Track 1: When the World Comes Down

My name is Nathan Jacobs. And I’ve fucked up.

The first thing you need to understand is my jobs. I can make some firearms (in fact, I’ve got my own firearm company), but mostly I’m the guy who shoots them. The problem, it seems, is figuring who I should work for.

My first employer was the United Nations Investigations, eXtranormal (or UNIX for short.) In fact, those guys were the reason I was in this mess. If not for them, I would have gone to a normal college. Instead, I decided to go to Nowhere Island University to be a soldier and spy. The school taught me how to fight and kill in the most brutal way possible, and UNIX wanted me to spy on them.

Or at least that’s what UNIX claimed it wanted me to do. I should have been suspicious when my handlers didn’t give me any specific objectives or prior training, and I shouldn’t have been shocked when it turned out that I and one other student I’d been sent in with had been sent there to die. The goal was to prevent UNIX from finding the other two spies. In some perverse twist of fate, the two agents who were supposed to make it were compromised. One had gotten killed by literal space Nazis and the other… Hell, I saw what happened to him and I still don’t know what happened to him. Long story short, the other guy supposed to survive had his cover blown to his “buddies” and he had to get some CIA protection. In between, weird shit happened.

Oh, and did I mention the weird shit? Yeah, I actually got to witness a certain clone army rise up in North Korea. If you’re reading this far enough in the future to not know what the Dragon’s Teeth are… good. That means something’s eventually gone right. I also had to deal with other Parahumans and a disturbingly relevant prophecy about the world ending (and the people who believed in it a little too much.)

There was a period of time I had been listlessly working for myself. Mostly that involved poking my nose into places I shouldn’t. Then, at the start of summer, I was approached by Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward and her adopted sister Eliza Henderson. They wanted a friend (the other UNIX infiltrator, his name is John Marshall) and me to go to Japan with them to get talk to some people called the Defenders of Fuji.

Things went horribly wrong. We’d found that they had sent a group of assassins to act as personal bodyguards to a coming entity known as the Architect into a pocket dimension in response to a prophecy made five hundred years ago. Only one of these assassins, known as Heralds, had come back. Somehow, Charlotte had heard that the Defenders were attempting to kill their last Herald.

As soon as John and I had gotten the first part of the escape done, we found ourselves cut off from Charlotte and stuck with the Herald. It turns out that the Herald, Mayu Nakashima, had not had a good time in the pocket dimension. In fact, she was a more than a little psychotic.

Hounded by the Defenders, we had no choice but to turn to fellow NIU classmate and Oni-themed, Boston-based supervillain named Jennifer Kagemoto and her team of super-powered gangsters. She hadn’t brought out the best in Mayu, and Mayu, beneath her creepy mask of cheer, sometimes seemed to be insulted by Jen’s existence. Eventually, after a severe incident between her and Jen and discovering that John and I knew the Architect (he was the other UNIX spy) and kept that from her, she ditched us. Then the Defenders attacked and I ended up shot.

After briefly being captured by the Defenders, confronting an unhinged Mayu, I had been rescued by John, Eliza and the SAS. Whisked away in an experimental jet VTOL called a Fairey Nightdragon, I was informed by Eliza that the safest place for me (and least embarrassing place for Her Majesty’s Government) was NIU.

In the meantime, the Dragon’s Teeth had stepped out of their stronghold in North Korea and simultaneously attacked multiple countries. France, home of UNIX headquarters, had held out for five days despite massive military, law enforcement and civilian casualties. Russia’s forces were being smashed faster than they could be assembled and, with a recent massacre at the Duma and additional assassinations at the start of the invasion, their civilian government was essentially non-existent. India was on the verge of collapse, Pakistan was subsumed. Germany had already been weakened by fighting an influx of space Nazis and had decided Dragon’s Teeth occupation was better than Nazi occupation. Turkey had been trounced by the Dragon’s Teeth and Kurdish allies. China had been shaken by a blatantly Dragon’s Teeth-backed Tibetean uprising and multiple units of Dragon’s Teeth appearing at random throughout the country. A Dragon’s Teeth breakout from North Korea had tied down a good chunk of the Chinese army and simultaneously taken South Korea. Even worse, the number of countries being invaded by the Dragon’s Teeth or reporting fifth-column movements from a technologically advanced force was growing by the day.

Due to my recovery from the collapsed lung I had sustained in Japan, I was mostly confined to bed rest with only the news for company. It was summer, so the student-run channels were down and all I had was the satellite news channels and the internet. Of course, that’s like saying I had run out of some weird local potato chip some kids were making using their mom’s kitchen and only had a free lifetime supply of Lay’s left. Needless to say, I was kind of depressed. At least I was well enough now to pace.

Oddly enough, there were guards outside my door. When I had gotten done from my surgery, I had asked Eliza about it. Her tired face had suddenly become suspicious. “You know,” she said, “I’m not quite sure.”

The thing about Eliza is that she’s a Lupine, a kind of Parahuman. Physically, Lupines have increased senses of smell, bone claws in their hands (and, in most female cases, feet, but Eliza’s an exception,) and some, like Eliza have dog-like ears. They also have extremely strong protective instincts. I could see those instincts go into overdrive, her green eyes narrowing and her red, fox-like ears flattening.

