Track 20: A New Chapter

Nari and I were waiting at the airport a little after lunch for Andy and May to get back exactly one week later. The rain had slowly begun to be replaced by snow the entire week. Needless to say, we were waiting in the hangar.

“Did you finish the rifle bullet prototype?” Nari asked. We had been sitting around the terminal for quite a while.

“Yeah,” I said. “That part was pretty easy. Just make the rifle bullet, except longer.” I opened a bag. “I’ve got two alternate butt plates made and I’ve started on the rifle receiver.”

Nari looked at them. “Well,” she said, “one of them looks rather easy.” The one she was talking about was just a metal plate to fit around the two halves of the receiver. The only detailing it had was the holes at the top and bottom for the studs to attach and a loop for a sling.

“Yeah,” I said, “but the other’s going to be a pain. Not only did I decide to have it be collapsible, not only did I decide it had to take M-4 stocks, not only did I decide to have it be side-folding, but I decided it would fold to either side.”

Nari picked that one out of the bag. “I have seen standard M-4 stocks,” she said. “This is not one.”

“Well,” I said, “I decided to add an adjustable cheek rest. You can take that part off and put an M-4 stock on it.”

“Why do you need an adjustable cheek rest?” Nari asked.

“Some of it’s a shooter comfort thing,” I said, “some of it is so we don’t have to pay money in licensing fees or so we don’t have to buy externally for parts. Some of it is to fulfil a market niche that isn’t being filled. Most of it is because I thought I was getting too much sleep.”

“I know the feeling,” Nari said earnestly. “I haven’t been here very long, I’ll admit, but I love being here. Sure, the politics seem even more pointless than North Korea, but I can do whatever I want!” She smiled. “The things I have to do are easy enough to finish quickly, but challenging enough to be fun, and when I get done, I can do things like make these guns and guitar things.”

“Really?” I asked, not mentioning that my work was done less for the joy of working and more to save the world. “Are you making guitars?”

“Well,” Nari said, “I made a guitar and an amp. Now I’m learning how to play. I have to learn how to actually play before I really know what a good guitar is.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s good to hear.”

“Plus,” Nari said, “Our outdoor test was pretty successful.” She was right. We had set up some targets up in the forest and given the current generation Uilon Mangchi and the Ballpeen prototypes to our usual testers. The response had been very positive. No jams or misfires caused by inclement weather, and the weapons were easy to use while on the move.

“The only goddamned problem,” Cross shouted outside an abandoned bunker after he and Doc had “cleared” it of targets, “is that the damned things are too loud.”

“Yes,” Doc said, also shouting, “the ear protection we brought was insufficient, especially where it can echo. The muzzle flash is also very bright. I do not like it.”

“You kidding?” Cross said, “Nothing says ‘Get the fuck down!’ like a nice big muzzle flash. Anything that reminds people whose boss gets my vote.”

“Yes,” Doc said, “but you can do that with an AK. You can do that with an M-16. Yet they don’t give away your position better than a flare when you shoot them. Using these are suicide in an ambush.”

Back in the present, Nari must have been thinking the same thing. “I examined out the Pilum. Thank you for lend it, by the way.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “After all, I’m making money from the project as well.”

“Anyway,” Nari continued, “The flash hider can be replicated without too much cost. However, it turns out the barrel actually doubles as a sound suppressor. Not as efficient as a normal one, but still effective enough.”

“How?” I asked. “I mean, it has to be, it’s too quiet otherwise, but the barrel’s too thin to be a suppressor.”

“I don’t know,” Nari said, her face setting in a determined frown as she talked, “but whatever they’ve done, I can’t figure it out. It’s all internal and extremely tiny. But I’ll figure it out. And I will replicate it.” She paused. “Unless its nanotech. Then we’ll have to make a workaround.”

“Even if it isn’t nanotech,” I said, “the process sounds like it will be way too complex for Andy’s machines. I guess we’ll have to reduce noise the traditional way.” Suddenly, I heard the whine of a jet engine. “Well, I guess May and Andy are back.”

Nari perked up. “Good. Hopefully, they bring news of our glorious financial accomplishments. Also, May said she could get me some guitar-related books.”

“Does that mean you and May have made up?” I asked.

Nari shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she answered. “We do talk occasionally, but never about my work.” She sighed. “I do still like her. When she isn’t being wrong, she is quite kind and knows all the good music.”

“I see,” I said, noting her Megadeath t-shirt. “I would have thought she’d introduce you to more rap and less heavy metal.”

“We have undertaken our glorious journey into the heart of all things metal together,” Nari said. “I am more open to the sounds of self-styled demon slayers, she is more interested in the lyricism of the proletariat as they rise up against their oppressor.” She looked up to see the plane’s nose had just started to enter the hangar. “Good. They are almost here.”

We waited until the plane’s loading ramp opened. Andy and May began walking out, a look of extreme tiredness on their faces. “Oh, there you are,” May said upon seeing Nari and me. She and Andy staggered over to us, dragging their luggage. They looked somewhat zombiefied. “The good news is we were totally, one hundred percent successful. The bad news is that we need to sleep for several hours before we deal with Tim.”

“Don’t worry about him,” I said. “He’s got some kind of stomach virus. Or nerves. He had to leave us when…”

“We don’t need to know,” Andy said. “Anyway, did you guys get any transportation back to campus? The weather looks like complete crap.”

“They told us they’d have a shuttle waiting for you guys when you got back,” I said. “It should be right outside. You guys want me to carry anything?”

“Thanks,” May said, “but we’re good. We’ll tell you about our plans when we get to Andy’s room.”

After we had got there, May and Andy dropped their suitcase among the half-dismantled automated assembly lines and fell down on the bed. While they leant against each other and the wall, Nari and I stood among the industrial detritus, unsure of what to do with ourselves. Eventually, I asked, “So… do you want us to leave?”

“We can brief you, you don’t have to go,” May muttered. Her eyes were closed, and if they were open, they would have been directed mostly into Andy’s armpit.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “You guys seem like you’re pretty done.”

“Yeah,” Andy said, “but we’ve got one last thing to do.” With what seemed to me to be a massive effort, he opened his eyes. “First off, the FDA approved May’s surgical glue for a trial distribution. It’s going to be limited scale, but we’re still going to have to move out of my dorm room and that lab we’re borrowing.”

“That’s cool,” I said, “Timothy would be pleased to hear about that kind of growth.”

“Power sludge needs more trials,” May said absent-mindedly into Andy’s armpit. He giggled. Apparently, he was ticklish there. “They think it works a lil’ too well…”

“I wonder what the cowards think could go wrong,” Nari said.

“Addiction,” May muttered, “withdrawal…” I laughed at that. They’d obviously never tasted the stuff. “And more importantly, cancer. Cancer everywhere.”

At that last point, remembering my first conversation with May, and how she wasn’t sure how safe Power Sludge was, I said, “Wait, do they have evidence for that last bit? Because I ate only that for an entire semester.”

“So did I,” May said sleepily. “And so did everyone in Hell Semester against my wishes.” She yawned. “Guess we’ll find out in five to twenty years.”

“But they don’t know?” I asked. “They haven’t confirmed it?”

“They just kept naming possible side-effects because the effects are so dramatic,” May said, and I could see herself sort of collapse in on herself. “They didn’t just stop with cancer, they think it could cause everything from indigestion to multiple organ failure.” She looked up at me. “Please… Nate, you have to believe me… I never wanted to give Power Sludge to anyone. Least of all the Hell Semester recruits.”

“Hey,” I said, “I’ll let you know if I start feeling funny. Until then, is there anything that rules out everyone who’s ever eaten it being completely ok? I mean, asides from being dumb enough to enroll at NIU?”

“No,” May said, “and that’s the thing that gets me. I don’t know if the people who’ve used my inventions are going to one day start getting sick.” She sighed. “Anyway, moving on to other things I’m involved with that are probably going to kill people, we had a meeting with the FBI director for procurement. At his office. Which was in the J. Edgar Hoover building.”

“So,” Nari asked, “is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Well,” May said, “he confirmed that the clients Krieger found are on the level. Also, we’re in the competition for the new FBI sidearm. For better or worse.”

“Definitely for better,” Nari said. “We have made the most powerful pistol the world has seen. Anything that points our weapons at The Dragon’s Teeth and other enemies of all peaceful peoples can only be seen as a good thing.”

“I thought you didn’t care enough about propaganda to translate it,” I said sardonically.

Nari shrugged. “I learned. It is an effective way to communicate.”

“We just have one more announcement,” Andy said. “Then we’d kind of like you get out so we can sleep.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “I actually have some things to be doing.”

“Me too,” Nari said. “I have some work to do, and Sunny is planning on having a movie night at her place. I think we are watching something involving over-muscled men with guns kill people. They sound like propaganda films from home… except they are American.”

