Track 19: Life Goes On

I was awoken in the night by the pain returning. It was dark out and I didn’t see anyone else in the room. Maybe my roommates hadn’t gotten in yet. This was proven true about five minutes later when Cross, Eric and John staggered into the room.

“Killer…” Eric slurred, flipping on the lights, “You’re here… you’re our fourth roommate… That’s great.”

“Yeah,” Cross said, also drunk as a skunk, “we were worried you’d end up roomin’ with Salim or that Nazi guy. Fuckin’ Nazi cowboys… thinkin’ they can come here and tell me what to do…” As he spoke, I noticed that he was getting… handsy with Eric and John. Eric seemed to be too drunk to notice it.

John on the other hand, wasn’t having any of that. “Get your hand off my ass!” he said, slapping Cross’s hand away. John turned towards me, after Cross’s hands had been removed, and asked, “Did we wake you up?”

“No,” I said, “it was my pain meds wearing off.”

John spent a few seconds processing that. I guess that while he was more sober than Cross and Eric, he was still kind of drunk. “Oh,” he said, “ok. Maybe you should take more.”

“I would,” I said, “but if I take it too early, apparently my nervous system shuts off.”

“You need that, right?” John asked.

“Pretty sure,” I replied as Cross and Eric staggered further into the room.

“I call top bunk!” Eric shouted.

“Fuck you, man,” Cross slurred back in response. “I get the top bunk.”

“You realize,” I said, somewhat annoyed, “that there are two top bunks?”

Cross and Eric stared at me drunkenly for a second. They had been preparing to climb up to the top of the bed near the dressers. Finally, Cross said, “Shut the fuck up, Killer! Who the fuck asked you?” Then he and Eric began fighting to get onto the top bunk.

“I call bottom!” John said, crawling into the one free bottom bunk. Kind of stupid of him, since Cross and Eric were still playing king of the hill. He got a few kicks for his trouble, but he finally was on the mattress. “Oh man,” he said, “it’s so soft…”

That was saying something about the beds in Hell Semester. These were the kind of cheap mattresses you find in college dorms. The beds in Hell Semester were still nowhere near as comfortable, though.

Eventually both Cross and Eric were lying on the bed. After a while Cross asked, “Soo… you wanna spoon?”

There was a pause, then Eric pushed him off the bed. Things got quiet after that, and I was able to return to the pattern of last night. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but I eventually got to sleep. When I woke up, the others were gone. From my bunk hung a post-it, reading: Nathan, we’ve gone to get breakfast. We’ll be back soon. Actually, we’ve gotten back and we think we’re going to get some stuff done like turning in our fatigues and getting our stuff. You looked like you needed sleep more than food. Apparently, its Kiritimati time, so if you have an iPod or phone or something, that’s what you should set it to.

I took the note down. “Huh,” I said. “They ditched me.” I wasn’t too worked up about it. I had been surrounded by people, many of them who wanted to kill me, for the past three months or so. I could use some alone time.

I was starting to get into the idea when I realized I could do fuck-all. I couldn’t connect to the internet because I needed an appointment with IT, which meant web surfing and video games were out of the question. My leg meant unpacking would be really difficult, and since all my pencils and pens were in my bags, I couldn’t write in my diary. Finding and charging my devices or accessing my books were out of the question for the same reason, and there were only so many times a guy could, well, you know.

That left the meds. I picked them up and stared at them. On the one hand, yesterday had been so good once I had taken the meds. Everything had just stopped hurting, and I’d been able to sleep.

On the other, the idea of taking the meds just to pass the time scared the shit out of me. That good feeling was being high. I really didn’t want to end up addicted to whatever these things were.

These thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. “Coming!” I yelled, dropping the pill bottle. I then began the process of hobbling over to the door, careful not to apply pressure to my legs. I also noticed, to my displeasure, that moving my arms caused my chest to hurt. “Don’t go! Seriously, I’m coming!”

Finally, I managed to open the door. At first, all three of the women standing there were unfamiliar. In the far rear was a tall Asian girl wearing a red peacoat, red blouse, and dark fitted blue jeans. Her hair was up in a high ponytail, and two strands of hair framed her face, with an amused smirk playing across her dark red lips. She was leaning up against, pretending not to notice what was happening, but you could tell she was very amused by what she saw due to the way her light brown eyes gleamed.

Standing directly in front of the door were the other two. One had long, straight blond hair that stretched down past her shoulders. She wore a black jacket, black leggings, black riding boots, and a shirt emblazoned with the Union Jack that looked like one of those shirts that should be cheap, but turn out to cost about $200. Her eyes were hidden by red aviator glasses, but I could tell she was appraising me. She was standing behind and to the left of the third girl who was…

“Eliza!” I said, my face brightening. I seriously hadn’t realized it was her for a second. Partly it was that she just didn’t match my definition of what Eliza was. For the past months I’d known her, Eliza had always worn her hair in a messy ponytail and that and her fox ears were usually covered by a Kevlar helmet. When they were visible, they were usually straight up and pointing forwards, or rotating, trying to locate a sound she couldn’t place. Now, her hair was down and very well combed, and her ears were pointed down in embarrassment. Her body language was also much more awkward, instead of the sly, confident personae she usually presented during Hell Semester.

Also, she dressed more girly then I would have expected. She was wearing an unexpectedly cute red top with a neck line that, while not really exposing obvious cleavage, was still lower than I would expect. It was also empire-waisted and had some white lace trim. She also had a short denim skirt and calf-high boots. The boots weren’t high-heeled, but they still were quite feminine somehow. The only visible concession to my mental image of Eliza was a vintage army coat.

“I didn’t expect you… to be here!” I said. If it wouldn’t have brought me intense pain, I’d have kicked myself. “Good to see you.”

Eliza, suddenly gaining a lot of her confidence back, lightly punched me in my shoulder. “You mean you weren’t expecting me to dress like a girl, were ya?” She smiled. “Anyway, how’s it goin’ ya wanker?”

The blond girl shook her head and mumbled something under her breath.

“You’re actually just in time,” I said. “I was going to take some meds. Another few minutes later and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than mumble and giggle.”

“I don’t quite get how you bein’ a vegetable is different from ‘ow you are normally,” Eliza said innocently. I laughed. So did Eliza and the girl in the rear. The blond girl standing behind Eliza looked somewhat surprised. “Anyways,” Eliza said, “I forgot to introduce you to some loveable rogues from the Rogue program. The blond ‘un dressed in the Union Jack’s me adopted sister, Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. She’s a touch more posh than me.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. I held out my hand for her to shake.

She gripped it cautiously. “Charmed,” she said breezily. “Eliza’s talked quite a bit about you. How did you meet, again?”

I laughed. Eliza cringed. The one remaining girl I didn’t know looked up. “Now I’m curious,” she said, in a low, seductive voice as she walked towards us, “just how did you meet?” As she moved, for some reason, I was reminded of Eliza. There was the same slyness, the same lithe movements. However, there was something… different about her. There was something more sensual about her and less direct, but that wasn’t the core of the difference.

“That’s Jennifer,” Charlotte said icily. “There’s no excuse for Jennifer.”

“No excuse for me? What about getting me you two lovely ladies in here without the correct ID?” Jennifer asked. She leaned in close to Charlotte, her body language and faux-innocent smile making me wondering if she was flirting with Charlotte. Or teasing her. Something told me that if I figured this out, I’d be closer to understanding her.

Anyway, not wanting the conversation to drift further into awkward territory, I decided to interrupt. “So, Jennifer,” I asked, “is that an American accent?”

“Why yes it is,” she said, somewhat taken aback. “I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is pleasant. Too many people ask me if I’m from China or some other place I’ve never been to. It gets wicked annoying.”

“Hey,” I said, “a fellow Masshole!” Jennifer nodded to confirm.

Eliza’s ears drooped a bit. I could tell why she didn’t like them. They were an awful tell. “So, Eliza,” I said, desperately trying to make everyone in the group happy, “is there anything in particular you wanted to see me about?”

“Well,” Eliza said, “five other friends are having little get-together for lunch in about an hour or so.”

“In that case,” I said, “give me some time to get dressed. Also, I’d need you to push the wheelchair.”

“Not a problem, Nate!” Eliza said.

“Your friends sound very interesting.” Jennifer said. “Mind if I tag along?”

“Sorry,” I said, “but this particular gathering has a few people who… aren’t as social as me and Eliza. Plus, this isn’t kind of the meeting where you meet new friends… more the kind of meeting where you remember old ones and talk about the awful shit that happened to you.”

Jennifer stared at me for a moment, as if she was trying to find a tell. Then she smiled. “Such a shame,” she said, “but there’s always next time.” She turned around and began walking off. “See you later,” she said over her shoulder, a seductive smile playing across her lips.

After Jennifer left, Eliza said darkly, “She comes on like a freight train, don’t she?”

It was my turn to punch her shoulder. “Says the woman who stalked someone for several weeks.”

“It’s not like I’ve got a shrine or something!” Eliza. “I mean, I do have a file on ya, but I’ve got files on loads of blokes!”

“Eliza, dear,” Charlotte said, covering her face with her hands, “you aren’t exactly helping your case.” The motion revealed dark blue eyes underneath the red shades.

