Track 27: Twilight’s Last Gleaming

“How long before they get here?” I asked.

Jen was set down on a comfy piece of floor. “I have no idea. It could be a few weeks. It could be a few hours. It all depends on how long the guard can hold out.” She paused, looking like she was about to burst into tears. Then she asked hopefully, “Do you think there will be reinforcements? I haven’t heard anything in days.”

I then realized that I hadn’t heard anything from beyond Massachusetts in days. “I…” I began.

Eric cut me off. “I am sure everything will be all right,” he said. “There is no way they have enough firepower. They have taken on China, the EU, Russia, India, and much of the Middle East. They have to break.”

Jen glared at Eric. “I know when I’m being lied to,” she said. “You aren’t telling me the whole story.”

“We haven’t heard from the Canadians in days,” I said.

“I have,” Eric admitted. “We got a report from NIU observers. They dropped two plasma bombs on the Canucks advancing on us, but the Canadians seem to be still advancing.”

Most people made noises of surprise, but Eliza laughed. “Those mad bastards! It was the same in the first World War, those mad men would charge inna clouds of mustard gas and machinegun nests an’ win.”

“What’s the likelihood of them winning now?” Cross asked.

“Zero,” she said. “But hopefully it either makes those motherless freaks think twice ‘bout moving farther or teaches the Canucks something useful about fighting them.”

“So I came back just to watch them roll over everything?” Cross asked. “When the hell are we going to stand and fight?” He then walked over and kicked a wall. I heard a crack that was probably his toe. “FUCK!”

“Not everything,” I said. “We’re the speed bump.”

“I don’t want New York to be a speed bump!”  Cross yelled.

“Well too late,” Jen said. “From what I heard, it already was, and it wasn’t as good a speed bump as Boston.”

“Oi,” Eliza said, “I’ll fuckin’ cut you gibbons if you make it a stupid regional thing, swear on me mum.”

“But there are things we can do,” I said. “Things that don’t involve strapping C4 to ourselves and throwing ourselves under a Charon.”

“Please don’t joke about that,” Jen said.

“For instance,” I went on, “there’s still a few rifles. We have…”

“No there aren’t,” Eliza said. “What weapons you ‘aven’t given to our guests and random reprobates amounts to about five bloody Mjolnirs and four NFs. There’s some ammo, but it’ll run out pretty quickly, splittin’ it up among all of us.”

“We made thousands of them,” I said. “We can’t have sold all.”

“You did,” Jen said. “My contacts at the BPD were complaining because your waiting list was backed up for decades and they’d wanted to keep those toys you made for themselves.”

“They are quite good,” Eric said in agreement. “Shame that they sold so quickly.”

I thought of these guns, all distributed to police departments across the country and a few around the world. Apart from maybe my very, very sketchy first customer, I had reason to believe that not a single military or counter-terror unit had come into possession of my products and I had no intention of selling on the civilian market. All those firearms, in the hands of people with no prayer of using them effectively. I hadn’t even managed to get it adopted by the FBI.

“Hey,” I asked, “Did the Chinese manage to put their version of the Maccabee into production?”

“I think they’d just gotten the assembly rolling,” Jen said. “The problem was, the province it was located in was the first to be hit.”

“Maybe they’ve developed a taste for your guns,” John said. “I remember you saying something about them trying to get you.”

“There were other reasons,” I said. “Anyway, let’s get everyone settled.” I then wheeled around to the garage, desperately trying not to think about the incoming wave of Teeth.

The inspection didn’t reveal anything good. We couldn’t fit the seventy assorted gangsters, mostly Kagemoto grunts, but some from other gangs, for any real length of time without running into food problems. We also had only enough ammo for a day of fighting at most, and no weapons designed to take down the various nasty vehicles they had. Still, I wasn’t going to sit down.

We were preparing the defenses, with me talking to Jen’s pet code geeks, Lydia and Andrew, about ways to improve the automated defense systems, when someone turned on a radio.

For a moment, there was static. Then, with AM quality, a soft-spoken voice came over the speaker. “My name,” he said, “Is Brigadier General James Connolly of the US Marines. From what I can tell, I am the highest ranking US officer left alive and at liberty.”

By that point, everyone in the room had stopped talking. From outside, I could hear trucks drive by, broadcasting the message and people, possibly soldiers, shouting something. I wondered if everyone in what remained of the US was listening.

“I am broadcasting on several shortwave and local radio channels,” General Connolly continued, his voice shaking. “The Canadian forces sent to assist my position have been pushed back. This is not because they are cowards, it is because that they were asked to do the impossible. They have done the impossible three times now, and I cannot in good conscience ask them to do it a fourth.”

At this there was a murmur of shock. Everyone, even me, had somehow believed that this would not be the end. That the Canadians would come and save us, or the Latin-American coalition.

“I am broadcasting to all who can hear me,” the General continued, “so that those who still remain under my care can attain an honest assessment of the situation and those out in the rest of the world will know of what in all likelihood will be our last stand.

“In July, the United States had over three hundred million people living in it, spread out over three point eight million square miles. For those outside my country, that’s roughly nine point eight million square kilometers. Worcester County, where I have made my base, was not seen as a significant part of it in any sense. Around eight hundred thousand people living in four thousand square kilometers.

“Now, we of the US are facing our darkest hour. Some of you may not know the extent to which this military has failed its people. We have no planes. Only a handful of artillery and vehicles remain. If they let us live, we will run out of food and water within a few weeks.

“Even more egregious, a week before the first major Dragon’s Teeth push into China, they managed to capture our nuclear weapons and we did not inform you. We have reason to believe that all thermonuclear devices and most other chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction are in their hands.”

That news caused my stomach to drop. Of course they had them. If they didn’t have all the nukes, someone would have used them. Who the hell would hesitate to nuke faceless soldiers murdering their way across your own country? Other people didn’t take it so well.

The General continued on. “Right now, I control two thousand five hundred of the four thousand square kilometers of Worcester County. I have over three million charges, most of them unarmed refugees.

“Outside my defensive perimeter is an enemy that has been confirmed to kill innocents, mostly the sick and the elderly. They have done so with a high-tech, organized barbarity that pales to anything we’ve ever seen. This force is poised on the doorstep, ready to strike.

“It was the duty of the United States Armed Forces to stop this kind of threat. I think it is fair to say that we have failed utterly. Many, both in and out of my country, have looked to us to face this threat. If we had done everything we could, there would be no shame in that. But we haven’t. Our failure goes back decades, if not to the foundation of this country.

“A few months ago, we were the greatest country in the world. Instead of sharing that greatness with the rest of the world, we instead took the best from other countries while giving the minimum in return. We promised so much, and in the end, all we have to give is this.

“To those remaining under my command and protection, I would encourage you to fight. We still have a chance to make a difference. If you want to run or surrender, I would not recommend it as the Dragon’s Teeth have rarely taken prisoners. If neither option sounds appealing, the only other I can think of is spending time with those you care about. Thank you all, and God bless America.”

With that, the radio switched to a slow, mournful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. For a few seconds, there was a silence. Then Eliza loudly proclaimed, “Fuckin’ ‘ell that was an awful speech!”

 

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Track 15: Calm Before the Storm

I hadn’t even been mulling over Alma’s statement a minute when Eliza came back in. She was paler than usual and she sat down heavily. “What happened?” I asked.

“It’s fallen,” Eliza said.

“Really?” I asked. “I mean, I know Hawaii probably wasn’t prepared, but…”

“No, not Hawaii,” Eliza said, “The UK.” We shut up, me mostly because I was stunned. “Though Hawaii probably’s going down soon.”

“What do you mean, ‘England’s fallen?’” I asked. “England doesn’t just fall. They aren’t fucking Denmark.”

“I bloody know, mate,” Eliza said. “But they’ve got our silos, Buckingham’s in their control, and pretty much every major city and military base from Edinburgh to London’s got a nice ol’ infestation of Drake.”

“But…” I said, “but how? Yesterday they were on the other side of the channel!”

“Probably has something to do with their gateways,” Eliza said. “But yeah, that was record time for them. From what we can gather, they put a huge amount into this one. Seemed to be a higher ratio of Dragon’s Teeth to defenders than normal. And they were a lot less concerned with civilian casualties.”

“Jesus…” I said. “What the hell?”

“I know,” Eliza said. “D’you think they’re gonna stop there?”

“No,” I said. “I wish I could say they would, but I’d be willing to bet I’m going to figure out first-hand what you’re experiencing soon.”

