Track 26: Giving Up

“Well,” I said, eyeing the Taser warily, “If you have a stretcher you can carry me out on, there’s no reason I can’t come with you.” My breath was extremely shallow and it kind of hurt for me to speak. There were also a lot of long pauses.

“So the chatter was right for once,” Hiro said. He stood up, and gave an order in Japanese. Three of the Defenders slung their rifles behind their back. Two of them broke open a stretcher while the third waved a metal detector wand over me. Hiro, meanwhile, stood back and opened up a cellphone.

“What do you mean, ‘the chatter was right for once?’” I asked. “How do you not know not…” I began coughing.

“Stop talking,” Li said contemptuously. “We need you alive.”

The Defender who had been scanning me with the wand called out that I was clean. At least, I assumed he did, because the two who had been setting up the stretcher picked me up and placed me on it, then proceeded to flex-cuff me to it. The plastic dug into my wrists. Then they used the standard straps that, as well as preventing me from escaping, would also keep me from falling out. They then picked up the stretcher and we began to move out of the office building.

The office building was pretty standard. As we moved, one of the Defenders carrying me said, somewhat bitterly, “You realize, none of this had to happen.”

“Yep,” I said. “I told Charlotte…” I paused for coughing. “But she just had to make the… dumbest plan.” Seriously, why the hell couldn’t we have just left the country? What the hell was Charlotte thinking? I couldn’t really communicate due to the collapsed lung and tied hands.

“So,” Hiro said, “you don’t have any love for my ancestor?” I nodded my head. I mean, I did think that the people who had wanted to pop her as soon as she had gotten back had been a little premature, but I recognized she was severely disturbed. Finding her and neutralizing her (temporarily or permanently, right now I was pretty flexible about that) could only be a good thing. Hiro continued. “Then tell me where she went. This can all be ended with only one more life.”

“Don’t know,” I said. “Goals were incompatible… she fucked off. That’s probably how…” I broke down in coughing again, “…how your first chopper was blown up.”

“Liar,” Li said. “I refuse to believe you just let her get away.”

“I believe him,” Bai said.

“I do too,” Hiro said. “They did not have enough manpower to fight us and secure a prisoner. Plus, my ancestor was deemed highly obsessive by the psychologist.” He looked at me, and I got the idea that he was contemplating something. “Now, Jacobs-san, what did you say your disagreement was about?”

I pretended that I had also been deafened by the recent gun battle. It wasn’t as big of a stretch as it normally would be, seeing as how I’d been in a gun battle where I’d been firing one of the loudest guns I had ever used. That reminded me that I needed to get a way to reduce the Maccabee’s noise. That probably would have been a better use of time then the dual-belt-fed MG.

The door opened and we began to move into a parking lot. I noticed that there were a few Defenders pulling security. I noticed that the Defenders tended to use either Type 89 assault rifles or what seemed to be Hecker and Koch HK 416s and 417s, usually with holographic sights, lasers and flashlights. They also all looked extremely tired. I felt briefly proud having led these guys on such a wild goose chase. Then I realized they had finally caught me and probably hated my guts.

The parking lot had an interesting feature. Around the parking lot (which was empty except for two vans,) a small wall ran around the lot. If an average person ran around it crouched, they could be concealed. I wasn’t sure how much protection it offered, but it was there. Why did I notice it, you ask? Well, first off, it was an odd thing. Second, a bunch of people had just popped up from behind the walls.

They were extremely hard to see, partly because it was dark, partly because they were shining lights directly at us. However, they had set up in a sort of T-shape pattern, and, judging by the sudden severe case of acne the Defenders had sprouted, they were armed. Instantly, a variety of English, Scottish and Welsh voices began calling out things like “SAS! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!”

“No,” Li said, and suddenly, something hard and metal was pressed to the side of my head, “you put down your weapons.”

“Well,” a dangerously pissed Cockney voice casually commented from behind the wall to my left, “this is quite a weird definition of neutral, innit Bai?

