Track 4: You Got Me Up in a Cage

The battle to take the campus had, from what I could tell from the various safe areas I had been stored in, been chaotic and brutal. Nobody, especially Campus Security, could tell who was on what side. To top it off, some of the students, staff and faculty appeared to have taken the opportunity to settle old grudges and/or enrich themselves.

Two days later, the campus was secure again. The last burst of gunfire had been very methodical and it was around this time Krieger came to collect me. “‘Allo, Boyke!” he said, popping his head into the room. “Would you like to talk with a deposed despot?”

As he walked into the room, two people filed in. I recognized both of them. One, a blond woman a little older than I was (I think her name was Edda Stauffenberg,) I only knew of because she had been in Hell Semester the year after me. She wore a blouse, grey slacks and a black Kevlar vest loaded with grenades and ammo and carried a G36C. One of the few clues to the fact that she hadn’t started her NIU career in Shadowhaven was that her hair hung loosely down beyond her shoulders.

The other I recognized as Oro Okoro. We had been in Hell Semester together and, while not close, we had both been in a certain short-lived club. She had gotten her dark hair cut short and wore yellow-brown fatigues and a similar vest. She carried a pump action shotgun and had her SMLE slung over her shoulder. I also noticed that all my visitors had a blue ribbon with a red stripe around the center tied across their right arms.

“I’d much prefer it if I could go home,” I said.

“You can go home,” Krieger said, “I just need you to confirm a few things. Then you, your girlfriend, and your pet FBI officer can go home.”

I clammed up. Early on, they had given me my cPhone back. I had called Eliza first, of course. She sounded glad to hear from me, then things had gotten awkward. As soon as she had hung up, I had called Agent Hicks, an FBI agent. I had an urgent need to contact him, and I needed that conversation to be unheard by Krieger. Hoping that they had only gotten the number and conversation length, I opened my mouth, trying to play dumb.

“By the way,” Krieger said, ending that plan before it could even start, “I liked Mubashir. Is there anything I can do to help him from this Nakashima person?” I tried to keep my emotions from showing. Mubashir Mubarak was a former Al-Qaeda terrorist who had been recruited against his will. He had finally escaped when he was revealed to be a) a mole for the CIA and b) a godlike entity. Mayu Nakashima, meanwhile, was an assassin who had been trapped for half a millennium in a hell dimension because several secret societies had prophesized Mubashir being, well, God. Now she was looking for him. “It sounds like a very interesting story,” Krieger said. “Would you care to tell me why a Japanese person is after an Al-Qaeda operative?”

“No,” I said, keeping my response short and truthful. “Anyway, how’s Eliza doing?”

“She doesn’t trust us,” Oro said. “She’s already tried to break out twice.” She was obviously bothered, and who could blame her? Eliza had been closer to her than I was, and possibly anyone else since her parents had been killed.

“Not surprising,” I said. “You are holding us at gunpoint. Plus, Eliza has a few trust issues at the moment.”

“We’ve contacted her father,” Krieger said, “and he’ll pick both of yeh up as soon as you help me with this one little thing.”

“Ok, fine,” I said. “Lead the way.”

Krieger nodded. Edda rapped a pattern on the doorframe with her fist. “Paris!” she called out.

“London!” a voice responded. We then walked out into the hall. There were several more people guarding the hall. I recognized two. Camilla Reyes was another fellow Hell Semester graduate from Mexico and there was a young brown-haired guy with a Ruger Mini who I remembered being in Edda’s year at Hell Semester.

“Right, boys and girls!” Krieger said cheerily. “Let’s go!”

We then began to head out into the island’s sweltering summer heat. Because everyone there was from AMS/Shadowhaven, it was a very good close protection setup. “So,” I said as we got out of the building, “how’s the purge going?”

“Not well,” Krieger said. “We’ve had to kill too many otherwise good people.” He shook his head and sighed. “The thing is, we don’t have the facilities for containing some of the President’s scarier supporters. Nowhere Island’s for keepin’ people out, not keepin’ ‘em in. And if a few of these people get out, too many people would end up dying.” He looked at me. “I did this to stop students from dyin’, boyke. To stop Hell Semester. If I let some psycho or loyalist live and they go around killin’ students, then what the fuck did I do any of it for?”

“Ah,” I said. “I see.” We walked a while longer. I saw a Bearcat (an armored car used by CampSec) that had been disabled. By “disabled,” I meant that it had been hit with some sort of anti-tank weapon that had smashed craters into the troop bay and engine compartment. I could see bloodstains where people would have been sitting through the holes. It had then careened into a building. “Tough fight, huh?” I asked.

Oro nodded. “A few loyalist CampSec officers were put in Bearcats. They did a number on us until we were able to take the anti-tank weapons.”

“How many did you lose?” I asked.

“Too many, man,” Edda’s buddy from Hell Semester said in an earnest Southern accent. “Bastards cut us up pretty bad.” He shuddered. “They were right to, though, after what we did to the HQ.”

“And what did you do to the HQ?” I asked.

“Pumped it up with gas,” another person in the escort group said, “then locked the door.” Judging by how guilty they looked, I assumed it wasn’t something that killed instantly. I wondered how many of the CampSec guards in there were really loyalists and how many were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“President’s mansion,” Krieger said. “We’re keeping him in one of his personal laboratories. Apparently, the bastard was a scientist.”

The mansion, located in the heart of the campus, was one of the few buildings relatively untouched by the fight. Instead, Campus Security officers and AMS/Shadowhaven faculty were busy ripping it to shreds. I mean that literally, through the double doors I could see people with sledgehammers, pneumatic battering rams and chainsaws ripping out the walls. Also, carts with electronics and paper files were being collected in the lobby.

“Ah! Karl!” A large, bald man with a Russian accent came out to greet Krieger. I recognized him. It was Dmitri Popov, the owner of the AMS/Shadowhaven haunt called the Drunken Mercenary. I had tended bar for him. “We are doing quite well as you can see. Bastard’s got all these hidey-holes. What do you want to do with the money and valuables we find?”

“If we want to keep this shit running,” Krieger said, “we’re going to put it all in the treasury somehow. Anything more, ask the board.”

“They’re going to make you President of this fucking place, you know?” Dmitri said.

“They can bloody well try,” Krieger growled. “And I’m not going to do that thing where I turn ‘em down twice before I accept. I want to teach, and if they won’t leave me alone, I’ll quit and go find a Uni where I can without bein’ harassed.” He turned around, remembering our guard was still with us, and said, “You lot, wait outside before you hear any more you ain’t supposed to.”

Popov laughed at the last bit and ushered us further in. “Everyone knows that they’re going to ask you.” Krieger muttered something under his breath. When we were further in, Popov murmured, “And seriously, you are the right person for the job.”

“There’s others,” Krieger said, “and I’ll only take the job if I’ve bleedin’ got to do this again.”

“Fair enough,” Popov said. “But you realize, even if you don’t take the big job, you can’t just be a normal teacher. You brought a coalition together and if it falls apart too soon, before we stabilize it, people could die.”

We walked further into the mansion. Eventually we got to a small sitting room in the basement. Krieger walked to a gap in the wall that revealed an elevator. Hinges and splintered remains suggested that the elevator had once been disguised by a book case. Popov, meanwhile, walked over to a liquor cabinet. “Here,” he said, handing me a glass bottle of a clear liquid. “You’ll be needing this. Rosie’s preparing him.”

“Key word, preparing!” We turned around to see Professor Zemylachka hurrying towards us. “This process, it will take very long to break him. Potentially weeks, months even. Now is not the time.”

“We might not have that time,” Krieger said. “This is supposed to kill him, after all. Added to that, these Dragon’s Teeth blighters might not give us weeks before they come a-knocking.”

“Fine!” Zemylachka said. “We rush it like amateurs.” We all got into the elevator, except Popov. “Dmitri,” Zemylachka said, “are you coming?”

“I saw it once,” he said, “don’t need to see it again.” The door of the elevator closed shut, then Krieger punched in a code and down we went.

After the silent elevator trip, the door opened onto a long hallway. It was brightly lit, painted a dark blue or gray, and had a clean-room feel to it.

“So,” I said, “can I ask how we’re killing the President?”

“Well,” Zemylachka said, “regeneration like that requires large amount of energy, yes?” I nodded. “So, we simply limit access to energy.” With that, she pressed a button. A door opened with the hiss of a rapid change of pressure. Disturbingly, the escaping air blew

Inside was a sort of med lab. Medical equipment and computers were arrayed around the room. In the center was an operating table with a bunch of scanners aimed at it. In the bed, strapped to the bars by his wrists and ankles with handcuffs and several belts securing him, lying naked in his own bodily waste, was the former President.

“You know Nate,” he said conversationally, raising his head, “I’m starting to think you weren’t entirely truthful when we had our little conversation.”

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Track 15: Shot Through the Heart

Apparently, Eliza and I weren’t the only ones to see that vision. According to an email I read, a lot of other people on the island had seen the same thing and the TV in Sun Tzu had a report about psionically sensitive people seeing strange visions all over the world. I was worried, but I realized that there was nothing about it I could do. Instead, I spent all my spare time trying to do rough sketches of the next weapons.

Finally, it was time to go to the study group/weapons test. Saturday morning, I actually had managed to sleep until seven. Considering when I usually got to bed and how little time I actually spent sleeping, it was unsurprising that I was usually tired. I considered going back to sleep, then considered the nightmares I was likely to get. After those lovely thoughts, I began the process of getting ready without disturbing John.

After I got in, I noticed that he had gotten dressed while I was doing the same, plus showering and brushing teeth. “Did I wake you up?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “not really. Besides, I can sleep through all sorts of crap.”

