Track 24: The Architect Revealed

I stared at the message for a moment. Mubashir wanted to meet me at the male locker rooms in the Sun Tzu student center. Tonight. What had he found that needed me to come so quickly? Why was he risking texting me?

Still, I had a day of classes. As usual, I was extremely distracted by current events. I had been ever since Washington had happened. Mubashir’s cryptic message wasn’t helping, but I was so off-task that the effect was probably negligible.  Or maybe it was able to finally focus me… but not on my studies.

It eventually came to me that there was something Mubashir had found out that he didn’t necessarily want to tell Bai. But if that was the case, what? I thought I made it clear that he could trust her. Did Mubashir have some reason not to? Was there something he wanted to keep among UNIX agents? Or maybe it wasn’t so friendly. If that was the case, I decided I’d bring John. After all, Mubashir hadn’t told me to come alone.

When John came back to the dorm, I told him about the message. John, upon hearing it, said, “So… you want me to go to a pool locker room… at midnight… because you think someone might try to get the drop on you.” He shook his head. “Nate… first off, it’s Moob. Second, if you’re so paranoid, don’t go.”

“But don’t you want to find out what he wants to tell us?” I asked. “Personally, I’m curious. Plus, this way I won’t accidentally wake you up when I come back.”

John shook his head. “No, I am not curious. Actually, I’m going to be… doing something with Bai.”

From the way he said that, it was pretty obvious what John was planning on doing. “Ok,” I said. “You’re doing it in her room, right?”

“Yeah,” John said. “Anyway, here’s hoping you don’t get into any trouble.”

Eventually, I found myself waiting for Mubashir in the appointed place. The men’s locker room for Sun Tzu’s athletic center was as deserted as you’d expect when I got there at eleven fifty. There was an odd design to it, probably to keep people from peeking in: there was a small sort of antechamber before the actual changing area. I was waiting in the main changing area, just pacing around.

And I spent a lot of time pacing around. Ten minutes after I had arrived, Mubashir still hadn’t gotten there. I checked my phone. 12:01. That wasn’t late. Then I paced some more. Then I checked my phone again. 12:13. Slightly annoyed by the fact that I hadn’t checked my phone a minute earlier, I continued pacing. At around twelve thirty, I was considering heading back.

I was by the wall where the exit to the antechamber, but at the opposite end when I was thinking this. Just as I had decided to head back to the dorm, I heard the door to the main hall open. After a pause, Mubashir stumbled through the archway and into the dressing room almost as if he had been flung. He landed on a bench, motionless.

I ran towards him, unthinking. What had happened? Had he been attacked? I bent down to examine his body. He was breathing, but unresponsive. On his neck was what appeared to be a recent needle puncture mark. Before I could process this, something metal slammed into the back of my head with a large amount of force.

For a few seconds (or maybe more, or maybe less,) all I could see was white. I could feel people dragging me away. I struggled ineffectually as my vision cleared and time started to pass as normal. However, I sensibly stopped when the barrel of a gun was jammed into my temple. A glance from my now mostly recovered vision revealed that my captors were two of the four remaining Al-Qaeda members. Mubashir was the third. I suddenly realized the reason Mubashir wanted to meet me: he didn’t. Someone, possibly one of the two people who had a death grip on my arm, had stolen his phone.

“You know,” a voice said from the archway to the antechamber, “you do seem to have a talent for making enemies, Jacobs.” There, leaning casually against the festively patterned tile wall, was Salim. The side of his face that had been scarred in a drone attack was facing me. In his hand, he held a silenced pistol. The magazine was dripping blood, and with a start, I realized the blood was mine.

“I’m not sure it’s the quantity that will do me in,” I said, glancing at the floor between where I was being held and where Mubashir lay, “but the quality.” There, lying hopelessly out of reach of both Mubashir and I, were my Berretta and my SIG. I looked at both my captors. They must have disarmed me as they had dragged me away.

“I must admit,” Salim said, as he slowly walked towards me, pausing to kick my weapons even further out of reach, “I did not expect you to die complimenting your killer, Killer.” He chuckled at his play on words, then continued, “You had quite the mouth on you when last we were in this situation.”

“I guess I learned my lesson,” I said, remembering how many times I had been stabbed for mouthing off. “But before I die, can I ask…”

“No,” Salim said, flicking the safety of his pistol off. He raised it to my heart, but was interrupted when we heard a moan.

Upon seeing Salim’s confused look, I said, “Ah. So you didn’t just want to knock him unconscious, did you?”

Salim, his face hardening, turned around. “No,” he said. “I gave him two hundred milliliters of heroin. He was supposed to die.” As he spoke, he walked to where he had left Mubashir.

As Salim stalked off to the ex-comrade he’d failed to poison, I was able to see Mubashir. He had managed to get into a sitting position, his face in his hands. A little later, he made a retching sound, and a mixture of blood and vomit poured from his mouth. I gagged in sympathy and, maybe I was imagining things, but I could feel the trigger of my captor’s gun pull back.

Mubashir looked up at Salim. “Let me guess,” he said, “Takeda and Brosnan told you, didn’t they?”

Suddenly, things began to make sense. Either Brosnan or Takeda had grown tired of me, but had failed to find an opportunity to do the deed themselves. Still, that left one question. “But why’d they rat you out?” I asked Moob. “I mean, I understand why they hate me, but…”

“If you really care that much,” Salim said bitterly, “apparently we’re not the only ones Mubashir has betrayed.” Mubashir, despite still seeming very ill, looked like he was about to correct it, then thought better. Salim continued. “I mean, the CIA still has him for the moment, but hey, who knows when he’ll stab them in the back?”

“Do you… do you want to know why I did it?” Mubashir asked. As he said this, he turned around to stare Salim directly in the face. He still looked like he was going to vomit blood again, but there was a note of pure hatred in his voice that I’d only heard once before.

“I don’t need to,” Salim said contemptuously. “How much did they offer you to betray your brother Muslims? Was it five figures? Six?”

Mubashir laughed hysterically. Salim dropped his gun and my captors nearly let me go. If they had, I wouldn’t have tried to escape. I was transfixed. Finally, Mubashir was able to control himself. “You think anyone would have to pay me to hurt you? You who dragged me away from my family? You who call all of Islam brother while you murder, maim, and rape them? You, who follow a book of peace and love by murdering children?” He smiled. “No. I sought them out, you semi-human pestilence.” He then spat at Salim.