“Oh, by the way,” I said, “I lost my phone.”

Eliza groaned. “Jesus Christ, now those bastards have a direct line on everyone in your contacts.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Can I borrow your phone to give them a heads up?”

“Better do that,” Eliza said.

As I was texting everyone possibly affected, I said, “By the way, you remember Alma Hebert?”

“My creepy first year roommate?” Eliza asked. “Yeah, definitely.” She shivered theatrically. “You know she hung around with Ulfric? Saw ‘em together multiple times. Guess they were off in the same ways.”

“She’s the Death Goddess,” I said.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Eliza said.

“And I think that Ulfric might be Dragon’s Teeth, now that I think about it,” I said. “I actually saw a few guys that looked a hell of a lot like him.”

“I refer you to my previous statement,” Eliza said. Then she groaned. “Gah, how the fuck didn’t anyone realize this?”

“I get the feeling that there wasn’t much coordination between the guys who made the Dragon’s Teeth,” I said. “The Jason Project, that’s what they’re called…”

“‘Course they are,” Eliza said,

“…Couldn’t really be in regular contact with the President at the beginning, plus there was plausible deniability and then they went rogue.”

Eliza laughed. “Fuckin’ typical, innit? Goddamn conga line of betrayal. The President hires some people to make monsters to take over the world for ‘im, they make the monsters and decide they don’t need to follow orders. Then the monsters start tryin’ to revolt.” She paused. “‘Ow’d you figure out that Alma was…?”

“She contacted me with her psychic powers,” I said.

Eliza groaned something about “not signing up for this” and threw her head back in exasperation.

“My life,” I said, “is just so incredibly strange right now.”

“Warn the people your weirdness might rub off on, weird boy,” Eliza said.

“Getting on it right now,” I said.

John Marshall was the first person I called. He had been my fellow UNIX infiltrator (well, one of four, but he had been the one I had made contact with in Hell Semester) and we had been close for a while. The problem was that John wanted out, and I may or may not be an addict. When he went to North Korea, he had ended up getting shot in a firefight with South Korean police. Then there was Japan, and John had decided he was out.

After listening to my explanation, he said, voice dangerous, “So, basically, because of you, I might have been doxed by the Dragon’s Teeth?”

“Potentially,” I said. “In my defense, this was not my fault.”

“You had my number in your phone,” John said, “despite the fact that you knew people could hack it. But yeah, completely not your fault.” He then hung up. You can’t really slam a cPhone, but if he could, he would have.

“Well fuck you too,” I said. Then I called Eric. Eric, Ray-Gun, the Monk, MC Disaster, and Doc were some former African child soldiers I’d met in Hell Semester. My knowledge of their days back home was sketchy. For instance, I wasn’t entirely sure which country they were even from. I did, however, know that they’d done something to piss off a local warlord.

“Thank you my friend,” Eric said after I had filled him in. “I will tell the rest of my crew.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll call Cross next.” Croccifixio “Cross” Castellan was another buddy from Hell Semester. He was from New York and was the son of some sort of mobster.

“Excuse me a moment,” Eric said, then yelled away from the phone, “Cross! Stop fucking Doc in the ass for a few minutes! Nathan needs to tell you something!” Turning back to me, he said, “He got back here a few hours after we cleaned up from the Dragon’s Teeth attack. Whenever he and Doc want to have sex, they kick everyone else out.”

From inside the room, I heard Cross yell, “Fuck you! We weren’t doing anything!”

“I will refrain from your kind offer for the moment,” Eric said.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt whatever it is you’re doing there…” I began, but I heard the door open and Eric hand off the phone to Cross. “Hey Cross,” I said.

“‘Sup?” Cross asked.

“So I lost my cPhone and it had your cPhone number on it,” I said, “Plus a Deet got a good look at it. Now it’s sitting in the FBI Honolulu office, waiting for invading Dragon’s Teeth to find it.”

“How the fuck did… never mind, I don’t want to know,” Cross said. “Those assholes just show up everywhere. That’s why my dad sent me to school. We’ve been hearing shit in New York for months now.”

“Really?” I asked. “How come I haven’t heard anything?”

“Look,” Cross said, “I don’t mean to diss newspapers, but they don’t spend hours talking to bums and crackheads unless they have some bullshit ‘human interest story.’ They don’t poke around abandoned buildings and bumfuck-nowhere wilderness looking for stories. People I know? They’re interacting with those people and going to those places every fucking day.”

“And what are they noticing?” I asked.

“Activity.” Cross said. “One guy of ours was burying a corpse in his favorite spot. Then he struck this hunk of prime rib. Few feet beneath that? Fucking junkie with a hole through her heart that looked burned around the edges. That’s how it started.”

“Yeah,” I said, “those injuries sound like something only Dragon’s Teeth can make.”

“Basically, they’re setting something up,” Cross said, “and the junkies and bums are accidentally stumbling on it ‘cause they’re looking for places to sleep for the night or get high. We’re hesitant to tell the cops ‘cause, y’know…”

“Why were you digging a hole there?” I finished. “Why were you talking to that guy?”

“Exactly,” Cross said. “We don’t want to tell the police because that’s gonna fuck things up. Even if leaving things as-is will fuck things up worse.”

“What about the super heroes?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t this the kind of stuff that-”

“Nate,” Cross said, “here’s a tip: capes don’t give a fucking shit. Maybe some of the noobs do, but most of these ‘heroes’ are just in it for the fame and… and the fucking, I dunno, Sprite deals. You should know. You live in Boston.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“Vast majority of those guys,” Cross said, “fix their fights. Your girl Jen was probably the last to fix hers.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I dunno,” Cross said. “Probably because she needed the cash like all the rest.”

“No,” I said, “why didn’t she think of it first?”

“Jen’s weird,” Cross said. “Smart, good at business, but weird.”

“Speaking of Jen,” I said, “I actually need to call her about this.”

“Yeah,” Cross said, “You definitely should start in on that.”

As soon as I hung up, I had an idea. “Hey, Eliza,” I said. “You know how I don’t know that much about lawyers?”

“Yeah?” she asked, her eyebrow raising suspiciously.

“I think I know who does.”

“Fucking Christ,” Eliza said. “It’s Jen, isn’t it?”

“Do you trust Hicks not to arrest us as soon as we touch down in LA?” I asked. “I mean, I like the guy, but he’s a cop.”

“Fuck no,” Eliza said. She sighed. “Call her, I guess.”

 

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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 8: Future So Bright

Things quickly settled back into a routine. Like an idiot, I had decided to get as many of the tough classes I would absolutely hate out of the way this semester as I possibly could and not go insane. That was physics, chemistry, and calculus. Anything more, and I’d go insane. I also had English II, because it was required, and over the summer, I had managed to get Computer Aided Design I and a course called Weaponsmithing: AKs and ARs included as well.

The reason for the last two was because I had an extracurricular activity I needed to do. Those Dragon’s Teeth were already way too far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of tech. The only problem was that their basic infantry weapons sucked. So, in my spare time, I was going to design a weapon that would be competitive with the Pilum assault rifle, maybe throw in a few other kinds as well.

The problem with this idea was time. Not only was I taking six really hard classes, but I was also tending bar four nights a week and had decided to do my radio show with Andy again. Functionally, that only left the weekend to design, prototype and test a range of modern weaponry with new ammunition designed to compete with something that was twenty years ahead of every weapon made on Earth. And the person making it would never have designed a gun before.

Needless to say, I hadn’t really thought this through enough. The one thing I did do right was decide to make the ammo first. That mean figuring out what the hell was in the bullets I had recovered. That meant getting them to May.

I met her the Sunday before class started. It was supper (which gave me ample time to recover from my hangover,) and we met at Sun Tzu. “Any particular reason you wanted to meet here?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, setting her stir-fry down at the table we had chosen. “I wanted an excuse not to eat in a place where nutritionists go to fight.”

“Sounds fun,” I said.

May shot me a withering look. “It’s not,” she said. “It feels like the menu changes every day, usually either to some completely artificial meal to entirely fruits and vegetables with no regard for the other three food groups.” She pointed to her stir-fry and glass of milk. “I need protein, I need grain, and I need sweets. This place has that in healthy portions. That’s not to say artificial ingredients, fruits and veggies are inherently evil. A girl just needs a little more than that. I also need the other food groups and food that tastes good. I admit, when I made Power Sludge, I didn’t take any of that into account, but I see that more as proving my point seeing as how miserable it made my life. But there were worse things I could do, y’know? I could have forced my new wonder diet on everyone because I’m perfect and can do no wrong just like that dumbass Ulrich! Or I could be like Tiffany Parker and throw a fit every time something other than joyless new-age crap… excuse me, ‘organize protests over Paleo-uncompliant meals.’ God, Paleolithic diets are the most…”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, sensing that May was going to go into one of her signature rants, “but I was wondering if you could help me analyze these.” I held a box. Inside was the bullets I had collected in North Korea and a note explaining how to open them and what I wanted them tested for.