“Also,” I said, “sorry about the other night with Eliza. I…”

“Hey,” John said, “it was much better than what you walked into when Bai was here. Besides, she kind of lives on the floor above us.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” John said. “She rooms with Oro, but it’s functionally a single. Don’t ask where Oro goes, Bai never asks and I’d bet anything she wouldn’t tell if she knew.” He gestured at the door with his toothbrush. “Anyway…”

“Certainly,” I said.

Eventually he came back. For once, we actually talked a bit, mostly about classes. It was weird. Ever since we had gotten back to the island, we had stopped talking to each other. It was weird.

I thought back to what Eliza had said about Charlotte blaming herself for whatever happened in England over vacation. “John,” I asked, “do you blame me for what happened in Korea?”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Uh… the part where you got shot.”

“Ah.” John said nervously. “That part.”

There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, he said, “I don’t really blame anyone for what happened. I mean, I could blame you, but you never really forced me or even ordered me into that particular situation. I could blame the guy who actually shot me, but he was completely in the right to do so. I could blame myself, but honestly those things happen.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“Is there a reason you asked?” John asked.

“It’s just…” I said, “…things have been weird between us since then, you know?”

“Yeah.” John said. There was another pause, then he blurted out, “It’s just… you’d do it again. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the next time I do something like this, I could die. I will die.”

“You don’t have to continue doing this,” I said. “You’re not on a tour of duty, and there’s plenty of other people who can do this.”

John cocked his head. “You really believe that?” he asked skeptically. “That we can sit back?” I hesitated. John sighed. “I thought so. Fuck me, right?”

Suddenly, our phones beeped. We both reached for them. It was Nari, sending out a mass text. Apparently, she was out in front of Sun Tzu. “You want to head out?” I asked John.

“Sure,” he said. “I kind of want to see how this gun you’ve been working on handles.”

“Actually,” I said as I unlocked my gun safe, “these ones are models that Nari’s improved.” I reached in and pulled out the prototype. “This is the one I made.” I held it for a moment, then put it in my pocket after making sure it was on safe. “Might be useful to give people an idea of how much its improved.”

“I call first dibs,” John said.

We walked down to Sun Tzu together, meeting Cross, Bai, Oro, and Eric’s crew on the way down. Ray-Gun, in particular was particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Cross, however, was quite grumpy.

“Listen, Ray,” he said as we got out of the elevator, “I know you like high-tech stuff, but I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Or my morning coffee. I need you to get the fuck outta my face with your tobacco and your chipperness for five seconds.”

“I’m sorry you are such a sad individual,” Ray-Gun said, waving his still-burning cigarette around expressively, “but I cannot control my excitement, and I have no wish to.”

“You are lucky,” MC Disaster said quietly. “At least they aren’t laser or plasma-based. Then he’d never shut up.”

The banter continued like this for the few seconds it took us to leave our dorm and see Nari, May, Sunny, and Andy waiting by the entrance to Sun Tzu. Sunny and Andy looked drained. May looked like her usual hyper self, albeit somewhat annoyed. Nari, meanwhile, looked like she had stolen the energy from the other three. She was also holding an ABS case and a cloth bag.

“Good,” Nari said upon seeing us, “you have made it.” She then turned around and beckoned imperiously. “Come on,” she said. “The range is only open for a limited time.”

Sunny, noticing that some of us (Cross) weren’t exactly thrilled to be ordered around by a ten-year-old, said, “Sorry. She’s a little…”

Eric interrupted by asking Nari, “So, my Queen,” he asked jovially, “what do you wish of your court today?” He had moved up besides Nari, and as he said this he made a parody of an obsequious bow.

“Don’t encourage her,” Sunny said, shooting Eric a venomous expression.

Nari, suddenly realizing what she had done, cringed slightly. “Sorry…” she said.

“Besides,” Andy said jokingly, “if anyone’s queen, it’d be May.”

Normally, May would either jokingly accept the title or cede it out of embarrassment, but today, she just made a noncommittal noise of recognition. Everyone else continued on as normal, but Andy and I noticed. I’m pretty sure that Nari noticed as well, but Eric was keeping her busy.

Eventually, Nari lead us into the room she had reserved. First, she opened the case to reveal six of the new pistols with two magazines each. These pistols were identified by stickers on the grip and barrel made by a label maker. As Andy had said, their aesthetic had been radically changed to a hybrid of the Berreta M-92’s long, double-cut slide and Desert Eagle’s triangular shape. The only bits of my original design that remained were the FNP-style sight mounts and the barrel that extended beyond the slide. Then she opened the bag to reveal that it had two plastic bags.

While she was doing that, I said, “Hey, Nari, John wanted to test out the first prototype, so I brought it along.”

“Did you bring magazines for it?” she asked. “I had to rework the magazines slightly. It wasn’t that big of a change.”

“Here you go,” I said, handing her the pistol and a spare mag.

She set the weapon on top of the newer versions. “Attention, please!” she called out. When she had everyone’s attention, she said, “In the case are prototypes of the Uilon Mangchi. Most of them are the second prototype, but one is the first. Do not get their magazines mixed up! Generation one has a different magazine than generation two, and I need to collect data on how they work.” When she saw that everyone had gotten this information, she continued, “In the white plastic bag, I have put tungsten-core rounds. In the other, I have bullets made out of a new compound taken from Grenzefrontier troops called seltsamemetall. Please make a note of which type of ammo you use and which gun you’re using on the sheets on the station, as well as any malfunctions. Mr. Jacobs, would you please instruct our guests in the operation of these weapons?”

Luckily, the controls on the first generation were the same as the ones on the second, which made things much quicker. The problem was that as soon as I had walked everyone through the process of loading, unloading and putting the Uilon Mangchi on safety, there was a knock on the door.

I opened it. There, smiling brightly, was Eliza. Behind her were Jennifer and Charlotte. “Sorry I’m late!” Eliza said. “What’d I miss?”

“Well…” I said, somewhat sheepishly, “kinda everything.”

Nari looked over my shoulder. “I know the mutant,” she said, “sorry… I mean Lupine. But I do not remember meeting the other two.”

“Charlotte is Eliza’s adopted sister,” I said. “Jennifer is… Jennifer.” Jennifer laughed in amusement at this. It was the kind of laugh that wasn’t supposed to remind you she was a supervillain, but did anyway. “They’re both in the Rogue program.”

I’m not sure why I mentioned that last bit, but I could feel Nari light up behind me. “Excellent!” she said. “I think we could use a law enforcement or enthusiast perspective on our weaponry.”

“I’m a little more than…” Jennifer began.

At the same time, May said, “I would prefer to avoid the civ…”

“Details, details,” Nari said. I turned around to see her literally wave off my concern. “Brief them on the details of operation and data gathering, Mr. Jacobs. After the first round, join us for the shareholders meeting.”

After running through everything again, I sat back and watched the first wave go. Everyone with the second generation prototype got the hang of it pretty quick. John, who was using the first generation, got the operation down pretty quick. After he finished his forty rounds (by which time all the other shooters had finished theirs,) he said, “If the fucking thing didn’t keep jamming or feel like I was firing a magnum, I’d say it was really good. It has some really nice penetration on it, which would have come in handy in Korea.” I nodded, remembering the abnormally strong armor of the Dragon’s Teeth. Hell, I had even had trouble penetrating the South Korean SWAT officer’s hard body armor with pistol rounds. 6.5mm seemed to solve that last problem pretty handily, though.

The Monk spoke up. “The newer version has greatly improved on the recoil, but I still do not like it. I also dislike the trigger. It seems a little heavy.” He paused to consider. “Then again, the recoil is comparable to your SIG, so I suppose someone might like it.” As he spoke, I noticed Nari was scribbling in a notebook.

MC Disaster spoke up again, making it a personal record for speaking in a day. “My thoughts are very similar. I quite like the power, I can tolerate the recoil, and I dislike the trigger pull. However, to determine if I would carry it into battle, I’d have to spend a lot more range time with it.” He considered the gun for a moment. Finally, he asked, “Does it really have to look this hideous?”

“Personally,” Jen said, “I quite adore the looks. Also the clip…”

“Magazine,” several people said at once, including Nari.

“Whatever,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “I like it. I just want to empty it a bit faster. It would also be nice to do it one-handed. That means a slight recoil reduction and a decreased trigger pull.”

“Me too,” Cross said. “But don’t reduce the trigger pull too much, ok?”

“It isn’t a revolver or a bolt-action,” Oro said. “That’s probably why I don’t like it. It is very accurate for an automatic.”

After a few minutes of somewhat contradictory advice and several near-arguments from the first seven shooters, Nari finally said, “I think that’s enough for now.” She grabbed me by the arm. “Please, continue shooting. Meanwhile, the board will have a meeting.”

“Speaking of that,” Bai asked, “what is your company called?”

“Olympus,” May said. “Olympus Incorporated.”

When we got out, I said, “Pretty cool name. Did you come up with it, May?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m also thinking we should name the divisions differently. You and Nari get the weaponry division, Mars Arsenal. You’ll also have a split between thirty percent of the profits of Mars Arsenal. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good,” I said. “What’s your division called?”

“I’ve got Hephaestus Industrial Solutions,” Andy said. “May has Caduceus Medical. Speaking of Caduceus, wanna tell them the good news?”

“Sure,” May said. “Basically, the changes to the student invention policy means I can get a grant from The President. Plus, his contacts are railroading Power Sludge and my surgical glue through the FDA. If things go as planned, Andy and I might be leaving the school in a few weeks. We even a site picked out in Massachusetts.”

“You don’t sound very happy,” Nari said.

May sighed. “There’s an FBI contest. Apparently, .40 S&W isn’t cutting it for dealing with Parahumans and criminals armed with advanced tech.”

“And?” Nari asked. “Isn’t that not a good thing?”

