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 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 11: Nathan Jacobs and the Chamber of Horrors

Things quieted down for a while after that. We still did plenty of firearms training, the daily run, hand-to-combat and various stretches. We also started on first aid like CPR, dealing with concussions, shock, and dealing with bleeding. Not much about stuff you’d have to deal with in the states like allergic reactions and seizures, though.

The weapons-training was getting insane. They started adding random explosions to the mix, moving targets and all sorts of insane stuff, and if we couldn’t do it we would be kept after until we could do it. The only thing we could take breaks for was the run. If we had to miss meals or sleep, then oh well.

There was this one exercise that was the bane of our existence. Targets would run move towards you at huge speeds. You would have an M9 (we had been introduced to pistols at this point) and we’d have to knock them down by shooting them before they could get to us. This wouldn’t be so bad if they were slower. Or if there weren’t so many. We literally needed someone to load the magazine while another person shot the targets, that’s how long we were expected to hold out. Eric and I did it for twelve hours straight, firing so many rounds that we actually overheated a pistol.

The exercises where we had to shoot targets from a distance as they popped up were actually kind of fun, even when the explosions were going off. Especially when explosions were going off. The time when they dragged the M-16s behind the truck without telling us and upping the number of targets we needed to hit while simultaneously lowering the time limit was bullshit, though.

Something disturbing I noticed, (apart from the school’s approach to law and order) was the rapidly lowering temperature. As if this place wasn’t awful enough, it was similar temperature-wise to my home state.

One day, when we were breaking down some FALs and Smith and Wesson revolvers, Doc brought it up. “Man,” he said, “it’s getting so cold!”

We had recently been issued compasses. These particular ones also had analog thermometers. I pulled mine out. “It’s about fifty-five degrees, that’s not too cold.”

“It isn’t fifty-five!” Ray-Gun said. “Fifty-five is what you cook an egg at!”

“Sorry,” I said, “I’m using Fahrenheit. You guys are probably used to Celsius.”

“There are other ways of measuring temperature?” The Monk asked. He seemed genuinely confused by this realization.

“Yeah…” John said, “America uses different measurements for that. It’s probably around thirteen degrees Celsius.”

“That is not much above freezing,” The Monk said. He looked worried.

“It actually is a heck of a lot above freezing,” I said. “At least in American measurements. We think of it as being twenty-three degrees above freezing. You think of it being twelve degrees above freezing.” I paused. “Have you ever been in a place where it was freezing?”

“You mean where water turns hard?” The Monk asked. “No. I have never been in a place like that.”

John, Cross, and I all exchanged looks. We were all from the North Eastern states. It would be arrogant to say we knew cold as we all were well-off enough to afford heating and warm coats. But I was willing to bet we all had been outside in sub-freezing temperatures. “Hopefully,” I said, “we won’t have to deal with doing a run in those temperatures.”

“Very slim hope,” MC Disaster said. He had been cleaning his weapons the entire time. “When we did the campus tour, they told us that it can get down to twenty below. I am pretty sure they meant Celsius.”

I groaned. “I fucking hate the cold!”

Suddenly, Professor Blunt came in over the loudspeaker. “Greetings, maggots!” He said. “Next week is the last week in October! You wimps know what that means!”

Someone shouted out, “No, we don’t!” A few people laughed.

“That’s right!” Blunt said. “It’s time for The Chamber of Horrors!” Half the people there laughed, the other half made noises of disappointment and apprehension.

“Well, that sounds fun!” Both John and I said this at the exact same time and in the exact tone of voice.

Professor Blunt continued on. “For those of you who don’t know what this is, there’s a building by the counselor’s cabin that smells like rotting meat. You dress-up playing little toy soldiers are going to get to visit it, section by section. Also, have you ever wanted a puppy? Well, you’ll be getting more puppies you can fucking handle! It’s a goddamn shame that they’re conditioned to kill anyone they see!”

“Oh joy,” I said. “We get to be in a room filled with rotting meat and rabid dogs.”

“They are probably not rabid,” The Monk said in voice so calm I irrationally wanted to punch him. “They would have to lose too many students to bites. We don’t pay tuition if we die this semester.”

“We’ll still get infected in that place,” John said. “That rotting meat? Has to be filled with germs.”

The rest of the week was very uneventful, although we did have a fire alarm at two in the morning. When that happened, I literally wanted to kill someone. I guessed so did everyone else. We were not told to line up in formation, so oddly enough I ended up overhearing Richard and Kyle talking. Well, more like Richard giving and what remained of his group listening skeptically. They seemed to have (unsurprisingly) taken heavy casualties.

“…These people,” Richard said, “they think they know America. They don’t. And the changes for us they have in store are against everything we stand for! If they want to corrupt their own country, go for it, I won’t stop them, but our country? Hell. No.” He punched his hand for emphasis on the last two words. I turned away. The only other way I would get through the night without punching him would be if the group he was talking about were time-traveling Nazis or something.

Before I knew it, it was the big day. Everyone was called and ordered to line up in parade positions. Professor Blunt was MCing again, which made me wonder if Professor Zemylachka got the big things off to go back to campus and get a few drinks or something. Again, he was guarded by Campus Security in riot gear.

“Here’s how it works,” Professor Blunt said. “We will call you out by section. You will then enter the Chamber of Horrors. After the being cleared by the medical staff, you will return to your bunks without speaking to anyone. While you wait, you must remain in formation! If you want to cheer on your friends, you may! However, you are not allowed to sit or break formation!”

Yay. A long time with Salim standing right next to me.

Surprisingly, it went a lot better than expected, seeing as Salim did not say a word to me. I didn’t want to comment on this or even acknowledge his presence for fear of him ceasing to ignore me.

We stayed like this for quite a long time. I would say that each group was in there about an average of two hours. I also noticed that each group took a long time, maybe an average of two hours, to go in. Also, I noticed that they seemed to be saving the Seven for last. I didn’t really comment on that with Eric.

There was also the screaming. I really didn’t like the screaming. There was also some shouting from the Chamber of Horrors, as well as a few growls, yips, howls, and other dog noises, but the screaming was much worse. However, after several hours of waiting, just standing was worse. I would shift weight from one foot to the other to balance out the pain.

Another pattern I noticed was that the only person who didn’t seem uncomfortable was Ulfric. Well, he was a little antsy, but I got the feeling that he wanted to be in the Chamber of Horrors. Every time there was a scream, he’d giggle. Every time a group would pass, he’d say, “Good luck! Have fun!”

By the time our section had been called, the sun had set and risen again. Judging by the fact I had stopped being hungry without eating anything, I only had missed lunch and dinner.

When we started moving, my legs burned with pain. Of course, that had been how they felt before, so nothing much had changed. Judging by the occasional groan I heard from other people, I wasn’t the only one.

After the traditional well-wishes from Ulfric, a group of Campus Security directed us to the Chamber. As we got closer, we began to smell rotting meat. Not the rotting meat smell you get from shipping a steak via the post office, but the kind of smell when you’ve left something out so long not even vultures or maggots would want to get into it.

We got onto a ramp leading to the building’s door. The door itself was like the vault door of a bank: large, circular, and imposing. The smell inside made us all gag. Now, to give you some perspective, of the twenty or so people in the group, I think I might have been the only one to have come from what an average American would have called “the good life.” I can’t say that Eric and his group were the norm, but they were probably closer to the norm than I was. One, I was pretty sure had talked about how he had worked in a slaughterhouse. Still, none of us could deal with the stench.

“Here it is,” one of the guards said. “Get in.”

“Are you kidding?” The guy who had worked in the slaughterhouse asked. “This is the definition of unsanitary!” That surprised me. The stories he told about that place had been downright nightmarish. If he didn’t think something was sanitary, the meat probably turned toxic long before today.

In response, our escort cocked their weapons. Six P90s and two M-249 LMGs were now primed and pointed at us. “Ok,” I said, a little bitterly, “we get the picture.” I walked up the ramp, flipping the guards off as I did so. “Hope you enjoy your sleep tonight.”

“You will thank us one day,” one of the guards said. The only response he got was someone spitting at him. They did not react.

The interior of the Chamber of Horrors was every bit as nightmarish as the name suggested it was. I’ll start with the nicer parts and work my way up to the horrifying stuff.

The room was composed of animal parts lit by fluorescent lights. Towers of chopped-up cows and pigs were piled everywhere. The towers were of varying heights. Some were only up to my waist, some only stopped at the ceiling. This contrasted rather strangely with the cleanroom feel of the white walls. Looking at these meat mountains, however was better than considering what we were standing in.

You see, the reason we had to go up about a half a story was because there was an unidentified liquid or goo covering the floor that went up a bit past my shins. It was a strange, sickly green substance. On the one hand, its consistency saved my much-abused knees from the drop. On the other, it was completely unidentifiable and felt like Jell-O. Blood and the bodies of some of the previous people floated on top of it, as well as various dogs.

However, that still wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the smell. It was probably the most awful thing you could ever smell, the stink literally burning my nostrils. Many people, even the slaughterhouse guy, vomited instantly upon entering the room. The vomit, like the dog and people corpses, floated in the unidentifiable muck. People would then try to move towards the vomit and blood because that smell was better than the room’s ambient stench.

I sat on a pile on a nearby pile of rotting meat. “Killer!” Eric said, after he was done removing what little food he had left in his stomach, “What is wrong with you?”

“My knees are killing me,” I said, “and I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to climb those,” I pointed to one of the taller meat mountains, “if we’re going to live.”

“He is right,” Salim said. Everyone turned to face him. His burned, eyepatched face was glowering as usual, though this time it wasn’t directed at a person. I followed his gaze. He was looking at a camera. “They,” he said, referring to our educators, “think it is easy to kill. They believe surviving is harder. They are giving us two choices: either do something more distasteful than killing or die. Either way, they win.”

“My take?” I said. “We get to choose if we win as well.” I stood up, which was a mistake. After my spasm of pain, I said, “When the dogs come in, these meat mountains should provide some defense. Also gives us a chance to find a bone or something to use as a weapon.”

“Distasteful as it is agreeing with you,” Salim said, “you are right.”

“Do we really have to climb these?” Someone else asked. “Can’t we just make our stand here?”

“I am no detective,” Eric said, “But there seems to be a lot of bodies down in this goop, and not a lot on the piles.” He walked a bit further into the room. “Now, the bodies could have floated away, but most of the dog corpses are around the base of or on the piles. Most of the dead people… are where we are currently standing.” He shrugged. “Maybe I am wrong, but I want to be in a place that kills more dogs than people.”

As soon as he finished speaking, an alarm began to blare. Everyone began to clamber up a meat mountain. I went to the one Eric and his crew were heading for. Before I started climbing, I asked them, “Did you bring your weapons?”

“Yes, my friend,” The Monk said. “However, you will have to find your own weapon.” As I climbed, I looked for a suitable weapon. Finally, I found a large bone. It was wedged in really tight. Instead of doing the smart thing and waiting, I pulled harder.

“Leave it, you fool!” Doc yelled.

He was too late. As soon as he finished calling me a fool, it popped out. I had been using my legs as a brace, so I fell backwards. There honestly was no way I could have regained my balance, so the fact that half the meat mountain fell away just added insult to injury.

I hit the green sludge at the bottom with a sickening splat. I opened my mouth to yell, letting a large gob of it in. I don’t think there are any words for how vile it tasted. I struggled to my feet. Every time I opened my eyes, the goop leaked in, burning them. At least my glasses were fine. I could still see.

After I was done gagging and spitting, I noticed something odd. The alarm had stop blaring. Then I heard the howl.

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Track 4: And Now I Bite The Dust

I didn’t meet John at the predetermined time. I had the suspicion that either John had come in while I was talking to Bai and Eliza or had seen them leave. The next time I saw him was in line for lunch. “Hey, John,” I said, holding out my hand for him to shake. Grasped between two fingers was a highly folded piece of paper. “Good luck tonight.”

We shook hands, and the paper was gone. On it, I had written “Someone’s watching me. Avoid yin-yang dragons + scary cockneys.” The reason it was so brief was because I wanted the paper to be as small as possible to avoid people spotting it. I had the sneaking suspicion that Eliza was just better at the spy stuff then I was, because I hadn’t spotted her outside of the dorm before today. Now, I’d only catch glimpses of her. She was almost never looking directly at me, but usually she’d theoretically be able to see me out of the corner of her eye.

That scared me. Anyone here could be watching me. That made me wonder: did Amir and Dick only show up when I noticed them? Or had they also been watching me? Also, did Sergeant Krieger keep an eye on me? Was anyone watching John? My mind was so full of paranoid ramblings that I was having a hard time keeping down lunch’s serving of diarrhea.

I went back to my barracks, trying desperately not to think about who could be watching, home, or the building pressure in my head. As I headed back past a crowd milling around, unsure what to do with the day’s freedom (apparently, the novelty outweighed the fact that rain was falling harder than ever,) I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I wanted to dismiss it, but the events of today had taught me that paranoia was probably proper.

I turned around. Staring directly at me was Mubashir. I probably shouldn’t have run back to my barracks. My headache and my stomach were feeling worse, and my breathing was increasing in rapidity.

“Hey!” One of the Entertainer’s friends, a taller fellow who seemed like his food intake had been the closest to adequate as a child, had interrupted me from the surprisingly engaging task of hyperventilating in the fetal positon. “You don’ look well,” he said in rapid-fire English.

I looked up at him. I must have looked like a ghost, with my hair and beard messier than usual and my glasses slightly askew. Or like I’d seen one. I carefully considered my response. I finally said, “Some really scary people have taken an interest in me for the wrong reasons. Don’t be surprised if I die.”

For some reason, it felt good to tell him that. I know everyone tells you that helps, but it always surprises you when it actually works. “Can you talk about it?” the other guy asked.

I shook my head. “It’d probably be better if you don’t know about it.” He shrugged, and began sharpening the various shivs he had fashioned using a rock and the knife The Entertainer had taken from Dumbass.

I didn’t speak to anyone else until Fight Night began. We had been herded into the cafeteria to eat dinner. The conversation was louder than usual, so loud that you couldn’t even tell that dozens of languages were being spoken. You could still hear the trucks roll in and the audio get tested, though.

When they finally let us out, John instantly found me. “What the fuck’s going on, Nate?” he asked.

“Fight Night,” I said.

“No, I mean with you,” he said, as the chorus from Kanye West’s POWER began to blare. “I know you think your cover is blown, but why? What happened?”

“I walked in on two girls having a sparring match. One of them had been straight-up stalking me,” I said. Some people were beginning to rap along with Kanye. We still were near the back of the line to get out, so I felt confident about talking. Plus I couldn’t stop. “Well, more like observing me. She knows too much, she’s got some kind of experience in fighting and surveillance, and she’s got at least one friend who’s as scary as she is.”

John’s eyes suddenly went wide. “Is she a tall red-head?” I nodded. “Fuck me,” he said, “that’s why I didn’t make it. I was heading towards the meeting, then she walks out of Barracks 3 and makes eye contact with me.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“’E makes this completely subtle U-turn back to the canteen,” a familiar voice behind me remarked sarcastically. “’Least this means you aren’t the only one ‘oo’s fieldcraft is complete shite, Nate.”

John and I turned around slowly. There was Eliza with that calculating look on her face. Her eyes were smiling. “Please don’t do that again,” I said. “That was scarier than anything Sergeant Krieger could do.”