“Is one of them called Die Hard?” I asked. “Or Rambo? Or Commando? Because those are kind of classics when it…”

“Hey,” May said, “focus.”

“Anyway,” Andy said, “we’ve told you how the glue’s going to require us to move to the main factory, right? And you know that this factory is slightly farther away than Washington is, right?” Nari and I nodded. Andy, seeing that, continued. “Also, if we get the FBI contract, we’re going to need to set up that space for production of the Uilon Mangchi and the Ballpeen as well. This is gonna require a lot of my time, and probably a lot of May’s as well.”

“When are you going to do your schoolwork?” Nari asked. I didn’t bother to ask any questions. I could already guess where this was going. There was no way they’d be able to continue their education and run a business as ambitious as Olympus Incorporated.

“We aren’t,” Andy said. “We’re going to be taking a leave of absence. We’re leaving Nowhere Island University.”


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Track 19: Brace Yourself

The next week, May and Andy were gone off to Washington DC to finalize the FDA approval of May’s various inventions. Then they’d be off to the warehouse they had rented as a factory for Olympus Inc.

“It’s in Worcester?” I asked when I heard about the factory’s location. “You mean you were in Massachusetts all summer and didn’t contact me? I was only an hour away!”

“Well,” May said, “we didn’t exactly have a way to contact you.”

“What about the cPhone?” I asked. “It should work outside…”

“It’s kind of illegal,” Andy pointed out. “I mean, the way they work outside the campus is by pretending to be a phone on the strongest network. You AMS guys may be crazy enough to casually commit theft of service, but I’m not.”

That had been on Saturday as I had walked them to the island’s airport. Nari had wanted to come, but Sunny hadn’t let her. I stayed there in the surprisingly light drizzle (well, light for NIU in mid-October) as the plane taxied down the runway. I then started to walk back to the campus.

However, for some reason, I turned to look at the forest. I had run through those woods twice a day for a semester, and I’d also had my first firefight there. Oddly enough, except for the monthly run, I hadn’t visited it since then, even though I had been thinking about doing it ever since Hell Semester had ended. I had this idea in my head that going back to the part where the most deadly part of the battle had taken place, a crater probably formed in WWII when the US took the island from the Japanese, I would instantly feel better.

Walking into the forest, I began to feel a sense of unease. On the path, I noticed that something was… off. Along the path where years of vehicles and Hell Semester students had worn, the trees had begun to blossom. Most of the other non-coniferous trees farther back in the forest had almost finished losing their leaves, but these seemed to think it was spring despite the colder weather.

I didn’t need to think about what this meant for too long. The Architect had been through here. I considered my options. The newly awakened sensible side of me pointed out that pursuing whatever this was would be a bad idea. The slightly less sensible side was inclined to believe that I wouldn’t have a prayer of sleeping until The Architect was dead. This less sensible side also pointed out that The Architect had come after me first, with no warning or provocation. My sensible side countered that the weapons I had on me (my SIG and my Berretta, plus a switchblade) would probably be of little use on someone (or something) that could make space and time his or her bitch.

I was busy considering whether to walk away like nothing was wrong, or going down there and ending The Architect when Mubashir appeared ahead of me from a side trail. I sighed inwardly. That’s twice I’d seen him involved in Architect-related weirdness and zero times I had seen signs of The Architect without seeing Moob. Odds were looking better and better that Bai was right and he was The Architect.

Upon seeing me, Mubashir froze. As he did, I noticed he was clutching what seemed to be a prayer rug. Finally, after a long pause, I said, as casually as possible, “Hey Moob, what’cha doing out here?”

“I… I was just finishing up some prayers,” he said after another pause. I noticed that he was slightly flustered. “There’s a bunker up that path that keeps the rain out. Really peaceful.” When I didn’t say anything to that, he added, “I also have to get away from Salim.”

“Won’t he notice that you’re gone?” I asked.

“Not on Saturdays,” Mubashir said. “He’s usually trying to get other Muslims to join.” He cocked his head. “By the way, what are you doing here?”

“I was trying to see if I could find the crater,” I said. Seeing Mubashir’s confused look, I said, “It’s where most of the Hell Semester battle happened. There’s more than a few ghosts there that I need to burry.”

Mubashir nodded. It was hard to see at that distance, especially in the rain and mist. “I know a few things about ghosts,” he said. “Would you like me to walk with you? Make sure you don’t step on a mine or unexploded shell?”

“Sure,” I said. The mines and shelling were mostly around the Hell Semester side of the island, but the forest separated that area from the main campus. The crater in question had most likely been from a battleship. The likelihood some other shells had landed in the area was pretty high. I didn’t want to risk stepping on a shell big enough to make that kind of crater that had been waiting for me since the early forties. “You can’t be too careful.”

We crossed the distance between us, then began our journey. After a few minutes, Mubashir remarked, “You know, I don’t really ever think of that last day of Hell Semester as a battle. More like a final where I just sat around doing nothing.”

“It definitely was a battle,” I said. “Especially around the crater.” After another pause I said, “I know it’s probably nothing compared to what you went through, but that kind of fucked me up. That and the rest of Hell Semester.”

“About that,” Moob said, “I’m sorry about what happened after Fight Night.” I nodded. He was referring to an incident where Salim had ambushed me. It ended up with most of Salim’s crew dead and me sharing an ambulance ride with a girl Eliza had really messed up. It wasn’t a fun time.

We walked along for a little while more. “You know,” Mubashir said, “for a time I alternated between not believing in Allah and cursing Him, saying I could do a better job. A few months after being kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, in fact.”

“What changed?” I asked.

Mubashir obviously wished I had asked something else, but he answered anyway. “In difficult situations some people find God, some people lose him. In even rarer situations God finds them.”

There was more silence. During that time, we kept heading deeper and deeper into the forest. We had left behind the strange blossoming trees and were in a segment that I wasn’t exactly familiar with. However, I could feel we were getting close. Finally Mubashir asked, “So, how many of them were there?”

“A captive we had claimed around a hundred and fifty,” I said, “and a captured cPhone with a ‘Find My Friends’ feature led me to believe he was correct.”

“That many?” Mubashir asked. “Against eight of you?”

“The vast majority were worse than useless,” I said. “They panicked way too easily, they couldn’t tell a safety from a magazine catch, and until the very end, their leadership ranged from nonexistent to worse than useless.”

“I’ve had experience with those kinds of leaders,” Mubashir said. “It’s almost funny when they meet on the field of battle and match ‘wits.’ Except so many are dying and each side had an obvious way to end it without that many people dying.” He sighed. “Of course, the war I’m fighting is completely unnecessary and one of the groups I’m fighting with is becoming less relevant every day. I believe the English language meme is dumpster fire?”

I shrugged. “Haven’t looked at the net much lately so I couldn’t…” I paused. We had just come into a clearing. A very familiar one.

“What is it?” Mubashir asked.

“This is where we had our second battle,” I said. I hurried out into the middle of it. “I came through the bushes…” I scanned around, then pointed to the spot, “…over there. Standing right here was an enemy patrol. We took them out…” I could almost see the last one. He had been playing dead as The Monk and I had advanced on him. Then his phone had rung and he had popped up. We had shot him. I remembered how he and his companions’ blood had soaked the snow. We had then looted the corpses after making sure all of them were dead. I somehow felt both ashamed and proud.

“Are you ok?” Mubashir asked.

“Moving on!” I said with forced cheer. Mubashir looked at me strangely, but he followed me down memory lane. “You know,” I continued in a non-sequitur, “It was really cold. And blizzarding. Visibility was complete shit and everyone’s teeth were chattering. Of course, you were back at camp, experiencing the same weather so…”

“I don’t remember any of it,” Mubashir said. “It was honestly just another day off for me once I set the tent up. Salim was ranting, and those of us who were still left were listening to him vent.”

“What does he talk about?” I ask.

“His family and how they got murdered by an American drone,” Mubashir said. “Just once, I want to point out my family was most likely killed or enslaved by Al Qaeda, but that would blow my cover.” He kicked a tree. “I work for UNIX!” He kicked it again. “I work for the CIA!” He kicked a final time. “I work for Al Qaeda! I work for three of the worst entities in the world, three entities who lie and abuse my brother and sister Arabs daily! Who abuse me daily! Why am I cowardly enough to work for them?”

“I don’t think you’re a coward,” I said. “Honestly, I just don’t think you have a choice.”

“Apart from suicide,” Mubashir said.

“If you’ve found God again,” I said, continuing on my journey, “and if he’s saying the same thing to you as he is to me, that’s definitely a sin.”

Mubashir began following me. “Maybe our gods aren’t so different after all,” he said with a bit of a bitter laugh. “Which would make sense, since they’re the same.”