Salim did not spend half a second to wipe off the bloody saliva. Instead he raised his pistol. Apparently, it was some kind of a machine  pistol (probably a Stetchin,) because there was a three-round instead of a single shot.

For a second, I thought time had completely and utterly frozen. Bits of Mubashir’s brain and skull hung seemingly suspended in mid-air. I could also see Salim’s expression slowly change to one of confusion. Then Salim raised his gun. Mubashir still remained sitting. Salim’s bullets and Mubashir’s expelled bits of head were still suspended in midair. Salim leaned around Mubashir’s head. When he saw the odd sight behind, Salim said something that, based on the context, was probably Arabic for What the hell…?

After considering the scene from a few angles, he began walking back towards me. “I do not know what is going on,” he said, clearly beyond disturbed, “but I think it is time to conclude our…” He stopped. He then tried to take a step, but for some reason it seemed that his feet had been stuck to the floor, as if by some kind of glue.

He tried again, his face now one of abject terror. He tried the other foot. The same thing happened. He then dropped his gun to pull at his leg. I suddenly noticed that his feet were changing color.

Then, from behind him, Mubashir turned to face us. As he did so, the ejected bone and gray matter began to fly back into their correct places and Mubashir began speaking. It sounded like Arabic to me, but the other people in the room who actually spoke it didn’t seem to want to engage him in conversation. The one who had put a gun to my head adjusted his aim and began firing at Mubashir. The first few shots hit Moob perfectly in the center mass leaving big red dots, but Mubashir didn’t seem to mind. The rest turned to sand mid-flight, reflecting beautifully in the locker room light.

Meanwhile, Salim was shrinking. Actually, shrinking was the wrong word. My next thought was that he was melting from the feet up. Then I realized the brown puddle he was forming wasn’t liquid, but stone. Salim realized this and began screaming. At the same time, whispering voices, the same ones I had heard at the beginning of the semester, began to start up. With a jolt, I realized that they sounded a lot like Moob’s voice.

All of this proved to be too overwhelming for my captors. Letting go of me, they edged out towards the locker room’s rear entrance. That one led directly into the pool that I had never used, despite having brought my swimsuit. When they were out of my sight and safely past Mubashir, they began running.

I was too transfixed on what was happening to Salim to notice. As he shrunk to thigh-height, his screams began to take on a gargling quality and water began to flow from his mouth. The more he shrunk, the stronger the flow. Eventually, I could see what he was becoming: a water fountain made out of some kind of yellowish-brown sandstone.

I was distracted from watching the sick transformation when Salim’s two friends ran back into the room. However, they came from the antechamber. They must have been looking over their shoulder, because they bounced off Mubashir. They looked up to see him staring down at them, still muttering to himself. The two sorry bastards sprang up and began to run in the opposite direction and began to run in place. The whole thing reminded me of a Scooby-Doo episode… until they started going backwards.

In horror, I watched as they were slowly dragged backwards. They then began to start changing as well. By the time they had cleared the bench Mubashir was standing in front of, they had become oddly stretched and starting to take on a rectangular shape. There were also square shapes on them that looked like doors and their skin was taking on a metallic sheen. They could still beg and scream. I know because they did.

I fell to my knees, hyperventilating. I couldn’t do anything. Even if I still had my guns, it wasn’t like I could stop Moob with them. I mean, two other people had already tried that and I couldn’t even say it had made him mad. Running also seemed to be completely pointless. After all, that was the first thing I had tried when he had done this to me.

Dammit, I thought to myself as I doubled over and sank to my knees, suffocating yourself isn’t going to solve anything. Since I didn’t have a paper bag, I used my hands to form a mask. I then tried to modulate my breathing, but still, it was hard. I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness, either from rapid breathing or the whack Salim had given me. It wasn’t until the screaming stopped that I was able to start to regain control myself. It was even longer until I felt comfortable standing up.

When I did, I saw that Salim was now finally a fountain. There was an octagonal pool, and in the center there was a square with a circle on top. Water was filling it up slowly. Mubashir was still standing near that bench where he had been tossed what seemed like a lifetime ago. He and the other voices had fallen silent, but he was still staring blankly off into space.

Keeping as much distance between the fountain that used to be Salim and myself, I edged closer to Mubashir. “Moob?” I asked cautiously. “You ok?” There was no response, but as I edged closer, I noticed we had a new row of lockers. That must have been where the other two Al-Qaeda guys went.

After I called his name a few times, Mubashir suddenly looked up. “Nate?” He asked, blinking dazedly. “What happened?” He paused, then saw what had once been Salim. “When did we get a fountain?”

I stared at him. I’m not sure if it was in horror, shock, or confusion. As I was struggling to sort that out and say what happened, I heard the door to the main hallway get kicked in. Bai and John then burst into the changing room, pistols drawn.

“Nathan!” Bai said, somewhat surprised. “You’re alive! I was sure Salim was going to kill you.” She then paused, then asked with a hint of jealousy, “Why do you have a fountain?”

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Track 19: Brace Yourself

The next week, May and Andy were gone off to Washington DC to finalize the FDA approval of May’s various inventions. Then they’d be off to the warehouse they had rented as a factory for Olympus Inc.

“It’s in Worcester?” I asked when I heard about the factory’s location. “You mean you were in Massachusetts all summer and didn’t contact me? I was only an hour away!”

“Well,” May said, “we didn’t exactly have a way to contact you.”

“What about the cPhone?” I asked. “It should work outside…”

“It’s kind of illegal,” Andy pointed out. “I mean, the way they work outside the campus is by pretending to be a phone on the strongest network. You AMS guys may be crazy enough to casually commit theft of service, but I’m not.”

That had been on Saturday as I had walked them to the island’s airport. Nari had wanted to come, but Sunny hadn’t let her. I stayed there in the surprisingly light drizzle (well, light for NIU in mid-October) as the plane taxied down the runway. I then started to walk back to the campus.