I laughed. “We’re cool. It’s all good. I still have to get changed, though.”

“Oh, yes, of course!” Charlotte said. She and Eliza backed away and I closed the door. As soon as it closed I realized that my fly was kind of… loose. Also, if any of the girls (especially Jennifer) had been closer, it would have been obvious to them as well. As such, Charlotte’s British etiquette seemed to have formed a shield for my personal space.

I sighed in relief and began the arduous process of getting actual clothes on. Underwear and pants were the hardest, due to the fact that I was sitting down and had a bandaged leg. My shoes and socks were much easier. After pulling on an orange Maynard High School shirt, a grey hoodie, a jacket, grabbing my wallet and ID card, and shoving my laptop in my backpack, I then began trying to wheel myself over to the door. When I got to the turn, I gave up. No way I could make the turn between the dressers and Cross and Eric’s bunk while in the wheelchair. Instead, I hobbled over to the door.

“Hey,” I said to Eliza and Charlotte, “I’m going to need your help. I can’t get the wheelchair out and the only way I’ve been able to get around this room is that there’s lots of things to lean on.”

“No trouble at all,” Charlotte said.

I limped back. “Sorry I can’t let you in first. That’s how it’s done, right?”

“Nate,” Eliza said, somewhat annoyed, “you’re a bleedin’ yank. You shouldn’t be apologizing for getting’ shot. That’s our job!”

“Quite right,” Charlotte said as she and Eliza followed me into my dorm. “Although we do share that honor with many Asian cultures. My goodness, these freshmen rooms are small. It’s even smaller than ours.”

I sat down in the wheelchair. “Seriously,” I said, “this is a massive step up from the barracks. I have locks on the door, internet access, and a mattress that might actually be more a tenth of an inch thick. It’s heaven.”

“Don’t I know it, mate,” Eliza said. “Well, at least in a fortnight, you’re gonna be home with your mum and dad.”

“Actually,” I said, “my dad got laid off a few years ago. My folks might not have the money for me to fly home.”

“Well then,” Charlotte said, “you’ll just have to come with us, then, won’t you?” I began to protest, but Charlotte cut me off. “No, I insist! No friend of ours misses Christmas with their family when we have a perfectly good, mostly empty aeroplane heading in the same direction.”

Eliza leaned in close to me and said, “Don’t argue with her, Nate. You’re not gonna win.” She then addressed her adopted sister. “Right, then. Let’s get movin’. On the way back we can ‘ook Nate up to the wi-fi. Got your laptop, Nate?”

“Right here,” I said, patting the backpack on my laptop. “Let’s roll out!”

When we were in the elevator, Charlotte suddenly asked, “So how’s UNIX treating you?”

I did a double-take. “You know,” I said, “if I was a UNIX Agent, which I’m not, I’d be fucking pissed you outed me in an elevator. Seriously, all they have to do is rewire the emergency phone and…”

“Listen, Nate,” Eliza said, cutting me off, “They know. Hell our people were able to find out your deal with UNIX. You and your friend are getting a hundred thousand dollars a semester, right? Do you want to know how long it took our people to find out about it?”

Not waiting for me to answer, Charlotte said, “I started the search around two in the morning after Eliza gave me the details. We did a background check and looked at the only agency that would fit your description. By five, they had found a Swiss account in your name with the agreed-upon amount sitting inside it. There was only a small paper chase between the account and something called ‘Operation Rider.’ Excellent taste in children’s books aside, they didn’t cover their tracks very well. The faculty and staff at NIU have to know that you’re with UNIX. If they hadn’t from the beginning, I’d be very shocked.”

“Why’d the do that?” I asked, completely shocked.

“We don’t know,” Charlotte said, “but our hacker says that Project Rider looks a bit sparse to him.”

“Don’t you see? You’re bait, Nate.” Eliza said sadly. “Or a distraction. You were never meant to survive the Hell Semester.”

My illusions of UNIX being staffed by a race of happy kitten-people died with the bing of the elevator door opening. Doc and Cross were standing there, waiting to get in.I

“Anyway,” Charlotte said as Eliza wheeled me out, “I’m terribly sorry about your leg. Just remember who your friends are, Nathan, and you should be fine.”

“Yeah,” Cross said hurriedly as he and Doc got into the elevator, “We’re here for you, Killer!” I didn’t really notice that much as I was wheeled out the door.

They used me… No, why would they do that? Bad voice in my head!

Why would they approach you, then? Why did they throw you into Hell Semester with no knowledge of how to work a gun or how to handle yourself in a fistfight? Why would they not give me a means of contacting them? Why didn’t they give you any means of escape? Face it, something’s not right about all of this.

By the time we got to the restaurant, I had pretty much decided that as long as I got the hundred thousand, I didn’t care. We were in a smaller side street when Eliza said, “Well, that’s interesting, innit?”

I looked up. There was Ulfric and that creepy girl from the other night. They were walking down the street, Ulfric listening intently. “I know that girl,” I said. “Did I tell you about the psychic who used an illusion to stalk me, Ulfric, Salim and Richard while we were on patrol? That was her.”

“We do too,” Charlotte muttered to me, “she’s our other flat mate. Her name’s Alma Hebert.”

“This,” I said, “raises too many questions. I’ll ask them later, because they’re both right there.”

After a little while, Ulfric veered off and walked into the Back-Home Bar and Grill. Alma continued walking forward like nothing had happened. “Is that the same place we met last time?” I asked, nodding towards the sign. It had the same style as the menu of the place where the last meeting of the Seven had taken place.

“Naturally,” Eliza said. “Charlotte even sprung for the back room again.”

“Least I could do,” Charlotte said. “Anyways, go have your novelty-sized food. I shall return to Squire Hall. There is this wonderful café there. Eliza, I’m sure you’ve seen it.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, “Not really my speed, though. Anyways, ‘ere’s where we part ways.” She then wheeled me into the Back-Home Bar and Grill, pausing for the handicapped doors to swing open for me.

Personally, I was just glad to be inside. A coat and a sweater, while warmer than the uniform coat, was still not keeping me warm enough. Judging from her sigh of contentment, Eliza was also happy to be out of the cold.

The host quickly opened the interior door up for us. “Hi there,” he said, “welcome to the Back-Home Bar and Grill. Have y’all made a reservation?” As we entered the room proper, I was suddenly how much like a chain restaurant in America it looked. Light wood booths, chairs, and tables with red vinyl upholstery, soft lighting from tasteful lamps… it was all very welcoming.

“Eliza Henderson and Nathan Jacobs for the back room,” Eliza said, flashing her student ID.

“Oh yeah!” The guy said. “You guys are the only ones using the room today, so you don’t have to get out of here by two. Follow me.”

“That’s nice of you guys,” I said as he led us into the back room.

“You guys are the second ones here,” he said. “There’s already this big guy, Ulfric, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “we saw him come in.” The door behind us chimed. I turned around. Bai and Oro had just come in. “Speaking of people coming in, Bai and Oro are here.”

“Well, that makes things easier!” He turned around and motioned for them to follow. Oro shrugged and both followed, Bai with some trepidation. Eliza, satisfied that they were coming, started pushing me along again.

Finally, he brought us to a corner. On one side were the men’s rest rooms, on the other was the women’s. Directly ahead was an unmarked wooden door. “Here you go,” the host said, opening the door to let us in.

Inside was the room we had been in when the Hell Semester Faculty had rewarded us. Ulfric was sitting at a round table, smiling goofily and humming to himself. Once we were all in the room, the host said, “Now that you’re all here, I’ll let y’all get settled. Your server will be right with ya in a bit.” He then hurried out of there, but to be fair, if I was a worker at a restaurant and Ulfric was a diner, I honestly would’ve noped the fuck away much sooner.

Ulfric looked up and beamed at us. I noticed he was fiddling with something. We began to cautiously sit down. I noticed that Eliza parked me somewhere she could sit next to me and also move to intercept Ulfric if he decided to freak out. Everyone else just sat as far away from him as possible. I had heard something about Lupines having very strong protective instincts. This seemed to confirm it.

“So,” Eliza said brightly, “when Ricardo and Li get in, we can get started.” She paused. “Not rightly sure what we’re gonna do for this meeting other than have a nice chat…”

“I do,” I said. Everyone turned to face me. “Most of us, I assume, spent yesterday celebrating the fact we were alive. I think we should spend a few minutes of remembrance before we go back to partying.”

Everyone, including Ulfric, nodded. Eliza said, somewhat huskily, “Yeah, Nate. A toast’s in order, I think.”

“Yeah, man,” someone from the door said. Eliza, Bai, and I looked up. Ulfric didn’t need to, and I’m pretty sure Oro had heard the newcomer enter. It was Ricardo. He and Li had arrived together. Neither looked particularly happy about being with each other. “I got some people I need to mourn.”

Ricardo and Li sat down, trying to avoid both each other and Ulfric, which was hard in a table this size. After they had somehow managed to accomplish this feat, I asked, “So did you two end up roomies?”

“Happily,” Li said, “we did not end up… ‘roomies.’” He said that last word with complete and utter disgust.