May took a deep breath. “Weapons entered in this kind of competition tend to sell very well with civilians…”

“Which is what we want, correct?” Nari said. “These weapons are deliberately designed to defeat The Dragon’s Teeth. If they invade, we want as many people armed with these as possible.”

May exploded. “And what do you think people are going to be doing with them in the meantime?” Nari flinched, but May continued.  “Yeah, sure, we’ll get rich, selling weapons to people like Cross and Jennifer as well as the cops, then selling medical supplies when they’re done killing each other. But people will still be killing each other before The Dragon’s Teeth show up. I don’t want to be responsible for that!”

Suddenly, May stopped, realizing that Nari was starting to tear up. “I’m sorry,” May said hurriedly, “I didn’t mean…”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” Nari said, straining to speak through her tears, “are massacring everyone in my country. I don’t want to be responsible for them to do the same to another country. Whatever Cross and Jennifer and people like them are capable of is a rounding error compared to what I’ve seen from those monsters.” She then began to walk off. “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be back.”

“Well,” May said after Nari was out of sight, “not only am I a hypocrite, I guess I’m also a complete bitch.” She began to walk away. “I’m going back to my dorm. When Nari comes back, tell her I’m sorry.”

 

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Track 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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Track 11: When You Grow Up

I woke up the next morning wondering why I was feeling so good. By all rights, I should have a pounding headache. Well, two shots probably wouldn’t cause a headache. I suddenly realized that this was the first time in a long time I had just slept peacefully.

When I looked out, my roommates were still sleeping. However, I was completely awake. It was weird, but I felt too awake to go back to sleep. Instead, I went over to my desk and booted up my computer. I had some work to do.

It was hard to resist booting up Steam. It was hard not going to YouTube when I opened my browser. I had been working pretty much constantly for the past week. Instead, I opened up the Campus Network. I decided that first I’d do some actual work and set up an appointment with my advisor. I looked at who it was. Professor Karl Krieger.

When I had met him, he had been Drill Sergeant Krieger. On the one hand, he was one of the few people who believed I could make it through the Hell Semester. Not even I had believed it. On the other hand, every time I looked at his face, I could see his eyes sparkle with madness and he had an uncanny read on me.

I sighed. Well, no use fighting it. I quickly saw that the nearest appointment we could conceivably make was around the first week of February, almost exactly two weeks away. I then started my own research project.

First, I decided to check out Kyle. That would be the hard, since I didn’t actually know his name. When I typed his name into the search bar, I wasn’t surprised to get more than one result, even when I narrowed it down to people. I narrowed it to AMS/Shadowhaven students who had their first semester Fall of 2015. There was only one result, Kyle J. Rockford.

I clicked on his profile. It was very bare, but by no means unhelpful. Name: Kyle J. Rockford. Gender: Blocked. Country: USA. State: Blocked. Town: Blocked. Age: 19. Date of Birth: Blocked. Recruiter: Karl Krieger. Sub-School: Shadowhaven and Madam Antionette’s Finishing School. That last school was the rarely-used official name of the Rogue school. Major(s): Assassination and Subterfuge. Dorm Room: Blocked. There was also a feed of comments and status updates and options to friend, follow or block.

I stared at it for a moment. Then, I opened my profile and privacy settings in a different tab. It turned out that the things Kyle had blocked out were also blocked out on my profile. I checked several other people. Most had unblocked a lot of the information on their profile. I decided to unblock my gender and leave it at that. I also noted that the information was locked and couldn’t be changed. I briefly wondered why anyone would block gender. Kyle himself was obviously male. I mean, I had seen him in the shower, much as didn’t want to.

“So,” I muttered to myself, trying to talk myself through this, “you’ve blocked everything you can possibly, you haven’t put anything in your About Me folder, you don’t post updates, you only comment on class posts…either you haven’t bothered to change your settings or you’re hiding something. You also seem to be keeping Richard in line through intimidation.”

I thought back to Fight Night. In order to make him surrender, I had to beat the crap out of him, including breaking his nose and stomping on his privates. “Now, how are you intimidating Richard? He doesn’t intimidate easily, and you’re doing it in a way that makes it look like he’s in charge of you. That must be really hard. Richard isn’t scared of physical violence. Why are you putting in that much effort?”

I suddenly realized that I’d need to write this down. I got out a piece of paper and began writing down facts, conjectures and questions. I also decided to put in how strong the conjectures were.

I looked through the list. If Kyle was intimidating Richard, it couldn’t be threats of physical injury. Therefore, it had to be blackmail. I tried to think of the conversation Kyle and Richard had. The only thing I could remember was that they talked about someone called The Punching Bag. Also, Richard had called Kyle “Karen,” and in response, Kyle warned that anyone could have been listening. More questions, still no answers.

I sighed, and decided to look at Kyle’s profile some more. I found that I could see his friends list. Most were people in Kyle’s group, three with a bright red “deceased” stamped across their photos. Only two were left alive. There was also Richard and… now that was interesting. Taylor Smith was also listed as a friend.

One possibility presented itself: Kyle wanted to get close to Taylor and possibly the campus’s white supremacist community. To do that, he was using Richard, he would then…

I sighed. I had nowhere near enough information to determine what the next step of the plan was. Nothing Kyle had said made me think he was a virulent racist. However, he could agree with everything Richard and Taylor said. But if he agreed with them, why was he blackmailing Richard?

Another sigh. For all I knew, I could be completely wrong about a dozen things. I updated the document one last time and saved it. Then I gathered my stuff to have a shower.

After showering and having breakfast at Newton-Howell, I logged back into cNet. I eventually discovered I could make a list of friends or people I followed. I could also make notes on the people I was following. I quickly followed Kyle, Richard, the people in that immediate circle, and Taylor. I put them in a list I titled “White Supremacists on Campus,” and made some notes about their perceived positions.

The weekend itself was relaxing, once I had finished my various bits of homework. I discovered that there was a laundry room in the basement for the people in Marine. The best part about it was that it was free.

The rest of the week, however, wasn’t relaxing. I discovered that the mid-week period of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were going to be particularly brutal because I had both classes and my night job at The Drunken Mercenary. At least The Drunken Mercenary had calmed down a lot after the first week. I also got my first paycheck from Popov on Saturday. I was now richer by two-hundred and forty-seven dollars. That was a nice feeling. I remembered smiling a bit before heading back to the salt mines that were my classes.

I did manage to talk to Eliza sometime in the third week. “Hey, Eliza,” I asked during lunch on Tuesday, “do you know anything about a person called The Punching Bag?” We were sitting with Bai, Cross, and Oro because everyone else was in class, sleeping, or having a panic attack.

“I don’t know,” Eliza said. “I kept me eyes open, but I probably missed quite a bit of stuff.”

“Well,” Cross said, “I think I can probably tell you what this guy does.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t even know if it’s a guy. Could be a girl.”

“Actually,” Cross said, “this guy probably is a chick. You see, a punching bag is, at least in my world, someone you hire to beat up. Say you’re being initiated into a gang and you want to prove you’re cold. You hire a punching bag, and you and the people you wanna impress go up and mug them. You get a wallet with some cash, a few canceled credit cards, and a hell of a lot of street cred. They get north of five hundred bucks.”

“That sounds… really dangerous,” I said.

“I know,” Eliza said. “But us Lupines could make a bit o’ money, couldn’t we?”

Cross laughed. “My dad was insurance to a Lupine punching bag for a while. She was an ex-prostitute. For ten grand, you and the people you wanted to impress could ‘rape’ her. If you wanted to ‘murder’ her, the cost ranged from five to fifteen grand, depending on the method of execution and an extra fifty if you wanted to move her somewhere. If the client went too far, my dad would step in. He’d also collect late fees. All in all, he could earn five grand on a bad night.”

“It sounds as dangerous and degrading,” Bai said.

“I would not look down on her until I know how her story ended,” Oro said.

“She’s living in a nice house in Connecticut,” Cross said, “she put all three of her kids and two of her grandkids through college and still has enough left over to drive a Porsche. I think she’s doing pretty good.”

“Have you asked her if she thinks it was worth it?” Oro asked.

Cross opened his mouth, closed it, thought about it, then finally said, “I’d have to ask her.”

“When you do,” Oro said, “I’d be very curious what she says.”

Finally, the meeting with Krieger came around. It was the first Saturday in February and I was desperately hoping I could get it over with quickly and enjoy the rest of my weekend. His office, annoyingly, was on the top floor of Patton, meaning I had to walk halfway across the campus in a blizzard. To make it worse, when I finally got to Patton, I was I late and the elevators weren’t working, forcing me to run all five stories.

Panting, I began the walk to his office on the other side of the building. This part of the building, unlike the grey, dimly lit concrete basement corridors where the firing range were, was actually quite nice with red wood paneling and dark green wallpaper.

“I hope you’re not out of breath, boyke,” a voice with a South African accent said, coming from somewhere behind me. I turned around. There was Professor Karl Krieger, his bushy brownish-blond beard and unkempt hair making him look as lion-like as ever. He was wearing a shirt with a South African flag that revealed his lithe, muscular arms. His eyes sparkled with their usual mix of intelligence and madness. “You realize we’re going to be doing a run today?”

“Sorry,” I said, “I was a bit late eating breakfast and had to run here.” I was quite proud of myself for not panting.

Krieger nodded. “Fair enough.” He then began to the hallway in a completely different direction from where I had been going, motioning for me to follow. “Come, step into my office.”

When we finally got into his office, it was very simply decorated. There were a few pictures. They were all quite interesting. “Is that you with Nelson Mandela?” I asked. Mandela himself was easily recognizable. The person the great leader was shaking hands with wasn’t. I mean, it could have been Krieger, but his hair was too short, and he had no beard. Also, the smile he was giving the camera was one of a man meeting a hero.

