Track 24: Deet Barz

I fell onto the ground, face first. As I struggled to breathe, I heard John, Bushido and Kuniochi open up. I then heard Jen say “Shit…” Hands gripped me, turning me on my side. “Well, at least it went clean through. What the hell did they shoot at you?”

I tried to list off a few suggestions like armor-piercing .338 Lapua, but instead, all that came out was a gasping sound. “Shut up, you idiot,” Jen said, moving into my field of view. “You have a collapsed lung.” She turned her head. “Anyone have some saran wrap?”

“Why the fuck would we have saran wrap?” one of the hackers asked.

“It’s in Nate’s pack,” John said. “Hurry up, I’m pretty sure that chopper is coming back.”

“Right,” Jen said, fiddling with my pack, “Ok. Tatsu, Dokutsu, get to that garage and get us a car. Preferably one that was made before the Nineties and has a lot of floorspace. Bushido, help me get him into cover.”

The act of picking me up caused me such an intense amount of pain that I blacked out. When I came to, my vest and pack were off and I was behind a car. Someone had lifted my shirt up and the entry wound in my back had been wrapped up with saran wrap like a sandwich. There was also the sound of a chopper overhead and John firing. I then heard the crack of a gunshot and John cry out in pain. Then there was the sound of something large and metal snapping apart. The chopper then began to sound a bit strange, and something large hit the ground.

“Listen,” Jen said, her masked face suddenly looming into mine. Behind me, I heard the chopper crash. “I’m about to shove a metal straw into a hole in your chest. It may hurt.”

Funnily enough, the actual insertion of the tube wasn’t the painful part. Yeah, it hurt, but Jen’s attempts to secure it in place with surgical glue hurt a lot more. I suddenly realized that she was turning me into a human blow-up doll.

“Yo, Driver!” Kuniochi asked, “You ok, man?”

“Fucker got me in the arm,” John said. “Guy’s in a fucking helicopter going what, a hundred twenty miles an hour? Plus the little shit’s three or four stories up. And he goes fucking two for two.” There was a pause, during which I assumed John was trying to get up. “Fffuck that hurts…” he groaned.

“He sounds fine,” Jen said. “Bushido, throw him a bandage.” She turned back to me. “Damn it, this thing is too small.” She laughed. “If I was a terrible person, I could make a lot of penis jokes right now.”

I groaned, as I had been thinking of those as well and knew that none of them could be good. If the groaning hadn’t hurt like hell, I would have attempted an emergency “That’s what she said.” Instead, I kind of passed out again.

I woke up in a room filled with mist. Richard was bracing a door with his back. Someone was also there, holding the door. He turned, and I recognized him as Jeong by his charred face. “He’s here,” Jeong whispered.

“The fuck?” Richard said. “How does that work?”

“I don’t know,” hissed Jeong, “Also, shut up! Do you want them to hear you?”

“What’s going on?” I asked. I looked around. “Oh fuck me, am I dead?” That, honestly, was the most logical explanation to what I was seeing. Richard and Jeong, after all, were both dead and I doubted they had ever met in life.

“Unless you know something we don’t,” Richard said, “I doubt it. You’re probably just asleep.”

“We are,” Jeong said, “but you might have noticed we’re a bit more active.”

“About that,” I said, “I mean, the ‘knowing something you don’t’ thing… I was recently kind of shot in the lung. It’s being treated, but…”

“God fucking dammit!” Richard said, hitting the wall in frustration.

“Shut. Up.” Jeong growled. He then turned back to me and said, “Listen, Nate, there’s been something weird going on. People who are dying… aren’t going away anymore. It’s hard to explain. We definitely are dying, but some of us can visit.”

“Well,” I said, remembering the previous visits from supposedly dead people I’d experienced, “I’ve noticed that.” I paused. “Does knowing someone make it easier to appear in front of them?”

“Slightly,” Richard said. “The bigger factor, though, is whether or not Dragon’s Teeth are around. Knowing you is like having better tires. Having Dragon’s Teeth around is like having a bigger engine.”

“But I first saw you when you were in Worcester!” I said, “The Dragon’s Teeth were only in North Korea at the time. And if they weren’t, they’d be preparing for Russia or India or France…”

Richard laughed. “Well, apparently they had at least two hundred to send to Worcester.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, “There were two hundred Dragon’s Teeth soldiers in Worcester? They could spare that much for a city of that little tactical and strategic importance in a country they weren’t even planning on invading?”

“What makes you think they aren’t planning on invading the US?” Jeong asked.

My blood ran cold. “How… how many are currently in this city?” I asked.

“Before you started blowing shit up?” Richard said. “More.” I felt myself go gray. “But after you rescued Jen? The Japs started looking for shit and finding it. Mexican Cartels, Yakuza, Russain Mafia, Triads, petty street criminals, spies, radical Islamitists, radical Parahumans, Commies… Even a few Dragon’s Teeth.”

“So,” I said, “I may have stopped an invasion of Japan?” I suddenly began to feel a lot better about the chaos I’d been causing. Maybe I’d even gotten a good chunk of them killed.

“That’s not what we need to talk about,” Jeong interrupted. “The thing is, the Deets have this… network. In their minds. We, that is, us dead people, think it’s been pulling our souls into it somehow.” I must have made a pretty impressed holy shit face because Jeong said, “Yeah. There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. There seems to be two networks: one goes in a pretty clear path. Soldiers are on the bottom, more senior people are at the top.”

“And the other?” I asked.

“It’s a web,” Richard said. “Every Dragon’s Teeth soldier is equal, every Dragon’s Teeth soldier is connected to every other one. It’s beautiful.” He shook his head. “The other’s just straight lines with dull colors, but this one… I’ve never seen anything like it. The lines bend and twist beautifully, they grow and shrink, and there’s colors I didn’t even know existed…”

“But there are still patterns to this one,” Jeong said. “Look.” The walls except for the door suddenly… disappeared? Began to display?… what seemed to be a ring of white light, but on closer inspection were many small lights, each a different color with yet with billions of still differing colors connecting them to each other dot.

As I looked, I noticed that the dots and their connecting bits were… warped. They seemed to be leaning towards a secondary ring. This secondary ring formed a ring of pure white light with only one of the colored dots. In the center was pure darkness. I suddenly realized I was looking at a black hole.

“Jesus…” I said when I had somehow made sense of what I was seeing. “That’s… that’s the complex psionic network.” Complex seemed to be too tame a word to describe what I was seeing. The same could be said of words like awesome or beautiful. Yet something about the vision seemed to be self-explanatory. I mean, the image before me was somehow explaining itself like a teacher carrying out a lesson. However, there was one thing I did not get.

“What’s the big black thing?” I asked, pointing to the black hole.

“That,” Jeong said, “is where they throw the souls of people who aren’t Dragon’s Teeth.”

“They seem to worship it,” Richard said. “They’re a fucking cult. They say it speaks to them.”

“Where is it?” I asked. “Like, geographically?” They turned to look at each other. “I mean, each of those dots of light is a Dragon’s Teeth soldier. You can figure out where they are. Can’t you do the same thing with that?”

“We think…” Jeong said, “that whatever it is, it spends most of its time at NIU.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “How can… how can anyone live there with… with… whatever the fuck that is? And it moves?  Something like that should cause cities to… to…”

“To what?” Richard asked. “You have even less of an idea of what it is then we do.”

“To be fair,” Jeong said, “that… thing seems to have some sort of quantum physics type thing where it can be in multiple places at once. Its bulk just seems to usually be centered in NIU.”

I remained silent for a long time, considering the implications of that. Was it something The President had made, or had he somehow bitten off more than he could chew? Of course, considering the size of that thing, those two were by no means mutually exclusive.

I was interrupted by Richard saying, “Uh, hey y’all, we seem to be getting closer.” He was right. We were hurtling towards the main ring of light at incredible speeds.

“We need to leave,” Jeong said. He opened the door, and he and Richard filed through. “Come on, Killer,” he said, “We’ve spent way too long here.”

I got up and followed, but I bounced off an invisible wall. We stared in horror. “Go,” I finally said.

“Wait,” Richard said, “You need…”

“I might be dead,” I said. “I might not wake up. Go.”

“He’s right,” Jeong said. “We need to leave.” Just before he closed the door, he said, “Good luck.”

Not even a second had passed before it burst open. I flew back. As I struggled to get to my feet, the armored figure of the Berserker I had killed in Korea walked in. Just as I was getting to my feet, he kicked my chest. I felt ribs shatter and my lung collapse again. He then grabbed me by my throat and lifted me so I was looking him right in his glowing eye.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s all over now.”

My eyes opened as I let loose a scream. “Shit!” I heard someone say. “His lung is going to collapse again.” Then my lung collapsed again.

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Track 21: Project Skywalker

After asking my question, there was nothing but silence. May was looking curiously at everyone. Smith looked sullen. Everyone else seemed tired, but it was hard to tell in the low light.

“I wouldn’t lean on the wall,” Kyle said. As soon as he said that, the platform began to rise. When it did, I realized that the walls were staying put. From outside, there was a muffled thump from what I assumed was a rocket hitting the steel door. The walls didn’t even shake. “No worries,” Kyle said. “That door is a titanium-uranium alloy. They’ll need a lot more of those before they even make a dent.”

“I’m actually more worried about the big picture,” I said. “For instance, why are there non-Jumpers capable of teleportation? And why are they dressed up like Nazis?”

“Taylor,” Kyle asked, “would you care to explain to Nathan what the Grenzefrontier is?” Smith just shook his head. Kyle shrugged. “Shame. You know it better than anyone here.” He then began to talk to me again. “Anyway, you know how Hitler was obsessed with giving humans Parahuman powers, tech, and expansionism? And how he was allied with the home of the Jumper?”

“He didn’t…” I said, completely incredulous.

“He didn’t,” Kyle said.

“Thank God,” I said. “Apart from how bad it would be if he survived, the whole idea of…”

“But at least a hundred thousand of his followers did,” Kyle said. “Around the end of World War Two, Hitler managed to get a teleporter device working and sent some people his raceologists determined to be a hundred percent Aryan to a planet called New Nuremberg.”

“I’m sorry…” I said, “But how did they find a Goldilocks planet and make a teleporter? It wasn’t until fairly recently that we even discovered a Goldilocks planet, and, even with modern technology, we can’t even mimic Jumpers, let alone surpass them.”

“Publicly, yes,” Kyle said. “Privately… I’ve heard that’s the first thing the IDRF did and that several other countries have developed them.”

“See,” May said, “you were right. They are Nazis from another planet.”

“Shut up, I was being sarcastic!” I said. “Still, I’ve got one question. What did Smith mean when he said, ‘we have no idea what’s coming?’”

“You know,” Richard said, walking over to Smith, “I’m also interested in what Taylor meant.” He then grabbed Smith’s tie. “You’ve been dropping hints about something called the Dragon’s Teeth ever since we met. I’d be interested to know just what they are.”

For some reason, I was looking at Smith’s hands. That’s when I saw that he was holding something and there was liquid leaking off his wrists. I wondered what it was. Then Smith said, “Shame you’ll never find out, traitor.”

That’s when it clicked. I unholstered my Sig, but Smith’s arms were already moving. It was too late to shout a warning, so I fired. I was still too late. Smith had shoved something directly into Richard’s neck, a little bit below his jaw.

Everyone, including Richard, stopped and stared. A great deal of blood was flowing from the wound. Somewhat in shock, Richard let go of Smith. Smith, despite the fact that his brains were decorating the opposite wall, didn’t let go of the glass shard. When it fell out of Richard’s neck, the blood began to spray. Jared screamed as he got sprayed, but May was running before Smith hit the floor. This all happened in two seconds.

“Shit,” May said, looking over Richard’s body. “His carotid artery is completely severed. Smith knew exactly what he was doing.”

“What about Smith?” I asked, nervous as to how close May was to him.

“Considering the fact that roughly…” May paused, looking at the stain on the wall, “…twenty percent of his gray matter is now a wall decoration, I’d say he’s dead and his brain is gone. Two Star Trek references in one.”

“Damn it!” Kyle said, kicking the wall. Then he grunted in pain. “The entire point of this fucking operation was to bring Taylor and Graff in alive! Not kill them!”

“So, what next?” I asked.

“We get to Project Skywalker,” Kyle said, “and we just take it easy until this all blows over.”

“And Project Skywalker is?” I asked.

“The way it was put to me,” Kyle said, “was that whatever device they’re using to teleport from their planet and back is the Death Star, and whatever these guys are working is basically the torpedo. If this doesn’t work, apparently there’s an aircraft carrier really close by.”

“And what happens then?” I asked. “The only thing they can do is bomb us to pieces.”

“Which is why the President is currently in Switzerland on important business,” Kyle said. “Not that these assholes know that.”

“But they know about this… thing we’re building?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Kyle said. “Oh, just so you know, you shouldn’t ask how it works. They’ll just get more suspicious.”

I was about to ask why. Then I realized that I had just shot someone who had information they really needed. “Yeah,” I said. “Not a problem.”

Finally, we got to the top floor. This was a six-story building surrounded by a bunch of three-story buildings, so it should have moved much faster, in my opinion. When we got out of the elevator, Gupta and Mendes were waiting for us. They both were in tactical armor, so it was kind of hard to tell it was them underneath the Kevlar, gas masks, and sunglasses. Gupta carried a SPAS-12, and Mendes had a P-90. Both had pistols strapped to their hips, probably the Campus Police standard issue Five-seveN.

“Jesus Christ,” Mendes said, looking at all the blood, “what the fuck happened to you guys?”

“May and I got caught outside,” I said. “When Kyle saved us, Smith got suspicious. He then proceeded to fuck everything up for us. Hence why two of Kyle’s crew is dead and Smith’s brains are outside his head.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Gupta said. “All of you, into Secure Experimentation.”

I grabbed the bag and the assault rifle and followed everyone else.  We were heading down the hallway. I stopped, however, to look out the window. “Hey!” Gupta said, “Move it or lose it!”

May, however, was curious. “What do you see?”