“Yeah,” Ricardo said, “I guess I haven’t sinned that much.”

“Oi!” Eliza said warningly. “Don’t you bloody start!”

Silence reigned supreme until the waiter came in. After he introduced himself, we all ordered drinks, all alcoholic. I guess we decided it was appropriate. Besides, being a Star Wars fan, I just had to try Imperial Stout Trooper. I noticed that Ulfric had ordered an entire bottle of Knob Creek. I also noticed that the beer we were served came in huge glasses. Eliza smirked when she saw that I hadn’t expected to get that much beer. Apparently, this was a standard size for beer.

“Today,” I said, “we mark the ending of a traumatic, brutal chapter of our lives. Even some of us who have been fighting our entire lives have been shocked by the barbarism that was displayed during Hell Semester. Yesterday, we celebrated. Today, we mourn those that didn’t make it. Some of us lost friends. Some of us saw or did things that we weren’t prepared for.” As I spoke, I gazed out at the rest of the people there. Only Oro met my eyes. Some like Bai couldn’t meet my eyes. Others like Ricardo looked at their drinks to avoid me. Even Ulfric seemed… guilty, I guess.

I continued on. “We will go clockwise around the table with things we’d like to say to those who have died that we never got to say to them when they were alive. I’ll go first.”

I paused for a bit, considering what I would use. Would I apologize to Amir? Would I mention the burning corpses by the crater? Then I realized what bothered me the most had happened before any of that. “Michael,” I asked, “what the hell did Krieger say to you? I didn’t hear it, but I heard you asked Ulfric for a mercy kill at Fight Night. I just wished you had talked to me, or, well anyone. Maybe you would still be here.”

Li was next. He was silent for a moment. “I do not know your name,” he began, “I never asked and you never told me. Our only interaction was that on the run before The Chamber of Horrors, you were crying. It annoyed me, so I told you to be quiet. The next time I saw you, you were floating face up in The Chamber’s muck. When I went to investigate your corpse, I saw that all your wounds were defensive. I apologize for thinking you were a coward beneath my notice.”

Bai was next. “During The Chamber of Horrors,” she said, “I thought I could defend myself. I did very well on my own. But then a wolf grabbed my pant leg. I was off my mountain. Then you came down. Amina, I believe your name was. I don’t know you, and it is possible you had every reason to hate me. But still you saved my life, and ultimately sacrificed your own to do it. I owe you a debt I can never repay.” Throughout the entire time, she had been staring at her mug of beer. “I don’t even know you!” She was now crying openly.

Oro, for her part, waited for Bai to calm down before speaking up. “To the people we fought at the crater. I have heard that before you fought us, you were mostly cowards and monsters. If that is true, I weep also for your victims because now they will never see the justice owed them. But I also recognize that most of you fought well at the end. You died as you fought: Honorably.”

Very interesting. I had heard nothing about who, exactly, we had slaughtered for our finals. It only made sense that they had done something to embarrass the school. It was excellent timing. All the school needed to do was feed them to us.

Ricardo interrupted my anger with his grief. “Eduardo,” he said, his voice trembling a bit, “amigo, I thought that if either of us would die, it’d be me.” He laughed. It should have been humorous. “You were always better than me. Better at shooting, better at hand-to-hand, better with explosives, better with knives…” he paused, trying to beat back tears for a moment, then decided to just soldier through. “…Better with jokes, and just better at being kind and merciful.” Here he broke down.

“Despite doing what we do,” he continued through his body-wracking sobs, “you were probably the best human being I’ve ever met, man. Then some no-talent thug throws a rock at your head. And you don’t get up. And I still don’t understand why.” He then buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

After a respectful pause, Ulfric said, “To those of you I killed on Fight Night: You fought well. Continue on in Valhalla.”

Eliza let Ulfric’s statement hang and Ricardo finish sobbing. She began. “Fight Night was… rather hard on me,” she began. Instantly, I could tell she wasn’t going to make it through her speech. Weirdly enough, I was jealous. She still had enough of her humanity left to do that.

“I had to come to terms with some things about meself,” she said. “For the safety of others, y’know. I also lost most of you girls that night.” She was desperately trying to choke back her tears.

Meanwhile, it took us a minute to figure out that she was talking to the other girls in her section. So she had grown attached to them. I remembered what she had said about them. However, she had said, for some reason, I got put in a section with all the silly little bitches who knew nothing about fighting. I guess she had been trying to distance herself from them.

“Well,” she continued, “I decided to do the stupid, noble thing. I tried to save the ones of you who were left.” Here she broke down just as much as Ricardo had. “I… I… I promised I would save the rest of you. And then those wolves made me a liar. I just…” She then collapsed into incomprehensible blubbering.

I touched her shoulder. “It’s ok.” I said. “Well, maybe it’s not, but I think you did really well. You did more than I could.” I then turned towards the rest of the people there. “A full cup,” I said, my voice catching, “or bottle,” I nodded at Ulfric’s bottle of Knob Creek, getting some weak laughter, “is a sign of happiness. However, today we mourn. In memory of both the ones we left and the parts of us we lost, let us pour out some of our drink to signify our grief.”

I tipped my glass, and so did everyone else. After a small bit had flowed out, I righted my glass. “To those we’ve lost.”

Everyone echoed me. “To those we’ve lost.”

As we drank our various alcoholic beverages, I considered my own feelings. I wasn’t feeling sad. I hadn’t lost anything. No, thinking about Hell Semester made me mad. So many had lost their lives, and for what? Seriously, I didn’t even know what justifications were being given for this. Because someone said so, I guess.

I took a sip of my beer. I wondered if I was bitter, just like this swill. No, I decided. Bitter people just wallow in their misery.

I’m going to do something.

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Also, this is the end of Book 1. It is dead now. You killed it. For the Post Mortem, click here.

Track 18: Good Morning

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

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

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

“Sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen, Bai…” Eliza began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She froze. “Excuse me?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? Why?”

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

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

“Sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 17: General Winter

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

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

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

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

“You like, huh?” Eric asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You lucky bastard…” Cross said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice shot!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Correct,” MC Disaster said.

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

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

“Correct.” Eric said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 16: A Mad Rush

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

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

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

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

“Eliza?” I asked. “Did Bai send you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn, Killer!” Doc said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!” John said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 15: They Shot Their Own Eyes Out, Honest!

I quickly hooked up with the rest of my group. Cross, Doc, The Monk, MC Disaster and Ray-Gun were busy setting up camp, with tents in a roughly circular formation. “Where’s Eric?” I asked.

“Right behind you, Killer,” he said. I turned around to see a slightly annoyed Eric. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Oh?” I said.

“It’s just,” he said, “that you seem to be very close to the center of all this. Would you mind telling me what’s going on?”

“Yeah,” I said, “about that. Well, last night, Salim and Richard were on patrol with me.”

Doc and Cross laughed. Eric, through chortles, asked, “How did you three not kill each other?”

“Apart from them knowing they’d be kicked out of school and tortured to death if I died? Ulfric wanted us to play nice.”

John’s eyes widened. “Ulfric was the peacekeeper?”

“Weird, right?” I said.

Everyone who wasn’t laughing or as chill as The Monk answered with a resounding “YES!”

“Anyway,” I said, “when we weren’t being stalked by someone’s dream-self, we were talking about what the assholes in charge were going to do next. Both me and Salim agreed that it’d be something big.” I paused. “So what do you guys need me to do?”

“Just unpack your stuff,” Eric said, “and make sure to eat one of your packets of power sludge. Apparently, if you don’t eat it after your run, you’ll end up collapsing like a sack of bricks.”

“Ok,” I said. “Probably gonna give me cancer in a few years, but what the hell.” I reached into my backpack until I found some. “Holy shit,” I said, “they come in a squeeze pouch! That’d be awesome if it wasn’t so disgusting!”

“Finish it up and set up, Killer,” Doc said. “We need this camp done pretty soon.” As he finished, I saw a snowflake land on his nose, contrasting with his dark skin.

By the time the camp was set up, it had begun to snow in earnest. When Eliza came to get Eric, I could barely see them from my tent, despite it being only a few feet away. When I poked my head out, I barely got a glimpse of Eliza’s red hair as she led Eric away. I immediately closed the tent flap to stop the warmth from leaking out.

The tent was actually heated. There was a battery of some description and some heating devices. I wasn’t sure how it worked, but it said that it would keep the tent at sixty degrees for the next forty-eight hours. I was wondering how technologically advanced it all was, then I saw the NIU logo on the controls. So it was probably very advanced.

After a while, Eric came knocking at the door of my tent. Combined with the howling wind that occasionally pierced the tent, and it was nearly the straw that broke the camel’s back. I opened the flap. “What is it?” I asked. I had to shout to be heard above the wind.

Eric shouted back, “We’ve got first watch in the forest. Grab some water, a radio, your power sludge, and your training rifle. We are going hunting!”

“You realize we’re the ones being hunted?” I asked.

Eric laughed. “You are partly right, Killer,” he said, “but if the people hunting us make a single mistake, they become our prey.”

We kitted up. We started off trying to make small talk, but it was almost impossible over the sound of the wind. Our radios had mono earbuds, but we didn’t want to drain the batteries unless we had to.