“Eliza?” Bai asked. “You’re here?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “I’m ‘ere alright. And I’m quite surprised to see you.”

“And we’re surprised to see you,” Hiro said. I noticed that he had maneuvered so the people ambushing him couldn’t see his hands. I could, and he was fiddling with something in his pocket. “You had to have some sort of warning we had beaten you.”

“And we’d like to know how you got here first,” Eliza said. “Life’s full little disappointments. Now put Nate down. Gently.”

“You won’t open fire,” Li said. “You didn’t come out all this way just for Jacobs just to get a bullet in his brain or for him to find out what happens when a person with a collapsed lung is dropped.”

Eliza didn’t order the SAS operatives to drop the weapons. I don’t know if that was because she wasn’t allowed, if she was bluffing in hopes of intimidating them, or if she was more pissed at Bai then she was protective of me. Finally, she asked, “Bai… why? Just why?”

“We owe the Defenders,” Bai said. “They helped us when…”

“I would’ve helped,” Eliza said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I would’ve come even if everyone else’d told me to fuck off and leave you. You do know that, right?”

“And you know,” Hiro said, “that you attacked us first. You set something that should never have seen the light of day free.”

“First off,” Eliza said, “You’re talkin’ about a person, not some fuckin’ cursed artifact. Second, I wasn’t talking to you, you git.”

“Heyyyy…” I said, “Maybe we can make a deal? Like set me on the ground… gently, very gently, and Eliza lets you drive off?” That was quite painful to say, but at that point I thought it was necessary. “I mean, that way, everyone gets what they want. You guys get to leave, and I’ve already told you all I could.”

“Which was nothing,” Hiro said.

“Exactly,” I said. “The only way I’m useful to you is exchange. This is the time to do that.” I looked at Hiro as I said that. He was considering it, and seemed very receptive.

“Wait,” Li said, “this seems like too good a deal.” He looked… suspicious.

“Honestly,” Bai said, “It’s the best deal we’ve got and…”

Now, before I tell you Li’s response, I need to say a bit about Bai. As soon as she had heard the SAS and seen their lasers and lights, she had aimed her Glock in the direction of the SAS. Her hand was on the trigger, even squeezing it slightly. Her safety was also off. Having gone through the same training, that meant she was willing to fire.

“You…” Li said. “You set us up.”  He then shifted his aim from my head to Bai.

My breath caught. Oh my God, I thought to myself, this guy is insane. Of the many things that had been drilled into our heads during Hell Semester, gun safety was one of them. If you pointed a weapon at something the instructors didn’t want you to destroy, the best case scenario was a grueling forced march, then grueling calisthenics, then skipping the next meal. The worst case scenario was being shot by Campus Security. It didn’t matter whether or not your weapon was loaded, you were not allowed to treat it like a toy. If Bai had sold Li and the Defenders out to Eliza, the gun would be pointed at the ground.

Bai began protesting in Chinese, but Li shouted something back. “Oi!” Eliza yelled, “Put down the fuckin’ gun! I mean it!” The Defenders whose faces I could see were eyeing each other nervously. Hiro, on the other hand, suddenly became extremely calm. He muttered something in Japanese. Underneath Bai and Li’s argument and Eliza’s shouted warnings to calm down (which wasn’t helping,) I made out the word “San.” That meant, if I recalled correctly, three.

He then began counting slowly. “Ichii… nii… san.” Then he took something out of his pocket and rolled it right underneath my stretcher. It was a grenade. Fuck me.

“Grenade!” I heard someone yell. Then the grenade burst into smoke. I tried not to breathe but that was not really an option, due to how short of breath my collapsed lung made me. I breathed in the smoke. Luckily, it wasn’t designed to be harmful. It was just smoke. Unfortunately, it wasn’t oxygen or anything else I needed. That gave me the unpleasant sensation of breathing in and not getting enough of the stuff I needed. I was choking and coughing, which was intensely painful.