Down in front of the building was a large group of people in green uniforms. In the center, there were two lines of soldiers carrying something on their shoulders. These lines were somewhat offset. They were all looking directly at the window. Right next to them, an officer had his hand raised. Before I could shout a warning, he brought it down in a chopping motion.

The first rocket hit the window. The explosion knocked me back on my butt, and I could see the window bow in slightly. Another rocket hit the window. “Go prone!” Kyle yelled.

“This way!” Mendes yelled, as he took off running.

“Or not,” Kyle said as everyone began running. As we ducked into a room, I turned to see that the window was only slightly cracked. At least six anti-tank rockets had hit it.

“What the fuck is that window made of?” I asked. We were in a small antechamber. The door Mendes had opened was mostly standard, if a little more solidly built then I was used to. In front of us was a legitimate vault door that was slowly opening. “That glass took six hits, and it only cracked a bit.”

“I wanna know what’s in those rockets,” Mendes responded. “I was there when they were testing it. They fired a couple Javelins into it, and it just kind of flexed.”

“Well,” Kyle said, “either way, it’s going to break. Any plans to deal with that?”

“We just roll down the shutters,” Mendes said. “If the Braxton Glass doesn’t stop them, titanium-uranium alloy should.”

“Uhhh…” May said, pointing down, “what’s that green dot? And what’s that counter for?” We looked down at the ground. Just as May had said, there was a green dot moving around in a circle. Connected to it by a line was a box with a countdown that displayed what seemed to be hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds. Currently, we had about twenty-four hours.

“That…” Mendes said, “…means someone is drilling their way in here. Probably something laser-based, judging by how it’s going in circles. The computer thinks we’ve got twenty-four hours.”

There was a jump. Suddenly, it said twenty. Then it jumped up to twenty-five. “Needless to say,” Mendes said, “I don’t trust the computer.”

From inside, we heard a voice call, “Mendes, Gupta, get the students in here.” We were hurried into a large vault that appeared much smaller due to the huge machine inside. Two other students were working on computers connected to it, and a third was running around, fixing various mechanical problems. In the far right corner, two more Campus Security officers in combat gear were surrounding what appeared to be a captain. The captain spoke again. “I take it you noticed one of our problems?”

“Yes,” Mendes said. “Do you need us to do anything about it?”

“They’re on Level Five. Hook up with the rest of Beta and take it out.” As Mendes and Gupta went off, he said, “You five, can you fight?”

“They can,” May said, “but I’m more of a medic.”

“Good,” the captain said. “There’s going to be trouble. How much depends on how fast these people can get their shit together.”

“Hey,” one of the engineering students said, “This stuff we’re doing? Literally nothing like it has ever been done before in the history of mankind. What you’re doing is the equivalent of asking someone in 1950 to devise a way to go to the moon in six months. It can be done, it’s just a little difficult.”

I couldn’t ask them anything, so I turned to Kyle. “Hey, Kyle, can I have my nine back?” I asked as I set down the bag of ammo.

“Sure,” he said. He reached into his waistband to hand me back my Berretta. I took my pistol back, and began to search for nine millimeter ammo. I figured it had to be in there somewhere because most pistols, including Kyle’s, took it. I quickly found a box and began to refill my two magazines.

“You know,” Kyle said, “that looks like a good idea.” He sat down by me. I noticed that he had brought Richard’s shotgun and pistol as well as his own weapons. Jared joined us as well. After I had refilled my Berretta (there wasn’t any ammo for my Sig) I checked to see why I had run out of ammo for the M-4 clone. It turns out I hadn’t. The quadrastacked mag had shit itself.

A couple minutes into my attempt to fix it, Kyle said, “They do that. Don’t bother.” It was then that I had noticed that no one had spoken for quite a bit.

“You ok?” I asked. “Never mind, stupid question. A bunch of your friends just got shot.”

There was a moment of silence, then Kyle said, “Dragging Richard and Camilla into this was one thing, but Brad…”

“Cap,” Jared said, “It’s ok. He was prepared…”

“It isn’t just Brad!” Kyle said. “Jared, we came in here with five other guys from the team. It was my job to keep them safe, and only you and Brad made it through fucking Hell Semester. I should never have brought you guys along.”

“Well,” Jared said, “you couldn’t stop us, man. Fuck, man, what were we supposed to do? Let the guy who led the team to finals three times in a row go on to face Nazis by himself?” He patted Kyle on the shoulder. “We knew the risks, and decided to take them. Also, if we hadn’t gone with you, things probably would be much worse.”

“Hey,” the captain said, “you four, come over here.” Kyle, Jared, Camilla and I all walked over to where the Captain was standing. He was looking down at a monitor of CCTVs. Most of them were static. “We’ve got another problem,” he said. “We’ve taken out the laser, but a group of the enemy have used the distraction to get up to this floor. They’re cutting us off from our people on the fifth floor. Can you remove them?”

Camilla pulled back the bolt on her AK to check that there was ammo. “How many are there?”

“Not sure,” the captain said. “But I’ve managed to seal off the other ways they can get in here.”

“So, all of them?” Camilla asked. “Not a problem, then.”

“I’m game,” I said, slapping a thirty-round mag into the M-4. “Kyle, Jared? You two in?”

“Sure,” Jared said, “It’s time for some payback.”

“Dude,” Kyle said, “be careful, ok?”

Jared and Kyle looked at each other for a moment. Kyle seemed to be begging Jared not to do something stupid. Jared smiled. “Sure man. I will.”

“Ok,” the captain said, “I’ll open the vault door. Head down the hall and take a left. That’s where the last entrance to this level is. The shutters are all down now, so you shouldn’t have anyone shoot at you from outside. There’s another stairwell on the opposite side of the building, but those stairs have been sealed off.”

We waited as the vault slowly opened, the sound of gunfire and explosions slowly seeping in from outside. When it was finally done, we filed out, checking our corners. When we were almost to the corner, I whispered, “How about we throw in a flashbang?” I held it up to show it was a viable option.

Kyle nodded. “Ok,” he muttered, “then we rush the bastards. Jared, cover our rear.”

I pulled the pin on the flashbang and rolled it down the hall and around the corner. When we heard the thump of it going off, Camilla, Kyle and I ran around the corner. We saw a group of four Nazis staggering back and blinking. Behind them, the door to the stairwell was open. The sound of gunfire echoed from it.

We opened fire. I got one, Kyle got another, and Camilla got the other two. As I was tossing a second flashbang into the stairwell, a fifth came out of the stairwell. Camilla got him too, her AK rounds passing through him and into the door. The flashbang went off as he fell, backlighting him for a split second.

We quickly ran through the bodies. Inside, there were three able-bodied, but deafened and blinded Nazis on the landing, and one who was unconscious and bandaged. I was first. I fired three two to five round bursts, causing the uninjured ones to fall down. Behind me, I heard Kyle fire a shotgun blast into the left corner, and Camilla fire a burst down the stairs. Then her AK clicked. Then she swore in Spanish. I looked to my right.

Down the stairs, on the halfway landing between the two floors, was a group of six Nazis, plus a few Nazi corpses. Most were still dazed, but one was aiming his STG straight at me. Before he could pull the trigger, there was a series of pops. From the fifth floor landing, I could see the distinctive muzzle flash of a Five-seveN pistol. Shortly later, I could see three Campus Security officers rushing the remaining Nazis. The one on point carried a riot shield and a Five-seveN, the second one had a P-90, and the rear one had a SCAR-H with an underbarrel XM-LSS. The remaining Nazis in the stairwell quickly fell down, blood and bullet holes marring the wall behind them.

However, I was distracted by the sound of one of the semi-auto Mausers coming from behind. I quickly headed out the door and saw Jared lying in a pool of his own blood. From farther down, I could see a Nazi lying down on the floor, also bleeding out.

I ran over to Jared. I was relieved to see that his eyes were open and he was still breathing, although it was very shallow. “Shit,” I said. “Ok, Jared, I’m going to get you out of here, man. Just hang…”

There was the sound of submachinegun fire. Then, somehow, I was on the floor and my stomach felt numb. I touched my stomach. There was a shooting pain, and when I looked at my fingers. They were covered in blood. I dropped them. From behind me, I heard someone burst out of the stairwell and fire an AK. The person at the other end responded in kind. I heard Camilla grunt and a crash.

As I heard more footsteps and gunfire, my vision began to blur. My last thought before going black was Damn it! It’s been months since I’ve blacked out. I was really hoping to break that trend… Then darkness took me.

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Track 20: Counter-Attack

“So Jew-boy, why’d you enroll at lovely Nowhere Island University?” With one question, Richard had just raised so many questions. Was he the fourth UNIX infiltrator? Did that mean UNIX had known Nazis would attack Nowhere Island and had neglected to warn the other three agents stationed there? More pressingly, did this mean May and I could live?

Well, there was only one way to find out. “Would you believe,” I said jokingly, “that I thought I was applying to NYU?” As I finished, I noticed that Richard made a twirling motion with his shotgun. As he did so, Kyle’s crew raised their guns and stopped leaning on the walls.

One of the Nazis in front of Kyle and Richard rolled his eyes. “He obviously isn’t joining. All he’s doing is telling…”

“What a coincidence,” Richard interrupted, adjusting his aim so he was now aiming at the Nazi who had just spoken. “Me too.” As he did so, Kyle and his crew also adjusted their aim as well. They fired almost simultaneously.

Behind me, I heard some voices in German making concerned queries. Then there were sharp bursts of AK fire. “Clear!” I heard a female voice with a Mexican accent say. I turned around to see a person of ambiguous gender lift up a ski mask with one hand to reveal a feminine Hispanic face.

“Camilla,” Kyle said, somewhat exasperated, “put the mask back on. We haven’t blown our cover yet.” Suddenly a radio crackled, a voice in German angrily enquiring something. Kyle holstered his Browning and got off May. “Please be quiet for a moment. Also, if you could police your brass? That’d be great.”

He then raised the radio to his ear. “Yes?” He asked. “Ah, Colonel Graff! Yeah we actually managed to capture two of them.” He paused as the Colonel on the other end asked a question. “Yeah,” Kyle said, “there were actually three of them… Sorry, but Sergeant Heinz went in first. We only got the second one because he ran out of ammo killing them… The other one’s a Triple A med student. She was unarmed and we figured she’d be of more use alive.” The officer muttered a bit more. Suddenly, Kyle’s eyes grew wide.

“You breached the advanced engineering labs?” he said, his eyes wide with panic, but his voice happy. “Great! We’ll see you there.”

After making sure the radio was completely off, he turned to the rest of us. “We need to move,” he said. “Now. Killer, I’m going to put handcuffs on you and May, but they’re fake, ok?”

“What the hell just happened?” May asked, coughing a bit. “Whose team are you even on?”

“That’s easy,” I said, “their own. But I guess they are working for the university in this case, right?”

“Yeah,” Richard said condescendingly, as he tossed me a pair of handcuffs. “Now be a good boy and put on the bracelets.”

Kyle, noticing the way I was staring murderously at Richard, quickly said, “Please. It’ll make life a lot easier for us. And Richard? Don’t be a dick.” I inspected the handcuffs and saw that there was a button on them that allowed them to be instantly opened.

“So, mind briefing me on what’s going on?” I asked.

“Later,” Kyle said. “Just pretend to be a prisoner for now, ok?” I sighed. I didn’t have any choice. For whatever reason, Kyle had decided to keep me alive. My best guess is that he had a plan for me, but if I didn’t cooperate now, he’d have to kill me. After all, the Colonel was expecting him to arrive with two prisoners.

“Sure,” I said, putting on the cuffs. I was actually curious to see how this all went down. I watched as everyone collected their brass and my Berretta. After they were done, Kyle signaled for us to begin marching away quickly.

We moved away quickly, Richard and Kyle on point, the two I didn’t recognize frog-marching me and Camila bringing up the rear. We moved through the streets, avoiding the ever increasing number of Nazi patrols, but identifying ourselves when we couldn’t avoid them. As we moved, I could hear the sound of gunfire. If I had to guess, it was coming mostly from the airport and Campus Security Headquarters.

Finally, we got to advanced engineering. In front of the building, a group of Nazis were just beginning to enter the building. Four Nazis, plus a dark-haired man in a business suit were standing outside watching them go in. One of them was wearing an officer’s cap instead of a helmet. I assumed that meant he was Colonel Graff. The four began walking over to us. The dark haired student took out a radio and began to listen intently.

“Mr. Rockford,” the person I assumed to be Colonel Graff said as he approached us, “you’re late.”

“Sorry, sir,” Kyle said, “we just had a bit of trouble.”

“Yes,” the person in the business suit said, turning around. I noticed he had a very posh British accent, and a somewhat smug demeanor. Also, his large, circular glasses were somewhat thin, like they were more for effect than vision correction. His attitude was also extremely smug. “Some of our scouts just found Heinz’s squad. I think their findings would interest you quite a bit.”

At this moment, a series of explosions rocked the building. A few of Colonel Graff’s men turned at the sound. That was all the time Kyle, Richard, and my other “captors” needed. Two of Graff’s men were cut down by M-4 fire and another fell back from the crack of Richard’s shotgun. Meanwhile, Kyle had drawn an M-1 Garand he had slung over his back and pointed it at Colonel Graff.

“Colonel Graff, Mr. Smith,” Kyle said pleasantly, “President Anthony Newton-Howell would like to speak with you.”

As I pressed the release buttons on my fake cuffs, I noted the pale expression on Smith’s face. I also realized that he must have been that Taylor Smith guy who May hated. I should have been paying attention to Graff. He pulled out what looked like a Browning with the magazine in front of the pistol grip, but before he could aim it, Kyle fired twice.

“God damn it!” Kyle almost yelled. He turned to Smith. “You,” he said, “down on the ground!” Smith, still pale as a sheet, made a confused noise.

“If he doesn’t get down,” Richard asked, “can I shoot him in the balls?”

“You traitors…” Smith said, getting down on his knees. “Do you understand what you’ve done?” I noticed that he was getting louder as he talked. I also noticed that Kyle was stalking towards him. “This is for the benefit of the world! Not only are we restoring the proper order, but…”

Kyle cut him off by smashing the side of Smith’s head with his rifle butt. As he bent down to apply zip ties to Smith’s wrists, he said, “My Grandfather spent his whole life fighting people like you, but I didn’t need him to learn that people like you are shit. Don’t even bother talking to me.”

“You have no idea what’s coming, do you?” Smith asked, laughing.

“Brad!” Kyle said, still not returning to his calm self.

“Yeah, Cap?” the guy behind me asked. He seemed like he was a football player before enrolling. Made sense, since Kyle was a former football player who had brought a few of his friends over with him. Also explained why Brad called him Cap.

“Take charge of this piece of shit,” Kyle spat out. He then turned to me and May. “You two, get some weapons.”

I pulled out my Sig. Kyle’s eyes widened. Apparently, he hadn’t realized I had it on me. May, meanwhile, looked somewhat uncomfortable. Understandable for a pacifist. Luckily for her, we heard a bunch of voices in German coming from down the street.

“We need to move.” Camilla said. “Now.”

“Ok,” Kyle said, “everyone inside.” We followed Richard and Kyle into the building. To the left of the hallway, there was a security booth. Kyle ran to the door and typed some numbers on the keypad. The door opened. “Everyone,” Kyle said, “get in!”

We didn’t waste any time. We still weren’t fast enough. I was the third-to-last person in. Brad was behind me, pushing Smith in front of him. He was almost in the room when there was a burst of gunfire. He collapsed.

Before Smith could run away, I pulled him in and pistol-whipped him for good measure. He fell into the room face-first. Meanwhile, gunfire began slamming into the desk and bullet-resistant glass. Ignoring it, I reached out to grab the rifle Brad had dropped. As I did so, I caught sight of a group of four Nazis coming in through the door. A bullet whizzed by my head just as I grabbed the rifle. I quickly got back into cover.

Meanwhile, Kyle was talking on a phone he had pulled off the desk. “This is Dagger,” he said, his voice barely masking the nervousness he felt. “We need Bravo Passage to open up, and we need it now.”

“Kyle…” his other pre-NIU friend said, “the glass is starting to crack…”

“Thank you Jared,” Kyle said, putting his hand to the receiver, then went back to the phone. “Skywalker, you there? We need to get up the passage right now. I’ve got three persons of interest I need to get to safety. Please open the passageway!”

A section of bullet-resistant glass shattered, raining shards down on me, Smith and May. There’s a reason I never call anything bullet-proof. Not wanting to see how long the desk and wall would last, I leaned out and began to return fire. I managed to put a two-round burst in one of them before they focused on me.

Richard, for his part, moved over to where the window had been blown out and began to fire from behind this new position. “Nice going, Jew-boy,” he said, ducking to return fire.

“My name,” I said, leaning out to fire a few more bursts, “is Nathan.” The remaining two Nazis dropped dead. “Fucking use it.”

“Really?” Camilla asked exasperatedly from the far end of the booth. “You can stop pretending to be an asshole, Richard.” To punctuate her statement, a rocket hit the bullet-resistant glass between her and the closest person to her. When the smoke and flames cleared, they revealed a shocked expression on her face.

“They’re coming from stairwell two!” Jared yelled and began returning fire.

“Good news,” Kyle said. “They’re sending down the elevator. We just have to hold out a little longer, ok?”

I looked out from behind the door to see a bunch of Nazis coming in through the main entrance. Luckily for me, there was no cover for them. I was suddenly distracted by the roar of a machinegun and the sound of bullets hitting the desk and the windows. Jared fell back, clutching his ear and screaming in pain.

“We’ve got a machinegun!” Camilla yelled. “Stairwell two! We need to leave!”

Before I turned back to deal with the steadily increasing amount of people coming in through the main entrance, I saw May crawl over to Jared, probably getting cut up on a lot of broken glass. Eventually, I heard Jared begin to return fire. When another glass window shattered, Kyle also began shooting.

That was good, because the M-4 clone I had taken from Brad was out of ammo. I quickly leaned out and began dragging him back in. When he was back, I noticed that he was carrying a bullet-riddled backpack. I also noticed that a bullet had entered the back of his head. When he was in, I opened the backpack. I quickly saw that it was ammo and grenades. A few of the mags near the near the rear were damaged by gunfire, but a lot of it was intact… including two quadrastacked mags.

“Anyone need a refill?” I asked.

“I’m good,” Jared said. “For now.”

“Same here,” Kyle said.

“I’ve only got two mags left,” Camilla said. “And that’s counting the one in my gun.” There was a click.” “Wait,” Camilla amended, “make that one.”

I reached into the backpack and pulled out two AK mags. “Here ya go,” I said, sliding them down the floor to her. “Also, grenades for everyone.” I began rolling the explosives down to people. Once everyone who was fighting had three grenades, I grabbed one of the quadrastacked magazines. Tossing the empty one away, I began fitting the sixty-round behemoth into my gun.

Once I had done that and had begun to put the backpack on me, I heard Jared yell, “Catch, you shit-faces!” A few seconds later, I heard screams. I looked up. Stairwell two was in flames. A Nazi with an SMG came running out, desperately trying to pat the fire out. I sent a silent thanks to God that the grenades in Brandon’s backpack hadn’t exploded.

Suddenly, a large steel panel behind us began to roll open. “Elevator’s here!” Kyle yelled. “Move it or lose it!”

“Get in,” I yelled, cocking Brad’s M-4. “I’ll cover you!”

“Richard,” Kyle said, “You’re almost out. Get Smith in the elevator!” I looked behind me. There was Smith, lying face up. Richard began to move over to drag him into the elevator.

Ignoring the thought that something was wrong about Smith, I leaned out of cover to begin sustained fire on the people entering the building. I had kind of lost track of things when Kyle called out, “Killer! Get in, we’re leaving!”

I turned to see that everyone else was in the elevator, and the steel panel that had been hiding it was slowly sliding closed. I got up, firing as I went. Once I was inside, the M-4 clicked. I got out of the way so Camilla could take my place suppressing the incoming Nazis.

When the steel door finally closed, I dropped the M-4 and asked, “So. Anyone care to tell me what the actual fuck is going on?”

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The Worcester Connection

Jennifer Kagemoto had a bit of a problem. It wasn’t the fact that her father expected her to kill someone. At seventeen years old, she was the most gifted hitman in Massachusetts, costumed or otherwise. No, the problem was who she had to kill.

She held one of her guns, a large nine millimeter pistol with a silver cutaway slide and black frame. Its twin was on the table, the slide pulled back. Suddenly, there was a clattering noise. Jen looked up to see the door to her hideout (a shipping crate in a Worcester industrial park) slide open. There was her father’s lawyer and her confidant, Ken Watanabe. “So,” he said, in his loud, twangy voice, “are we going to take down your dad?”

Despite their shared Japanese-American ancestry and upper-class status, the two could not be more different. Ken was a forty-something year-old man from Texas and let everyone know it, from his cowboy boots, to his large belt buckle, to his ten gallon hat. He also had come from quite hardscrabble beginnings, but with a very caring family. Jen, meanwhile, was a somewhat sophisticated teenage girl who had been uprooted from Worcester to move to Boston at the start of high school. Her family, while rich… wasn’t exactly functional. However, the two had mutual respect and admiration for each other’s skills.

“Maybe,” Jennifer said, glowering a bit. “But I definitely am not going to kill my brother.” Her father had given her the order a short while ago. “The problem with killing my dad, though,” she continued, “is that he still has some safeguards against his death. I don’t want to kill him only to have one of his loyal henchmen come after me.” She punched the table. “Damn! Ordering me to kill Brian forces my hand.

“If I may…” Ken said, “you didn’t pay attention to his exact words.” Jen turned to look at the somewhat overweight lawyer. Once Ken entered the shipping container and closed the door, he said, “your father’s exact words were, ‘My son is a disappointment. Jennifer, please do something to correct it. Use your talents.’”

“The problem is,” Jennifer said, turning her chair around to face Ken, “how do I convince him Brian’s ‘fixed’ without showing him a body.”

“You still have to show him a body,” Ken said. “Mark, I mean, your father blames Mary-Anne for Brian’s lack of interest in the business. It’s kind of irrational, I know, but your father’s not a rational man.”

“And this is the only other option?” Jen asked. It was a shame. She liked Mary-Anne Taylor, or Mary as she called her. However, she liked her brother more. Seems you like power more than either, a voice whispered in her head. She shook it off.

“Only one I can think of,” Ken said. “She’s going to be at Wooberry’s tonight. She’s meeting some family. If you suit up, you can catch her.”

“Actually,” Jen said, “I think I’ll stay in my civvies.” A plan was already forming in her mind. If she was right, the only problem would be pulling the trigger. She had never killed anyone she liked before.

Richard Forrest Taylor was on a mission. That was the only reason he had set foot in the liberal cesspool known as Massachusetts. If his sister was in trouble, he was going to save her, no matter the cost. It didn’t matter that she had run away from home to have extramarital sex with some Jap, family was family.

The problem was that his sister didn’t want to be saved. “Listen, Richie,” his sister said, her Alabama accent coming out despite years of being forcibly suppressed, “I’m not going anywhere.” They were sitting by the window at a frozen yogurt place called Wooberry’s. Mary-Anne was sitting on a stool across from him, her black hair cut very short and her face set in determination. She was still wearing a blue uniform with black apron for Chartwell’s dining service. Apparently, she worked at one of the nearby college’s dining halls.

“Listen,” Richard said, “these people that dad’s dealing with are scary. They don’t like that you’ve been… hanging out with the people you’ve been hanging out with. Please, come back.”

“Richard,” Mary-Anne said, “I’d love to pretend like nothing’s happened, but I can’t go back. I saw things that you guys have done that can’t be unseen. Going back to you…”

“Then don’t go back,” Richard said. He wasn’t really keen on staying here. For instance, the girl in the red hoodie sweater and dark blue sunglasses had very disturbing bulges in her front pockets. The cop was also giving him strange looks. Richard continued, checking on these potential threats nervously. “Disappear. Run. You did it before. The police aren’t going to be able to help you anyway.”

“For once we agree on something,” Mary-Anne said. “Listen, I appreciate the warning, but my life’s been in danger here before.” A bell signaled the rear door opening, but Richard was distracted by Mary-Anne grabbing his hand. “If you’re really worried,” she said, “you could come up and stay with me and Brian for a while. Maybe I can prove he isn’t so bad.”

Richard thought about this for a long time. He wanted badly to say yes. However, he couldn’t. His father would be so disappointed.

“Never thought I’d live to see the day,” someone drawled sadly. Richard looked up. There was Jeb, one of his father’s best guns. “Two of Rich Forrest’s kids turning race-traitor.” Richard also noticed another one of his father’s men, Dale, wearing a trench coat and standing behind the police officer. Disturbingly, Dale had no arms in the sleeves of the coat.

Richard reached for the Colt Government Model on his hip, but Jeb was faster. “Don’t think about it, Junior,” Jeb said, his face sad as he aimed his Glock into Richard’s face. People screamed. The girl in the red hoodie froze, her spoon halfway to her mouth and her head studying the scene intently.

The police officer stood up suddenly, but before he could draw his gun, Dale had pulled out a pump-action shotgun and pointed it at the officer’s head. “I would advise sitting down, sir,” Dale said.

“You know,” Jeb said hopefully, ignoring what was going on behind him, “if you put your hands where we all can see them, I’ll pretend I never saw you here. How’s that, Junior?”

“I ain’t a race traitor,” Richard, “but the only way you hurt my sister is over my dead body.”

“God damn, kid,” Jeb said sadly, starting to pull back the trigger, “I really liked you.”

Suddenly, the girl in the hoodie and sunglasses wasn’t sitting down. Instead, she was much closer and standing up with two Beretta 92G Elite IIs with chrome suppressors. One was touching Jeb’s throat, the other was aimed at Dale. Fuck me, Richard thought as he reached for his Colt, she’s a fucking Jumper. That was bad news. Teleporting could seriously ruin his day if he wasn’t careful.

Before he could draw, one of the Berettas coughed. Jeb collapsed on the floor, blood spraying out his exit wound. Dale turned around, but the other Beretta went off three or four times. Dale staggered backwards, two entrance wounds in his chest and the shotgun falling from his grip.

Richard used the opportunity to draw his Colt. The officer also drew his service weapon. “All right,” the officer said, “Everyone drop your weapons right now. We don’t need to kill anyone else.”

Suddenly, there was a loud buzzing noise. “I’m sorry,” Mary-Anne said apologetically, “should I take it?”

Richard shrugged, the girl in the hoodie remained impassive. The officer said, “It couldn’t hurt, Mary.”

“Wait,” Richard asked the cop, “you know her?”

“Hi, Brian,” Mary-Anne said, “This is actually a bad time… Yeah, they’re already here…” Her face suddenly turned white. “There’s multiple groups of them?”

“GET DOWN!” the girl in the red hoodie yelled. “NOW!”

Richard didn’t need to be told twice. Shoving his sister first, he launched himself to the floor. It was just in time. As soon as he began his descent, the world erupted in gunfire and shattering glass, most of it seemed to fall on top of him. He landed directly on top of Jeb. To his horror, he realized that Jeb was still bleeding, possibly even conscious.

He looked up to see the officer return fire to whoever was outside. Someone else got up to run, but both were cut down by whoever was outside. The cop fell back as multiple rounds hit him in the ballistic vest he wore under his uniform. Eventually, a lucky one hit him in the stomach. The runner, a black girl, fell down right in front of Richard. Birdshot had embedded itself in her shoulder, eye and neck. She looked Richard right in the eye and gurgled something that sounded a lot like “help me.”

Richard wasn’t a doctor or well versed in first aid, but he doubted anyone could help her. Just like he doubted the guy in the blue shirt who tried to crawl to safety only to be lacerated by submachinegun fire was still alive.

Instead, he turned over to aim out the window, thankful that the leather jacket he wore protected him from the glass shards. He quickly realized that his line of sight out onto the main street was blocked by the table he had just been eating at. Behind him, someone else who was closer to the back door made a break for it. He was almost out when a shotgun barked. He stumbled, his white shirt turning red, but still made it out the door.

Suddenly, things got quiet. Well, assuming you didn’t count the moans of pain and whimpers of fear. “Are they gone?” he whispered to Mary-Anne.

“If they were going to go,” she whispered back, “they would have left already.”

Richard nodded, and grabbed Jeb’s Glock. Judging by the barrel it was a 17L. “You still know how to work one of these?” He quietly asked his sister.

“Yeah,” she said. “Knowing Brian’s family, I’d be stupid not to.”

Then they heard someone from across the street yell, “Shut up, Dwight!”

Dwight, at least Richard thought it had to be Dwight, yelled, “Fuck you, man! The pig got me in the arm!”

“Man,” a third person on the other side of the street said, “shut the fuck up about your fucking arm! You’re lucky that you didn’t end up like Yukki!”

A line of cars whizzed by, drowning out the conversation. When they passed, the people on the other side had stopped talking. Richard and Mary-Anne waited, not daring to breathe. Eventually, could see three large squares of cloth through the window. He didn’t have a clear view due to the wall and the furniture.

Someone outside pushed down the table. It revealed three startled Asian teenagers. One had a .22 pistol, one had a TEC-9, and another had a crappy shotgun. Richard fired three or four rounds into the center one and Mary-Anne discovered that Jeb had modified his Glock to be fully automatic by dropping the one with the TEC. The one with the shotgun fired, but he was aiming at another table. Richard pumped a few rounds into him.

After all the shooters were down, Richard got up. He looked down to see the one with the TEC struggling to raise his weapon. Richard fired three more times. On the final pull, instead of a bang, there was a click. He felt eyes on him. He looked out to the street to see a minivan parked in the middle of the road, all the doors open. There was a line of cars behind it. On the other end of the street was a restaurant, with people looking out through the windows in curiosity. Richard suddenly realized he was covered in blood and shards of glass while in full view of potentially dozens of people. “We need to go,” he said as he ejected the spent magazine, making sure to catch it.

“Yeah,” his sister said. Richard looked down. She had been scavenging Jeb’s spare mags. “Things are going to get a whole lot worse.”

Richard finished reloading his Colt. “You’ll have to tell me more about it on the way.” He suddenly realized that this was his last magazine, and it only had eight rounds in it. “How much time do we have?”

“Not a lot,” Mary-Anne said. “How do you feel about fighting Parahumans and cyborgs?”

Richard holstered his Colt and picked up Dale’s shotgun. It had a shell rack on the receiver and its sling also carried a few more shells. The people still in Wooberry’s flinched as Richard walked near them. “I’m glad Dale gave me this,” he said as he hurried out the door.

Jennifer was crouched on top of the building to the left of Wooberry’s. Having to stay out of the action always annoyed her. However, today she was grateful. Maybe I won’t have to kill Mary, she thought. Maybe those amateurs will do their job. She instantly felt guilty. Don’t think like that. Mary’s just another job.

In a way, this was annoying. She had never had to deal with her conscience before. She actually was proud of how she had felt little remorse. From family friends who suddenly ceased being friendly, to a begging snitch, she had always done her job.

Your job is quite horrifying, isn’t it? That voice in her head asked.

“Shut up!” Jen snarled to herself. She turned back to the massacre. The people shooting into the frozen yogurt joint had driven up in an old black Dodge Caravan. Jen preferred a brownish beige or silver Toyota Sienna on a job. They were much more common and gave a suburban soccer mom feel. She also would have walked into the premises before opening fire. The target would be dead, and no one else.

Of course, if she was guessing right, these were morons who were wanted for robbing a branch of a local bank. The thing they hadn’t realized was that this branch of the bank kept all its cash in an ATM… and no one there had a key to open it. Instead of doing the sensible thing and stealing it and moving it to a place to open later, they just had to try to open it at the bank. Jen wondered how they had managed to get away so far.

If they pull this off, she thought, I might have to hire them. I could use that kind of luck.

After a while, the shooting stopped. There was a pause, during which Jennifer assumed the people in the people in the minivan were reloading.  After a while, the moron brigade got out of their minivan and walked over to the frozen yogurt place.

Jen watched with interest to see what they’d do. Odd, she thought, there’s only three. I thought there were five of them. Maybe one of them got hit. She was distracted by the sound of gunfire. In the time she had spent musing, Mary’s brother had shot the three.

Hmmm… maybe they weren’t as lucky as I thought, she decided. Shame. Now I’m starting to root for my targets. She was startled again as the brother stepped out of Wooberry’s to finish off one of his attackers who wasn’t quite dead. Ha! Now I’m definitely rooting for them. Very professional.

She debated whether or not to jump back to Wooberry’s and finish them off. Memories of all the times she had spent with Mary flashed through her mind. They might have been from different places in the literal sense, but their families were pretty similar. Some of the things Mary had told her… Jennifer just couldn’t look her in the face and pull the trigger.

The solution was simple: Jen had seen where the brother had parked. From this building, Jen had a clear shot. One bullet to the head, and it would all be over. And once again, that little voice in her head said, you don’t have to deal with your actions.

Ignoring the voice once again, Jen picked up one of her pistols and aimed it at the back door. Eventually, Mary’s brother emerged, a shotgun in hand. He did a quick check of the surrounding area, then ran to his pickup truck. Good check, Jen thought. Shame you didn’t look up. For some reason, no one ever does.

His sister followed. Mary cautiously poked her head out. Jennifer squinted down the barrel of her Berretta, and began to squeeze the trigger. Suddenly, she remembered the time she and the team of capes she led for her father had been severely beaten by The Minutemen. When they had scattered, Jennifer had been suffering from serious jump fatigue, a concussion, and some serious cuts from Valkyrie’s axe. When she had gotten into her escape vehicle, she realized she couldn’t make it all the way to Boston. The nearest safe place she could get to was Mary’s apartment.

When she woke up the next day, she said remembered saying to Mary, “Thank you, Mary. I owe you.”

“Please,” Mary said, going back to making breakfast, “forget it. It was… you’re a friend.”

Jennifer laughed. The laugh hurt and caused her to cough. “Mary, please,” she said. “You know me. I don’t just owe you for hiding me. I also owe you for being my friend. I will pay you back.”

Back in the present, Jennifer raised her gun and flicked the safety on. “Dammit,” she said, blinking back tears. “I can’t kill one of my only real friends, can I?”

Suddenly, the burner phone she carried with her rang. She pulled it out of her pocket. It was Ken. “Hello?” she asked.

“Jen,” Ken said, “Daren Tanaka just convinced your dad to let Brian live. Your father decided that it would be more… beneficial to company morale to deal with Anne and leave Brian alone for the time being. He’s using a bounty system, which I find a little interesting.” Ah. Her father had canceled the hit on Brian and put out an open contract.

“I figured that last part out,” Jen said as Mary and her brother drove away. “I just saw some of his contractors make a spirited attempt. It wasn’t very successful.”

“Well, this should make life easier for you,” Ken said. “As your lawyer, I advise you to go home, or even better, catch a movie. Y’know, celebrate.” Translation: go back to her safe house, or even better, somewhere public. Be seen somewhere far away from any of the shit that was about to go down.

“Your advice is understood,” Jen said. Then she hung up. She knew he was right. She could (and more importantly should) just leave all this behind her. Just… leave.

But Mary was in trouble. She had to go save her.

In what Jen thought was a clever bit of planning, she had backed her minivan up against the building she was standing on. To save on jumps (the teleporting kind,) she could just drop down to the roof of it, then the hood, then the ground. After that, she quickly checked the undercarriage for GPS trackers or bombs (a habit she had developed out of necessity) and got into her car.

After that, she pulled out a device that looked like a civilian GPS out of her glove compartment. Well, technically, it was a GPS. It just also monitored data from trackers, like the one she had placed on Mary’s brother’s pickup truck. She pulled out of the parking lot just as she heard the police sirens approaching.

Richard just wanted to drive. The images of the frozen yogurt place kept replaying in his mind. In fact, he was sure his imagination was filling in some details. For instance, he couldn’t have felt Jeb’s heart still beating for a while, could he? And there wasn’t enough time for that last shooter to rasp “don’t” before Richard had finished him off, right? Right?

Anyway, he just had to get back to his hotel room and then he could think about the next step. After that, he’d have to consider a long term plan to save his sister. He turned to see Mary-Anne sitting there, staring out the window, Jeb’s Glock in her lap.

“Hey sis,” he said, “you ok?”

“Are you?” she asked, giving him a look.

“Yeah,” he lied. “Anyway, I recognized Jeb and Dale, but who were those guys in the minivan? Who was that girl in the red sweater?”

“Remember that phone call I got?” she asked. “That was Brian. His dad decided to put out an open contract on me.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Richard asked.

“That means,” Mary-Anne said, “that if anyone wants a hundred thousand dollars, all they have to do is kill me and drag my corpse to Mark Kagemoto.”

“Wonderful,” Richard said. “So, was that jumper in the hoodie an amateur who couldn’t hack it or something?” Mary-Anne laughed. Richard sighed. “I don’t think there’s anything funny about being attacked by a mutie.”

“You’re right,” Mary-Anne said, still laughing. “That was Hiniomoto Oniko.”

“You mean to tell me,” Richard said, “that the leader of Mark Kagemoto’s team of capes had you directly in her sights… and did not pull the trigger?”

“Her real name’s Jennifer Kagemoto,” Mary-Anne said. “She’s… she’s Mark’s daughter, but she’s got reasons for wanting him dead, as well as reasons for wanting me to live. ‘Course, she’s probably got some damn good reasons for killin’ me as well.” She sighed. “Half the time, I can’t figure out what she’s doing. The other half I can’t figure out what she did. But apart from Brian, she might be the closest thing we’ve got to an ally.”

“Well,” Richard said jokingly, “maybe she doesn’t like you sleeping with her brother.”

Mary-Anne glared at him. “Y’know,” she said, “there’s some traditions I’ve followed. Like keeping pure for marriage and going to church. I’ve just learned a bit more about Christ’s love then the rest of you.”

“Sorry,” Richard said. After a while, he asked, “Does she still have a grudge against the Klan? Because that could be a bit awkward if we end up working together.” A few years ago, a rare pro-Parahuman splinter group of the KKK, The Power Knights, had come to Worcester to hold a rally. Many local groups had objected strenuously. Then, something happened and the next thing everyone knew, a cape calling herself Hinomoto Oniko was claiming responsibility for the execution of The Power Knight’s leaders.

“The Power Knight fiasco wasn’t a grudge, really,” Mary-Anne said. “They messed with the Kagemoto’s business, Jen decided to remove them. ‘Tit for tat’ as she put it.”

“I thought that was the reason you wanted to get away from us,” Richard said. “You know, all the violence and hate.”

“It is,” Mary-Anne said sadly. “Then I met this nice man who understood exactly where I was coming from and we started dating. Eventually, I figured out why he and his little sister understood me so well.” She turned back to looking out the window. “I should have tried to get you to come with me,” she said after a while.

“I would’ve stopped you,” Richard said. “And, thinking about it, I’m glad you didn’t. You’re much happier up here than you would’ve been back home. Or were, before someone put a hit out on you.”

“But I could’ve gotten you out,” Mary-Anne said.

“Well,” Richard said, “you kind of did get me out of the frying pan. Only trouble is this fire we’re in here. But we can work it out.”

Mary-Anne smiled at him. “Thanks, Richard.”

An hour later, they got to the hotel. Before they left, they used some wet wipes Richard had in his glove compartment to get the blood off their faces. They then realized that their clothes were also soaked with blood. “Good thing I parked around the back entrance,” Richard said as he refilled his Colt’s empty magazine. “We can’t exactly walk in the front door looking like this.”

Hiding the various weapons they had as well as they could, Richard and Mary-Anne walked in through the rear door and quickly entered the stairwell. Richard was a little nervous, as the room was near the front of the building. However, they quickly walked down the second floor hallway. As they hurried, Richard began to feel good about their chances.

That changed when they got to the large window overlooking the parking lot. “Richard?” A voice asked. Richard and Mary-Anne turned around. “Aw, man, I hope that ain’t you.” There, aiming a Kriss Vector submachinegun at them, was Rhett Cormack. Richard, Mary-Anne and Rhett had known each other since pre-school.

“I’m saving my sister,” Richard said, looking Rhett right in the eye. “What else could I do?” Briefly, Richard considered going for one of his weapons. He decided against it. It was at point blank range, and Rhett was the fastest shot out Richard knew of.

“You could have followed your parent’s orders like a good son!” Rhett yelled. Underneath his trucker’s cap, tears were starting to flow down his eyes.

“Dammit, Rhett!” Richard yelled back. “They want to kill their own daughter to please some mystery group! Wake up!”

“I’m sorry, Richard,” Rhett said, “but…”

There was a ding. Rhett turned to face the elevator to his left, but before he could turn all the way around, there was the thwip of a silenced pistol and the sound of something passing through glass at high speed. Blood spattered the window as Rhett fell to the floor, making a horrific, yet barely audible gurgling sound.

A feminine figure in dark red Samurai-inspired body armor strode out. Her hair was done up in a ponytail and some of it framed her slender face. The face itself was covered by a white mask with horns, painted lips, and, most disturbingly, glowing blue eyes. However, Richard kept his eyes fixed on the twin silenced Berettas the woman held, one of them smoking slightly.

“You know,” she said as she turned to face them, “This whole saving the day thing feels quite good.” Next to her, Rhett tried to raise his Vector. Without even bothering to look at him, the woman double-tapped him in the chest. “I’ll have to be careful,” she said jokingly as she pulled the trigger. “Next thing you know, I’ll be joining the Minutemen.”

Jennifer pulled her minivan into the parking lot. Once she parked, she clambered into the third row of her Sienna and opened a package. Inside was her costume. She placed her Berettas on top and removed her shoes and hoodie to reveal the bodysuit beneath. With the sweater on, it looked like she was wearing yoga pants, but they were actually designed to passively maintain a comfortable temperature from zero to ninety degrees Fahrenheit.

The first part of her costume she put on were the gloves. Most of the stuff she had was treated to not pick up finger prints, but she didn’t always touch her own stuff. Then she stuffed her feet into the steel-toed boots. Next was the breastplate, then the leg pads, then the pauldron, then the arm guards.

As she was checking to make sure that the various items she had were in their proper place (small holdout pistol in her ankle plates, smoke/flash bombs in her belt, and a small throwing knife concealed in the buckle) she saw a figure walking into the hotel lobby. He was dressed in a denim jacket and a trucker hat and clutching his side. Something cylindrical was hanging out from under the jacket. It glinted in the exterior lights around the building.

“Shit!” Jen said, grabbing the last piece of her costume. “Shit shit shit shit!” This last piece was a ceramic Noh mask. It was custom-made to have glowing eye pieces and have gas filters in the nose. In Jen’s opinion, the stab and bullet resistant capabilities were nice, but it was the terror that it inspired that she liked about it.

Quickly grabbing her pistols, she exited the minivan and walked into the lobby, trying to seem in control. She had only made one jump tonight, but it was a blind jump done in a panic and now she could hear whispers. She wasn’t sure she wanted to make another jump just to close the distance with the gunman. As a result, by the time Jen had got into the hotel, the elevator doors had closed. Luckily, the man hadn’t noticed her.

Between her hurry to see where the elevator stopped and her focus on looking casual, she didn’t notice the lack of screams from the receptionists until she had pushed the call button with the silencer of one her pistols. She looked at reception. There was only one on duty, a blond woman with several nose piercings bent over a book. Nothing unusual, just an employee reading on duty… and not turning any pages.

Jen was a little curious. Maybe the woman was just oblivious. Then Jen noticed a mixture of ozone, copper, and burnt vinyl. She walked over to the desk. An almost imperceptible cut was in her breast, going straight through her heart. Behind the desk, another receptionist had been beheaded. Both wounds had been cauterized.

Jen knew of only one weapon that could do that. It was owned by one of her subordinates who went by the name of Bushido. Bushido was a Japanese scientist who had made several inventions, including a super-heated sword capable of instantly cauterizing wounds. When the company he worked for fired him, he hadn’t taken it well. Somehow, he had ended up pledged to her father with the exact same alias that every third-rate cape with Japanese origins called themselves. It was almost as bad as an American cape calling themselves “The Patriot.” In summary, Bushido may have been smart, but he was also an uncreative asshole who was completely loyal to her father.

“Of course you’re here,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “Why wouldn’t you find another way to fuck my plans over.” The elevator came down, and Jen walked over to it. She angrily stabbed the button for the floor the mysterious gunman had gone to.

When the elevator doors slid open with a ding, she saw the gunman pointing a submachinegun at someone. The person noticed Jen and tried to turn around, but Jen casually shot him in the neck. He collapsed, desperately gurgling.

Ignoring her victim, Jen walked out into the hallway. “You know,” she said, turning to face Mary and her brother staring at her in horror, “This whole saving the day thing feels quite good.” Deciding to put a few more rounds into the gunman, she continued, “I’ll have to be careful. Next thing you know, I’ll be joining the Minutemen.”

When Mary and her brother just stared at her in horror, Jen said, “That last part was a joke. You know, something you laugh at.”

“I’m sorry, Je… I mean Oniko,” Mary said. “You just killed a childhood friend.”

Jen turned to the corpse. It had stopped leaking. “Sorry,” she said, making an effort to care for Mary’s sake. “Was he about to help you?”

The two siblings looked at each other. “No,” Mary’s brother finally admitted.

“Oh,” Jen said, holstering her Berettas, “before I forget, I’m Hinimoto Oniko, a friend of Mary’s.” She held out her hand for him to shake.

“Why aren’t you calling her by her full first name?” the brother asked suspiciously, not taking the offered hand.

“All my friends up here just call me Mary,” Mary said. “It’s just… easier that way. Now shake hands with the nice lady, Richard.”

Warily, Richard walked forwards and grabbed her hand. “You know,” Jennifer said, “I don’t bite.”

“It ain’t the biting I’m worried about,” Richard said, still very wary, “but more the shooting and stabbing parts that concern me.”

Jen laughed. “I was right about you! You can survive more than fifteen minutes here.”

They were distracted by the sound of squealing tires. Outside, three SUVs pulled into the parking lot. One stopped in front of the main entrance, the others circled around the back. Four people got out of the stopped one. They all seemed to be rednecks with assault weaponry.

“That’s Uncle Joe’s crew,” Richard said. “We need to get to our room and…”

“If I’m guessing right,” Jennifer said, drawing her pistols, “Bushido is waiting for you in your room.” She added for Richard’s benefit, “which is bad. Let me deal with him.”

“And we’re supposed to take an army of ex-Marines on by ourselves?” Richard asked.

“That’s easier than fighting Bushido,” Mary said, pulling out a long-barreled pistol and pointing down the hall behind her. “Our room number is 210.”

Jen walked quickly to the marked room. Happily, it was facing the rear parking lot. Good. He hadn’t seen her come in. If she played her cards right, she might even be able to get him to help. Clearing her mind, she made the jump.

Instantly, she knew that she should have just knocked on the door and called to Bushido. Now that she was in The Unknown, the place Jumpers went between jumps, the whisperings became rumblings in heinous tongues. The geometry super-imposed on her vision was warping… changing… even more wrong than normal. She could also sense something watching her… and moving closer.

There were also physical effects now. There was an odd pressure in her head, and her stomach was getting a little upset. Plus, all the moisture in her mouth was gone and she was beginning to sweat. She swam through the shifting mass, somehow able to “see” back into her own dimension until she found room 210. It was brief, but it felt like an hour. Seeing that Bushido was sitting on the toilet, she decided she’d appear leaning on the wall opposite him.

When she landed, she had to fight to keep from vomiting and she could hear the strange language just as loud as when she had been in the Unknown. However, she was able to speak calmly. “Hello, Bushido,” she said to the man dressed like a biker samurai from the future. “The boss sent me.”

Bushido really did look like a futuristic biker. He was dressed in an all-black jumpsuit with various armored pads inspired by samurai. It was ok, except for the fact that the mask showed a sort of ghost-samurai mask. It was a cool effect, and if she didn’t know him, Jen would be impressed. However, she did know him, and it was just another sign of his insufferable devotion to an outmoded code.

“Kagemoto-sama,” Bushido said, his Japanese accent as thick as usual, “I was not aware your father had informed you of this operation.”

As usual, Jen thought, you are quite the suspicious bastard.

“First off,” Jen said, “I have no idea who this Kagemoto person is. Second, the boss wants you back at headquarters, not to play twenty implied questions with his most valued lieutenant.”

“Let me be specific,” Bushido said, “Your father specifically did not want you to know about sending me after Mary-Anne.” Jen noticed that he had a small orb in his hand that he was rubbing back and forth.

“I actually didn’t know that,” Jen lied, adding just a dab of malicious glee to her voice for good measure. “The boss just said to come collect you.”

“If that is so,” Bushido asked, “why are your guns drawn?” With that, he lifted up the hand he had the small ball in. Before he could throw it, Jen opened fire with her twin Berettas. The ball wasn’t thrown with force. Instead it just dropped.

Bushido, switching tactics, reached for something on his belt. Jennifer quickly decided that she didn’t want to find out what it was. She quickly did another blind jump, holstering her pistols as soon as she was inside The Unknown.

Swimming through The Unknown, she got back outside the door. However, she had landed back in her world a few feet up. Instantly, she felt sick. She got to her knees and lifted the mask off her face just in time to barf. The voice was now much louder, but something was blocking it. The horrible feeling  of being buried alive told Jen that the button on Bushido’s belt had opened up a miniature anti-jump field.

After she was done, she put her mask back on and stood up. From the rear of the building, she could hear gunfire. Ok, she thought, so I now know two things. First, subsonic hollow point bullets are terrible against the body armor Bushido makes. Second, apparently he can also make a portable anti-jump field. Why he doesn’t just start his own company I’ll…

She was interrupted by a white-hot katana blade stabbing through the door, smoke pouring out through the gash. It had some trouble with the lock. Ha ha, Jen thought. That idiot doesn’t even know how to open a door.

Bushido quickly cut through the locking mechanism, then kicked the door open. As he stepped out, Jen was pleased to see that his face mask had some spiderweb cracks from a few of her bullets. Before he could turn around, she charged forward and grabbed his sword.

“You know,” Jen said, while they struggled, “you’re a very good inventor. But you’re just terrible at being a hitman. Everything you’ve done, from the Rosa Martin job to your fight with Midnight Rider. Someone actually agreed to throw a fight in your favor, and you still managed to lose!”

“Your problem,” Bushido said, “is that you are arrogant!”

Good, Jen thought, he’s monologuing back. Now let’s see if I can figure out how to shut off his anti-jump field.

“You have become so convinced you are the greatest supervillain,” he continued as he drove her back into room 210, “that you have not considered the possibility I have placed a tracker on your uniform, despite the fact that I made your uniform.” An explosion in the distance caused them both to stagger. Jen still was focused on finding and shutting off the anti-jump field. “Nor that I would have given the monitoring device to your father!”

It has to be the red button on his belt, Jen decided. That’s what he was reaching for. Also, it wasn’t glowing before.

“Firstly,” Jen said, “I am the greatest supervillain. Secondly, I knew about your little device which is why I had someone else reverse-engineer this costume. And third, that button looks important.” With that, she kneed the button.

Instantly the belt fell off. “Baka!” Bushido yelled, kicking the belt behind him. “Anata ga chōdo yatta nin’i no aidea ga arimasu ka?” Jen knew enough Japanese to know that he was asking if she knew what she had done. Also, that he thought she was an idiot.

That was all the warning Jen got. The explosion that followed caused them to stagger closer to the window. Jen used everything that twelve years of Judo, Karate and ballet had taught her to spin Bushido around and give him a shove.

“What have I done?” she asked triumphantly as Bushido hit the window with a crack. The window didn’t break, but it was close. “I won.”

Before Bushido could regain his balance, Jen launched into a flying sidekick. It was perfectly executed. The window cracked and Bushido fell out, screaming all the way down. Jen watched him fall. After a while of watching Bushido not move or go for his dropped sword, she did a jump down.

It was a line of sight jump, so she shouldn’t have had any trouble. However, something scaly still managed to stroke her face. Shuddering slightly, she bent over and picked up the superheated katana Bushido had made. Then, with all her remaining strength, she shoved the blade downwards into Bushido’s face just to make sure he was dead. When she pulled it out, she realized it had gone through the hitman’s face and deep into the pavement below him.

After she removed the blade and figured out how to turn it off, she inspected it as it rapidly cooled. “You,” she said to the hi-tech sword, “I like you. I’m keeping you.” She then removed Bushido’s sheath for in and attached it to her own belt. Then she sheathed the sword.

As she reloaded her pistols, she considered the best way to get back up there. She had attracted the attention of something in The Unknown, and it was somehow able to grab onto her while she did quick jumps and its calls were so loud, she was surprised the earth wasn’t shaking.

Might be better to do a blind jump, Jen thought. To see what I’m up against.

She instantly regretted it. As soon as she was in The Unknown, she saw three tentacles in a triangle formation blocking her way. “Alright, you creepy pieces of shit,” Jennifer said, “Let’s see how you like the taste of lead!”

It turns out they didn’t mind so much. They just kept coming, and eventually a fourth joined them. By the time she had gotten back to the second floor, her pistols were out of ammo. She reappeared in front of the elevator, feeling completely beat.

In front of her, she saw that the person she had killed earlier still had his submachinegun. Shaking slightly, due to the headache and what felt like the beginnings of a bad fever, she reached over and slung it over her shoulder.

Standing up gingerly because of how lightheaded she felt, she walked to the rear of the hotel. There, she saw Richard sitting on the ground. “Richard,” she asked, trying not to vomit, “where’s Mary?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, somewhat dazed. “They got blew up the stairwell and we got separated. I don’t know what floor she’s on.”

“I’ll find her,” Jen said. She drew her newly-acquired sword and submachinegun and jumped again.

Instantly, she saw several things. The first was the tentacles. There were now dozens of them and they were all around her. She also saw a group of four rednecks with assault weapons waiting for the elevator in the lobby.

Most important, though, was the two people on the third floor. One was an elderly man with a long gray beard and a SPAS-12 shotgun. He was aiming it at Mary, who was lying on the floor, her pistol empty and her leg bloody. A cloud of buckshot was heading towards her. Luckily, being in The Unknown gave her a lot of time.

With a scream of fury, Jen swam forwards, slashing at the tentacles with her katana. The sword actually cut clean through the things, causing the beast to scream in agony. Its screams were so loud and shrill that Jen thought her head would literally split, but she managed to get all the way to where she was going.

When what felt like a truck hit her in her armor’s chest plate, she knew she had reappeared in the right place. The force caused her to stagger, but, much to the surprise of both herself and the bearded redneck before her, she kept on her feet. She also had vomited in her mask. She smiled at the man’s look of surprise.

That’s it you bastard, she thought, I’m your fucking death.

That thought, and an attempted decapitation blow, was interrupted by another shot from the SPAS-12. This one knocked her over.

Behind her, Mary screamed, “JEN!” Then the redneck’s shotgun barked again.

As Jen struggled for breath, her head ringing from her headache, the bastard who had shot her walked towards her, until he was towering over her. He then pointed his shotgun at her face. “Any last word, bitch?” he asked.

In response, Jen shoved the sword into his gut. It penetrated through his digestive track, lungs, and heart with minimal effort. The man dropped his SPAS-12 in shock. Then he fell over, smoke gently flowing out his gaping mouth and his wounds. “Yours sucked,” Jen spat, fighting to make her bruised lungs work.

Letting go of the sword, she began to crawl over to Mary’s corpse. “Mary,” Jen said, still struggling to breathe, “its ok. I’m alive. The man’s dead… Mary, please answer me.” She took off her mask. Instantly, she was refreshed by the lack of vomit being smeared against her face. “Mary… why aren’t you answering me?”

She knew why, deep down. But from her position on the floor, she could just see Mary lying there so she could still pretend. Jen finally got to look at Mary’s face. The shotgun blast had split Mary’s head open, but had somehow managed to keep the face perfectly intact. Mary’s normally calm and happy face was frozen in horror. Jen instantly wished it had been pulped. That way she could pretend her friend was still alive.

Hugging the corpse of what used to be one of her two friends, she began to cry hysterically. All she could do (and all she wanted to do) was clutch Mary’s corpse like a security blanket and bawl and beg until Mary came back to tell Jen everything would be all right.

Then the elevator dinged. Pure, unadulterated hate buried the grief as Jen turned around, drawing her looted SMG. All right, you bastards, Jen thought, you’ve just killed half the friends I have. Now, I’m going to kill you.

Richard had been watching the elevator nervously. After Hinomoto Oniko had disappeared, he had felt it prudent, as the only other entrances now were in direct line of sight from the elevator. When it had first moved, he had been somewhat nervous. When it had stopped on the third floor, Richard breathed a sigh of relief.

That relief had evaporated when he heard the sound of automatic gunfire. The fear Richard felt was even more intense when the elevator began descending again. Richard aimed his shotgun at the door.

When the doors slid open, he was surprised to see that no one was in it. Then he heard a cold voice say, “Down here.” He looked down. There, sitting against the wall, a sheathed sword and Rhett’s Vector in her lap and her mask in her hand, was Hinomoto Oniko. Her face looked like she had hastily tried to wipe blood, vomit and tears off it. All it had done, though, was spread it and her mascara run.

“Where’s Mary-Anne?” Richard asked.

“Get in the elevator,” the villainess said.

Richard got in. “Where’s Mary-Anne?” he asked again.

“Press one.”

He did. “Where’s Mary-Anne?” he asked for a third time as the doors closed.

“She’s dead,” the villainess said.

The words hit Richard like a battering ram to the gut. His shotgun clattered out of his hands as he let it go. Thoughts raced around his head, none of them good. They killed her. My parents killed my sister.

“Hey!” the supervillain shouted at him. “Focus. I’m going to need you to help me. The cops could arrive at any minute, and your sister wouldn’t want you to be taken by them.” When she saw Richard nod. “Ok, when the door opens up, you’re going to have to carry me to your car. Once we’re there, you’ll need to put me on the floor of the rear seat. Then I’ll tell you the address of the safe house. Also, tell me when we’re out of the parking lot.”

Richard nodded. When the doors opened, he picked up the villainess and hurried her over to his F-150. It was a little hard getting her into the truck, but they did it. Richard then hopped in the driver seat and turned the key. “Ok,” he said, “GPS is up. What’s the address?”

“1235 dash 5 Monument Street, Concord,” Hinomoto Oniko said. “My lawyer lives there. He’ll keep us safe and not ask questions.”

“Got it,” Richard said. He typed in the address. “Hey, that’s where the first battle in the first Revolution was, right?”

“Yes,” Hinomoto Oniko said, “but you won’t be staying long enough to do any tourism.” Richard immediately recognized the threat and started driving. The supervillain continued. “You’re Mary’s brother, and I like you. However, if you tell anyone about tonight, you will jeopardizing plans. Plans that involve saving my brother.”

“Oh, I won’t be talking about tonight,” Richard said, slightly annoyed by the threats. “I’ve got some plans for what I’m going to do. My parents also have some good plans, so I’ll pretend I’m their perfect boy, and when the time comes, I’ll set fire to everything they love.”

“Good,” Jen said. “If that time comes, call me. I’d love to help. In the meantime, I’ve got a sociopath to appease and a brother to protect.”

“Sounds like we’ll both be busy,” Richard said. Already, a plan was coming together. There were a few people he knew on Stormfront that he suspected were faking. All he had to do was confirm it and he’d have some allies. One thing was for sure, though: Mary-Anne’s death would be avenged.

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Track 8: Back to the School Where It Began

My schedule was somehow very grueling.  I mean, it was nowhere near as bad as Hell Semester, but the amount of work still surprised me. First were Mondays. I had to go to an English class around ten AM, which was located in the main academic building by the Newell-Howard Student Center. At first, I thought it was a good, relaxing class. We just had to read something as a class and do some introductions. Then the teacher gave us a five-paragraph essay about where we came from to write. “We only have one class a week,” she said.

Next, I had my radio show at three. The way radio shows worked was you first applied to Freshman Radio. They said that they would then put you in room with at least one other person for an hour at a time, and the two of you would have to try and keep your listeners entertained during that time.

When I got in to the Freshman Radio office around two forty-five (it was located on the second floor of Newell-Howard,) I was surprised to see it had a small waiting area with a window overlooking the cafeteria. There was only one other person, a young baby-faced white guy with slightly wavy dark hair and tiny glasses. He was looking at a laptop and typing stuff. I sat down in a red vinyl chair. He was about average height sitting down, but I could tell that if he stood up, he would be taller than almost anyone.

As soon as I sat down, someone came in from the radio room. “Hey, guys,” the newcomer said, “are Nathan Jacobs and Andrew Sebaldi here?” He was black, and, judging by his weight, was definitely not a Shadowhaven or an AMS student. We were required to spend a certain amount of time in the gym, and most of us (me and my roommates included) did daily exercises. This guy had a lot of baby fat on him. He then turned towards me. When he saw me, his eyes widened a bit. “Oh… Didn’t… didn’t, uh, see you there.”

“Are you talking about me?” laptop guy asked.

“Both of you,” the newcomer said. “Follow me, please.” He led us back behind the hallway. “Sorry about this,” he said, “we’ve still got a bunch of people coming in. A few planes were delayed in Alaska and Chile. Me and my partner had to cover two extra shifts. Follow me”

He then led us out into a hallway. There were two rooms, with a window in to each of them. Inside each of them were a computer monitor, microphones, headphones and a control board. The far one had a guy talking into a microphone. The guy we were with led us into the closer one and gave us a quick rundown of how to turn on music (the computer had iTunes on it and we could also plug in an MP3 player,) mics, and to switch to the other booth when we were done.

“Ok,” he said, “you guys got it?” We nodded. “Good. You have nine minutes, plus when our song finishes. Once it’s done, you’re going to read the station ID on that piece of paper, introduce yourself, and your show name. Excuse me.”

He walked out. We put on our headphones. Through them, we could hear the current show. “Hi,” my partner said after they were on, turning towards me and extending his hand, “I’m Andy.”

“Nate,” I said, taking his hand. He had a firm handshake.

“So,” Andy asked, “do you have an idea for a show name? Because I honestly have no idea.”

“How about Flounder?” I suggested.

“Flounder?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Because we have no idea what we’re doing.”

“Works for me.” Andy said with a shrug. “So, where you from?”

“Massachusetts,” I said. “I’m from a town called Maynard…”

“I heard of that place,” he said. “DEC was headquartered there, right? Then it became Digital. There’s still some tech companies there, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “My Dad worked there.”

“Cool,” Andy said. “My parents worked all sorts of places. New York, Boston, Austin, Silicon Valley… they were tech people as well.”

“So, let me guess,” I said, “you’re an art major.” He laughed. “Ok,” I said, “serious guess: you’re in the CompSci school.”

He nodded. “You too, right?”

“Academy of Military Science, actually,” I said. “It’s kind of hard to believe, I know. Sometimes, I don’t eve believe it.”

“Really?” Andy said. “I thought that they wouldn’t let people with glasses join.”

“Anyone who passes Hell Semester can join,” I said.

“Kind of egalitarian of them.”

“Hell Semester is designed to kill fifty percent of the people who enroll.”

Andy’s eyes widened. “Well,” he said, “I did not know that. Did anyone you know…?”

I shrugged. “I was lucky. I made friends and was able to learn the necessary skills to survive quickly. It was tough, but I did it.”

Suddenly, the light that told us we were on came on and there was silence over the headphones. Quickly, I turned on our mics. “Hello,” I said, while trying to find a song, “you are tuned into 87.3 FM and/or 87.3 HD. I’m Nate Jacobs…”

“And I’m Andy Sebaldi,” Andy said. I flashed him a thumbs up.

“And this…” I said, “…is Flounder.” The show went well. I found that we had a weird mesh of music tastes. For instance, I had started the show off with “Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous” by Good Charlotte. I also had selected a lot of stuff from bands like Fall Out Boy, The Kongos, and Green Day. Andy had picked out a lot of slower stuff like Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins as well as some classic rock and punk like The Clash and The Beatles.

I also had some nice chats with him, both on and off air. We’d play two songs, then switch to talking bits. During my conversations with him, I found out several things about him. First off, he was very smart. He was a sophomore, despite the fact he was a sixteen-year-old who looked fourteen. He was majoring in Artificial Intelligence and his advisor was pressuring him to dual-major in Factory Systems as well because how he had used the school’s 3D-printer to make his own personal 3D-printer. Then he used that to make an assembly line in his bedroom.

I also learned he was a bit like May. He had this tendency to go into long rants about various things. They weren’t as charming as May’s, but they were much easier to tune out if they got annoying. All in all, even if he wasn’t useful, he was still a nice guy to get to know.

I shook myself at that thought. If he was a good guy, then I should definitely keep him out of what I was doing. After all, I was doing this to protect people. If I dragged someone into this, hell, if I hung out with people too much, there was no guarantee I could keep them safe.

However, if I didn’t make aggressive moves, someone here could make a death ray and wipe out New York or do a million other things that caused innocent people to die.

As we were relieved, I was still debating myself. Noticing my ruminations, but misinterpreting my reasons, Andy asked, “You got the back-to-school blues?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“The nerds of the island have a cure,” Andy said. “We’re holding a party on Friday at Graham’s Game Bar. It’s sort of like a nerdy nightclub. There’s going to be a LAN party, so if you play LOL, Counter-Strike, or Starcraft 2, you should bring your computer. Bring any friends you want.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m probably going to have supper with them now.”

True to my word, I did. I actually met up with John, Cross, and Eric and his gang. I told them about Andy’s offer.

“Do you think that they’ll have anyone who can hook me up with sixties Marvel comics?” Ray-Gun asked. He was one of Eric’s crew, and he had apparently gotten his nickname from his fascination with Silver Age American comics. His favorite was Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHEILD. I wasn’t sure if he had the complete set.

I shrugged. “Possible.”

“Do you think the girls would be interested?” John asked.

“Depends on which girls,” I said. “Maybe Eliza and her roommates would be interested. May probably wouldn’t want to get out, but I think it would be good for her.” Suddenly, there was a beep from my pocket.

“Shit,” I said, looking at my cPhone, “I’ve got class. Sociology. See you.”

“We will see you later,” Eric said, “and we will also make sure to listen to your show in the future.”

“Do you guys have radios?” I asked, getting up.

“They’re built into our phones,” Ray-Gun said. “These things are cooler than the Star Trek communicator.”

Sociology was really cool. The first class mostly went over the syllabus and addressed the various things that sociology covered. As my teacher explained, sociology is the study of how people interact. It may be a soft science, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t useful. In fact, it was actually fascinating. For instance, did you know that Karl Marx actually contributed a lot to sociology? The conflict theory is basically the idea that history is shaped by two ideological forces clashing together. I’m not exactly a full subscriber to it, but it makes a lot more sense than Communism.

Homework was very simple. Read a few chapters so we could have a discussion on it. That was the same for Philosophy of Government (another place where Mr. Marx showed up) and Military History, both Tuesday and Thursday classes. Our instructor for Military History reminded all us Freshman AMS and Shadowhaven students that we’d have to meet with our advisors by the month. I made a mental note to do that, then continued to take notes with my notebook.

Math, however, was brutal. John and Eric were in the class as well, and we were dismayed when the first thing our teacher did was to give us a test. After that, we were given a large amount of homework.

“Well,” I said, to John, “there goes Wednesday.”

“I know,” he said. “Plus, we’ve got this again on Thursday.” He paused, then said, “Fuck me, right?”

“Hopefully the night shift at The Drunken Mercenary won’t be too bad,” I said.

It was awful. The only person there that I knew was Mary Riley, and she was too busy breaking up fights. During the three days I worked there, I noticed a pattern. When I got in, it would be mildly rushed. When ten rolled around, the bar would become less crowded, but more rowdy. By the time midnight rolled around, we’d have to break up at least two bar fights. Once in a while, we’d even need the help of Campus Security. Then, around twelve thirty, it would suddenly begin to wind down, leaving only one or two people slumped in their drinks. Then we’d begin the process of closing up shop.

Mary explained the situation to me the first night as we closed. “Hell Semester gives people a taste of action,” she said. “A lot of people get addicted to it. This area is a place where they can get that feeling of adrenalin that you only get from fights. The rules are even relaxed for fighting here. However, actual weapons are a big no-no here.”

I didn’t really appreciate that until the morning. It was almost three and we were still closing up. I then went up and staggered into bed. I suddenly realized that I’d have to do that tomorrow and the day after. I think I cried myself to sleep.

Friday, after three days of math and bartending, I ended up going to a class that promised to be fun: Weapon Refreshment. The Patton Building, where the dedicated AMS and Shadowhaven classes took place, was quite the walk away. I had the class with Eliza, Eric, John, Cross, and Bai. Since it started at one, we all decided to walk down together. Since the class was at one, we decided to head down to the nearest student center, Sun Tzu to eat lunch at eleven.

We met up outside Squire Hall, our weapons in long cases. Eliza was a bit late. After she finally got down, I said, “So, who here thinks they can run all the way to Sun Tzu?”

Eliza laughed. “It isn’t about if we can all make it,” she said, “It’s about ‘oo gets their last.” She began running. “‘Cause that wanker has to buy us all coffee at Charlemange’s!”

“You’re on!” I yelled. It turned out to be a bad idea, at least for John. He lost by about five seconds and Eliza, Cross and Eric teased him mercilessly. I was happier than John because I almost beat Eliza, surprising everyone.

Eventually, though, Bai got tired of people teasing John. “You know,” she said, “John may have come in last, but at least he was not out of breath, Cross.”

After we sat down to enjoy our food (apparently, the Sun Tzu’s menu was Asian-style and the building was sort of styled off the Forbidden Palace,) I decided to invite Eliza and Bai to the party.

“So,” I said to the two girls, “There’s this party at a place called Graham’s Game Bar. I heard about it because my radio show co-host invited me to it. The rest of the guys and May are coming. We’re going to get supper here, then head over. Do you guys want to come?”

“I’m not sure…” Bai said.

“Don’t worry,” Eliza said, “Give me a few minutes with ‘er, and she’ll be coming. Should I bring Char and Jen?”

“Depends,” I said. “If you can contact them before we go…”

“They’re actually ‘aving Pistol Marksmanship,” Eliza said. “They should be finishin’ up by the time we get there.”

When we got there, they actually were all still there. I checked my phone. Class actually should be starting now. I looked in through the door that led into the shooting gallery. I could still see that the previous class was watching several people. I looked up and saw Richard Forrest Taylor the Third, and a group of his flunkies coming towards us. I recognized one of them. Kyle, I believe his name was. I also recognized that most, if not all, of Richard’s group used to be Kyle’s group.

“Oh look,” Richard said, his twang evident, “it’s the Jew.”

I sighed. “Really, Richard? You’re going to do this here?” Out of the corner I saw Eliza stiffen. I also saw Eric, Cross and John stiffen a bit. Eric, in particular, had reached into the duffel bag he was carrying. Bai just seemed confused.

“Yeah,” Kyle said, “this isn’t really the place, man.” Something about how Kyle was acting made me question whether or not it really was Richard’s group or if it was Kyle’s. This suspicion became stronger when Richard actually backed down. I made a mental note of it, and went back to looking through the door.

I had been watching for a few minutes when I heard Richard mutter something. I wasn’t really sure what he said. Eliza, however, was. Before I could even consider what Richard had said, I heard a wet schlick sound. I turned to see Eliza’s bone claws had ejected.

For the first time, I realized why she didn’t use them more often. To eject them, she had to dislocate her knuckles and pierce the skin between her fingers and the claws themselves were wet with her own blood.

Her expression was also quite something to behold. Her green eyes flashed dangerously and her ears were flattened. Her skin, usually somewhat fair under her freckles, was now a chalky white. “You wot, mate?” she asked, her voice dangerously quiet.

I turned to look at Richard and his group, as well as some other people in the class just joining us. One of Kyle’s friends, I noticed, had rolled his eyes. However, it was Richard I was interested in. Specifically, the fact that the left side of his pants seemed to be sagging.

I almost had a reason as to why that could be, when Richard derailed my train of thought. Smiling smugly, he said, “I see those ears of yours can’t tell you if what I’m saying’s any of your business.”

“You were talkin’ shit ‘bout me mate,” Eliza said. “That makes it my business.” Suddenly I realized what was probably pulling part of Richard’s pants down. Before I could warn Eliza, she had begun to rant. “‘Specially if it’s some bedsheet wearing bitch ‘oo’s acting ‘igh and mighty while perverting noble ideals ‘e barely understands.”

The smile slid off Richard’s face as he reached for something on his left hip. “Shut up, you mutie whore!” He snarled. When his hand came up, I was unsurprised to see that he was holding an M1911.

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Track 14: Snow and Cold

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

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

“Kill him?” Richard asked sardonically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What you say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if they find out?”

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

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

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

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

“Ok,” I said, “I’ll be careful.”

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

“Thanks, man,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of them?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 13: Stop Snowing!

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

“What do they do?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t call me that!” I snarled.

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

Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that all ‘e wanted?” Eliza asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” Doc asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Richard said.

“Who?” Salim asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” I said. What else could I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sssstop it…” he slurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead,” Richard said.

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

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

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

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

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

“How close is she to your position?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Working on it!” he yelled back.

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

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

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

When I finished a full rotation, Spooky was back.

Right in front of my face.

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

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

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

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Track of the day

Track 7: Load Up on Guns

The weekend was not fun. I spent the day hanging out with people who I knew were safe. That meant John. Unless I was missing something, since John was the other UNIX spy, he was the least likely to betray me, because then he’d be all alone at best and facing the combined wrath of both UNIX and NIU Campus Discipline at worst.

That’s not to say that other people didn’t drop by. Cross liked to drop in on us at meal times. He always seemed happy to share various bits of advice about how to get by “in a certain business,” and John really liked talking about various self-defense tactics. Depending on who started first, we could get into a really interesting conversation about how to defend yourself from someone, or how to get the most money for killing someone.

At Sunday dinner, Eric and his crew joined us. “Good evening, Killer,” he said, as he and his four friends wandered up towards us, food trays in hand. “Mind if we join you?”

“Go ahead,” I said. “There’s room and you guys are pretty cool.”

“Thank you, Killer,” Eric said. He then held out his hand to the Cross and John for them to shake. “I don’t think I’ve met your friends here. I’m Eric the Entertainer.”

Both John and Cross shook hands with Eric. “Nice to meet you, Eric,” John said. Cross gave a friendly smile.

“These here,” Eric said, “are my friends. This is Ray-Gun Robert,” Robert nodded, “Doc,” the shortest member of the group said something in a language I didn’t recognize, “MC Disaster,” a scarecrow with a beard and afro flashed a peace sign, “and The Monk.” The lightest-skinned of the five bowed in imitation of a Buddhist monk.

“Greetings,” The Monk said.

“Nice to meet you,” Cross said, “come on guys, pop a squat before a bunch of random people steal your seats.” He patted bench next to him, and Eric’s group sat down. By this point, we had all gotten new clothes and showered. I was extremely thankful for this, mostly because I finally had gotten all the literal blood off me and I had started to get to the point where my own stench was so vile I gagged every time I inhaled, and partly because I didn’t want to smell anyone else’s odors.

“’Pop a squat,’” Eric mused, “That is an American expression I am not familiar with.” He paused, then asked, “You three are American, are you not?”

“One hundred percent,” Cross said. “Accept no cheap imitations.”

“Unless they have the free healthcare like Canada,” Doc said. MC Disaster and Ray-Gun made an “oooh” sounds and Monk gave Doc a high-five.

“I believe,” Eric said, “that is what you call a ‘burn’ in the states, yes?”

“It would be,” Cross said, “if we hadn’t gotten it passed several years ago.”

Eric nodded. “True.”

Before he could say anything else, I quickly changed the topic. “So, how bad do you think the weapons training will be?”

“Bad?” Cross asked incredulously. “Dude, we get to mess around with M-16s and shit! How can that be anything but awesome?”

“Well, for me personally it may have something to do with the fact that I’m a Jew who’s beaten up a Klansman and killed a rising Al-Qaeda star about three days ago,” I said somewhat neutrally.

“Aw, that’s just you,” Cross said. “Me, I hope we get to play around with HCARs. Those things are fucking sweet.”

Doc shook his head. “It is unlikely,” he said “that they teach us some fancy gun that probably breaks down. They will teach us the AK. Everyone uses the AK, because the AK does not break.”

“Americans don’t use the AK,” Cross said, “because the AK can’t hit anything beyond a hundred meters.”

Doc slammed the table. “Americans forgot that you need to make reliable gun after 1950! You make the Thompson! You make the M1! You make the two best pistols in the entire world! Then you forget and make M16? Why? Your computers, cars and movies are still the best. Why  did you forget how to make weapons?” I suddenly realized: Doc’s relationship with American firearms was the same as a fanboy who had finally realized his favorite comic book writer sucked.

“Maybe they will have E-11s,” Ray-Gun said hopefully.

“Aren’t those the blasters the Stormtroopers in Star Wars use?” I asked. I knew full well that they were. However, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. There could be a real gun called an E-11.

“I know,” Ray-Gun said sheepishly, “but one of the magicians here could summon a few of them up.”

“You know there’s no such thing as magic, right?” John said.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” Eric said, seemingly quoting from memory, “is indistinguishable from magic.” He paused. “Besides, ‘magic’ is easier to say than ‘technolologomy.’”

Most of us laughed, but Ray-Gun flashed Eric a grateful look.

“You know,” I said, “I think we might get training in more than one weapon.” People nodded. “We’re probably going to learn how to use AKs, but we might cover other things like FALs.”

“I used a FAL once,” The Monk said. “It was a decent weapon. The only problem I had was I could not figure out how to reload it. To be fair, the situation was… stressful.”

“So what are we all majoring in?” I asked. There was a pause, and I said, “I personally haven’t decided.”

Eric said, “Good question. I’m going for Officer Candidacy.”

Doc raised his hand. “Battlefield medicine,” he said. “I have always been good at patching people up.”

“I am Combat Engineering major. The rest of us are Extended Infantry Operations, I believe it is called,” MC Disaster said. I noticed he was quieter than the rest of his group, and this was the first time he had spoken up.

“Sounds like you guys planned this out between you,” I said.

“We did,” Eric said, not volunteering anything further.

“We haven’t planned anything together,” John said, “but I personally am planning on going Physical Security with a minor in Cyber Security. There’s a few companies where I am that could use that.

“Nice,” Eric said. “Good pay and close to family.”

“Speaking of family,” Cross said, his eyes twinkling, “my dad works in his business as a… a trouble shooter, if you get what I mean. I’m going into Shadowhaven to help him with that stuff. You know, entering the family business.”

Eric and his friends went silent. “I see,” Eric said. Then there was more silence.

Finally, the MC spoke up. “If, let’s say back in history, we would happen to take something that belonged to someone else, would they hire you to do the trouble shooting?”

“Where did this happen?” Cross said cautiously, looking warily at the people who had joined us. They, in turn, were considering him in much the same way Bai did when Eliza had accused me of spying.

“Africa,” Ray-Gun said noncommittally.

“The less civilized part,” The Monk added.

“Then there should be no problem,” Cross said, with a bit of forced cheer. It seemed clear that he thought if he seemed cheerful, then they would calm down as well. “My plan is to mostly operate within the states. I could get you guys a job there.”

“Thank you,” Eric said, back to his normal genial self, “but we already have a job. A calling, to be more accurate.”

“I have an offer for you,” MC Disaster said.

“Oh?” Cross asked, the wariness creeping back on his face.

“You are mercenary,” the MC said. “Worse, you are one we do not know.” The wariness on Cross’s face was now back on. “However,” the MC continued, holding his hand out, as if signaling Cross’s thought process to halt, “I do not want you dead. I figure the best way to keep us both alive is satisfy your needs. Here is my proposal: I have my own share of our… gains. Every year we are all here, I give you, Cross, a million dollars to be wired to your account when you are on the plane home.” At this, Cross’s eyes widened. I’m sure mine did, too. “However, these payments are conditional. If any of my friends die in an unexplained manner or in a way you could have prevented, you do not get the payments. Is this fair?”

“Way more than fair,” Cross said. “You don’t need to do this, you know?”

MC shrugged. “Price for a good night’s sleep,” he said. “Fairly cheap for it, from what I hear.”

The conversation turned to bitching about the program in general and drill sergeants in particular. I personally made my gripe with Krieger clear. That was odd, because normally I keep my opinions to myself. It was only when I really hate a teacher that I complain about them while I have them. I think the last time I did was when I was in First Grade.

After that, we went to bed. Well, I went to bed. My five bunkmates didn’t. I had been asleep for a while when Eric started saying, “Hey, Killer!”

After about the fifth time I registered this, I asked groggily, “What time is it?” I was developing what I call morning headache, which is what happens when you get a headache from waking up too early.

Eric began to ask, “I don’t see what that…”

I repeated the question, injecting every ounce of menace I could muster. “What. Time. Is. It?” The headache really helped, I think.

“Three.”

“Is it important?” I asked.

“We were just wondering,” Doc asked, “what are your thoughts on when it is ok to kill someone. You see, we are having this…”

“Well,” I said, with false cheer, “Talmudic law has an answer for this, like so many other things. Basically, it boils down to only when necessary, like self-defense, saving the lives of others, or” here I swapped the fake cheer with the most threatening voice I could muster, “when your idiot bunkmates are inconsiderate enough to wake you up at three. In the. Fucking. Morning. Am I making myself clear?”

“Crystal, Killer,” Eric said, a little scared.

“Good,” I said, still pissed, “now shut up and let me get to fucking sleep.”

They kind of avoided me for the morning. That was good for me, because they seemed kind of groggy. I was afraid that if I hung out with them, being bright, chipper, and somewhat vengeful, they’d end up having to kill me and dump my lifeless body in a crater.

I still had Eric as a partner for the daily sparring exercise. We were doing a drill where we would stand perpendicular to each other. One person would draw a wooden gun to point in the second person’s face. The second person would grab the gun by the slide, then bring it away from and past their face. While they were doing that, with their other arm, they would elbow the second person in the face. The drill sergeants made it a game. If the shooter could bring up the gun and say “bang” before the second person could perform the maneuver, they earned a point. If the second person was able to get the gun away from the shooter, they earned a point. I was actually killing both positions. I think it was because Eric was so tired.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I stayed up too BA-OWWW!” The “BA-OWWW!” was him trying to pull a fast one on me.

“Sorry,” I said, indicating the fact that I had elbowed him the face. “Maybe you wouldn’t be so tired if you actually slept? Just a thought.”

“You know,” Eric said, grabbing his nose, “I could let you do the next few rounds with Dickface or Eyepatch.”

I looked over to see if I could find them. I spotted them immediately. “Guess who’s partnered together?” I asked, chuckling a bit.

“Let me guess,” Eric said, “Our friendly neighborhood Klansman and the local Al-Qaeda representative. That is not good.”

“On the contrary,” I said, “take a look. Don’t worry, they’re kind of busy.”

Eric turned and looked where I pointed, then started to laugh. Richard Forrest Taylor the Third and the unnamed Al-Qaeda dude who had threatened me were both being chewed out by a drill sergeant. However, instead of looking at the drill sergeant or down at the ground, they were looking at each other like they were trying to summon up an expression of rage powerful enough to kill the other. Both had black eyes and bloody noses.

Eric could barely contain his laughter. “That, my friend,” he began, “is hilari…”

“BANG!” While he wasn’t looking, I had pulled my training gun on him and “fired.”

Eric turned around, an exasperated look on his face. He looked even less amused when he saw my goofy grin. “You know,” he said, “just because your enemies fight themselves, does not mean you should make more.”

“Sorry,” I said, lowering my practice gun.

“Besides,” Eric said, smiling suddenly, “I could do this! BANG!” Taking advantage of the fact that I was looking at the ground, he brought up his practice gun and pretend-fired at me.

“You missed!” I said, even though if he had fired a real gun at me, there would probably be a bullet in my chest. It quickly degenerated into a playground pretend-fight from there.

Around the time when we were arguing over whether or not my “everything-shield piercing bullets” could pierce his everything-shield, a South African-accented voice asked us, “Are we having fun, lads?”

We turned around. There was Karl Krieger, a bit of a frown on his face. Yet I couldn’t help notice an odd twinkle in his eye.

Eric did the correct thing. He looked down at the ground, the picture of contrition, and said, “No, sir.”

I, on the other hand, did the dumb thing. I grinned and said “Yes, sir!” in unison with Eric’s response.

“I see,” Krieger said. He then reached into his belt and pulled out what looked like some chrome-plated M1911 clone.

I did exactly what the drill was supposed to accomplish, except for real. I grabbed the gun, and pulled it past my face while elbowing Krieger. There were a few differences. First off, because Krieger was a bit taller than me, I was pulling him down, making it so I had to elbow him in the throat, causing him to let go of the gun and stagger back, wheezing.

The fact that it was pointed at the ground may have saved someone’s life because the second difference was that Krieger’s gun was loaded, and apparently didn’t have the safety on because it went off. Even so, it nearly hit the foot of someone practicing nearby. She, like everyone else, turned to see what had happened.

I, realizing that I had an instructor’s personal firearm in my hand, dropped it. It fell, and I slowly brought my hands behind my head and interlocked my fingers, a horrified look on my face.

Krieger’s wheezing quickly turned into peals of laughter. “Very good job, boyke!” he said, “but you didn’t follow it up. That allows me to do something like this!” He then punched me in the stomach so hard I was lifted off my feet. I fell over, my world one of pain.

“Get up,” he said, dragging me to my feet. “A little wobbly, eh boyke?” he asked when I was up. I didn’t reply

Kreiger then picked up his gun. I noticed this time he kept it pointed at the ground and he used his left hand. “Next time you’re in that situation, instead of dropping the weapon, pull the slide back!” He demonstrated this. When he did, a spent casing flew out instead of an entire bullet. “See? What happened there is you gripped the slide so hard the spent casing didn’t come out. Now that you’ve cleared the jam, you can do this!” He then fired into the ground until his gun clicked. I jumped because the bullets landed too close to my feet for comfort.

After that, things were pretty uneventful. After lunch, we learned how to field strip an AK-47. Needless to say, Eric, Ray-Gun, Doc, MC Disaster and The Monk were the best of our group of eight. In fact, they were so good that it was impossible for me to tell which one was better. I did have to admit, Cross was pretty close.

“So, what do I do after taking the receiver cover off again?” I asked.

“You put it back on before a drill sergeant realizes you did that without removing the magazine first,” Eric said.

“Thanks,” I said, clicking the receiver cover back into place.

“You need a refresher on how to unload it?” Ray-Gun asked.

“Nope,” I said, demonstrating the steps as I went, “you push the magazine latch forwards, then you rotate the magazine back towards you. Then you pull back the bolt carrier to eject any remaining rounds.” I looked up to see how I did. A look of horror passed over my face.

“You may want to do it faster, boyke,” Krieger said. He was standing right behind Eric, so he jumped. “Also,” Krieger said, a hint of a smile on his face, “maintain constant vigilance. You don’t want to be surprised while cleaning a weapon in battle.”

After he wandered off, Cross asked, “If this thing doesn’t ever break, why are we even bothering to learn how to clean it?”

“While I have only heard legends of a Kalashnikov breaking,” Eric said, “I still do not want to be caught unable to fix it. I also know that these parts do not last forever. For instance, look at the recoil spring,” he said holding up a long metal rod with a spring attached to it. “The spring does not look so springy anymore, yes? Also, the constant proximity to explosions is causing the rod to bend. I am not sure what it does, but I do not want to find out what happens when it breaks, so I will request a replacement.”

“You know what I like about these things?” John said. “They come with these.” He held up a small capsule that you could find in the butt compartment of every AK. “My dad owns a civilian AR-15, and because it has a folding stock, it can’t fit anything like that in there.”

“What’s an AR-15?” The Monk asked. “I have heard it mentioned in several American rap songs, yet I don’t know what it is.”

“It’s an M-16,” I said. “The US Army arbitrarily changes the names of the various weapons it gets. For example, the Berretta M92FS becomes the M9.”

The Monk nodded. “I see,” he said. Then he thought for a moment, then asked incredulously, “What?”

“The US Army has a hell of a lot of eccentricities,” John said.

“In fact,” I said, “at its worst, just like any bureaucracy, it becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare.”

Before anyone could ask who Kafka was, Professor Zemylachka called out, “Assemble Arms!” We all struggled to get our AKs back together. Well, some of us struggled. A few like me had just put the finishing touches on our assembly, others like Eric and his group could assemble and strip them in under a minute. John was not so lucky.

“You need help?” I asked.

“Naw, man,” he said, “I got this.”

I kibbutzed anxiously as he assembled his AK. Literally the second before it was all assembled, Professor Zemylachka called out, “Company, form up! Parade Positions!”

We all scrambled to Parade Positions, hoping to pass inspection. We stood there for a few minutes while Professor Zemylachka inspected the ground where we had been stripping our weapons. Apparently, it was clean enough, so Professor Zemylachka turned to us and said, “Company, present arms!”

We all held out our weapons for her to inspect. Before she began to inspect our weapons, though, she seemed to have an announcement. “You may all be wondering,” she said, “why do we teach field stripping before the shooting. The answer is two-fold. Firstly, we prefer that you have respect for weapon and knowledge of how it works before you fire it. Secondly, the easiest way to test this knowledge and respect is if you go to shoot weapon you field strip. Especially with tovarisch Kalashnikov. Why? Because the only way an AK will not be firing, especially these AKs, is if someone screwed up their firing mechanism.” She glared at all of us. A few people gulped.

Eric’s hand, however, shot up. “Yes,” Professor Zemylachka said, nodding at him, “I see you, recruit. I will get to you shortly.” She then continued her speech. “None of you have left parts behind. That is good. Usually we get one derevenshchina who leaves a part or two behind.” Ulfric giggled. Everyone else recoiled, but Professor Zemylachka continued on, only flinching slightly. That was still more badass than anyone else there. “This shows that you are respecting your weapons. Now, recruit,” she said, turning her attention back to Eric, “What is your question?”

“Ma’am,” he shouted, “My receiver spring is showing signs of age, ma’am!”

“Can it be fired?” she asked.

“Most likely, but it may be on its way out!”

Professor Zemylachka nodded. “Very well then. I will come see you after the exercise. Any other questions?” There was silence. Professor Zemylachka then walked to a point between us and the door, and then yelled, “Company, about face! Forward march!” As soon as she gave the order, the schools jaunty, militaristic theme music began to play over the speakers.

We turned ninety degrees towards the camp exit and began to follow the professor, a group’s drill sergeant in front of every group. Immediately after leaving the gate to the camp, Professor Zemylachka took a right. She led us to a shooting range behind the barracks. There were places for each group marked in the grass. Between the walls were two lines of Campus Security. The first line had riot shields, the second were armed with P-90 SMGs. I had a good look at them because they were all pointed at us.

When we were all in position, Professor Zemylachka yelled, “Company, halt!” She then walked to where the benches that marked the shooting positions were. “About face!” We turned towards her.

“Good,” she said, “you know how to march. How do I know this? You are all exactly in the squares marking where you should be. Now, at ease, sit down.” We all sat down.

Suddenly, a pick-up truck rolled up. I, like many others, turned around to see what it was. After a moment, I saw that it was Bai, still on crutches, being helped out of the bed by two Campus Security Guards in patrol gear: you know, suit-like uniform with the cool badge, hats and sunglasses.

As Bai walked towards her seat, Eliza stood up and began to clap. I figured, what the hey, Bai deserved it, so I stood up as well. Then a bunch of other people, including Eyepatch and Ulfric stood up and it just snowballed from there, with everyone applauding, cheering, and chanting Bai’s name from the lowliest student to the toughest drill sergeant. Even Professor Zemylachka was applauding and smiling with approval. By the time she got to her spot on the far end, Bai’s normally pale face was completely red.

“Now, Sergeant Mando, Sergeant Burra,” Professor Zemylachka called out, once we had all sat back down, “Please come up.”

Two sergeants came up to stand on either side of the Professor, one a hispanic man with a square face and a haircut somewhere between a buzzcut and a small Mohawk, the other a small, lithe blond woman with a tan. Both carried AK-47s. They turned to face us, weapons shouldered.

“Aim left!” As soon as the professor said that, Sergeant Mando (who was on the professor’s right) stepped forward and went to one knee and Sergeant Burra (who was on the professor’s left) stepped back. They also both aimed down the sights of their weapons. I noticed the bolts on the weapons were open to show that there was no bullet in them.

“Sergeant Mando,” Professor Zemylachka asked, “why did you step forwards?”

“You were in my line of fire, ma’am!” he yelled in response. His voice had a slight Hispanic accent.

“But your gun was unloaded,” Professor Zemylachka said.

“It doesn’t matter, ma’am!” Sergeant Mando responded. “If the guards thought I was pointing a loaded weapon at you they’d shoot me. Pointing a gun at something means you are prepared to destroy it, whether or not it is loaded, ma’am!”

“Good answer,” Professor Zemylachka said. “Now, Sergeant Burra!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Sergeant Burra shouted. Her accent was Australian.

“Why did you take a step backwards?”

“I didn’t know if Sergeant Mando’s gun was loaded. If I stood in his line of fire, I risked being shot. It should be bloody obvious!”

“Sadly,” Professor Zemylachka said, “It is not always obvious to the fresh meat what is and isn’t proper gun safety.”

She turned towards us. “We have just had demonstrated common sense gun safety. Is imperative you follow these rules, or you will be punished. Sometimes, punishment is from God and from your weapon. Other times it is from friendly neighborhood Campus Security Guard.”

A few of the Campus Security Guards had their guns make ominous clacking sounds to demonstrate the brand of punishment you could receive from them. “You see, CSG likes to protect students,” the professor said. “If the barrel of your gun is not pointed at the sky, the guards should not be seeing it. If they do see it, they will shoot you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am!” we shouted.

“Good,” she said. Then she yelled, “Mando, Burra, rack one in!”

The two each took bullets out of their vest pockets, slid them into the receiver, then pulled the bolt back.

“Aim! Fire!”

The muzzle climb was a lot less than I expected. The distances the empty casings were a lot more. They almost made it to where we were sitting. They repeated the process two more times. After the third time, the professor asked us, “So, fresh meat, do you think you can replicate the process?”

There was a chorus of “Yes, Ma’am!”

“Good,” Professor Zemylachka said. “Now, the people I call up will be Group One. Remember your group number. I will be very annoyed if we have to sort this out every time we do this.”

She called out several names, one from each group. I was first up.

“First exercise,” the professor said, “is sighting. If you are not blind, you can see that down the range is a concrete wall. Your first task will be to hit it. Aim down the sights by lining up the rear sights with the front sight. The rear sight is on a little bar with notch near the receiver on top of a knob. The front sight is on barrel.

“As you fire, watch where your bullet goes. If it is too far from concrete wall, move knob towards you. If bullet goes above wall, move knob away from you. The goal is to get your gun zeroed at the distance wall is, which is two hundred meters. You will have five shots to do this before we move on to the next exercise. You will notice that there is also several boxes of ammo near you. When I give the order, you will take a bullet and insert it in your gun like you saw Sergeants Mando and Burra do.” She paused for a moment, then yelled, “Rack one in!”

We did so. I fumbled a bit trying to get my bullet in, but I was ahead of some other people who kept dropping the bullet. “Aim!” I had just finished loading my gun, and it was already trained on the concrete wall. “Fire!”

There was a staccato ripple as five AKs fired almost at once, the sound echoing. My shot didn’t even hit the wall, instead landing several feet away. “Rack one in!” I grabbed another round from the box and loaded it into the AK. “Aim!” I quickly adjusted my sights. “Fire!”

Again, the AKs chattered in unison. This time my bullet landed even farther from the wall. Crap. “Rack one in!” I did so, almost dropping the round. “Aim!” I moved my sights in the opposite direction. “Fire!”

The AKs shot off again, this time closer together. I missed seeing where my bullet landed because there was a ding! and I saw a green light. I turned, nearly getting shot for breaking the rules of the range. In the place right next to me, Eliza was looking down at a green light.

“Ah,” Professor Zemylachka said, “It seems Miss Henderson is first to hit target. We have laser field to see if you hit target. You have to be very precise, though. Now, rack one in! Aim! Fire!”

When I fired this time, my buzzer lit up. So did Eliza’s. By the fifth time, everyone could hit the wall. When we were done, Professor Zemylachka said, “So you can adjust the sights. Good. We deliberately fucked with sights. It wouldn’t do you much good if you could hit anything on your first shot. This way you learn. Now we move on to loading magazines.

“First, remove the clip from your Kalash. Then, put your gun down.” We followed her directions. “Now slide a bullet into the magazine. Make sure to press it all the way to one side. You will notice it does not fill up entire magazine. This is because the magazine is double-stacked. Double stacked magazines allow the gun to carry more ammo in less space. The next bullet will push down the first bullet and be on the opposite side. Repeat this process until the magazine is full. And hurry, we do not have all day.”

We hurried. I managed to get in all thirty before the professor called out, “Stop!” We stopped. “Load weapons!” We loaded in the magazines.

“Now we are going to play a game called ‘Open Fire/Cease Fire.’ Is similar to a game called ‘Red Light/Green Light,’” Professor Zemylachka said. “You will flip the fire selector switch on your weapon all the way down. That is the semi-automatic position. When I say ‘Open Fire,’ you will try to hit the spot we were just targeting. When I say ