Track 31: In the town known as Worcester, MA

For what seemed to be several hours but was probably not even a half an hour, I watched the incoming stream of soldiers trying to get into the factory. The vehicles were still holding the line, but barely.

“Where the fuck are all these people coming from?” I muttered under my breath.

I heard a knock on the door. On the camera, it revealed it to be Eliza. “I’m kind of locked down at the moment,” I said into the intercom. I made sure it was only directed into the speaker outside the door to the security room.

“Good,” Eliza said back into the intercom. “That’s where you need to be. I take it yer ready to push the button?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I am.”

“I like it even less than you do,” Eliza said, “but those tanks won’t ‘old forever. Also, I’m worried about the basement. Buncha pipes and conduits leadin’ in, right?”

“Create a detail for that if you want,” I said, “but I’m not too worried about that. We’ve got bigger problems than-”

There was a roar that reminded me of one of my last years in high school. Behind my school, they had been building a replacement for my old crappy school and part of that process involved breaking ground using explosives. Those explosives, up until recently, had been the second-most powerful weapons I had experienced. Only the Teeth’s plasma weaponry had impressed me more than the humble excavation tool that had caused that tarp behind my school to lift up, propelled by literal tons of dirt and rock.

This sound, however, was like someone had dropped dozens of bombs hundreds of times more powerful in rapid succession. The shock wave was so intense that it felt like my heart would burst and I was nearly thrown out of my chair. Ears ringing, I turned back to the monitor to check what had happened.

The exterior cameras facing the areas the tanks had been defending were useless. Either they were displaying an error message, or they were showing an odd swirling gray mist. Upon looking on the ones viewing the rooms where the soldiers were being triaged, I learned it was dust. Dust that was still pouring in, causing everyone who breathed it in to break down and cough. Dust that was sticking to clothes and skin. I wondered what it was from, then realized with horror: it was from the buildings outside the factory that, along with the tanks, had been blocking the advance of the Dragon’s Teeth.

I slammed the button to the intercom for a general announcement. “GET INSIDE!” I yelled. “EVERYONE, GET INSIDE NOW!”

Then, one of the Dragon’s Teeth planes must have flown too low, because all the dust was blown away. There, advancing over rubble that used to be several blocks of city street and methodically killing US Armed Forces stragglers, were what had to be Dragon’s Teeth soldiers. They seemed to be a new type, with a different kind of armor and were moving along in groups of three, with one in front holding a riot shield and two in back using the one in front as cover.

I frowned. The weapons they were holding didn’t seem to be the typical Pilum bullpup assault rifle or Gladius SMG used by the mainline Legionnaires. I zoomed in. “The bastards…” I muttered as I saw some reach into a hastily restored Sherman tank to remove a crew member.

Some of the ones hiding behind the riot shields were carrying M249s, M240s, or M60s. But most were carrying Maccabees. It was difficult, but I could tell by the fact that the M4-like rifles were oddly thick around the magazines and ambidextrous AK-style charging handles. The ones with the shields were either carrying Maccabees or Ballpeens with flat butt plates that had slings around their shoulders.

They’re using my weapons, I thought in shock. The bastards are in my country, killing my fellow citizens with weapons I made.

Between the shock of seeing my weapons in the hands of the enemy and disorientation from the bomb, I was too stunned to do anything. I watched as the few remaining US soldiers outside the factory capable of doing anything started to fire at the advancing Teeth. Their fire did very little, with many bullets bouncing off the ballistic shields and sometimes even the helmets of the advancing Teeth. Many more shots missed. It was a miracle, in my opinion, that any of the US soldiers had hit them.

The Dragon’s Teeth, meanwhile, were moving with inhuman speed and returning fire with equally impressive accuracy. In the rare circumstances that one of them was dropped by the fire from the US soldiers, his buddies would step over his body and continue onwards. I suddenly realized that the soldiers still outside the factory were screwed, and the Dragon’s Teeth were entering optimum range. I pushed the button.

The doors slammed shut. A soldier had been trying to get through the pedestrian entrance and was crushed by the iron blast door. Their buddy just ahead turned around and began screaming causing other soldiers to turn around. On the vehicle entrance, some soldiers had been dragging in wounded. Some were still outside, and began banging on the door only to be cut down by Dragon’s Teeth fire or to get down. I was unsure which. One soldier who had been dragged by his or her fellows (the body armor most of them were wearing and shitty image quality made telling gender hard) had their legs caught by the falling door. The people dragging the wounded soldier in were now trying to free them.

Meanwhile, the auto-turrets had come up. The perimeter around the doors had mostly contracted into the turret’s minimum range. Mostly. A few soldiers outside that small bubble were instantly chewed up by the dumb devices.

Luckily, the Dragon’s Teeth took the brunt of the robotic wrath. A short burst into Dragon’s Teeth clone with a riot shield would seemingly penetrate the shield, its wielder, and, if the burst was long enough, the armor of the other two Teeth in the triad.

I looked out into the hellish landscape outside the factory that I had helped to create in several ways. Buried, maimed, and dead littered all the debris from the bombs. The ringing in my ears from the bombs was slowly dying away and I could hear footsteps and voices outside the door of the security room as people began running to firing positions inside the factory walls. In the cameras looking inside the factory, I could see soldiers and gangsters running to firing positions, checking for masks, or trying to find a place to put the dead and wounded so they at least wouldn’t get trampled. Thanks to what I’m convinced was a Deet carpet-bombing, I think there were a few more potential murder holes than there would have been otherwise.

I realized that the explosion had shaken a huge amount of dust loose from the tiles above me. I brushed myself off, which irritated my burned skin. I then began to wonder what else I was missing. My chest was still aching from the blasts, and I wondered how anyone was still moving.

Due to a combination of finally being able to catch my breath and the ringing in my ears dying down, I finally noticed that some of the thumping was coming from the door to my security room. I looked through the camera just in time to see Captain Castle get slammed against the wall by Eliza.

“Hey, Eric,” I said into the intercom, “Eliza’s having a dispute with one of our guests. Can I have some assistance here?” There was another thump as Castle slammed Eliza back into the door to the security room, and another when he headbutted her. Seeing as there was no way anyone would have been able to make out that what with the explosions and gunfire, I added, “Can you please hurry?”

Castle got Eliza into a headlock somehow, then hammered on the button. “Jacobs, you piece of shit!” he yelled. “Open the fucking gate or I break her GAH!”

Eliza had simultaneously bit Castle’s arm and brought her foot down on the Captain’s shin, causing it to bend where a human leg definitely should not be bending. She then ripped out of his grasp and threw him back against the door with a thud.

At that point, I genuinely expected him to go down. Instead, from the side I could see, three bone claws popped out of his hand and he somehow lunged towards Eliza. In response, Eliza popped her own claws. Shit, I thought. He’s a Lupine as well. This will only end badly.

There was a brief flurry of violence in which I couldn’t see anything. I could see the results. Both combatants had been flung back against their respective walls, Eliza bleeding from the face and Castle clutching his stomach with one hand. Eliza yelled something, but I could barely make out a sound through the reinforced wall and the gunfire.

Castle ignored her and took a step forwards. Then, from the blurry camera feed, I saw him stumble back and I could hear several gunshots striking metal. Whoever was firing at him quickly shifted aim and the result was a massive red hole in his forehead.

Eliza slumped to the ground as Doc and Eric came into view. Eric went over to Eliza while Doc kept his gun trained on Castle’s corpse. Satisfied that the threat was over, I wheeled to the door and began the process of opening it. When it opened, something squishy fell on my legs. It was Captain Castle’s head. I looked down. His stomach was ripped to shreds.

“I’m sorry, Nate,” Eliza said, her eyes filled with tears. Well, eye. One of them was completely gouged out from Castle’s swipe. “I tried to get ‘im to reason wi’ me an’ then ‘e took a swing an’ things just snowballed. I didn’t…! I didn’t mean…!”

I knew. It wasn’t her fault. Two Lupines, one trying to enter the room where the person who had killed all his men was sitting, the other, who wanted to defend said person in the room. I personally was surprised that Doc had arrived in time to end the fight.

The Monk, Ray-Gun and Cross had joined me, Eliza, Eric and Doc. I only barely noticed them. “We have to do something,” I said. “We have to hide the body. How…?”

Cross took  off his jacket and threw it over Castle’s head. “We’re putting bodies out in the back. Most people aren’t back there anyway. Plus he’s just one more body. Easiest stiff disposal job I ever did. You and Eliza just go back in there. Is there a cleaning cupboard?” He then looked down the hall. “There it is. You got a key?”

“It’s got a number pad,” I said. “Four, five, seven, nine.”

“Got it,” Cross said. “We’ll fix this shit up. You and Eliza stay in there.”

Once Eliza was shepherded into the room, I turned my attention back to monitoring the hell I had created.

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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 10: Party at the Nerdy Colony

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

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

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

“He’s Andy Sebaldi,” I said. “He’s…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I talk!” MC Disaster protested.

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

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

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

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

“Charmed,” Charlotte said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 18: Good Morning

When I came to, I was being carried by Eliza and John. Besides me, Ricardo and Doc were carrying The Monk on a stretcher. It took me a second to notice that we were out of the forest and almost at the now-completed fort guarding the main camp. It was still extremely cold, but the sky was now clear.

Another thing I noticed was that my legs were kind of dragging. I put some weight on one of them. I instantly screamed out in pain. Oh yeah, I remembered through a haze of pain, that’s the one with all the shrapnel in it.