“I guess,” May said. From the look of it, she didn’t seem exactly thrilled by the idea of helping me make a weapon.

“It’s going to a good cause,” I said.

“Yeah,” May said, “and so was the Gatling gun. Why do you need to fight… them? Because it sounds like more lives could be saved just by surrendering.”

I paused, considering my words carefully. “When I was… away,” I finally said, “I saw only one civilian. There was also only one surviving soldier, but his mind was so damaged by chemical weapons, I’m not sure if he counts as a survivor. Apart from soldiers on both sides and that one civilian, there were no signs of survivors.”

May gravely considered this horrifying news for a few seconds, then said, “Fine. But this does not end up on the civilian market, got me?” As she said this, she grudgingly put the package in her purse.

“I’ll delay it as long as I can,” I said.

We ate in silence, pursuing small talk for a bit. Suddenly, we were interrupted. “Hello, my friends!” boomed a voice with a strange accent. I looked up. There, standing next to our table, carrying their food, were two men I knew only as Eric the Entertainer and The Monk.

“Eric! Monk!” I said happily. “How’re you two doing? And where are the rest of you guys?” Eric and The Monk were two African child soldiers I had met in Hell Semester. They were part of a group of child soldiers that had some vague adventures. Eric was the leader and heavy machinegunner. The Monk was designated marksman and the calmest human being I know. MC Disaster was a reclusive demolitions expert who rarely spoke. Ray-Gun was an excitable sci-fi nerd who usually spotted for The Monk. Doc was the somewhat crotchety doctor.

It would be very hard not to look at any of them and not guess their history. Between their accents and skin tone (The Monk had the lightest, with dark brown skin) it would be very easy to tell they were from Africa. Their height and build suggested constant malnutrition, with only The Monk and Ray-Gun being around the height of an average American. However, their most striking shared feature, at least to me, was their shared predatory poise. These were people who had been killing since before I could read.

They had also really helped me during those first few months of school. For that, John and I both owed all five of them a hell of a lot.

“We,” Eric said, sitting down, “are doing fine. Also, we’re… enjoying hanging out with different people on occasion.”

“Ray-Gun is watching every single episode of Ultimate Spider-Man,” The Monk said, “MC Disaster is listening to those CDs May loaned me,” he turned to May to quickly add, “by the way, thank you for those. I particularly liked Fearless. If you want them back…”

“If like it,” May said, “you can keep all of them, except for K.O.D. I got that signed by Krizz Kaliko and Tech N9ne.”

“What about that one signed by Justin…”

“Keep it!” May shouted. “Please! Dad got me so many embarrassing CDs. I wanted K.O.D, he’d get me My World 2.0. I ask for The Rose That Grew From Concrete, he’d get me Up All Night. Ugh! It was so annoying!”

“Where’s Doc?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” May said. “Thanks for reminding me, Nate. Where is Doc? I heard he did pretty well over summer semester in a few of his med classes.”

“Cross got in this morning,” The Monk said. Michael “Cross” Castellan was a son of a New York mafia hitman. He also was the kind of guy you never would suspect of being gay… until he got drunk and started feeling up dudes and talking about sleeping with Triad bosses. “He and Doc are having… quality time.”

“By ‘quality time’” Eric said, “we mean butt fucking.” From the way he said it, I could tell he was trying to gross May out.

It flew right over May’s head. “Speaking of long-distance relationships,” she said to me, “how are you and Eliza doing?”

“We actually haven’t talked since yesterday,” I said. “She said something about having to cancel her meeting with me today.”

“I see,” May said with a disturbing flatness.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “She’s just busy, that’s all.” May, meanwhile, just nodded.

The rest of the meal was fine enough. I left early, smartly realizing that this night would be the last chance I had at a full night’s sleep and freedom to do whatever. May was able to talk me into doing a study group that she was setting up, something to do with wanting to help “idiot sophomores who’d bitten off more than they could chew.” Despite getting the impression that she had just had the idea a few seconds ago, I accepted.

That turned out to be a very good idea. As soon as class started, I quickly realized my mistake. Everything was hard.

The CAD class, for instance, assumed you had used something similar before. There were three things that saved me that first class. The first is that I had spent the portion of Sunday I hadn’t been hungover playing around with the CAD software and reading the book. The second was that I had touched on CAD programs as part of the Maynard Public Schools curriculum and my misguided quest to become a game designer. The third thing was that Nari was sitting right beside me. By the end of the class, we were all able to create a plastic, spring-loaded… thing.

The most interesting thing about that first class (not that it was boring, quite the opposite in fact,) was an announcement at the end. “Now being in this program allows you certain privileges,” she said. “During this course, and upon passing it, you will have a set ration of plastic and cardboard for 3D-printing at your discretion.”

Plastic and cardboard. Damn. I couldn’t make a gun out that. I was so busy worrying about how I’d get some actual materials that I almost missed what the instructor said next.

“If you feel like you need better materials,” the instructor continued on, “you may ask your student advisor to sign off on the materials.” I smiled. Suddenly, I had a way to make a gun. It all depended on Kreiger.

Physics, chemistry, calculus and English were also shaping up to be hellish. The bright side was that the chemistry classroom had a similar deal: you could access a variety of compounds and elements, and more if your advisor authorized it.

However, the best class was the armory class. As soon as I got in, the teacher said the most beautiful words I had ever heard all week. “Hey y’all,” he said, “I’m Don Haliburton. Now, this is the first day and we’ve got plenty of time, so I’m gonna take it slow for a few sessions.”

It was Friday. The only thing any of us had been hearing was “You guys! The semester only has twelve weeks! We need to hurry!” I swear, as soon as we heard this, the entire room had to suppress a cheer. I turned to look at Doc and Cross. All three of us had huge grins on our faces.

When Professor Haliburton was done with the lecture and had us start work on stripping some weapons, Nari said, “Honestly, I am somewhat sad. I would like to have been challenged.”

“Wait,” Cross said, his tanned face wrinkling in confusion, “aren’t you like, ten, or something?”

“You’re off by about a week, sir,” Nari said, a blank expression on her face. “My birthday is on Saturday.” From what I knew about her, that look and tone of voice indicated either contempt or annoyance, tinged with a fear that contempt or annoyance would get her disappeared. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear, either back in North Korea or at NIU.

“But you’re in college…” Cross said, somewhat stunned.

“You’re in college,” Nari said, “and yet somehow you got a C in Algebra last semester.” She suddenly went white with horror, realizing she had just insulted a Hell Semester graduate who had just finished re-assembling an AK.

“Oooooh,” Doc said. “She got you, man!”

“Shut up,” Cross said. “I got honors in high school!”

“This isn’t high school,” Doc said in a sing-song voice.

“Oh yeah,” Cross asked. “What’d you get in English again, genius?”

“Cross got a C! Cross got a C! C is for Cross, that’s good enough for he!”

“Oh yeah?” Cross asked, elbowing Doc (unadvisable, seeing as Doc was holding an M-16A4.) “This is from the guy who got a D in English and a D up the butt!”

“Guys,” I said, “not in front of the mini-person, ok?”

“Are…” Nari asked, now even more concerned, “…Are they… homosexuals?”

“Nah,” Cross said, “we just like sucking each other’s dicks.”

“Hey! Lovebirds!” Professor Haliburton shouted from across the room. “Am I gonna have to put you two in separate pre-schools?” Professor Haliburton was an older man, with a bit of a paunch, but he had been in Special Forces. Plus, he was faculty. You had to be an idiot to disrespect him.

“No, sir,” Cross and Doc said in unison. Professor Haliburton glared at them for a few seconds. After what felt like an eternity, he moved on.

A few seconds later, Cross said, “So, Doc’s group is going to watch the run-down of the Fresh Meat. We’re also inviting a few others, too. You want to come, Nate?”

“Can’t make it,” I said, looking up from my sketch of an AK-107 counterbalancing mechanism. “I’m going to be doing overtime at The Drunken Mercenary. Apparently, anything to do with Hell Semester, soccer…”

“You mean football,” Doc corrected.