However, for some reason, I turned to look at the forest. I had run through those woods twice a day for a semester, and I’d also had my first firefight there. Oddly enough, except for the monthly run, I hadn’t visited it since then, even though I had been thinking about doing it ever since Hell Semester had ended. I had this idea in my head that going back to the part where the most deadly part of the battle had taken place, a crater probably formed in WWII when the US took the island from the Japanese, I would instantly feel better.

Walking into the forest, I began to feel a sense of unease. On the path, I noticed that something was… off. Along the path where years of vehicles and Hell Semester students had worn, the trees had begun to blossom. Most of the other non-coniferous trees farther back in the forest had almost finished losing their leaves, but these seemed to think it was spring despite the colder weather.

I didn’t need to think about what this meant for too long. The Architect had been through here. I considered my options. The newly awakened sensible side of me pointed out that pursuing whatever this was would be a bad idea. The slightly less sensible side was inclined to believe that I wouldn’t have a prayer of sleeping until The Architect was dead. This less sensible side also pointed out that The Architect had come after me first, with no warning or provocation. My sensible side countered that the weapons I had on me (my SIG and my Berretta, plus a switchblade) would probably be of little use on someone (or something) that could make space and time his or her bitch.

I was busy considering whether to walk away like nothing was wrong, or going down there and ending The Architect when Mubashir appeared ahead of me from a side trail. I sighed inwardly. That’s twice I’d seen him involved in Architect-related weirdness and zero times I had seen signs of The Architect without seeing Moob. Odds were looking better and better that Bai was right and he was The Architect.

Upon seeing me, Mubashir froze. As he did, I noticed he was clutching what seemed to be a prayer rug. Finally, after a long pause, I said, as casually as possible, “Hey Moob, what’cha doing out here?”

“I… I was just finishing up some prayers,” he said after another pause. I noticed that he was slightly flustered. “There’s a bunker up that path that keeps the rain out. Really peaceful.” When I didn’t say anything to that, he added, “I also have to get away from Salim.”

“Won’t he notice that you’re gone?” I asked.

“Not on Saturdays,” Mubashir said. “He’s usually trying to get other Muslims to join.” He cocked his head. “By the way, what are you doing here?”

“I was trying to see if I could find the crater,” I said. Seeing Mubashir’s confused look, I said, “It’s where most of the Hell Semester battle happened. There’s more than a few ghosts there that I need to burry.”

Mubashir nodded. It was hard to see at that distance, especially in the rain and mist. “I know a few things about ghosts,” he said. “Would you like me to walk with you? Make sure you don’t step on a mine or unexploded shell?”

“Sure,” I said. The mines and shelling were mostly around the Hell Semester side of the island, but the forest separated that area from the main campus. The crater in question had most likely been from a battleship. The likelihood some other shells had landed in the area was pretty high. I didn’t want to risk stepping on a shell big enough to make that kind of crater that had been waiting for me since the early forties. “You can’t be too careful.”

We crossed the distance between us, then began our journey. After a few minutes, Mubashir remarked, “You know, I don’t really ever think of that last day of Hell Semester as a battle. More like a final where I just sat around doing nothing.”

“It definitely was a battle,” I said. “Especially around the crater.” After another pause I said, “I know it’s probably nothing compared to what you went through, but that kind of fucked me up. That and the rest of Hell Semester.”

“About that,” Moob said, “I’m sorry about what happened after Fight Night.” I nodded. He was referring to an incident where Salim had ambushed me. It ended up with most of Salim’s crew dead and me sharing an ambulance ride with a girl Eliza had really messed up. It wasn’t a fun time.

We walked along for a little while more. “You know,” Mubashir said, “for a time I alternated between not believing in Allah and cursing Him, saying I could do a better job. A few months after being kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, in fact.”

“What changed?” I asked.

Mubashir obviously wished I had asked something else, but he answered anyway. “In difficult situations some people find God, some people lose him. In even rarer situations God finds them.”

There was more silence. During that time, we kept heading deeper and deeper into the forest. We had left behind the strange blossoming trees and were in a segment that I wasn’t exactly familiar with. However, I could feel we were getting close. Finally Mubashir asked, “So, how many of them were there?”

“A captive we had claimed around a hundred and fifty,” I said, “and a captured cPhone with a ‘Find My Friends’ feature led me to believe he was correct.”

“That many?” Mubashir asked. “Against eight of you?”

“The vast majority were worse than useless,” I said. “They panicked way too easily, they couldn’t tell a safety from a magazine catch, and until the very end, their leadership ranged from nonexistent to worse than useless.”

“I’ve had experience with those kinds of leaders,” Mubashir said. “It’s almost funny when they meet on the field of battle and match ‘wits.’ Except so many are dying and each side had an obvious way to end it without that many people dying.” He sighed. “Of course, the war I’m fighting is completely unnecessary and one of the groups I’m fighting with is becoming less relevant every day. I believe the English language meme is dumpster fire?”

I shrugged. “Haven’t looked at the net much lately so I couldn’t…” I paused. We had just come into a clearing. A very familiar one.

“What is it?” Mubashir asked.

“This is where we had our second battle,” I said. I hurried out into the middle of it. “I came through the bushes…” I scanned around, then pointed to the spot, “…over there. Standing right here was an enemy patrol. We took them out…” I could almost see the last one. He had been playing dead as The Monk and I had advanced on him. Then his phone had rung and he had popped up. We had shot him. I remembered how he and his companions’ blood had soaked the snow. We had then looted the corpses after making sure all of them were dead. I somehow felt both ashamed and proud.

“Are you ok?” Mubashir asked.

“Moving on!” I said with forced cheer. Mubashir looked at me strangely, but he followed me down memory lane. “You know,” I continued in a non-sequitur, “It was really cold. And blizzarding. Visibility was complete shit and everyone’s teeth were chattering. Of course, you were back at camp, experiencing the same weather so…”

“I don’t remember any of it,” Mubashir said. “It was honestly just another day off for me once I set the tent up. Salim was ranting, and those of us who were still left were listening to him vent.”

“What does he talk about?” I ask.

“His family and how they got murdered by an American drone,” Mubashir said. “Just once, I want to point out my family was most likely killed or enslaved by Al Qaeda, but that would blow my cover.” He kicked a tree. “I work for UNIX!” He kicked it again. “I work for the CIA!” He kicked a final time. “I work for Al Qaeda! I work for three of the worst entities in the world, three entities who lie and abuse my brother and sister Arabs daily! Who abuse me daily! Why am I cowardly enough to work for them?”