Of course, the smoke had been like a starting gun. Everyone began firing at once, or at least in seemed that way. The people carrying me also began hurrying into the van. As soon as my shoulders were in the van, I heard the person carrying the stretcher near my upper body gasp and I felt myself drop. I looked behind me. The Defender carrying that end was lying on the ground, the pavement he was lying on slowly turning red, a stunned look on his face. From what I could see through the fog, there weren’t many Defenders still standing. One even dropped while I was looking.

I then heard a thump of someone getting in the van with us. I looked back in the van. On the side that was hard to see was Li. He was the one who had just got in, and he was reloading a Makarov. On the other was Hiro. He was firing a SIG one-handed and gripping onto my stretcher with the other.

I looked behind me. The other Defender who had been moving my stretcher had set me down and was now returning fire with his rifle, his gun so close to me that I was afraid the bullets might veer off and hit me. He was promptly hit by a burst of fire and slumped down over my legs. Something wet and sticky began to cover my pants and the smell of shit, piss and blood began to fill the van as well as the smell of gunpowder. Over the din, I could somewhat make out someone with a Scottish accent calling out “Cease fire! Cease fire!” I prayed someone would listen to him.

In response, Hiro yelled to the people in the front seats of the van. It must have been something like “Get us out of here!” because there was a second of wheel spin and then the van began moving out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell. Just before we exited, I heard a thump on the side of the van. Then a man in full body armor and a ski mask lunged for my stretcher. Before I could decide whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing if he caught it, he had missed and Li and Hiro had opened fire.

The van had made a handbrake turn, so I couldn’t tell if they had hit or if the SAS operator had escaped. The turn, however, revealed another operator with an MP-5 pointed at the ground. He hesitated, seeing me.

Li and Hiro did not. I heard them fire at the rapidly disappearing operator and saw him go down. I suddenly realized that a rescue attempt had just been made on my behalf, it had failed, and people had died because of it. I was unsure how that felt, other than that it didn’t feel good.

Hiro, meanwhile, turned to Li. “We,” he said dangerously, “are going to have to talk.”

 

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Track 6: Nightmares

I woke up in a stone room that had been retrofitted as a hospital. The flickering lights were somehow both dim and harsh, and the colors were weirdly muted. I was lying on a bed. To my right, there was a stone wall. To my left was a green and white checkered curtain. In front of me was another bed.

The thing in it was slightly strange. I sat up to get a better look. It seemed to be some kind of charred meat resting the pillow. Then, I realized that it wasn’t just on the pillow. There was more of it under the blanket.

The meat-thing opened its eyes. “Hey, Killer,” it said with a familiar voice. “Glad I could catch you.”

“Jeong!” I yelled.

Suddenly, I realized I was awake. Almost immediately, I realized I had been asleep and lying down. Weirdly enough, I was still in the same room, except now the lighting was much better and the room was full. Across from me, instead of a charred corpse of a comrade, a body bag lay on the bed. In the rest of the room, people were working hurriedly.

I looked around. Again, stone wall on my right, curtain on my left. However, there was one difference. Eliza was sitting on a chair between me and the curtain. “‘Oo the fuck’s Jeong?” she asked. Her fox ears were drooping and her eyes were baggy and bloodshot.

“One of the guys who went with me to Korea,” I said.

“Did you… did you see ‘im out in the woods?” Eliza asked. There was an odd look in her eye that I couldn’t quite place. “Was that why you ‘ad your attack.”

“No,” I said. “I saw someone else.” Then I realized why she was asking. “Who did you see?”

Eliza’s eyes widened for a moment. Then she laughed. “You got me pegged, ‘aven’t you?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve just seen dead people for the third time. Plus, I saw Charlotte’s… episode, I guess you could call it. I guess I know the symptoms now.”

Charlotte nodded. “Yeah. You would.” She paused for a while. Eventually, she took a deep breath, and said. “I saw me mum and da. My… well, I’d feel guilty sayin’ they’re me real parents, seein’ ‘ow good the BW’s ‘ave been to to me… my biological parents, I guess you’d call ‘em. Then I saw something run after them.”