“Speaking of the good Sergeant,” Eliza said, “’e’s another person ‘oo’s been paying attention to you.”

When we finally got outside, POWER had ended and Pompeii was starting to play. By this time the crowd was dozens deep and the only way I could tell what was going on was by looking over everyone’s head to the TVs. They were showing Professor Blunt in his camo baseball cap, NIU T-shirt and fatigue pants. His slightly chubby baby face was a remarkable contrast to the rest of his powerful body and contemptuous glare. I could also see that he was in the center of the parade grounds, surrounded by Campus Security in riot gear. They seemed to be holding a square in the ground and a pathway back to the five barracks.

“Listen up, you newborn pansy-ass sacks of fresh shit!” Professor Blunt yelled. “We’re here this night to have you undergo your first real step to becoming a freshman at NIU!” He turned around to look at us. “You see, you crying infants entering the ACMSA and Shadowhaven are soft. Maybe you’re a little harder than the fucking Leadershit and Business majors, but not much!”

A few people booed at this point. “Oh,” Professor Blunt asked, “Do the sweet, pwecious liddle babies think I’m being unfair? WELL, HERE’S YOUR FUCKING CHANCE TO PROVE ME WRONG!” The crowd roared. Judging by the reaction, I was starting to see why Campus Security was here in such force. They were deliberately provoking riot conditions, and they knew it.

“Also,” he said much more quietly, though the microphone still carried his voice, “if any of you want to get off this island or out this program, there are two ways. You either finish our basic training or you escape.” He then switched back to yelling, “Either way, the only for you to leave this crappy excuse for an island is to become one of the most BADASS, SCARIEST, MOTHERFUCKERS ON THE PLANET!”

The crowd roared. “US ARMY RANGERS’LL SHIT THEIR PANTS WHEN THEY SEE YOU!” The crowd roared again. I thought I could hear something along the lines of Maalintii Rangers, which I knew from reading Black Hawk Down. Apparently, we had a few Somalians here today.

“THE SAS MAY DARE, BUT THEY DAMN WELL WON’T WIN AGAINST YOU!” Again, the crowd roared. I looked to see where Eliza was, but she’d disappeared, probably to appear when it would most likely scare me to death.

“AND THE SPETSNATZ WILL FEAR YOU MORE THAN A HUNDRED SIMO HAYHAS!” Again, everyone roared. I had no idea if people were roaring in approval, disbelief, anger, or simply because everyone else was screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs. On the screens, I could see people pushing against campus security to get in.

Professor Blunt waited for the noise to calm down a bit. “Now, before we begin tonight’s event, we should review the rules. First off, all rules about hurting another slice of cannon fodder are suspended while you’re fighting. You hit someone and they die, they die. Unless you got the first kill, then you get ice cream!”

In response, someone yelled out, “Can we get chocolate?” Professor Blunt yelled back, laughing somewhat, “You can get any flavor you want, you sick fuck!” People laughed.

“The second rule,” he said, “is that fights start when I say they start and stop when I say they stop. Not before, not after. If you don’t listen, I tase your ass, you understand? Also, we reserve the right to take away anything you bring with you into the ring.” Someone in the crowd yelled out, “Let’s get this started!” Other people yelled out other encouragements to get a move-on in every language known to man.

“So, those are the rules!” Professor Blunt said. “Now, you pathetic piles of pansies are probably patiently waiting for the first contestants! Well, Sergeant Krieger has a request!” My heart fell. This couldn’t be good.

“Can’t say this first fight will be any good,” Professor Blunt said. Right on cue, two pictures came up on the screen by the feed. They were student IDs of two people. One was of Richard Forrest Taylor the Third, sneering into the camera. The other was of me, with my hair messier than usual and looking extremely jet-lagged.

“I mean, look at these assholes,” Professor Blunt proclaimed. “They look like they’d collapse IF YOU TAPPED THEM ON THE FUCKING SHOULDER!” The crowd gave a mean chuckle. John gave me a sympathetic look. Before he could wish me luck, Professor Blunt added an afterthought, “Do me a favor, maggots, and bring them to the ring, ok?”

Instantly, the guy who I believed to be Somalian turned and spotted me. He yelled something that might have been English, but was so broken I couldn’t tell. He then grabbed me and started to push me to the center. He bumped against someone, who began to yell at us in what I think was Italian. Then he saw me.

Instantly, people began grabbing me and pushing and pulling towards the ring. That would have been bad enough, but they were also yelling at me. None of it was encouragement.

“Yankee! You die!”

“Last long enough for me to grind you into paste, yeah?”

“You die like dog! You die like dog!”

I decided that the best thing I could do at the moment was tune it all out. The first time I had ever been performing in front of a large group of people (and that’s what this, really, a performance,) I had been a little nervous before hand. So, for the hour before I went on the “stage” (it had been a repurposed college classroom, and I had been doing a stand-up in front of my computer camp, but anyway…) I spent the time telling my jokes to a brick wall. No script, no observers, just me and some cinderblocks. During that time, I pretended the bricks were the audience. When I actually got there, I pretended the audience was the brick wall. Which was hard, because my audience actually liked my performance and was very easy to interact with.

Anyway, the point was to tune out the audience. Take deep breaths, find something in your mind’s eye to replace reality with something less scary. For instance, I decided to pretend the crowd wasn’t there, and it was completely empty like it was when I normally came back.

When Campus Security finally let me in, I was actually the calmest I’d been all day. I was still pissing myself in terror, but that was better than ruminating myself into an ulcer.

“Well, you finally made it!” Professor Blunt yelled. He strode over to me, microphone in hand. “Well, you may be a little lazy lollygagger, but at least you aren’t late! Since you’re here so early, do you have any words for you opponent?”

He tilted the microphone towards me. I scanned the crowd, then said, “You’re late.” It was all I could think of. I must have sounded more confident than I felt because the crowd ooohed like some 80’s action hero had dropped a clever one-liner.

Then, on the opposite side of the ring, Richard broke through campus security. “You think you’re hot stuff?” he yelled. “I’ve had enough of your uppitiness!”

I went into a fighting stance instantly. It’s the most common one in Tae Kwon-do. Your feet form a sort of L-shape, and your body is angled so that only one shoulder faces your opponent. You keep your hands up, the far one to cover your chest, the front one to protect your head. The nice thing about this stance, as well as covering all points, is that you can do any move in Tae Kwon-do. In the classes I took, we used it so much that I guess it became reflex.

Richard, for his part, was more aggressive. He didn’t even wait for Professor Blunt to yell “Fight!” before he ran back to me. I just waited. When he was in range, I did a stepping-behind sidekick, the blade of my foot hitting him in the stomach. I stumbled back into the ring of Campus Security and students, only to be pushed forwards. I barely maintained my balance.

Richard, on the other hand, fell face first into the mud. It took me a bit to realize that I was standing on the back of his head. I backed off quickly, allowing him to pull his face out with a disgusting squelch.

“Are you ok?” I asked as he struggled to his feet.

His response, after looking staring at me in shock for a few seconds, was to make an inhuman sound that was like a mix between a scream and a growl. I backpedaled quickly as he began swinging wildly. Finally, one hit me on the side of my head, knocking off my glasses.

A switch in my head finally flipped on. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t scared. It was something just as basic, though. You see, most people have this particular switch switched to the setting that says “you shouldn’t hurt people.” That’s a good thing. That’s why society functions. Now mine was switched to the “hurt anyone who fucks with you” setting. At some point, I would realize that the entire point of this exercise was to do that. At an even later point I would realize that that made me kind of a shitty human being.

In the moment, however, I wasn’t thinking about philosophy. I simply returned the favor, hitting him as hard as I could in the nose. His head snapped back, and I used the opportunity to punch him in the throat, then again in the stomach. He fell on his back and moaned.