“I don’t think you’re a coward,” I said. “Honestly, I just don’t think you have a choice.”

“Apart from suicide,” Mubashir said.

“If you’ve found God again,” I said, continuing on my journey, “and if he’s saying the same thing to you as he is to me, that’s definitely a sin.”

Mubashir began following me. “Maybe our gods aren’t so different after all,” he said with a bit of a bitter laugh. “Which would make sense, since they’re the same.”

Eventually, we saw it. The memories of the events there caused me to stagger a bit, and for a minute, I could smell the fire and smoke. I could hear the gunfire and screams of the dying. It was so real I almost thought I was back there. Next to me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mubashir look at me in concern.

I took a few deep breaths, then said, “I’m ok.”

“To be fair,” Mubashir said, trying to sound casual, “You’re doing a lot better than I would if I went back to my village.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Anyway, if you look around, I think you can still see some signs of the battle. For instance, those shrubs along the sides of this path… I think you can still see how they got burned.”

After that, I led Mubashir up the path to the crater, keeping up a running commentary about everything that happened. How Doc, The Monk, John and I had to fight our way to the crater where Eric, MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and Cross had holed up. How the enemy had sent a recon team down what we had termed the funnel, and how The Monk and I had killed most of them. How the next attack was the rest of them, all coming down the funnel, and how we had massacred them with our guns and incendiary grenades, literally dismembering some and burning a few others alive. How we had decided (stupidly) to leave the crater and were ambushed by the few remaining enemies. How they had shot me, The Monk and Ray-Gun and could possibly have killed all of us if a relief force led by Eliza hadn’t shown up.

From the top of the crater, I stared at the now-swampy wasteland where I had been shot. “Hey Moob,” I asked, “Is it weird that I’m kind of proud at what I did here?”

“By ‘weird,’” Mubashir asked, “do you mean wrong?”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “I mean, I feel guilty. A lot of them died in pretty horrible ways. Sometimes because I pulled a trigger or threw a grenade.”

“I don’t know,” Mubashir said. “There is only one person who can answer that, and he hasn’t talked to me.” He smiled with a mixture of hope and cynicism. “I can say I hope God can forgive you, because I’ve been doing similar things and worse for much longer.”

“Well, I’ll hope he forgives you as well,” I said. “Mostly because I like your logic.” We laughed. It was genuine laughter. When we were done, I looked down at the bottom of the crater. “Someday,” I said, “I’d like to come back here with some other veterans, or some people like you who weren’t here but who’d understand what this is like. Cook some hot dogs or burgers, pop something to drown our sorrows, and just talk.”

“It can’t be with me,” Mubashir said. “I have to go back, and if they see me with you…”

I nodded. “Of course. Go on ahead.” I looked out to where I had been hit in the leg with shrapnel from a 40mm rifle grenade. “I’ve still got some reminiscing to do.” With only a short goodbye, Mubashir left. I watched him leave, then began to wonder how many more craters and North Koreas I would have.

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Track 12: What’s in the Box?

John was unusually quiet as we exited the mansion. When we were in a suitably deserted section of the campus, he asked, “So, what did you two talk about?”

“The President warned us about Bai, Li, Charlotte and Eliza,” I said. “He seems to think that they’re going to get us killed.”

“And he isn’t?”

“Speaking of that,” I said, “he advises that we don’t poke around certain places at NIU. Especially ones that might have anything to do with the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“So all we have to do,” John said, “is not do the thing that makes the sociopath angry.” I hesitated. John sighed. “In case you were wondering, this is where you say, ‘You’re right, John, we’ll just leave it alone.’”

“You shouldn’t be surprised,” a cold, dead voice said. We turned around. There, wearing a dark red hoodie, long stringy hair falling out of the hood. The rain had probably soaked through her hoodie, but apart from her skin being as unhealthily pale as normal, she showed no signs of being cold. She regarded us with an unreadable expression and cold, dead eyes. “The entire reason Nathan came to this island was to save the world. It’s naïve, reckless and maybe a little egotistical, but he sees an opportunity to accomplish his goals.”

“Alma,” I said, “fancy meeting you here.” Alma Hebert was the former roommate of Eliza, Jen and Charlotte. She creeped everyone out, especially Jen. I wondered how much of that was because she was Psychic or because she was just creepy. “How much did you hear?”

“More than you think,” Alma said.

“Has anyone ever told you how creepy you are?” John asked.

“Once or twice,” Alma said. Maybe it was just me, but I could swear I heard a bit of wryness underneath her usual monotone. “But I do know that Nathan will pursue whatever it is that The President warned him about, no matter what you, I, or anyone else says.”

“Of course,” John said, “One of my friends has a death wish. Fuck me, right?”

While he said that, I watched him intently. When he paused for a breath, I said, “John, go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

John, who looked like he was just about to get started, turned at me to stare for a moment. His brown eyes burned, but finally, he said, “Don’t bother.”

Alma and I watched John walk off. When he was finally far enough away, I turned back to Alma. “You know,” I said, conversationally, “I really wanted to talk to you. That facility you pointed out last year… the IRDF? Was that what you called it? It stood for Interdimensional Research Facility? It might tie into a few things I’m looking into.” I paused. “How do you know even know about that by the way? I looked into it, and every mention of it has appeared to have been scrubbed…”

Alma interrupted. “You’re asking the wrong questions.”

I was stunned. I don’t know why. “Excuse me?” I asked.

“You’re starting too small,” Alma said. As she spoke, I suddenly realized that she hadn’t moved a muscle the entire time. No adjustments, no blinking, she’d just stood there, hands in the pockets of her sweater. “This school was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only. You shouldn’t just be asking what IDRF One is for. You should be asking why a school is training future UNIX agents and Al-Qaeda terrorists. You should be asking why so few of its inventions leave its shores.” At this point, I noticed that Alma’s eyes hadn’t moved, either. She had focused on a point in between where John and I had been standing, and her gaze hadn’t shifted once. “Most importantly, you should ask… what is Anthony Carter Newton-Howell’s final goal?”

“Any reason you can’t just tell me?” I asked.