“…and the last few days of finals are the busiest days for the bar and all hands have to be on deck.” I shook my head. “Sorry guys.”

After class was finally over, I was one of the last to leave. I had gotten the actual assignment done extremely quickly and had spent the rest of class examining the counterbalance mechanisms of the AK-107 and AEK-971. From what I understood, their design was both more effective and simpler than the Pilum. All I’d have to do was copy the design, and I’d have a better weapon. The future was looking bright, if only for my designs.

I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice that Nari had been watching me take notes the entire class.

 

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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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Track 16: Poetic Justice

It was Thursday when we had gone into the medical center. It was Saturday when we left. During that time, the camera had somehow managed to remain in my shoe, undetected by all except me. Finally, around 2:30 AM on Saturday, we staggered out of the med center. For once, it was not cold or precipitating. Despite my tired haze, I was exceedingly thankful for the nice night.

“Now,” Charlotte said, when we were outside Marine and Squire, “I know that my idea was stupid, unnecessary and, well, quite moronic…”

“Like tryin’ t’get with that older bloke ‘oo was always by the school because you liked his white van,” Eliza murmured, shooting her adopted sister a withering glare.

“…So, to make it up to you,” Charlotte said, “I want to take you to get coffee at…”

“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” I said, “but I just want to go to sleep. I haven’t slept in about forty-eight hours and have only had two wish sandwiches in the past day. Plus, there are midterms.”

“I’d like some coffee!” Cross said.

“But…” Charlotte protested, glancing around hurriedly.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I need sleep.”

“Yeah,” John said, “me too.”

“You ‘eard ‘em, Char,” Eliza said blearily. “They need rest. I need some bloody rest.”

“Speaking of rest,” May said, pointing over her shoulder, “I’m going to head back to my dorm. I’m beat, and I’ve still got chills.”

As she walked off, Eliza grabbed her by her hood. “Oh no ya don’t,” she growled. “I’m not about t’let you walk home alone so some ax-murderin’ wanker can give you a couple new scars. You’re staying in my dorm.”

We walked into Marine as May was dragged into Squire. “Well,” John said, “that was a waste of time. Why’d you have to go in there anyway?”

“Remember that meeting with our scholarship people?” I asked.

“Yeah?” John said grumpily. Then he woke up a bit. “You didn’t…”

I had bent down, pretending to tie my shoe. When I came up again, I was holding the spy camera. “I did,” I said as I showed it to John. Then I shoved it into my pocket.

“Do… do you have any idea what you’ve done?” John asked. “If they find out…”

“I know,” I said. “That’s why we aren’t going to mention it again until we’re as far away from this God-forsaken shit hole as possible.”

John sighed. “Do I want to know you found?”

“There’s a clone army in North Korea,” I said quietly.

“Not sure I believe that,” John whispered. “I mean, if North Korea could create a clone army, they’d be flaunting that shit left and right.”

“Could be they don’t control it,” I said. “Anyway, let’s go to bed.”

The weekend, after we had gotten some sleep, was the definition of awful. Due to the fact that midterms started next week, we had a lot of work to do, and when we weren’t working, we had to be studying. It was kind of a nightmare.

At least the projects were interesting. My Military History and my Sociology course both had midterm projects instead of tests. For instance, I had to take two famous generals from my country’s history in Military History and compare them. I had been assigned Grant and Lee.

However, the thing that bugged me was that my English class had assigned both. That, and studying for the math test, was the toughest part of the weekend. I barely left the dorm room, only occasionally going out for the purpose of showering or eating.

I also noticed that Eric went out of the room more than the other three of us combined that week. One time when he was packing, I asked him, “Dude, where do you go?”

“I have a study group with the rest of my crew,” he said.

“Cool,” Cross said. “Can we come too? Because we’re…”

“No.” With that, Eric closed the door behind him.

“Damn,” Cross said, sighing a bit wistfully. “I was kind of hoping to see Doc.” I remembered a time very soon after Hell Semester was over when Cross and Doc had sort of been rushing into the elevator. Combined with the fact that they had been kind of handsy, and some things were starting to make sense. “Anyway,” Cross asked, “you ready for the driving test on Monday?”

“Wait,” I said, “the test’s on Monday?”

“Well, an optional one is,” Cross said. “If you feel like you’re good enough, you can take it now. Assuming you signed up for it, of course.”

I suddenly remembered a list I had signed at the start of the lessons. Was that the list of who would take the early driver’s test? If so, I wasn’t ready.

At the exact moment I was wondering this, the message notification on cNet showed that I had a new message. I looked at it. It was a message from my driving instructor saying I had an appointment on Monday at 6:00 AM.

“Apparently I did,” I said. “I don’t remember signing up, but it says my appointment is tomorrow.”

Cross and Eric both looked at their computer screens. Eric sighed in relief. Cross, however, asked, “Does yours say 6:00 AM?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me guess, you’ve got that same time too?”

“Yep,” he said confidently. “Wanna bet I get it on my first try?”

“Not really,” I said. “I just want to finish my English paper, then get some sleep.”

I ended up only getting one of those done. By the time I had gotten my English paper all finished and had given it at least one look-over, it was 5:05. I grabbed my clothes and shower stuff and staggered across the hall to the bathroom to take my shower.

When I opened the door to my room, Cross was standing there with nothing on below the waist. He was facing towards me, hairy scrotum and all. Pointedly looking away, I said, “I’ll be back in five minutes.” I hurriedly closed the door and went to the common room area and sat down on one of the couches. As soon as I sat down, I decided a rest couldn’t hurt.

What felt like a few seconds later, Cross was nudging me. “Hey,” he said, “time to head down.” After glaring at him for a few seconds, I got up and walked over to the elevator, giving the down button a good slap. Cross, understandably, shut up for a while.

We were supposed to meet the guy outside of Squire. When we got out of the building, we saw Eliza bundled into her old army jacket by Sir Galahad’s and nervously nursing a hot drink. There was no car. I looked just in time to see a four-door Bentley come driving down the street. I quickly realized that it was our test car.

The car parked, and out got Sergeant Burra. Sergeant Burra was a blond, very athletic Australian woman who had been a drill sergeant during Hell Semester. I assumed that now, since Hell Semester was over, I should refer to her as Professor Burra. I had also heard she was a Lupine like Eliza. However, she was either the kind who was born without dog ears, or had the surgery done on them.

“Good morning!” she said cheerfully as she bounced out of the car. Despite being in her thirties, she had the air of a teenager. The pink coat with white fur trim only enhanced her image. “So you guys are taking your driver’s test, eh?” she asked as she walked around the car. “Is one of you lot Nate Jacobs? ‘Cause you’re up first.”

“That’s me,” I said.

She threw me the keys. “Great!” she said happily. “Now get in and show me your stuff!”

“This… this is a Bentley,” I said as I caught the keys. “This is almost two hundred thousand dollars. Without any options.” My stomach dropped into my shoes. Judging by Eliza’s face, so had hers. So far, the most expensive car they had put me in was either the Boss Mustang or that Mercedes-Benz.

“Oooh! You’re a car guy!” Burra said happily. “That means I don’t have to give you a talking-to about what happens if you crash it. We like to make tests a bit interesting for a few students. You crash it, you pay to fix it. You pass the test, you get a gift certificate to The Veranda. You break the car, you pay for damages.” The Veranda was a fancy restaurant, the fanciest on campus, in fact. I heard it was the kind of place where you could run up a hundred dollar bill just by sitting down.

Taking a few deep breaths, I got into the plush leather seats. “Wait,” I said, “are these heated?”

“It better,” Eliza said as she got into the seat behind me. “It cost more than my biological parents ever made…”

“Who cares?” Cross said, also entering. “Let’s see what this thing can do!”

“Top speed on this campus is forty kilometers per hour,” Burra said. “Anyway, let’s see your hand signals!” After a few of these little pre-drive checks, we were ready to go. I closed the window and turned the key.

“Ok,” Burra said, “First thing we’re doin’ is makin’ a noice K-turn. Remember ‘ow to do one of those?”

“Yeah,” I said. I drove forwards a bit, then did a perfect K-turn.

What followed next was about half an hour of driving. I was a little tense, but the seat helped to loosen me up a bit. Cross and Eliza’s wise-ass remarks, on the other hand, were a bit counter-productive. When they began chanting “Don’t mess up,” over and over again on the final part of the test (parallel parking,) I shot them a dirty look. They shut up instantly.

