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 12: It’s Cold Outside

Walking back to my dorm, I considered the weather. Now, if you live in a place like California or Wales, the weather is pretty constant. If you live in New England, the weather is constantly changing. However, my time at NIU taught me about a different kind of place: one where the weather was constantly trying to kill you.

For instance, in August and early September, the island’s weather had been humid and hot, with the sun constantly baking your skin. Slowly, throughout September and into November, the temperature had dropped. The precipitation, however, had increased dramatically around the second week of September. Then, during the very end of November, General Winter had begun a near-constant bombardment of snow.

Today was particularly bad, with wind battering me and the snow alternately reducing my visibility to about four or five meters or blinding me completely. I was just wondering if I should bother going to lunch when my phone dinged. I took it out. It was an automated text message saying that the dining hall was closed. My stomach growled.

My phone rang again. It was Popov. I answered it, yelling, “HEY, BOSS, WHAT’S UP?”

“Nathan,” Popov asked, “where are you?”

“I’M WALKING BACK FROM AN APPOINTMENT WITH MY ADVISOR!” I yelled. “MARINE IS PROBABLY STILL A GOOD DISTANCE AWAY!”

“Next time someone tells you to go somewhere in blizzard this bad,” Popov yelled angrily at me, “tell them to fuck their mother! You hear?”

“I HEAR!”

“Good!” Popov said. “Now once you get back to Marine, help yourself to popcorn and big soft pretzels. Invite friends.”

That was at 11:45. It was 12:00 when I got back to Marine. I opened the door, and staggered into the hallway. I was surprised to see Andy standing there in clothes significantly nicer than usual. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I live here,” Andy said, “just like you.” His eyes narrowed. “Why were you outside?”

“Meeting with my advisor,” I said, as I struggled to close the door. It was actually a little hard, due to the snow falling into the building.

“And neither of you canceled?” Andy asked, a look of wonder on his face. “Man, you AMS and Shadowhaven people are friggin’ insane.”

“You realize,” I said, “that this is an AMS/Shadowhaven dorm, right?”

A look of dawning comprehension passed over Andy’s face. “So that’s why no one was here first semester,” he said. Then he paused. “They said I might get new roommates. Did…?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. I did hear that three people dropped out after Hell Semester was over. Those could have been your roommates.”

“But it’s more likely they’re dead, right?” Andy’s boyish face was in shock. “I mean, less than half of you guys were killed.”

“Not necessarily,” I said. “There were a few people who were just too injured to continue Hell Semester.”

Andy cocked his head as if to say, “Yeah, right.”

“Ok,” I admitted, “they’re probably dead.” I looked at the ground. “Hey, why are you waiting around here?”

There was a knock on the door behind me. “Well,” Andy said, “I was waiting for a different breed of crazy person.”

When I turned around, I wondered why there seemed to be no one there, but then the knocking stopped and May bounced up. Then there was more knocking. I sighed and opened the door. May came tumbling in, accompanied by snow and howling wind. “May,” I asked, “why are you out in this weather?”

“I come bearing gifts,” she said, holding up several grocery bags while I closed the door. “Now you won’t starve! You’re welcome!”

“Andy,” I said, looking at him with some annoyance, “why didn’t you stop her?”

“I can’t use lethal force,” he said, “and I didn’t really want to.”

I nodded. “Fair enough. Anyways, Popov said I could get some friends and snack on the pretzels and popcorn in The Drunken Mercenary. After that, I’m going to get the rest of the crew down here.”

“Gee,” May said as I let her in, “how healthy.”

Thirty minutes later, all my friends based in Marine were in The Drunken Mercenary. I had taken position behind the bar. “Ok,” I said, “popcorn and pretzels are free, but you still have to pay for the drinks. Good news is you can get the good stuff.”

“What is the ‘good stuff?’” Cross asked. “Patrόn, maybe?”

I looked in the cabinet. “It appears to be mostly Russian vodka, rum, and Scotch. There’s also some other kinds of beer, again, mostly Russian.”

Cross sighed. “You’re living up to your fucking nickname, Killer. Is their seriously no tequila? Just commie juice?”

“You don’t like it,” I said, “you don’t have to drink it.”

“Besides,” May said, “you guys all drink too much. I mean, Cross, if you drink like you did at the back-to-school party regularly, there’s all sorts of problems including dementia, weight gain, skeletal fragility…”

“Any guarantee we’ll live long enough to experience the effects?” Eric asked, genuinely curious.

May shrugged. “Depends. Your body chemistry and how much you drink all factor into it. Personally, if I were Cross I’d sober up now before you find yourself behind enemy lines going through withdrawal. Your crew, except for Doc, actually had a healthy amount.” She paused. “Anyway, why do you drink that stuff?”

“It helps me sleep,” Doc said.

“Maybe, like, see some counseling?” May said. “That might help with the whole not being able to sleep thing.”

“Sure,” Doc said.

There was then a knock at the window. We all looked up and saw Eliza standing outside, wearing a heavy coat over her army jacket, but still looking cold. John got up from hooking up an PS4 from one of the TVs to let in Eliza. “Bloody ‘ell!” she said as she staggered in. “They don’t ‘ave snow like this in England.”

“Why did you even come out here, then?” John asked, as they both struggled to close the door.

Suddenly, Jen appeared right by John, casually leaning on the window. Everyone jumped. “Well,” Jen said, “she is a little nuts.” I noticed that she had taken advantage of her abilities as a Jumper to wear a thin, dark red blouse, high-heeled boots, and a short black skirt.

“God,” John said, “I thought Jumpers made some kind of noise when… y’know, teleporting.”