“Oi,” Eliza said, “stop screamin’! All that gunfire hurt me ears enough!”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Seriously, though, mate,” she said, “you gave me a bloody heart attack. When I heard that…”

Before she could continue, a short figure stood up in the fort. Instantly, it was followed by another, much larger figure. The huge one had to be Ulfric. “You had a heart attack?” It was Bai’s voice, meaning that she was the shorter figure. She sounded pissed.

From behind me I heard Ray-Gun say, “Oooooh!” I turned around. He was bandaged up and seemed kind of unsteady, but he was alive. So was everyone else on my side who had come into the forest.

Bai ignored this. “Who was the one,” she asked, somewhat dangerously, “who was left to tend to egotistical maniacs?

“Well,” Eliza said, “judging from ‘ow peeved you sound, you?”

Bai and Ulfric began coming towards us. As they moved forwards, it was easier to make out their faces. It seems I was correct in judging that Bai was pissed. “Also, who was the one who decided to put me in charge? Who was one of the five people I thought could be trusted to follow my orders? And who took herself and three of them away without telling me? Leaving only Ulfric as an enforcer?”

“Listen, Bai…” Eliza began.

“I know you… had your reasons.” Bai said. “But I have to make an example out of you. You’re going to have to be on watch for the next few hours.”

“Sorry…” Eliza said contritely. “I cocked it up pretty thoroughly, didn’t I?”

“Make it up to me when this is all over.” Bai said, looking at Eliza with a pleading expression. “Promise me you’ll never nominate me for another leadership positon.”

“Promise.” Eliza said. “I’ll also buy you a pint.”

Bai didn’t look too thrilled at the prospect of alcohol. “Take Jacobs and the other wounded person back to their tents. Eric, I can assume you’ve brought weapons for the rest of the people here?”

From behind me, I heard Eric say, “Yes ma’am.”

“I’d like you to keep most of them under guard. If the enemy decides they want more, then you can distribute them. Tensions have been running high, and I do not want people to act out on them.”

Eric nodded. “Understood, ma’am,” he said.

Eliza and John dragged me back to my tent. As they were laying me down, I saw that Eric, Ray-Gun, and Li had been dragging nets filled to the brim with weapons and ammunition. They then set out the weapons and began to organize them. Before I could see any more, however, I was dragged back into my tent.

“Now, I’m going to leave for a while,” Eliza said, “and while I’m gone, I’d much appreciate it if you didn’t get shot, stabbed or blown to tiny bits, ok?”

“Seconded!” John said. “Also, we’re going to need your guns to put in the pile.”

“Sure,” I said. After I had relinquished my weapons, Eliza and John left. I instantly missed them. The G-3K had been pretty lightweight and controllable, for something that shot 7.62 NATO, that is, and the P229 seemed to be a good concealed weapon. Also, there was something very satisfying about giving the G-3’s charging handle a karate chop to cock it.

After the painful struggle to take off my vest and helmet (I was bruised from where the bullets had slammed into my vest and the muscles required to remove it were sore) I suddenly realized how tired I was. Shoving my body armor to one side, I curled up into a ball.

“Sleep” was a generous term for what I did. Throughout all my attempts to sleep, I’d toss and turn until I finally drifted off. Then, something would wake me up. Sometimes it would be pain from my head, chest, or leg. Sometimes it would be some image I couldn’t remember upon waking. Sometimes it would be a scream. When I awoke from that last sleep interruption, I’d always wonder if it was someone outside or in my dream who had cried out. Then I would start the cycle all over again.

The last time I was awoken was by Eric poking his head in. “Hey,” he said, “time to go.”

I murmured something along the lines of “But I just got to sleep…” If that wasn’t true, it sure felt like it.

“Hey!” a familiar Indian-accented voice called out, “Tell him if he doesn’t get out of here soon he’s going to have to walk to graduation!”

“Sergeant Gupta?” I asked. At first I was happy to hear her voice. Then I remembered the last time I had seen her. “What a… pleasure.” I lowered my voice to ask Eric, “What’s going on?”

Eric stared at me. “Listen, Killer,” he said, “I know what happened in The Chamber of Horrors upset you, but I need you to put it beside you for now. Just get into the sled, let the snowmobile take you to the graduation thingy, and then we all go to our dorms. Ok?”

“…Fine.” I said. “Help me get to this sled thing.”

A few Campus Security Guards were out, mingling among the students, helping Bai get us into formation. Two of them, one of them being Officer Gupta, were nearby with snowmobiles towing sleds. Officer Gupta, when she first saw me smiled. Then she realized that I was trying to kill her with my look of pure distaste. When both The Monk and me were on our respective stretcher-sleds, Officer Gupta came over to talk to me.

“I see you’re taking that thing personally,” she said.

“You have to admit ‘that thing’ was all kinds of fucked up.” I said. “Finding that people who died there aren’t taken out and given proper burials? That’s wrong.”

“I am not saying it isn’t,” she said, “but being right does not pay the bills.”

“If you want money,” I said, “surely there’s better ways to get it.”

Officer Gupta laughed. “Better? In what way? The kind where you go to an office job every day, where the people who control you have no fear of or respect for you? Where no one gives a crap if someone hurts you because you’re replaceable?” I just stared at her sullenly. “Or maybe I should be a real cop?” she asked. “A real cop, who has to the same soul-destroying things on a wage that makes me have to live with the same people I arrest?” She spat. “Tell me the same thing when you’ve lived in the real world.”

“So,” I asked, as she got on the snowmobile, “how’s this different from being a real cop?”

She froze. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“I mean,” I said, “sure you make a bit more money, well, probably a lot more money. But you still have to do stuff that destroys your soul and I honestly don’t see where you could go to get away from all this.” I paused. “You didn’t choose something better, you just gave up, didn’t you?”

Gupta ignored me and started the snowmobile. We were almost completely in the front, just behind a military truck with caterpillar treads instead of wheels. Behind us, in two sections standing side-by-side and going back, with Bai in the lead, were the survivors. On either side was Campus Security. They were on snowmobiles and in full body armor, but they weren’t out in force and were chatting amiably with the students. Once everyone was in formation, we started moving out at a standard march.

As we moved, I reflected on how many people we had lost. Starting off with a thousand people, now only somewhere between three hundred fifty and two hundred and eighty remained. So many people had died. Some had been ripped to shreds by wild animals. Others by campers. For most of the remaining ones it must have seemed like some kind of sick joke that the last test involved them waiting around while me and eleven others were fighting for our lives.

When we were close to the campus, we stopped for a moment. I craned my neck past the snowmobile and the truck to see a marching band. Even though our marching training wasn’t that good and I had a really bad angle, I could tell they were pretty undisciplined.

With a slightly out of time rendition of the school’s jauntily militaristic theme, we began moving into the campus. I honestly expected to see a crowd of people looking angrily at us. What I saw, however was the definition of apathy. Most of the crowd of people ranged from polite interest to polite disinterest. I instantly judged them to be other students forced to attend. For them, this must have been something like Memorial or Veteran’s Day in America. In other words: “Pretend to support the troops and there may be a cookout.”

There were a few outliers. Occasionally, I would see a few sullen faces on the side. I could feel their distaste. They knew. They knew I had pretty much massacred hundreds of people, firing round after round into the faces and chests of people without thought or mercy. They knew that my friends had been there with me, perforating people with shrapnel and bullets, setting people on fire with incendiary grenades and separating people and their body parts with heavy machinegun fire. They knew, and like anyone who knew, they hated me.

Worse, however, were the people who cheered for us. I had the distinct impression that they knew as well, but instead of shunning us like decent human beings they cheered. My guess was that they AMS and Shadowhaven students celebrating new arrivals. We were now one of them, whether we wanted to be or not.

Finally, we stopped in a large square in front of the main administration building. It was on a rotary with the President’s Mansion and the Newell-Howard Student Center to its right and left, respectively. Also located around the rotary were the Computer Science and Business buildings as well as two dorms. Behind the administration building were the docks.

I was familiar with it. After all, I had run through it twice a day since I had gotten here. Usually, though it didn’t have a stage in front of the steps of the administration building. The truck pulled off to the side, and the two Campus Security Guards got out and stood by its gate. Meanwhile, Professor Zemylachka and Professor Blunt were testing the microphone.

From the side, two short figures were coming over to us. I could tell right away that they were the Riley twins. Both were carrying crutches. Mary went over to help The Monk, and May went over to help me.

“Hey,” May said, looking at me with some concern, “are you ok?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

Her eyes narrowed. The effect was kind of intimidating, with her patchwork face and mismatched eyes. However, there also was something kind of endearing as well. “You don’t look fine.” The statement was very matter-of-fact, and somewhat forceful. “As soon as you’re done, I’m dragging you off to get that leg looked after and maybe have a counselor talk to you. I know what happened out there.” She paused for half a second to consider her words. “Well, I don’t know what happened, but I’ve got a pretty good idea because the people who were sent out didn’t come back and they had a lot of guns and anyway I’m talking way too much you should probably just get your crutches.” As she said that last sentence, she started talking with her hands. She also gave the crutches to me. “Anyway, you should probably get into formation.”

I stood up painfully. “I’m fine,” I said, gritting my teeth from the pain. My leg really didn’t like being moved at this point. It was all I could do not to scream. Finally, when I was standing, I didn’t have to put any weight on it.