“Not like I got to talk to the man,” Krieger said sadly. “He just showed up for a speaking role at my university.” He sighed. “Do you know the saying ‘never meet your heroes?’” I nodded. “Don’t listen to them. I already respected the man. It only grew after that.”

“What happened?” I asked. “You don’t really seem to agree with his pacifistic ideals.”

Krieger pointed to the next photo. Krieger was in that photo as well, this time as the link between the starstruck man and the somewhat insane man who stood before me today. However, Krieger was pointing at a large, potbellied man with a shaved head and a sort of Gandalf beard. There were several other people of various nationalities, but they were all united in that they wore camouflage and carried large guns.

“I met this man, Rolf Larsson,” Krieger said. “He was very interested in finding ways to make humanity a better while making a profit and having fun.” He shrugged. “Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about you, Nate! Come on, sit down, take off your coat.”

I sat down in a red vinyl chair. “So,” I asked, taking off my coat, “what did you want to talk about?”

“Well first off,” Krieger said, “you haven’t declared a major. I know it could take a while, but the sooner you figure it out, the better.” He paused. “How about covert ops?”

I laughed. “No. No, no, no. God that would be awful. Not knowing who I was supposed to trust, worrying about being asked to betray I actually care about more than my superiors? No thanks.”

Krieger nodded. “So I see you would be more interested in the Academy of Military Science. Any particular areas you’re interested in?”

I considered it for a bit. Finally, I said, “I kind of want to retire from the whole killing people thing. Yeah, I want to save the world, but then I want to go into some desk job where I can work regular nine-to-five hours.”

Krieger nodded. “Well, if you wanted to look into coming back here as a teacher…”

I stared at him. “I’ve been here for a semester, and already I know how fucked up this school is. I’m not planning on coming back.”

“What if things changed?” Krieger asked in an overly-casual fashion.

“Are you going to change things?” I asked.

“The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice,” Krieger said cryptically, “but sometimes it has a jump start, I suppose.” He then changed the subject. “Anyway, if you are continuing with AMS, one of the requirements is to obtain a driver’s license. Obviously, the lessons won’t begin for a while.”

I looked out the window. The snow was falling down in sheets. “Yeah,” I said, “it’d be pretty hard.”

I considered the things that Krieger was saying. Somehow, I doubted that he was on the team of white supremacy. If so, I doubted he’d be keeping a picture of him shaking hands with Nelson Mandela or quote Martin Luther King.

“If I don’t believe you about this place changing,” I said, “what major do you recommend, outside of a sub-school transfer?”

“Officer Candidacy,” Krieger said without hesitation. “It has a lot of logistics training, business classes, plus engineering courses. I know plenty of people who took that course and transitioned into being a suit.”

“Cool,” I said. “I think I’ll take a few major-specific classes, then I’ll see. Anything else you want to ask me about?”

“Just want to congratulate you,” Krieger said. “Popov says you’re doing a great job at The Drunken Mercenary and I’m enjoying your radio show. You and Andy have… interesting chemistry.”

I nodded. My most recent show, I had made a lot of weird animal noises. Andy just laughed because, honestly, when the person you’re trapped in a small room with is making cat sounds, what else do you do? Apart from calling the insane asylum, that is.

“No,” Krieger, “this is the part of the interview if I ask if you have any concerns.”

I decided to take a gamble. “Well,” I said, “there is something I think you should know. I was looking at the cNet profile of someone you recruited, Kyle Rockford. He’s hanging out with some kind of dangerous people and…”

Krieger nodded. “I know Kyle. He’s a tricky bastard. Even I have trouble figuring out what’s going on in his head sometimes. But his intentions are almost always more noble than they appear.”

“Really?” I asked. “Do you know what his plan is?”

“That would be telling,” Krieger said. “Now come, I want to show you something.” He stood up and motioned me to follow him.

I did so. We walked down the hallway to the front of the building where there was a window looking out at the nearby buildings. Krieger, however, turned around to look at the wall. On it were dozens of photos. “If you believe that all of the teachers here are sociopaths, I hope this makes you reconsider.” He walked towards one in particular, this one of an old man in a US Army dress uniform with several medals pinned to his chest. “Some of us are bloody heroes. This man in particular nearly lost his hand tossing a Nazi grenade away from his unit. He was also one of the first Americans to enter a concentration camp.”

I took a closer look. The man’s face was very familiar, like an older, scarred version of someone I knew. I took a gander at the plaque that said his name. It read Kyle Chapman.

Suddenly, I realized that the person he looked like was also named Kyle. I turned to Krieger. “Thank you, sir,” I said. “You’ve been a big help.”

Krieger smiled. “Anytime, boyke,” he said.

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Track 10: Party at the Nerdy Colony

The bathroom was near the lobby. That’s how they found me. Andy had just walked in and May was waiting in line for the cafeteria. Andy waved and began walking towards me. May did too, but there was a lot more bouncing involved.

“Hey guys!” I said, “Glad you got the memo about where we’d meet!”

“Not a problem,” May said. “Mary couldn’t make it tonight, she’s got other engagements.” She turned around to come face to face with Andy. Well, actually, it was more like face to solar plexus. “Uh,” she asked, “who’s this guy?”

“He’s Andy Sebaldi,” I said. “He’s…”

“Ohmigod,” May said, “I totally know who you are! You’re the guy who turned his room into a factory! I could never, in a million years, do anything like that. By the way, what are you planning on making?”

“Eh… school administration wants to see if I can make robots,” Andy said. “I’ve got some ideas for automated security and robots that can walk.”

“Can you make chemicals?” May asked. “Because NIU are trying to buy the rights to the stuff I made. Also, if I can’t ‘put it into effect under my own power within two years,’ the rights go to the school.”

“How do you know who I…” Andy began to ask, then his face lit up. “Wait a minute, you’re May Riley! You’re one of the Triple-As in the Med program! Yeah, I might be able to do that. I’d need to know how to mix the stuff but I take it can tell me what I’d need to do, right? By the way, how did you know about me?”

We paused to swipe our student IDs at the entry. A bored guy I had seen occasionally exiting Squire was manning them, and didn’t seem to notice our entrance. I wondered if I could have just walked past. After all, his swiping our card was just as automatic as our handing it to him.

Andy and May were still involved in their own conversation. “I know who you are because I read the school newspaper,” May said. “When Taylor Smith isn’t spewing his hateful bullshit, there actually is the occasionally interesting and/or useful article.”

“I actually heard about you from some guys I know on campus,” he said. “Something about medical genius, severe injuries, and weird porn you didn’t know you were filming.”

“Oh God,” May groaned, “Why won’t that video die?”

Trying to butt in, I asked, “Who’s Taylor Smith?” Judging by the impression he left on May, there was a strong chance that he was the person Kyle and Richard were talking about appeasing.

May sighed. “Smith’s this fucking asshat who writes articles in the NIU Universal complaining about anyone who isn’t white and Protestant. He also keeps talking about ‘the grand rebirth of Rhodesia,’ which basically means killing and enslaving the people of Zimbabwe. Anyway, he wrote this long screed about how Asian people were genetically inferior to white people (he used less polite terms,) and I posted a comment disproving every single one of his talking points. I may have been a bit rude, but he decided to basically go nuclear in his response to my response, saying that this is why women shouldn’t be involved in politics and wondering about whether it was my period or if I was just mentally deficient.” She smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t have responded to his response, but telling him to go back to writing songs about kissing boys in the rain felt… so poetic. It was almost worth the threats.”

“Wait,” Andy asked, “what kind of threats?”

“Oh, look!” May said, “That’s where we’re sitting! Come on!” Near the window, I could see that Eric, Doc, Ray-Gun, The Monk, MC Disaster, Eliza, Bai, Charlotte, Jen, Cross, and John were all sitting at one of the longer tables. Ray-Gun, John, Eliza, and Cross were waving us over. Outside I could see that it was snowing like crazy.

“Wow,” I said as we sat down, “this is crazy. There’s fourteen people sitting down here.”

“Yeah,” Cross said. “We had to get the Jesus table because there’s still more people coming. Oro and Eliza’s other roomie are coming, too.”

“Oh,” I said, “before I forget, let me introduce you guys. Ok, Andy, May, this first guy is Eric the Entertainer. He likes to make nicknames.”

Eric nodded. “A pleasure to meet you two.”

“This next guy is Ray-Gun. He’s an excellent spotter. Also really likes Silver Age superhero comics.” Ray-Gun smiled, his frizzy Afro shaking a bit as he nodded his head. “And this guy’s Doc. He’s a little prickly, but he’ll fix you up if you get shot.”

“Not as good as May,” Doc said. “Your inventions saved a lot of lives.”

“I wouldn’t play favorites,” I said, “but I was probably one of them. Salim, this one asshole from Al-Qaeda, stabbed me in the stomach. Your surgical glue had me doing the run the next day.” Ignoring May’s protests, I continued with the introductions. “MC Disaster. Explosives expert. Doesn’t talk much.”

“I talk!” MC Disaster protested.

“That’s the first thing I’ve heard him since November. Anyway, this guy is The Monk, chillest guy I know.” The Monk made his traditional bow. “Michael Castellan. Everyone calls him Cross. Don’t ask about his family business.”

“Hey, man,” Cross said, “Don’t scare away my clients! They’re nerds! Nerds always want some jock whacked.” I noticed Andy and May’s eyes widen. They exchanged nervous glances.

“He’s joking, right?” Andy asked anxiously. I could see the scenarios he was imagining. They all involved the FBI knocking on his door.

“Possibly,” I said, “but not about the killing people for money thing. Moving on, the redhead with the cool ears is Eliza Henderson and the blonde girl with the Union Jack scarf is her adopted sister, Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. Charlotte’s English nobility of some kind.”