The trek itself was long and arduous. The worst part was going through the large space of open land, also known as the majority of the journey. There were a few forward posts being constructed, basically some snow walls surrounding some tents, but they were just a somewhat nice place to stop before we had to go out into the biting cold.

It got better after we finally got to the forest. Not that much better, but we were at least shielded from the worst of the wind. “O-ok,” Eric, shivering with cold, “D-d-doc, take our zen f-f-friend, Killer, and John.”

“W-why don’t I get a nickname?” John asked.

“B-b-because you’re b-boring.” Eric said. “A-anyway, D-doc, your g-group g-goes up on that side and get a good v-view on the airport. We’ll travel up by the running p-path in case anyone comes from that direction. O-okay?”

“Got it,” I said.

Everyone shot me dirty looks. “A-aren’t you cold?” Cross asked acidly.

“Yes.” I said. “I’m even colder now that I’ve stopped moving.” The dirty looks changed to shock and… something else. “Did I mention I fucking hate the cold?”

“R-right!” The Monk said. “L-l-let’s get moving!”

Everyone quickly agreed. As Doc led us on into the forest, I suddenly realized: they were afraid. “Hey guys?” I said after a while, “Sorry about snapping. Didn’t mean to scare you guys like that.”

“Don’t w-worry about i-it, man,” John said, his teeth chattering. “W-we’re all a little cranky.”

“Still shouldn’t have…” We were cut off by a staccato clatter. “Was that an AK?” I asked.

“Into the underbrush!” Doc said. “Get into concealment now!”

“I take that as a yes,” John said.

We hurried to follow his orders. John and I were about twenty meters behind Doc and The Monk. We waited for a bit. The cold bit into me. I heard Doc’s whispered voice through the walkie-talkie. “Command, this is control, we have possible contact to the Northeast. Repeat, contact coming in from the Northeast.”

“Understood, patrol,” I heard Bai say. “Do you see them?”

“No,” Doc whispered back, “but they have at least one Kalashnikov.”

“Understood, patrol,” Bai said. “Stay alert and see if you can ambush them.”

“Right,” Doc said, somewhat sarcastically.

We waited for a long time. Occasionally, I’d hear the AK chatter in the distance. Finally, I began to hear voices in the distances. They seemed to be all laughing and chatting like they were at some kind of party. Eventually, I could see one person through the bush I was hiding in pass by. He was carrying a G-3K, which is basically a tiny assault rifle in the same caliber as the FAL. This particular one had one of those flippy optics behind a reflex sight.

Suddenly, the AK chattered again. The guy with the G-3K whipped around and from behind him another person yelled in shock. “Jesus!” G-3 guy said, “Stop doing that!”

From behind G-3 guy, I could hear someone laughing. “Stop fucking laughing, man!” G-3 guy said. “The professors told us we should be using the nonlethals, not this shit! Besides, you keep giving away our position!”

From the earpiece, I heard Doc whisper, “Go.” I lifted the training rifle and began to run forwards.

“Man, it’s more fun this… LOOK OUT” The guy who had been laughing suddenly noticed that I had burst out of the bushes. Or maybe he noticed someone else. It was probably me because G-3 guy turned towards me. He almost shot me when John burst out of his bush and yelled, “Behind you!” This was all the distraction I needed. The wooden butt of my training rifle smashed into his jaw with a crack. He dropped his carbine, and clutched his cheek.

He himself didn’t drop. He did turn around from the force of my blow, so I clubbed him in the back causing him to drop to his knees. He fell this time. I threw the training rifle away and picked up the G-3K and aimed it at the hapless guy. “Hands on your head!” I said.

His hands strayed away from his hip, probably because he noticed that John was pointing his training rifle at him, but not that it was fake. This motion made me notice that he carried a pistol on his left side. I reached over, carefully avoiding his legs and keeping my new-found gun aiming at him but not touching him, and grabbed it out of its holster. After stepping away from the guy, I took a quick look at the pistol. It was a vaguely Browning-ish shape with a silver slide embossed with the words P229. I flipped on the safety (which was kind of awkward to do left handed) and shoved it into a pocket in the coat. “Clear!” I shouted, returning my left hand to gripping the carbine.

Only then did I turn around. What I saw made me stop and stare. “Doc! Monk! What the fuck? Seriously, what the actual fuck?”

John turned around to look at where Doc and The Monk were. Doc’s snow-camo Kevlar vest had been splashed with blood and he was bent over and checking a shape in the snow while carrying a black AK. The Monk was choking a third guy with the sling of a FAL, the sling wrapped around the poor guy’s neck.

“Monk, that’s enough!” I shouted.

The Monk shrugged, reached down to FAL guy’s hip, pulled out a large silver pistol, pushed it to FAL guy’s head, and pulled the trigger. The guy I had beaten up flinched at the crack and the side of FAL guy’s head opposite the gun suddenly burst out. He stopped struggling.

“Now it’s enough,” The Monk said, somehow laconic, despite having to yell above the wind. He stowed the gun in a pocket, and in a single fluid motion unwrapped the sling from FAL guy’s neck. When the corpse collapsed, he began to root through it.

Meanwhile, Doc had finished with his victim and was walking towards us, AK hugged to his chest and pointed down at the ground. He also had a belt slung over his shoulder. “I t-t-take it y-you are not g-g-going to let us shoot this guy, huh, K-killer?”

“Yeah,” I said, “because I’m really not a fan of killing unarmed prisoners!”

“Whoah,” John said, “c-c-calm down N-nate.”

“Wait,” our prisoner said, “your name’s Killer?”

“Only if you want to piss me off,” I said, turning back to him to say this. I then turned back to Doc. “Come on, let’s do a good deed. Besides, he might be able to give us some info.”

Doc walked over to John and passed the belt to him. “Here,” he said. “That dumbass had two pistols. I only need one. Might as well have a real gun instead of a large stick.”

Our prisoner stared at Doc like he figured something out. “You killed him,” he said dumbly.

Doc shrugged. “Probably.” Seeing our prisoner’s scandalized look, he glared. “Oh, like he was some kind of angel. He was walking around with an AK!” To drive his point home, he gestured wildly with said AK. “What was he going to do if he saw me, give me some coffee and a biscuit?”

“W-we w-w-weren’t… we didn’t want to k-kill you!” Our prisoner said desperately. “We weren’t s-s-seeking you out! J-just trying to s-scout out the, t-t-the forest!”

“So,” I said, “what on Earth made you guys think this was a good idea?”

“W-w-well, the t-t-teachers said we had t-to u-use the non-l-leathals on you or get expelled. Just soak a few of you with t-t-the water to simulate live-fire exercise or something.”

“Wait,” I said, “you were planning on soaking us?”

“W-well, not us in particular, but most of us h-have these m-modified g-grenade launchers th-that shoot w-water balloons. All that happens is you get s-s-soaked. S-see? No harm!”

I was now curious as to how this would work. Non-lethal weaponry was cool. “Wouldn’t that be like shooting ice balls at us?”

“N-no! No!” Our prisoner waved his hands at us. “Th-th-the balloons k-keep it liquid u-until…” His eyes widened.

“Until w-what?” Doc asked. He adjusted his newly-acquired AK to point casually at our captive. “It all s-sounds very interesting.”

“…Until the balloon bursts apart.”

That was not good. Our coats were very warm, but not very waterproof. They could stop water from a few squirt gun hits, but if there was a lot of water…

“So what you’re saying,” I said flatly, “is that these are weapons designed to cause us to freeze to death.” The idea was horrid. Our winter uniforms getting hit, the water soaking into and freezing inside the fabric… It was sadistic.

“I-i-it’s n-not like it’s…” our prisoner stuttered.

“D-d-did anyone a-ask your opinion?” Doc asked menacingly.

The Monk, who had wandered nonchalantly over by this point, put his hand on Doc’s shoulder. “Peace,” he said. They both laughed. Must have been some sort of in-joke.

I shrugged, figuring I could ask later about that later. Instead, I turned towards our prisoner. “So how many people are we dealing with here?”

“About a h-hundred and f-f-fifty. We’re all a-armed.”

“Shit.” John said. “We’re fucked.” He potentially was right. If they decided to just charge into camp, and if they decided to stick around instead of just soaking us, it would be a massacre. They had guns, and if they showed any shred of common sense, no amount of hand-to-hand skill could beat that. If they just decided to shell us with water balloons, we would end up all freezing from hypothermia. Unless…

“Alright,” I said to our prisoner, “time for you to go.”

“That’s it?” He asked.

“L-leave your a-ammo and your radio.” Doc said. He turned his head slightly to me and said, “C-c-can’t have him c-c-calling for help or y-you r-r-running out o-of a-amo.”

I nodded. Our prisoner undid his belt and pulled out several twenty-round magazines for the G-3K. The last thing he pulled out was a cell phone of some kind. After he was done, he stood up, looking at us for further instructions.

“G-get t-the fuck outta here,” John said with a nod of his head. Our former prisoner didn’t have to be told twice. He ran away from us and his deceased friends, occasionally tripping in the snow.