I used this opportunity to search for my glasses. It was very hard because without them I can barely see. It must have taken a good five minutes to find them and wipe them off on my shirt. After that, I turned back to where Richard was struggling to get up.

“Are you done?” I asked as he was using his elbows to prop himself up.

“Fuck you!” he spat out, his voice raspy and oddly slurred. He was now covered entirely in mud except for some red leaking out of his mouth and nose.

I stomped on his face. It fell back into the mud with an awful, yet satisfying, spluch sound. “Let me give you a slight hint,” I said, feeling really tired of the whole stupid exercise, “The correct answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

“No!”

I sighed, and brought my foot down on his ribs. There was a crack, and I felt his bones break a bit. Richard screamed. “Wrong answer,” I said, slightly annoyed. I began walking around him. I was surprised at how annoyed I was by all this. Here I was, giving him every opportunity to give up, but he just wasn’t taking them. Judging by the fact that he was still lying in the mud, bleeding and disoriented, and I was standing, he was clearly outmatched. My next stomp was on his hand. He howled.

“Oh come on,” I said, “I didn’t even break anything that time.”

I waited for a few seconds to see if he’d come to his senses. The crowd didn’t like that, so I stomped his hip. “Next one is going to be to your balls,” I said. The crowd roared in approval at that.

“You wouldn’t…” Richard slurred/rasped. The crowd nearby ooohed like he had just handed out some sick burn. I proved him wrong. He made a squeaking sound and curled forwards.

“Give up or I do it again,” I growled. He stared at me defiantly. I rolled my eyes and raised my boot again. “Wait, wait, wait,” he called out, “I give, ok! You win!”

“And Nathan Jacobs wins!” Professor Blunt called out. Two people came running into the ring from the direction of the barracks, dressed in white fatigues marked with the Red Cross. Their faces were obscured by white surgical masks, but they looked like upperclassmen. One opened up a stretcher, and the other began checking Richard. “Huh,” Richard’s attendant said to me, “you went easy on him, didn’t you?” Richard and I stared at him in shock.

“But I broke his rib,” I said, speaking slowly for emphasis.

The medic shrugged. “Probably only cracked,” he said. “Anyway, add in the concussion, bloody nose, stomped balls,” he grabbed the hand I had stomped on and squeezed it, eliciting a scream, “and broken hand, this guy seems kind of lucky.”

“Huh,” the other medic said, then said something to the first medic in some Eastern European-sounding language (I hesitate to say Russian because I don’t know what Russian sounds like, apart from TV shows.) The first medic replied back in the same language, then turned to Richard. “Alright, looks like you’re walking.”

I watched, somewhat stunned, as they dragged Richard to his feet and began carrying him back to the barracks. Were they trying to have fatalities?

I was distracted as an unfamiliar song with a thumping bass line came on. Richard had barely been dragged out of the arena when Professor Blunt called out, “And next up, we have Amir Al-Answari! Can our boy Nate start a streak, or will our first winner of the night end up our first death of the night?”

Ok, that was bad. That was very bad. Either it would be the Amir I knew and he’d probably be a lot less stupid than Richard, or it would be a different Amir who had no interest in converting me to some cause. At least it would take some time for him to get here.

As soon as finished thinking this thought, Amir called out to me, “So it seems I am your next opponent.” I turned around. Amir had just walked through the cordon of campus security. He must have been only one or two people deep.

As he walked out into the courtyard, I noticed two things about him. First was that his body language seemed somewhat contrite. Second was that, while he normally talked with both of his hands as well as his mouth, one hand was out of sight and his body was angled to facilitate that.

“The crowd seems to want blood,” Amir commented. I couldn’t confirm that because so few people seemed to be speaking English (and even if they were, the number of voices and volume would make it easy to drown out any meaning,) but the intent was clear.

“Are you planning on giving it to them?” I asked. Amir began walking away from the guards. Apparently, he didn’t trust the crowd to start beating him up if I pushed him out of the ring, or maybe I was just projecting my fears onto him.

“It depends,” Amir said. “If you convert to Islam and pledge to my cause, I will do my best not to kill you.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, realizing that I was probably signing my death warrant, “but my position is still the same.”

“You would really die for this filth?” Amir asked sadly, obviously talking about the music. “Surely there are better things to die for.”

“Not this,” I said, “though it is kind of gAUGH!” I didn’t get to finish because Amir had chucked the rock in his pocket at my head. It hit me between the eyes with enough force for me to stumble backwards and my vision to go black for a second.

That second was all it took for Amir to close the distance between us. My eyes opened just as his hands closed around my neck. I fell back, Amir on top of me. My first instinct was to flail wildly at Amir’s face. I hit his face several times. He didn’t flinch. In fact, he had the same disappointed look on his face, and had kept it up throughout. It was actually kind of creepy. The pressure he was exerting on my throat should have come with some kind of effort or anger on his part, not… annoyance.

“I am sorry to do this to you,” Amir said sadly. While he was talking I began looking for something to turn the tide. I did not want to die here, drowning in mud. Meanwhile Amir continued talking, “You are not a bad person, at least by your own standards. Also, you have some intelligence. It is a shame that that will be the first to go.”

That was when I saw it out of the corner of my eye. Maybe it was the rock Amir had thrown, maybe it was a different one. Either way, I knew what to do with it.

“Amir…” I choked out has my hand wrapped around it. He looked at me strangely, like he hadn’t heard me, so I tried saying his name again.

He leaned in closer. “What is it?” he asked.

“…not… over…” I managed to choke out. Amir smiled sadly and shook his head. He opened his mouth, but I never heard what he was going to say. My blow connected with a sickening thwack! Amir’s grip loosened and he collapsed sideways as I screamed out in pain. Something sticky splashed into my eyes, blinding me, and my blow had seemed hard enough to break my hand.

I struggled to my feet, gasping for air. At some point, the rock had fallen from my hand because I couldn’t hold on to it. Blinking rapidly to clear my eyes, I turned to look at Amir.

I immediately turned away. Amir’s eyes were open, but they were glassy. There was a hole leaking blood on the side of his face from where I had hit him. The liquid that had blinded me temporarily must have been his blood.

“And we have a winner!” Professor Blunt called out. “You maggots are going to have to step it up! This kid claims to have never been in a fight in his life, and look what he’s done!” It seemed Professor Blunt was warming up to me now that it seemed like I might live. Medics came in. I noticed they weren’t running. I also notice that they were different from the previous two. I was too busy trying to breathe to care.

“So, doc,” Professor Blunt asked after a bit, “Do we have our first kill of the evening?” One of the medics laughed. “Ja,” he said, “Mr. Jacobs gave our friend quite the love tap with that rock, eh?”

My stomach turned over. I didn’t mean to kill Amir. I didn’t really like him, but he wasn’t really the worst person in the camp. Not exactly the best person either, but I don’t think I should have killed him. I forced myself to watch as the two medics stuffed Amir into a body bag and loaded him onto a stretcher. The crowd, however, didn’t go silent. Instead they continued to roar and push against the ring of Campus Security.

Professor Blunt strode over to me. “So, Jacobs!” he said, still being really loud, “What is your secret? How did you manage to beat the odds and win twice in a row?”

I took a breath and tried to clear my mind. All I could come up with was “I… I killed him. I killed him, didn’t I?”

Professor Blunt looked me over, then said, at a more reasonable volume, “Yeah. What about it?”

“It… isn’t it wrong? Killing people?”

“I was actually hoping you’d ask that,” Professor Blunt asked. The crowd, while still deafening, was calming down. They seemed to be interested. “You see,” Professor Blunt said, somehow addressing both me and everyone in the audience, “morality isn’t exactly the most objective thing in the world. Ask yourself this, Jacobs: If you hadn’t hit the late Amir Al-Answari’s head with a rock, would you be alive for people to judge?”

“Wouldn’t you have stopped him?” I asked.

Professor Blunt just laughed. “Come on, greenie,” he said, “ask me a real question! Maybe ask if you needed to swing as hard as you did, or if you could have tried to blind him.

“These dumbass superheroes,” he continued, his voice dripping with contempt, “in these baby books with pictures, always talk about how ‘there’s always another way. We don’t have to kill people.’” His voice raised to a yell so loud, it caused feedback. “VIOLENCE IS A TOOL!” He then dropped back to his normal shoutiness. “Yes, it can cause problems. Yes, it can be used immorally, whatever that means to you. But there are some people who just don’t listen. Some people can’t be reasoned with, they can’t be bargained with, and actively seek to hurt you or things you care about. The only way to deal with these people is with force.

“The thing about using force, however, is you need to accept the reality that some sons of bitches need to die! Anyone who believes otherwise should consider leaving BECAUSE THIS IS NOT THE PROGRAM FOR YOU!”

The thing about the speech, which still sticks with me, is that it’s right. At least, in principle. There are some people who will refuse to listen. Amir, for instance, decided that killing me would be the best option, for whatever reason. Hitting him with the rock was the best option for that situation.

But the situation wasn’t a naturally occurring one. In fact, it was engineered so that someone would die. That was wrong.

I only had a little time to consider this before Professor Blunt spoke up again. “Now that that’s out of the way,” he said, “let’s talk about what’s next!”

That couldn’t be good. My breathing and vision were returning to normal, but my hand was still hurting. The best-case scenario was that I got some pushover. The scary thing, though, was that I couldn’t even begin to guess at the worst-case.

“You see,” Professor Blunt said, “We understand that you little shits lose focus easily. Instead of curing you of this incredible failing before Fight Night, we like to try and keep you entertained. To do that, we try to pair you up with people that you know!”

I think I might have said the “oh crap” out loud as well as thinking it. First off, I should have picked up on this. Secondly, this was worst-case. If they knew, they could make John and me fight to the death, then suborn whichever of us was still standing.

“Don’t worry,” Professor Blunt said, “we’ll try to avoid making you fight your friends. We at NIU think friendship is an important part of life, and we don’t want to break any.”

I wasn’t relieved. “…Who,” I asked cautiously, “am I going to be fighting?”

“Now that,” the Professor said, “is something I’m pretty fucking excited about!”

Oh fuck me, I thought. I had an idea of where this was going.

“Of the two thousand people who come to this program every year,” the Professor said, “only a few are bad ass enough to be guaranteed to survive. This is one of them.”

Fuuuuuck me…

“This girl is only eighteen, and yet we’ve been able to confirm she’s killed five people with her bare hands! She’s proficient with her fists, pistols, and knives!” A picture of a red-haired girl with a calculating look in her green eyes and a cold smirk on her face appeared on the screen.

Knew it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm hand to Eliza Henderson!” In retrospect, I should have expected this. It was almost like a videogame. First, you have the weak enemy. Then comes in the miniboss. Then the true boss fight.

I spent the next few minutes trying to calm down. I also decided to stand in the center to get a better view of what was going on. I was waiting long enough for me to start to gain cool, then begin to lose it again. While I waited, I noticed that my hand wasn’t feeling any better. I wasn’t sure whether to hope for it to be broken or Lady Macbeth Syndrome.

When Eliza finally got there, I was developing the paranoid belief that she was deliberately taking her time to psych me out. I actually saw her walk through the guard line just as “Rumor Has It” by Adele began playing. That helped. On the other hand, the fact that she had that grin on her face really didn’t.

“And… FIGHT!” Professor Blunt called out. I got in a fighting stance, waiting for her to charge.

Instead, she walked over to me, like she had just been called over by an old friend. “’Allo, mate,” she said cheerily.

“Hi…” I said, extremely freaked.

Eliza picked up on it. “Why’re you so tense?” she asked. “You’ve been doin’ quite the job so far.”

“Does… does this mean you’re not going to hurt me too bad?” I asked.

Eliza shook her head. “Come on, Nate,” she said, “we both know that the only way you’re getting outta here is on a stretcher.”

That wasn’t reassuring. “So why aren’t you attacking me?” I asked.

“I must confess,” Eliza said, still seeming very friendly, “I’ve noticed something about you. You never make the first move.” She waited a minute, then, when I didn’t respond, she said, “So I’m interested in what happens when you’re forced to go first.”

“So you’re toying with me,” I said.

“You could say that,” she said, nodding a bit.

Something was off here. She just saw me kill someone, but she didn’t seem worried. That seemed… bad. I really didn’t want to bank on her underestimating me. So I decided could distract her.

“Don’t you think you’re underestimating me?” I asked. She laughed. I used that opportunity to hook my forward leg around one of hers and throw a jab.

Her response was two-fold. Instead of countering or avoiding my leg sweep, she stepped back, forcing me into a painful split. Simultaneously, she grabbed my hand doing the jab in an iron grip. She took my follow-up punch on the chin, but that was with the hand I had hurt. I grunted with pain. She barely flinched.

“Little tip, Nate,” she said as she put her forward foot on my ribcage, “if you’re going to get your opponent monologuing, wait until they start.” She pulled. There was shluck sound as my arm was pulled out of its socket and my world went white with pain.

When my vision cleared, I was on my side in a fetal position. Two people, one man, one woman, were looking at me. The man seemed to be very exicted. I tried to get up with my right arm. Pain from my hand shot through me, which was saying something seeing how it was too hard to think. The woman, her face framed by red hair, said something. The man began yelling even louder.

I tried moving my left arm. Nothing except more pain. The woman said something again. I tried focusing on what she was saying. “…do it, Nate…”

Ok, so apparently standing was good. Or was it? Standing seemed good, regardless of whether or not the red-headed woman approved or not. With that in mind, I got to my feet, using my right hand as little as possible. The shouty man was shouting harder, and the woman was shaking her head.

“You unbelievable fucking wanker,” she said, somewhat in awe. I stared at her uncomprehendingly for a few moments. Then I blacked out.

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Track of the Day

Track 3: Preparing for Fight Night

As I mentioned before, Nowhere Island is an L-shaped sandbar. On the corner is an airfield that heads west towards the main campus. The main campus itself is kind of a small town. I know this because we run through it twice every day on our run. It’s gated off and is on a raised, rocky area, probably in case of attack. The buildings inside are that fusion of Modern and early 20th century architecture that schools back home tend to be nowadays: all brick, but with huge glass windows for the lobbies. However, looking at how weathered the bricks are, one tends to get the feeling that they’re from way before the style became popular. Also, the non-lobby windows tend to be smaller, more like murder holes in old castles. My guess is that in a pinch every building there can be turned into a bunker of some sort.

I’m not the best judge, but I’ve heard some people say that up to 20,000 people could be in that section. I guess I can see that, because except for some of the staff houses, the living quarters seem to be mostly multi-story apartment-style buildings.

To top it off, on the gate that led to the campus, there was written in bronze: “Any man may rob a railcar, but an educated man may steal the entire railway.” After the first run, I started hearing people joke that the gate to our camp should read “Arbeit macht frei.”

Speaking of our camp, it was quite different from the campus. On one side were five large buildings, designed to hold 200 people each. Opposite that were the cafeteria and the showers. To the south (that was actually one of the things we had learned, how to tell directions based on the sun and stars,) were the staff quarters, an armory, and a mysterious building which smelled like rotting carcasses called “The Chamber of Horrors.” In the center was the parade ground with a dirt floor. (Well, currently it was a mud floor.) That was where Fight Night would take place. Surrounding it was a wall that was meant more as a token defense than as a way to keep people in or out. Strange as it sounded, everyone wanted to be here.

That didn’t mean we didn’t complain. Popular topics of our moaning included grueling physical labor, baking heat, our instructors, the near-constant torrential rains, and our fellow students. These complaints were not without reason. Each one of these topics seemed like it was actively trying to kill us.

As John and I walked through the gates, completely out of breath, an announcement from the loudspeakers played. It was from the Head of the Advanced Combat & Military Science Academy, Professor Blunt. Great. Just what we needed to hear while being pelted by rain so heavy it felt like we were swimming.

“So you candy-ass fresh meat are all finally here!” Yep, he was another drill sergeant, all right. “Well, we’ve got a real treat for all you ladies! You get the rest of the day off for R&R! That means a whole day of hopscotch and knitting for you before you finally get your first real fight. Or maybe that isn’t tame enough for you snowflakes, I don’t know. Meals are at the usual time!”

“This has been another inspirational message from Professor Blunt,” I said. “If this message has made you feel uncomfortable in any way, you may call our toll free number 1-800-URAPANSY.” I must have said it louder than I intended because John wasn’t the only one who laughed. Sergeant Krieger, who was only slightly farther ahead of me, didn’t seem to care. Someone else did.

“You’re a funny guy, aren’t you, Jew-boy?” the voice asked. I stiffened. I would have kept moving, but John had stopped as well. John turned around slowly, and I did as well, wiping off my glasses. Whatever was happening, I wanted to be able to see.

“I’m sorry,” John asked, “but who the fuck are you?” We were face-to-face with the kind of person you see in old Army recruitment posters. I suppose his hair was too dark for a Nazi recruiting poster, but he was more KKK. He also did kind of look a bit like a younger version of those old Civil War Generals, I suppose.

“This is Richard Forest Taylor the… third, I think?” I said. He nodded. I continued on. “A few days ago, I was saying how I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. He suggested I join what he views as a prestigious part of American heritage. I call it the KKK.”

“I see.” John said. He was breathing harder now, and I doubted all of it was because of the marathon.

Richard, or Dick, as I liked to call him, cut in. “I like,” he said, “with all your limp-wristed talk of respecting others, you still talk over me.” Normally, I would have tried to reason with him, or point out that he hadn’t been saying anything, or maybe even walked away. However, I had just run twenty-five kilometers, I hadn’t eaten or showered, it was raining, and I had not had enough sleep. So, in retrospect, I think I can be forgiven for asking him, “Who fucking said anything about respecting you, bedsheet-face?”

In the moment, however, Richard called me uppity and something that begins with K, while punching me in the face. John, in response to that, tackled Richard and began rapidly punching him before I had time to process anything.

I didn’t really know how to react then. On the one hand, I wanted to ask John to move out of the way so I could take a turn beating the crap out of him. On the other, I felt my duty as a good human being would be to say something like, “That’s enough, John.”

“What’s this, eh?” Sergeant Krieger asked. I nearly crapped my pants and made a note to add motherfucking ninja to the good sergeant’s list of skills. Also, a few people were stopping to watch the show. Showers could wait, apparently.

John stood up, and looked directly in Krieger’s face. To his credit, he managed not to look scared. “The fucker on the ground insulted my friend and punched him in the face.”

“The ad’ole provoked de!” Richard shouted through a bloody nose, pointing at me. His eyes also kind of looked like at least one would be puffy in a few hours.

“By ‘provoking,’” I said acidly, “he means ‘responding to his BS.’”

Krieger regarded each of us with a disturbing intensity. Whatever animosity we felt towards each other, however intense, we all had a feeling that Krieger wanted us to put it on hold. Continuing hostilities would… annoy him. Annoying Krieger would result in the offending parties watching bemusedly as their blood watered the grass.

“Names.” I suppose it was a question, but it sounded more like a threat. A threat from Krieger was something you took seriously. We told him. Richard, I noticed, didn’t mention his middle name or the fact that he was version 3.0. I guess he realized that Krieger wouldn’t be impressed.

Finally, he came to a decision. “All right,” he said, pointing to us, “you two go shower.” He pointed to Richard. “You go to the canteen and get some ice.” Not being stupid, we obeyed. Apparently, they let people in the Soldier programs off easy for fighting, especially in basic training. As long as you could still fight, they were ok with it.

“Meet me behind the barracks after we eat,” John whispered to me as we headed off to shower. It made sense. While I had normally spent all my running with John, I spent mealtimes trying to talk to people. I didn’t want to break this streak for fear of attracting attention.

I was in the middle of my shower when Amir sauntered up to the shower head next to me. Amir was… very different from Richard. He was Al-Qaeda, so I suppose there were some similarities. However, unlike his cronies (he seemed to be the senior Al-Qaeda guy here,) his was an almost cordial hate. Whenever he talked to me, he would usually ask if I wanted to convert and join Al-Qaeda. I would decline. He would then politely threaten my life, then segue into polite conversation. Even his compatriots in terrorism thought he was odd. They just wanted to kill me and have done with it.

“So,” he asked, “have you given any thought to your future?”

“You’ll be happy to know I’ve ruled out Mossad,” I said, somewhat jokingly. He brightened, his foxlike face seeming hopeful. “Does this mean you’ve considered my proposal?” he asked, attempting to be neutral.

“Not really,” I said. “I figure law enforcement’s my speed. I was thinking FBI or Interpol, maybe UNIX.”

“Amir…” another Arabic-looking person asked cautiously, “what is this accomplishing?” He then asked another question in Arabic. It was a question that Amir’s men asked a lot around me, and I believed it could be translated as “Why don’t we just kill him?” I could be wrong, I don’t really speak Arabic, but the context was usually with one of them brandishing a shank in my direction.

I tried not to look, but Amir then threw his arm around the shoulders around the other man and began talking animatedly in Arabic, with exuberant hand gestures. The contrast between Amir’s taller, thinner body, and the other’s stocky 5’5” was made all the more distinct by the fact that they weren’t wearing clothes. Amir’s subordinate seemed a little disturbed by this, but wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise for a few minutes. When he finally was able to get a word in edgewise and protest, Amir withdrew, apologizing furiously, covering his crotch.

I continued showering while Amir and his friend kept talking. The guy I didn’t know, seemed to be making his point now. When I was just about done, Amir turned back towards me. “You should thank Mubashir,” he said very seriously, “he may have found a way to save your life.”

“Thank you, Mubashir,” I said, holding out my hand. He shook it with a medium grip. “They would probably make me do it,” he said, “and I don’t really want to kill people.”

“If that’s the case,” I said, “you may want to rethink your life.” With that, I decided to put on some pants before things became more awkward. At least no one got a boner. I think the bro code demands some form of ritual suicide at that point. I only had my underwear, pants, shoes, T-shirt, and jacket. All the various equipment and armor was put in a pile in the parade yard to be stored.

In the cafeteria, the lines had mostly died down. Basically, the way it worked is you grab a bowl and a cup, put them beneath their respective nozzles, swipe your student ID, then watch as your cup fills with water and your bowl fills with an unidentifiable sludge that looks suspiciously like diarrhea. You then stick in a spoon into your soylent green, and, if you have something to celebrate, grab one of those bendy straws that change color when you use them. The one I grabbed was yellow, but turned green in the water.

After you did that, you had the problem of finding where to sit next to. I knew that there was only one more infiltrator UNIX. I also knew that he wasn’t American, but I had gotten the hint that he wanted to be one.

“Hey, Nate!” a voice called. I turned and saw Cross. I smiled. Michael (not the Michael that Kreiger had broken) Croccifixio Castellan, “Cross,” to those who knew him, was a New York native with a… colorful network of family and acquaintances. I knew him because he shared a bunk with other Michael behind me. He was somewhat tan, with sandy blond hair and brown eyes and a perpetual friendly smile. That smile was a sharp contrast to that hard look his eyes had. It was a look I had never seen before coming to NIU, but now that I was here I saw it every day.

“Hey, Cross,” I said, “what’s up?”

“Not much,” he said, indicating the seat opposite him, “come on, man, pop a squat.” I obliged. “So,” I asked, “what’s this about?”

He laughed. “I’m homesick, man,” he said. “I miss New York, I miss my mom, and I sure as shit miss food that isn’t… this.”

“I hear you,” I said.

“That reminds me,” he said, “you got any paras up in Massachusetts?”

“Actually,” I said, “we’ve got the Minutemen on the hero side. On the villain side, they mostly work for the Triads and the Yakuza. The Bulger gang and the local Italian mafia can usually just drown them in men.”

“I actually heard about those guys,” Cross said. “The Kagemoto and the Jade Empire, right? Those guys are pretty much legends in… in my circle.”

“You’d know more about that than me,” I said. “I just here what happens when someone important dies or gets arrested.”

“Probably,” he said. “A lot of what gets in the news is the spillover. I actually met one of the Kagemoto kids at a party once. His name’s Sam and he’s a little older than we are. Dude was going to this private school, Fessenden, I think…”

“Holy shit,” I said, “my mom works there!”

“Really? Did she know him?”

“Probably,” I said, “She’s worked there literally for decades.” I paused, realizing my mistake. “I don’t really want to tell you what she did, you understand?” He nodded. “Probably shouldn’t even have told me she worked there,” he said. I nodded, but hopefully the fact that she had a different last name should put anyone off for a bit. Probably not, but it was nice to hope. Anyway, I already was using my real name.

“Anyway,” he said, “the guy has a sister who is our age.” He thought for a minute, then said, “Maybe we’ll meet them here,” he said. “This would be probably the best place for them to go.”

I kind of hoped not. While they weren’t the Jade Empire or ISIS, the Kagemotos were not the kind of people I wanted to deal with on top of Al-Qaeda, the KKK and whatever other dregs of humanity had come here.

We ate in silence for a bit after that. Eventually, Cross asked, “Hey, are you doing anything after this?”

“I’ve got someone to meet after breakfast,” I said. “Part of my secret stuff.”

He nodded. “Explains why you’re eating so fast. No one’s excited to eat this stuff.”

“Actually,” I said, pausing to slurp down the last spoonful, “this is kind of my normal speed. See you later, I guess.” I left him looking at where my bowl was, a look of shock on his face.

I walked towards Derek’s barracks. His was B2, mine was B3, the only co-ed barracks. They also seemed to be testing some TVs that had been built into the walls of the buildings facing the parade grounds. Due to the fact that the buildings were shiny black monoliths on the outside, I hadn’t really noticed them before.

The narrow corridor between the two buildings was a little scary. There was no place to hide, but you still got the feeling someone could jump out at you. Combined with the now-torrential rain, and the narrow corridor had the atmosphere of a horror movie. On the bright side, I was shielded from the worst of the rain if I walked on one side.

Ahead was a wall made out of the same black material as the buildings it encircled. Just above the sound of the rain, I could barely make out the sounds of two people fighting. Thinking it was Derek, I hurried forwards. When I finally got to the end, I was a little embarrassed.

There were two girls there. Both of them were engaged in some kind of sparring match. I knew this because they were obviously very good, but none of their blows seemed to be hurting the other. I was only a Green Belt in Tae Kwon-Do, but I knew enough to see that. They also were doing moves that, while fun, weren’t the kind of thing you’d do in a real fight. For example, a jumping axe kick might score you extra points when breaking a board on your promotion test, but it was something that was real easy to block and easily dodged.

The combatants themselves seemed to be in a world of their own. One was a small Asian girl with dark shoulder-length hair in a straight cut and a tattoo of two dragons, one black, one white, forming a yin-yang symbol on her left shoulder. The other was a tall red-head with her hair in a messy bun, taller than me. Both, however, were built like gymnasts. Looking up, I could see that they had chosen this spot because of an overhang over the rear shielded them from the rain.

I cleared my throat. They both turned to face me, their faces both unreadable. “Hi,” I said, “I was just wondering if someone else had been back here recently. I was supposed to meet him back here and…”

Their expressions didn’t change a single bit, nor did their gaze waver. That left me in a bit of a quandary. If I left, John might not be able to find me. If I stayed, they could beat me or even kill me. If I told them to tell John I had gone somewhere else, well, there were a million ways that could go wrong. All told, leaving would be the safest bet.

Before I could make my apologies and leave, the redhead spoke in what seemed to me (who can’t tell the difference between an Australian and a British accent) to be Cockney accent. “I’ve seen you before.” It was weird. Most people believed that Cockney accents would be hard to make threatening, especially if it was coming from a pale, skinny girl with a lightly freckled face. However, this girl had just proven she knew a bit about fighting, and there was something menacing about the stare her green eyes were giving me.

“Probably,” I said, in what I hoped was a conversational tone of voice. “We are in the same program. If you’re in the co-ed barracks, that’s probably where you’ve seen me.”

“You’re right ‘bout where I bunk,” she said, “but I’ve seen you poppin’ up all over and I’ve rarely seen you speak to the same person twice. It’s a little funny, innit?” The Asian girl gave her friend a surprised look at this, then turned back towards me, her look more calculating and violence-implying now.

“Well,” I said, “aren’t you a little curious about what’s going on here?”

“Random yank starts sticking his nose into everyone’s business, keeps telling the same joke to every person he meets, then the little bugger follows me here? I am bloody curious. You might say I’m right intrigued.” My eyes had widened when she mentioned the joke. Screw it, the last UNIX plant could contact me. Or John. Preferably John. My cover was blown.

“I was talking about the bigger picture,” I said, changing the topic. “I mean, yeah, I’m asking questions. But that’s because this is a weird place. I’ve talked to people who want to join Islamic fundamentalist groups, law enforcement, hate groups, organized crime, mercenary groups, military organizations… Normally, these people would only be in the same room together to kill each other, but we’ve all come here to learn.

“And the weird thing? We aren’t being encouraged to change our views by the staff. They aren’t trying to forge us into an army. So what are we here for? Why does this place exist?”

“Interesting questions,” the redhead said, nodding in agreement. “’Ere’s another: who’s funding your little study?”

“Is it ok if I assure you that I have no interest in you personally?” I asked. “I really can’t tell you anything about why I’m here, or how I intend to answer my questions. But as an act of good faith, maybe I can share some of what I’ve learned? My name’s…”

“Nathan Jacobs?” the redhead asked.

It was at that I started to become paranoid. Dozens of scenarios began to run through my mind, each more horrifying and implausible than the last. “I’m sorry,” I said, beginning to edge towards the alley, “you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

“Surprisingly well-mannered for a sneak, ain’t ya?” she asked cordially. “I’m Eliza, an’ this ‘ere’s Bai.” Bai just stared at me, still probably calculating the best way to make me talk. I got the feeling if she came to a decision, she could move very fast. “She don’t talk much,” Eliza added.

I calmed down somewhat. If they had been waiting for me, they wouldn’t have been sparring. I had just been really unlucky. “So,” I said with relief, turning on my heel to leave, “I guess I’ll be going. If you…”

“No.”

Oh fuck.

“Not yet.” I turned to look at Eliza and Bai. “Yes?” I squeaked. Eliza was leaning against the perimeter wall, seemingly at ease. “You were going to tell us what you’ve learned about this camp.”

I took a deep breath. “Well,” I said, “I haven’t really learned anything about the motives behind the staff. That would be a huge tip-off. I have been looking around, making connections, seeing if anyone here knew anything.”

“You thought any ‘bout this Fight Night thing?” Eliza asked. “Fellow like you’s got to ‘ave a plan or two.”

I laughed. “My plan? My plan’s to tap out as soon as possible. My bet is that most people will too.” Everyone knew the rules to Fight Night. If you were eligible for Fight Night, you had to attend. If you were attending, you would either have to be in three fights or beaten until you couldn’t fight anymore. Fights would last as long as the Drill Sergeants wanted them to. After winning three fights, you had three options: spectate, go to bed, or stay in the ring. If you stayed in the ring, you could call in whoever you wanted. If you spectated, you could end up being called back in. The person with the highest win streak got some sort of prize.

“However…” I said, noticing the look of disappointment on both their faces, “If one wanted to go for the prize, I might have an idea.”

“Go on…” Eliza said. I had both of them. I had the feeling that if I gave them good advice, at the very least I’d get a few more weeks of life. In the meantime, I’d have some time to prepare for any bad scenarios. Maybe find a weapon.

“Ok,” I said, “I’ve never been a fan of dividing the world into two groups. It rarely tells the full story. For instance, you could divide the camp into the people who’ve been in combat before and the people who obviously haven’t.” I paused for effect. My audience leaned in. “But that would be a mistake.”

“From what I’ve seen, there are four groups of people. There’s the group I’m in: the cautious. We’ve probably never been in a fight in our lives, and we’re definitely scared of it.”

“So,” Eliza said with a straight face, but some humor in her voice, “you think we should take people like you out first?”

“Not really,” I said, “and not entirely because I don’t want to fight you, though that is a big part of it.” She nodded, and I continued. “You have to remember that we can’t run. That is likely to make a few of this group panic and go full berserker. Therefore, you’ll want to win quickly. If they go down, only beat on them if they try to get up.

“The next group are the bullies. They have only been in fights against unarmed people who won’t fight back, and never without a gang to back them up or a crowd to watch them.” I smiled. “These people are really easy to spot. They go around bragging how great they are, or trying to go back to being the school bully. Then they meet up with the former soldiers.” The reason I was smiling was because in the first week there was this guy in our barracks who just did not get it. He had apparently been some kind of athlete at his school, and had gathered a small posse. He also seemed to like picking on my bunkmate.

My bunkmate and his four friends, as I believe I’ve already said, are probably former child soldiers and all in some sort of unit. Somehow, this guy didn’t pick up on that or didn’t care. One night, he was walking in, and heard my bunkmate and his friend talking in their native language. He then made some monkey noises. His friends laughed. To my surprise, so did my bunkmate.

The guy, or Dumbass McRacist as we’ll now call him, whispered something to his friends. He then walked up towards my bunkmate. My bunkmate’s on the top bunk, so I couldn’t really see his reaction, but I could see Dumbass McRacist and two of my bunkmate’s friends. Dumbass had a fake smile on his face. My bunkmate’s friends both had the same look as Bai had.

“You think I’m funny, do you?” Dumbass asked, his friendly tone of voice not really disguising his malice.

For the first time I could remember, my bunkmate said something in English. “Why yes, my friend,” he said in a booming, friendly, voice. He sounded genuinely puzzled. “Surely that was the intent, yes?”

Dumbass, living up to the name I had given him, pulled out a switchblade. “The thing about comedy,” he said, “is it requires suffering.” My bunkmate sighed. Then he kicked Dumbass in the face with both feet.

Apparently, that was all the warning my bunkmate’s friend’s needed. One of them caught Dumbass in a chokehold and shoved a clear, sharp piece of plastic into Dumbass’s neck. I could tell it was sharp because it was drawing blood, adding to what was already leaking out his nose. The other three formed a perimeter, using the beds to form chokepoints, pulling out shanks made from toothbrushes and shouting at everyone to keep back.

My bunkmate landed on the ground. He was surprisingly shorter than someone with such a booming voice should be. He had a buzz cut, and was dressed in his boxers, showing that he, like his friends, was dangerously underweight. He knelt down and grabbed the knife, then stood up.

“This is a nice knife,” he said. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but judging by Dumbass’s whimper, I was guessing it wasn’t anything good. Also, everyone was now watching. I swear you could hear a pin drop. “What is your name?” my bunkmate asked Dumbass. Dumbass muttered something. “Kyle?” my bunkmate asked, “Is that your name, my friend?” Dumbass must have nodded, because my bunkmate continued on.

“Well, Kyle,” he said, his voice rising to fill the barracks, “this may be a nice knife, but it is a PATHETIC weapon!” He raised the switchblade into the air, as if to show the world, or at least the barracks, how pathetic it was. He then turned to me. “You, Journal-man, do you have a marker?” His big brown eyes and skeletal features were strangely friendly.

I shook my head. “I have a pencil…” I said, unsure where this was going.

“I do,” Michael said. This was before he had been broken. He was surrounded by my bunkmate’s friends on three sides, so he had been paying attention just as long as I had. He held out a large black sharpie. My bunkmate took it. As he walked away, I saw Dumbass (seriously, what had he expected would happen?) take the opportunity to spit out a few teeth. They plinked onto the floor.

When my bunkmate took the sharpie, he held it above his head. “THIS,” he shouted, “is an extra-large sharpie! It was first designed by the Sanford Manufacturing company in 1957 and is produced in Downers Grove in America! IT IS MIGHTIER THAN ANY SWITCHBLADE!” I laughed. I couldn’t help it, and apparently a few others couldn’t either.

My bunkmate took a bow. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, just loud enough to be heard above the strangled giggles. “I, Eric the Entertainer, shall now prove to you its awesome power. With this, I shall write the word ‘loser’ on Kyle’s head. If I simply kill him, I could be expelled. Worse, one of his friends might stab me in the back. However, by humiliating him, I safely eliminate him.”

“You’re insane,” Dumbass said.

“And you, my friend,” The Entertainer said, “are a moron.” It took a week for the word “Loser” to come off Kyle’s face.

Getting back to the present, where Eliza and Bai were giving me their undivided attention, I said, “Then there’s the people like The Entertainer and his minions. They’re possibly the second worst people to fight, maybe even the worst, depending on the individual. I’m guessing they’re child soldiers.”

Eliza smiled. “They’ll be used to fighting with guns. That makes ‘em easy.”

“They’re also used to killing people,” I said, “and the people who kidnapped them when they were five probably only taught them how to fight dirty. Can you say the same?”

Eliza looked startled for a minute, then softly said, “They’ll stop the fights before that ‘appens.”

“They’ll try,” I said, “but you know that even a good punch to the stomach can kill someone. Or you should.”

“And the fourth group?” Eliza asked.

“That’s the good news,” I said. “You’re it, and you’re probably the odds-on favorite to win. My guess is that you’ve been training just as long as the fourth group, but some of you have never been in life-and-death combat. The other difference is the quality of your training and goals. You’ve been trained as a more long-term asset, I believe? It’d probably hurt the sponsors more if you die now then it would’ve hurt Eric’s recruiter if he had accidently blown himself and several of his comrades up in training.”

Bai spoke up for the first time. Her voice was quiet, but hard. “But the people who trained me for the cause say I should treat my life as meaningless next to our goals. Surely my life is worth a similar amount?”

“How long have you been training?” I asked.

“Since I was born,” Bai said, “and I won’t be finished for another four years.”

“The Entertainer’s training probably was just enough to learn how to use an AK,” I said reassuringly, “and you’ve probably had more experience in one-on-one fights. You’ve got an advantage.” I didn’t add that any child soldier who made it this far probably was very lucky. There wasn’t any way to plan against luck. “This kind of advantage took a huge amount of time and resources to give you. While they do want you to be loyal, you are not easily replaced.”

Bai nodded, apparently satisfied. “Anything else, mate?” Eliza asked. “That’s all I could come up with in a few minutes,” I said.

“Good job, then,” she said. “We’ll do this again some time.” The two girls left. I stood there wondering what Eliza’s next little chat would be about.

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