“Charmed,” Charlotte said.

“Nice t’meet ya!” Eliza said at the same time.

“Man,” I said, “do I know a lot of people here. Ok, home stretch! The girl who looks perpetually amused is Jennifer Kagemoto. She’s a little… famous where I live.”

“For all the wrong reasons,” Jen said playfully. “Cross is nowhere near as bad as I am.”

“And the girl openly carrying a Glock is Bai Feng,” I said. Bai was carrying her G26 in an armpit holster. Her coat and sweater had been taken off and hung over her chair, revealing the gun, holster and plain tank top she wore. Not only did this violate school rules about only carrying concealed weapons, but it also made me nervous.

“After what happened at Weapons Handling,” Bai said coolly, “I thought having a deterrent would be prudent. I thought you’d understand better, seeing how that wasn’t the first time you’ve been caught off-guard.”

“What happened?” Andy asked, looking more and more unnerved by his present company. So was May.

“Nothing,” I said, with a little too much false cheer, “just assholes being assholes!” May and Andy exchanged worried glances. Again. “Anyway,” I said, “this is John Marshall. One of the two people who had no idea what the fuck he was getting into. Out of all the people, I think the only person to save my life more is Eliza.”

“That’s me!” John said. I noticed he was sitting directly across from Bai. He was also marginally more comfortable with her than the last time I had seen them together.

“Ok,” I said, “now, is there anyone who doesn’t know May?”

“Be polite and introduce us to her anyway, Nathan,” Charlotte said.

“Ok,” I said, “this is May Riley. She’s a Triple-A at the med school. If you were in Hell Semester 2015, she probably saved your butt directly or indirectly.” There was a round of applause. May blushed a bit. “And this is my co-host for Flounder, Andy Sebaldi. He’s a Triple-A Computer Science major.”

“Basically,” he said, “they kind of want me to build Skynet.”

“Please tell me you’re joking,” John said, somewhat terrified.

“I am,” Andy said, “that’s the only way I’m able to deal with the fact that they want me to build fucking Skynet.” After that, it kind of devolved into a bitch session about how the school was morally bankrupt, expensive, dangerous, and difficult.

“I’ll say one thing,” I said after swallowing a bite of my third bratwurst, “I am learning a lot.” I got a minor chuckle from that.

Oro and Alma eventually showed up. Neither of them were talkative and both exuded a passive sense of menace. Oro Okoro, another child soldier from somewhere in Africa and member of the Seven Supreme, was actively suspicious of Andy for a few minutes, but finally relented.

Alma, on the other hand, simply took an interest and did her best to appear non-threatening. However, Alma being mildly interested and trying not to be threatening was like a horror movie building up to the scares. There was just something wrong with her. I tried to tell myself that it was just the idea of her power or her weird monotone, but something told me it went deeper than that. I decided not to focus on that.

Instead, I focused on the camaraderie. Eliza was one of the people who vouched for Andy. (I was another, but she obviously didn’t trust me as much.) John ended up being the only person who had a prayer of keeping up with Andy and May’s conversation on how the brain could be used as a model for artificial intelligence. Cross was giving Charlotte advice on alternatives to her Webley. Things like that. I decided to just sit back and eat my food.

Finally, it was time to go. We all got a cup of the crappy hot chocolate the cafeteria and began the trek to building Graham’s Game Bar was located. Luckily, it was pretty close to the main circle. We only had to walk through winds that felt like being constantly punched for about five minutes.

“HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE WITH THIS WEATHER?” Oro yelled above the wind. “I LIVE IN A COUNTRY WITH AN AVERAGE LOWEST YEARLY TEMPERATURE OF THIRTY DEGREES!” I quickly realized she was measuring in Celsius. Why does America use English measurements again? Not even England uses English measurements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 19: Life Goes On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need that, right?” John asked.

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

“I call top bunk!” Eric shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a problem, Nate!” Eliza said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No trouble at all,” Charlotte said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to do something.

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

Track 9: Until the Seven are Supreme

For some reason, I was in a red-and-black sailor uniform. Not the military kind. That would be too normal, apparently. No, it was the kind of uniform a Japanese school girl wears, albeit a little more midriff-bearing than usual.

“What the fuck am I wearing?” I asked muzzily. It was a really good question. After all, I am a dude. If the beard and the flat chest wasn’t enough, the underwear was luckily tight enough to hide… other evidence, as well as be really uncomfortable. To be on the safe side, I quickly covered my crotch with my hands.

“Jacobs-san!” a perky voice called out. I looked up. Coming down from the sky was a woman dressed like a magical girl. Her color appeared to be blue. “You have been chosen to become the next Sailor Red!”

“…What?”

“It is a great honor Jacobs-san!” the girl said as she landed down in front of me, her stiletto heels clacking on the ground. “The Red Uniform has chosen you to fight evil.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, completely deadpan, “this is all so sudden.”

“It’s going to get faster! Cutie transformation red!” As soon as the strange woman said this (I keep saying woman, but she had to be around fifteen) the red schoolgirl uniform flew off and re-arranged itself into something very skimpy.

“You know,” I said, my voice a little higher pitched than usual due to the female-oriented G-string, “this is really not ideal.” I was now concerned that my hands were not covering my crotchal region well enough. It was made all the harder trying to balance on seven-inch heels.

“You’re right,” she said. She then snapped her fingers. My body started to change. My beard, armpit, chest, and… other hair started to fall out. The hair on the top of my head started to grow, however. Parts of me, like my chest, were starting to expand. Other parts…

“You unbelievable bastard,” I said, my voice changing for different reasons. “You bitch! You monster! Give me back my penis!”

At this, a distant laugh echoed. “It’s not funny!” I yelled, my voice now pretty much female, “Now give me back my penis!”

The laughing got louder. The magical girl said, “No, Jacobs-san, we have to stop Gingertron!”

“Fuck that,” I said, crossing my arms. This was harder to do than normal, considering that my new lady parts were rather cumbersome. “Give me back my penis and get me some sensible clothing, and I might consider helping you.”

“Oh, suck it up!” the magical girl said, “Look at what I’m wearing!”

“It’s a lot more that what I’m wearing! Now, would you kindly GIVE ME BACK MY FUCKING PENIS! I HAVEN’T EVEN GOT A CHANCE TO…”

As I yelled, the scene began to fade away, and the laughter increased. I realized that the reason it was fading away was because I was opening my eyes. I was really in a hospital room, lying on a bed with a needle hooked into my arm. I was right next to a window. Through it, I could see the sun rising.

However, that wasn’t the important part. What was important was who was in the bed directly in front of me, laughing her head off. It was, of course, Eliza.

“So you must be the Gingertron,” I said before I could stop myself. Eliza began to laugh even harder. At least she didn’t take offense to it. I looked around. There were six beds, three on Eliza’s side, three on mine. Eliza’s side seemed to be the girl’s side as Bai was in the middle and Oro was closest to the door. Oro was completely asleep, but Bai was sitting up, pretending to study the various medical equipment. It would have been convincing if the medical equipment was on or her face wasn’t bright red.

On my side, John had jammed a pillow over his head. It was hard to tell because he was on the far side of the room. Luckily he gave a clue to his identity by muttering something.

“Oh good,” I said, “Eric’s not here.”

What I didn’t realize was that the walls between the beds near the door were indented to have two bathrooms, and that Eric was in one of them. He burst out, bare-chested with a few bandages on his arms and head and some toilet paper stuck to his foot. As if this wasn’t funny enough, he then tripped. He then stood up and struck a super hero pose, legs spread apart, hands on his hips and his head turned at a dramatic angle.

“Did someone ask for The Entertainer?” he asked in a deep, commanding voice.  I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t the only one. Eliza guffawed, and Bai giggled. Oro, however, just stared at him.

“Laugh all you want, citizens,” Eric said, as he began to march down the aisle, “But I am here to help all in need.”

As he passed John, though, John spoke up, saying something that sounded like “Watashi wa anata no subete o korosu tsumorida”

Eric gave us all a quizical look. “Was that even a language?” he asked.

“It wasn’t Chinese,” Bai said. She was pretending not to look at me or Eric’s muscular chest, but failing to be convincing. Or maybe she was pretending that she pretending not to look just to be coy, I don’t know. I’m terrible at girls and I’m terrible at spies, and Bai was quite possibly both.

Eric continued marching down the aisle, doing his caricature of a superhero walk. “Anyway,” he said, “why would you not want the aid of The Entertainer, world’s greatest super hero?” Man, was he hamming it up.

“How much of my, uh, sleep talking did you guys hear?” I asked nervously.

“Ever since y’got into the ward, Nate,” Eliza said.

“Wait,” I said, suddenly horrified, “I’ve been talking in my sleep for how long?”

“About ten hours and three minutes at varying intervals,” Bai said. “I found it was very…”

“Erotic?” Eliza asked, her Cheshire-cat grin now turned towards Bai.

Bai glared at her. “I would prefer,” she said, “that you not mention things like that. Otherwise, we will test out exactly how well your healing factor works.” Eliza and Eric just laughed.

“Look,” I said, “can we just… you know, forget about this?”

“I cannot,” Oro said. “I remember every single moment of my life since I was two.”

“Not talking about this would be just as ideal,” I said amiably. “I mean, don’t you want to forget what I’ve been saying all night?”

No one said anything, but I could read their faces clearly. Eliza and Eric were smiling like they had some stories that they could tell for the rest of their lives. Bai just kept blushing and trying not to look at me. Oro just looked bored.

Then, suddenly, John yelled out, “Watashi wa watashi no kioku kara sore o masshō suru koto wa dekimasen!” We all turned to look at him.

“See,” I said, “John didn’t think it was worth remembering!” I looked down at my chest. “Does me not having a shirt have something to do with the stab wound I got?” I quickly pulled the covers up.

“Think they forgot,” Eric said, shrugging a bit.

“Anyway,” Eliza said, “It’s not like any of you need, per se.”

Before I could think up a witty retort, Mary walked in, pushing a cart. “Glad to see you’re all up,” she said. “Now, how are we feeling?”

I prodded the bandages where I had been stabbed. “Surprisingly fine,” I said. “This healed really fast.” Everyone except Eliza and John voiced their agreement.

“First off,” Mary said, “according to my… according to the inventor, the surgical glue hasn’t healed you.” Here she gritted her teeth. “According to the people in charge, you should be back at the Freshman barracks later today.”

“Oh, speaking of the inventor,” I said, “how’s May doing?”

Mary looked at me for a moment, then said, “Oh, yeah! You’re her first patient. Yeah, May’s… probably madder than I am at the moment. Apart from that, she’s doing fine. Want me to say hi for you?”

“Certainly,” I said.

Eliza frowned. “’Oo’s this May person? She sounds like a Double-A from the med school.”

“What is a Double-A?” Eric asked.

This was actually something I knew. “Double-As,” I said, “are basically people who already know a lot about whatever field they’re studying, or learn really quick. Balancing the fact that she’s a sophomore doing her own research and this school is, well, this school, May might be a Double-A, or she might not.”

“So,” Eliza asked, “did this magic glue save any of… of me victims?” She was pretending to be nonchalant, but she seemed concerned.

“Most of them,” Mary said. “We can’t really save the ones whose throats you cut.”

“What about…” Eliza asked hesitantly, “the girl ‘oo was alive? And ‘oo prob’ly wished she wasn’t?” I winced.

“You mean the one whose guts you spilled out?” Eric asked.

“Yes, you insensitive bastard,” Eliza said, shooting Eric a murderous look, “that bloody one.”

“She’ll make it,” Mary said coldly. “At least you aren’t Ulfric.”

“Oh,” I said, trying to defuse the situation, “I don’t think I got a shirt. Do you know where I can get some?”

Mary said, “Don’t bother yet.” She booted up a laptop on the cart, then said, “stand here.” I did as I was told. I must have seemed a bit nervous because Eliza giggled a bit at me.

“Now,” Mary said, handing me a metal plate, “I want you to take this plate and hold it behind your back.”

“Ok,” I said. When I did, Mary took a small rod connected to the laptop by a USB and began to run it over my stomach. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Battlefield ultrasound,” Mary said. “It’s a quick way of seeing if there’s anything wrong with you internally.”

“That is actually really cool,” I said.

“There are some drawbacks,” Mary said. “It needs a hard, conductive surface, otherwise the sound waves don’t echo back right. Also, in its current state, we can’t really hook it up to tablets. Part of this is how processor-intensive doing this imaging in real-time is, the other part is that a lot of tablets don’t have ports that could handle the data it sends. Also, its battery life is something like fifteen minutes.”

“Couldn’t you just do it wirelessly?” John asked groggily. While I wasn’t paying attention, he had sat up. He yawned and rubbed his eyes.

“Not sure,” Mary said. “I’d have to ask the guys who made this. They’re seniors, so I don’t really know them.”

“Might have something to do with how easy it is to jam a signal,” I said. “If something’s blocking communication, it would block these guys as well. Heck, if they’re sending a lot of data, they could end up jamming each other if you get enough of them.”

Mary shrugged. “That could be, I’m not really a tech person. Anyway, you’re done.”

“That was fast,” I said.

“That was just the recording,” Mary said. “Now someone has to spend a few hours looking at your stab wounds. By the way, how’s that doing?”

“I feel like normal,” I said, “your sister’s surgical glue really works.”

“For doing stuff like standing up, yeah,” Mary said. “She’s not so sure you’re in combat shape yet. Professor Zemylachka, however, wants to avoid any repeaters.” She turned to John. “Your turn.”

“Why am I being checked?” John asked.

“You got kicked a heck of a lot,” Mary said. “We want to make sure that there’s no internal bleeding. Also, try not to hit your head for a couple of months.”

“Ah,” John said, looking a little scared. “Here’s hoping I live, then.” I didn’t blame him. I’m not a doctor, but I know enough to be scared by concepts like “internal bleeding” and “second impact syndrome.”

Mary did a much more complete scan of Joh than she did of me. I only had my stomach scanned. John had his stomach, ribcage, neck, and head scanned. She also did both sides of him. After that was done, she said, “Ok, that’s done. Shirts are in the drawers behind your bed. Campus Security should come to escort you guys back to Freshman camp in the evening. In the meantime, you’ll probably be getting actual food for breakfast. If you’re bored we have satellite and Campus TV. The remote for the TV is on your bed’s arm rest.”

She left, and we began to turn to our own devices. We decided to watch the TV as a group. Eric and I both wanted to see if they had Cartoon Network or Nickolodeon, John wanted to go to sleep, and Bai and Oro didn’t seem to care.

Eliza on the other hand, wanted to try the Campus channels. “Come on,” she said when I asked why, “Don’t you want to learn more about this ruddy island?”

“Ok,” I said. “Why not?”

“Come on!” Eric said, “I thought we were going to see if Dexter’s lab was on!”

The people interested at the moment (me and Eric) gathered around Eliza’s TV. I, personally, stopped to put on a shirt. Eliza switched on the TV. It came on to the guide channel of the local channels.

“Well,” I said, “that’s a lot of TV.” Right on the splash page, the guide page bragged that there were fifty-five channels translated into up to seven languages each. The three most common languages appeared to be Arabic, Spanish, and English. After a bit of surfing, we figured out that if you wanted to get a specific channel in English, say channel 50, you would enter 50.3 on the remote. Not all channels were in all languages, and some were in only one. Those wouldn’t have a decimal place after them.

However, it was hard to keep track because Eliza kept flipping through the channels. “Come on,” I whined, “That AniPunk channel looked interesting. Can we go back to it?”

“No.” Eliza said.

“Seriously?” Eric asked. “They were playing Spongebob!”

“We’ve been in camp with no connection to the outside world,” Eliza said quietly, concentrating on what was on the TV instead of us. “We don’t even know what’s goin’ on ‘ere on the main campus and we run into it every damn day. Doesn’t that disturb you? At least a bit?”

“You’re right,” I said.

“Or you would be,” Eric said, “if that was not an episode of Spongebob I had never seen before.”

Eliza shot him a look, then turned back to the TV. Finally, we got to a news station in English.

“…sors Zemylachka and Blunt have announced the decided punishment for the rule breakers at the BTF,” a female student with a British accent was saying. A picture of the camp appeared behind her. “As usual,” she said, “Quarantine is in effect for the BTF and students learning there. However, the incident has made quarantine restrictions even tighter. Early yesterday morning, a group of students started an unauthorized fight, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries.”

“‘Unauthorized fight?’” I asked incredulously. “That’s what they’re fucking calling this?”

“Calm down,” Eliza said. “You knew what you were getting into.”

“I had an idea,” I spat. “I didn’t know how bad it would be. Seriously, over five hundred people have died this semester alone. This isn’t an education, it’s a fucking concentration camp.”

“Hey,” Eric said, pointing to the TV, “listen.”

Professor Zemylachka was now standing in front of the Administration Building, an old Gothic mansion-like structure. I didn’t like the look of rage on her face. She was speaking in Russian, but the words were being translated via subtitles.

“This incident,” the subtitles said, “is unacceptable. University law prevents me from terminating or expelling so soon after Fight Night, but I am still allowed other methods of punishment. The safety of those in NIU is maintained and the students injured will move back to camp soon. Rest assured, though, that I will make sure they will know that their actions are unacceptable.”

“Well, that sounds pleasant,” I said. “We’re fucked.”

“Are we?” Eliza said. “She might treat us fair.”

“Really?” I asked. “She runs a concentration camp. These things are inherently unfair. She could end up doing that thing really stupid teachers do where they give both parties the same punishment, even though one person’s the bully and another’s the victim who just fought back for a change. Seriously, fuck her.”

“You do not seem to like her,” Eric said.

“I really fucking don’t,” I said. “Can we change the channel before I punch something?”

Eliza nodded. After a few minutes of watching the news, we went back to AniPunk. Spongebob was over, and instead we were watching a Powerpuff Girls-inspired show about scantily-dressed, foul-mouthed angels fighting ghosts.

“Why are we watching sperm dressed as WWII GIs trying to storm a vagina?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” Eliza said.

“Oh, you’re watching Panty and Stocking?” John said. He grabbed a shirt and ran over. “It’s a friggin’ amazing show.”

“There’s more room by my bed,” Bai said. “I’m watching it, too.”

“Ok,” John said. He seemed a bit disappointed because he knew me and Eric better than Bai. He did try to remedy that, though. I was too busy watching anime and cartoons to really pay attention to him. I did notice he was doing most of the talking.

However, a few shows later, around lunch, a couple of guards came in. They were dressed in black police officer uniforms and were wearing sunglasses. “Eliza Henderson, Oro Okoro, Feng Bai, Nathan Jacobs?” We each responded when our names were called. “Please come with us.”

“What is it?” I asked suspiciously.

“NIU owes you lunch,” one of them said. She had an Indian accent. That’s when it clicked.

“Oh, it’s you two!” I said, heading towards them. I turned to the other people in the room. “These guys saved my life. Well, I suppose the medical staff here were part of the process as well, but…”

“You were kind of out cold when they saved you,” the male one said. I noticed his nametag said Mendez.

We walked out into the hallway. I noticed Eliza and Bai stuck close to each other. We were in a hallway with several doors leading to what I assumed were other rooms on either side. On one end, there was a heavy steel door. On the other, there was a set of double doors which I assumed led out to some sort of foyer.

“Follow us, please,” the other officer said. Her nametag read Gupta.

We did as instructed. Mendez and Gupta lead us past the double doors and into the lobby area. The lobby area, I noticed, was not very busy at all. We seemed to be on the end of a square building, with an identical hallway directly across from the one we just left. I noticed each hallway had heavy metal blast doors that could seal them off. We must have either been in an infectious disease ward or a ward for very dangerous people. I personally guessed the former.

The lobby itself included a reception desk and some seats. Two Campus Security Guards in body armor stood by the door leading out, and a receptionist at the desk. The seats were empty. Eliza gave one a subtle shove while making eye contact with me. It didn’t budge. They looked comfy, though.

“Well, this group looks more cooperative!” the receptionist said. She looked like she could have been a student. She had an accent that I couldn’t quite place.

“Was Trollbjorn in it?” Mendez asked.

“Who?” the receptionist asked.

“They bring him out later,” one of the fully-armored guards said. She spoke with a Russian accent and was carrying a SCAR-H with underbarrel automatic shotgun.

“Who’s Ulfric?” the receptionist asked.

“’E’s the scariest bastard you’ll ever see,” Eliza said just before we walked out. I could tell that she was flashing her trademark grin.

“You really want to see the look on that girl’s face when they lead out Ulfric, don’t you?” I asked.

“Don’t you?” Eliza asked.

“Maybe,” I said, “but you have a tendency to troll everyone.”

“What does that mean?” Bai asked. “To troll people?”

I jumped. This was probably the first time in an hour Bai had spoken.

“’S when you hide under a bridge and grab people by their ankles,” Eliza said casually.

“Actually,” I said, “its saying or doing something that you don’t necessarily believe is right, but you think will get an amusing reaction out of people.”

We came into another lobby. This one had some elevators. It also seemed a bit busier with people in scrubs waiting around reading magazines. One of them dinged open.

“Into the elevator, billy-goats!” Gupta said. Eliza, Mendez and I chuckled. Bai looked confused. We got in, with our escorts making sure their backs weren’t to us. They didn’t seem too worried, but I guess they preferred to play it safe. I knew for a fact that Eliza could make them very sorry, and I suspected that Bai and Oro were at least as dangerous.

The elevator dinged again. The doors opened to a massive lobby, about two stories high. Instead of going out the front door, however, we went in the opposite direction. We eventually left via a loading dock.

That led us into an alley way. Across that was another loading dock, with two Campus Security Officers in patrol uniforms standing guard. I noticed that all of them wore sunglasses. The two groups exchanged friendly greetings, then the second pair ushered us inside.

We were in what appeared to be the back room of a restaurant, the kind reserved for private parties. There were several tables and booths. Sitting at one of the booths were Ricardo and Li, dressed in combat fatigues. Ricardo looked bored. Li was just sullen.

“Hola, amigos!” Ricardo said, “How are guys doing?”

“Really good, considering I was stabbed in the stomach,” I said.

“Yeah, man,” Ricardo said. “Good job pulling through.”

Li scoffed. “I hardly think,” he said, “that his effort had anything to do with his recovery. Only an idiot would believe he had anything to do with it.”

“What my brother means,” Bai quickly said, somewhat apologetic, “is that with the technology here, there is little likelihood he could die.” She then added, a little coldly, “At least, that better have been what he meant.”

Ricardo seemed to debate something internally, then decided to drop the subject. “That’s cool,” he said, “anyway, have a seat. We’re getting that meal they promised!”

Bai quickly moved to sit next to her brother, then Oro sat next to her. It seemed a little rehearsed. I sat down next to Ricardo. Eliza then sat next to me, blocking my escape. Now it made sense. I couldn’t prove it, though. Even the nod she gave Oro could have been misread. Or imagined.

“So it seems everyone’s here,” Ricardo said.

“Almost,” Eliza said. “The most enthusiastic potential member is still not ‘ere yet.”

Everyone looked at Eliza in shock. “You did not…” Oro said. “You cannot seriously think you can control him.”

“What are we talking about?” I asked. Whatever this was about, it couldn’t be going anywhere good, especially if the missing person was who I thought it was.

“If I was looking for people to control,” Eliza said testily, “I’d’ve never invited any one of you lot. We’d be equals. In fact, if anyone’d lead, I’d do my damndest to get out of it.”

“Why are we inviting… him?” Ricardo asked, looking over his shoulder. “Even if you’re not making an army, he’s too much of a liability. Hell, he’s too much of a risk to have at a dinner party.”

“I don’t see why we’re arguing. My sister can put him down if he gets out of line” Li said. “She’s done it before, and that was with a broken leg.”

“The only reason I won,” Bai said, “was because I had surprise on my side. He is smart, and won’t fall for it again.” She paused. “That being said, I think he would be a good addition, if only for the fact that I wouldn’t want him to feel…”

“Snubbed?” Eliza asked.

“I suppose,” Bai said, “Forgive me, but I do not know that word.”

“Uh, guys,” I said, “what are we inviting Ulfric to?”

“An unofficial school club.” We turned around. Ulfric had somehow managed to come in and close the door without us noticing. That seemed to be a common ability among scary people. He also seemed to be quoting Eliza, down to imitating her accent.

“If you don’t want to talk to El Diablo,” Ricardo said, “don’t say his name.” I was honestly a little glad Ulfric had shown up. I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to wait to get answers otherwise.

Everyone eyed him warily as he grabbed a chair and sat down at the head of the table. When he was seated, Eliza said, “Good, now everyone’s here. We can start.”

Then a door opened noisily. In walked a blonde woman built like a model. “Hallo,” she said, “I am Freya und I will be your waitress today. Do not worry, the school is paying for your meal.” She then passed out the menus to us. We all thanked her politely.

“She’ll be back in a minute, won’t she?” Eliza asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Might want to bring you up to speed when she leaves to get our grub. Apart from Li, you’re the only one’a us I haven’t told, and I’m sure Bai’s informed him.” Eliza said, glancing at Li for confirmation. When he nodded, she continued on. “Anyway, let’s look at what they’re serving. Seems to be yank-style.”

I opened it up and flipped through it. There was so much good stuff: burgers, steaks, noodles, pizzas, sandwiches and even ribs.

“What’re ‘ese waffle fries then?” Eliza asked. Everyone but me shrugged.

“You don’t know what waffle fries are?” I asked. “You should try them. They’re kind of like normal French fries, but spicier and fused together in the shape of a hashtag. They’re pretty much the king of fries.”

“How many things do Americans cover in cheese and bacon?” Li asked. “Even some of the salads are covered in cheese and bacon!”

Ricardo suddenly asked, “So apart from me, how many of you guys have eaten American food before? I mean, like at an actual American restaurant.” I raised my hand. No one else did, but Ulfric giggled which could have meant anything. Ricardo smiled.

The waitress walked back in. “So, are we ready to order?” Everyone nodded. “Ok, you first, big man,” she said to Ulfric. “What would you like?”

We all ordered. Ulfric somehow managed to communicate he wanted two Double Back-Home Burgers (a double burger with cheese, bacon and onion rings.) There was a bit of a tense moment when he was told he couldn’t have beer, but he just changed it to water. Oro ordered a salad, Bai and Li both ordered Italian sausages with fries and a side salad, Eliza ordered Fish and Chips (technically Fish and Waffle Fries) and clam chowder, Ricardo, through fits of barely suppressed laughter, ordered a plain burger, and I ordered a rack of ribs with a double side of waffle fries. I also had a fancy bottle of root beer, making me the only person to have something other than water to drink.

“So,” Eliza said, once the waitress was gone, “I suppose it’s only fair that I bring Nate ‘ere up to speed.”

“You have my attention,” I said. At this point, my curiosity was killing me. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure that I should (and would) turn it down. Ulfric, Eliza and Bai scared the crap out of me, and I was pretty sure I should be scared of the others as well. However, I didn’t want to appear rude. Better listen first, find some excuse not to join, then spend the rest of my college career avoiding every single one of these people.

Li then immediately gave me my excuse. As soon as I was done talking, he slammed his fist down on the table. “Why are we considering him?” he asked. “We know he is a spy! How do we know he won’t report on our conversations?”

Bai nodded at this, Eliza looked… displeased. But before I could take the opportunity, Ricardo spoke up. “Man,” he said, “this guy, this guy I think I’d trust more than any of you guys.”

“Really?” Oro asked. I couldn’t tell if she was skeptical or interested. Whereas Bai was reserved and Ulfric was… unwell, Oro was downright unreadable.

“Yeah,” Ricardo said. “this guy I trust because I know he’s a spy. Just by saying that, he knows that we know, and that if he snitches on us, we’ll come to gut him. He’s also a shit spy, ‘cause I had him pegged from day two.”

“He’s still a spy,” Li grumbled.

“Yeah?” Ricardo asked. “What are you here for, huh esse? The only way you even hear about this fucking place is if a school employee or alum recommends you. Who recommended you and Hermana, huh? And why did they send you here?”

“Those,” Bai said, “are the kinds of questions that gets you killed.”

“See?” Ricardo said. “For all I know, you could be spies as well!”

“Enough.” It was Oro who spoke. When she was sure we had calmed down, she said, “Let us first hear Eliza’s proposal. Then, after the main course arrives, we will play a game.”

Thank you Miss Okoro,” Eliza said, still a bit angry. “I think that is an excellent idea.” She took a deep breath, then continued. “Anyway, this whole idea is sort of a support group. You see, most of us at the mo are in a rather bad spot. At Fight Night, we all made more than a few enemies. Enemies who’ve got access to weapons and training on how to use them. We start work on pistols in a few weeks. If one goes missing, we could be in a right state of bother.”