Hurriedly, I said, “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“And you said you could handle Japan…” Eliza said.

“HEY!” I said, suddenly pissed. “I thought we were going to talk to some people. Have a nice vacation. But no! No. Instead, your sister-”

“Oi,” Eliza said warningly, “watch what-“

I continued over her, genuinely pissed. “-changes all the fucking parameters and sends John and me off in a random direction with a collection of nutjobs! I’m sorry, but she fucked up. Now, innocent people are dead because of her and a complete nut is headed straight for what just may potentially be the most powerful being in the entire universe.”

Eliza stood up, her face a mask of white. “I saved your life, Nate,” she whispered, always terrifying in a cockney accent. “All I ask is that you don’t fuckin’ talk shit about my sister.”

I remembered how Eliza, John and an SAS operator had burst into the room I was being held and how Mayu had held a gun to my head. When Mayu had demanded the location of the Architect, Eliza had admitted he was being held by the CIA. Then Mayu had escaped. “Saving me,” I said, “wasn’t helpful.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Eliza said. She stalked out of the room and the next few times I saw her, she barely talked to me.

It was now July. I had been in recovery for two weeks. Eliza would come back in occasionally, but things were a lot chillier with both of us not wanting to admit. She also seemed a lot more suspicious of the guards. “Somethin’s wrong,” she said one visit when I asked how things were going. “Bloody entire campus is on lockdown. No messages in or out, and nobody’s tellin’ me what the bleedin’ fuck’s ‘appenin’.”

“Well,” I said, “at least we’ve got those SAS guys with-”

“They left,” Eliza said. Seeing my incredulous look, she laughed. “Nate, Look at what’s goin’ on back on the Continent. Clone bastards runnin’ around like they own the place, givin’ us the eye from across the channel… They need ‘em over there a ‘ell of a lot more. Especially since we’ve got the nice, highly trained NIU Campus Security to look after us.” She laughed bitterly. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, we’re screwed.”

Meanwhile, I was slowly recovering. I was eventually able to get out of bed and walk around. I’d even stopped taking painkillers and removed my IV. It was such a nice feeling to not be hooked up to a tube, except for the occasional twinge in my chest. My head was so much clearer.

Then one day, I woke up from a nap to find that one of the security cameras was disabled. It was single-directional and, when functional, was set up to give me and potential occupants privacy without sacrificing security while it swiveled on its perch. Now, however, it stood stock still, its normally solid green light now blinking red.

Being a helpful person, I looked outside to tell the CampSec guards that the camera was acting funny. They weren’t there. This was suspicious, to say the least.

The armrest on the bed I’d mostly been confined to had several buttons. Most were off-white or black buttons that controlled the TV. One, a green button with a phone symbol, was for calling the nurse’s station in a non-urgent manner. A yellow button with a needle was there if you were hooked up to some intravenous painkillers (which I no longer was, thank God) and you wanted to get comfortably numb. The other was a red button with an exclamation point. That one you pressed if you were dying.

I pressed the call button. “Hey,” I said, “can anyone tell me where the security guards are?” I waited. Then waited some more. And more. Nothing.

I was about to get up and investigate when a man in scrubs came in. He was an older, tanned man who looked extremely suave. I recognized him, but not from the hospital or medical program. While I was trying to place him, I asked, “Hey, just so you know, the call button isn’t working.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “that’s been happening a lot recently.” I tried to suppress a frown. It hadn’t happened to me once. “Don’t worry about it. Anyway, I need to medicate you.  Mind if I just poke this into your tube?” He held up a needle with a clear liquid in it.

This guy was not assigned to me in the hospital, and I doubted he was even a doctor. This was an assassination attempt. The camera being off, the guards leaving, the call button not working… the evidence pointed to one thing and one thing only. Turning myself so he couldn’t see me do it, I pressed the big red button.

I had never pressed the big red button before. I had foolishly figured that I could press it and then manipulate the impostor into a position where I could get the drop on him. Instead, alarms on my bed, in the room, down the hall and at the nurse’s station began to blare and flash blue. A gruff, pre-recorded male voice, began saying “BLUE ALERT! PATIENT IN DISTRESS!” and what I assumed to be the same thing translated into Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese over and over again. In the hallway, I could see that the floor had big blue arrows pulsing down the hallway, ending with a bigger one pointing right at the door to my room.

The impostor doctor turned around to look at the arrows. Then he turned to see me getting out of bed, no IV on my arm. There was a dawning look of comprehension on his face as he moved to stab me with the needle.

Luckily, I caught his arm as I slammed into him. We both fell on the floor, but he twisted at the last minute so that we were on our sides instead of me being on top, me pinning his other arm beneath my body. Then he began to slowly inch the needle towards me, despite my grip on his arm.