“So you chased after them,” I said.

“You’d do the same,” she said, somewhat defensively.

“Not denying that.”

She paused. “Would you… would you ‘ave let me fall?” she asked. “Y’know, just kept runnin’ and not looked back?”

“I don’t know…” I said. “Hell, if you’d reacted the way I did, I wouldn’t have even heard you fall.”

“John called your name, remember?” Eliza said. “I didn’t even turn around. Just kept runnin’.”

“Oh.” I considered this for a moment. “I… I don’t blame you. You’re…” I tried to think of a way to describe her Lupine instincts without offending her. “…well, you. I would’ve done it differently, but I’m me.”

“Very eloquent,” Eliza said, a bit of her humor flashing up.

“I was going to say more,” I said. “All this good stuff about how I didn’t think you needed forgiveness and blah blah blah, but you just had to ruin the mood.” I pouted for effect.

Eliza’s smirk widened in appreciation. “Alright, you made your point.” Then, she got serious. “Anyway, what happened down the mountain?”

“Well,” I said, “you know I met Mayu, right?”

“God, yes,” Eliza said.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “There’s a relatively new American saying…”

“Is there any other kind?” Eliza asked teasingly.

I continued, ignoring her. “…basically, don’t stick your dick in crazy.”

“You think she’s crazy?” Eliza asked. “I’ll admit, she seemed a bit off t’me, but so does everyone else in this bloody museum.”

“You should talk to her about her time in that pocket dimension,” I said. “She… she doesn’t come across as innocent. Speaking of that, did they find all the bodies yet?”

“Yeah…” Eliza said. “Poor girl… If she really is mad, can’t say that I blame ‘er. Five ‘undred years…”

“She said that time moved at half-speed there,” I said. “She also said it got steadily slower. Still… I don’t think she came out of there without some blood on her hands. I also think some serious shit went down, and she didn’t cope with it too well.”

“If she did,” Eliza said, “I wouldn’t blame ‘er, poor girl. Our test subject was completely stark raving when ‘e came back, and that wasn’t even a tenth of the time those girls spent in there.” She shuddered.

For a while, we talked about how we’d spent our night. It turned out that the only reason Eliza hadn’t been committed was because a bunch of other people had been seeing dead people. “I mean,” Eliza said about that, “It’s bad enough I’m goin’ crazy, now other people are losin’ it in the exact same way? Fuckin’ ‘ell, oo’s gonna lock me up?” We both laughed.

Eventually, I had to ask, “So, what’s with all the body bags? Are they all the bodies of the heralds?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “This German bloke’s cuttin’ ‘em up, tryin’ t’figure out ‘ow they bought it. Kind of interested in what he’ll find.”

“Not much,” an elderly man with a German accent and lab coat said as he walked into the room, pulling a stretcher behind him. “For instance,” he said, “the one I’ve done my most recent preliminary on had her throat cut. Was it by her own hand? Did someone else help her? And what was the motivation? None of it can be answered.”

Nakashima (the caretaker of the castle) followed him, pushing the stretcher. “More importantly,” he said, “what are we going to do about this ice cream now that we can’t fit it in the freezer?” As he spoke, he indicated the three cartons of ice cream on the stretcher.

“If you got any peanut butter cup or chocolate,” I said, “I’ll take it. Maybe Eliza and I will split it.”

“You’re bloody right we’ll split it,” Eliza said indignantly.

“We have cookie dough, vanilla, and chocolate,” Nakashima said.

After a brief discussion between Eliza and I, we relived them of the cookie dough and chocolate, plus a few spoons. Before Nakashima and the coroner could leave, I quickly asked, “Hey, Nakashima, I noticed that you and Mayu have the same family name. Any relation?”

“I’m not sure,” Nakashima said. “I’ll have to check my family tree. It is likely, though.”

“Cool,” I said. “Just curious. Anyway, how is Mayu doing?”