“We need to call this in,” I said.

Doc nodded. He picked up the radio, and pushed the talk button. “This is Doc. Eric, Bai, come in.”

“We read you,” I heard Bai say.

Suddenly, the chatter of gunfire came through the radio, as well as Eric’s voice. “Kind of busy!” he said. The gunfire stopped when his radio switched off.

“So,” I said, through my walkie-talkie, “Eric, would you believe we’re up against a hundred and fifty armed assholes?”

“Can confirm!” he said, gunfire in the background. “They are all coming towards us!”

“We’ll get there as soon as we can.” I said, “I’ve got an idea, but I can tell it to you on our way over.”

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Track 14: Snow and Cold

After informing security of what had just happened, I headed back to Salim and Richard. Ulfric was still off for some reason, so I kind of ignored him. Salim was being supported by Richard. Neither one seemed happy about it.

“We…” Salim said, slurring his speech and gesticulating at Ulfric, “…we should do that thing where he isn’t around anymore…”

“Kill him?” Richard asked sardonically.

“Yes…” Salim said. “He’s not doing… going…”

“Doing Anything?” I asked. “Not at the moment, but I don’t want to find out if he’ll snap out of it if you start stabbing him.”

The radio crackled. “You blokes still out there?” Sergeant Burra asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “and creepy girl’s gone away.”

“I actually got word,” Burra said, “that was one of our students. She’s psychic, and when she can’t sleep, things get a bit weird. Just a few extra blankets, and she’s right as rain. Wake Mr. Giggles up, then continue with the patrol. One more lap should do it, over.”

“So, we got the shit scared out of us because some mutie got cold?” Guess who said that? If you guessed that Richard was the one who used the racial slur, you’d be right! “God,” he complained, “now I can’t feel my fucking toes!”

“Welcome to your first real winter,” I said. I had been smart and tried to shove my hands in my pockets or up the opposite sleeve as much as possible.

Ulfric then looked up and shook his head. “You ok?” I asked him. He shrugged, then began walking.

“I guess he’s ok,” I said. Ulfric nodded and grunted in confirmation. “Ok,” I said, “let’s finish this up. I personally want to go back to sleep.”

Trudging through the snow, a horrible thought occurred to me. “Do you think that they’ll have us all do an exercise of some kind out in the snow?”

“Are you kidding?” Richard asked. “How many people have they killed? If they keep this up, they’ll only have a few people left. I doubt anyone’d kill their only source of income.”

“Maybe it isn’t about money,” Salim said. “It could be about prestige. They might like to brag about training a better soldier than any other group. Besides, they’ll want some sort of grand finale.” He was still slurring, but he was a little better.

“Maybe,” I said, “but if that’s the case, then why are we only having a minor amount of discipline training? I mean, we’re really good at killing stuff, but we’re kind of shit soldiers at the moment. I mean, remember the Chamber of Horrors, Salim? We blatantly disobeyed orders, but we weren’t really punished all that much for it.” I paused. Then I added, “I do agree with Salim that they’re saving something for the grand finale. They keep trying to go bigger each time they do one of these events, and I can’t see them letting our finals be forgettable.”

“Hell Semester Awards are in two weeks,” Richard said quietly.

The rest of the patrol was done in silence. I reflected on what was going on. A psychic of some power was definitely here for one thing. That would interest UNIX. In more immediate news, I now kind of doubted that Salim and/or Richard would kill me anytime soon. We may hate each other, but we at least either realized we’d need to have a working relationship to survive, or we kind of respected each other.

Ulfric… Ulfric I wasn’t sure about. Then again, there was only one person who knows how Ulfric’s mind works and he’s too busy giggling and fucking with people’s heads to give a straight answer. I wanted to ask him what was up with him being frozen like that, but a) he might not be able to tell me due to psychic bullshit and how nuts he was, b) he was a violent maniac, and c) I wasn’t exactly sure he would tell the truth.

Maybe it was that I didn’t have a clear grasp of his motivation. If he just wanted to have fun cracking rib cages open with his bare hands, there were cheaper ways to do that. Hell, there were ways you can do that and end up getting paid. Maybe it was just that I knew that at any moment he could decide that he was bored and my screams would be the most interesting. Or maybe I was just paranoid.

Either way, I was glad when we finally got to the front gate. The people guarding it had made fun of us every single time we passed by, so Salim, Richard, and I made sure to be as smug as possible as we passed. One of them made an odd gesture which was probably rude, another made a few threatening steps towards us, but stopped when Ulfric almost skipped towards him.

He turned around, and said, “You unlucky! I no longer grant you honor of being beaten by me!”

“Whatever you say, asshole,” I said as I kept on walking. I hadn’t meant to say it (at least, not as loud as I did,) but it was cold, Salim was heavy and I just wanted to go to fucking sleep. Also, my hands were starting to stick to the flashlight. I just wanted to be done with this shit.

“What you say?”

I considered saying nothing, considered apologizing. While my conscious train of thought was doing this, my voice said, “Didn’t you hear me Susan? I told you to go back to playing with your Barbie dolls.”

The guy ran straight at me. I slammed the butt of my flashlight into the side of his head, putting all my frustration and anxiety into the blow. I also used every trick ten years of Tae Kwon-do had taught me, including taking a step back and striking through his head instead of at it. Later, I would learn that the flashlight I was given was designed as much for hitting people in the exact way I hit him as it was for providing illumination. From the steel pommel on the end of it to the textured grip, the manufacturers had worked to make it downright deadly. I would also learn later that he had died a few days later from his brain swelling up. All I knew at the time was that I felt a vibration run up my arm as I hit the guy and he crumpled to the ground.

“We done here?” I asked. No one responded, so we headed back in to the camp. When I got back to my bunk and began stripping down to my underwear so the snow wouldn’t melt and get my bed wet and stowing my gear, I noticed that my flashlight’s butt was wet and sticky. I shrugged. I could deal with it in the morning. Right now, I was going to sleep.

When we got up at the usual time, I had completely forgotten about it. I was just glad that the snow had stopped for the moment. I struggled to put on clean clothes, due to how tired I was. Surprisingly, I was the first person in formation. The run started out normally enough, or so I thought. We got some new equipment in the form of a backpack filled with various stuff, but that was about it. John and I were in the back as usual and Cross and Eric’s crew were heading off and trying to be in first.

I used the first half of the time basically just chatting with John. It was somewhat leisurely. I had told him about the whole Seven Supreme thing and had made the mistake of mentioning that I might want to withhold some of the stuff about them.

“Sure you don’t want to tell them?” John asked for the hundredth time.

“John,” I said, “two of the groups involved are searching for something based on what’s pretty much a fairy tale. Everyone else honestly seems to be out of our employer’s purview, honestly. If I, uh we, edit things a bit for our employer, we get a less risky source of information.”

“And if they find out?”

“Worst they can do is refuse to pay us,” I said confidently. “And if they ask me directly, I’ll tell them.”

“Yeah…” John said. After a pause, he said, “You’re going rogue, aren’t you? Or native, or whatever it’s called. You’re getting too into this.”

“Seriously,” I asked, “how much info do you think you’re going to collect just watching and waiting?”

John shrugged. “Ok, you got me there. But you seem like you’re crossing a line, man.”

“Ok,” I said, “I’ll be careful.”

“That being said,” John added firmly, “I won’t tell anyone about this Seven Supreme stuff unless I think you’re going nuts with it.”

“Thanks, man,” I said.

“I don’t know what I mean by going nuts,” he continued, “but I’ll know it when I see it.”

We continued on the path for silence for a while. When we got onto the main campus, we started talking about our family. John’s parents were (as far as he knew) back home in New Jersey. Mine were back in Massachusetts. Neither of our families knew what we were doing or had heard from us since we touched down.

We were just heading out of the gates when I noticed it. “Yeah,” I was saying, “my dad never wanted me joining the joining the army. He’d rather…”

“What is it?” John asked. We had just exited the gates.

“All the drill sergeants were just standing by the gate.” I said.

“They could be taking a break,” John said. He didn’t sound convinced.

“All of them?” I asked.

“You know,” John said, sounding more nervous, “I kind of wish you’d just say, ‘you’re probably right, John.’” From behind us, the gate rattled closed. We also noticed that Campus Security had set up sniper and machine gun emplacements on the wall behind us. “Guess we’re not going back!” John said. “Fuck me, right?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “Probably should be thinking ahead, though. Try and anticipate what exactly they’ve got planned.”

“Obviously some kind of Lord of the Flies shit,” John said. “I mean, that’s the only thing that could work…”

“Kinda doubt it.” I said, “Remember, the goal isn’t to kill us all.”

“Honestly,” John said, “if they lock us out, what else are we going to do? At least killing ourselves will keep us warm.”

I began to consider the possibilities as we got back to camp. As I had suspected, the doors leading into the camp were closed there as well. Unlike the main campus, there was no place on the walls to put guards. Instead, they were almost double the height, smooth, and topped with barbed wire. People were milling about the obsidian barrier in confusion.

At first, I wondered why there were so few of them. Then, I realized with a start that it was because most of the rest of us were dead. I had even killed one of them. Then I remembered how the guy from last night hadn’t gotten up after I hit him with the flashlight.