If someone pulls an automatic pistol on you in a fistfight, a good idea is to grab it by the slide and force them to fire prematurely. That way, they’ll have to spend precious milliseconds trying to pull the slide back in order to cock the gun. There’s a similar principle when an opponent has a needle. You push the plunger before he stabs you. That way, whatever chemicals are in the needle can’t get into your bloodstream. I decided to use that method instead of just trying to avoid being stabbed. It wouldn’t fully render the needle useless (after all, it was still a sharp object and, knowing NIU and the people who worked there, the liquid could be so toxic that even amounts invisible to the naked eye could kill me in fifteen minutes,) but it would be a good idea.

The problem was that I depressed the plunger too quickly, not realizing where the needle was pointing. The liquid squirted out the needle in an arc and landed in my beard, moustache and on my lip. That was not good.

The man, meanwhile, continued to force the needle towards me. I let go of the plunger and was now gripping his wrist with both hands.

Then, out of nowhere, a brown combat boot slammed into the fake doctor’s arm. There was a snap, the man screamed, his arm bent where it wasn’t supposed to and the needle fell away.

I looked up as the impostor was dragged away from me. I looked up. I recognized the two people dragging him off. Ray-Gun and Eric were people I had met in Hell Semester, part of a group of child soldiers from Africa. When I had first met them, they had still appeared malnourished. As a white middle-class kid from the US, meeting and befriending (well, let’s be honest, I didn’t befriend them, they took pity on and befriended me) these scrawny black kids had sort of made me realize some stuff. For instance, this game I was playing had the highest stakes. And everyone else playing played to win.

“Thought you could come in and just kill our friend, huh, you bastard?” Eric asked, putting the man in a choke hold. Ray-Gun, meanwhile had pulled out a MAC Mle 1950, a 9mm 1911 clone with distinctive bronze-colored slide, and was holding it to the impostor’s head. “Talk! Who put you up to this? Howell? Krieger? Antionette? Or did you decide to do it on your own?”

As I wiped off the poison from my lips, I reflected how bad things had just become. “Howell” was President Anthony Carter Newton-Howell, the President of NIU and who I had reason to believe could influence the world outside the campus to a terrifying degree. “Krieger” was Professor (or Sergeant during Hell Semester) Karl Krieger, a South African nutcase who taught for the Academy of Military Science who was intent on removing the President via what I assumed to be lethal means. From what I could gather, he was suborning CampSec and Shadowhaven/AMS students. “Antionette” was Louise Antionette, the head of the Rogues Academy, another sub-school, this one focused on infiltration and espionage. I had no idea why she’d want me dead, but program heads tended to build up a lot of loyalty and favors. Basically, three of the four people mentioned could order a variety of highly trained assassins to kill me.

The fake doctor’s response to being put in an arm bar and having a gun put to his head was to smile in a way that bared his teeth and bite down on something. There was a crunch. Shortly after, he began to foam at the mouth and thrash about. His smile became more rigid and I smelled pee and fecal matter.

The seizures stopped almost as soon as they began. Eric let the body drop. “Eugh,” he said disgustedly, “the bastard shit on me!”

Before we could talk, we heard someone scream. We turned around to see nurse, a muscular man who was probably a student, covering his mouth to stifle a scream. Beside him was a Campus Security officer in patrol gear. The officer drew his sidearm (either a FN FiveseveN or a FN FNX-45 Tactical) and yelled “Drop your weapons! Hands on your heads!”

 

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Ok, good news! I’m back! I still have a bunch of stuff going on, so I might not be back for long. Hopefully, though, the first volume of NIU will be available for people to buy within about a month.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 9: The Southern Man

As soon as Richard pulled out his gun, I heard the sound of cloth being rustled, then a bag full of metal quickly falling to the floor. I turned to see that Eric had pulled out a belt-fed machinegun with a chainsaw grip, large silver silencer, underbarrel grenade launcher, and laser pointer/flashlight combo. The people in Richard’s group took a big step away from him, giving me another sign he wasn’t as in charge as he appeared.

Cross and John had also drawn their weapons. Cross had another 1911 clone, this one was a shiny silver color and much more customized, and John had a Browning Hi-Power. I sighed inwardly. While I appreciated the thought, if they had ignored Richard like I was planning on doing, he wouldn’t have had cause to draw a gun. Or maybe Richard would have done it anyway to get a reaction out of me. Still, I didn’t like the way it was escalating. Also, all my guns were in my case. I’d have to unlock it before I could get to my guns.

“I’d put the gun down, my friend,” Eric said, his voice tense. “It would be… not in your best interests to pull the trigger.” Suddenly, I noticed that, while Eric, John and Cross all had their fingers squeezing down the triggers of their guns, Richard’s finger was resting on the trigger guard of his gun.

We heard an amused laugh from down the hall. Everyone turned. Down the hall, Salim and Mubashir were standing there. Mubashir, a look of panic on his blocky face, was trying to get away from Salim. Salim, his handsome features marred only by a burn he had received in a predator drone attack, was chuckling to himself. I wasn’t surprised. I had killed his best friend and mentor, Amir, during a particularly brutal part of Hell Semester called Fight Night. Then, when he tried to get his vengeance, Eric’s group and some of the Seven Supreme had put a stop to him, with Eliza in particular having killed a bunch of Al-Qaeda terrorists. Richard… Richard was probably just a dick to Salim. Anyway, I could see why Salim was so happy.

“Please,” he said, still laughing a bit, “continue! Don’t mind me.”

“Fuck you, asshole,” Richard said, holstering his gun. I couldn’t believe it. Richard hadn’t holstered his gun to save his life. He’d done it to spite Salim. I tried to hide my smile. It was much harder when I saw that Salim was looking pissed. However, most everyone else, especially the neutrals, looked relieved.

Almost as soon as everyone’s weapons were put away, the door opened. “Hello, students!” a voice with a French accent called out. “I see you are ‘aving a chat.”

I turned around. Standing behind me was a woman with raven black hair braided and falling over her shoulder. Her build was the exact kind you’d find on a fashion magazine. She was dressed in a business suit with skirt and heels. She smiled at us, standing out of the way. “Well, come on in!” As we filed in, she said, “Please take a seat, and get your weapons prepared. But no more pointing them at people, if you please.”

So she had seen that. I shuddered as I walked over to Charlotte and Jen. “So,” I said to them, “before you guys go…”

“Oh,” Charlotte said, “we won’t be going for a while.” I noticed that they were both giving each other very weird smiles, like they were just pretending to be polite but were getting ready to punch each other. I also noticed that Charlotte was carrying her Webley in a holster and Jen was carrying two pistols with black grips and long silver barrels in armpit holsters and that they were both still wearing safety goggles like they were going to go back to the shooting gallery.

“Well,” I said as I set down my case, “there’s a back-to-school party at this place called Graham’s Game Bar.” After putting on some safety goggles over my glasses, I opened my case and began checking the guns, starting with the P229. “It sounds like fun. You wanna to come?”

“Sounds fun,” Jen said. “We just have some… business to take care of.”

“Ladies and gentlemen!” the woman who had let us in called out. “If I could ‘ave your attention for a moment!” We all turned around. As I did, I noticed that the previous class was still there. “Ah, very good. My name is Professor Antoinette, and I will be your instructor for this semester. Now, as I explained to my Rogues, today AMS and Shadowhaven will be showing us how to fight.”

There were murmurs. “Now, for our first activity, our two best shooters shall be facing off against two average AMS students. Facility, please prepare Gas Station Panic.”

As soon as she said “Gas Station Panic,” there was the sound of gears turning away. Desk-like areas for the shooters fell away as well as plexiglass dividers until there were four distinct lanes for shooters, instead of a multitude.

“This is an immersive exercise.” Professor Antionette began. “That means that who the bullet hits matters as much, if not more, than where the bullet hits. There will be hostages. There will be noise. There won’t be good visibility. Your job is to shoot the bad guys and not hit the hostages.” Behind her, props began to fall in behind her, including gas pumps and parts of a convenience store, cutting the length of the range from three hundred meters to about seventy-five. The lights dimmed from clinical blinding light to a dusky sunset and lights began to turn on inside the convenience store sections. Semi-transparent mist began to float up from behind the fake storefront.

“Now, will Miss Blackmoor-Ward, Miss Kagemoto, Miss Feng and Mr. Jacob, please take shooting positions. Bring a preferred pistol and two clips. When those clips are emptied, press the green button.”

I spent a few seconds choosing between my Sig-Sauer P229 and my Berretta M92FS Inox. I decided that the M92FS would be better. After all, I hadn’t put very many rounds through the P229 and had managed to achieve decent accuracy with my M92FS. Regretting my lack of a holster, I removed the M92FS and a spare mag. After putting the spare mag in my pocket, I walked over to a position.

“Get ready!” Professor Antionette said when we were all at our positions. “Ten seconds!” A computer voice began counting down for her. I spared a quick look at my competition. Jennifer had drawn dual two-tone Berettas with compact lasers from her armpit holsters in an exaggerated, yet fluid motion. Charlotte was slowly drawing her Webley. The two girls traded competitive glances, challenging each other.

Bai, meanwhile, had drawn her Glock G26 in a quick, professional manner from her hip. Instead of focusing on looking cool, she had focused on speed and lining the sights up with her eyes. Her stance, like mine, had her feet in an L-formation.

Suddenly, the computer voice got zero. When it did, sirens began to wail and flash, and voices (seemingly cops, robbers and newspaper reporters) began to yell. Before I could get my bearings, targets began popping up. Unlike Jennifer and Charlotte, Bai and I waited before firing.

My first target was a stereotypical mugger hiding behind a woman target. The woman-target and the mugger-target were both bobbing up and down. I could hear a recorded voice coming from the mugger-target. “Drop your gun!” It said. “Drop your gun or…”

I fired. The mugger-target jerked back with a plink and the woman-target slid off, falling into the floor. Meanwhile, another target appeared behind a gas pump. It was a mugger-target with an AK. The AK flashed and a recording of gunfire played, and the mugger-target disappeared behind the pump.

By the time I had started on my second mag, I had figured out the several kinds of targets. There were the mugger-hostage combos that would appear in the area close to the pumps. Then there were the targets behind the gas pumps that pop out. Then, from inside the window of the convenience store, hostages and muggers would raise their heads. Finally, I ran out of ammo. I quickly hit the button and put my gun down.

Instantly, the simulation stopped. The smoke stopped flowing, the sirens turned off, the yelling stopped, the targets dropped into the floor, and the scenery began to float into the ceiling. “Cease fire!” Professor Antoinette said. “Holster weapons.”

As I put my M92FS on the table I looked around. Jennifer’s guns were back in her holster and she was sulking. Charlotte was shaking, her gun still aimed down range, smoke lazily drifting out from the barrel. Bai, however, seemed somewhat satisfied as she re-holstered her Glock.

“Now,” the professor said, “for the results. Miss Kagemoto, you fired thirty rounds. You eliminated six tangos and accidentally shot four civilians. Miss Blackmoor-Ward, you fired twelve rounds and hit one civilian. Mr. Jacobs, you fired thirty rounds and killed twenty-seven tangos. Miss Feng, you fired twenty rounds and killed twenty tangoes.” She paused, then asked, “Can anyone tell me what Miss Kagemoto and Miss Blackmoor-Ward did wrong?”

I looked at the other students. Most of the AMS and Shadowhaven students seemed sympathetic. The Rogues were hanging their heads in shame. Eric raised his hand. “Yes, Mr. Eric?” Professor Antoinette asked. I noted that not even people with the attendance sheets knew Eric’s last name. Maybe not even Eric knew it.

“Well,” Eric said, “I think they panicked. To be fair to them, they weren’t ready for something that intense.”

“I admit,” Professor Antoinette said, “it was not fair. But their enemies will not be fair either. Despite their lack of training, students in the Rogues program are the second-most likely to get into a fight to the death in their careers. They are also less likely than Shadowhaven and AMS students to win. Therefore, I would like to invite my Rogues to train with you for a few sessions. If they want to leave, they can leave. However, I would not recommend it.”

None of the Rogues left. “Good,” Professor Antoinette said. “Today we will be doing the Mozambique drill. Please pair up, one Rogue with one AMS or Shadowhaven.”

It turned out that the Mozambique drill was a high-pressure drill where you would have to shoot a target twice in the chest and once in the head. However, if you took too long, the target would “fire” at you and you’d have to switch with your partner. I was partnered with Jen. Eliza and Charlotte were right next to us.

We quickly figured out that Jennifer needed to stop doing things to show off in combat situations and focus more on doing things like aiming or counting bullets. She had managed to get good enough at duel-wielding so that she wasn’t a liability, but her accuracy did increase forty percent when she was using a single pistol. Charlotte, meanwhile, had terrible reaction time and a tendency to freeze. Couple that with the fact that she was using a revolver with a heavy trigger pull, and she was getting out a lot.

“Listen, Char,” Eliza said, “you need to use a different gun. The Webley’s large, hard to control, slow, and weighs a bloody ton. Use the Walther.”

“But people might not take me as seriously with the Walther!” Charlotte said.

“If someone laughs at you for ‘aving a girl gun,” Eliza said angrily, “shoot ‘em in the fucking face! Boom! Problem solved!”

“Here!” Jennifer said, slamming down one of her Berettas. I noticed that the silver-colored slide was marked Elite II. “Use this!” Needless to say, Jennifer hadn’t been taking my advice well. Funnily enough, it had started when I had refused to adjust her shooting position manually because it was obviously a mental thing. After that, she had started getting irritable.

By the end of the lesson, Charlotte improved dramatically. However, she was still a little strained. “Can we please get something to eat?” she asked. “I feel like I’m going to break down and cry if I don’t get any food.”

“Please not Sun Tzu!” Jen moaned. “I hate Asian food. Always brings back bad memories.”

Before Charlotte and Jen could start fighting, John interjected, “There’s actually a bus going back to Newton-Howell soon. We don’t even have to hurry.” The rest of us sighed in relief. There apparently was a stop by Squire and Marine, which we used to drop off our weapons. I noticed that I was the only one in my dorm who stored all his weapons. I didn’t really think too much about it.

When we finally got to the dining hall, I realized that I had to poop. “Gotta go,” I said to them.

“Nature calls, huh, Killer?” Cross said.

I didn’t answer. It was actually kind of bad. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, it was a couple minutes before I was ready to start wiping. Suddenly, two people walked in.

“…Can’t fucking believe you,” I heard Kyle’s voice say as the bathroom door opened. “I mean, I know we’re trying to appease Smith, but there are safer ways to do that. Like hiring The Punching Bag.”

“We’ve already used her twice.” This was Richard talking. I heard his voice move closer to my stall. I held my breath. “I mean, she’s good at her job, but they’re getting suspicious.” For some reason, he seemed to be standing right next to my stall. “Besides, you baited Eric the Entertainer and his crew… Karen.” I figured out why he was standing next to me when he unzipped. I tried not to sigh in relief or think about the tinkling sound he was making.

Kyle sighed. “That’s because I didn’t know those guys had killed sixty people stealing an African warlord’s bankroll. I just knew they liked to pull their punches. Killer’s lived up to his name for less than that bullshit you sprung on him today.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Besides, you shouldn’t call me that. You don’t know who’s fucking listening.”

“Sorry,” Richard said, obviously not. “Anyway, I thought Killer only bashed in Amir’s head. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to kill someone over an insult.”

“He didn’t,” Kyle said. “This guy, Nguyen, was being a dick, not letting them go in after their patrol was other. Killer hit him so hard he went into a coma.” Kyle suddenly switched track. “Jesus, man, how much piss do you have in you?”

“Geez, man,” Richard said, the trickle stopping. “I’m done, ok! I’m done.” After he zipped up and buckled his belt, he asked, “So, Killer goes hog wild on a guy?”

“No, man,” Kyle said. “That’s the thing. It was just one blow, and Nguyen’s a vegetable. And Killer just walks off like nothing fucking happened.”

“I actually saw that happen,” Richard said. “He was actually pretty stressed at the time. I doubt ‘Killer’ would do that in a normal situation.”

“Then why isn’t he carrying a gun like everyone else?” Kyle asked. “Face it, Richard. Even Killer is fucking scared of Killer. Besides, his friends aren’t the kind of people you fuck with, either.”

I heard footsteps and a sigh. “Fine,” I heard Richard say. I then heard water flow. “Guy creeps me out, too. That being said, so does everyone else on this fucking island, and most are scarier than him. Anything else?”

Kyle’s response was so quiet that I kind of had to strain to hear him. “Just one thing. You’re forgetting why we’re here. Remember. Or I’ll remind you.”

I heard Richard gulp. “Yeah. I remember.” I replayed what Kyle had said, how he had said, and everything I thought I knew about both him and Richard. Nothing I could think of could make me understand why Richard would be scared of him. I obviously needed to do some digging.

I waited until they went out. Then I sighed in relief. Simultaneously, diarrhea splurted from my butt. This was going to be a long bathroom break.

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Track 8: Back to the School Where It Began

My schedule was somehow very grueling.  I mean, it was nowhere near as bad as Hell Semester, but the amount of work still surprised me. First were Mondays. I had to go to an English class around ten AM, which was located in the main academic building by the Newell-Howard Student Center. At first, I thought it was a good, relaxing class. We just had to read something as a class and do some introductions. Then the teacher gave us a five-paragraph essay about where we came from to write. “We only have one class a week,” she said.

Next, I had my radio show at three. The way radio shows worked was you first applied to Freshman Radio. They said that they would then put you in room with at least one other person for an hour at a time, and the two of you would have to try and keep your listeners entertained during that time.

When I got in to the Freshman Radio office around two forty-five (it was located on the second floor of Newell-Howard,) I was surprised to see it had a small waiting area with a window overlooking the cafeteria. There was only one other person, a young baby-faced white guy with slightly wavy dark hair and tiny glasses. He was looking at a laptop and typing stuff. I sat down in a red vinyl chair. He was about average height sitting down, but I could tell that if he stood up, he would be taller than almost anyone.

As soon as I sat down, someone came in from the radio room. “Hey, guys,” the newcomer said, “are Nathan Jacobs and Andrew Sebaldi here?” He was black, and, judging by his weight, was definitely not a Shadowhaven or an AMS student. We were required to spend a certain amount of time in the gym, and most of us (me and my roommates included) did daily exercises. This guy had a lot of baby fat on him. He then turned towards me. When he saw me, his eyes widened a bit. “Oh… Didn’t… didn’t, uh, see you there.”

“Are you talking about me?” laptop guy asked.

“Both of you,” the newcomer said. “Follow me, please.” He led us back behind the hallway. “Sorry about this,” he said, “we’ve still got a bunch of people coming in. A few planes were delayed in Alaska and Chile. Me and my partner had to cover two extra shifts. Follow me”

He then led us out into a hallway. There were two rooms, with a window in to each of them. Inside each of them were a computer monitor, microphones, headphones and a control board. The far one had a guy talking into a microphone. The guy we were with led us into the closer one and gave us a quick rundown of how to turn on music (the computer had iTunes on it and we could also plug in an MP3 player,) mics, and to switch to the other booth when we were done.

“Ok,” he said, “you guys got it?” We nodded. “Good. You have nine minutes, plus when our song finishes. Once it’s done, you’re going to read the station ID on that piece of paper, introduce yourself, and your show name. Excuse me.”

He walked out. We put on our headphones. Through them, we could hear the current show. “Hi,” my partner said after they were on, turning towards me and extending his hand, “I’m Andy.”

“Nate,” I said, taking his hand. He had a firm handshake.

“So,” Andy asked, “do you have an idea for a show name? Because I honestly have no idea.”

“How about Flounder?” I suggested.

“Flounder?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Because we have no idea what we’re doing.”

“Works for me.” Andy said with a shrug. “So, where you from?”

“Massachusetts,” I said. “I’m from a town called Maynard…”

“I heard of that place,” he said. “DEC was headquartered there, right? Then it became Digital. There’s still some tech companies there, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “My Dad worked there.”

“Cool,” Andy said. “My parents worked all sorts of places. New York, Boston, Austin, Silicon Valley… they were tech people as well.”

“So, let me guess,” I said, “you’re an art major.” He laughed. “Ok,” I said, “serious guess: you’re in the CompSci school.”

He nodded. “You too, right?”

“Academy of Military Science, actually,” I said. “It’s kind of hard to believe, I know. Sometimes, I don’t eve believe it.”

“Really?” Andy said. “I thought that they wouldn’t let people with glasses join.”

“Anyone who passes Hell Semester can join,” I said.

“Kind of egalitarian of them.”

“Hell Semester is designed to kill fifty percent of the people who enroll.”

Andy’s eyes widened. “Well,” he said, “I did not know that. Did anyone you know…?”

I shrugged. “I was lucky. I made friends and was able to learn the necessary skills to survive quickly. It was tough, but I did it.”

Suddenly, the light that told us we were on came on and there was silence over the headphones. Quickly, I turned on our mics. “Hello,” I said, while trying to find a song, “you are tuned into 87.3 FM and/or 87.3 HD. I’m Nate Jacobs…”

“And I’m Andy Sebaldi,” Andy said. I flashed him a thumbs up.

“And this…” I said, “…is Flounder.” The show went well. I found that we had a weird mesh of music tastes. For instance, I had started the show off with “Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous” by Good Charlotte. I also had selected a lot of stuff from bands like Fall Out Boy, The Kongos, and Green Day. Andy had picked out a lot of slower stuff like Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins as well as some classic rock and punk like The Clash and The Beatles.

I also had some nice chats with him, both on and off air. We’d play two songs, then switch to talking bits. During my conversations with him, I found out several things about him. First off, he was very smart. He was a sophomore, despite the fact he was a sixteen-year-old who looked fourteen. He was majoring in Artificial Intelligence and his advisor was pressuring him to dual-major in Factory Systems as well because how he had used the school’s 3D-printer to make his own personal 3D-printer. Then he used that to make an assembly line in his bedroom.

I also learned he was a bit like May. He had this tendency to go into long rants about various things. They weren’t as charming as May’s, but they were much easier to tune out if they got annoying. All in all, even if he wasn’t useful, he was still a nice guy to get to know.

I shook myself at that thought. If he was a good guy, then I should definitely keep him out of what I was doing. After all, I was doing this to protect people. If I dragged someone into this, hell, if I hung out with people too much, there was no guarantee I could keep them safe.

However, if I didn’t make aggressive moves, someone here could make a death ray and wipe out New York or do a million other things that caused innocent people to die.

As we were relieved, I was still debating myself. Noticing my ruminations, but misinterpreting my reasons, Andy asked, “You got the back-to-school blues?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“The nerds of the island have a cure,” Andy said. “We’re holding a party on Friday at Graham’s Game Bar. It’s sort of like a nerdy nightclub. There’s going to be a LAN party, so if you play LOL, Counter-Strike, or Starcraft 2, you should bring your computer. Bring any friends you want.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m probably going to have supper with them now.”

True to my word, I did. I actually met up with John, Cross, and Eric and his gang. I told them about Andy’s offer.

“Do you think that they’ll have anyone who can hook me up with sixties Marvel comics?” Ray-Gun asked. He was one of Eric’s crew, and he had apparently gotten his nickname from his fascination with Silver Age American comics. His favorite was Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHEILD. I wasn’t sure if he had the complete set.

I shrugged. “Possible.”

“Do you think the girls would be interested?” John asked.

“Depends on which girls,” I said. “Maybe Eliza and her roommates would be interested. May probably wouldn’t want to get out, but I think it would be good for her.” Suddenly, there was a beep from my pocket.

“Shit,” I said, looking at my cPhone, “I’ve got class. Sociology. See you.”

“We will see you later,” Eric said, “and we will also make sure to listen to your show in the future.”

“Do you guys have radios?” I asked, getting up.

“They’re built into our phones,” Ray-Gun said. “These things are cooler than the Star Trek communicator.”

Sociology was really cool. The first class mostly went over the syllabus and addressed the various things that sociology covered. As my teacher explained, sociology is the study of how people interact. It may be a soft science, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t useful. In fact, it was actually fascinating. For instance, did you know that Karl Marx actually contributed a lot to sociology? The conflict theory is basically the idea that history is shaped by two ideological forces clashing together. I’m not exactly a full subscriber to it, but it makes a lot more sense than Communism.

Homework was very simple. Read a few chapters so we could have a discussion on it. That was the same for Philosophy of Government (another place where Mr. Marx showed up) and Military History, both Tuesday and Thursday classes. Our instructor for Military History reminded all us Freshman AMS and Shadowhaven students that we’d have to meet with our advisors by the month. I made a mental note to do that, then continued to take notes with my notebook.

Math, however, was brutal. John and Eric were in the class as well, and we were dismayed when the first thing our teacher did was to give us a test. After that, we were given a large amount of homework.

“Well,” I said, to John, “there goes Wednesday.”

“I know,” he said. “Plus, we’ve got this again on Thursday.” He paused, then said, “Fuck me, right?”

“Hopefully the night shift at The Drunken Mercenary won’t be too bad,” I said.