After I parked, Burra said happily, “Congrats! You passed! Your IDP will be sent to you within the week and I’ll message the coupon for The Veranda by dinner. Miss Henderson, your turn.”

Eliza’s time was more nerve-wracking. As soon as she got in the driver’s seat, she started shaking. After a few deep breaths, she began to back the car up.

“Hey Eliza…” Cross began, a smile on his face.

“If you aren’t going to say something nice or encouraging,” I said, “I will place a curse on your driving that makes Eliza look like she drove an F1 out of her mother’s vagina. Do we understand each other?”

Cross looked at me for a moment, then, still staring me right in the eye, said “…Watch out for the bus.” Eliza squeaked and hammered the brakes.

“Congratulations, Cross,” I said, turning away, “you’re cursed.”

Cross laughed. “You can’t curse people.”

Eliza actually managed to do well, despite several people running out in front of the car and another car (a Mercedes) suddenly swerving towards us. When she finished parallel parking, Burra said, “Great job, Eliza! Your license and coupon will probably arrive around the same time his does. Now Mr. Cross, was it? Your turn.”

When Cross got in, Burra said to Eliza and me, “Dining hall’s opened up. The one we’re parked in front of, Mandela, has some right good grub. You can go in if you want.”

“Nah,” I said. “He sat through mine, I might as well sit through his.” At this point, I had kind of forgotten about my threat. However I was soon reminded of it.

“Hey guys,” Cross said cockily, turning back in seat, “watch me pass on my first try.”

Now, when backing up, our teachers had taught us that we first needed to visually confirm the car was in reverse. We also had to look over our shoulder and not totally rely on the backup cameras and mirrors. We also were taught only to give the car a small bit of gas.

To his credit, Cross did turn around. However, he had accidentally put the Bentley in drive. He also had slammed the gas. The car jumped over the curb, knocking over the orange cones we were supposed to be avoiding. He desperately tried to brake, but it was too late. The Bentley hit a lamppost, causing every airbag in the car to pop.

We were all silent for a moment. Then the light fell over, smashing in someone’s dorm window. “Well,” Burra said, “I think we can safely call that a cock-up.”

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Track 15: Bumps in the Night

Everyone who had a gun drew it. That left only me and May unarmed. “What was that?” John asked, his Browning at the ready.

Meanwhile, Eliza was ushering May and Charlotte into a corner while simultaneously blocking them from any attacks. “Sounds like it came from down the hall and to the left,” Eliza said, moving her ears to get a fix on the location. “I smell at least four people and… something else.”

“Wait…” May said, “I think I know where they’re breaking into. It’s the secure medical records.”

“Secure records?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It’s where they keep stuff too sensitive to put on a computer,” May said. “They’ve got a few things that they don’t want the hackers in CompSci getting their hands on.”

“Well then,” I said, “this sounds like a job for Campus Security.” I pulled out my phone. After looking at it for a few seconds, I asked May, “Do we not get reception here?”

“We should…” she said. “Why?”

I held up my cPhone. “My phone isn’t getting anything.”

John, Cross and May checked their phones. “Yep,” John said, “I’m not getting anything either.” Suddenly, I remembered the camera that Takashi and Brosnan had given me and the tip Ricardo had given about May’s secret research. A plan suddenly began to form. If I wanted to get some information for them, if I wanted to figure out what May was doing, then now was my chance. I just had to… something. I just didn’t know what.

Then Cross stepped in. “Sounds like we’re going to have to use the best defense. Here,” he said, handing me his M1911, “take this.” After I took it, he lifted up his t-shirt revealing a sawed-off shotgun shoved down his pants. “Let’s take the fight to these assholes,” he said as he gave his shotgun a pump.

This was perfect, but I didn’t want to risk Charlotte or May’s life. If they came with us, there was a good chance that they’d mess things up. “May and Charlotte should go for help,” I said. “They’re sitting ducks in a fight.”

“You’re right.” Eliza said. “Leave them to me.”

“Guess that leaves me to get CampSec,” John said. Crap. That meant he was going to split off from the group, leaving me to collect the information with Cross. “Sound like a plan?” he asked.

“Best possible one we can come up with,” I said. I could make this work, I decided. Cross didn’t really care one way or another about this school. From what I could understand, his only three motivations were friends, family, and money. I could play to two of them.

We moved out into the hallway. “Let’s make sure they’re hostile before we open fire, ok?” I whispered.

Then we heard voices. I was on point, so I signaled them to stop. “…Y’know,” I heard someone say, “this just feels like a bad idea, mate.” He was around the corner and he had a male voice and an accent that placed him in Australia.

“What, you like the little freak, man?” Another voice, also male but more like American frat boy. “The boss gave us an order. We get the research, kill the sanctimonious bitch and leave. Meanwhile, Richard sits on his ass and claims he was the key factor.”

The first guy shot back, “I agree the lil’ bitch has it bloody coming, but she’s working for the pres. If he finds out…”

At that, the two men the voices belonged to turned the corner. They were dressed in ski masks and were both armed, one with a shotgun, the other with an assault rifle of some kind. For some reason, they had their weapons slung over their shoulders in a way that would make it hard for them to be deployed. They were close, too, only a few steps away.

We stared at each other for a moment. Then one of the guys in ski masks reached for his gun, or at least I thought he did. I fired two rounds into his chest. The one remaining, the Australian one, desperately called out, “Wait!” but I had already fired. He fell to the ground, a gaping red hole where his left eye should have been.

We paused long enough for the last casing to finish bouncing on the tile floor, the smell of gunpowder and blood slowly starting to stain the air. The only sounds were the faint hum of electronics and climate control and the ragged breathing of the first person I shot. I edged closer to the two bodies in the pool of light.

Something cold and metallic tapped me on the shoulder. It was Cross giving me a spare magazine. I took it and reloaded his gun, then Cross and I quickly made the turn. John, meanwhile, went off in the opposite direction towards the elevator. From down the dimly-lit hall, I could see an open door with light shining out of it.

Someone called out from inside the door, saying, “Hey, guys? Is everything ok?” Neither Cross nor I answered. “I’m serious, guys,” the person said as he stepped out the door, a MAC-10 or Uzi held loosely in his hand and pointed at the floor, “you better not be…”

He was cut off by the report of Cross’s shotgun. He fell backwards and slid down the door frame, his coat stained red. I also noticed he was wearing a ski mask like his two friends. We moved forwards towards the open door. Cross was on the wall the door was on. I was on the opposite wall so I had to get a good view of the interior.

Speaking of the interior, it was a lot like a library, except instead of being stocked with shelves it was full of filing cabinets. It was still a fucking maze in there. At least the entrance was on one end of the room. The door had been a heavy metal affair, not vault-like, but still formidable. It had been blown in, and the smell of fire and chemicals wafted through the air.

When we got to the door, I held up three fingers, still aiming the gun into the room. Cross nodded. As the countdown went down, thoughts of all the things that could go wrong flashed before my eyes. Then I hit zero. We burst into the room, Cross going to the left, me going straight ahead.

Thankfully, it turned out that the room was much smaller than I expected. When I rounded my first corner, I saw another man in a ski mask raise an MP-5. I ducked back just in time. There was a loud chatter and the sound of bullets whizzing by me to penetrate into filing cabinets.

“Yeah!” the guy yelled. “See how you like…”

Again, the thump of Cross’s shotgun echoed out, cutting off someone. There was the sound of the slide being pulled back, followed by another thump. There was a brief, yet seemingly eternal silence broken only by background noise and the clinking of a shell casing falling to the floor. Finally, Cross called out, “Clear!”

I peeked out around the filing cabinet. The person who had shot at me was now lying on the ground, surrounded by spent casings and drops of blood. Behind him was a desk. I walked over to it. Spread out on the table was a hastily discarded camera, a bunch of papers and a manila folder. The tab on it looked something like this:

9/2/2015 to

Autopsy(s): UNFOR N. Korea

May Riley

 

I took out my spy camera to take a picture of it. “What are you doing?” Cross asked.

I turned to him. “Hey Cross,” I asked, “how would you like to some money?”

He looked at me suspiciously. “How much money?” he asked.

“It depends,” I said, pulling on my gloves. “My contact has screwed me before, but I could get you as much as fifty grand. All you need to do is stand watch for campus police and not ask questions.”

“How much are they paying you?” Cross asked. “‘Cause I might be able to get you a better deal.”

I sighed. “What did I say about asking questions?” Cross raised his eyebrow. I looked away to take some pictures. “A hundred grand. Assuming they like what I give them.”

