Thousands, maybe even millions, of lights, in colors I couldn’t even comprehend surrounding a black hole. And close to the black hole, was a speck of light separate from all the others. “Hey, Ulfric?” I asked. “Are you, you know, connected to the rest of the Dragon’s Teeth?”

He stared at me for a while. “Sort of,” he said. I noticed that as we walked, the various Dragon’s Teeth recoiled from him. Again, I was reminded of the hive mind. He eventually set me down among injured Dragon’s Teeth and began to wander off, leaving me alone in a room full of dying clones and clone medics.

The room turned yellow and things began to swim. I turned around to see Alma looking out over the casualties. “I failed,” she said. “These are good people, compelled to do horrible, horrible things from birth.”

“So,” I said, “I take it the Jason Project weren’t good people?”

“Well,” Alma said, “I might not be the best person to ask. They did kidnap and technically kill me.”

“Technically kill you?” I asked.

“I was the anchor for their entire psionic network,” Alma said, looking out over the injured soldiers. “I think that’s why I survived. I was split among all the clones. All my children. I remember every single one of them and I keep their souls in me.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s not really scientific, but it’s the best way to describe it.”

“Any other non-Dragon’s Teeth souls get sucked up?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Everyone’s. It’s hard. So many people die in pain and rage, and I can feel all of it, the bad bits especially. Someday I’m going to either become numb or insane. Or maybe I’ll finally just stop existing.” She turned to look at me, and I heard a bit of hope in her dead monotone. “It’s physically impossible to last forever, right? I’m not a god?”

For some reason, the idea of her being hopeful that she’d die chilled me to the bone. It also reminded me of how Mubashir believed his powers were a punishment. To avoid thinking about it, I asked, “So, what do you want from me?”

“Not just you,” Alma said. “There are probably only one or two things that only you can do, but you might be able to convince your friends of some things.

“First, I don’t want any more of my children to die. You aren’t fully in control of that, I know, but you and your friends could do enough damage to be… mildly tragic.”

“We don’t seem to be able to do that much,” I said.

“You gave them enough hope to keep fighting,” she said. “And now I have to spend all eternity with people who died killing each other, feeling the pain they felt at the moment of their death.” I looked away uncomfortably. “All you did,” Alma said, her voice breaking with sadness, “is cause a thimbleful more suffering.” She composed herself and then, in her normal monotone, said, “I’d prefer to minimize that. You understand, right?”

“And I’d prefer that the Dragon’s Teeth hadn’t wrecked everything,” I said, “but here we are.”

“Do you think that I didn’t try to stop that?” Alma asked, her skin-crawling monotone becoming more and more icy. “Do you think I like feeling the eternal torment of everyone who died in this useless war?” She looked slightly upwards, as if looking through the building. “Something is coming. It’s going to kill even more people. Stay out of my way or I might get tired of you being alive. Understand?”

I recoiled at the anger. Alma turned back to me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped. But I’ve worked hard to get to the point where I can have coup.”

“Honestly,” I said, “you can do whatever you want. You have the power.”

“That’s another thing,” she said. “I’m too powerful. I’m losing my connection with the rest of humanity. That’s the reason I went to NIU. The rest of the people I know, except maybe Ulfric, treat me like either a god or a monster.” She paused. “Never mind. The last member of the Jacob Project has been accounted for.”

“They really were terrible, weren’t they?” I asked.

“Most of them, yes,” Alma said. “There were a few exceptions, but we’re getting off-topic. The thing is, I need an anchor.”

“An anchor.”

“Someone, or several someones, to talk to. To listen to. To make sure I’m not becoming too divorced from reality. Who better than some of my former classmates from NIU?”

“And am I the first?” I asked. “I’m flattered.”

“No, I asked Eliza first.” She then said, “There’s also another person who might need help. Mubashir Mubarak. In terms of power, he’s the closest thing to me. He’ll need help eventually, and he might go to you.”

“And why don’t you go help him yourself?” I asked. “You’re probably the only one who can understand him.”

“I already have too much power,” Alma said, “and you want me to cozy up with Mubashir? Besides, I don’t think he’d take too kindly to me just suddenly appearing.”

“Point taken,” I said. “But what about Mayu? And what’s this horrible thing that’s coming?”

“You don’t need to worry,” Alma said, “let me worry about that.”

And then she left and the room went back to normal.

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Track 14: Whispers

Around three hours into our flight to California, Eliza left the room to get something to eat. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll be fine. Or as fine as someone with a concussion can be.” Eliza looked at me hesitantly, then left.

Then everything became strangely sepia-toned and the edges of things began to flow like waves, like still-wet ink. Outside, the view of the sea was replaced with a familiar display of millions of lights, each a different color. The door opened and in walked two familiar people.

“Nathan,” Alma Hebert said. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said, making contact with Alma’s dead gray eyes, but occasionally I looked at the huge man who’d come in with her. Ulfric Trollbjorn’s tall and sturdy frame was so huge he had to duck and twist to get through the door. Since he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, I couldn’t see his muscles, but I’d remembered them. They were big enough to be intimidating, but small enough for him to be as much dancer or runner as weightlifter. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“You know, don’t you?” Alma asked. As I stared at her, I noticed that occasionally there was a bit of a flicker where she went from appearing to be a healthy (if extremely pale) teenager/young adult to a more skeletal figure.

“I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about,” I said. Alma looked at me like I was an idiot. Then I remembered where I had seen those colored lights before. “Fuck. You’re their death goddess, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Alma said. “The question is, what are you going to do about it?”

“Right now,” I said, “nothing. This is a hallucination, right? Nothing I can do here.”

“Hallucination is a good enough term to describe what this is for your purposes, I suppose,” Alma said. “And, as near as I can tell, there’s a decent chance you’re right about not being able to do anything here.”

“Only decent?” I asked.

“The people at the IDRF,” Alma began slowly, as if not really being able to believe what she was saying, “the best and brightest Nowhere Island University had to offer in all their fields ruled physical methods pretty early. From what I can understand, though, this state can cause psionic backlash if I’m not-”

“What do you mean, ‘ruled out physical methods?’” I asked.

I was suddenly struck by a literal cold rage. The cold burned me and the impact of the literal waves of emotion radiating from Alma could be measured by my stomach turning. “They killed me,” Alma said, her voice even more monotone somehow. There was also a tightness about her face. “Starved me to death, then dropped my corpse into an incinerator. One of their few acts of mercy.”

She stopped. “Sorry, but I had a bad time with them. The question is, are you going to help?”

“Is this about the Architect?” I asked. “Because I’m not going to help you knock off one of the other thirds of the Final Prophecy.”

Alma was visibly confused. “What prophecy?” she asked.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It was wild, hysterical laughter. Ulfric and Alma stared at me like I had just gone insane. Honestly, though, I’d probably lost it around Freshman year and people were just now realizing. “You really don’t know?” I asked. “Five hundred years, this has been around, and you’re telling me that you don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about?”

“No,” Alma said.

“Apparently,” I said, “there’s three people or entities that are coming. They’re going to have this big fight, and in the process, the whole world gets fucked. You’re number two.”

“I’m not trying to end the world,” Alma said, “I’m trying to save it. If the prophecy says anything else-”

“I believe you,” I said, “but your Dragon’s Teeth buddies? Those hallucinations that people around the world are getting? That doesn’t make you seem benign.”

“I’ve made mistakes,” Alma said, “but it’ll be worth it. If you’re smart, you’ll see someday.”

“Is this where you tell me I’m either with you or against you?” I asked.

“No,” Alma said. “This is where I tell you what I need. I need Mubashir.”

“How do you…? Why?”

“I’m psychic,” Alma said. “You, Mubashir, and his Al-Qaeda buddies walked into the Sun Tzu boy’s locker room. The Al-Qaeda terrorists are still there to this day.”