Nakashima had a strange look in his eyes as he replied. “I’m not sure. They have the normal caretakers off their shifts and have brought in agents from other cells.” I suddenly realized the strange look in his eyes wasn’t directed at me, but at his own organization. “I am sure everything is fine, though.” He bowed. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must see if I can get rid of this last carton of ice cream. We must get not let it go to waste.”

“Of course,” the German coroner said. Despite his politeness, I could tell he wasn’t convinced by Nakashima’s reassurances.

When they left, Eliza said, “Fuckin’ ‘ell, this shit is getting’ too political for my likin.’”

“Yeah…” I said. After a moment, I added, “Could you tell your sister I’d like to get out on the next flight?”

John walked in suddenly. “Dude, are you serious? We finished the mission ahead of schedule, and we’re in Japan! It’s time to have fun.”

Eliza and I looked at him. “What?” John asked. “It’s over. Sixteen people went into the pocket dimension, sixteen people matching their descriptions were found. We won. Now, we take some souvenirs and bring them home.”

“I honestly am not sure what to think,” Bai said. “While I would like to agree with John, this all seems mismanaged. They wanted people to protect and shape the Architect, and they ended up with only one, whose sanity is apparently questionable. They wanted the survivors found, so they brought in a large force that deeply indebted them. Then their target walks in, making their expensive force completely unnecessary. What on Earth are they thinking?”

“Maybe some of the Defenders didn’t want the Heralds to survive?” I suggested. “If they got us all amped up, we could take care of a few of them. Then they wouldn’t  draw suspicion on themselves.”

“But that’s…” Eliza said, “that’s horrendously cowardly!”

A voice scoffed from the doorway. “I’ll say. These so-called ‘Defenders of Fuji’ have lost their way.” In walked an arrogant male version of Bai.

Bai, barely containing her eye-roll, said, “Li has some strong opinions about our hosts. He is not hesitant about sharing them.”

“Nor should I be,” Li said. “After all, they claim to be experts at subterfuge. How is that true when they lost half our order to the Ministry of Security?”

Eliza, John and I stared at Li in shock. This was news to us. We had sort of assumed everything was normal with Bai and her organization.

“First off,” Bai said patiently, “Most of them were probably lost before we left the country. Second, this is not the thing you tell outsiders.”

“I apologize,” Li said as unapologetically as possible. “I assumed you would tell your boyfriend.” He turned to us. “Mark my words, these fools are declining. Their elders are senile and uncaring, their youth are either incompetent or jaded, and there are not enough people in between.”

“Why are you here?” Bai asked.

“You’re needed.” Li glanced at Eliza, then said, “Please come. The elders want to brief us.” Bai nodded and walked out. Li bowed respectfully to Eliza. The reason he was so polite was the last time he had been rude to his sister in Eliza’s presence, Li had not had a good time. Eliza nodded coolly in response.

We then waited in silence until Eliza felt that they had left. “Fuckin’ prick…” she muttered darkly.

“Ok,” John said, “You know how I was optimistic earlier? Screw that, we’re all going to kill each other if we stay here too much longer.” He sighed. “Every single time I say things are going well…”

“Yeah, mate,” Eliza agreed blandly. “Every bloody time. Could you just stop?”

 

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Track 13: Talk About It, Talk About It, Talk About It

The weather was so bad that school was basically canceled for the most of the week. The math class, however, found a way. I swear, the math professor decided to double the workload. We also had to do the run down to the Hell Semester barracks around ten at night, the snow at its worst. Thankfully, the snow had let up by Friday for us. The last time we had some fun, but that was because we didn’t have to deal with the Rogues.

This time, we were teaching the Rogues how to use rifles and submachineguns. Apparently, though, the Rogues were a pistol-only class. Somehow, this lead to them not knowing the first thing about how to use anything other than pistols.

“Really?” Jen exasperatedly asked a scared black man in a suit handling Bai’s P-90. “How are you not afraid of that giant pistol you have that’s knocked you out twice, but you’re scared of that?”

“Jennifer,” Bai said, “I’m the one teaching. Please let me teach.”