“Damn, Killer,” Cross said, shaking his head. “Forget what I said about that better deal. You’re obviously runnin’ some kinda charity.” He walked off. From over his shoulder he said, “You ever change your mind and decide you wanna make money, come talk to me.”

I sighed, and got back to photographing documents. They were reports, notes, and forms filled out by a surprisingly legible hand. I would not have expected May to have good writing. While doing that, I thought about two things.

First off, I was… concerned about the reports. For once, I wasn’t disgusted by NIU’s lack of ethics. As far as I knew, May was just conducting a series of autopsies and tests in a perfectly ethical way. At least, it seemed ethical.

What bothered me was the people she was autopsying. First off, they were clones. That was the first thing I made out. There apparently were four types, each suited for different military purposes. Two groups differed only slightly and were somewhere in between baseline and para, with minor durability and strength modifications. A third was optimized for going extended periods without sustenance and maneuvering in tight formations. The fourth was obviously deliberately bred as a shock trooper. They were huge, fast, and ridiculously strong. They also had a weird section of the brain that May said, and I quote, “looked like some sort of antennae.”

The most disturbing letter was a condolence note to a redacted person. It was thanking him for his sacrifice bringing in samples. That, along with every other scrap thing I had seen, suggested that these clones hadn’t been created by the University. They also were dangerous and running amok somewhere.

The other thought that my deal with UNIX was incredibly crappy. Cross seemed to be under the impression that accepting a hundred grand for this information was “charity.” A few months ago, I would have believed it was to a worthwhile cause. Now, I wasn’t so sure. Even assuming Takashi and Craig hadn’t used me as bait, they had still underpaid us by exactly $99,500. Good people don’t underpay people who risk their lives.

I took a deep breath. I was taking this too personally. I shouldn’t dwell on how I was being screwed over. Instead, I should start looking for better clients. Or even better, find a way to leave. But I’d get the money UNIX owed me.

I must have taken over twenty pictures of documents when I heard Cross call out, “Hey guys! Glad you could make it!” I quickly stuffed the camera in my shoe and headed over to the doorway.

“Sorry about how late we were,” a familiar voice with a Hispanic accent said.

I recognized it. “Officer Mendez!” I said, trying to be cordial. “Nice to see you here.” As I headed towards the door, I remembered two things. First, he and partner, Officer Gupta, had saved me from Salim’s attack on me a little after Fight Night. Later, Salim had found that another event, The Chamber of Horrors, didn’t remove corpses. Neither of us liked that. To get us out of there, Mendez and his partner had gassed the people who had survived and removed us by force. The next time we saw each other things were… strained.

“We meet again,” Mendez said, with forced joviality. I got the sense he was trying to make up. When I got out into the hallway, I saw that his partner, Officer Gupta was out as well as several over officers with P-90 submachineguns and SPAS-12 shotguns. “Sorry, but we’re going to have to ask you to submit to a pat-down and give us any weapons or electronic devices you have on you. There’s stuff in that room we don’t want people to see.”

“Not a problem,” I said. I gave them my cPhone, my iTouch and Cross’s M1911. Cross also handed over his iPhone, his cPhone and a 3DS. Officer Mendez then proceeded to frisk me while another officer did the same to Cross.

After we were done, Mendez asked, “Do you know where Riley is? Marshall said we should have you show us where they are.”

“Eliza and Charlotte are watching over her,” I said. “Eliza takes guarding people very seriously, so I’ll let her know we’re coming.”

“Good,” Mendez said. “We’ll need to verify that everything is there before we let you go.” He motioned for me to move out. “After you, man.”

We got to the morgue’s door. I knocked on it, and it opened. Eliza was standing there, looking visibly relieved. “Heh,” she said, “You finally got your asses down ‘ere.”

“Where’s May?” Mendez asked.

“Back through there,” Eliza said, indicating the door to the actual morgue. She turned around and called out, “Oi! Char! Campus cops’re ‘ere!”

“Thank God!” I heard May call out.

We walked into the morgue. It was reasonably well-lit, with several tables for dissecting corpses and some morgue slabs built into the wall opposite us. However, there was something missing. “Where is Miss Riley?” Officer Gupta asked.

“Miss Riley,” Charlotte’s voice said, muffled and somewhere to the left, “and I are in the freezer.” We moved towards the other end of the room. There was a large silver door. As we did so, Charlotte’s voice came out from behind it. “I had the idea of hiding in here. However, I failed to realize that there was no interior door handle. I do apologize.”

“Hey,” Mendez said, “there appears to be a keypad by the door. What’s the password?”

“It’s also finger-print locked,” May said. “You’re going to need to get your boss down here or find someone else with access to the lab.”

“He’s… he’s not here,” Mendez said, looking away awkwardly.

“What do you mean he’s not here?” May asked, her voice dangerously controlled.

“He’s in Russia for a conference,” another officer said. “He won’t be back for another week or so. We can look for someone else with access, but it’ll be an hour at least.”

“Charlotte?” May asked dangerously. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cross and Eliza wince.

“Yes, May?” Charlotte squeaked.

“Never. Do this. Again!”

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Track 14: Rest Up

February was when things started to get into a routine, albeit one with ever-escalating academic stakes. There was at least one paper assigned per class, not counting the math class. The teacher there just decided to pile on the homework. Between schoolwork, my job at The Drunken Mercenary and the exercise schedule I had to keep up, I would get back to my dorm and cry myself to sleep. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, with Hell Semester barely beating it out. Due to some miracle of God, I was getting Bs and As.

The nice thing was that the weather was improving. After the one week where classes had been canceled, the snow’s constant barrage had begun to back off. Then, for one day, the temperature jumped up. Now, occasionally, the snow would become rain. One day, it even stopped! People went out into the streets, marveling at the fact that there was no precipitation, assuming fog didn’t count as precipitation. Of course, no one could see the sun.

It was soon after that my driving lessons started. The problem was three-fold. First off, the weather, as stated above, was crap. The second problem was that the instructors were training us on both automatic and manual transmission cars. Finally, I had failed my driver’s test back home. All of this, plus my workload, stress, and mounting paranoia, should have made my driving lessons miserable.

Instead, I was having fun. I had an excuse to empty my mind of all the various things that were happening to me. I guess it was because I had to focus on what I was doing or die, sort of like how I hadn’t once had a nightmare during Hell Semester. It was better than drinking, and I was having trouble playing my favorite games.

Not everyone had my stance on driving lessons. John, the lucky bastard, didn’t have to take them because he had taken his test back home. He even was a TA for the instructors. Thankfully, he was pretty cool about it.

Cross and Eliza also hadn’t passed their tests yet. “God,” Eliza moaned, “why is this happening to me again? Wasn’t three times enough?” It was at dinner in Newton-Howell, and Eliza was having her second meltdown.

Most of us were doing our best to comfort her. We had all broken down at some point this semester. At least I had. The day before, I was doing my laundry when I had realized how much work I still had to do. It took ten minutes, then I had to remove clothes from the laundry.

“You failed three times?” Cross asked. “Seriously, it wasn’t that hard.” He had just come into the dining room from his first lesson. He had never driven before, due to being a New Yorker.

“Well,” Charlotte said, “technically she only failed once. I really thought she’d get it the third time, until the lightning struck.” Eliza sobbed.

Suddenly, Jen appeared directly behind Cross. “Did she almost run over a friend? Because Cross almost hit May.”

Cross’s eyes widened. Meanwhile, Eliza gave Charlotte a pleading stare. “No!” Charlotte said, obviously lying. “She never ran over or into anything.”

“Anyway,” Jen said, “she doesn’t seem to be eating with us tonight. Does she have classes?”

“I think so,” I said. “She tends to like eating with us whenever possible. I’m not sure she has anyone else to eat with. Kinda sad.”

“‘Ow’s it sad?” Eliza asked.

“Well,” I said, “despite being pretty brilliant at med stuff, she never seems to hang with any of the other med people. I mean, we’re pretty cool, but I get the impression that she’d rather be hanging with people in her major.”

“She has an intriguing perspective on things,” Jen said. “I like her. Shame she doesn’t like me.”

“Really?” John said. He hadn’t been paying attention for most of the conversation, just texting on his cPhone. “May seems to be a little oblivious and, well, is as accepting of what we did during Hell Semester as a pacifist can be.”

Jen shrugged. “Wish I knew.”

Suddenly my phone rang. “It’s May,” I said. “She’s asking if she wants us to meet at the morgue around 11:30. I can make it because work’s canceled tonight.”

“Really?” Cross asked. “How is The Drunken Mercenary closed?”

“Someone dared Ulfric to break the window with his bare hands,” I said. “He did. Also, the toilet broke. Like seriously broke.”

“Jesus,” Cross said. “There go my plans for tonight. I’m in.”

“I’m not,” Jen said, shivering a bit. “That building’s jump-shielded.”

“What’s so bad about jump-shielding?” I asked.

Jennifer’s light brown eyes lost their usual twinkle. Instead, they became somewhat haunted. “Have you ever been locked in a coffin and buried alive?” she asked. “I haven’t, but that’s the closest I can come to describing jump shielding.”

“Well,” John said, “that doesn’t sound fun.” He stretched a bit. “Anyway, I’m in. I need a break. That fucking English paper is killing me.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and I need to not look at math.”

Unusually, John and I were the last of the group to leave. “Hey, Nate,” John asked as he finished swallowing his brownie, “can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said.

For a moment, he was quiet, and debating what to say. Then he asked, “What do you think of Bai?”

“I’m a little scared of her,” I said. “After all, the first time I talked to her was… awkward, to say the least.” On our first meeting, after Eliza had deduced I was a spy, she had spent the conversation silently trying to figure out whether to hurt me until I talked or to just kill me.

“But…” John said, “can she be trusted?”

“Eliza trusts her,” I said. “I don’t know her well enough to make that call.” Suddenly, a suspicion hit me. “Any reason you’re asking?” I asked. Images of her stalking him suddenly passed through my mind.

“She kind of invited me to this place called The Back-Home Bar and Grill,” he said. “I’m thinking of going.”

“Who else is going?”

“Just me,” he said, somewhat smugly. “If you’ll excuse me, I got some stuff to pick up at the library.” He got up, smiling a bit.

Well I’ll be damned, I thought, John and Bai… Didn’t expect them together.

A few hours later, we were walking into the medical building. The foyer was very nice for a reception area and well-secured. The Campus Security Guard on duty buzzed us inside without much fuss. “You’re here to see little scarface, ja?” He said approvingly as we checked in. I noticed that the nickname could apply to him, as he bore the telltale marks of going hand-to-hand with a Lupine. “She’s down in the basement, room B010.”

When the elevator dinged open, Charlotte said, “My, this is a gloomy place.”

“Gloomy” was kind of underselling it in my opinion. The walls and floors were clean enough, but the lighting was somehow simultaneously harsh and dim. They were also in mesh housings, so a creepy spider web pattern appeared in the blue light. These shafts were not wide enough to touch each other completely, making the place look like a horror movie set.

It only took a few seconds to find B010. Those few seconds were actually pretty creepy. We knocked on the door, a steel monstrosity with a camera built in. We waited for a few moments. Then it slid open.

There stood May in scrubs and an upturned visor, her eyes bleary. “Sorry,” she mumbled, “just was doing some stuff. Come on in.”

We all filed in. “Totally fine!” John said. “Anyway, what are you doing? It’s pretty late.” We were in a small locker/office area that was much better lit.

“I’m wondering,” May said, eyeing us suspiciously, “what you guys are doing here.”

Cross, voicing the sudden dread we all felt, said, “But you were the one to invite us here… weren’t you?”

“Did my message to you say ‘sent from my cPhone?’” May asked. “Because that got stolen a few days ago.”

“The question is,” Eliza said, “‘Oo benefits from putting us all in one place? And why do they want us ‘ere?” We considered this for a moment. Then Eliza added, “Probably not healthy for us, innit, though?”

We all moved away from the door. Cross, John, and Eliza began to reach under their coats and Charlotte began to fiddle with her pocket book’s zipper. Then we heard a muffled thump.

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Track 11: When You Grow Up

I woke up the next morning wondering why I was feeling so good. By all rights, I should have a pounding headache. Well, two shots probably wouldn’t cause a headache. I suddenly realized that this was the first time in a long time I had just slept peacefully.

When I looked out, my roommates were still sleeping. However, I was completely awake. It was weird, but I felt too awake to go back to sleep. Instead, I went over to my desk and booted up my computer. I had some work to do.

It was hard to resist booting up Steam. It was hard not going to YouTube when I opened my browser. I had been working pretty much constantly for the past week. Instead, I opened up the Campus Network. I decided that first I’d do some actual work and set up an appointment with my advisor. I looked at who it was. Professor Karl Krieger.

When I had met him, he had been Drill Sergeant Krieger. On the one hand, he was one of the few people who believed I could make it through the Hell Semester. Not even I had believed it. On the other hand, every time I looked at his face, I could see his eyes sparkle with madness and he had an uncanny read on me.

I sighed. Well, no use fighting it. I quickly saw that the nearest appointment we could conceivably make was around the first week of February, almost exactly two weeks away. I then started my own research project.

First, I decided to check out Kyle. That would be the hard, since I didn’t actually know his name. When I typed his name into the search bar, I wasn’t surprised to get more than one result, even when I narrowed it down to people. I narrowed it to AMS/Shadowhaven students who had their first semester Fall of 2015. There was only one result, Kyle J. Rockford.

I clicked on his profile. It was very bare, but by no means unhelpful. Name: Kyle J. Rockford. Gender: Blocked. Country: USA. State: Blocked. Town: Blocked. Age: 19. Date of Birth: Blocked. Recruiter: Karl Krieger. Sub-School: Shadowhaven and Madam Antionette’s Finishing School. That last school was the rarely-used official name of the Rogue school. Major(s): Assassination and Subterfuge. Dorm Room: Blocked. There was also a feed of comments and status updates and options to friend, follow or block.

I stared at it for a moment. Then, I opened my profile and privacy settings in a different tab. It turned out that the things Kyle had blocked out were also blocked out on my profile. I checked several other people. Most had unblocked a lot of the information on their profile. I decided to unblock my gender and leave it at that. I also noted that the information was locked and couldn’t be changed. I briefly wondered why anyone would block gender. Kyle himself was obviously male. I mean, I had seen him in the shower, much as didn’t want to.

“So,” I muttered to myself, trying to talk myself through this, “you’ve blocked everything you can possibly, you haven’t put anything in your About Me folder, you don’t post updates, you only comment on class posts…either you haven’t bothered to change your settings or you’re hiding something. You also seem to be keeping Richard in line through intimidation.”

I thought back to Fight Night. In order to make him surrender, I had to beat the crap out of him, including breaking his nose and stomping on his privates. “Now, how are you intimidating Richard? He doesn’t intimidate easily, and you’re doing it in a way that makes it look like he’s in charge of you. That must be really hard. Richard isn’t scared of physical violence. Why are you putting in that much effort?”

I suddenly realized that I’d need to write this down. I got out a piece of paper and began writing down facts, conjectures and questions. I also decided to put in how strong the conjectures were.

I looked through the list. If Kyle was intimidating Richard, it couldn’t be threats of physical injury. Therefore, it had to be blackmail. I tried to think of the conversation Kyle and Richard had. The only thing I could remember was that they talked about someone called The Punching Bag. Also, Richard had called Kyle “Karen,” and in response, Kyle warned that anyone could have been listening. More questions, still no answers.

I sighed, and decided to look at Kyle’s profile some more. I found that I could see his friends list. Most were people in Kyle’s group, three with a bright red “deceased” stamped across their photos. Only two were left alive. There was also Richard and… now that was interesting. Taylor Smith was also listed as a friend.

One possibility presented itself: Kyle wanted to get close to Taylor and possibly the campus’s white supremacist community. To do that, he was using Richard, he would then…

I sighed. I had nowhere near enough information to determine what the next step of the plan was. Nothing Kyle had said made me think he was a virulent racist. However, he could agree with everything Richard and Taylor said. But if he agreed with them, why was he blackmailing Richard?

Another sigh. For all I knew, I could be completely wrong about a dozen things. I updated the document one last time and saved it. Then I gathered my stuff to have a shower.

After showering and having breakfast at Newton-Howell, I logged back into cNet. I eventually discovered I could make a list of friends or people I followed. I could also make notes on the people I was following. I quickly followed Kyle, Richard, the people in that immediate circle, and Taylor. I put them in a list I titled “White Supremacists on Campus,” and made some notes about their perceived positions.

The weekend itself was relaxing, once I had finished my various bits of homework. I discovered that there was a laundry room in the basement for the people in Marine. The best part about it was that it was free.