Eventually, we saw it. The memories of the events there caused me to stagger a bit, and for a minute, I could smell the fire and smoke. I could hear the gunfire and screams of the dying. It was so real I almost thought I was back there. Next to me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mubashir look at me in concern.

I took a few deep breaths, then said, “I’m ok.”

“To be fair,” Mubashir said, trying to sound casual, “You’re doing a lot better than I would if I went back to my village.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Anyway, if you look around, I think you can still see some signs of the battle. For instance, those shrubs along the sides of this path… I think you can still see how they got burned.”

After that, I led Mubashir up the path to the crater, keeping up a running commentary about everything that happened. How Doc, The Monk, John and I had to fight our way to the crater where Eric, MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and Cross had holed up. How the enemy had sent a recon team down what we had termed the funnel, and how The Monk and I had killed most of them. How the next attack was the rest of them, all coming down the funnel, and how we had massacred them with our guns and incendiary grenades, literally dismembering some and burning a few others alive. How we had decided (stupidly) to leave the crater and were ambushed by the few remaining enemies. How they had shot me, The Monk and Ray-Gun and could possibly have killed all of us if a relief force led by Eliza hadn’t shown up.

From the top of the crater, I stared at the now-swampy wasteland where I had been shot. “Hey Moob,” I asked, “Is it weird that I’m kind of proud at what I did here?”

“By ‘weird,’” Mubashir asked, “do you mean wrong?”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “I mean, I feel guilty. A lot of them died in pretty horrible ways. Sometimes because I pulled a trigger or threw a grenade.”

“I don’t know,” Mubashir said. “There is only one person who can answer that, and he hasn’t talked to me.” He smiled with a mixture of hope and cynicism. “I can say I hope God can forgive you, because I’ve been doing similar things and worse for much longer.”

“Well, I’ll hope he forgives you as well,” I said. “Mostly because I like your logic.” We laughed. It was genuine laughter. When we were done, I looked down at the bottom of the crater. “Someday,” I said, “I’d like to come back here with some other veterans, or some people like you who weren’t here but who’d understand what this is like. Cook some hot dogs or burgers, pop something to drown our sorrows, and just talk.”

“It can’t be with me,” Mubashir said. “I have to go back, and if they see me with you…”

I nodded. “Of course. Go on ahead.” I looked out to where I had been hit in the leg with shrapnel from a 40mm rifle grenade. “I’ve still got some reminiscing to do.” With only a short goodbye, Mubashir left. I watched him leave, then began to wonder how many more craters and North Koreas I would have.

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Track 15: Shot Through the Heart

Apparently, Eliza and I weren’t the only ones to see that vision. According to an email I read, a lot of other people on the island had seen the same thing and the TV in Sun Tzu had a report about psionically sensitive people seeing strange visions all over the world. I was worried, but I realized that there was nothing about it I could do. Instead, I spent all my spare time trying to do rough sketches of the next weapons.

Finally, it was time to go to the study group/weapons test. Saturday morning, I actually had managed to sleep until seven. Considering when I usually got to bed and how little time I actually spent sleeping, it was unsurprising that I was usually tired. I considered going back to sleep, then considered the nightmares I was likely to get. After those lovely thoughts, I began the process of getting ready without disturbing John.

After I got in, I noticed that he had gotten dressed while I was doing the same, plus showering and brushing teeth. “Did I wake you up?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “not really. Besides, I can sleep through all sorts of crap.”

“Also,” I said, “sorry about the other night with Eliza. I…”

“Hey,” John said, “it was much better than what you walked into when Bai was here. Besides, she kind of lives on the floor above us.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” John said. “She rooms with Oro, but it’s functionally a single. Don’t ask where Oro goes, Bai never asks and I’d bet anything she wouldn’t tell if she knew.” He gestured at the door with his toothbrush. “Anyway…”

“Certainly,” I said.

Eventually he came back. For once, we actually talked a bit, mostly about classes. It was weird. Ever since we had gotten back to the island, we had stopped talking to each other. It was weird.

I thought back to what Eliza had said about Charlotte blaming herself for whatever happened in England over vacation. “John,” I asked, “do you blame me for what happened in Korea?”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Uh… the part where you got shot.”

“Ah.” John said nervously. “That part.”

There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, he said, “I don’t really blame anyone for what happened. I mean, I could blame you, but you never really forced me or even ordered me into that particular situation. I could blame the guy who actually shot me, but he was completely in the right to do so. I could blame myself, but honestly those things happen.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“Is there a reason you asked?” John asked.

“It’s just…” I said, “…things have been weird between us since then, you know?”

“Yeah.” John said. There was another pause, then he blurted out, “It’s just… you’d do it again. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the next time I do something like this, I could die. I will die.”

“You don’t have to continue doing this,” I said. “You’re not on a tour of duty, and there’s plenty of other people who can do this.”

John cocked his head. “You really believe that?” he asked skeptically. “That we can sit back?” I hesitated. John sighed. “I thought so. Fuck me, right?”

Suddenly, our phones beeped. We both reached for them. It was Nari, sending out a mass text. Apparently, she was out in front of Sun Tzu. “You want to head out?” I asked John.

“Sure,” he said. “I kind of want to see how this gun you’ve been working on handles.”

“Actually,” I said as I unlocked my gun safe, “these ones are models that Nari’s improved.” I reached in and pulled out the prototype. “This is the one I made.” I held it for a moment, then put it in my pocket after making sure it was on safe. “Might be useful to give people an idea of how much its improved.”

“I call first dibs,” John said.

We walked down to Sun Tzu together, meeting Cross, Bai, Oro, and Eric’s crew on the way down. Ray-Gun, in particular was particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Cross, however, was quite grumpy.

“Listen, Ray,” he said as we got out of the elevator, “I know you like high-tech stuff, but I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Or my morning coffee. I need you to get the fuck outta my face with your tobacco and your chipperness for five seconds.”

“I’m sorry you are such a sad individual,” Ray-Gun said, waving his still-burning cigarette around expressively, “but I cannot control my excitement, and I have no wish to.”

“You are lucky,” MC Disaster said quietly. “At least they aren’t laser or plasma-based. Then he’d never shut up.”

The banter continued like this for the few seconds it took us to leave our dorm and see Nari, May, Sunny, and Andy waiting by the entrance to Sun Tzu. Sunny and Andy looked drained. May looked like her usual hyper self, albeit somewhat annoyed. Nari, meanwhile, looked like she had stolen the energy from the other three. She was also holding an ABS case and a cloth bag.

“Good,” Nari said upon seeing us, “you have made it.” She then turned around and beckoned imperiously. “Come on,” she said. “The range is only open for a limited time.”

Sunny, noticing that some of us (Cross) weren’t exactly thrilled to be ordered around by a ten-year-old, said, “Sorry. She’s a little…”

Eric interrupted by asking Nari, “So, my Queen,” he asked jovially, “what do you wish of your court today?” He had moved up besides Nari, and as he said this he made a parody of an obsequious bow.

“Don’t encourage her,” Sunny said, shooting Eric a venomous expression.

Nari, suddenly realizing what she had done, cringed slightly. “Sorry…” she said.

“Besides,” Andy said jokingly, “if anyone’s queen, it’d be May.”

Normally, May would either jokingly accept the title or cede it out of embarrassment, but today, she just made a noncommittal noise of recognition. Everyone else continued on as normal, but Andy and I noticed. I’m pretty sure that Nari noticed as well, but Eric was keeping her busy.

Eventually, Nari lead us into the room she had reserved. First, she opened the case to reveal six of the new pistols with two magazines each. These pistols were identified by stickers on the grip and barrel made by a label maker. As Andy had said, their aesthetic had been radically changed to a hybrid of the Berreta M-92’s long, double-cut slide and Desert Eagle’s triangular shape. The only bits of my original design that remained were the FNP-style sight mounts and the barrel that extended beyond the slide. Then she opened the bag to reveal that it had two plastic bags.

While she was doing that, I said, “Hey, Nari, John wanted to test out the first prototype, so I brought it along.”

“Did you bring magazines for it?” she asked. “I had to rework the magazines slightly. It wasn’t that big of a change.”

“Here you go,” I said, handing her the pistol and a spare mag.

She set the weapon on top of the newer versions. “Attention, please!” she called out. When she had everyone’s attention, she said, “In the case are prototypes of the Uilon Mangchi. Most of them are the second prototype, but one is the first. Do not get their magazines mixed up! Generation one has a different magazine than generation two, and I need to collect data on how they work.” When she saw that everyone had gotten this information, she continued, “In the white plastic bag, I have put tungsten-core rounds. In the other, I have bullets made out of a new compound taken from Grenzefrontier troops called seltsamemetall. Please make a note of which type of ammo you use and which gun you’re using on the sheets on the station, as well as any malfunctions. Mr. Jacobs, would you please instruct our guests in the operation of these weapons?”