“I can,” Alma said, “but you wouldn’t believe me. Most days I can’t even believe it myself.” I could almost hear… emotion in her voice. She also shuddered. However, she quickly returned to her normal unreadable state. “Besides, the big question isn’t exactly difficult to answer.” She then turned and walked off. “Have fun opening Pandora’s Box, Nathan…”

I watched her leave. As usual, I left feeling disturbed and suspicious. Now, though, I was feeling somewhat used. I mean, why couldn’t she have just told me? Why the run-around? I mean, seriously, why wouldn’t I believe her? It wasn’t like The President had killed her and she’d decided not to die, or something.

Still, I had to get back home and get some sleep, maybe print out the plans for the Uilon Mangchi for Nari. However, as I walked back, the questions Alma had planted began to take up more of my mind. There was also another annoying thing: why was Al-Qaeda even in the school? They weren’t exactly the most well-behaved guests, especially in a Westernized place like NIU.

Even more galling was that I could have asked this question earlier. Then, I could have made use of the time I had spent with Mubashir. Instead, I had let him leave without setting up any method of communicating. There were so many reasons to do that: he might need an extraction, and I definitely needed information only he could provide.

Suddenly, as if thinking about him caused him to appear, I saw him stagger out of an ally almost right in front of me. Taking the opportunity, I grabbed him and forced him back behind the dumpster he had apparently been behind.

Understandably, he didn’t take that too well. When he was behind the dumpster, he punched me in the stomach and when I doubled over, he followed up with a knee to my face. I stood up just in time to see and hear him flip off the safety of a Makarov.

Obviously, despite the fact that I thoroughly deserved it, he didn’t pull the trigger. “Nathan?” he asked. “What in Allah’s name are you doing?”

“Hi, Moob,” I said, my breath short and my nose bleeding. “Sorry about that…” I took a quick break to cough, “…just needed to talk.”

“About what?” Mubashir asked, lowering his gun and flicking the safety. “What could be worth your life? I almost shot you!” He then said something in Arabic. I only caught the word Allah, so I assume it was something along the lines of “My God, I almost shot you, you idiot.”

“Sorry…” I wheezed. Damn, the guy punched hard. “There’s several things. One of the first things is… how come Al-Qaeda’s sending people to train… here.”

“I should think it’s obvious,” Mubashir said.

“Yeah…” I said, “…but the morals of this place don’t exactly match up… with the morals of Al-Qaeda. Then there’s also the question of how Al-Qaeda’s paying for…”

“Al-Qaeda isn’t paying,” Mubashir said.

“Excuse me?” I said.

Mubashir quickly looked around, then pulled me so I was fully in the alcove. He then continued in a hushed voice. “The reason I’m being shared with UNIX and the CIA is that the CIA is also curious about this deal. NIU trains and equips Al-Qaeda soldiers and even pays our airfare. In exchange… Well, we aren’t sure, but we believe Al-Qaeda, as well as other organizations from small criminal groups to certain government organizations provide NIU with favors.”

I suddenly felt a chill. “What kind of favors?”

Mubashir shrugged nervously. “Nothing big, from what I’ve been able to uncover. Mostly, from what I understand, you wouldn’t know they were acting any different. For instance, a former NIU student was trying to do some kind of charity work. I think women’s education. Al-Qaeda blows her up, using NIU-trained soldiers. Another group of NIU students opened up a tech company in the US, developing some kind of advanced tech. A venture-capital firm buys them up. The person in charge? An NIU student. The tech being developed? Canceled.”

He shook his head, as if trying to make sense of what he was saying. “There is this pattern of NIU students that are truly ahead of the curve who go to market and end up dead, broke, or imprisoned. My CIA handler thinks The President might be stockpiling the tech.”

“But why?” I asked. “What does he…” Suddenly, something clicked in my head. “He’s behind the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“Nate,” Mubashir said, “that is crazy. What kind of leap of logic…?”

“Listen,” I said, “I was in North Korea, I only got out a few days before the media finally took notice that The Dragon’s Teeth existed. I also have some idea that the reason the Grenzefrontier came back to Earth is because The Dragon’s Teeth are kicking them out of the planet they come from. Also, the IRDF building that Alma showed us last semester? I’m pretty sure that’s where they came from.”

Mubashir continued to look at me like I was crazy. “Dammit!” I shouted, causing his hand to move back to his pistol. “Where the hell else could a place get cloaking cloning, and advanced robotics?”

“But why would he build an army?” Mubashir asked. “Why would he hoard technology?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he wants to take over the world. His clone army comes marching back to Earth, kicks the ass of every major government, and the only weapons that can stop him are sitting right under his feet. Alternatively, clone army comes stomping in, then he uses his superior tech to defeat them, people declare him a hero, he then uses the good will to declare himself the supreme ruler of the world.”

Mubashir shook his head. “This… theory of yours is based on loosely strung-together observations and guesswork. But you are right about one thing. The likelihood of The Dragon’s Teeth having something to do with Nowhere Island… well, your logic there is sound.”

“So you’ll look into it?” I asked.

Mubashir suddenly looked uncomfortable. “I could try,” he said, “but I’ve… I’ve been drawing attention. Plus, people have been watching us.”

“By us you mean…?”

“Al-Qaeda,” Mubashir said. “Our techie noticed some non-standard code on our devices, and we’ve been followed. They are starting to suspect me because…” He paused, then said, “We should leave separately. You go out the way you came in, I’ll go the back way.” He then began heading down the alley, saying over his shoulder, “Next time, I will contact you.

I nodded in acknowledgement and waited for him to leave my line of sight. I then walked back to my room, suddenly that I had a headache. I wasn’t sure when it had started, so I wasn’t sure if it was the lack of sleep or trying to shoot the new gun. I also noticed that I was kind of wobbling a little bit as I walked.

However, when I got back to my dorm, after putting my weapons away and storing Nari’s external hard drive in a safe place, I decided to check out my computer. I wanted to see the policy for student inventions. I had remembered that they had been extremely draconian.

The thing is, as soon as I looked at it, the policy had completely changed. Instead of threats of lawsuits and deadlines for implementing ideas outside of NIU, there was talk of funding and free networking to help find clients.