May watched as I stood up. Maybe it was the fact I was grunting and panting a bit, maybe it was the fact that I looked like I hadn’t slept at all, but May obviously didn’t believe me. “I’ll get you out early,” she said.

Well that sounds ominous, I thought as I limped into formation. Monk was right beside me. He gave me an encouraging smile, and several of my fellow graduates cheered and clapped. Eric was one. Salim wasn’t. To his credit, he did give me a nod of acknowledgement and then studiously ignored me instead of the usual muttered threats. Eric, however, patted me on the shoulder, almost buckling my good knee and said, “Nice job surviving, Killer!”

“You too, man!” I said, ignoring the nickname. “I mean, you’re more experienced, but it was still pretty tough. By the way, I don’t think me and John would’ve survived without you guys.”

Eric waved my thanks away with a literal sweep of his hand that ended up whacking Doc in the face and forcing me to dodge. “Think nothing of it, my friend!” he said.

The audience, meanwhile, clapped in polite confusion. I was now certain that they had no clue what had happened yesterday. They probably hadn’t even heard the gunfire because of the wind. I wondered if the administration had found a way to monitor the fight.

Speaking of the administration, May had gone over to talk with the Blunt and Zemylachka. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I saw Zemylachka’s reaction. At first, she seemed quite amused. Then she asked May something or maybe challenged her. There was a pause, in which I assumed May said something. Zemylachka’s face went pale. She asked another question. May answered it and Professor Zemylachka went even paler. Blunt, with a bit of apprehension, pointed May to the truck. She walked over, snapped open a folding wheelchair leaning against the truck and began to stare directly at me. Mary was nearby, struggling with another wheelchair.

Professor Blunt, satisfied that May’s attentions were elsewhere, tapped his microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he said. “May I have your attention for the 36th Annual Hell Semester Graduation?”

There was slightly more applause, almost genuine. There were some cheers, but these were probably from the AMS/Shadowhaven crowd and my fellow graduates.

“Now, Professor Zemylachka has been working hard this semester,” Blunt said, “as well as the students and the professors on drill sergeant duty. However,” he said, “some of these guys have stood out, especially in our finals.”

People quieted down a bit. Apparently, there was something interesting about this final. Professor Blunt continued. “In this last test, twelve of our students faced impossible odds and incredible danger. Not only did they survive, but they every single one of them is able to get onto this platform!”

I sensed some disappointment from the audience. I got the impression they wanted to hear a bit more. I did too. I kind of wanted to hear who I had killed. Call it guilt or morbid curiosity.

Instead, Professor Blunt called the twelve survivors of the battle onto the platform. I noted that apart from Eric and Ray-Gun, no one else in that group had real names. As the professor called us, we made our way onto the platform. It was more difficult for me and The Monk because of our injuries. By this point, it was pure pain to put any pressure on my leg. I learned this the hard way. Despite having bit my tongue, I still let out a cry of pain.

“You all right, mate?” Eliza asked quietly. Something told me if they weren’t being smooshed by her helmet, her ears would be twitching in sympathy.

“I’m fine,” I growled back, getting into position beside her. To add insult to injury The Monk was able to make it up without incident.

Once he made sure we were all up there, Professor Blunt continued on. “However, things might not have turned out as well for our graduates here if someone hadn’t been leading them. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Baiiii FENG!”

After the applause that followed (seriously, one simply refuses to applaud after that kind of introduction) Bai got up on the stage. She headed towards the back with the rest us, but Professor Blunt motioned for her to come up front with him. Hesitantly, she stood by his side.

“Now,” Professor Blunt said, “remember when I said that you wouldn’t learn anything in Shadowhaven?” At this, Professor Zemylachka made a noise of pure disgust. Bai, on the other hand, nodded cautiously. “Well,” Professor Blunt said, “I talked to your sponsors and they’ve agreed to allow you to transfer to the Combat Leadership program. Congratulations!”

Bai said something in Chinese, probably some form of foul invective. Professor Blunt, however, said, “In recognition of their skill, these guys get to pick two weapons from the truck.”

I sighed. This was going to be hard. I turned to Eliza and said, “Hey, I’m going to be late. If you see that HK or that Sig I was using, can you save it for me?”

“Sure, mate,” Eliza said. “I’ll pass on the word.”

When I finally had gotten off the stage, everyone was removing various weapons. They would check them over, then put them on the ground. Bai held up a teeny tiny Glock and asked, “Is this a good gun?”

Cross looked up from an assault rifle he was carrying. “Looks like a Glock 26,” he said. “If you want a concealed weapon or if you’ve got small hands, it’s a pretty good choice.”

“If that is what it is good for,” she said, putting it and a bag of spare mags tied to its trigger besides her, “then I think it would be ideal for my purposes.”

Someone cleared their throat. I turned to the side and saw May still holding the wheelchair. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll get in the wheelchair once I find my stuff.”

With some effort, I sat down and began looking through the piles of weaponry to find the weapons I had acquired yesterday. Suddenly, a flash of silver caught my eye. Thinking it might be the Sig, I grabbed at it.

It wasn’t the Sig. It was a Beretta 92FS Inox, similar to the M9 we had been trained on, except for the shiny finish. Spare magazines for it were also tied to the trigger guard. I remembered shooting the M9. It had been quite the joy.

“Hey Nate!” I looked up. It was John who had spoken. “I found the pistol. I think it’s a P229 DAK.” He held it out to me, making sure it was in a safe position, and I reached out to grab it.

Once both were in my hands, it instantly became hard to choose. “Tough choice, huh?” Cross asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “On one hand,” I said, holding up the Inox, “this is the one I trained on, but on the other,” I held up the P229, “this one possibly saved my life. And I can’t really take both, because I need something that can hit a target more than fifty meters away.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Cross said, “I’ll save the Beretta for you. I brought five guns with me, so I don’t need any more. Besides, you don’t have any.”

“You know what?” Eliza said, “that might be a nice thing to do, earn a bit of good karma, eh? Apart from Nate and John, all of us have brought our own weapons.” She turned back to the crowd. “Right,” she called out to our fellow graduates, “do any of you lot not have guns?” A few hands rose.

While Eliza was counting the people who had raised their hands, Bai asked, “Nathan, is this the gun you are looking for?”

I turned to look at her. She was holding the G-3K that I had been using. “That’s exactly it,” I said. She held it out to me, and I took it. “Thanks,” I said.

“Ok,” May said sternly, “You found all your toys. Put them in your backpack, and they’ll be delivered later. We need to get you checked out.”

I suddenly remembered that, in a bout of paranoia, I had been putting my diary in my backpack. The diary with all my spy stuff in it. “Ok,” I said, unstrapping the bag, “just let me bring something with me, ok? It isn’t a weapon.”

May shrugged. “Sure. Oh, and you might as well leave your vest and helmet here as well because they’re gonna want those back.” I nodded, unfastening and removing said items. I then opened the backpack, surreptitiously placed the diary and writing paraphernalia in one of my coat’s pocket’s, then stuffed in the guns I had chosen.

After I had finished, May rolled the wheelchair around so it was directly behind me. “Hey,” she said, “can someone help Mr. Jacobs into the wheelchair? He can’t do it because of his leg, and I’m tiny.”

“I can do it, I can do it…” I said, attempting to stand up.

“You keep doing that,” May said, “and I will have one of your friends sedate you via pistol whipping.” Eliza and Eric laughed. May said, “Does that mean you’re volunteering?”

“You’re serious…” Eliza said, somewhat dumbstruck.

“I would do it,” Doc said, sounding disturbingly eager.

“I’ll help him into the wheelchair…” John said. “I’d prefer not to have to beat him.”

Cross got up as well. “I’ll help.” Between the two of them, I was in the wheelchair in no time.

As soon as I was in the chair, the cold nipping at my now-exposed ears, May began pushing at a rapid pace. Turning over her shoulder, she called out to her sister, “Hey, Mary, make sure that other guy gets to his room after he’s done choosing his stuff, ok?”

“Wait,” I said, “you know where my room is?”

“First thing I asked about,” she said. “You’re in Marine. It’s basically a freshman dorm for AMS and Shadowhaven students.”

“Mmm,” I said. Marine, it turned out, was on the main road leading out of the campus, about halfway down. It was in the same brick style as every other building on campus. Like several other of the buildings, there was room for a restaurant or store, with one entrance going into the building proper and one for the restaurant.

In this case, the restaurant seemed to be a bar called The Drunken Mercenary. There was a wooden plaque hanging outside that entrance, with a red-nosed man in fatigues and carrying an AKMSU in one hand and a bottle with Cyrillic writing in the other. Underneath was the phrase La vie est drôle, la mort est plus drôle. The large, blacked-out windows were inscribed with the same image. The door into the bar was the kind you’d find at an old pub in Europe. Outside the restaurant was a group of snow-covered tables surrounded by a fence and a metal detector.

“Is that a bar?” I asked. “Wouldn’t the drinking age, like, not allow most of the people to visit?”

May laughed. “You’re assuming this place works like back home. Here, they assume that if you’re ready to attend NIU, you’re ready to drink.”

We went in through the door to the main building. May had given me a key card with my picture on it. “You’re going to need to swipe it on the door,” she said. I did so, and we were in a very clinical-looking hallway, painted solid white, undecorated except for a trash and recycle bin and lit only by bright fluorescent lights. It was so bright and monotone it was hard to see where the walls met the floor. We went down it, passing by another entrance to The Drunken Mercenary (which also had a metal detector outside it) and turned right.