The rest of the week, however, wasn’t relaxing. I discovered that the mid-week period of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were going to be particularly brutal because I had both classes and my night job at The Drunken Mercenary. At least The Drunken Mercenary had calmed down a lot after the first week. I also got my first paycheck from Popov on Saturday. I was now richer by two-hundred and forty-seven dollars. That was a nice feeling. I remembered smiling a bit before heading back to the salt mines that were my classes.

I did manage to talk to Eliza sometime in the third week. “Hey, Eliza,” I asked during lunch on Tuesday, “do you know anything about a person called The Punching Bag?” We were sitting with Bai, Cross, and Oro because everyone else was in class, sleeping, or having a panic attack.

“I don’t know,” Eliza said. “I kept me eyes open, but I probably missed quite a bit of stuff.”

“Well,” Cross said, “I think I can probably tell you what this guy does.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t even know if it’s a guy. Could be a girl.”

“Actually,” Cross said, “this guy probably is a chick. You see, a punching bag is, at least in my world, someone you hire to beat up. Say you’re being initiated into a gang and you want to prove you’re cold. You hire a punching bag, and you and the people you wanna impress go up and mug them. You get a wallet with some cash, a few canceled credit cards, and a hell of a lot of street cred. They get north of five hundred bucks.”

“That sounds… really dangerous,” I said.

“I know,” Eliza said. “But us Lupines could make a bit o’ money, couldn’t we?”

Cross laughed. “My dad was insurance to a Lupine punching bag for a while. She was an ex-prostitute. For ten grand, you and the people you wanted to impress could ‘rape’ her. If you wanted to ‘murder’ her, the cost ranged from five to fifteen grand, depending on the method of execution and an extra fifty if you wanted to move her somewhere. If the client went too far, my dad would step in. He’d also collect late fees. All in all, he could earn five grand on a bad night.”

“It sounds as dangerous and degrading,” Bai said.

“I would not look down on her until I know how her story ended,” Oro said.

“She’s living in a nice house in Connecticut,” Cross said, “she put all three of her kids and two of her grandkids through college and still has enough left over to drive a Porsche. I think she’s doing pretty good.”

“Have you asked her if she thinks it was worth it?” Oro asked.

Cross opened his mouth, closed it, thought about it, then finally said, “I’d have to ask her.”

“When you do,” Oro said, “I’d be very curious what she says.”

Finally, the meeting with Krieger came around. It was the first Saturday in February and I was desperately hoping I could get it over with quickly and enjoy the rest of my weekend. His office, annoyingly, was on the top floor of Patton, meaning I had to walk halfway across the campus in a blizzard. To make it worse, when I finally got to Patton, I was I late and the elevators weren’t working, forcing me to run all five stories.

Panting, I began the walk to his office on the other side of the building. This part of the building, unlike the grey, dimly lit concrete basement corridors where the firing range were, was actually quite nice with red wood paneling and dark green wallpaper.

“I hope you’re not out of breath, boyke,” a voice with a South African accent said, coming from somewhere behind me. I turned around. There was Professor Karl Krieger, his bushy brownish-blond beard and unkempt hair making him look as lion-like as ever. He was wearing a shirt with a South African flag that revealed his lithe, muscular arms. His eyes sparkled with their usual mix of intelligence and madness. “You realize we’re going to be doing a run today?”

“Sorry,” I said, “I was a bit late eating breakfast and had to run here.” I was quite proud of myself for not panting.

Krieger nodded. “Fair enough.” He then began to the hallway in a completely different direction from where I had been going, motioning for me to follow. “Come, step into my office.”

When we finally got into his office, it was very simply decorated. There were a few pictures. They were all quite interesting. “Is that you with Nelson Mandela?” I asked. Mandela himself was easily recognizable. The person the great leader was shaking hands with wasn’t. I mean, it could have been Krieger, but his hair was too short, and he had no beard. Also, the smile he was giving the camera was one of a man meeting a hero.

“Not like I got to talk to the man,” Krieger said sadly. “He just showed up for a speaking role at my university.” He sighed. “Do you know the saying ‘never meet your heroes?’” I nodded. “Don’t listen to them. I already respected the man. It only grew after that.”

“What happened?” I asked. “You don’t really seem to agree with his pacifistic ideals.”

Krieger pointed to the next photo. Krieger was in that photo as well, this time as the link between the starstruck man and the somewhat insane man who stood before me today. However, Krieger was pointing at a large, potbellied man with a shaved head and a sort of Gandalf beard. There were several other people of various nationalities, but they were all united in that they wore camouflage and carried large guns.

“I met this man, Rolf Larsson,” Krieger said. “He was very interested in finding ways to make humanity a better while making a profit and having fun.” He shrugged. “Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about you, Nate! Come on, sit down, take off your coat.”

I sat down in a red vinyl chair. “So,” I asked, taking off my coat, “what did you want to talk about?”

“Well first off,” Krieger said, “you haven’t declared a major. I know it could take a while, but the sooner you figure it out, the better.” He paused. “How about covert ops?”

I laughed. “No. No, no, no. God that would be awful. Not knowing who I was supposed to trust, worrying about being asked to betray I actually care about more than my superiors? No thanks.”

Krieger nodded. “So I see you would be more interested in the Academy of Military Science. Any particular areas you’re interested in?”

I considered it for a bit. Finally, I said, “I kind of want to retire from the whole killing people thing. Yeah, I want to save the world, but then I want to go into some desk job where I can work regular nine-to-five hours.”

Krieger nodded. “Well, if you wanted to look into coming back here as a teacher…”

I stared at him. “I’ve been here for a semester, and already I know how fucked up this school is. I’m not planning on coming back.”

“What if things changed?” Krieger asked in an overly-casual fashion.

“Are you going to change things?” I asked.

“The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice,” Krieger said cryptically, “but sometimes it has a jump start, I suppose.” He then changed the subject. “Anyway, if you are continuing with AMS, one of the requirements is to obtain a driver’s license. Obviously, the lessons won’t begin for a while.”

I looked out the window. The snow was falling down in sheets. “Yeah,” I said, “it’d be pretty hard.”

I considered the things that Krieger was saying. Somehow, I doubted that he was on the team of white supremacy. If so, I doubted he’d be keeping a picture of him shaking hands with Nelson Mandela or quote Martin Luther King.

“If I don’t believe you about this place changing,” I said, “what major do you recommend, outside of a sub-school transfer?”

“Officer Candidacy,” Krieger said without hesitation. “It has a lot of logistics training, business classes, plus engineering courses. I know plenty of people who took that course and transitioned into being a suit.”

“Cool,” I said. “I think I’ll take a few major-specific classes, then I’ll see. Anything else you want to ask me about?”

“Just want to congratulate you,” Krieger said. “Popov says you’re doing a great job at The Drunken Mercenary and I’m enjoying your radio show. You and Andy have… interesting chemistry.”

I nodded. My most recent show, I had made a lot of weird animal noises. Andy just laughed because, honestly, when the person you’re trapped in a small room with is making cat sounds, what else do you do? Apart from calling the insane asylum, that is.

“No,” Krieger, “this is the part of the interview if I ask if you have any concerns.”

I decided to take a gamble. “Well,” I said, “there is something I think you should know. I was looking at the cNet profile of someone you recruited, Kyle Rockford. He’s hanging out with some kind of dangerous people and…”

Krieger nodded. “I know Kyle. He’s a tricky bastard. Even I have trouble figuring out what’s going on in his head sometimes. But his intentions are almost always more noble than they appear.”

“Really?” I asked. “Do you know what his plan is?”

“That would be telling,” Krieger said. “Now come, I want to show you something.” He stood up and motioned me to follow him.

I did so. We walked down the hallway to the front of the building where there was a window looking out at the nearby buildings. Krieger, however, turned around to look at the wall. On it were dozens of photos. “If you believe that all of the teachers here are sociopaths, I hope this makes you reconsider.” He walked towards one in particular, this one of an old man in a US Army dress uniform with several medals pinned to his chest. “Some of us are bloody heroes. This man in particular nearly lost his hand tossing a Nazi grenade away from his unit. He was also one of the first Americans to enter a concentration camp.”

I took a closer look. The man’s face was very familiar, like an older, scarred version of someone I knew. I took a gander at the plaque that said his name. It read Kyle Chapman.

Suddenly, I realized that the person he looked like was also named Kyle. I turned to Krieger. “Thank you, sir,” I said. “You’ve been a big help.”

Krieger smiled. “Anytime, boyke,” he said.

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