“Wait,” I said, “they’re… alive?” I remembered how those Al-Qaeda operatives had been twisted into tasteful, Arabic-inspired decorations.

“In a sense,” Alma said and shivered. “I can still feel them. One of the reasons I’m leaving NIU.”

“And why do you want Mubashir?” I asked.

“They’re coming,” Alma said. “There’s a reason the President created the Jason Project. Originally, I was just going to kill him, but when I got here, I found he couldn’t sleep. He’s spent his life running from something. That’s why he’s created the Jason Project, UNIX, the University… plans within plans, contingencies for contingencies… He’s scared, so I’m terrified.”

She leaned closer and touched my hand. It was as cold as a corpse’s “I need Mubashir. If I’m not strong enough, the world could end.” She got up and headed towards the door. Ulfric held it open for her. When she was at it, she turned towards me and said, “All you need to do to help save the world is make one introduction.”

“Is this where you pretend to walk out?” I asked.

“No,” Alma said. “I have things to do and I’m pretty sure you won’t help me. Yet.” Then both Ulfric and her walked down the hall, the world slowly fading back to normal. Her voice floated back to me, distorted and echoing. “Don’t worry, I’ll know when you change your mind.”

The room changed completely back to normal and suddenly I realized the tactic Alma was using on me. It was the same one that UNIX had used to get me to go to NIU. It was the same one Charlotte had used me to go to Japan. Then and there, I made the decision to not to give in. Every time I’d given into self-importance, I’d just brought more misery on myself.

Still, deep down, I wondered if Alma had  some other way of convincing me. Or if she even needed to.

 

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Track 12: What’s in the Box?

John was unusually quiet as we exited the mansion. When we were in a suitably deserted section of the campus, he asked, “So, what did you two talk about?”

“The President warned us about Bai, Li, Charlotte and Eliza,” I said. “He seems to think that they’re going to get us killed.”

“And he isn’t?”

“Speaking of that,” I said, “he advises that we don’t poke around certain places at NIU. Especially ones that might have anything to do with the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“So all we have to do,” John said, “is not do the thing that makes the sociopath angry.” I hesitated. John sighed. “In case you were wondering, this is where you say, ‘You’re right, John, we’ll just leave it alone.’”

“You shouldn’t be surprised,” a cold, dead voice said. We turned around. There, wearing a dark red hoodie, long stringy hair falling out of the hood. The rain had probably soaked through her hoodie, but apart from her skin being as unhealthily pale as normal, she showed no signs of being cold. She regarded us with an unreadable expression and cold, dead eyes. “The entire reason Nathan came to this island was to save the world. It’s naïve, reckless and maybe a little egotistical, but he sees an opportunity to accomplish his goals.”

“Alma,” I said, “fancy meeting you here.” Alma Hebert was the former roommate of Eliza, Jen and Charlotte. She creeped everyone out, especially Jen. I wondered how much of that was because she was Psychic or because she was just creepy. “How much did you hear?”

“More than you think,” Alma said.

“Has anyone ever told you how creepy you are?” John asked.

“Once or twice,” Alma said. Maybe it was just me, but I could swear I heard a bit of wryness underneath her usual monotone. “But I do know that Nathan will pursue whatever it is that The President warned him about, no matter what you, I, or anyone else says.”

“Of course,” John said, “One of my friends has a death wish. Fuck me, right?”

While he said that, I watched him intently. When he paused for a breath, I said, “John, go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

John, who looked like he was just about to get started, turned at me to stare for a moment. His brown eyes burned, but finally, he said, “Don’t bother.”

Alma and I watched John walk off. When he was finally far enough away, I turned back to Alma. “You know,” I said, conversationally, “I really wanted to talk to you. That facility you pointed out last year… the IRDF? Was that what you called it? It stood for Interdimensional Research Facility? It might tie into a few things I’m looking into.” I paused. “How do you know even know about that by the way? I looked into it, and every mention of it has appeared to have been scrubbed…”

Alma interrupted. “You’re asking the wrong questions.”

I was stunned. I don’t know why. “Excuse me?” I asked.

“You’re starting too small,” Alma said. As she spoke, I suddenly realized that she hadn’t moved a muscle the entire time. No adjustments, no blinking, she’d just stood there, hands in the pockets of her sweater. “This school was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only. You shouldn’t just be asking what IDRF One is for. You should be asking why a school is training future UNIX agents and Al-Qaeda terrorists. You should be asking why so few of its inventions leave its shores.” At this point, I noticed that Alma’s eyes hadn’t moved, either. She had focused on a point in between where John and I had been standing, and her gaze hadn’t shifted once. “Most importantly, you should ask… what is Anthony Carter Newton-Howell’s final goal?”

“Any reason you can’t just tell me?” I asked.

“I can,” Alma said, “but you wouldn’t believe me. Most days I can’t even believe it myself.” I could almost hear… emotion in her voice. She also shuddered. However, she quickly returned to her normal unreadable state. “Besides, the big question isn’t exactly difficult to answer.” She then turned and walked off. “Have fun opening Pandora’s Box, Nathan…”

I watched her leave. As usual, I left feeling disturbed and suspicious. Now, though, I was feeling somewhat used. I mean, why couldn’t she have just told me? Why the run-around? I mean, seriously, why wouldn’t I believe her? It wasn’t like The President had killed her and she’d decided not to die, or something.

Still, I had to get back home and get some sleep, maybe print out the plans for the Uilon Mangchi for Nari. However, as I walked back, the questions Alma had planted began to take up more of my mind. There was also another annoying thing: why was Al-Qaeda even in the school? They weren’t exactly the most well-behaved guests, especially in a Westernized place like NIU.

Even more galling was that I could have asked this question earlier. Then, I could have made use of the time I had spent with Mubashir. Instead, I had let him leave without setting up any method of communicating. There were so many reasons to do that: he might need an extraction, and I definitely needed information only he could provide.

Suddenly, as if thinking about him caused him to appear, I saw him stagger out of an ally almost right in front of me. Taking the opportunity, I grabbed him and forced him back behind the dumpster he had apparently been behind.

Understandably, he didn’t take that too well. When he was behind the dumpster, he punched me in the stomach and when I doubled over, he followed up with a knee to my face. I stood up just in time to see and hear him flip off the safety of a Makarov.

Obviously, despite the fact that I thoroughly deserved it, he didn’t pull the trigger. “Nathan?” he asked. “What in Allah’s name are you doing?”

“Hi, Moob,” I said, my breath short and my nose bleeding. “Sorry about that…” I took a quick break to cough, “…just needed to talk.”

“About what?” Mubashir asked, lowering his gun and flicking the safety. “What could be worth your life? I almost shot you!” He then said something in Arabic. I only caught the word Allah, so I assume it was something along the lines of “My God, I almost shot you, you idiot.”

“Sorry…” I wheezed. Damn, the guy punched hard. “There’s several things. One of the first things is… how come Al-Qaeda’s sending people to train… here.”

“I should think it’s obvious,” Mubashir said.

“Yeah…” I said, “…but the morals of this place don’t exactly match up… with the morals of Al-Qaeda. Then there’s also the question of how Al-Qaeda’s paying for…”

“Al-Qaeda isn’t paying,” Mubashir said.

“Excuse me?” I said.

Mubashir quickly looked around, then pulled me so I was fully in the alcove. He then continued in a hushed voice. “The reason I’m being shared with UNIX and the CIA is that the CIA is also curious about this deal. NIU trains and equips Al-Qaeda soldiers and even pays our airfare. In exchange… Well, we aren’t sure, but we believe Al-Qaeda, as well as other organizations from small criminal groups to certain government organizations provide NIU with favors.”

I suddenly felt a chill. “What kind of favors?”