Luckily, the controls on the first generation were the same as the ones on the second, which made things much quicker. The problem was that as soon as I had walked everyone through the process of loading, unloading and putting the Uilon Mangchi on safety, there was a knock on the door.

I opened it. There, smiling brightly, was Eliza. Behind her were Jennifer and Charlotte. “Sorry I’m late!” Eliza said. “What’d I miss?”

“Well…” I said, somewhat sheepishly, “kinda everything.”

Nari looked over my shoulder. “I know the mutant,” she said, “sorry… I mean Lupine. But I do not remember meeting the other two.”

“Charlotte is Eliza’s adopted sister,” I said. “Jennifer is… Jennifer.” Jennifer laughed in amusement at this. It was the kind of laugh that wasn’t supposed to remind you she was a supervillain, but did anyway. “They’re both in the Rogue program.”

I’m not sure why I mentioned that last bit, but I could feel Nari light up behind me. “Excellent!” she said. “I think we could use a law enforcement or enthusiast perspective on our weaponry.”

“I’m a little more than…” Jennifer began.

At the same time, May said, “I would prefer to avoid the civ…”

“Details, details,” Nari said. I turned around to see her literally wave off my concern. “Brief them on the details of operation and data gathering, Mr. Jacobs. After the first round, join us for the shareholders meeting.”

After running through everything again, I sat back and watched the first wave go. Everyone with the second generation prototype got the hang of it pretty quick. John, who was using the first generation, got the operation down pretty quick. After he finished his forty rounds (by which time all the other shooters had finished theirs,) he said, “If the fucking thing didn’t keep jamming or feel like I was firing a magnum, I’d say it was really good. It has some really nice penetration on it, which would have come in handy in Korea.” I nodded, remembering the abnormally strong armor of the Dragon’s Teeth. Hell, I had even had trouble penetrating the South Korean SWAT officer’s hard body armor with pistol rounds. 6.5mm seemed to solve that last problem pretty handily, though.

The Monk spoke up. “The newer version has greatly improved on the recoil, but I still do not like it. I also dislike the trigger. It seems a little heavy.” He paused to consider. “Then again, the recoil is comparable to your SIG, so I suppose someone might like it.” As he spoke, I noticed Nari was scribbling in a notebook.

MC Disaster spoke up again, making it a personal record for speaking in a day. “My thoughts are very similar. I quite like the power, I can tolerate the recoil, and I dislike the trigger pull. However, to determine if I would carry it into battle, I’d have to spend a lot more range time with it.” He considered the gun for a moment. Finally, he asked, “Does it really have to look this hideous?”

“Personally,” Jen said, “I quite adore the looks. Also the clip…”

“Magazine,” several people said at once, including Nari.

“Whatever,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “I like it. I just want to empty it a bit faster. It would also be nice to do it one-handed. That means a slight recoil reduction and a decreased trigger pull.”

“Me too,” Cross said. “But don’t reduce the trigger pull too much, ok?”

“It isn’t a revolver or a bolt-action,” Oro said. “That’s probably why I don’t like it. It is very accurate for an automatic.”

After a few minutes of somewhat contradictory advice and several near-arguments from the first seven shooters, Nari finally said, “I think that’s enough for now.” She grabbed me by the arm. “Please, continue shooting. Meanwhile, the board will have a meeting.”

“Speaking of that,” Bai asked, “what is your company called?”

“Olympus,” May said. “Olympus Incorporated.”

When we got out, I said, “Pretty cool name. Did you come up with it, May?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m also thinking we should name the divisions differently. You and Nari get the weaponry division, Mars Arsenal. You’ll also have a split between thirty percent of the profits of Mars Arsenal. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good,” I said. “What’s your division called?”

“I’ve got Hephaestus Industrial Solutions,” Andy said. “May has Caduceus Medical. Speaking of Caduceus, wanna tell them the good news?”

“Sure,” May said. “Basically, the changes to the student invention policy means I can get a grant from The President. Plus, his contacts are railroading Power Sludge and my surgical glue through the FDA. If things go as planned, Andy and I might be leaving the school in a few weeks. We even a site picked out in Massachusetts.”

“You don’t sound very happy,” Nari said.

May sighed. “There’s an FBI contest. Apparently, .40 S&W isn’t cutting it for dealing with Parahumans and criminals armed with advanced tech.”

“And?” Nari asked. “Isn’t that not a good thing?”

May took a deep breath. “Weapons entered in this kind of competition tend to sell very well with civilians…”

“Which is what we want, correct?” Nari said. “These weapons are deliberately designed to defeat The Dragon’s Teeth. If they invade, we want as many people armed with these as possible.”

May exploded. “And what do you think people are going to be doing with them in the meantime?” Nari flinched, but May continued.  “Yeah, sure, we’ll get rich, selling weapons to people like Cross and Jennifer as well as the cops, then selling medical supplies when they’re done killing each other. But people will still be killing each other before The Dragon’s Teeth show up. I don’t want to be responsible for that!”

Suddenly, May stopped, realizing that Nari was starting to tear up. “I’m sorry,” May said hurriedly, “I didn’t mean…”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” Nari said, straining to speak through her tears, “are massacring everyone in my country. I don’t want to be responsible for them to do the same to another country. Whatever Cross and Jennifer and people like them are capable of is a rounding error compared to what I’ve seen from those monsters.” She then began to walk off. “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be back.”

“Well,” May said after Nari was out of sight, “not only am I a hypocrite, I guess I’m also a complete bitch.” She began to walk away. “I’m going back to my dorm. When Nari comes back, tell her I’m sorry.”


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Track 13: The Final Prophecy

The next week was much the same, except I didn’t try and design a gun in my spare time. That meant way, way more sleep. The only problem was that “way, way more sleep” still translated to “very little.” I actually kind of liked it, though. Going to bed tired as fuck meant I could sleep without nightmares.

Speaking of nightmares, they were getting worse and worse. I remember that once Alma told me that emotional distress was as real and legitimate as physical pain. I thought about that a lot as I lay in my bed, praying I wouldn’t dream, my ribs still aching from the bullets my plate had stopped in North Korea and my leg giving the occasional twinge from when it had been perforated by shrapnel in the Hell Semester final. Fun times.

After our radio show finished on Monday, Andy took me aside. “Hey,” he said, “we got your email. May wants to have a shareholder’s meeting to discuss what to do next.”

“When is it going to be?” I asked.

“After the study group,” Andy said. “Also… Nari’s been busy.”

“Really?” I said, intrigued by how tired and disgusted Andy sounded. “What’s she been doing?”

“More like ‘what’s she been making me do,’” Andy said. “She’s got me working on making a frigging prototype ammo factory in Nari’s basement. She even has multiple 3D printers to help make parts to build the factory. Meanwhile, she’s making several copies of the second prototype.”

“Really?” I asked. “How’s it coming?”

“Well, we haven’t tested it yet,” Andy said. “Mostly because I’m afraid of it and May and Sunny will kill us both if Nari fires it.” He paused, then said, “Also, I hope you’re not attached to its looks. Nari decided to take your notes about marketing to heart.”

“Really?” I said. “What did she do?”

“I hope you like how Desert Eagles and Jerichos look,” Andy said, “because she watched a few action movies and decided the slide needed to be triangular.”

“I’m a Jewish gun nut,” I said. “I’m required by the Talmud to think that’s totally sweet.”

“Understandable,” Andy said, “but she also extended the barrel beyond the slide.”

I stopped. “But… but why?” I asked.

“It’s got something to do with being able to add on accessories,” Andy said. “I tried telling her that would add to the final cost, but she keeps saying people will want to add flash hiders and suppressors.”

I remembered how loud it was and how bright the muzzle flash was. “Yes,” I said. “They will. Trust me.”

Andy nodded. “Yeah, I heard the stories. Nari’s lucky her concussion wasn’t a lot worse.”

“Is she alright?” I asked. “Probably should have asked sooner. She sounded ok at the time, but that isn’t always a good indicator.”

“May’s actually going to talk to her about that,” Andy said. “Should be fun.” I nodded in agreement knowing that what Andy meant was, “There’s going to be a huge fight, and we will wish we were elsewhere.”

Conversation moved on to other things. Apparently, some jackass outside NIU (or “the world” as Andy called it) was saying that game developers should work eighty hours a week. Due to my dad’s job in the tech industry and having worked one myself, I had a few things to say about that. Since Andy’s parents were also in the same industry, he raged with me.

However, just as we were about to enter the cafeteria, Eliza came up to us. “Oi, Nate,” she said. “Got a mo’?” She appeared agitated.

“I was actually about to…” I began, gesturing at the cafeteria.

Eliza cut me off. “I’ll buy you dinner after.” She then grabbed my hand and proceeded to drag me away.

We were deep in what I thought to be Rogue country when I finally worked up the courage to ask, “Hey, Eliza, what’s going on?”

“I’m fixing things between my friends,” Eliza growled. “I’m bloody tired of hearing Bai bad-mouth you all the time. I’m also tired of you not understanding what this five-‘undred year mess means to some people.”

Eventually, she led me right into a building that had apartment style dorm rooms. Our stop was apparently a dorm room on the second floor. Eliza opened the door (over the summer, most of the locks had been changed to use student’s cPhones as keys,) revealing a cramped hallway/kitchen and a common area inside.

As I walked into the common room, I saw Bai was sitting on one of the couches. Our eyes met at the same time. She nodded coolly as I sat down on the couch opposite from her that Eliza indicated. Eliza looked us both over, frowned and said, “Right. Now ‘ere’s the problem as I see it. The first part is that you, Nate, think the Final Prophecy is completely mad, and everyone ‘oo believes in it is a nutter.”

“That is more strongly than I’d put it,” I said as diplomatically as possible. Eliza cocked her head. I sighed, “But yes, I don’t really see any evidence to support that its coming true.”

“It’s real!” Bai exploded suddenly. I had never seen her this agitated before. “The signs are all there! The…”

“Oi!” Eliza said sharply, her foxlike ears flattening. “The fuck’d I tell you, Bai? And you,” she pointed back to me, “sit your ass back down!”

“I’m not going to…” I began.

“Down.” Eliza said, emphasizing her point by pointing at the floor. I sat down. Eliza surveyed us, her green eyes daring us to defy her. “Anyway,” she said when she was sure dissent had been quashed, “If I’m reading Bai correctly, not only has she been raised in a group that believes wholeheartedly in this prophecy, but she believes that she, single-‘andedly, can save the bloody world.”

“Do you think I’m an idiot?” Bai asked Eliza harshly.

“Frankly,” Eliza said, “Yeah. I think the two of you’d be tied for the bloody stupidest wankers in this school if it weren’t for my sis and your brother. You both believe that if you stick your limbs into enough meat grinders, you’ll end up saving the world. And because I’m also a bloody idiot, I’ve decided looking after Char wasn’t enough. And keeping you two imbeciles alive means making sure you don’t kill each other.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Look,” Eliza said, “I like both of ya, if you haven’t already guessed. But I wasn’t trained to be some ‘ero of legend or raised in a comfortable suburb where no one’d even look at you funny.”

I looked away. Despite it being in my face on a daily basis, I’d somehow managed to push the fact that I was white, middle-class American male in a program that deliberately targeted the poorest people from the poorest countries. Also, before Eliza had been adopted, life hadn’t exactly been sunshine and roses for her. Looking up, I noticed that Bai was also looking at the ground.

“I think,” she said, possibly not realizing my thoughts, “that this calls for a meeting of the minds. Instead of jumping down each other’s throats, let me ask Nate a few questions. Then we might be able to continue this discussion in a friendly manner. Is that acceptable?”

It was obviously a rhetorical question. Eliza’s glare made that clear. However, to assuage her wrath, we both reassured her that we were fine with this suggested plan. I believe the strategy is known as the “let the Lupine win” maneuver.

“Alright,” Eliza said. “First question, Nate. Did you see anything in North Korea that might rule out The Final Prophecy is being realized?”

“No,” I said. “But that doesn’t really resolve anything, does it? I can’t really prove a negative, can’t I?”

“That leads me to my next question,” Eliza said.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re going to ask if I saw anything to indicate that The Dragon’s Teeth are really working for a death goddess.”

“Lord,” Bai corrected. “The Lord of Death. Masculine form.”

I considered my options. The most tempting was to just say fuck it and go on not believing in the prophecy. The other was to insist that it was really a female. I finally decided to just ask, for the sake of civility and my jugular, “Does it have to be male?”

There was a long pause. Bai and Eliza stared at each other long and hard. Finally Eliza suggested, “These dream thingys the Prophecy was revealed with weren’t specific, were they? And it was an age ago, comin’ up on five ‘undred years, innit? Could it be that no one saw the gender and assumed something that destructive ‘ad to be a bloke?”

“I would like to think the seers were more perceptive,” Bai said, “but I have heard of several Indian versions that use feminine versions for The Lord of Death. There’s also one European version, Italian, I believe, that thought of The Lord of Death as an abstract force. Of course, we neglected that version because it didn’t mention Death’s army.” After this exchange, they turned to me, Bai asking, “Any particular reason for asking?”

“We stumbled upon a Dragon’s Teeth prayer session,” I said. “They mentioned their Goddess, specifically mentioning she was female.”

“And you didn’t mention this because…?” Eliza asked.

“I thought they were messing with us,” I said. “I still think they are, but by us, I mean The President. All I know is that their Goddess, they call her Thanna, scares The President. I think he knows, or suspects, who Thana is.” I sighed. “The problem is, I have no proof. Even worse, I don’t have enough information to form my own theories!”

“The prophecy can guide us,” Bai said. “Do you believe us in that the Lord of Death’s army has arrived?”

“I’m less inclined to believe that you’re putting your faith in a fairy tale,” I said, “and I agree the Dragon’s Teeth are a huge threat, but I’m only fifty-percent convinced that this Lord of Death is an actual thing.”

Bai sighed. “What if I told you that The Architect will reveal himself, herself, or itself next? When… it shows up, would you believe me then?”

“Maybe,” I said. “What does The Architect do?”

Bai and Eliza looked at each other. “Manipulate reality, I guess?” Eliza said, shrugging. “That’s all I got, really.” I sighed. That was a little vague. If I stretched the definition, I manipulated reality every time I opened a freezer.

“We call him Bai Wan Shan De Emo,” Bai said. “In English, it means Million-Handed Demon. Does that help?”

Million-Handed Demon. As soon as I heard those words, I could feel myself going pale. My lunch also began trying to escape my stomach and I felt the floor drop out from under me. I even had to check to make sure I wasn’t free-falling. I wasn’t, but looking down made my stomach feel even worse. It was a visceral sensation that any person who’s undergone a panic attack will instantly recognize.

“Nate,” Eliza asked, “you alright, Nate?”

I barely heard her. I was flashing back to my first day back and the… thing that had accosted me. My body shuddered, as if the invisible hands were groping me again. I remembered the entire ordeal… the distortion of reality, the way the hands had imprisoned me, their grasping of things that should not be grasped, and the… and the…

No. That wasn’t something that would happen to me, right? Not again. In fact, I doubted you could even call it that. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like me, right?

“NATE!” I jerked up. Eliza’s face was right in front of my own, and I suddenly realized I was covered in sweat. “Nate,” she asked, “are you alright?”

I suddenly realized that I was about to barf. “Bathroom,” I managed to choke out. Eliza pointed me in the right direction, and I ran, pushing the door open.

Five minutes later, I was done voiding the contents of my stomach. It was another three before I could stop retching. “Nathan,” Bai said from outside the room, “are you alright?”

“Yeah, mate,” Eliza said, walking into the room, “you look like you need a doctor.”

“The Architect…” I began.

“What would you like to know about…” Bai began, but I cut her off.

“The Architect’s on Nowhere Island.”


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Track 3: Touchdown

As with the other times I had been on the plane, we were in the air for days. Each hour we were in the sky only cemented my opinion that the phrase “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” had been invented before air travel. There is nothing rewarding about sitting in the same seat for hours upon hours, only occasionally getting out of the plane when it stopped to pick up other students.

The nice thing was that we were eventually joined by May Riley and Andy Sebaldi.

“OH. MY. GOD!” May said, as soon as she spotted John and me, rushing over to us. “I am SOOOO glad to be out of my home. Ever since Mary left to do all this crazy-ass merc work in ISIS-land or wherever…”

As she began babbling on, a few people turned around to stare at the tiny little woman with a Tech N9ne t-shirt, pale skin, mismatched eyes, one green, one brown, blond hair with the tips dyed purple, and a face that had one side visibly scarred. They also probably stared at the thin, lanky giant of a man who followed her. I, meanwhile, just zoned out and let May’s rapid-fire speech patterns flow over me.

“Hey,” Andy said, “let them speak, why don’t’cha?”

Andy and May were two of the smartest people I knew. When we hosted a radio show together last semester, I had learned that Andy was a master of robotics and had made his own factory in his room. May, I had met earlier. She had attended me after Eliza kicked my ass in one of Hell Semester’s more brutal traditions and had made at least two inventions that had saved the lives of me and my friends. However, like most people who were scarily smart, they had some eccentricities. May, in particular, had been teased mercilessly for her weird looks and ADHD.

Still, it was nice to have them with us. They were genuinely good people. The only problem is that May was sometimes a bit nosy. “You know, that’s a good idea, Andy,” she said, “what did you guys do over the summer?”

“Oh, nothing much,” I said, maybe a little too casually. “Just, y’know, hung out around the house.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, “not much.” Her voice cracked as she said this, and she stared at her hands.

Instantly the two of us regretted saying anything. May’s exuberant attitude suddenly became suspicious. “You know,” she said, “for people who do so much cloak and dagger stuff, you two are terrible liars.”

“How about you?” I asked. “Did you and Andy do anything interesting?”

May sighed. “Ok, I see how you’re going to play this. Fine. You remember how when I met Andy I asked him if he could help me produce some of the stuff I made?”

“I think that might have been the first thing you said to him,” I said.

“Anyway,” May said, “we created a prototype assembly line in Andy’s basement. Well, technically, it’s his parents’ basement. Now we need to get the money to buy the supplies.”

“How much money would this cost?” I asked.

“Well,” May said, “to make five gallons of my surgical glue would cost about five hundred dollars but… Wait, why are you asking this?”

“John and I…” I said, “we came into a bit of money over the summer.” That was understating a bit. Both John and I had gotten five million dollars. Right now, it was gathering interest. How much interest depended on the investment person I had put in charge of it. The only problem would be getting to it.

“Look,” May said, “we wouldn’t know what to do with more than two thousand dollars. Then we think we can get a government loan or grant. I don’t really want to take your blood money, no offense.”

“What about the money I made bartending?” I asked. Last semester, I had taken a job at an on-campus bar called The Drunken Mercenary. I hadn’t made as much money there, but it would be enough.

“Fine,” May said. “Why not? I guess we have our first investor.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “all I want is to make sure that this gets to market as soon as possible.” If I was right, and the Dragon’s Teeth were going to get worse, there were going to be a lot of people needing the best medicine at the lowest price.

“So do we,” Andy said. “The school has a policy: if you can’t put your invention on the market within three years after making it, the school gets all the rights to it. That’s how they’re ten years ahead of everyone else.”

“What?” John asked. “How does that make any sense?” I had to agree. The ways that NIU could benefit from all the various inventions must outweigh any other advantage, right?

“They might be stockpiling,” Jen said, “creating an artificial lack of supply to sell later… or they’re going to use the tech themselves. I’ve made a profit on both tactics.”

“Figures.” May said. May didn’t like Jen. It was either because May knew about Jen’s illicit activities, or Jen was reminiscent of one of May’s tormentors in school, or maybe both, plus a little extra. As far as I could tell, Jen ignored the barbs, but I wouldn’t put it past her to retaliate when no one else was looking.

As we continued the rest of the trip, May did her best to restrict her thinly veiled aspersions cast against Jen. Also, with our wise decision not to drink anything unhealthier that two or three sodas per day, the trip was much more pleasant than it had been the last time. On that flight, May and I were the only ones who weren’t hungover for most of the flight.

Still, I felt like I needed a drink, and I don’t mean water. The pain in my leg and chest was acting up again, and the nightmares were getting worse. I woke up twice screaming, everyone staring at me in a mixture of concern and annoyance. The last two times I had been able to get a decent night’s sleep that I could remember I had some kind of whiskey.

“Christ, Nate!” Eliza yelled the second time this happened. For some reason, she seemed a bit closer than she should have been and I felt a pressure leave my shoulder. “What’s up with you?”

I looked around. Dozens of people were staring at me in annoyance. Honestly, I didn’t give a shit about some strangers. My friends, meanwhile, were mostly concerned. Except Andy. He was out like a log.

“Sorry,” I said, “It’s… the nightmares. They’ve been getting worse ever since…”

“Yeah,” John said, who was groggily coming awake. “I get them too…” He blinked a couple times. “But you’ve been having nightmares since Hell Semester.” He paused, considering something. Eventually, he asked, “You ok, man?”

“Yeah,” I said, flashing a smile. “I’m fine, man.” Outside, it was night. Only the stars above and the clouds below were visible.

A hand touched my shoulder. “Oi,” Eliza said, her green eyes locking with mine and her fox ears lowered and rotated towards me, “if you need to talk to anyone, y’know we’re ‘ere for you, right?”

“I know,” I said. “Eliza…” I didn’t know where I was going with that, but I was definitely going somewhere.

Before I could finish that thought, the captain came over the speakers. “Please fasten your seatbelts,” she said, “we are about to make our final approach to Nowhere Island University. Have a safe landing and a happy semester!”

When the plane was well and truly in its final descent, Jen said, shouting a bit above the noise, “So, Nathan, you were about to say something to Eliza?” I noticed an odd, hopeful look on Jen’s face.

“I… I actually had no idea where I was going with that,” I said sheepishly. “Kind of was going on autopilot.”

Jen’s hopeful look suddenly disappeared. “Are you really going to let that get in the way?” she asked me disgustedly. “And you, Eliza, are you going to let him weasel out like that?”

“I… I’ve no idea what you’re on about,” Eliza said, her face turning as red as her hair.

Jen groaned. “When this plane gets down,” she said, “I am going straight to my dorm. I trust that, in my absence, someone who isn’t blind will educate these two.”

Andy, suddenly realizing that we were descending, suddenly jerked awake. “Wai… wha…? Wha’s goin’ on?” he asked blearily.

“Obviously not him,” Jen said above May’s peals of laughter and the roar of the plane. She put on some earbuds and began to pointedly ignore us. When the plane touched down, she took her luggage out without a word.

When she had finally gone off, Eliza asked, “So, Nate,” she said, a little awkwardly, “I was wondering if you wanted to… you know, ‘ang out a bit.” There was still a bit of awkwardness in Eliza’s body language, but it was rapidly fading away.

“I’d love to,” I said. “Today’s, what, Friday? How about we meet Saturday or Sunday?” I turned around to see May doubled over with laughter. John was smiling and shaking his head. “What?” I asked. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, nothing,” John said, a little too quickly.

Meanwhile, May, between paroxysms of laughter managed to squeeze out something that sounded like “Jen was right! You two…” She then started laughing harder. Maybe it was because she hadn’t slept for quite a while.

Eliza, trying and failing to ignore the chuckles and grins from our friends, nodded. “Yeah,” she said, “Sure. ‘Ow about Saturday night? Should be enough time for me to find an activity for us.”

“Hey,” I said, “I’d be, y’know, perfectly fine with some stupid movie.”

“I was… thinking of something a little more involved,” Eliza said. “Maybe goin’ somewhere nice.”

“Sounds good,” I said. We all headed off in different directions soon after. Eliza walked alone to her apartment in what was considered the “soft section,” the part of the campus where all the Business, Law and Rogues went, as well as some of the richer students from the other disciplines. She was in the Academy of Military Science like John and me, but she roomed with her adopted sister, who was a Rogue. May went to a single deep in what was known as Cutter Country, a small area where a lot of Medical students hung out. Andy was pretty close, in an area where the various scientific crowds met up with each other.

John and I, meanwhile, were in a dorm around the Sun Tzu Student Center. It was in one of the campus’s far corners, tucked out of the way. AMS and Shadowhaven combined were dramatically smaller than the third smallest of the schools. We had a slightly bigger area because our education was more physical.

We were in a dorm called Ranger, the main entrance of which literally was only a few steps away from Sun Tzu. In Marine, we had to walk quite a ways to get to Newton-Howell. That was quite annoying when we needed food and had to walk through whatever horrible weather that the island was throwing at us.  The interior was also much nicer than Marine was. Instead of the blinding white walls, there was some nice, soothing wallpaper. Instead of mostly featureless corridors, except for some doors, there were a few common rooms.

We had been to our room over the summer after coming back from our Korean mission. While we were there, we had set up some of our stuff, so it wasn’t that uninviting. The room was divided mostly down the center, my stuff on the right, John’s on the left. By the windows, our desks looked out onto the street below. By the door were our dressers and weapons lockers. The beds were already made.

As tempting as it was to just fall down onto our somewhat dusty beds, we first checked our weapons lockers. Once I confirmed that my G-3K, Berretta M92FS Inox, and SIG-Sauer P229 DAK were there, as well as John’s Z-M LR 300, Mossberg 500, Bren 10 and all the magazines, ammo and other accessories for the guns, we took turns brushing our teeth. Only then did we finally allow ourselves to get to sleep.


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Track 18: Have a Nice Day

The weeks began to pass much more quickly. March went by somewhat quickly, and during that time, it stopped snowing completely! Of course, it was also raining nonstop, but somewhat warm rain was much better than cold snow and freezing snow. Of course, there were still complaints about the weather.

These complaints got more pronounced as the temperature began to spike near the end of the month. Eighty-five Fahrenheit and raining is nice, but ninety-five? It starts to get a little disgusting.

The work was also pretty hard. However, the nice thing about it was that some of it was getting me money. I figured that after taxes, I’d take in a little over fifteen hundred from my bartending. Not enough to get myself a car when I got home, but at the rate I was going, I would be one of the few people from my country who wouldn’t graduate college in debt.

As April began, and culture week started to gear up, things began to get pretty hectic. I didn’t have as much to do as some people. For instance, there was Ricardo, who was working with the Latin-American Culture Fest teams. Their idea was actually pretty genius and quite possibly against the rules.

“Ok,” he said when I asked him about what they were doing, “I suppose I can tell you. The Brazilians already found out about it and got in on it.” It was the Friday before Culture Fest.

“How’d they find out about it?” I asked. “You were keeping it heavily under wraps.” I was also unsure of the requirements of being a Latin-American country.

“There’s actually two ways,” Ricardo said. “First off, they’re perfect for what we’re planning and people thought they should be in on this. Second, we needed to use every football stadium.” Being from the US, it took me a second to realize he meant soccer. “So, the plan is this: a football tournament.”

“A football tournament?” I asked dumbly.

“Yeah, man,” Ricardo said. “Everyone loves football! Plus, the prize for winning is going to be the votes of every other team.”

“Ah,” I said. “How are you going to get people to stick to that?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ricardo said. “There’s also going to be half-time shows. We’re going to have you and Andy cover the Brazil-Mexico game. We’re going to do a pre-game show, they’re going to do a halftime show, and the winner gets to do a reprise. It’s Monday at one, so make sure you got time.”

“Someone else actually checked with us already,” I said. “We’re good to go.” Well, apart from the fact that I knew nothing about soccer (football, I needed to start calling it football) and as far as I knew, neither did Andy.

The next day, when I walked outside, I was shocked to see that it was sunny. It was also a hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit, but I was too shocked by their being actual sun. As I was walking down the street to breakfast, I stared up at the bright light that had been mostly invisible for the past few months.

“It’s so bright…” I said. Then I began laughing manically and running in a circle.

“Let me guess,” someone asked, “AMS, right?”

“How’d you know?” I asked.

The person who had asked gave me a look, then walked off, muttering about AMS nutters getting excited about the bloody weather. I ignored him and started running to the cafeteria.

When I was done with breakfast, I noticed some people setting up stalls on the side of the street. Each one had a different flag. Near Marine and Squire was one with the Scottish flag. The people there were doing something with various forms of grain and I could smell paint thinner wafting from it. I began walking away from it, but then Eliza burst out of Squire, a look of excitement on her face.

“Oy, mate,” she asked, running to the vendor, “is that Scotch you’re makin’?”

“Aye,” one of them said. “But it won’t be ready until Monday, so it’d be great if yeh could fuck off ‘till then.”

“Sure thing!” Eliza said. “It smells like the Irish, yanks, and kraut ‘ave got some stuff set up as well! See ya Monday!”

Before she could run off, I called out, “Hey, Eliza!”

She turned around, “Nate! You’re up early, aren’t ya?”

“Yeah,” I said, “just thought you might want to know that I’m going to be covering a soccer, er, football game for my radio show. It’s at Newell-Howard. You want to come?”

“Footie?” Eliza said, somehow brightening even more. “‘Oo’s playing?”

“Mexico and Brazil are playing each other for Culture Fest,” I said. “Starts around one. Can you make it?”

Eliza laughed. “Of course I can. It’s football.”

The rest of the weekend was mostly studying and trying not to go insane. Seriously, this first year at NIU I had worked harder and felt more scared than I had ever felt in my entire life. I was also not feeling too good about the camera with pictures of sensitive documents being in my room. I was also curious as to who the alleged fourth UNIX agent was. I also wanted to know how Agent Hicks had known about this fourth infiltrator when I hadn’t.

At this point, I was pretty sure that there was a fourth UNIX agent somewhere on the island, possibly more. After all, UNIX had lied to me about almost everything else. Why not this as well?

That was the mixture of paranoia and resentment was what I went back to classes with. I stewed about this through English class, barely able to concentrate on what was going on. At some point, I realized that if I couldn’t put this out of my mind, I’d make some stupid mistake because I was taking this too personally. The question, though, was how did I not take this personally? John and I had basically been hired to die so two others could live.

I had managed to calm down a bit by the time English was over. Seeing it was warm (ok, way too warm) and sunny, I decided to walk around a bit. I quickly discovered that the German Culture Fest booth was serving sausages, beer, and giant pretzels. I got a bratwurst, a knockwurst, and a laager and sat down to enjoy my free food and beer.

Eventually, I saw Eliza walking over to Newell-Howard. She was carrying a shoulder bag and taking alternating sips of two bottles of beer. “Hey, Eliza!” I said. “You heading to the soccer game?”

“Yeah,” she slurred. “Just gettin’ inna the proper state of mind.”

I looked into the bag. Inside were a bunch of beer and whiskey bottles. “Eliza…” I asked, “are you planning on drinking all of those today?”

“Just enough to get me proper hammered,” she said. “Two of my teachers canceled classes so we could enjoy Culture Fest ‘n become more cultured. Also, I haven’t had a break in months, and the only way I can get a decent sleep nowadays is to get a little bit of booze.”

“Eliza,” I said, “I’ve been having the dreams too, but this isn’t good for you.”

Eliza glared at me. “Let’s just watch the fucking game, ‘kay, Nate?” She then chugged the remainder of one of the bottles and tossed it into the garbage.

When we finally got to the gym the game would be held in, Richard was waiting outside. “Oh good,” he said to me, “you’re a few minutes early. We got the thing set up, so if you want to start broadcasting, now would be a great time.”

We were in a small indoor football field (rest of world, not American) that was separated by glass walls. At either end, by the goalposts, there were storage spaces for various things like boxing platforms. On either side, there were bleachers, the side we were on had a gap for an entrance and the other side had a platform upon which radio broadcasting equipment had been set up. From there, Andy waved at me.

As I walked over to the platform, I noticed that Eliza was following me. I decided not to mention the mini-intervention that had just happened and instead sat next to Andy. “Are you and Eliza ok?” he asked. “She doesn’t seem to be happy.”

“It’s kind of private,” I said, as I set up the radio. “Sorry. Anyway, you know anything about this game?”

“Nope,” he said. “Plus, we’re doubling as announcers. That will make this interesting.”

“Luckily, the first thing is going to be the pre-game show,” I said. “Hopefully, that will be something I understand.”

It turns out the Mexicans did have something I understood: music. Their opening show was a Carlos Santana cover band. A really good Carlos Santana cover band. “Man,” I said to Andy and everyone who was listening, “I don’t know if you heard that, but if the Mexicans can play soccer, uh, football, as well as they can make music, then they’ve got this game in the bag.”

Then the game started. It turned out, the Mexicans weren’t as good at football as they were at music. The Brazilians were slaughtering them. “Oh man,” I said, after the Brazilians had managed to score twice in five minutes, “They aren’t as good at football as they are at music, are they?”

“Wait,” Andy said, “what about that guy?” I looked down and saw Ricardo running up the field, somehow behind enemy lines.

“Holy shit!” I said. “Ricardo looks like he’s going to…” There was a muffled thump as Ricardo kicked the ball into the net, the goalie missing it completely. “HE SCORES!” I yelled. “MEXICO’S PUTTING UP A FIGHT, NOW!”

It soon became apparent that Mexico wouldn’t win, buy by God, they’d make Brazil work for it. By the time halftime came around, the score was three-seven, Mexico-Brazil. As I watched the Brazilian show, a bunch of dancers in skimpy costumes, I said, “Ok, people, Brazil’s going to win the game, but Mexico won the shows.”

The game started up again. This time, it was more brutal. The Mexican team was putting everything into it, and the Brazilians were getting pissed that they actually had to work at winning. There were also a few injuries. Most of them seemed highly exaggerated in an attempt to get the other team out, or “given a red card.” Seriously, I know nothing about football.

Something I didn’t comment on was Eliza’s increasing state of drunkenness. She was cheering wildly like everyone else, but she swayed whenever she tried to stand up. She had also finished her second bottle of beer and had opened a much larger bottle which looked like some form of whiskey. It also smelled like whiskey.

Eventually, both trends came to a head when a Mexican player tripped on air as a Brazilian ran past him. He began rolling on the grass and yelling his head off. Everyone could tell he was faking, even the referee who was rolling his eyes as he walked over.

Eliza, who had been getting more and more pissed at this kind of behavior, finally exploded. “Oy, ya pansy!” she called out drunkenly, “this is fffootball, not minceball! Stop yer blubbering, ‘e didn’t even hit ya!”