It was awful. The only person there that I knew was Mary Riley, and she was too busy breaking up fights. During the three days I worked there, I noticed a pattern. When I got in, it would be mildly rushed. When ten rolled around, the bar would become less crowded, but more rowdy. By the time midnight rolled around, we’d have to break up at least two bar fights. Once in a while, we’d even need the help of Campus Security. Then, around twelve thirty, it would suddenly begin to wind down, leaving only one or two people slumped in their drinks. Then we’d begin the process of closing up shop.

Mary explained the situation to me the first night as we closed. “Hell Semester gives people a taste of action,” she said. “A lot of people get addicted to it. This area is a place where they can get that feeling of adrenalin that you only get from fights. The rules are even relaxed for fighting here. However, actual weapons are a big no-no here.”

I didn’t really appreciate that until the morning. It was almost three and we were still closing up. I then went up and staggered into bed. I suddenly realized that I’d have to do that tomorrow and the day after. I think I cried myself to sleep.

Friday, after three days of math and bartending, I ended up going to a class that promised to be fun: Weapon Refreshment. The Patton Building, where the dedicated AMS and Shadowhaven classes took place, was quite the walk away. I had the class with Eliza, Eric, John, Cross, and Bai. Since it started at one, we all decided to walk down together. Since the class was at one, we decided to head down to the nearest student center, Sun Tzu to eat lunch at eleven.

We met up outside Squire Hall, our weapons in long cases. Eliza was a bit late. After she finally got down, I said, “So, who here thinks they can run all the way to Sun Tzu?”

Eliza laughed. “It isn’t about if we can all make it,” she said, “It’s about ‘oo gets their last.” She began running. “‘Cause that wanker has to buy us all coffee at Charlemange’s!”

“You’re on!” I yelled. It turned out to be a bad idea, at least for John. He lost by about five seconds and Eliza, Cross and Eric teased him mercilessly. I was happier than John because I almost beat Eliza, surprising everyone.

Eventually, though, Bai got tired of people teasing John. “You know,” she said, “John may have come in last, but at least he was not out of breath, Cross.”

After we sat down to enjoy our food (apparently, the Sun Tzu’s menu was Asian-style and the building was sort of styled off the Forbidden Palace,) I decided to invite Eliza and Bai to the party.

“So,” I said to the two girls, “There’s this party at a place called Graham’s Game Bar. I heard about it because my radio show co-host invited me to it. The rest of the guys and May are coming. We’re going to get supper here, then head over. Do you guys want to come?”

“I’m not sure…” Bai said.

“Don’t worry,” Eliza said, “Give me a few minutes with ‘er, and she’ll be coming. Should I bring Char and Jen?”

“Depends,” I said. “If you can contact them before we go…”

“They’re actually ‘aving Pistol Marksmanship,” Eliza said. “They should be finishin’ up by the time we get there.”

When we got there, they actually were all still there. I checked my phone. Class actually should be starting now. I looked in through the door that led into the shooting gallery. I could still see that the previous class was watching several people. I looked up and saw Richard Forrest Taylor the Third, and a group of his flunkies coming towards us. I recognized one of them. Kyle, I believe his name was. I also recognized that most, if not all, of Richard’s group used to be Kyle’s group.

“Oh look,” Richard said, his twang evident, “it’s the Jew.”

I sighed. “Really, Richard? You’re going to do this here?” Out of the corner I saw Eliza stiffen. I also saw Eric, Cross and John stiffen a bit. Eric, in particular, had reached into the duffel bag he was carrying. Bai just seemed confused.

“Yeah,” Kyle said, “this isn’t really the place, man.” Something about how Kyle was acting made me question whether or not it really was Richard’s group or if it was Kyle’s. This suspicion became stronger when Richard actually backed down. I made a mental note of it, and went back to looking through the door.

I had been watching for a few minutes when I heard Richard mutter something. I wasn’t really sure what he said. Eliza, however, was. Before I could even consider what Richard had said, I heard a wet schlick sound. I turned to see Eliza’s bone claws had ejected.

For the first time, I realized why she didn’t use them more often. To eject them, she had to dislocate her knuckles and pierce the skin between her fingers and the claws themselves were wet with her own blood.

Her expression was also quite something to behold. Her green eyes flashed dangerously and her ears were flattened. Her skin, usually somewhat fair under her freckles, was now a chalky white. “You wot, mate?” she asked, her voice dangerously quiet.

I turned to look at Richard and his group, as well as some other people in the class just joining us. One of Kyle’s friends, I noticed, had rolled his eyes. However, it was Richard I was interested in. Specifically, the fact that the left side of his pants seemed to be sagging.

I almost had a reason as to why that could be, when Richard derailed my train of thought. Smiling smugly, he said, “I see those ears of yours can’t tell you if what I’m saying’s any of your business.”

“You were talkin’ shit ‘bout me mate,” Eliza said. “That makes it my business.” Suddenly I realized what was probably pulling part of Richard’s pants down. Before I could warn Eliza, she had begun to rant. “‘Specially if it’s some bedsheet wearing bitch ‘oo’s acting ‘igh and mighty while perverting noble ideals ‘e barely understands.”

The smile slid off Richard’s face as he reached for something on his left hip. “Shut up, you mutie whore!” He snarled. When his hand came up, I was unsurprised to see that he was holding an M1911.

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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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