I paused, suddenly becoming alert again. I quickly (and quietly, because John was fast asleep beside me) opened the desk drawer and pulled out a copy of the student handbook. Flipping through the pages, I found the section on inventions and ownership thereof. It was even less giving than I had remembered it being. I looked back at the website’s version, trying to reconcile the difference. Then I saw the date. Apparently, the last time it had been updated… was ten minutes after I had left The President’s mansion.

I smiled, then went to email Nari, May and Andy news of the change. Looking back on it, it was actually kind of a rambling letter with no point. Then, I considered doing something else. The problem with that was due to lack of sleep and my headache, I forgot what it was. So I decided (finally) to do the sensible thing and go to sleep.

 

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Track 6: Back in the NIU Groove

As I fell, I lost my grip on my Berretta, causing it to clatter to the ground. I quickly grabbed it and turned around, looking to see what I had tripped over.

Lying next to me, wearing a blue sweater, was an olive-skinned man with close-cropped hair. He groaned, and tried to get to his feet. “Mubashir?” I asked. “Is that you?” Mubashir Mubarak was one of the other three NIU infiltrators who accompanied me into this rat’s nest. His mission was a little different than mine: not only was he working for UNIX, but I also believed he was working with the CIA or someone to infiltrate Al-Qaeda.

As I watched him struggle to get up, I noticed that something was leaking from his eyes and nose. It took me a bit to realize that he was bleeding. “Jacobs?” he asked when he was finally able to look up, his voice confused. “What are you doing in my room?”

As he stared into my eyes, I saw that his pupils were different sizes. “This isn’t your room,” I said, the horror in my gut changing flavor. Moob’s boss, Salim, had it out for me. If we were caught together, it would be a death sentence for Mubashir. On the other hand, Mubashir was showing obvious signs of a concussion. If I let him walk off, there was a chance he would just fall down and never get back up again.

While I was considering this, Mubashir began looking around. “You’re right…” he said, “but where are we?”

“We’re…” I began, then looked around. We were still in NIU, but in a part I had never seen before. Over a white picket fence, I could see what I assumed to be Sun Tzu. Between Sun Tzu and the picket fence was a chain link fence.

I began looking around more carefully. Behind us was a white colonial-style house, like the kind back home. The house and backyard area we were in was well-maintained. To the left was a green house of a different style and what looked to be a convenience store. To the right was a blue house and some kind of office building.

“…Well, I’m not sure,” I said as I got up. “Maybe it’s the Kill Street. That’s pretty far from where I was when…” I shuddered. Not only had I been… assaulted by some Lovecraftian shit, I had somehow teleported here. Also, judging by the sun, it was a little after noon, yet I had no blank spots that explained the time skip.

“The what?”

“I kind of heard older students talk about it,” I said. “It’s basically urban/suburban combat training.” I turned my attention back to Mubashir. “You ok, man?”

I had good reason to ask. His efforts to get to his feet only made him look drunk, plus he was shivering like the temperature was sub-arctic. Also, while I couldn’t be sure because the rate was so low, I had the sneaking suspicion that the bleeding from his eyes and nose was still happening.

“I need to be,” he said, in a tone as frightened as it was dazed. “I… I have to get back. I’ve been blacking out like this too much…”

“Wait,” I asked suddenly, “you’ve been blacking out and ending up in strange places on a regular basis?”

“I…” Mubashir was about to say something, then his eyes drifted to my hand. I suddenly realized that it was still clutching my Berretta. “…I need to go,” Mubashir said. He then ran off.

“Talk to a doctor!” I yelled after him as he disappeared around the house. After a few seconds, I added under my breath, “fucking dumbass.”

The next step was to find out the time. That was easy, if disconcerting. I pulled out my phone. For a second, it said the time was 7:35 AM, which was about the time the weird shit had started going down. Then, after it finished reconnecting to the internet, it updated to 2:24 PM. I had lost seven hours.

The next step was to get out. That was just as easy. Since I didn’t want to attract any more negative attention to Mubashir than his bleeding eyes, frequent blackouts and disorientation normally would, I decided to scale the chain link fence. It was only after I had got down on the other side that I realized how much more healthy all the running around made me. That was the one good thing about being in the AMS: I may have already been shot, I may be mentally disintegrating, and I may have potentially been attacked by an Elder God, but at least I wouldn’t die from being overweight.

The rest of the day was a mess of wondering whether or not what had happened that morning was real. Either way, I probably should tell someone. It was just… I wasn’t sure if anyone I knew could do anything about it.

I mostly spent the time before the meeting doing school shopping. One of the first things, I have to admit, was buy some whiskey, one that was, apparently, tinged with honey. It was to be my reward for meeting up with Krieger. Once I had met with him, I was going to go straight back to my room and start imbibing.

I got to the Drunken Mercenary exactly ten minutes ahead of schedule. I couldn’t help but smile. The Drunken Mercenary was built into a dorm for fresh meat (or AMS/Shadowhaven students who hadn’t passed Hell Semester.) Once Hell Semester was over, the survivors would move into this dorm. Most of it was the same semi-modern style as all the other buildings on the island, but The Drunken Mercenary did its best to replicate an old tavern. An old-time sign hung over a Medieval-looking door that served as the bar’s entrance. Behind the blacked-out window was the trappings of an old European pub, plus a few pool and poker tables and a few TVs that invariably were tuned to soccer, or, as the people watching called it, football.

“Nathan!” A booming Russian voice called out. I turned to seem my boss, Dmitri Arkadyvich Popov, a tall, muscular Russian with a shaved head. “Why so early?”

“Just thought that if I could get here early, I could leave earlier,” I said.

“You poor fool,” Dmitri said as he got his keys out. “Now you will be waiting as well.” He then pushed open the door and I followed him into the bar.

Before he could turn on the lights, someone sitting by the door between the Drunken Mercenary and the dorm part of the building beat him to it. “You’re late, Dmitri,” a hard, female voice with a Russian accent said.

I turned to see a middle-aged woman with dark hair sitting at one of the tables. I recognized her instantly: Professor Zemylachka, the head of the Shadowhaven school. Dimitri laughed. “Rosie,” he said, “one of these days, your ninja horseshit will get you shot.”

“You’ll forgive me,” Professor Zemylachka said wryly, “if I’m not too frightened by that. Would you get me a drink?”

“Nathan,” Dmitri said, “you want to get some practice bartending?”

“Sure,” I said. “By the way, what are my hours going to look like?”

“I was thinking you could get your old times, plus Friday,” Dmitri said as I moved behind the bar.

“Sounds good,” I said, “all my classes are during late mornings or early afternoons.” I picked up a cup. “Hey, Professor, what do you want?”

“May I have the good stuff?” Professor Zemylachka asked.

“Is she a personal friend?” Dmitri asked.

“No sir,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Sorry, Ma’am. Rules are rules.” The rule in question was that when I was behind the bar, I had to run it like a kleptocrat, only unlocking the cabinet that contained the non-shitty alcohol for personal friends. Everyone else got a brand of beer from America that was famous for its lack of quality, cheap Russian vodka, and some unidentifiable liquid stuffed in a jam jar and disturbingly labeled “For Assholes. Free.”

Professor Zemylachka laughed. “What about Mr. Popov?” she asked.

I considered, then said, “He just pays the bills.”

The head of Shadowhaven laughed. Dmitri, weirdly enough, told me, “Good job. Remember, you are master of the bar.”

“What about me, boyke?” a growly voice asked.

I looked up. Leaning against the window, I saw Professor Krieger leaning on the wall next to the door leading out to the street. As usual, his light brown eyes were sparkling with insanity. Someone who didn’t know better would think that someone that big couldn’t sneak in like that.

I, however, had seen bigger be stealthier. “Sorry,” I said, “best I can give you is a twenty-five percent discount on the cat piss.” I indicated the tap to indicate what I meant.

“I’m hurt, Boyke.”

“You should be honored,” Dmitri said. “I only let people give discounts when they want to impress someone or negotiate with them, especially one that good.”

“Oh,” Krieger said. “In that case, I’m honored. A pitcher of cat pee for me and my friends.”

I got busy preparing the awful substance for them. Just as I was about done, Kyle Rockford walked in. One of the four survivors (not counting Nari) of the North Korean recon mission, he was recruited by Krieger and advised by Professor Zemylachka. He also had led a sting mission against Grenzefrontier sympathizers at NIU at the behest of The President.

That mission had come to a bloody end at the end of last semester. His team, mostly teammates from his high school who had apparently stood by him when he came out as trans, had all ended up dead. Needless to say, by the time of the North Korean expedition, he was kind of soured on the whole “being a spy” thing. In fact, I was surprised to see him back here.

“Oh no,” he said. “How long have they been talking to you?”

“Kyle,” I asked, somewhat confusedly as he walked over to me, “what are you talking about?”

“Listen,” he said, “Nate, you’re a decent person. Leave now while you can still live with yourself.”

“Are you threatening another student?” Professor Zemylachka asked.

“We both know full well what I’m saying,” Kyle said, turning to her angrily. He turned back to me. “Seriously, man,” he said, “I’m not threatening, I’m begging. They want to do the impossible.”

“And that is…?” I asked.

“We feel the school is not living up to its potential as a learning environment,” Kreiger said. “Some of our fellow faculty in the more… pacifistic programs have tried to make changes as well. Their approaches have met with failure as their methods required them to work with people who had vested interest in keeping things the same. As such, they failed.”

Things were now disturbingly clear. The faculty of AMS and Shadowhaven were planning an armed revolt. “I see…” I said.

“Nate,” Kyle said, “I came back to get as many people out as possible.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Their plan… remember those people at Hell Semester final? Remember how North Korea looked when we got there? That’s what’s going to happen.”

I paused. Then I asked Krieger, “Are your plans for change… playing into your strengths?”

“It depends,” he said. “We have some reasonable demands. Less brutal Hell Semester, students having more control over their own work, having punishments being less arbitrary… things of that nature.”

“And when would this be?” I asked.

“Now, boyke,” Krieger said, “you should know that we can’t really tell you anything more until you’re in.”

“And if I don’t join?” I asked.

“Depends on who else you tell,” Kreiger said. “We can keep disagreements civil if you can.”

I considered. Finally, I said, “I’ll have to think about this.”

Kyle’s face fell. Krieger smiled. “Take your time, boyke,” he said. “After all, we still have a lot of time.”

 

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Track 17: Creepy Brick Buildings

The rest of the day was midterms, sleeping and the radio show. Thankfully, my English class ended just in time for me to take a nap after lunch. After that, I slowly staggered into the radio booth. Andy came in a bit later. At our second break, I said, “So, as you may have noticed, I’m a little tired. I’ve only taken one, and already I feel like crap.”

“Well, thankfully midterms are only a week,” Andy said. “Oh, something else. On my way over here, our GM said we have been selected to operate the booth during Culture Week.”

“Oh,” I said, visions of gargantuan responsibilities filling my head, “what, uh, what exactly does this mean, Andy?”

“The week before finals we’re going to be set up outside talking to people,” Andy said. “You know, doing interviews and talking with our fans.”

“We have fans?” I asked blankly.

“Apparently, we do,” Andy said. “We got two hours because we were requested by the Mexican and Japanese presentations. From what I can tell, that’s the champs and the underdogs.”

“I think I know how we got the Mexicans to request us,” I said. “I got a friend who’s working with them.” I then added in a joking manner, “If you’re listening, Ricardo, thanks for the extra work!”

“Shouldn’t be that hard,” Andy said. “It actually sounds like it’s kind of fun.”

“Oh yeah, definitely,” I said. “Don’t mind me, I’m actually looking forward to it.” It was true. I really wanted to see the culture festival, and this would force me to make time to see it. Otherwise, I’d probably just stay in my dorm and have a panic attack.

The rest of the week wasn’t anywhere near as fun as that radio show. I enjoyed presenting my projects in Military History and Sociology, but the amount of work I had put into them beforehand nearly made me snap.

Math, though, was the worst of the lot. I was never any good at math. In fact, for half of high school, I had special one-on-one math classes. Here, I had none of that. Plus, when we were finally done with that stupid test, the teacher assigned us more math homework that had to be done by tomorrow. Why? He said it was because “Math never rests,” but people in the class (mostly the ones who weren’t in AMS/Shadowhaven) suspected it was because he was legitimately insane.