Mubashir shrugged nervously. “Nothing big, from what I’ve been able to uncover. Mostly, from what I understand, you wouldn’t know they were acting any different. For instance, a former NIU student was trying to do some kind of charity work. I think women’s education. Al-Qaeda blows her up, using NIU-trained soldiers. Another group of NIU students opened up a tech company in the US, developing some kind of advanced tech. A venture-capital firm buys them up. The person in charge? An NIU student. The tech being developed? Canceled.”

He shook his head, as if trying to make sense of what he was saying. “There is this pattern of NIU students that are truly ahead of the curve who go to market and end up dead, broke, or imprisoned. My CIA handler thinks The President might be stockpiling the tech.”

“But why?” I asked. “What does he…” Suddenly, something clicked in my head. “He’s behind the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“Nate,” Mubashir said, “that is crazy. What kind of leap of logic…?”

“Listen,” I said, “I was in North Korea, I only got out a few days before the media finally took notice that The Dragon’s Teeth existed. I also have some idea that the reason the Grenzefrontier came back to Earth is because The Dragon’s Teeth are kicking them out of the planet they come from. Also, the IRDF building that Alma showed us last semester? I’m pretty sure that’s where they came from.”

Mubashir continued to look at me like I was crazy. “Dammit!” I shouted, causing his hand to move back to his pistol. “Where the hell else could a place get cloaking cloning, and advanced robotics?”

“But why would he build an army?” Mubashir asked. “Why would he hoard technology?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he wants to take over the world. His clone army comes marching back to Earth, kicks the ass of every major government, and the only weapons that can stop him are sitting right under his feet. Alternatively, clone army comes stomping in, then he uses his superior tech to defeat them, people declare him a hero, he then uses the good will to declare himself the supreme ruler of the world.”

Mubashir shook his head. “This… theory of yours is based on loosely strung-together observations and guesswork. But you are right about one thing. The likelihood of The Dragon’s Teeth having something to do with Nowhere Island… well, your logic there is sound.”

“So you’ll look into it?” I asked.

Mubashir suddenly looked uncomfortable. “I could try,” he said, “but I’ve… I’ve been drawing attention. Plus, people have been watching us.”

“By us you mean…?”

“Al-Qaeda,” Mubashir said. “Our techie noticed some non-standard code on our devices, and we’ve been followed. They are starting to suspect me because…” He paused, then said, “We should leave separately. You go out the way you came in, I’ll go the back way.” He then began heading down the alley, saying over his shoulder, “Next time, I will contact you.

I nodded in acknowledgement and waited for him to leave my line of sight. I then walked back to my room, suddenly that I had a headache. I wasn’t sure when it had started, so I wasn’t sure if it was the lack of sleep or trying to shoot the new gun. I also noticed that I was kind of wobbling a little bit as I walked.

However, when I got back to my dorm, after putting my weapons away and storing Nari’s external hard drive in a safe place, I decided to check out my computer. I wanted to see the policy for student inventions. I had remembered that they had been extremely draconian.

The thing is, as soon as I looked at it, the policy had completely changed. Instead of threats of lawsuits and deadlines for implementing ideas outside of NIU, there was talk of funding and free networking to help find clients.

I paused, suddenly becoming alert again. I quickly (and quietly, because John was fast asleep beside me) opened the desk drawer and pulled out a copy of the student handbook. Flipping through the pages, I found the section on inventions and ownership thereof. It was even less giving than I had remembered it being. I looked back at the website’s version, trying to reconcile the difference. Then I saw the date. Apparently, the last time it had been updated… was ten minutes after I had left The President’s mansion.

I smiled, then went to email Nari, May and Andy news of the change. Looking back on it, it was actually kind of a rambling letter with no point. Then, I considered doing something else. The problem with that was due to lack of sleep and my headache, I forgot what it was. So I decided (finally) to do the sensible thing and go to sleep.

 

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Track 17: Creepy Brick Buildings

The rest of the day was midterms, sleeping and the radio show. Thankfully, my English class ended just in time for me to take a nap after lunch. After that, I slowly staggered into the radio booth. Andy came in a bit later. At our second break, I said, “So, as you may have noticed, I’m a little tired. I’ve only taken one, and already I feel like crap.”

“Well, thankfully midterms are only a week,” Andy said. “Oh, something else. On my way over here, our GM said we have been selected to operate the booth during Culture Week.”

“Oh,” I said, visions of gargantuan responsibilities filling my head, “what, uh, what exactly does this mean, Andy?”

“The week before finals we’re going to be set up outside talking to people,” Andy said. “You know, doing interviews and talking with our fans.”

“We have fans?” I asked blankly.

“Apparently, we do,” Andy said. “We got two hours because we were requested by the Mexican and Japanese presentations. From what I can tell, that’s the champs and the underdogs.”

“I think I know how we got the Mexicans to request us,” I said. “I got a friend who’s working with them.” I then added in a joking manner, “If you’re listening, Ricardo, thanks for the extra work!”

“Shouldn’t be that hard,” Andy said. “It actually sounds like it’s kind of fun.”

“Oh yeah, definitely,” I said. “Don’t mind me, I’m actually looking forward to it.” It was true. I really wanted to see the culture festival, and this would force me to make time to see it. Otherwise, I’d probably just stay in my dorm and have a panic attack.

The rest of the week wasn’t anywhere near as fun as that radio show. I enjoyed presenting my projects in Military History and Sociology, but the amount of work I had put into them beforehand nearly made me snap.

Math, though, was the worst of the lot. I was never any good at math. In fact, for half of high school, I had special one-on-one math classes. Here, I had none of that. Plus, when we were finally done with that stupid test, the teacher assigned us more math homework that had to be done by tomorrow. Why? He said it was because “Math never rests,” but people in the class (mostly the ones who weren’t in AMS/Shadowhaven) suspected it was because he was legitimately insane.

Another thing that happened that week was Cross convincing me to carry a gun. At lunch on Wednesday, I was sitting with him. Eventually, he said, “Hey, Killer, remember what happened last week? You know, with the people breaking into Secure Records?”

“Yeah,” I asked, “what about it?” At the time, I thought we were going to start speculating on who the people there had been working for, or maybe Cross would talk about a potential buyer for the information I had gotten.

“Remember how you weren’t armed at the time?” Cross asked. “Because if it was just you who was there, things could have ended a lot differently.” He waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he asked, “Why the hell weren’t you carrying?”

“I kind of don’t like the idea of carrying a weapon all the time,” I said. “What if I lose control? What if I shoot the wrong person?”

Cross sighed. “Listen, Killer. You come from a pretty clean family, right? I bet before you came here you never knew anyone who had done anything worse than smoke weed or shoplift. You were taught that the system was on your side and all you had to do was do well in school and you’d get to live the kind of life your parents lived.”

“You seem to have me pretty well figured out,” I said.

“Am I wrong?” Cross asked.

“No,” I admitted. I actually was probably even more sheltered than Cross thought.

“You want to know the thing about this system that you’ve been taught to trust?” Cross asked.

I rolled my eyes. “Let me guess: it doesn’t serve the little guy, it just fucks everyone who isn’t in power and the only way not to get fucked is to ignore it. Trust me, I’ve heard it.” It was very hard for me to avoid getting on my high horse. I had killed way too many people for that.

“Yeah,” Cross said, “but that’s not the point. The point is that they’ve lied to you about other things. For instance, human life doesn’t have an intrinsic, objective value.”

“If that’s the case,” I said, “why do you have my back?”

“Because you have subjective value,” Cross said. “You’re a badass motherfucker who actually gives a shit if people live or die. However, if someone comes after me, I’ll shoot them because I value my life, and I don’t give a fuck about theirs.”