Jen just rolled her eyes and went back to firing the MP-5 someone had let her borrow. I sighed. These sessions with the Rogues were pointless. As much as some of this stuff was second-nature to me, I had to remind myself that the only reason I felt that way was because I had been through Hell Semester. I also had to wonder what the point was of giving drills that I had trouble with to people who had never held a rifle before.

After we left, Eliza tapped me on the shoulder. “Nate,” she said, “there’s going to be a meeting at The Back-Home. Lose any tails and meet us there for dinner by five.”

“Sure,” I said, but Eliza had already disappeared into the crowd. I sighed, wishing I knew how to do that.

At 4:55, I was standing outside The Back-Home Bar and Grill, waiting behind a group of people from the Business school. Suddenly, I realized that this could have been happening during Hell Semester. On my twice-daily run, especially the ones in the evening, I had occasionally noticed people walking around campus, the only apparent notice they took of us was to get out of our way. I suddenly wondered how they could not know what had happened, what we had done. I was reasonably sure that they had access to footage of Fight Night. But none of them had done anything to help us.

Suppressing the wave of anger, I walked over to the host and told him my name. As he was guiding me to the back room, one of the business majors loudly said, “Guess AMS privilege is holding up.”

I stiffened, but kept walking. The business major, seeing his barb had almost hit, continued on. “I mean, this is the second time this semester they’ve used the back room here. The staff always pull strings for them.”

“Actually,” I said, continuing to walk to the back room and not glancing back, “we paid for it ourselves. Apparently, you can’t.” None of them had a comeback to that.

“You know,” the host said as he held the door open for me, “they probably didn’t appreciate that.”

“Anything I should be worried about?” I asked.

“Business guys…” the host said cautiously, “…can get kind of vindictive. I don’t think you’re in any physical danger, though.”

I nodded. “Thanks for the tip.” Then I walked inside. As the door closed behind me, I recognized the people there. Bai, Eliza, Oro and I had been hanging out with a lot. Bai’s brother, Li, though, I hadn’t seen that much. It wasn’t a big loss, in my opinion. He was kind of an asshole. Neither had I seen much of Ricardo or Ulfric. I was neutral about Ricardo. On the one hand, he seemed like a decent enough guy. On the other hand, he had worked for the Mexican cartels as a hitman and had the feel of a politician on campaign. In other words, he was fake and dangerous.

Then there was Ulfric. Ulfric Trollbjorn was a giant, baby-faced killer. I hadn’t seen him in person during Fight Night, but they had shown footage at the award ceremony. Apparently, not only was he the tallest person I had ever seen, but he could also rip a person’s head off and use them as a club to beat eleven other people to death. Looking at him, you could see that his stout body was muscular, but not body-builder level. It was as if he had bulked up enough to rip limbs off and crush bones, but not so much that he would be slowed down by his own biceps.

That wasn’t the worst thing about him. The worst thing about him, the thing that made everyone terrified of him, was his insanity. He rarely talked, and had this childlike smile constantly on his face. When he found something amusing, he would let out this high-pitched giggle that raised the hairs on the heads of everyone who heard it. When he wanted to convey something more complicated than giddy happiness or minor annoyance, he would drop his child-like mannerisms and, in a way mimicking the person he was addressing, he would say what was on his mind. Usually, it was a very accurate assessment of that person’s character. The only person I had knew of who had willingly gone near him was Alma Hebert. That just made me even more scared of him.

Ricardo smiled up at me. “Hey Killer!” he said. “Come on, have a seat, amigo!” I sat down. The only seat left at the round table was right next to Ulfric. Eliza looked worried. She had arranged things so that if Ulfric had wanted to go after Bai or Oro, he’d literally have to go through her first. Eliza, on the other hand, had sat so that Ulfric would have to go through me to get to him.

Sitting down, I noticed that underneath Ulfric’s tent-sized army jacket were large chrome pistols with drum mags. He noticed me staring. In a fluid motion, he pulled one out. Ignoring the fact that everyone else at the table had either pulled out their guns, or had at least reached towards them, he offered it to me. When everyone noticed that Ulfric was holding the gun by the barrel, most of them relaxed. Eliza, however, still kept her Hi-Power pointed at Ulfric’s head.

“Take it,” Ulfric said, his child-like smile wider than ever. “The safety’s on.”

I took it, careful not to grasp the trigger. When Ulfric’s hand let go, I could instantly see it was a Desert Eagle, due to the distinctive triangular barrel. When I saw the markings on it, I did a double-take. “Jesus,” I gasped, “this is a fifty caliber handgun!”

“Would you believe he modified it to be fully automatic?” Ricardo asked. “And he’s a better shot duel-wielding those things than I am with my pistol?”

“Seeing as it’s Ulfric we’re talking about,” I said, “yes. Yes, I definitely believe you.” I handed it back to Ulfric. When it was back in his holster, everyone except Eliza breathed a sigh of relief. At the very least, she did holster her gun.

“So,” Li asked, “can we talk about why we are here? Or have we just come here to threaten people?”

Bai gave her brother a dirty look. I could understand why. Every time he had been in a meeting with us, he had done something to disrupt it and contributed very little. I did get the idea she wasn’t that enthused to be here, but she was warming to the idea.

“Well,” I said, “there’re these guys I’m interested in, Kyle Rockford and Richard Forrest Taylor.” I reached into my backpack to pull out my notes. “They’ve been planning something. I’m not sure what, but you might know my history with Richard. He’d like nothing better than a clear shot at me.”

“Well,” Eliza asked, “what do you know?”

I took out the piece of paper where I wrote everything I knew. “Take a look,” I said. “Here’s a list of everything I know about what they’re doing and some guesses.” I handed it to Ricardo to pass around.

When Li got it, he looked at me incredulously and said, “Have you really called us here to waste our time with your mad scribblings?” He slammed it on Bai’s placemat. “Here! Read it yourself.”

“It isn’t crazy,” Ricardo said, rubbing his temples. “But keeping you in the group is.” Again, this hatred between the two of them was starting to get annoying. If push came to shove, I would support Ricardo all the way, but I’d keep an eye on him just the same.

Bai, meanwhile, said something in Chinese. It sounded neutral, but it pissed off Li. He yelled something in Chinese and slapped his sister. She cried out, more in astonishment than in pain.

In that instant, Eliza stood up. “You,” she whispered, her face white with rage, “Get out. Now.”

“I’m sorry,” Li said, completely unapologetic, “but I don’t take orders from…”

At that moment, a waiter walked in. “Sorry if I’m interrupting,” he said, “but I was wondering if you wanted something to drink? I can come back later, if you want.”

“Later would be good,” I said. We all stared at the poor guy until he backed out. After he was gone, I turned to Li and said, “I’m sorry, but Eliza organized this dinner and her sister is paying for the meal. Her words do carry weight. Plus, you assaulted another member. If I had any sympathy for your position, it would be diminished by your constant abuse.”

Oro nodded. “He is right. Please leave peacefully. After you’re gone, we will talk about whether or not you are invited to the next meeting.”

Li looked at us all angrily. After he yelled at Bai in Chinese for a bit, she finally cut him off. I didn’t understand what she said, but I did see how tired she looked.

After he left, Bai said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but I need to contact my masters. I need to tell them my side of the story. I would also like to apologize for that disgraceful display.”

The waiter came back in. We quickly ordered our main course and our drinks. Then, once the waiter left, Oro took a look at my paper. After she considered it, she said, “So… what does this have to do with us?”

“Well,” I said, “if he’s anything like most white supremacists, this Taylor guy hates us just for existing. I mean, I’m Jewish, Ricardo’s Hispanic, Bai and Li are Asian, Eliza’s a Parahuman, you’re black, and Ulfric’s…” I paused, considering a way to say why they wouldn’t like Ulfric in a way that wouldn’t offend him. He let loose his signature high-pitched giggle that caused everyone to flinch. “…Ulfric.” I finished, eyeing him nervously.