“They don’t,” Eliza and Cross said in unison. Both had looks of exasperation on their face, like they had experienced this phenomenon a lot.

“Don’t Jumpers have to be careful where they jump?” May asked. “I’ve read a lot about ‘coating’ and how badly anti-jump fields can mess up jumpers. The results, at least based on the literature I’ve read, can get… messy.”

Jennifer smiled. “Have you heard of course correction?”

May’s eyes widened. “That… that involves keeping your eyes open while jumping. Don’t a lot of people who open their eyes… go insane?”

“Wait,” I asked, “what are you talking about?”

Jen disappeared. In the instant she did, I heard the sound of weight shifting subtly behind me and I could smell her lightly applied perfume and feel breath. “Well, Nathan,” her voice, lowered seductively, came from behind, somewhere very close to my ear, “we Jumpers don’t just appear and disappear. We go to a sort of in-between, and then we return, albeit in a different spot.” I turned my head slowly, trying to suppress the instincts that told me to punch her. I didn’t turn far when my face brushed up against the silky smooth strand of hair that framed that side of her face.

“As if you weren’t creepy enough,” Cross muttered. From behind me, I could feel Jen’s gaze harden. Cross gulped, but he held her gaze. “Just sayin’, people like their personal space. Killer looks nervous. Maybe back off a bit.”

I wondered what Jen’s reputation was with the underworld. Cross didn’t really seem to fear much. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Jen wore a costume. Or maybe she had a few kills under her belt.

After making sure Cross was at least somewhat cowed, Jennifer took a few steps out of my blindspot. “Sorry, Nathan,” she said. “I’ll admit, personal space can be a problem for me. Anyway, where was I?” I noticed that she was dividing her attention between apologizing to me and shooting dirty looks at Cross.

“The dimensional theory,” May said. I noticed that she had been scrutinizing both Cross and Jennifer. “And how you can jump somewhere without having line-of-sight.”

“Well,” Jennifer said, “It’s actually quite simple.” I noticed that she was doing something to subtly imitate May. “When I jump somewhere, I actually keep my eyes open to search for where I want to go when I’m between. That’s known as mid-adjust jump. There’s downsides, of course, but the upsides are too good to ignore.”

“You know,” May said, “that the downsides include rocking back and forth in a padded room, muttering about tentacles and right angles not acting like right angles, right?”

“Assuming I live to be eighty,” Jennifer said, her smile getting somewhat cruel, “I’ve probably made a profit if I go insane right now.”

May just nodded and said, “Mmm.” It was weird. May wasn’t her usual happy-go-lucky self around Jen. In fact, she seemed downright hostile at times.

“Hey guys!” John said, breaking the tension, “Anybody want to play Surgery Simulator?” Everyone moved to crowd around the TV. However on my way there, Eliza intercepted me.

“I need t’talk to ya for a bit,” she whispered. “In private.

“Sure,” I said, leading her out the door and into the hallway. I also walked her down the stairs into the basement laundry room. The machines were only one high, and also made nice chairs. When we were seated opposite each other and sure no one was there, I asked, “So, what did you want to talk about?”

“Apart from Jen bein’ bloody creepy?” Eliza asked. “Char thinks she’s flirting with us, but…”

“Wait,” I said, kind of weirded out, “what do you mean, us?”

“Well,” Eliza said, “she sometimes gets, y’know, like that with me. All touchy-feely. Char’s theory’s that she’s bi and either wants a threesome or can’t choose ‘er bloody targets.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, the real thing I wanted t’tell you is that Ricardo says ‘e knows ‘oo your punching bag could be. However, ‘e wants payment.”

“What kind?” I asked.

Eliza sighed. “Says he’ll think of something. Bloody gangsters.”

“Guess I’ll deal with that when it happens,” I said. “I’m already so far in over my head, a few more feet won’t hurt anything.”

“You’d be surprised,” Eliza said. “Just, be careful, Nate…” She leaned in close, like she was about to confess something. “After all, I…”

She was interrupted by one of the elevator doors sliding open. There was Mubashir, of all people. “Oh,” he said, “I am sorry. I am here to do my laundry. Hopefully, I did not interrupt anything.” He quickly hammered the door close button. I noticed that he had no laundry basket.

We both sighed as the elevator doors closed. “Bloody bastard ruined the moment,” Eliza said. “Well, best be getting back up. Don’t want people asking too many questions.” I noticed she didn’t seem to be too happy about that. Maybe she wanted to tell me something a bit more personal.

I considered asking her about it all the way up the stairs. Finally, just as we got up the stairs and were almost to The Drunken Mercenary, I said, “So, Eliza… I got the idea that before Mubashir interrupted us, you were going to…”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, “I was about to cock somethin’ up.” She turned towards me, somewhat sadly, as joyous shouts and raucous laughter drifted out. “Listen Nate,” she said, “the moment’s gone.” She cocked her head in the direction of the celebration. “But this moment sounds fun, don’t it?”

“Sounds good,” I said, opening the door. “Just… tell me when you finally work up the courage, ok?” I kind of had an idea of what she wanted to say, but I didn’t want to guess and get it wrong. Besides, something told me that she wanted to tell me on her own terms.

“Sure,” Eliza said, opening the door, “It… might be a while, though.”

“That’s ok,” I said, holding the door open, “If it’s not something like ‘you’ll die in twenty-four hours, here’s how to stop it,’ take all the time you need.”

She smiled as she stepped through the door. “Thanks, Nate,” she said.

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Track 7: School Store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need hair of dog?” Popov asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The rules, yes,” I said, “but why…”

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

“Sure,” I said. “I just have…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” I said, “it’s just…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “Close-range?”

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

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

“It didn’t hurt…” I protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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