He paused. “Look, Killer. I like you. That’s why I’m telling you this. If I didn’t think you were worth having around, I wouldn’t lose an ounce of sleep if someone popped you. Just remember: if someone has made up their mind to kill you, you probably wouldn’t have liked them anyway.”

“Still not convinced,” I said.

Cross rolled his eyes. “Ok,” he said, “say you’re walking down the street with May or Eliza or someone you care about and you see someone in front of you start to pull out a gun. You know that they’re going to kill that person you care about, and possibly you as well. The street is structured in such a way that you can’t throw the loved one out of the way and the attacker is too far away for you to grab. Is it better to let him kill you and your friend, or is it better to blow his brains out?”

I bought holsters for my two pistols that very day.

After midterms, things quickly calmed down. For about two weeks in March, nothing except routine work happened. It was glorious.

The third Monday looked like it was going to continue this trend. I was a little late getting out of English class, so the elevators were pretty much empty. The only other person waiting was John. I smiled to myself. Things were going well. I had good friends, good grades, and no one had tried to kill me for weeks.

Just as I had finished that thought, Mubashir suddenly ran into the elevator. His sudden appearance startled me and John, causing us both to reach reflexively towards our weapons. “Hello,” he said, looking at us nervously as the door closed. “Sorry about the intrusion. But you should really ask me about why I joined NIU.”

Suddenly, it came back to me. That stupid fucking joke I had to tell everyone. “Let me guess,” I said as John and I relaxed, “you thought you were applying to NYU, I say, ‘what a coincidence, me too,’ and then you comment about how we rhymed.” Mubashir sighed in relief as I turned to John. “Does that sum it up?”

“Yeah,” John said, “pretty much.”

“Good,” Mubashir said. “I can’t stay long. Salim is already suspicious of me.” He looked directly at me. “Do you have any idea how hard it was to convince him to let what you did to Amir go?”

“I’m surprised you did it,” I said, a little skeptically. “Salim tried to stab Ulfric once.”

“Technically,” Mubashir said, “I convinced him to wait a few years. He’s not going to make a move until after you graduate. Or go home for the summer. Or set foot off the island for any reason. Or if he gets tired of your existence.”

“I feel so much safer,” I said.

Mubashir’s normally chipper expression faded, replaced by a dark look as he leaned against the door. “You’re lucky,” he said, “I’ve got to live with him and pretend to like him. I have to just watch as he spews hate in the guise of Allah’s kindness.” He looked at us, his expression broken beyond words. “I want to kill him.”

Needless to say, we didn’t know what exactly to do with that. We just stood in silence until the elevator dinged. We all stepped back from the door. There, standing in front of us, face as impassive as ever, was Alma Hebert.

“Well, well,” she said, “the gang’s all here. Good. I have something to show you three.”

“I’m sorry,” Mubashir said, “I just…”

“Believe me when I say,” Alma stated, focusing her cold gaze on Mubashir, “that you don’t have to lie to me. It would also be hard to do successfully.” She shifted her focus back to all three of us. “Now, I don’t know who, exactly you work for,” she said, “but I have an idea of what you’re after. Allow me to show you something of interest.”

Suddenly, the world turned yellow and black, and we were standing near a brick building in the Northwest corridor of the campus. It was completely boarded up and sealed off with heavy-duty steel plates. The sign above the building said “Interdimensional Research Facility One.”

“This,” Alma said, “is the IDF. Thirty years ago, there was an incident, and three of the school’s top scientists went missing. Their project has resurfaced in North Korea. If you want to know why, you’ll have to dig. Start by going through the Secure Files in the Engineering school from the eighty-five-eighty-six school year.”

“You know,” I said, “if you know what’s happening, you could just tell us.”

“I’m sorry,” Alma said, the sepia fading away to reveal we were still in the elevator, “but by now you should know that everyone at this school has their own agenda.” When the elevator was completely there again, we realized that Alma was gone. However, we still heard her voice, as if from a great distance away, say, “And Nathan? Tell Eliza and Bai that the angels are coming and it’s time to unite.”

“Well,” John said, “that was creepy and vague. And kind of annoying, too.” His brow furrowed in apprehension. “Mubashir, you ok?”

Mubashir, up to this point, had been standing stock still. When John repeated his query, he shook himself. “Yeah,” he said, with a fake smile, “I’m totally fine.” Somehow, I wasn’t sure I believed him.

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Track 10: Party at the Nerdy Colony

The bathroom was near the lobby. That’s how they found me. Andy had just walked in and May was waiting in line for the cafeteria. Andy waved and began walking towards me. May did too, but there was a lot more bouncing involved.

“Hey guys!” I said, “Glad you got the memo about where we’d meet!”

“Not a problem,” May said. “Mary couldn’t make it tonight, she’s got other engagements.” She turned around to come face to face with Andy. Well, actually, it was more like face to solar plexus. “Uh,” she asked, “who’s this guy?”

“He’s Andy Sebaldi,” I said. “He’s…”

“Ohmigod,” May said, “I totally know who you are! You’re the guy who turned his room into a factory! I could never, in a million years, do anything like that. By the way, what are you planning on making?”

“Eh… school administration wants to see if I can make robots,” Andy said. “I’ve got some ideas for automated security and robots that can walk.”

“Can you make chemicals?” May asked. “Because NIU are trying to buy the rights to the stuff I made. Also, if I can’t ‘put it into effect under my own power within two years,’ the rights go to the school.”

“How do you know who I…” Andy began to ask, then his face lit up. “Wait a minute, you’re May Riley! You’re one of the Triple-As in the Med program! Yeah, I might be able to do that. I’d need to know how to mix the stuff but I take it can tell me what I’d need to do, right? By the way, how did you know about me?”

We paused to swipe our student IDs at the entry. A bored guy I had seen occasionally exiting Squire was manning them, and didn’t seem to notice our entrance. I wondered if I could have just walked past. After all, his swiping our card was just as automatic as our handing it to him.

Andy and May were still involved in their own conversation. “I know who you are because I read the school newspaper,” May said. “When Taylor Smith isn’t spewing his hateful bullshit, there actually is the occasionally interesting and/or useful article.”

“I actually heard about you from some guys I know on campus,” he said. “Something about medical genius, severe injuries, and weird porn you didn’t know you were filming.”

“Oh God,” May groaned, “Why won’t that video die?”

Trying to butt in, I asked, “Who’s Taylor Smith?” Judging by the impression he left on May, there was a strong chance that he was the person Kyle and Richard were talking about appeasing.

May sighed. “Smith’s this fucking asshat who writes articles in the NIU Universal complaining about anyone who isn’t white and Protestant. He also keeps talking about ‘the grand rebirth of Rhodesia,’ which basically means killing and enslaving the people of Zimbabwe. Anyway, he wrote this long screed about how Asian people were genetically inferior to white people (he used less polite terms,) and I posted a comment disproving every single one of his talking points. I may have been a bit rude, but he decided to basically go nuclear in his response to my response, saying that this is why women shouldn’t be involved in politics and wondering about whether it was my period or if I was just mentally deficient.” She smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t have responded to his response, but telling him to go back to writing songs about kissing boys in the rain felt… so poetic. It was almost worth the threats.”

“Wait,” Andy asked, “what kind of threats?”

“Oh, look!” May said, “That’s where we’re sitting! Come on!” Near the window, I could see that Eric, Doc, Ray-Gun, The Monk, MC Disaster, Eliza, Bai, Charlotte, Jen, Cross, and John were all sitting at one of the longer tables. Ray-Gun, John, Eliza, and Cross were waving us over. Outside I could see that it was snowing like crazy.

“Wow,” I said as we sat down, “this is crazy. There’s fourteen people sitting down here.”

“Yeah,” Cross said. “We had to get the Jesus table because there’s still more people coming. Oro and Eliza’s other roomie are coming, too.”