Before that train of thought could go too far into Grimmsville, Professor Blunt’s voice came over a loudspeaker to derail it. “Good morning, maggots!” he said, “Today is your acid test! If you, as a class, can survive the night and take under thirty percent casualties, you get to go home early!” I cheered at this, along with several other people. Before the cheering could get underway, however, Professor Blunt’s voice came over the speaker again. “However, twinkletoes, if you screw up, you get to do this again and again until you do it right. Do you understand?”

After the resounding, “YES, SIR!” had died down, Professor Blunt signed off. Silence reigned. I waited on the outskirts, observing the few people behind us walking to the crowd. As time went on, I noticed that people were starting to regard each other warily.

I was conflicted. I didn’t want to be the one to take charge. Salim and Richard (and maybe any friends of the guy I hit last night) would automatically oppose it, for one thing. Plus, I only had vague ideas of what we were facing and how to combat it. However, if no one stepped in, that would be much worse.

I was still debating this when Bai stepped up. “Listen!” she said, “I have heard reports from the drill sergeants that today’s storm will be worse than any of the previous ones! We all have camping supplies, so we should pool them and set up by the range where it is warmest!”

That was a good plan. I wanted to second it, but I was afraid that doing so would undermine it. Also, if anyone should have been leader at that point, I would have said Bai. She was about the only person that a majority of people would listen to.

“So,” Salim asked, “who is going to determine how the supplies are pooled?”

Bai froze. I silently begged her to say something like, I will, because I’m the person who beat Ulfric in hand to hand combat, bitches!

Thankfully, Eliza said something pretty similar. “Why not Bai?” she asked. “She’s brilliant at thinking stuff like this through. She’s also one of the most trustworthy people I know.”

Salim shrugged. “I just don’t know…” he said.

“Oh come on,” I said. A little over four hundred eyes turned to face me. I continued, trying not to get stage fright. “I mean, you know her plan is decent. Remember last night? The shooting range wasn’t as cold because we were near the kitchen and there were two walls shielding us from the worst of the wind. She might have other ideas.” Besides, I added silently, hoping he got it, you know that they’re planning something big.

“Do you think she has any ideas about what they’re going to do?” Richard asked. “You know, for this special final test? I mean, the way you were talking about this last night, you guys seemed to think they’d do something a lot bigger than just kicking us outside.”

“The Great White Moron seems to be right for once,” Eric said. “Our teachers seem to like to make us suffer in much more creative ways.”

Everyone turned to Bai expectantly. We waited a good thirty seconds. Then Eliza elbowed her. Bai jumped, then started improvising. “Oh, yes! The plan. After we set up camp…” she said, “…we can set up several forward positions at key points and distribute radios to them and to me. Most should be in the forest near the bend, because that’s where the attack will most likely come from.” She then paused. “We should get set up. After that, if you’re a leader of some sort, Eliza will come get you.”

After she was done, Eliza shouted, “All right, you ‘eard ‘er ya cunts! Get your arses in gear!”

Everyone instantly got moving. Except for Bai, that is. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her just standing in the middle of a mass of moving people, obviously wondering what the fuck had just happened. I shrugged. Better her than me.

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Track 13: Stop Snowing!

When we had been revived from the gas, we had been forced into disinfectant showers. We cooperated only because we were still woozy from the gas and were outnumbered, outgunned and out-trained. We got new, clean uniforms and the people like me who took a drink of the gray-green stuff got some pills.

“What do they do?” I asked.

“They make ye vomit,” the medic handing them out said. He was Irish (or maybe Scottish, again, I’m terrible at identifying accents from the British Isles.) I raised an eyebrow. “Basically,” the medic said, “it’s a choice between barfing constantly now or shitting and barfing blood and bits of yer digestive track later.”

“Ok,” I said, more than a little horrified, “I guess I’ll take these… how many times a day?”

“Two pills now,” he said, “then continue it for every meal until you run out.” I took two pills. I started barfing halfway to the barracks. Well, technically, it wasn’t barfing because usually nothing was coming up, and when I did get something out, it would be stomach acid. It got so bad that I had to lean on Eric and Doc for support.

When we were in front of our barracks, Eliza asked, “Oi, what’s happened? You were in there longer than anyone else. And why’s Nate in such rough shape?”

A guard behind us said, “No talking!” I heard someone spit in response. We kept moving back to the barracks. I got into bed, head leaning over the side so I wouldn’t vomit onto the floor, then promptly passed out. Then woke up approximately two seconds later because I was dry-heaving.

The next few days were spent in a very similar state, with people dragging me out of bed occasionally to get something to eat and drink. I’m not sure how long this went on, maybe not even a day, maybe a week. Because of the whole constantly vomiting thing, I was kind of going a little insane from lack of sleep. After a while, I got to the point where I wasn’t sure what was real and what was my unhinged imagination. If I had to guess, whenever the few bits I do remember involved vengeful talking wolves, famous singers with hook hands trying to kill me, or the penis-stealing magical girl were times when I was completely out of my mind.

Then, one meal, I looked in the bottle of pills and realized that there were none left. I remember everyone at the table sighing with relief. I then went back to my bunk and passed out. I didn’t dream, just enjoyed the sleep.

When I woke up, Sergeant Krieger was staring at me. “God damn it…” I moaned. “Can I wait, like, a week to deal with you? Or at least until I’ve had a few more hours of sleep?”

“You hurt me, Boyke,” Krieger said. “You hurt me right deep.”

I debated doubling down, offering an apology, or remaining silent. I chose to remain silent. I really didn’t want to push my luck by being snarky or hostile, and a fake apology (which was the only type of apology I was capable of giving at that point) can piss people off more than a real one.

After a pause, Sergeant Krieger asked, “Aren’t you a little bit curious about why I’m here?”

I looked around. “A little,” I said. “I’m more curious about where Ray-Gun is. After all, you’re sitting in his bed.” It wasn’t just Ray-Gun who was missing. All the rest of the crew was gone as well. I wondered if this was pre-arranged. I also wondered where Eliza was.

“They’re just talking to security,” Krieger said casually, “they’ve got a few enemies, and we want to ensure them that they’re safe. They shouldn’t be back for a while.” It was pre-arranged. The entire point of this camp was to kill off the weak. I looked over his shoulder to see if Eliza was there.

Krieger noticed it. “Are you looking for someone, boyke?”

“Eliza Henderson,” I said. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to tell him something he already knew. In fact, why not tell him something he might not know? “She has the tendency to… follow me. I’m almost as scared of her as I am of you.”

“Really?” Krieger asked. “How am I scary, boyke?”

“You’re just like her,” I said. “You seem to have some interest in me. That, in and of itself isn’t worrying. The amount of attention you pay to me, however is… paranoia-inducing.”

“You know,” Krieger said, “it was my dream to see one of you fresh meat walk into this grinder and come out of it ahead of some of the scariest motherfuckers in the world.”

Was?” I asked.

Krieger laughed. “You know, most of the people here are actually not fresh meat? Almost all have had some kind of combat training before coming to this program. It also would be easier to list the people like you who haven’t killed anyone before this camp. And you…” here he leaned in close, “you’re the freshest meat of them all, aren’t you boyke?”

“I’ve taken Tae Kwon-do for ten years!” I protested.

“Aye,” he said, “that you have. But I think we both know that a green belt and a few sparring sessions is nothing compared to an actual fight.”

I nodded. “If by actual fight, you mean trying to kill someone, then yeah.” I was about to add how most people hadn’t, then considered what I had seen since I got here. Maybe being forced between dying and hurting was a lot more common than I thought.

“Even a playground fight’s much different than your sparring,” Krieger said. “In your sparring sessions, you get in trouble if you hurt someone. You wear pads to protect everyone involved. In a playground fight, or any other real fight, it’s all about hurting the other person.” He seemed genuinely impressed. “Do you know how hard it is to go from a life like yours, trying to never hurt another person, to straight up bashing another person’s head in with a rock?”

“Disturbingly easy,” I said. “I did it, remember?”

Krieger laughed heartily. “So that’s why they call you Killer, eh? You’re fucking cold, boyke.”

“Don’t call me that!” I snarled.

Krieger’s smile disappeared, but the glint of madness in his eyes grew brighter. “You want me to stop, Killer?” His voice was very dangerous, but still conversational.

Yes.”

Krieger considered me for a moment, then said, “Then make me.” After a pause he added, “Killer.”

I sized him up and down. I considered going for his throat. A blow there might shut him up. However, if it didn’t work, he was bigger, faster, stronger, more experienced, and quite possibly smarter than me. Therefore, he could probably beat me to a pulp and not even draw the Colt, knife, or taser strapped to his hip. “In this situation?” I asked. “Not likely.”

“See?” Krieger asked. “You’ve only been doing this since September, and already you’re better than some people who’ve been doing this since they came in. You think Salim would have bothered to size me up before he went for my throat?”

“My mother will be so proud,” I said sarcastically.

“However,” Krieger said, “there is one question I have for you: Why are you here?”

I stared at him blankly. “You mean,” I asked, “why am I at NIU?”