I continued on. “Now, at the moment, you’re perfectly justified in not working with me on this, but I’m disturbed that there’s a network of people who hate us. If they’ve reached out to Richard and Kyle, I’m also worried that they’re planning something.”

Eliza sighed. “It’s great that you don’t want us to act on any of this,” she said, “because there isn’t much to act on. In fact, the information you’ve given us seems to indicate that the best thing we can do is to let these blokes do their own thing. I mean, this Kyle character seems to be working against them. For all we know, we’re better off not touching this. Just let Kyle give ‘em a good one-two from the inside.”

“That’s assuming that my guess is correct,” I said. “Or assuming whatever Kyle’s planning on doing after destroying these guys isn’t worse than business as usual.” I paused. “I’m actually not saying we should do nothing, I’m saying we should investigate.”

“Well…” Eliza said reluctantly, “I might have ‘eard May talk about a Kyle Rockford. Something about a sex-change operation. Explains why Richard was callin’ him Karen, don’t it?”

“If it’s true,” I said, “this all just raises more questions.”

“I’ve got one answer,” Ricardo said. “The punching bag they’re using? She’s a Lupine named Camilla Riviera.” He handed me a picture of a Hispanic woman with long hair and a headband. She was wearing a Hell Semester uniform and a goofy smile. “She was into all sorts of stuff in Juarez. Started out doing small-time hustles in Juarez, then eventually moved into assassination, bounty-hunting, and being a punching bag. She was really good. I didn’t even know she was here until I looked.”

“Bet she decided not to show off,” I said. “People might try and avoid showing off to avoid attracting attention. Or maybe someone paid her to take a fall. I know Eric and his group only did three matches, then left.”

“Maybe we should bring in some new blood,” Eliza said. “Just a thought.”

“I would not be opposed,” Bai said, “but I would like to keep my brother in.”

Eliza’s face darkened. “Bai, you’re my friend, so you should know this: if your brother gets back in, it’ll be conditional. If ‘e continues to act like a knob, ‘e can fuck off. If ‘e hits you again, regardless of whether or not I see it…”

“I understand,” Bai said, “but would appreciate you not assaulting my brother.”

“So, anything else?” I asked.

“This girl, May,” Ricardo said, “is she a friend of yours?”

“Yes,” Eliza and I said in unison.

“Because,” Ricardo said, leaning in conspiratorially, “she’s working on a project assigned by President Newell-Howard himself. All people know is that sometimes late at night, around eleven or twelve, she checks into the morgue. It’s a shame you’re protecting her, because I know some people who’d pay top dollar for that stuff.”

“We said we were protecting her,” I said. “Our beloved president and his pet research projects aren’t something I particularly give a shit about.” This was somewhat of a lie. For all I cared, President Newell Howard could shower in sulfuric acid. However, whatever he was researching interested me to say the least. Noticing Eliza’s dirty look, I added, “We still would want some guarantees that you aren’t stealing research that benefits her or are doing it in a way that would place suspicion on her.”

“Well,” Ricardo said, “If that’s all the business taken care of, who’s excited for Culture Fest?”

“Culture Fest?” I asked. “What’s that?” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what the Culture Fest was, because everyone else at the table looked at Ricardo expectantly.

“Man,” Ricardo said, “don’t you read the emails? Culture Fest is this gathering where students organize by country or ethnicity or religion or whatever to put on exhibits showing off how awesome they are. This happens like the last week before finals.”

“That sounds like fun!” Eliza said. “Wonder if England’s doin’ anything?”

“They probably are,” Ricardo said, “but Japan are the people to beat. They’ve all been doing something similar since they were in middle school. All the Central and South American countries are teaming up this year, though, so I think we’ve got a shot.”

As the table burst into interested conversation, I suddenly got excited. Perhaps this school wouldn’t end up being so nightmarish. I was starting to believe it, too, until Ulfric giggled, killing the happy feeling in record time.

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