“Oh,” I said, “before I forget, let me introduce you guys. Ok, Andy, May, this first guy is Eric the Entertainer. He likes to make nicknames.”

Eric nodded. “A pleasure to meet you two.”

“This next guy is Ray-Gun. He’s an excellent spotter. Also really likes Silver Age superhero comics.” Ray-Gun smiled, his frizzy Afro shaking a bit as he nodded his head. “And this guy’s Doc. He’s a little prickly, but he’ll fix you up if you get shot.”

“Not as good as May,” Doc said. “Your inventions saved a lot of lives.”

“I wouldn’t play favorites,” I said, “but I was probably one of them. Salim, this one asshole from Al-Qaeda, stabbed me in the stomach. Your surgical glue had me doing the run the next day.” Ignoring May’s protests, I continued with the introductions. “MC Disaster. Explosives expert. Doesn’t talk much.”

“I talk!” MC Disaster protested.

“That’s the first thing I’ve heard him since November. Anyway, this guy is The Monk, chillest guy I know.” The Monk made his traditional bow. “Michael Castellan. Everyone calls him Cross. Don’t ask about his family business.”

“Hey, man,” Cross said, “Don’t scare away my clients! They’re nerds! Nerds always want some jock whacked.” I noticed Andy and May’s eyes widen. They exchanged nervous glances.

“He’s joking, right?” Andy asked anxiously. I could see the scenarios he was imagining. They all involved the FBI knocking on his door.

“Possibly,” I said, “but not about the killing people for money thing. Moving on, the redhead with the cool ears is Eliza Henderson and the blonde girl with the Union Jack scarf is her adopted sister, Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. Charlotte’s English nobility of some kind.”

“Charmed,” Charlotte said.

“Nice t’meet ya!” Eliza said at the same time.

“Man,” I said, “do I know a lot of people here. Ok, home stretch! The girl who looks perpetually amused is Jennifer Kagemoto. She’s a little… famous where I live.”

“For all the wrong reasons,” Jen said playfully. “Cross is nowhere near as bad as I am.”

“And the girl openly carrying a Glock is Bai Feng,” I said. Bai was carrying her G26 in an armpit holster. Her coat and sweater had been taken off and hung over her chair, revealing the gun, holster and plain tank top she wore. Not only did this violate school rules about only carrying concealed weapons, but it also made me nervous.

“After what happened at Weapons Handling,” Bai said coolly, “I thought having a deterrent would be prudent. I thought you’d understand better, seeing how that wasn’t the first time you’ve been caught off-guard.”

“What happened?” Andy asked, looking more and more unnerved by his present company. So was May.

“Nothing,” I said, with a little too much false cheer, “just assholes being assholes!” May and Andy exchanged worried glances. Again. “Anyway,” I said, “this is John Marshall. One of the two people who had no idea what the fuck he was getting into. Out of all the people, I think the only person to save my life more is Eliza.”

“That’s me!” John said. I noticed he was sitting directly across from Bai. He was also marginally more comfortable with her than the last time I had seen them together.

“Ok,” I said, “now, is there anyone who doesn’t know May?”

“Be polite and introduce us to her anyway, Nathan,” Charlotte said.

“Ok,” I said, “this is May Riley. She’s a Triple-A at the med school. If you were in Hell Semester 2015, she probably saved your butt directly or indirectly.” There was a round of applause. May blushed a bit. “And this is my co-host for Flounder, Andy Sebaldi. He’s a Triple-A Computer Science major.”

“Basically,” he said, “they kind of want me to build Skynet.”

“Please tell me you’re joking,” John said, somewhat terrified.

“I am,” Andy said, “that’s the only way I’m able to deal with the fact that they want me to build fucking Skynet.” After that, it kind of devolved into a bitch session about how the school was morally bankrupt, expensive, dangerous, and difficult.

“I’ll say one thing,” I said after swallowing a bite of my third bratwurst, “I am learning a lot.” I got a minor chuckle from that.

Oro and Alma eventually showed up. Neither of them were talkative and both exuded a passive sense of menace. Oro Okoro, another child soldier from somewhere in Africa and member of the Seven Supreme, was actively suspicious of Andy for a few minutes, but finally relented.

Alma, on the other hand, simply took an interest and did her best to appear non-threatening. However, Alma being mildly interested and trying not to be threatening was like a horror movie building up to the scares. There was just something wrong with her. I tried to tell myself that it was just the idea of her power or her weird monotone, but something told me it went deeper than that. I decided not to focus on that.

Instead, I focused on the camaraderie. Eliza was one of the people who vouched for Andy. (I was another, but she obviously didn’t trust me as much.) John ended up being the only person who had a prayer of keeping up with Andy and May’s conversation on how the brain could be used as a model for artificial intelligence. Cross was giving Charlotte advice on alternatives to her Webley. Things like that. I decided to just sit back and eat my food.

Finally, it was time to go. We all got a cup of the crappy hot chocolate the cafeteria and began the trek to building Graham’s Game Bar was located. Luckily, it was pretty close to the main circle. We only had to walk through winds that felt like being constantly punched for about five minutes.

“HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE WITH THIS WEATHER?” Oro yelled above the wind. “I LIVE IN A COUNTRY WITH AN AVERAGE LOWEST YEARLY TEMPERATURE OF THIRTY DEGREES!” I quickly realized she was measuring in Celsius. Why does America use English measurements again? Not even England uses English measurements.

“THEY KEEP A STIFF UPPER LIP, I SUPPOSE,” Charlotte mused loudly. “REMARKABLY BRITISH OF THEM!”

Finally, we got into Graham’s Game Bar. It was located in an apartment-style building called Lovelace Hall. “Blimey,” Eliza said, when we all got into the foyer, “It really is nerd heaven, innit?”

The bar was double-storied. Downstairs was a dancefloor (which most people were ignoring,) a bar (which was only slightly busier,) and a bunch of arcade cabinets and pinball machines. I saw some classics like Star Wars: The Arcade Games, Pac-Man, and most of the Time Crisis series. They all seemed to have been modified to take campus credits.

Upstairs, I could see that there was another bar and an area for people who wanted to join in a LAN party. TVs scattered around were displaying various matches. To top it all off, the DJ was playing the original Pokemon theme.

“This is heaven…” I said, somewhat in awe.

“Yeah,” May said as we wandered further in. “Each of the schools has at least one hangout. You AMS and Shadowhaven guys have The Drunken Mercenary and The Gunporioum. The students at the Frankenstein Medical School get hammered at the A&E and cure the hangover with caffeinated beverages at Greenleaf. Rogues have Café Charlemagne and The International Casino. The CompSci guys get The Nerd Shop and this place. Lucky bastards.”

“Hey,” Eliza said, “wanna see if they’ve got bourbon? I’ve never had any before.”

“I will watch you drink it,” Bai said. “But I think I’ll pass.”

“Fine, you pansy,” Eliza said. “Nate, John, you want t’sample some Yank culture with me? Could be quite educational.”

“You know what?” I said. “Sure. What could go wrong?”

We walked over to the bar. A red-headed girl in a Graham’s Game Bar branded apron was tending a somewhat abandoned section. “What’ll ya be havin,’ ya bleedin’ Monarchist?” she asked with a bored Irish lilt. My guess is that she noticed the Union Jack patch on Eliza’s old army jacket.

Eliza smiled, slapping her student ID on the counter. “Three shots of your mid-range bourbon on the rocks for me and my mates, Lucky Charms.” I noticed that a crowd had begun to form around. Most of them were our friends, but there were a few curious nerds.

The bartender asked, with mock-innocence, “You sure you want to be going that fast? You sure you don’t want some nice non-alcoholic beer? Or some milk?” There was an “oooh!” from the crowd. I, on the other hand, got the impression that this was as fake as professional wrestling. Mostly due to the fact that both of them were trying to suppress smiles.

“Did I ask for commentary?” Eliza asked, “Or did I ask you TO POUR THE BOOZE?” As she asked the last question, she turned to address the crowd. A person actually whooped.

“Fine, ya cockney arse,” the bartender said. “Three shots of inferior American rotgut for the Englishwoman.” She quickly swiped the card and poured the whiskey. The shot glasses looked bigger than I expected.

I picked mine up, and sniffed it. It smelled like paint thinner. “Right,” Eliza said, “on three. One. Two. Three.”

In unison, we all lifted it up to our mouths and took a sip. I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I got some in. Each drop seared my throat on the way down. “Oh God,” I said, “This burns.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, “You’d have to be propper wasted beforehand to drink this.” After a pause, she said, “I’m going to finish it.”

A few minutes later, we were on the upper floor. I had finished a good chunk of it, and, God help me, I somehow decided I liked it. I don’t know why. The only reasonable explanation I could think of was that I subconsciously hated myself and realized that this devil drink was killing me. That, or I liked how being buzzed made me almost forget Hell Semester. It also helped me to deal with the fact that some people playing Counter-Strike were using speakers.

Suddenly, through the light fog in my head, I realized something. “Hey Andy,” I asked, “If I wanted to find out more about someone, could I just look it up on cNet?”

Andy looked up from the glass-bottle soda he was drinking. “Sure,” he said. “People have all sorts of stuff on their default profile. What majors they take, some brief tidbits why they were selected, stuff like that. Why?”

I smiled. It must have seemed a little terrifying because Andy flinched. “Oh,” I said, “just an extra-curricular project I have…”

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Track 7: School Store

As I awoke, I came to the sudden realization that I was passing out a lot. Not mysteriously, thankfully. I just seemed to keep getting into situations where that’s just what you did. Still, it was something I didn’t think I should make a habit of. As I lifted my head, I suddenly realized I had a headache. “Why?” I groaned “I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol on the flight…”

“Stop putting your socks in the vents…” John moaned. I moved out from under my bed to see that John on the top bunk. His eyes were closed and he was drooling a bit. In other words, he was stone cold sleeping.

I suddenly realized that the sun was out. I took my iTouch out. It was out of batteries. I then took out my phone. It was also out of batteries. I tried to go back to sleep, but that wasn’t really possible with the sun shining through the windows. I then decided that showering was a nice goal.

After getting the clothes I wanted to wear, something buzzed in my desk. Before it could wake up John, I opened it up. There was the student-issued phone I had been given.  Known as the cPhone (or Campus Phone,) it had a lot of features that I had completely forgotten about because I had been in a sort of haze due to all the meds I was on when I got it.

On the screen was a picture of a man with shaven head, giant beard and chiseled jaw. Text on the image said “Call from Dmitri Arkadyvich Popov.” Below that, there was a graphic indicating for me to swipe right to accept and left to hang up. It also told me it was 7:00 AM on Saturday. It should have been Friday. Then I remembered time zones. Suddenly my headache made much more sense.

I accepted the call and moved the phone by my ear. Before I could get my greeting out, a thick Russian accent asked, “Hello? Is this Nathan Jacobs?”

“Yeah,” I said groggily. “I… I mean, good morning.”

“Hello,” the man said, “I am Popov. I run Drunken Mercenary and am calling about your application.” Oh yeah. All Freshmen not taking Hell Semester were expected to take a campus job and do an extracurricular. I had done some applications, mostly to jobs I thought would allow me to become virtually invisible and pick up some interesting information, like janitor duty or waiter. The man, Popov, continued, “If you are still interested in working at bar, please come down to Drunken Mercenary.”

“Sure,” I said, “when do you want to see me?”

“Now is good,” Popov said. “Please come immediately.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, “just let me shower first.”

“Is not needed,” Popov said. “Drunken Mercenary is not fancy. Neither am I.” He then hung up. I stared at the phone for a bit, then decided that it was best to not keep Popov waiting.

Luckily, my dorm room was in the same building as The Drunken Mercenary. I just had to walk down the aggressively white corridors, take the elevator and walk down the hall. The interior entrance to the bar would be a bit before the main exit from Marine. Something told me that alcoholics liked living in Marine Hall.

Just as I was about to head in to the bar, the main door opened. In stumbled Cross, carrying his luggage. “Oh,” he said, “hey Killer. How’re things going?”

“I’m just going to do an interview for a bartending position at The Drunken Mercenary,” I said. “It seems like…”

“Please,” Cross said, holding up his hands, “Do not mention alcohol, bars, or planes until after I’ve barfed a few times.”

“Well, have fun I guess…” I said, stepping hurriedly into The Drunken Mercenary to avoid any projectile vomit.

To call the Drunken Mercenary a dive was a bit of an understatement. There was a bit of an effort to make it look like a medieval tavern, with stone walls and floors, and rough-hewn wood furniture. However, that was where the niceness ended. Covering these objects was a sheen of dirt, dust, and spilled alcohol. The windows, due to them being frosted so passers-by couldn’t see though them, didn’t let in as much light as they should have. Combine all this with a mild stench of various kinds of booze and undertones of BO, blood, and what may or may not have been sexual fluids, and you had quite the dump.

I also noticed that there was other entertainment than libations. A few televisions were scattered across the room and there was a pool table near me, and a poker table a little farther towards the door. I leaned closer to investigate. Blood and something else had stained it. I had been in worse places, but none of them had been designed to serve food.

“Ah,” said a voice from somewhere in the back. I turned around to a guy who looked like Popov’s picture emerging from a door marked as a bathroom. I noticed he was a little short and had a bit of a belly, but the arms under his blue NIU t-shirt were extremely muscular. “You are here! Come, talk with me.”

He moved behind the bar, a rough-hewn wood thing that matched up with the bar’s medieval aesthetic. I followed him over there. When I accidentally caused a scraping noise by moving a chair, I flinched.

“You need hair of dog?” Popov asked.

“No,” I said, “it’s just jet-lag. I’m actually the only one in my group who didn’t touch any alcohol.”

“Do you drink?” Popov asked, a look of suspicion on his face.

“Not on a f… not on a plane,” I said. “Especially if you’re going to be trapped with a bunch of people carrying guns.”

“Good,” Popov said. “I am never trusting of people who don’t drink yet work in bar. Often, they lie and are alcoholic. Or they sabotage beer.” He stretched, then said, “Now, we have position for second shift bartender for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Shift starts at nine PM and is ending at two. Can you make it?”

“Yeah,” I said, suddenly hesitant due to his views on sober people. “I don’t remember having any early morning or late night classes. Do you need any qualifications?”

“Is not needed,” Popov said, waving his hand dismissively. “You fill up beer from tap or pour from bottle. Is also some refiling of popcorn machine and swiping cards. However, there are special rules.” He then motioned me to come behind the bar. I did so, and noticed that there was a Kel-Tec KSG shotgun and a key ring underneath in a small alcove. There was also a glass case with some high quality booze.

“Shotgun is for when patrons get out of hand,” Popov said, “Right tube is rock salt, left is buckshot. Keys are for switching shit beer in taps, and accessing good stuff. You are in control of access to good booze. Only friends of yours get good booze. Not teachers you want to get good grades from. Not comrades from your program. Not my friends. Not bouncer or waitress friends. Your friends. Understand?”

“The rules, yes,” I said, “but why…”

“Wonderful!” Popov said. “Now, pay is five point five campus credits an hour, which would be eight point two-five US dollars. You take job, da?”

“Sure,” I said. “I just have…”

“Other bartender will answer questions,” Popov said, “now shoo! Go enjoy your weekend! Class begins Monday, and your new job is starting Tuesday.”

After I was hurried out, I decided to fiddle a bit with my cPhone. First, I went to preferences. The first thing I noticed was the Privacy and Security features. The first was Geolocation and had the options of Public, Friends Only, Personal, Obscure, or Hard Off. I flicked it to Hard Off, which apparently completely disabled the GPS chip.

I then looked at Password and Biometric Protection. That was a bit more complex. Options included just a simple four to twelve character password, to just reading the print of a finger, to a system that would require you to insert four to twelve characters and each character having to be put in by a specific finger. You could also choose for your phone to delete all data, explode, or both if a person entered a wrong code enough times. I decided that a five character password (no I’m not telling you what it was) with any finger. For good measure, I added the data wipe. I wasn’t sure I wanted to mess around with enabling the bomb.

Exhausting the security features, I went into the sync. I suddenly realized I could sync my phone to INTRA, NIU’s proprietary social network. It was sort of cross between Facebook and Reddit. Apparently, I had to turn on the GPS to access that one, though. After I got my personal email, INTRA, and calendar all synced up to the phone, I decided to head up to go shower.

After heading through the weirdly white corridors (seriously, I couldn’t tell where the floor ended and the wall began) I got back to the room. John and Cross were out cold. Again, I got out my clothes, towel, washcloth, soap and shampoo. I then headed to the bathroom. After the shower, I realized that I needed to do some shopping for school supplies. And get something to eat. Leaving behind my iTouch and my cellphone, I grabbed my wallet and coat and headed out to the Newell-Howard Student Center.

The Newell-Howard Student Center was the biggest student center on campus. It was west of the main gate and was right next to President Newell-Howard’s mansion. Like most of the buildings on campus, it was that good-looking mix of brick and large amounts of glass that many public buildings that seemed to be really popular in the states. However, unlike the ones back home, all these buildings seemed to be old, possibly from the eighties. That style seemed to have only gotten popular in the states in the late two thousands.

The weather wasn’t great. Like the last time I was there, the sky was gray, the air was cold as fuck, and snow was everywhere. At least the wind had decided to fuck off and it wasn’t actively snowing. Plus, the snow had actually been plowed.

On the other hand, the snow and gray sky made everything look eerie and abandoned. Added to the fact that no one was out on the road, and things were looking very creepy. Normally, I kind of liked being the only person on the street early in the morning or late at night, but that was in normal places. In NIU, it made me extremely nervous. For all I knew, someone’s experiment could have gone horribly, horribly wrong (or horribly, horribly right) and I was the only survivor.

When I finally was standing outside Newell-Howard, I was gladdened to see that, if you looked over the snow-covered, fence-enclosed patio and through the large window, you could see people in uniforms moving around the cafeteria. I opened the main door, which got me into a lounge area with couches, high tables, barstools and a TV. On my right side was the entrance to the cafeteria. I was about open the door, when I noticed a sign on the door. It was the dining hall vacation schedule in English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. Apparently, the dining hall didn’t resume normal hours until Monday. That meant the dining hall wouldn’t open until 11:30 AM for brunch. My cPhone said it was 8:03.

With that, I went to a couch in front of the TV. I picked up the remote. I didn’t have to flip through the channels at all. As soon as I turned the TV on, it said that normal broadcasts were suspended until school resumed.

Sighing, I decided to go to sleep. After all, my headache was still there, though not exactly in full force.

“Oi,” a familiar voice queried sometime later, “what are you sleeping around for?”

I opened my eyes. There, brushing snow off themselves, were Eliza, Jen, Charlotte, and their other roommate, Alma Hebert. Well, Eliza, Jen and Charlotte brushed snow off themselves. Alma didn’t seem to notice the snow and just stared ahead with weirdly dead gray eyes, her stringy black hair obscuring her pale face somewhat. I supposed she had been even creepier the last two times we had met, but there was still something just wrong about her.

“Eliza!” I said happily. “Jen! Charlotte! Good to see you… and Alma.” Alma nodded, seemingly forgiving me for forgetting to mention her. However, something told me that forgiveness was misleading. In order to forgive someone, you have to care about the crime that’s been committed against you. Distracting myself from these thoughts, I asked, “What are you girls doing here?”

“Well,” Charlotte said, as the girls sat down on the couch perpendicular to me, “We were getting some breakfast at Café Charlemagne when Eliza picked up your scent.” I noticed that Eliza was carrying a tray of four hot drinks and Charlotte was carrying a white paper bag, and they were laying them out on the coffee table. “So she went out, got a good whiff and deduced you were headed here to get some food. Jen realized that they weren’t serving food, so we decided to bring you some food. Does hot chocolate and a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit sound acceptable to you?”

“Definitely!” I said. “How much do I…?”

“Nonsense!” Charlotte said. “You are a friend in need. We aren’t about to let you go hungry.”

“Have you heard the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch?’” I asked, only a little jokingly.

“Of course, Nathan,” Jennifer said, smiling predatorily. “That’s why we got you breakfast.” I smiled back nervously as Charlotte and Eliza began to distribute the food.

“Egg and cheese croissant for me,” Charlotte said, “Egg and cheese English muffin for Eliza…”

“Thanks, sis,” Eliza said, accepting the paper-wrapped sandwich.

“Bacon, egg and cheese bagel for Miss Kagemoto…” Charlotte continued.

“Thank you, Miss Blackmoor-Ward,” Jennifer said with a smile as she took her sandwich.

“And sausage, egg and cheese for you, Mr. Jacobs.”

I took the paper-wrapped sandwich. Surprisingly, it was still somewhat warm. “Thanks,” I said, starting to unwrap it. Suddenly, a thought came into my head. “Hey, Alma,” I asked, “didn’t you order anything?”

She shrugged. “I don’t really eat that much.” I noticed that instead of sitting on the couch with us, she had instead opted to lean on the wall next to the TV.

“If you say so…” I said. I took a bite out of my sandwich. Man, was it good. The meat was top quality, and the biscuit was nice and buttery.

“Oh, Nate!” Eliza said, handing me my drink. “Before I forget, here’s your hot chocolate. It’s some kind of fancy hot chocolate, has a higher level of cacao, I think. Also has some whipped cream and marshmallows in it.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking it from her hands. I was intrigued. I always liked the darker chocolates like Hershey’s Special Dark and Ghirardelli’s Intense Dark. I took a sip. It was so good I actually sighed. “This,” I said, “is the best fucking hot chocolate I have ever tasted.”

“Need t’change your pants?” Eliza asked innocently. There was a loud stomping sound. “Ow!” Eliza said. “Don’t do that when you’re wearing bloody heels, Char! Bloody ‘ell!” Meanwhile, Charlotte was regally sipping her drink, pretending nothing had happened. Jen was suppressing a laugh, and Alma’s impassive face shifted to show a minute amount of interest.

“Maybe,” I said, deepening my voice for comedic effect. “It was very good chocolate.”

Eliza threw back her head and cackled and Jen doubled over. Charlotte, meanwhile, set her coffee down and rubbed her nose as if staving off a headache. “Oh God,” she muttered, “there’s two more of you…”

“You know it, baby…” I said, still speaking deeply. After Jen stopped laughing and Eliza calmed down, I said, “Seriously, though, it is really is good.” Eliza and Jen burst out laughing again, and Charlotte chuckled a bit as well.

“So,” I asked, after eating some of my sandwich, “what are we going to do after this?”

“Well,” Charlotte said, “the school store opens at ten. It might be nice to go there in a bit.”

I nodded. “Sure thing.” I then took a back seat in the conversation. A lot of my attention, however, was focused on Alma. I had first met her the night before Hell Semester’s final. I was patrolling the base when I had seen a ghost. I even had a brief conversation with said ghost. Apparently, that ghost was a sort of projection of Alma. She was a psychic and her dorm’s heating had broken. Somehow, that translated to her haunting my patrol.