Krieger nodded. “Yes. What do you hope to achieve? What is your goal in life?” I didn’t respond, so he added, “I know most people can’t be specific, but it helps to be honest. Telling someone what you want, or admitting you don’t know what you want can help you get it.”

I shrugged. “Guess I got super hero syndrome,” I said. “When I started, I had this idea that I’d be ‘saving the world’ once I got out of here. Now… I’m not sure if I took the right path. I can’t see myself doing any good using the stuff this program taught me. Problem is, I’m reasonably sure I’ve made too many enemies to leave the program and return home.”

Krieger nodded. “You’re right in that you can’t go back to your old self,” he said. “But you’re wrong in that you can’t do good work. For instance, we’ve had plenty of our graduates join agencies like Interpol and the Society of Genocide Relief. Hell, UNIX was founded by NIU graduates!”

I almost gave myself away there. Or maybe he already knew. UNIX didn’t just have alumni, it was created by them! “I…” I said, “I didn’t know that.”

“If you want my advice, though,” Krieger said, “you shouldn’t hitch your wagon to just one group. You might be glad to have the option of saying no.” He got up, then added, “Oh, you might not have heard, but you guys are on break until Saturday. After that, we’ll start you guys on night patrol.”

He got up and adjusted his winter jacket. It was weird that I hadn’t noticed that before. I was wondering why he had one when he opened the door. As soon as Krieger opened the door, a howling wind and a huge amount of snow blew in to the room. He staggered out, the wind trying to push him back into the barracks. Wonderful.

A bit latter, Eliza came in, her face red from the biting cold and a hood pulled over her head. She walked directly over to me. “Nate!” she said, “You’re up! Think you’re gonna live, then?” She was flashing her trademark grin and her tone was as mischievous as usual, but for some reason I thought I detected a hint of actual concern.

“Potentially,” I said. “I doubt I’ll be vomiting up pieces of my stomach, but I kind of just lied to Sergeant Krieger.”

“Oh really?” Her smile became a bit forced at this. She leaned on Eric and Ray-Gun’s bunk and took off her hood. I hadn’t seen her for a long time, so this was the first I’d gotten a good look at her real ears. Instead of human ears, they were more cat or dog-like. They were facing towards me, so I could only see that the borders were black, and the very tips were white. Eliza continued, asking, “And what, pray tell, is your reason for lying to Krieger?”

“Basically,” I said as quietly as I could without whispering, “if I was a hundred-percent honest when answering his questions, he’d learn about my employer, my partners, and a group of seven people I’m supremely scared of.”

“Ah. I see.” Eliza looked somewhat terrified.

“To be fair,” I said, “it was more of a congratulatory pep-talk. Apparently, he’s always wanted to train some person with no history of violence into a brutal death machine, and I’ve done pretty well except for some motivational issues.”

“Is that all ‘e wanted?” Eliza asked.

“There was some stuff about what I missed, like guard duty and…”

“And what?” Eliza asked, cocking her head to the side.

“I think I’m way too paranoid,” I said, “but I think he knows who I work for, and he definitely knows more about them than me. It’s not anything tangible, or at least not anything I consciously recognized.” I paused, considering confessing that I was seriously worried that I was going insane. Instead, I asked, “So, how’s the weather?”

Eliza laughed. “Bloody awful. For some ungodly reason, it dropped from ten degrees to below freezing and started blizzarding. That’s Celsius, not whatever bleeding arbitrary bullshit you yanks use.”

“‘Blizzarding:’” I said, as I flipped open my compass/thermometer to get a rough “‘The act of working on something for four times as long as another competitor before announcing it, then delaying it multiple times.’” Eliza gave me a funny look. “Sorry,” I said. “Gamer humor. Anyway, apparently in Fahrenheit that’s a twenty-degree drop in… how many hours?”

“Four.” Eliza said wearily, her ears drooping.

“I can’t believe it was around eighty for a week after we got here,” I said. Eliza nodded in agreement.

From there, the conversation kind of died down. Neither of us really wanted to talk about the last event. Eliza came close to it when she accidentally mentioned that her section was entirely gone. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She said no. That pretty much killed the conversation.

I saw Eliza more than I used to over the next few weeks. It was still not a lot, seeing as she tended to like hanging out with Bai and Oro more than any of the people in my group. We also were very busy. In addition to all the craziness of gun and hand-to-hand combat, there was the fact that they were introducing grenades and rockets. I was lucky I went first for grenade throwing, because in the second group, some idiot nearly blew himself up. The girl who was standing next to him kind of laughed her ass off. Eliza’s response, when we were at dinner, was to say, “I want to be that girl when I grow up. If I was right next to some bloke who dropped his bleeding grenade right next to me, I’d shit myself.”

Luckily, I didn’t have night watch duty for a few weeks. I’d hear someone come back in at an awful hour, shivering from the cold and crawl into their bunk. Then there was also having to deal with the people you were patrolling with. John had the best story.

“So, how many of you guys saw the guy who knocked me out of the ring?” He asked, sitting down at breakfast one day.

Everyone shook their heads, except Cross. “That big fucker with the Jewfro? You know, the one with the unpronounceable Polish name?”

“Yeah, that’s the one!” John said. “I was on patrol with him tonight!”

We all laughed. “Seriously?” Doc asked. “The guy who almost broke your nose? Did he want to finish the job or something?”

“No, actually,” John said. “You wanna hear the crazy part?” Everyone answered with a resounding yes, but John hadn’t really waited. “The crazy part was that he was apologizing constantly! He was like offering to buy me drinks and stuff and I was like, ‘no dude, it’s cool, I totally get it!’”

“Really?” Doc asked.

“He is,” The Monk said, “as our American friends would say, a ‘chill dude.’”

“I sincerely hope,” I said, “that I get someone as chill as that guy.” At two in the morning, someone woke me up to tell me that I’d be patrolling with Richard, Salim and Ulfric. I grumbled in a mixture of dismay and annoyance as I pulled on as many layers as I could. The girl who had woken me up then went to go find Salim.

After we were both up, we trudged out into the courtyard. We both pretended to ignore each other while secretly preparing for a fight as we met up with Richard, Ulfric, Sergeant Burra, and a group of eight other students standing in the huge blizzard.

“G’evening, everyone!” Burra said, her voice much more chipper than should be allowed at that time. “So, I assume you all know which groups you’re in?” Everyone nodded and vocalized an affirmative. “Right then,” Burra continued on, “Group one, you lot get the inner perimeter. Your job is to go around on the inside here and check the buildings for break-ins and damage. Also, if you see any bloke out of bed, call it in on the radios we’ll give you. We’ll then get a drill sergeant to come help you secure the person. Just make sure you maintain visual contact.”

She then turned to the next group. “Now, group two gets the cushy gig. You lot get to wait by the barrels outside the main gate. No one gets in or out. Also, make sure the fires in the barrels stay lit. They’ll keep you nice and toasty, I here.”

She turned to Ulfric, Richard, Salim, and me. “That leaves you sorry bastards,” she said sympathetically. “You’ve got to go out and patrol the outer perimeter. Call if you see anyone besides yourselves out, would you?”

“Wait,” I said, “the outer perimeter? The place where there are unexploded mines?”

Burra shrugged apologetically. “The mines aren’t so much the problem if you keep within three hundred meters to the wall. Even then, you’ll probably be fine. It’s the bloody cold that’ll get you. It’s actually a couple degrees cooler out there than it is in the camp’s interior.” I assumed that she was speaking in Celsius. That would be a bigger drop than Farenheit.

She pointed to a cart filled with radios. “Here’s the radios. Take them and make sure they’re set to channel two.” After the radio check, she said, “Good job. Now off you pop!”

We popped off. Group two relieved the previous group at the entrance and we began heading off on our appointed rounds. I was in the front, Salim and Richard behind me, and Ulfric bringing up the rear. Needless to say, I was worried. I wondered if (or more specifically when) Salim and Richard would stab me in the back. That had to be the reason they were standing behind me, right? And then there was Ulfric.

“Ok,” I said, “before we turn that corner, I need to know who’s planning on killing me tonight. You know, just for the sake of my paranoia.”

“Not tonight,” Salim said. “I am a patient man. I can wait until the university no longer protects you. Until then… I can wait.”

“Maybe I’ll do it,” Richard said. “If Salim doesn’t squeal I…” He then made a squeaking noise. Salim and I turned to look at him.

Ulfric had reached out and grabbed Richard by the shoulder. He leaned in to Richard’s ear and said, with a slight southern twang, “I like Nathan.” After he was sure the message had gotten across, he let go of Richard’s shoulders.

“Thanks, Ulfric,” I said, my voice cracking. Ulfric giggled in response.

We continued walking for a long time. The cold bit at us and the silence gnawed at the backs of our minds. I had it especially bad because I was worried that Richard or Salim might stick a knife in to my back before Ulfric could stop them. Or Ulfric would decide that he was bored and painting portals to hell in our blood, marrow and grey matter would be fun.

Apparently the silence was getting to other people as well. After starting the second lap, Richard finally broke down. “Ok,” he asked, “are we just going to just ignore each other?”