Another thing that happened that week was Cross convincing me to carry a gun. At lunch on Wednesday, I was sitting with him. Eventually, he said, “Hey, Killer, remember what happened last week? You know, with the people breaking into Secure Records?”

“Yeah,” I asked, “what about it?” At the time, I thought we were going to start speculating on who the people there had been working for, or maybe Cross would talk about a potential buyer for the information I had gotten.

“Remember how you weren’t armed at the time?” Cross asked. “Because if it was just you who was there, things could have ended a lot differently.” He waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he asked, “Why the hell weren’t you carrying?”

“I kind of don’t like the idea of carrying a weapon all the time,” I said. “What if I lose control? What if I shoot the wrong person?”

Cross sighed. “Listen, Killer. You come from a pretty clean family, right? I bet before you came here you never knew anyone who had done anything worse than smoke weed or shoplift. You were taught that the system was on your side and all you had to do was do well in school and you’d get to live the kind of life your parents lived.”

“You seem to have me pretty well figured out,” I said.

“Am I wrong?” Cross asked.

“No,” I admitted. I actually was probably even more sheltered than Cross thought.

“You want to know the thing about this system that you’ve been taught to trust?” Cross asked.

I rolled my eyes. “Let me guess: it doesn’t serve the little guy, it just fucks everyone who isn’t in power and the only way not to get fucked is to ignore it. Trust me, I’ve heard it.” It was very hard for me to avoid getting on my high horse. I had killed way too many people for that.

“Yeah,” Cross said, “but that’s not the point. The point is that they’ve lied to you about other things. For instance, human life doesn’t have an intrinsic, objective value.”

“If that’s the case,” I said, “why do you have my back?”

“Because you have subjective value,” Cross said. “You’re a badass motherfucker who actually gives a shit if people live or die. However, if someone comes after me, I’ll shoot them because I value my life, and I don’t give a fuck about theirs.”

He paused. “Look, Killer. I like you. That’s why I’m telling you this. If I didn’t think you were worth having around, I wouldn’t lose an ounce of sleep if someone popped you. Just remember: if someone has made up their mind to kill you, you probably wouldn’t have liked them anyway.”

“Still not convinced,” I said.

Cross rolled his eyes. “Ok,” he said, “say you’re walking down the street with May or Eliza or someone you care about and you see someone in front of you start to pull out a gun. You know that they’re going to kill that person you care about, and possibly you as well. The street is structured in such a way that you can’t throw the loved one out of the way and the attacker is too far away for you to grab. Is it better to let him kill you and your friend, or is it better to blow his brains out?”

I bought holsters for my two pistols that very day.

After midterms, things quickly calmed down. For about two weeks in March, nothing except routine work happened. It was glorious.

The third Monday looked like it was going to continue this trend. I was a little late getting out of English class, so the elevators were pretty much empty. The only other person waiting was John. I smiled to myself. Things were going well. I had good friends, good grades, and no one had tried to kill me for weeks.

Just as I had finished that thought, Mubashir suddenly ran into the elevator. His sudden appearance startled me and John, causing us both to reach reflexively towards our weapons. “Hello,” he said, looking at us nervously as the door closed. “Sorry about the intrusion. But you should really ask me about why I joined NIU.”

Suddenly, it came back to me. That stupid fucking joke I had to tell everyone. “Let me guess,” I said as John and I relaxed, “you thought you were applying to NYU, I say, ‘what a coincidence, me too,’ and then you comment about how we rhymed.” Mubashir sighed in relief as I turned to John. “Does that sum it up?”

“Yeah,” John said, “pretty much.”

“Good,” Mubashir said. “I can’t stay long. Salim is already suspicious of me.” He looked directly at me. “Do you have any idea how hard it was to convince him to let what you did to Amir go?”

“I’m surprised you did it,” I said, a little skeptically. “Salim tried to stab Ulfric once.”

“Technically,” Mubashir said, “I convinced him to wait a few years. He’s not going to make a move until after you graduate. Or go home for the summer. Or set foot off the island for any reason. Or if he gets tired of your existence.”

“I feel so much safer,” I said.

Mubashir’s normally chipper expression faded, replaced by a dark look as he leaned against the door. “You’re lucky,” he said, “I’ve got to live with him and pretend to like him. I have to just watch as he spews hate in the guise of Allah’s kindness.” He looked at us, his expression broken beyond words. “I want to kill him.”

Needless to say, we didn’t know what exactly to do with that. We just stood in silence until the elevator dinged. We all stepped back from the door. There, standing in front of us, face as impassive as ever, was Alma Hebert.

“Well, well,” she said, “the gang’s all here. Good. I have something to show you three.”

“I’m sorry,” Mubashir said, “I just…”

“Believe me when I say,” Alma stated, focusing her cold gaze on Mubashir, “that you don’t have to lie to me. It would also be hard to do successfully.” She shifted her focus back to all three of us. “Now, I don’t know who, exactly you work for,” she said, “but I have an idea of what you’re after. Allow me to show you something of interest.”

Suddenly, the world turned yellow and black, and we were standing near a brick building in the Northwest corridor of the campus. It was completely boarded up and sealed off with heavy-duty steel plates. The sign above the building said “Interdimensional Research Facility One.”

“This,” Alma said, “is the IDF. Thirty years ago, there was an incident, and three of the school’s top scientists went missing. Their project has resurfaced in North Korea. If you want to know why, you’ll have to dig. Start by going through the Secure Files in the Engineering school from the eighty-five-eighty-six school year.”

“You know,” I said, “if you know what’s happening, you could just tell us.”

“I’m sorry,” Alma said, the sepia fading away to reveal we were still in the elevator, “but by now you should know that everyone at this school has their own agenda.” When the elevator was completely there again, we realized that Alma was gone. However, we still heard her voice, as if from a great distance away, say, “And Nathan? Tell Eliza and Bai that the angels are coming and it’s time to unite.”

“Well,” John said, “that was creepy and vague. And kind of annoying, too.” His brow furrowed in apprehension. “Mubashir, you ok?”

Mubashir, up to this point, had been standing stock still. When John repeated his query, he shook himself. “Yeah,” he said, with a fake smile, “I’m totally fine.” Somehow, I wasn’t sure I believed him.

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Track 9: The Southern Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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