Needless to say, I was curious… and slightly disturbed. “So,” Alma said, startling the rest of us, “Nathan, you have some questions for me.” It was weird. It was like I was the only one who had remembered she was still there.

“Sorry,” I said, “it’s just…”

“You don’t know much about Psychics, right?” Alma asked. “Don’t worry. Apparently, not many people know about psychics. Even people who study psionic powers for a living have only a limited understanding how our powers work.”

“So,” I said, “are you saying you don’t know how you ended up observing my patrol?”

“I’m surprised,” Alma said, her voice still monotone and her expression still bland. “Most people ask me if I’m reading their minds.”

“Actually,” I said, “you might need to explain some of the basics. That is, if mind reading is basic.”

“Here we go,” Jennifer said rolling her eyes.

“You’re right,” Alma said, “you do need to know the basics. First off, mind-reading both is and isn’t really a thing.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “After all, scientists know very little about the brain. It’s too complex to really get a good read on.”

Alma nodded. “Right. Your mind isn’t really a book. It’s more a transmitter. Some of the information is conscious thought. The vast majority is unconscious thought. This includes things like your body telling your lungs to inhale and exhale, your heart to beat, your blood cells to clot a cut.

“The difference between me and the rest of you is that I’m also a receiver as well as a transmitter. Because I am more powerful than most psychics, my range is… considerable. Most psychics would have a range about the size of this room. They might be able tell general things about you, like if you’re angry, or more advanced things, like you have cancer. Some of the lucky ones might not be able to tell you how they know.”

I nodded. I actually knew a bit about psychics. One of the thing I had done when not having dinner with English nobility over winter vacation was do some research. One of the topics of my research was about psychics. I admit, some of what I had said may have been designed to obfuscate the fact that said research had taken place. So far, there was only one thing that didn’t jive with my research.

“Why would it be lucky?” I asked. This is what I was curious about. The articles on the ACLU and WebMD I had read about psychics were very vague on something they called “psionic contact,” other than that it was extremely dangerous.

“Well,” Alma said, “If you don’t know you’re psychic, you can’t press further, try to sort out some of the confusing things you’re… well, I won’t call it hearing or seeing. Honestly, it’s not something I can explain.”

“It’d be like trying to explain sound to a deaf person,” I said.

Alma nodded. “Exactly. Anyway, if you can figure out how to focus on someone, they also see you. Also, when you focus on things people… things get weird.” She paused, then asked, still in her somewhat disturbing monotone, “Have you ever heard of people going on an LSD trip and never coming back? It’s a lot like that in some cases. When a Psychic makes contact with a normal human, both start to hallucinate, usually severely. Sometimes, it becomes hard to stop seeing things. I find, though, that the risk decreases if you focus on multiple people at once.”

Odd, I thought. Much of what I read implied that was impossible. Or at least very difficult. Then again, the only other way she could appear in far-off places is if she was also a Jumper, which have been notoriously difficult to cross-breed with other Parahumans.

“But enough about me,” she said. “My roommates have been talking about you. I’m a little curious now.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure what there is to talk about. There’s Hell Semester, which I kind of don’t want to talk about. There’s my family, who I’m afraid to talk about in case one of the psychos I’ve pissed off decides to take their frustration out on them.”

“Please,” Alma asked, her voice still monotone, “just answer one question.”

I shrugged. “I suppose I owe you a few. Shoot.”

Her question made my blood run cold. “What’s it like to kill someone?”

Everyone stared at her for a bit. Finally, I said, “It’s weird. Sometimes, the actual act is the easiest thing in the world. Working up the… I don’t want to say courage… to actually do it is a lot harder, but it gets easier. Living with it, now that’s the hardest. I still have nightmares from the first time.”

I paused, remembering the rock striking Amir on the temple, his blood blinding me, his body limp and unmoving. “You’re remembering your first, aren’t you?” Alma asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “What are you getting off me?”

“You were stressed at the time,” Alma began, still in her monotone. I nodded. “Scared. Was it self-defense?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think the situation I was designed to break down norms like ‘don’t kill.’ Self-defense is a pretty efficient way to do that.” Making an effort not to stare at the floor, I decided to observe everyone else’s reactions. I noted that Eliza was starting to fidget. Charlotte and Jen were looking at me with interest, Charlotte’s more horrified.

She nodded. “Close-range?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He was choking me to death. I had a rock and…”

She nodded. “This was sort of an experiment. I’ve taken a few psych classes to see if I could focus my power, figure out how to understand what it was telling me. Sorry if that hurt to talk about.” Again, she was speaking in her weird monotone, but I got the impression that she was genuinely sorry.

“It didn’t hurt…” I protested.

“Really?” she asked. “Is that why you’ve been moving into a defensive position? Why you couldn’t look at me while talking about it? Psychological pain is no less valid than physical pain.”

When the bookstore finally opened, we all headed up the stairs. I consulted my cPhone (seriously, why hadn’t thrown out my dumb phone?) to see what course materials I’d need. First up, I’d need a grammar guide and literature textbook for College English (NA-ENG 1000.) I’d also need a generic textbook for Algebra (MATH-1100) and Military History (AMS 1100.) Intro to Sociology and Philosophy of Government required actual books. For Philosophy of Government, I actually knew most of them: Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli, The Republic by Plato, and The Communist Manifest by Karl Marx. For the sociology class, I’d already bought Parahuman Varieties and Cultures. That was one of my sources about Psychics.

I’d also, apparently need a travel case for my weapons and holsters. Campus required that weapons remain either secured or concealed. I’d be taking Weapons Refreshment (WPN 5100) as well having to shoot five hundred rounds a week. I thanked the NIU scholarship for paying for all of the textbooks, then started to browse.

The first thing I got was the case. That, I figured, might be able to hold all the various crap I had. I was wrong, but I figured out that I could get foam inserts for my various guns, plus several magazines. As the lady behind the counter was making the inserts, I happily went to shop for books.

As I was searching through the books, Jennifer walked up next to me. “Good job,” she said. “I remember the first time I tried to pull a fast one on Alma. She saw through it. You, however, spent most of that plane ride reading Parahuman Varieties and Culture, yet she thinks you know nothing about Psychics…”

She continued talking, but as she did so, she dissolved into dust and blew away. As she did so, my vision turned sepia and blurry. Somehow, I knew someone was standing behind me. I turned around. There was Alma, backlit by an odd source of light. For some reason, her outline was flickering. “So you did know something about Psychics…” she said, her voice still monotone.

“So is this what you meant what you meant by how things get… trippy when you make direct contact with someone,” I said as she walked towards me. As she did so, I noticed that she looked mummified. That’s how she appeared when she had first talked to me during my patrol. Deciding that this was important, I asked, “So, why do you look like you’ve been dead for a couple decades?”

“None of your business.” The anger in her voice was barely perceptible, but some of the shelves bent in response. Her next words were much calmer. “Anyway, you have a friend. A… little bird has told me that a certain Al-Qaeda member by the name of Mubashir Barak has been helping you at great risk. Be on the lookout for him.”

“Why are you telling me this in this way?” I asked.

“This is the most secure way of communicating,” Alma said. “From what I can tell, you don’t trust many people.” Suddenly, she began to blow away, just like Jen had. My vision also returned to normal. “I hope this helps,” she said as she blew away. “You could be very useful to me…”

I heard a sigh behind me. I turned around. There was Jen, obviously not turned to dust. “You just talked to Alma, didn’t you?” she asked. “Did she figure it out?”

“She kind of overheard you, I guess,” I said.

“Damn,” Jen said. “I really hate how everyone here seems to have their own mysterious agenda here…”

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