The change was tremendous. The room was still white, but the oppressive cleanliness was broken by furniture. For starters, there were bunch of beanbag chairs arranged around a black coffee table. They faced a large TV mounted against the building’s rear wall. On the wall ahead of us was a corkboard with various notices and the words “Merry Christmas 2015 Freshmen!” written in big red, blue and green paper letters.

There were also two elevators and a stairwell. May pushed me towards one of the elevators and pushed the up button. It dinged almost immediately and she pushed me in and pressed a button. As we began heading up, May asked, “So, do you want to talk about what happened?”

“I keep wondering…” I said, surprising myself, “if we had to do kill them. Yeah, they were armed, but I’m not sure they wanted to kill us.”

May sighed. “Listen,” she said, “I’m a pacifist, but I’m also a realist. That situation you were in? That was the result of a master planner spending weeks trying to find a way to kill those guys.” The elevator dinged again, and May began wheeling me into a more well-decorated hallway. “The thing you should know ahead of time is that they’re going to use this as an argument to kill more. They’re going to tell you that you should always take the violent approach. Just like I’d always encourage you to take the peaceful route. The thing is, though, you were the one who was there, so you’re the one who’s best equipped to say what the right thing is. And if you don’t think you did the right thing, you can learn from your mistakes and do it better next time.” She paused. “By the way, you’re in room 308.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That was pretty helpful.” Room 308 was straight ahead.

“Which part?” May asked. “The advice or your room number?”

“Both,” I said, swiping my student ID. The light flashed green and I opened the door while May rolled me in. The room would have been big if it wasn’t a quad. On the left wall, there were four dresser/weapons locker combos and a fridge. To the right, two bunk beds formed an L-shape with one forming a corridor with the dresser, the other was against the wall leading to the hallway. The two remaining walls had four desks, each in front of a window. The windows in front looked out onto the main street and the side ones looked at an adjacent building. In the opposite corner was all my luggage.

“You got a corner room!” May said as she wheeled me towards where my luggage was located. “Nice. Window views for everyone. Also, you get to choose where you sleep as long as it’s on the bottom. Seriously, I am not helping you into a top bunk.” She paused. “I will make your bed, though. Also, it’ll probably be better in the long run if you get changed while I did that. I promise I won’t look and the windows are one way, so no one can see in.”

I agreed to the plan. I was somehow able to squirm out of my campus-issue fatigues and into my flannel pajama pants and Washington subway map t-shirt without hurting myself. I began doing what I could to claim the desk in the corner that looked out onto the main street. I had managed to get my laptop out of my backpack and put it onto the desk when May called out to tell me she was finished.

I wheeled myself over to the bed. “Thanks for that,” I said. It was the bottom bunk on the back wall, pillow set up so I faced the door, just like I had asked. I managed to get up and sit down on the bed without causing myself too much pain.

“Ok,” May said, reaching into a backpack she had brought with her, “put your injured leg onto the wheelchair and pull up your pant leg so I can get a good look at the wound.”

I did as she instructed. When the bandage was revealed, it showed that a lot of the bandage on the underside of my leg was stained red where the shrapnel had entered. “What on Earth happened to you?” May asked. “Seriously, your leg and your head are bandaged.”

“Well,” I said, “I took a bullet to the head when I was trying to get into a crater, but my helmet stopped it. Later, when we were leaving said crater, some asshole tried to blow me up. That guy also shot out The Monk’s knee.”

“I see.” May said, her mismatched eyes wide. Ok, the green one was always wide because it had no lids. “Any other wounds that should have killed you or is that it?”

“My vest stopped bullets here and here,” I said pointing to the two areas on my chest, “and I’ve been sore there ever…” I paused. “Wait,” I said, suddenly feeling faint, “that first one was where my heart was, right?”

“Yup,” May said, “and that other one would have collapsed your lung, assuming it could penetrate your ribcage.”

I remembered looking at my vest. One bullet hole had been 7.62mm (NATO or Warsaw, I couldn’t tell) the other had been either 5.56mm NATO or 5.45 Warsaw Pact. “Definitely could have penetrated the first rib,” I said. “After that, it probably would have bounced off, or shattered and then bounced off… I almost died, didn’t I?”

“Yeah,” May said. “In four different ways.”

“Five,” I said, remembering how the person I had taken the G-3K from had almost unloaded it into my chest at point blank. At that range, the armor probably would have made things worse because the rounds could have ripped through the front armor and bounce off the back plate after shattering into pieces. Then I remembered all the other times I had been shot at and added, “That I know of.”

“Well then,” May said, “I’m going to have to make sure you don’t get an infection and lose your leg and/or die.” She then took out a tablet and a familiar device.

“Is that battlefield ultrasound?” I asked. “I thought it was too processor-intensive to be used with a tablet.” As soon as I said it, I realized that the device on the end of the cable looked slightly different. It was smaller and sleeker, for one thing.

Was is the key word, apparently,” May said, running the wand over my leg. “A few weeks ago, this AAA-student announced that he’d been working on a new tablet processor and had done something called ‘software optimization’ with the people who did the battlefield ultrasound.”

“Wait,” I said, “so you’re saying that this guy created a tablet and processor on his own? My dad works for AMD and it takes hundreds of people just to iterate on a previous design, and this guy did this all by himself?”

“That’s why he’s a AAA like me,” May said as she scanned my leg, “and not a AA or normal student.” She paused. “You know,” she said, “you and your friends are probably AA thanks to that stuff you did yesterday. Do something really amazing, and they’ll probably make you AAA. Just sayin’.”

She then moved on to my chest. “Gotta check this out, as well as your head.” she said. “I know none of the bullets penetrated your armor, but they still may have cracked your rib cage, if you’re still sore. By the way, how’s your family?”

“I don’t know,” I said, caught off guard by the question. “I haven’t had contact with anyone who wasn’t in the Hell Semester until today. I’m planning on calling them tomorrow after I charge my phone.” I suddenly realized that I was crying. I wiped the tears away. “I miss them.”

“The phone won’t work,” May said, “We only support the campus phones. You’re going to have to get your laptop set up with IT to talk to them. Besides, you’re going to be out of it for a few days.”

“Oh? Why?”

“These.” May said, reaching into her backpack to pull out a bottle of pills. “There are five of these. Take them once a day. Make sure they are at least twelve hours apart. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Do you understand?” I nodded. “Good. They’re amazing, but people who are in a lot of physical and emotional pain tend to take them before twelve hours have passed, thinking that they’ll get them high again. Instead, it shuts down their nervous system, which is something you need to live.”

She poured out a pill and put it into my hand. I popped it into my mouth and swallowed. “You know,” she said, “I was going to give you water.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Not a problem,” she said. “One final thing, don’t take any other kind of medicine or recreational substance. It never ends well. Now, just let me change your bandage and disinfect your wounds.”

About halfway through May sealing the wound with green goop, the drug kicked in. Suddenly everything became muffled and echo-y. “The bandage was pretty good,” May said, her voice sounding warped and slowed. “I’d be completely freaked out that I didn’t have stitches or my surgical glue. Who did it?”

My response was to stare at my hand and mumble, “It doesn’t hurt… Nothing hurts…” It was true. I had actually forgotten that for the past few months, most of my waking days (and nights) had been dominated by aches and pains, and that my leg didn’t just hurt when I stood on it, and that my chest and head had been hurting ever since I had been hit. Now they were gone and I felt… good. Even my guilt about what I had doing was gone because I was so distracted by being healthy.

May sighed. “This is why I waited to give you the meds. You’re not going to make any sense for the next ten hours. Then that pain’s going to come back, but you’ll have to wait two hours.”

“Things’ll hurt… wait two hours… got it.”

May finished dressing my wounds (apparently, I didn’t need a new bandage on my head, but I did need one on my legs,) and then turned me around to have me lay in my bed. She then walked out. As she left, she said, “Sleep well. And don’t you dare fucking die on me. I’ve lost way too many patients this semester.”

“’Kay, May…” I said muzzily as I pulled the covers up over my head. I then giggled groggily. “Ha ha… that rhymed.”

May left, flicking the lights off. I busied myself getting to sleep and enjoying the lack of pain. It was glorious.

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Track 17: General Winter

“So, what is going on?” Doc asked as he and The Monk scrambled over the rim of the crater.

“The enemy basically is getting ready to fuck us up the ass,” John said.

“And we,” Eric said, with a smile, “are getting the party favors ready.” He slid down from the rim of the crater as he said this. “Check in that duffel bag.”

It was pretty close to John, so he unzipped it. “Well,” he said, “that looks pretty reassuring.” I looked in it. Inside was a machine gun (an Mk-48 with bipod, foregrip and ACOG sight,) one of the six-shot grenade launchers, a fucking flamethrower, some ammo for the MK 48, and a whole bunch of grenades.

“You like, huh?” Eric asked.

“We’re still eight people against over a hundred,” John said. “Those are some pretty bad odds.”

“Actually,” Eric said, “there may be less than a hundred. We have been fighting for quite a while.” He beamed wider. “After all, why did you think we asked you to bring ammo?”

“I honestly thought it was because you were a terrible shot, boss.” Doc said, a look of complete innocence on his face.

We all laughed, even Eric was chuckling as he punched Doc in the shoulder. “You just won the position of ammo consolidation, my friend,” he said. “Anyway, I have a plan.”

He instantly got serious. “For practical purposes, there are two ways in and out of this crater. The first is the one you came in. The other is on the opposite side. We came in that way, only to discover the snow is waist-deep. It can be traversed, but not while we are being shot at. On the other sides are bushes we’d have to use machetes to cut through.”

“So what’s stopping us from running out that back door now?” Cross asked. “No one’s shooting at us yet.”

“And what if the attack comes while we are running through the waist-deep snow?” Doc asked. “Do you think our enemies will just let us finish wading slowly through an open area with no cover?”

“I take it you have some sort of plan,” I said.

“Yes, Killer,” Eric said, becoming serious, “I have a plan. You see, we have been in several fights where they have had dozens of guys and plenty of cover. If we managed to kill more than a few of them, they would always run away. If we can put up a vicious enough defense, the enemy will retreat and it will give us time to get away, but if we just turn and run, they could come over that hill and shoot us while we are wading through the snow.”

“I also managed to find some ammo for the launcher that was more than glorified water balloons.” MC Disaster said. “I can lay down quite a few shots of pure terror.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Let’s see if we can contact Eliza and tell her the plan.”

“Ok,” Eric said, “I will do that. Doc and Disaster will be sorting ammo. The rest of you get up onto the rim and keep a watch out for attackers.”

We all gave various affirmatives as we scrambled up the crater. I ended up next to John. “So,” John said, in a voice loud enough for me to hear, but low enough so no one else could, “you know, we could die here.”

“Yeah…” I said, trailing off. It was a sobering thought. Through my earbud, I could hear the conversation between Eric and Eliza.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while now,” John said, “and honestly I don’t want to die from something as stupid as this.” He paused, shaking his head. I took my earbud out to hear him better. “I thought I was going to, you know, get a chance to save the world. Not die in a literal hole in the fucking ground because some sadists thought that having our finals be to punish some psychos with guns was a good idea.” He sighed. “If I die now… If I die in this stupid, fucked-up situation, and you live, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure,” I said. “Or at least I’ll try.”

“Can you tell my parents I love them?” He asked, looking me right in the eye. “And that this was for them?”

“Sure,” I said, “but if I die, you have to tell my family the same thing.”

“Not a problem.”

“Can’t believe I might never see my sister again,” I said as I began to scan the area. “Thinking about it makes me realize I’ve been kind of a dick. I should have hung out with her more…”

“Well, that’s always something you can change if we survive,” John said. “I mean, assuming you don’t get shot in the head again, you’ve got a good sixty-seventy years ahead of you.” I laughed. John smiled. “God dammit, that wasn’t supposed to be a joke!” he said laughing as well.

I stopped laughing. “Well, it’s either that or have a panic attack because I got shot in the head. This honestly seems like a better option.”

Cross, who had been working his way over to us, butted in. “Hey,” he asked, “what is this about having been shot twice? I mean, I saw the bullet bounce off your thick fucking skull, but what happened with the other one?”

“A bunch of idiots tried to do a spray-and-pray.” I said. “I was lucky and only took a single round to the chest plate. There was also a third one that glanced off me on the way into the crater.”

“You lucky bastard…” Cross said.

“I know!” John said. “We watch him disappear into one of these fucking bushes, then we hear him yell something about hostiles and everyone in the goddamn world open up on him. When I come through the bushes we that he’s killed three people, injured a fourth, and playing possum for the remaining two like some kind of horror villain!”

Damn, Killer!” Cross said. “Who do you think you are, Chuck Norris?”

“Actually,” I said, a little sullenly, “I was lying on the ground hoping you guys would come save my ass.”

“Hey!” Doc yelled from down in the crater, “You guys up there, do you have any empty clips? If you do, toss them down.”

That derailed the conversation. For quite a bit, there was nothing to do, other than occasionally shoot at people moving outside the crater and warm our hands by the fire that MC Disaster had somehow managed to conjure up.

Just when I was taking my turn by the fire and finally getting warm, Doc (who had finished refilling everyone’s magazines and was up at the top of the crater,) suddenly called out, “I got movement!” He was watching the lane we thought the enemy would come from, so I instantly assumed the worst.

As I grabbed my gun and began the climb up to the rim, Eric yelled back, “The phone says that it’s a scouting force! The main force isn’t far behind!”

Monk, who had beat me to the top of the crater, was aiming down the optical sight of his FAL. “Do you want me to fire?” he asked.

“How close are they?” Eric asked The Monk, just as I got to the top.

“Two hundred and fifty meters and closing,” The Monk said.

I followed where he was pointing his gun. There, coming towards us, was a group of six people, rifles of various types slung across their chests. “Dumbasses,” I muttered. “None of them have body armor or are taking cover. And their coats are fucking neon!” I flipped up my zoom scope. “Guess we should thank them.”

“You are learning, Killer,” The Monk said. “Now would you be a friend and help me spot?”

“Certainly,” I said, bringing the scope of my gun to my eye.

“Lead guy with the bolt-action,” The Monk said. “Head.”

I focused on the lead man. He was gesturing wildly with some kind of scoped bolt-action rifle. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but his body language screamed overconfident bro-douche despite the corpses of the previous group who had tried to dislodge us. I jumped a little at the sound of The Monk’s FAL. However I was able to see the impact.

The guy was wearing one of those coats made out of those plastic tubes filled with insulation, so I saw one of them deflate a bit. “You’re real low,” I said as the guy fell back. “He took the bullet a bit above the heart.” In the meantime, most of the advancing group had begun to run away. One, however, stood stock still.

“Frozen guy, chest.” The Monk said. He fired.

The guy fell back. “Think that was the heart,” I said.

“Good,” The Monk responded. “That was my target.”

One of them got behind a tree. “Finally!” Doc said. “Someone with a spine! If this one tries to save his comrade, let him.”

I saw him yell to his retreating comrades. I moved my scope up to get their response. One stopped to give him the finger and yell back. The Monk’s FAL jumped again, and the guy’s hand exploded a half second later.

“Bastard…” he muttered. “You help your friends.”

“Nice shot!” I said.

“No it wasn’t,” The Monk said. “I was aiming for his balls.” He paused. “I suppose that wouldn’t have hurt him much, though.”

The guy who had been smart enough to take cover began to try to suppress us, firing what looked to be some modernized AK on full auto. His rounds were so off target, it was actually kind of cute. He ran to his friend that had been shot in the chest, possibly not realizing his gun had gone dry. The wannabe hero checked his friend’s pulse. His shoulders slouched. His friend was dead.

The survivor, after a moment coming to terms with the death of his friend, began to run. He stopped by the guy The Monk had shot in the hand and began to drag him away.

“I don’t care what you say,” I said as I watched as the two disappeared into the white beyond, “that guy’s a hero.”

“You know,” The Monk said, a little peevishly, “any of us would do the same for a friend.”

“I didn’t say you guys wouldn’t step up,” I said, “but I am sure you would be much more competent than those guys.” The Monk nodded approvingly. After a pause, I asked “I wonder when the main force will get here?”

“Funny you should ask that, Killer,” Eric called up. He was carrying an AKS-74U in one hand and the MK-48 in the other. “Seeing as they are on the move.”

Everyone still at the bottom by the fire was moving up the crater. “How’s the phone doing for batteries?” Cross asked.

Eric pulled it out just as it played the NIU theme song. “It just died,” he said, nonchalantly tossing it over his shoulder. He then put the MK-48 right next to him and aimed his AK down range. “Ok,” he said, “when I give the word, MC is gonna fire some grenades downrange. Once he’s done, we all open up. Got it?”

We all gave our affirmatives. I wondered how long it would take to for the enemy to get here. Literally five minutes later and they began to march out of the whiteness. And they kept coming.

“Uh, Eric,” John said, “I think that’s more than a hundred and fifty.” I was inclined to agree. The people were in no real formation, and a lot of them were extremely bunched up. This may have made it look like there were more of them than there really were, but there were still a whole lot of them.

“MC, the first three rounds in your launcher are incendiary, correct?” Eric asked. As he asked this, he set his AK down and set up the machine gun’s bipod.

“Correct,” MC Disaster said.

“I want you, when I give the word, to put the first in largest group from two hundred to three hundred meters away.” Eric said in a rapid whisper. “The next go into the bushes on either side of us. After that, fire at will.”

“I get it!” Ray-Gun said happily. “It is The Funnel all over again!”

“Correct.” Eric said.

We waited a bit longer. “Are… are you going to fire soon?” Cross asked. The enemy was now uncomfortably close. Some were still confident, laughing and chatting. More than a few were looking uncomfortable.

“Wait for it…” Eric said. The enemy got closer. “Wait for it… wait for it… Disaster, do the pattern now.”

The first grenade sailed out of MC Disaster’s launcher with a satisfying ptoomp! It arced out and hit smack dab in the center of a tightly clustered group of twenty. Weirdly enough, for a split second, the fire was contained only inside the central group. Then it rapidly expanded, covering everyone in it. A good chunk of them ran screaming, setting others on fire and their fellows to try to avoid them.

Before that grenade hit, however, MC Disaster had already shot off the other grenades. The bushes didn’t immediately turn into a huge blaze, but I guessed the accumulated snow wouldn’t put it out for a while. Instead it was being heated into vapor, slowly obscuring the battlefield.

The reaction of the enemy was not what I had hoped for, but it was pretty good. They began yelling and looking around, trying to get a good idea of what had happened, especially the ones in the front. Only a few were shooting, most coming nowhere near our position. However, apart from the people MC Disaster had set on fire and the people desperately trying to avoid them, none of them were running.

“Disaster,” Eric said, opening up with the forty-eight, “Plop your frags and incendiaries in the middle of the groups. Monk, Killer, kill anyone Ray-Gun points out. Priority targets are snipers, grenadiers, and anyone trying to rally the group. Everyone else, shoot anyone who tries to stand or fight.”

As he gave the orders, we did as instructed. The enemy’s front dissolved, in some cases literally as Eric’s MK-48 apparently could remove limbs and cut people in half if its bullets landed in the right place. Also, the frag grenades from MC Disaster’s grenade launcher would turn anybody who suffered a direct hit into hamburger.

About fifteen seconds before I got my first assignment. In that time, I swear dozens had died. The front rank of the enemy had been completely shattered, and the second rank had been decimated by two frags and an incendiary from MC Disaster and gunfire from the rest of us.

“Hey Nate!” Ray-Gun called out. He was staring through a pair of binoculars. “We got someone in the third section shouting out orders. He is also grabbing people trying to run away.”

I scanned the third group. I found the guy in question pretty quickly. He had grabbed another guy and was shaking him vigorously. I aligned the crosshairs with his head and pulled the trigger. When my gun dropped back down, the guy was gone. The person he was shaking ran off.  Good.

“OW!” Doc said. My G-3 had heated, mangled and ejected the spent casing at a high velocity. There was a red, smoking welt where it had hit Doc’s cheek. “That hurt more than it should have!”

“Sorry,” I said. I took off my helmet and set it up so that instead of hitting anyone next to me, the casings would bounce around in my helmet. When I did, I noticed the huge hole in it from when the sniper had shot me. I briefly thanked God for giving my family skulls with the consistency of titanium, then continued to hunt for targets.

Three clips later, and the steam and smoke were making it hard to see. The enemy was also starting to hit bullets closer to where we were located. That actually was part of the reason the smoke was obscuring our line of sight. The incoming bullets were so hot that the snow where they hit began to steam away.

“They are more persistent than I thought.” Eric said. The barrel on the Mk-48 had begun to overheat. To fix this, he had removed it and tossed it into the snow behind him. The barrel had caused the snow where it landed to smoke, hiss and spit. While it was cooling, Eric was shooting his AK.

Just then, an object flew through the air to land right in front of us. It exploded on contact. Shrapnel flew into us. Most of us got cosmetic injuries. For example, one grazed my ear, and another grazed my cheek. Most of us were prone. However, the person who got it the worst was MC Disaster. He had been kneeling to aim the grenade launcher correctly. He screamed and fell back, dropping his grenade launcher. Doc ran to help.

I quickly turned to where the grenade had come from. A guy came running out. He had what looked to be Scarface’s gun, an M-16 with a grenade launcher. I called out his position as I fired. Somehow, the guy managed behind a tree, though I think a round or two may have hit him, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

A round whizzed over my head. I quickly searched for where it came from and saw a guy with a bolt-action. I shot him. It was a terribly rushed one that only got him in the knee. As he dropped his rifle and grabbed his knee, I adjusted my aim and double-tapped him. One trigger pull caused him to fall flat on his back. The next trigger pull just caused a click from my gun.

I ejected the clip, and reached into one of the pockets on my vest. I suddenly realized that after I spent this mag, I only had two others left. Counting this magazine, I had only sixty rounds left before I had to switch to my pistol. That wasn’t good.

I looked out over the battlefield as I reloaded. The area was littered with the dead and the injured. Some areas where frag grenades or intense bursts of MG fire had intersected with large groups of people had resulted in the snow being stained red. Smoke and steam from spent casings, melting snow, flaming vegetation, and ignited corpses wafted over the battlefield, obscuring the sightlines but not the horror of what had happened. Combine all this with the snow and cold, and we had a lovely mashup of the Norse and Christian ideas of hell. The screams and moans of the poor bastards who were still alive made the comparison even more apt.

It took me a few moments to realize the bright side. We were the only ones firing. Eric realized it a second before I did. “Cease fire! Cease fire!” he called out. “They’re done!”

Everyone stopped shooting. I took a deep breath to calm myself and immediately coughed in disgust at the smell of blood, burning wood, and charred meat. “You ok, man?” Cross asked.

“I’m fine,” I said. “How’s the MC doing?”

Doc called up from inside the crater. “He is fine. The shrapnel hit in the white of his eye. He can see just fine, but I put an eyepatch on him just in case.”

“I want an eyepatch…” Ray-Gun said. “I want to look like Nick Fury…”

“Even with the eyepatch, you look nothing like Samuel L. Jackson.” Cross said.

“But… but isn’t that actor black?” Ray-Gun asked.

I burst out laughing. Cross and Ray-Gun stared at me, wondering just what the fuck was going on. “He can explain later,” Eric said, a twinkle in his eyes. “Right now, we need to leave.”

He looked out over us. “We leave in groups of four. Same groups as last time. Doc, you guys cover my group’s butts. Take everything you can carry.”

John and I watched out over the wreckage of the battle. As we refilled our empty magazines, I wondered what I should say to John. What I wanted to talk about was how scared I was. Not of the people who were trying to kill me, or how close they’d come to succeeding, but at how I had reacted. For the entire battle, I’d been calm or annoyed, apart from that one time when MC Disaster had gotten hit with the shrapnel. In that time, I was a semi-decent shot and had fired sixty rounds of ammo into a densely group of people and had treated it like it was a normal thing. From what I had experienced, this wasn’t something a normal human being should do.

I broke out of these musings when I noticed that John was shaking. “You cold?” I asked. It had warmed up because of all the incendiary rounds, but there still was a blizzard.

“Yeah…” he said. “There’s also the whole… the whole…”

“This?” I said, stabbing my gun in the direction of the carnage. A few people were still screaming in pain. I had been trying to block it out for the past half-hour.

“Yeah,” John said. “This. What the fuck are we doing here? I mean, why are we here?” He sighed. “This is just too fucked up for me. I mean, look at that group there.” I looked where he was pointing. It was a pile of bodies.

“That was one of the first groups I shot at.” John said in self-disgust. “One of those people was screaming until just a few minutes ago.” He paused, an angry look on his face. “You know, if I had any decency, I would’ve fucking shot him. But then I keep thinking about all these excuses…”

“Like it’s wasting ammo,” I said, “Or worrying that people you know back home would look down on you.”

“Kind of,” John said, “except the first one’s actually a valid reason.”

“You know what gets me?” I asked. “Is how easy it was for me. I was looking through a scope, and actively looking for people, I mean, specific people to shoot. And the closest I’ve come to feeling guilty about it is wondering if I’m safe to be around.”

“Dude, are you kidding?” John asked. “Of course you are!” I noticed that he didn’t make eye contact with me when he said that.

As can be expected after someone lies to your face when you all but straight-up ask “Do you think I’d randomly snap and shoot you in the face?” to reassure you, there was an awkward silence. It was about an hour of waiting before someone finally broke it.

“Killer! Mr. Boring!” Doc called out. “Didn’t you hear the radio? We’re moving out now.”

We both felt our ears for the earbuds. I hadn’t put mine back in. John, on the other hand…

“Holy shit!” he said.

I turned to look at him. The cord for his earbud had been mostly severed. “Jesus Christ,” I said, looking at where it was severed. “A little to the left, and you would have been spurting out blood like a fucking sprinkler!”

“Thanks for that image,” John said, rolling his eyes.

We quickly got out of the crater. When we finally got down to the snow, we realized Eric was right about how tough to get through it was. We also discovered that it wasn’t waist-deep. It was just so tightly packed that it simulated being waist deep. I found this out by having the snow collapse under me. When it finally supported me, it was up to my chin, and it still felt like it could give out and I could fall deeper.

For the rest of the walk, we would take turns falling into the snow. Eventually, it turned into a contest of who could stand the tallest in the snow. Doc had this cartoonishly pleased expression on his face when he actually managed to walk on the snow like it was solid ground.

We were about halfway across when I saw Ray-Gun (who, along with Cross, MC, and Eric was covering us) drop his binoculars and point at something. Before he could get any words out, his head snapped to his side and he fell over. This was accompanied by the crack of a rifle.

Instantly, the sound of gunfire broke out. “CONTACT LEFT! CONTACT LEFT!” I heard Eric yell. We were close enough to hear him yell. We saw him, Cross and MC Disaster scramble behind trees.

“What are you waiting for?” Doc asked. “Move it!”

That’s when we discovered what Ray-Gun had been trying to warn us about. We were in a staggered box formation. Doc was in the lead, John was on the right, The Monk was on the left, and I was in the rear when the grenade hit. There was a loud thump, and I was suddenly face down, several stabbing pains in my calf.

I raised my head to see what was going on. In front of me, The Monk had turned around, and yelled, “Grenadier! We have a…” He was cut off as a burst of gunfire kicked up snow around him. He fell down and started yelling, “ARGH! My leg! My leg!”

John and Doc, meanwhile, got on their knees and started firing. “Man down!” Doc yelled. “Sorry, Eric, but we’ve got two men down over here and we’re under suppressive fire!”

“Understood!” Eric yelled said over the radio. “Stay alive, my friends!”

Meanwhile, I tried to stand up. Something dug into my balls. Before I remembered that this was one of the things our medical instructors had said never to do, I had reached behind me and pulled out a shard of metal that had embedded itself into my Kevlar pants. Realizing my mistake, I checked it for blood. When I saw that it had none, I tossed it away.

After I had done so, I realized that the guy had almost destroyed my penis. As the realization hit me, so did a sudden wave of anger. Some asshole had almost cut off my dick! And I was still a virgin! The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Some annoying bro-douche, who probably regularly engaged in drunken orgies, had almost severed my scrotum before I had a chance to use it!

I was almost about to flip over to see if I could cap that asshole when I realized The Monk was desperately trying to stop himself from bleeding out. Instead, I dropped my G-3, and ripped off my pack and searched for the one of the medkits it contained.  When it was in front of me, I noticed that there were some metal shards in it as well. I silently thanked God that they had ended up there and not somewhere less protected.

When I found a medkit, I began to crawl towards The Monk. The asshole was still firing. When I looked behind me for a moment, I saw that whoever he was, he had taken our position on the crater. I suddenly realized it was the motherfucker with the underslung grenade launcher I had been trying to kill earlier. Apparently, I hadn’t hit him.

To underscore that particular point, another grenade exploded near me. I couldn’t see it and, thankfully, none of the pieces of shrapnel were able to embed themselves into my body. It did make everyone there yell in surprise. I also heard another voice screaming, but it didn’t seem to be one of our group.

John and Doc kept up suppressing fire and I continued to make my way towards The Monk. The person had stopped firing. I didn’t question it. I just finished my journey and asked The Monk, “Can I see?”

The Monk nodded, and moved his hands. I pulled out the bullet and quickly shoved some gauze into the wound, causing The Monk to scream in pain. As I was wrapping the bandage, there was a burst of gunfire from the crater. I looked up and realized I couldn’t see Doc.

I finished securing the bandage tight around The Monk’s leg and took out my radio. “Eric!” I yelled into it, “How soon can you wrap up what you’re doing?”

“Well,” he said light-heartedly, “I am on my last magazine, Cross is screaming his head off, Ray-Gun doesn’t seem to be able to do anything other than groan at the moment, and the MC’s down to his pistol, so we should be done shortly.”

“Sounds like you lot need a bit of assistance, eh?” a cockney voice queried.

“Eliza!” I said, laughing with relief, with The Monk cheering a bit as well. “Do you have any idea how great it is to hear that, you magnificent bastard?”

Eric cut in. “Sorry for not being as grateful as Killer, but I’m just wondering how soon you can get over to us.”

“Good question,” Eliza said. “Oro, love, please show them some real marksmanship. Oh, and Eric, we’re right behind you.”

Oro didn’t respond verbally. Instead, I began to hear the sound of a bolt-action rifle being fired as fast as some people fire Glocks. “Hell yeah!” I heard Eric shout. “Now that is sniper fire! Keep it up!”

“It had better be worth it,” I heard Li shout with great annoyance through his walkie-talkie, the crack and clink of a bolt-action prominent in the background. “I do not appreciate being used as a bipod.”

I didn’t see how well she was doing, but just as I was turning around to get my G-3 and get back in the game, I saw Doc stagger to his feet, AK in hand.

“Hey Doc,” I asked as he opened fire, “you ok?”

“That… that really hurt…” he wheezed as he suppressed the asshole in the crater. I couldn’t tell if he was in shock or annoyed. “This is good armor.”

I didn’t really pay attention. Instead, I began to crawl back towards my abandoned rifle. Halfway there, a burst of gunfire kicked up the snow between me and my gun. In response, I heard The Monk begin to return fire.

On our battlefield, things suddenly got quiet. “I think I got our friend in the crater…” The Monk said.

I had finally managed to get the G-3 back. I quickly stared down the sights. After a few seconds of searching, I found the person who was shooting at us. He was lying over the edge of the crater, slumped over his gun. I could see a hint of red, but I couldn’t tell if it was hair or blood.

Speaking of blood, I suddenly realized my own hands were too slippery with blood to get a good grip on the G-3. That would be something to consider if I ever had to get my own weapon, but for now, it just made it almost impossible to grip.

“Hey, Killer!” Doc said, “Your leg looks kind of bad.”

“I know.” I said. “Don’t worry. Cross is worse off. Go help him.”

“Eric,” Doc said into the radio, “how’s Cross doing?”

“He is just being a bitch about his hand,” Eric said. “The hospital can probably fix it. How are Killer and Monk?”

“The Monk is doing fine from what I can tell,” Doc said. “On the other hand, I do not like the look of Killer’s leg. He is being difficult, though.”

“Killer,” Eric said, “let Doc do his thing.”

“Fine.” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”

Doc walked over to me. When he was standing by my head, he bent down and held out a spent bullet casing. “Ok, Killer,” he said, “I’m going to need you let go of your gun’s trigger and bite down on it.”

I was confused as to why he’d want to me to bite down on the bullet, but I slid it into my mouth and bit down on it with my rear teeth. “Ah ‘eady,” I grunted.

“Ok,” Doc said, “now this is going to hurt. A lot.” He then pulled out a piece of shrapnel from my leg. I screamed and bit down in pain. He didn’t stop there. He just kept pulling out pieces of shrapnel until I blacked out.

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Track 16: A Mad Rush

“So what you’re saying,” Bai said over the radio as we moved towards the direction where we thought Eric would be, “Is that if you kill enough of them, they won’t attack the main camp?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “We’ll also need some reinforcements.”

Gunfire echoed over the radio, announcing Eric’s entrance into the conversation. “Yes. Back-up would be very welcome.”

The radio crackled to life. “We’re on our way,” a cockney-accented voice said grimly. I started.

“Eliza?” I asked. “Did Bai send you?”

“I actually did not realize she was gone…” Bai noted dryly.

“Did you really think I’d bleedin’ sit about while… while there was a fight?” Eliza asked. “Where’s it at?”

“They are slowly forcing us to the inner bend.” Eric said, with no gunfire in the background. “It doesn’t seem like they have any idea what they are doing.”

Just as soon as he finished, I burst through a bush. I found myself in a clearing. About two hundred meters away, a group of six people were standing, all of them armed.

Instinctively, I dropped to my knee, raised my gun, and yelled, “Contact!” One of them heard me and turned around, but I had already fired. I had made sure to switch the G-3 to semi-auto so I didn’t waste ammo. It jumped a little with a sound halfway between a thud and a pop, and the sudden burst of heat was hot enough to hurt my hand.

The guy who had seen me turned around just in time to see one of his friends’ head snap back. The remaining five enemies raised their guns, but I had already shifted my focus to another. Two shots from the G-3 and he (or maybe she, I couldn’t tell at that range) stumbled back and fell.

I turned and aimed at another target. However, before I could get a good bead on him, the first of the enemies had begun to fire. I jumped a bit in shock, so my shot hit him in the shoulder, instead of his chest. He spun around and fell from the force of the bullet. In the meantime, bullets began kicking up around me. The snow around me began to kick up as rounds began to hit. I fired three more shots, taking down another guy before they finally managed to hit me.

The bullet slammed into my flack jacket, knocking the wind out of me and causing me to fall over. I thought about getting up, then realized they had stopped shooting. They thought I was dead. I decided not to disabuse them of that notion.

As they approached, I heard them start arguing and swearing in their native languages. The guy I had shot in the arm was screaming. Someone yelled at him, “It is not so serious. Stop being a baby!”

As they argued louder, I began to recognize their language as French. Finally, they began heading towards me. In the meantime, I wondered what Doc, Monk, and John were doing. The arguing group approached me while I wondered. There were only two left mobile. The injured guy had stopped screaming and started bitching.

His friends, however, kept getting closer. Since I was lying on my back, I couldn’t see them. If I sat up, there would be the chance of them shooting me. Needless to say, I really didn’t want to test my luck any more than I had already.

That being said, they were way too close to comfort. I was just about to sit up and see if I could pop them when gunfire erupted. First there was a simultaneous burst of FAL and AK fire. Then the wounded guy yelled “Merde! Merde merde merde!” Then a single FAL shot. Then silence.

I sat up. “Took you guys long enough.”

To my left, Doc’s incredulous voice came. “Killer?” He asked. “You’re alive?”

“Yeah,” I said, getting up stiffly. “I’m alive. Man, that hurt. Feels like Ulfric punched me in the sternum.” As I got up, I looked around. Doc and The Monk had flanked around slightly, entering through a part of the clearing that wasn’t overgrown. They were on opposite sides of me, guns still at the ready. In front of me were two corpses. I tried to ignore the growing pools of blood around them.

“I am as surprised as I am glad you are well,” The Monk commented, laconic as usual. “I thought you had to have been turned into mincemeat, due to all the gunfire.”

“Yeah,” I said, still trying to avert my eyes from the two corpses. “I got lucky. They only hit me once. My armor stopped the round and knocked me down.” I heard a rustling and whipped around and raised my gun. John, who had just come out of the bushes raised his hands.

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” He said. “Easy, Nate!”

I lowered my gun. “Jeez, John,” I said, “you fucking scared me.”

John looked over my shoulder. “Is that your handiwork?”

I turned back to where the enemy group had been. “Three of them. Plus one non-fatal.”

“Damn, Killer!” Doc said.

The Monk, however, was continuing to move forwards to where the enemy group had been before I had started firing. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t think that one is dead. He is too lucky.”

Before I could comment on this, a cell phone rang, its tone that of a first-gen Star Trek communicator. In response the not-dead guy sat up and pulled out a pistol. The Monk and I opened fire. He ended up firing a single shot, but I swear to God he ended hitting himself in the leg. The phone was still ringing.

“Let’s make sure he’s dead this time.” The Monk said.

“Agreed.” I said. We then began to edge closer, Doc and John covering us. Eventually, the phone stopped ringing when we got to the guy. I bent down, ignoring the other bodies and checked his pulse. After I was satisfied he was dead, I began to search through his pockets.

“You are very good at this, Killer.” The Monk commented, just a little impressed. “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?”

“Shh… Thanks,” I said, somehow avoiding telling him to shut up as I rifled through his pockets. I avoided the ones that had bullet holes in them. The blood was already freezing, and getting my hands wet could be a death sentence. “Huh,” I said, trying to change the subject, “these guys don’t seem to have brought along any body armor.” I then pulled out a package of hot chocolate mix. “Or anything useful.”

“I cannot speak for the hot chocolate,” The Monk said, “but this armor slows you down and can imbue a false sense of invulnerability.”

“Or maybe they just watched too many movies where the minion’s body armor did nothing,” I said, pulling out a few clips of ammo and a lot of hot chocolate mix and tea bags. “I mean, I know enough to suspect that our side isn’t exactly on its A-game, but I’m pretty sure these guys are too stupid to know they suck.” Then my hand came in contact with something hard and plastic. “Found the phone!” I said.

I pulled it out. It was, as I figured, a smart phone. It wasn’t a brand I was familiar with, but it was open to a map of the surrounding area. On it was a dot labeled “You are here!” and a bunch of other dots were moving around. At the top of my screen, it said. “Find My Friends.” The guy with the phone must not have wanted to take his gloves off to operate the phone, so he had set it so it wouldn’t automatically lock.

“Well,” I said, “this is either a trap or these people are really stupid.”

The Monk cocked his head. After I explained it to him, he shrugged. “Either way, we’ll know where to look for Eric. If they are trying to surround him, they will all be heading towards a central point.”

“Shit, you’re right,” I said. “You’re a genius, man.”

After a quick conference and salvaging what we could and informing our radio contacts of what we had found, we were in hot pursuit of where we thought Eric’s team might be. It took a long time and I kept having to do all sorts of stuff to keep my fingers and toes from becoming too numb. I was beginning to understand why the AK idiot from earlier had been shooting his gun off so much. It had kept his hands warm.

Finally, we began to hear gunfire. “Eric!” Doc said into his walkie-talkie. “We’re hearing gunfire! We think it is you and your new friends.”

“Well, then hurry up!” Eric said. The gunfire that came over the radio matched up pretty well with what we were hearing in the distance.

We picked up the pace, moving closer to the sounds of fighting. We avoided going through any bushes, seeing what happened last time. Our opponents, on the other hand, had not learned that particular lesson. A group of ten came through some bushes right in front of us.We unloaded in response. Not a single one of them was able to get a shot off.

My G-3 (ok, my stolen G-3) ran dry pretty quickly. I instinctively remembered that I had put the stolen pistol in my left pocket, so I pointed my G-3 at the ground, reached my left hand into my pocket and pulled out the P229. I wasn’t sure how accurate I was, but since I was in a panic and firing with my offhand, it probably was terrible. However, I was intrigued at how quickly I had been able to do it. I was reasonably sure I had been able to do it faster than just reloading my G-3.

Once the firing had stopped, John asked, “Are we done here?” He reloaded what I was pretty sure was an M-4 as he spoke. Everyone else was reloading as well.

“Don’t know,” I said as I covered them with my pistol. “Hopefully.”

The radio crackled. “Hey guys,” Eric said frantically, “I just heard gunfire to the rear of my position. Please tell me that was one of you guys!”

“This is Monk,” Monk said. “We ran into the enemy. They are now dead. Also, I believe that if we keep heading straight, we should be at your position soon.”

“Oh good,” Eric said, sighing in relief. “We are surrounded on three sides.” After a pause, he said, “It would be nice if you could bring some ammo. We are running dangerously low, and may need to resort to our surprise.”

Doc chimed in. “If we take a bit of extra time, we can collect some.”

Eric paused. “Do it.” He finally said.  “Unless you are already carrying a huge amount of ammo.”

“Ok,” Doc said, “You heard Eric! Finish reloading, then gather every bit of ammo you can!”

We did so, taking turns covering each other as we stuffed our backpacks packs full of ammunition, and even a few medical supplies. Thankfully, this group had decided to bring as much as possible. We were pretty loaded down, but we still ran pretty fast. After all, our friends needed us.

After about five minutes we saw a group of people on a small hill hiding behind some rapidly splintering trees and, oddly enough, snow barricades. “HEY!” I called out, with what little breath I had left, “ERIC! WE’RE HERE!”

Eric turned around and then yelled, “BEHIND YOU!”

We all turned around. There, coming right towards us, were about ten enemy troops carrying assault rifles and SMGs. They also heard Eric yell, so they raised their weapons.

The area we were in was built in a weird way.  It was shaped in an oddly funnel-like manner on the side we were on. To the left and right was thick vegetation, with a path through to the center. This made it possible to take cover or at least find concealment. However, for me, it took a second to get to behind a suitably thick tree. Thanks to the bullets impacting into the snow all around me, though, the journey felt like it took hours.

I took a peek out from behind my tree for about half a second. John was on the other side of me and a few trees ahead. Beyond that, where the vegetation was less thick, was the flanking group. I only peeked out for a short time because a bunch of bullets hit tree and ground around it, causing splinters and bits of snow to fly around.

From behind, I heard Doc yell, “John! Are you all right?”

“Yeah!” John said.

“When I give the word,” Doc continued, “The rest of us are going to provide cover fire. When you hear a break in the enemy’s firing, you run like hell! Understand?”

“Hell yeah!” John said. “Then I wait until you give the signal, then cover the next guy, right?”

“Correct!” Suddenly, there was a break in the fire. Doc instantly yelled, “COVERING FIRE! NOW!”

I leaned out, brought up my G-3, and took aim. A couple of soldiers were already pretty close, so I triple-tapped one of them.

He fell back, his partner turned to see where the bullet had come from. Before either of us could fire, the snow behind him was kicked up by bullets and sprayed red with blood. I didn’t know if it was from Doc, John, or The Monk, and I didn’t really care. I just looked up from my scope to see if there were any other priority targets.

The second I did so, I saw John begin to run. Then there was a crack and he stumbled like someone had punched him in the small of the back. He continued running. I then noticed that someone was kneeling and pulling the bolt back on a rifle with a telescopic scope of some kind. “Sniper!” I yelled.

The sniper, possibly hearing me shout out “Sniper!” aimed and fired at me. He obviously hadn’t had much time to aim, because the bullet kind of skimmed the side of my Kevlar vest. I aimed, and fired. He fell, but I didn’t see sign of a hit, so I shot at him again. He rolled out of the way, causing me to miss all three times. For the rest of my clip, I made sure to keep an eye on where he was, but it was hard. Eventually, the bastard finally popped his head out again. He fired, I’m not sure at who. I fired twice. One shot hit, causing the asshole to jerk back. The other caused my gun to click. I watched through the scope to see the little prick go back into cover and to confirm that I had hit him. When he moved, I saw a lot of blood in the snow. Good. No one snipes my friends.

Over the radio, I heard John’s voice say, “Ok, guys, I’m up.”

“You’ll be happy to know I got the guy who sniped you,” I said while I reloaded, surprising myself how calm I sounded. “He’s still alive, but I don’t think he’s going to be shooting anyone for a while.”

“Oh.” John said, not sure what to do with this information. “Cool, I guess.” He paused, then added, “Thanks.”

Doc cut in via the radio. “Ok, Killer, you go next. Are you good to go?”

“I’m… I’m ready.” Yeah, considering how satisfied I was at making another human being bleed, I was pretty far away from being “good.”

“Ok,” Doc said, “Suppressing fire… NOW!” The three of us leaned out, Doc and The Monk to shoot anything that wasn’t on our team, me to get a good idea of when to run like hell. When I did, I felt like there were fewer people there than there should have been. I shrugged, took a few potshots, and ran like hell.

I was almost to the top of the hill when it happened. I was running so hard I was kind of leaning down which probably what saved my life. There was a crack, and something hit me in the head. Eric yelled “Sniper!” and began shooting at somewhere in the front of the crater.

I just kept running, despite the fact that a warm, sticky fluid was leaking into my eyes. It was so blinding that I didn’t realize the hill was actually a giant-ass crater. I only realized this by tripping over the rim and sliding down face-first.

John ran over to me and flipped me over. “Shit, dude, you fucking got shot again!”

Cross, who was busy engaging targets on the top of the rim, yelled down, “What the fuck do you mean, ‘again?’”

“Yeah, I kind of figured,” I said, taking my helmet off and shrugging off my backpack, searching for the bandages. “Can you help me bandage this up before it soaks my uniform and freezes?”

“Sure, man!” John said, moving to help search my pack. I had to stop to wipe the blood out of my eyes.

A voice crackled through my earbud. “Hey Killer,” Doc said, “What are the enemy doing?”

“Yes,” Eric said, “That is a good question.”

I whipped out the stolen phone to check. My face turned into one of utter horror. “Get in here NOW! I repeat, get the fuck in here!” I yelled. On the screen, all the “friends” were gathering a good distance away. All of them.

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