“Maybe for you,” Li said. “I could wrestle it away.”

“That’s assuming they pull it on you up close and give you plenty of time to react,” I said. “They could easily shoot you in the back from twenty feet away.”

“Or they could pre-cock it before they pull it,” Ricardo said, playing with his steak knife, “or they could find some way to spike your food. Personally, I’d stab you in the shower. Much less noise than a gun and easier to get. I could cut your throat before you even realized I was there, make it look like a suicide, then walk out before anyone realized what had happened.”

“You’re not helping,” Eliza said.

“Sorry,” Ricardo said. “This guy just gets to me.”

“Anyway,” Eliza said, “the point is, no matter how good we are, the people we might ruck with are smart, outnumber us, and only have to be lucky once. Nate could probably tell you that better than I. If it hadn’t been for the group ‘e’d be dead.”

That was true. Eliza, Ulfric, and Oro had saved my life. “Didn’t some of my other friends help?” I asked. “I mean, you guys really saved my ass, but you had some help.”

Oro nodded. “A group of people did come in. I believe Eric was the leader. They are quite effective.”

“But they almost didn’t make it,” Eliza said. “The more people you’ve got watching your back, the less likely it is to be stabbed.”

“Yeah, but how do I put this without offending all of you…” I began.

Ricardo shrugged. “Just tell it like it is, man.”

I took a deep breath then said, “I don’t trust you guys. I know next to nothing about most of you, except that you’re really good at killing people. Then there’s Ulfric. Apart from what you already know, publicly being in an alliance with him would just paint a bigger target on my back. Bai and Li barely even know me, yet they’re convinced I’m a potential threat. Seriously, Bai, the first time I met you, I felt like you were trying to figure out how to kill me and get rid of the evidence.”

“Can you blame me?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “but I do think it’s more than a little premature. Then there’s Eliza.”

“What did I do?” she asked.

“There’s the… surveillance.” I said. “It’s another set of eyes watching me. To make it worse, I can’t tell whether you’re a friend or foe. With Richard or Salim, I would know. But you’re so hard to pin down. Remember our conversation we had before the award ceremony? That was a good example. You come up from behind me, scaring the shit out of me.”

“The conversation was nice, though, wasn’t it?” Eliza asked.

“It would have been,” I said, “but I wasn’t exactly at ease. I mean, how many people did you kill the night before? I know it was a lot. Then, I made a mistake. I’ll admit, what I said was rude, but you looked like you were going to kill me over it.”

“I wasn’t…” Eliza said defensively.

But I didn’t know that!” I said. “I’d like to think that I could join you guys and we’d all be friends and hang out and eat ice cream together and stuff. But I don’t know what your deal is. Until these issues are resolved, until I feel I can deal with you all on a daily basis without getting an ulcer, I want to be as far away from all of you as possible.”

“That,” Oro said, “is what my game should address.”

“Also,” Eliza said, cagily, “there are …other benefits to this group. I think we all want to know what’s going on ‘ere. No reason why we can’t share a few tidbits with each other once in a while.”

There. That was why I didn’t trust her. I was sure the same thing could be said about me, but she had the tendency to try and eliminate all possible outcomes until the one she desired remained. She also seemed to be better at it than I was, and I was still unclear what her goals were.

I was about to explain this when the waitress came back in with the salads, soup, and drinks. “I am sorry,” Bai said, her eyes wide, “but we ordered the side salad, not the main course size.”

“That is the side salad,” the waitress said. She then set down Oro’s salad. “This is the main course size.” Oro’s eyes widened.

“It’s not that big,” I said, pointing at Oro’s salad. “Are you sure that’d be enough?”

Eliza stared at me. “Are you serious, mate?” she asked incredulously. She wasn’t the only one who seemed surprised by the comment. Even the waitress was looking at me strangely.

Ricardo, however, was laughing. “You guys have never been to be Texas, have you?” We all shook our heads. “Huh,” he said when he saw me shake my head. “I thought you would have been there. Anyway, I actually got that far north once and ate at a restaurant. The sizes are bigger there.”

“Sizes are bigger in Massachusetts!” I said.

“That’s famous for its seafood, right?” Eliza asked, starting in on her bowl of clam chowder.

“And its tech industry, being instrumental in The Revolutionary War, having some of the first factories in America, the Transcendentalist movement and pretty much everything to come out of Boston.”

“So you’re just a budget version of New York, then?” Eliza asked innocently.

“Nope!” I said, “We’re actually an improved, less pretentious version.”

The banter went on for the rest of the wait for the food. Bai even joined in a bit. However, I think we were all waiting for Oro to start her game.

Finally, the food came. Oro then waited for the waitress to leave, then said, “All right, it is time.” She gave us a look over to make sure we all were paying attention. “The object of this game,” she said, “is to tell us why you are here as much as possible without telling us something you don’t want to know. You can choose to skip, but that means you cannot be a member. If we find out you have lied to us, including omitting important details, we will punish you.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “do you want to go first or should I?”

“Why you?” Oro asked. “You don’t seem to join, anyway.”

“This way,” I said, “certain parties may be persuaded to not kill me anyway.”

“If it makes you feel safer…” she said.

“My hope is it makes everyone feel safer,” I said. “Anyway, my name is Nathan Jacobs. You know that already, but if you were wondering if it was a fake name, it isn’t. Senior year of high school, I was approached by two agents of… a non-American law enforcement agency that specializes in super stuff. Heroes, villains, mad science, that stuff.”

I paused for a minute. “I can’t tell you which one, but I’ve given you enough to guess. I’m afraid if I tell you everything, you’ll find the other two people I’ve been sent in with. That being said, the agency I’m working for is probably more interested in the school’s parahuman and research divisions. If you’re not planning on blowing up the world, I think I can simply not mention you.

“You see, they’ve apparently dealt with a lot of mad science and superdickery that can be traced back here. They didn’t out and out state anything, but they’ve implied that they’ve averted Force 2 and higher events that tie into this place. They’re also worried that there could be time bombs made by this place just waiting to go off. We do not want those bombs to go off.”

I paused. “Any questions?”

“What if…” Ricardo asked, “we had some… indiscretions in our youth. Maybe worked with the Cartels?”

“Then I don’t need to know,” I said. “Also, unless there’s something we need to know, I think we can count this as your turn.”

Ricardo thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a fight against a parahuman on purpose. I try to avoid killing them, especially the ones that travel in packs. Does anyone have a problem?”

Most people shook their heads. Li, however said, “This actually does not work for us.”

Bai elbowed him and said something in Chinese. They had a brief argument. Finally, Bai said, “We have some involvement with parahumans. Have you heard of The Final Prophecy?”

I shook my head. Eliza, however said, “Yes.”

“For those of you who don’t know,” Bai said, “around five hundred years ago, when parahumans were making their resurgence, seers across the world had a vision. In five hundred years, three powerful entities would come to the world and change it forever. Violently.”

“I see.” I said. This, in my opinion, was not in my job description.

“There are differences between the versions,” Bai. “But there are some similarities. For instance, every version of this prophecy states that one will rain fiery vengeance on humanity from the sky, one will raise an army of the dead, and a third can rewrite the very fabric of existence. They shall become gods.”

“My version said the one with army’d also have hollows or something,” Eliza said.

“Our version claims the Fire Angels have come to punish humanity for their future sins,” Li said. “The prophecies tend to have different details, but they have all the same basic parts.” He turned to me. “We will find these people mentioned in the prophecy, and we will deal with them.”

“Do you really think that they’re going to find these three parahumans here world-ending parahumans here?” I asked.

Eliza shrugged. “Personally, I don’t think we’re gonna find ‘em any-bloody-where. It’s like the Second Coming: some bloke says its imminent so everyone should come an’ do what ‘e says.”

“Maybe,” Bai said, “But if this time we are right, and they are here, this is one of the more likely places they’ll end up. We want people who have an idea what they are up against to fight one of The Three.”

“If these things are real,” Ricardo said, “you can deal with them all you want. I want no part of it.” He considered it, though. “Nathan’s employers might want in on it, and I can’t really speak for Oro or El Diablo over there.”

Ulfric and Oro both shook their heads. I said, “I’m pretty sure my employers want solider forms of information than a hundred-year-old prophecy.”

“Good.” Bai said. “This does not concern them.”

“That being said,” I continued, “If you should find one of these super-powerful parahumans and take a swing and miss, I will tell my employers what’s happening. I’m not going to fuck around with the end of the world. Hell, I might even contact them before you make your move so they can get a team on standby. Is that acceptable?”

“It is… much more assertive than you normally are,” Bai said. “And it is only barely acceptable.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t fuck around when it comes to the end of the world.”

“So, you’re joining?” Eliza asked.

“Fine!” I said. “If it means keeping the world from ending, I’ll join the Seven Supreme or whatever we’re calling ourselves.”

“Kind of comic book-y, innit?” Eliza said. “I like it.”

Oro nodded. “My turn.” She said. “My story’s probably similar to a lot of people’s. I was in a bad part of Africa and became a child soldier. I left, and made a bit of a name for myself.”

“That does sound familiar,” I said. “Eric and his crew had basically the same story except…”

“He implied some sort of daring escape and that he’d taken a large amount of money?” Oro asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Are you saying it didn’t happen like that?”

“You are probably imagining something less dramatic,” Oro said. “I, on the other hand, left on the strength of my reputation alone.”

“Same here, chica.” Ricardo said, laying on the smooth. “Want to… swap some stories later?”

“If by stories, you mean bodily fluids, then no.” Oro said. “Ulfric, why are you here?”

“I like hurting people,” he said. “Someone realized I was good at it.” He then giggled.

“Yep,” I said, “that sounds about right. I’m going to eat my food before it gets cold.”

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