At this, the faking guy sprang to his feet and made a beeline for Eliza, shouting insults in a mixture of Spanish and English so heavily accented I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

Eliza stood up, swaying dangerously. “What, mate?” she asked, her voice thick with liqour. “Y’wanna go? ‘Cause I’m good t’go.” She staggered out of her seat on the bleachers towards the yelling football player… and promptly fell on her face.

“Shit,” I said. “Andy, take over, ok?”

“Uh… ok…” Andy said as I ran down to help Eliza.

“Damn it,” I said when I got to her. She had fallen on her face and slid down the steps. Luckily, not a lot of people were sitting in that section, so she hadn’t fallen into any of them. Still, the fall had given her a broken and bloody nose and cuts on her lip, chin, and cheeks.  “You look like a fucking mess, Eliza.” I held out my hand. “Here,” I said, “let me help you up.”

She looked at my hand for a moment, trying to process what was happening. Then she burst into tears. “Oh God you’re right,” she said between sobs. “I’m a bloody wreck.” She took my hand and I helped her to her feet.

I turned around to Andy and called out, “Hey, I’m going to take Eliza back home, hold the fort, ok?” When I saw that he had heard and understood, I began leading Eliza out of the field. “I’m going to take you back to your dorm, ok?”

“I’m sorry ‘bout this,” she slurred as we exited the room. “I’m just… I’m just tired. I can’t… the girl I gutted. I keep seein’ Campus Security tryin’ t’get all her pieces on the stretcher. It just… I spent six years hatin’ meself last time I did somethin’ like that…”

“Wait,” I asked, “you did something like that six years ago?”

Eliza looked away. “Some pieces o’ shite tried to buy me from my parents, sell me for scrap, ‘cause only a few people have done dissections on underage Parahumans. My parents objected. Then things went to hell, well more to ‘ell I should say.” She looked at me sadly. “Things never really got better, y’know?”

“Ah,” I said. “Well, I’m going to get you back ho… back to your dorm.” I was glad I had caught myself. I wasn’t sure if she was homesick, and if so, which home? Her mansion with the adopted family? Or her biological family that had struggled to make ends meet?

I didn’t ask her, I just led her back to her dorm room. It was a little hard, as she still had to buzz us in, but I managed to do it. “You’ll be ok in here, right?” I asked her.

“Yeah,” she said, staggering into bed, “I’ll be right as rain in a few hours. Go back to…” After that, I couldn’t hear anymore, as she was lying face down on her pillow.

“Ok,” I said, “I’ll just leave you here, I guess.” Taking the mumble to mean yes, I walked out. Then I hurried back to the soccer game.

I arrived just in time to see everyone get out. I waited for the initial stream to pass by before I walked into the room. Andy was still manning the radio booth. I headed over to him and yelled, “Hey, Andy, how did we do?”

“Well,” he said, “I had no clue what was happening.”

“Apparently,” I said as I reached the booth, “that’s part of our charm. Or at least I hope it is, because we have no clue what we’re doing in general.”

“Actually,” Andy said, “I don’t think we’ve made any mistakes an audience would notice. We didn’t have any radio silence or repeated songs, and we kept our stuttering to a minimum. That’s more than I can say for most other shows I’ve heard.” He paused. “You also get really weird sometimes.”

“Well,” I said, “it helps fill in the gaps before the music. Anyway, are we ready to do the Japanese… exhibit? Show? I don’t know how to describe half the stuff going on this week.”

“Basically they’ve taken over this dining hall, Sun Tzu, and are serving people food while dressed as maids.” Andy shrugged. “Apparently, it’s a thing they do in Japan.”

“At least the interview isn’t till tomorrow,” I said. “We’ve got time to prepare. Want to talk about it at supper?”

“Not particularly,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work.” For some reason, I got the feeling he wasn’t telling the entire truth. Maybe it was the way he looked a bit to the side, maybe it something else.

“So do I,” I said, ignoring my instincts, “but if I spend any more time doing it, I’m going to snap like Eliza.”

“Sorry,” he said, “but I really got stuff to do. See ya!”

“Sure!” I said. Then, I was back on my head, doing work. Doing work, in this case, meant staring blankly at various pages. I was able to actually work when I started, and for a bit after supper, but apart from that I couldn’t concentrate. For some reason, I got the feeling it wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember the last time I had watched a movie without flinching. There also was this sense I had something was going to happen.

Around ten, I stood up. John and Cross looked up. “You ok, Killer?” Cross asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “I just gotta destress.” I considered my options. The games I used to play and the movies I used to watch weren’t really an option, as sometimes I would end up lying on the floor, trying to take cover. I wasn’t sure that the gyms in the student centers were still open. That left one thing to do. “I’m going to The Drunken Mercenary,” I said. “If any of you want to come, you can.”

“What are you going to do there?” John asked. “Drink? It’s still a school night. During finals.” Since it was the week before finals, quiet hours had been enacted for the entire day. Also, most people were busy studying, so very few people would be in the common rooms or other places of recreation.

“If worse comes to worse, yeah,” I said, “but that’s the only way I know how to destress now. And I haven’t done anything fun in months.”

“Go ahead,” Cross said. “I might join you.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be on the lookout.” After checking to make sure my Sig and my Beretta were concealed correctly under my grey hoodie, I headed down the stairs to The Drunken Mercenary to see what was happening.

It turns out that almost nothing was happening. When I got down, there were literally only three other people, including the bartender. Two other Freshman from AMS/Shadowhaven were sitting at the bar. I didn’t recognize them, and I somehow doubted they recognized each other. To give you an idea how empty that was for the bar, normally the bar was also staffed by a bouncer and two waiters and all of them would be busy at this point. Now, it was just a bored bartender.

However, there was one person I did know. There, playing pool was Ricardo. He noticed me after he took a shot. “Hey, Killer!” he said. “How’re you doing?”

“Stressed, bored, and can’t sleep,” I said. “Mind if I join you?”

“Not a problem,” Ricardo said. “You want me to buy you a drink?”

“Not at the moment,” I said as Ricardo pulled out a pool cue for me. “I just watched someone have a beer and whiskey induced meltdown. I kind of want to avoid that happening to me.”

“Yeah,” Ricardo said, “I saw that. That was fucked up.” He handed me the pool cue and began to reset the balls. “Anyway, nice job doing the announcing. Pretty good enthusiasm.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I had no clue what I was talking about or what was going on, but it was still pretty cool. You guys were pretty good.”

“Still got our asses handed to us,” Ricardo said.

Several games of pool and a lot of small talk later, I noticed that the other two patrons had left. I looked at my cPhone. It said the time was 10:58 PM. “Shit,” I said. “Look at the time. I should get to bed.”

“Not a problem,” Ricardo said.

Suddenly we were distracted by an angry shout. We turned out the window to see the top of May Riley’s head as she walked down the street, angrily yelling to herself. Then there was the sound of metal clanging.

“Never mind,” I said. “This looks like something I have to deal with.”

Both Ricardo and I walked out into the street, the door swinging closed behind us. May, however, was a bit farther down the street, towards the gate out of school. She hadn’t calmed down, but she had quieted down, muttering angrily under her breath.

“Hey,” I said, “you ok?”

May turned around. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice somewhat dangerous. I saw that her eyes were red and her cheeks stained with tears.

“Well,” I said, pointing to Marine, “I kind of live there. Then I heard a friend having a bad day.”

“I just followed him out,” Ricardo said. I shot him a look to let him know he wasn’t helping.

May relaxed a bit. “I hate my family,” she said. “I finally get a boyfriend, and it’s one of the few people in the world who is capable of making me feel not like a freak, and what does my sister do?” I shrugged. May continued, now yelling again and gesturing wildy. “She threatens his life! I’m sorry, sis, but where the hell was your protectiveness when I was coming home crying every day? Seriously, what the hell is her problem? I actually am a better judge of character than she ever will be, because she let me deal with people like Destiny and Shirley by myself! And we were supposed to be twins!”

“Who are Destiny and Shirley?” Ricardo asked. I shrugged.

“They’re bitches,” May said. She then fell silent. After a while, she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine in the morning. I might even be ready to talk to Mary again.”

“Do you want me to…” I began, but before I could finish, I heard the sound of metal slamming. Up and down the street, automated steel shutters began to close over all the doors. Fire escapes retracted up so that they were unusable. The school had turned every building on campus into a fortress and sealed off the only entrance to the rest of the island.

Instinctively, Ricardo and I drew our weapons, me with my Beretta from a shoulder holster, Ricardo with his Bernadelli from a holster at his hip. Anxiously, we checked the street.

“What was that?” May asked nervously, her anger forgotten.

“Nothing good,” I said.

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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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