“Well,” I said, “seeing as we how we all hate each other, I don’t think we’d have the most relaxing or educational conversation.”

“As always,” Salim said acidly, “You westerners fail to grasp even the most basic aspects of life. Conversation is not supposed to relax or teach, it is there to pass the time.”

“And as always,” Richard said, “you Arabs act like god speaks to you personally.”

“Hey, assholes,” I said, “can we not act like we’re getting high off the smell of our own shit? Salim, Richard may be an asshole, but he’s right about how much of a prick you are. Richard, you also described yourself in that statement. Get the fuck over yourself.”

We past Group 2. They were huddled around the fire in the barrel. They pointed at us and laughed as we walked by. They were speaking some far-east sounding language. We ignored them. A little while later, Richard spoke up again.

“So why are you here, Nathan?” he asked.

“Because I’m a fucking moron!” I shouted over the snow and wind.

“Thought Jews were supposed to be smart,” he said in a self-satisfied, sneering way. God, I wanted to punch him.

“If you know everything,” I asked, “why are you here?” It took all I had from adding asshole. I was kind of proud of myself I didn’t.

“Partly because my dad made me,” Richard said. “Partly because there’s a bigger problem that need to be dealt with.”

“What, bigger than Jews and black people walking about unmolested?” I asked. “Must be transsexuals.”

For someone Richard laughed. “No,” he said. “Trust me, you’re going to be really surprised at who’s in this little fight of mine, and what side they’re on.”

There was a pause for a moment while we processed that statement. “That was almost as evasive as my answer,” I said. “Congratulations.”

“And that’s all you’re going to get,” Richard said.

“I think” Salim said, “I will share more than you two.” He paused. “Aside from the elderly and people here, have you known anyone to die? Violently?”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Richard said.

“Who?” Salim asked.

“My sister,” Richard said. “I was there when it happened.” His voice was very flat.

“I am sorry to hear that,” Salim said. “When did it happen?”

“Last year,” he said. “I saw it happen.” He paused. “I thought this was about you. Why don’t you tell us whatever sob story you have?”

Salim shrugged. “I was getting there.” He then began to tell his story, an air of false geniality masking seething anger. “When I was sixteen, I was still living in my village. I never really wanted to leave, you understand? All my family and friends lived there.”

I nodded. While I had always wanted leave home, I could understand not wanting to leave somewhere where everyone you ever knew lived.

“I remember the day everything changed,” Salim said. “It should have been a good day. A wedding.” His voice lost all pretense of friendliness. “I guess someone forgot to tell your government that. They must have seen the guns my family was going to shoot off or something, so they had a drone launch a missile into the crowd.”

“Oh,” I said. What else could I say.

“They saw that there were still people moving,” he said, “so they fired a few more. I was one of three survivors, and I was the one the least scarred. That was when I decided that I would not rest until you Americans learned terror. You too will learn the pain of losing everyone you care about seemingly at random and the terror of knowing it can happen again at any moment.”

Before anyone else could formulate a response, Ulfric giggled and said something in Arabic. We all turned to face him. Salim said something in response, possibly the Arabic version of “Say that again.” Ulfric said something different in Arabic.

In response, Salim threw himself at Ulfric, screaming in Arabic. Ulfric just grabbed Salim by the face and held him at arm’s length, muttering bits of Arabic between his signature high-pitched giggles.

“Jesus,” Richard said “what the fuck’d you say to him, Ulfric?”

Ulfric, his accent now Middle Eastern, said, “He was set free, now he’s like me! Violent and happy as can be. Trouble is, he doesn’t want to admit the truth, you see.” He giggled again, maybe at the cleverness of his own rhyme, maybe because he thought he was right, maybe because he was picturing squeezing and crushing Salim’s head (I had seen him do it before on his highlight reel,) or hell, he could just be giggling because that’s what Ulfric does. I didn’t know, and honestly I didn’t want to find out.

“HE’S A LIAR!” Salim yelled. “HE’S WRONG! HE’S SICK!”

“Do you want to hear why I’m here?” Ulfric asked.

“Not at the moment,” I said. “Richard, help me hold him back.”

“Got it,” Richard said. We each grabbed one of Salim’s arms and began to drag him away from Ulfric. Salim began kicking and squirming.

During this time, I was forced to look in Ulfric’s face. I didn’t like that, because his face… it’s not ugly, quite the opposite in fact, but there’s something about him that’s just off. Maybe it’s how childish he seems. Maybe it was the constant smile. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it. I especially didn’t like it when Ulfric’s smile grew wider. “I’m here because of all the funny people.” He then let go of Salim’s face.

This surprised me and Richard, giving Salim the opportunity to wrench free with a blood-curdling scream and launch himself at Ulfric. Ulfric then grabbed Salim by the coat and flung him a few yards into the wall. Salim’s torso and head slammed into it, then he slid down a few feet.

Richard and I looked from to Salim, to Ulfric, then finally each other. Ulfric just giggled. I think Salim may have groaned, but the wind drowned it out. After a while, I said, “So it looks like they’re done. I’ll go check on Salim.”

“You do that,” Richard said as he eyed Ulfric warily.

I walked over to Salim. As got closer, I could see his eyes were opened, but unfocused. I shone my flashlight in his eyes. They were different sizes.

“Sssstop it…” he slurred.

“Salim,” I said, “I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.” He nodded. “Ok,” I continued, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“That can’t be right…” he said, staring at my hand.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” I asked again, now scared.

“Eight?” I was holding up three, and only showing him one hand.

“Ok,” I said, “what did we have for breakfast?”

“The same thing we have every day,” Salim said, “that disgusting sludge.”

“Ok,” I said, “close enough.” I reached out my hand. “Come on, let’s get you moving. Don’t want to freeze to death, do you?” It was probably ten below in Farenheit (or -23 Celsius.) I doubt Salim could survive long if we just left him.

“Hey, Jacobs…” I heard Richard say, “I think I see someone.”

I turned around. Richard was pointing his flashlight at a point in the distance. I got up, telling Salim, “Wait here, don’t go to sleep.” I squinted as I walked to where Richard was standing. It took me a while, but I eventually could make out a pale figure with long dark hair in the snow.

“Yeah,” I said to Richard, “I see it too. I’m going to call this clusterfuck in. Unless you want to?”

“Go ahead,” Richard said.

I raised my radio, and looked back at the figure. It was now closer. “Sergeant Burra, come in. Repeat, Sergeant Burra, come in.”

“‘Allo, soldier,” Sergeant Burra’s cheery Australian accent came in over the radio. I could barely here her over the radio. “What’s up?”

“We’re kind of in a weird situation,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on the figure in the distance. “Ulfric and Salim got in a fight, and now Salim is concussed.”

“God’s still looking out for the fools, I see.”

“That isn’t all,” I said. “We’ve got visual contact with a person. Definitely brunette, possibly female Caucasian.”

“How close is she to your position?”

I checked. We were at the shooting range, a little ways away from where the shooters were supposed to stand. The contact was halfway between the wall and the shooter location. “About a hundred fifty to two hundred meters,” I said.

“Huh,” Sergeant Burra said. “That’s unusual. The contact usually keeps about three hundred meters back. Anyway, Spooky’s never hurt anyone so far. Carry on.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but has Spooky ever been closer than three hundred meters before?”

There was silence on the other end for a long time. Finally, Sergeant Burra said, “Continue on your rounds. If there is any change, contact me. Burra out.”

We looked at each other. Finally, Richard said, “I’ll get Salim. You can deal with Spooky.”

I glanced at Ulfric for some reason. A weird, dreamy look was coming over his face. I looked back at Spooky. Spooky was now seventy-five meters away. Now that she was much closer, I could see that Spooky’s hair wasn’t moving, despite the howling wind.

“Richard…” I called out, not taking my eyes off Spooky, “You got Salim yet?”

“Working on it!” he yelled back.

I took out my walky-talky again, and said, “Contact now seventy-five meters, repeat contact is now at seventy-five meters!”
The only response was static. I was now completely freaked. I was also losing feeling in my extremities. “Richard,” I yelled, “We need to go now!” I was now afraid to turn away. Every time I did, Spooky was significantly closer. Maybe she was like that sub-atomic particle that exists in multiple places at once when you don’t look at it.

Maybe Spooky had read my mind, because she (at least, I’m pretty sure Spooky was a she) started walking towards me. I raised my radio, and began yelling, “Contact is coming towards me! Send back-up now! Repeat, send back-up now!”

I began backing away. The snow suddenly picked up and changed directions, and I blinked. That was all the time it took for Spooky to disappear. I turned around clockwise, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Ulfric was still standing with a zoned-out look on his face, and Richard was trying to get Salim up.

When I finished a full rotation, Spooky was back.

Right in front of my face.

She was definitely a she, and she was extremely pale with a weird bluish tinge. Her body looked mildly mummified, but her eyes were somehow still functional. We stared at each other for a moment, her blankly, me in complete terror.

“You don’t trust anyone, do you?” She asked, her voice hoarse and monotone. I shook my head. “Very smart of you,” she said. As I watched, she turned into dust and blew away.

I picked up the radio. “This is Jacobs,” I said. “Boy, do I have a story for you guys.”

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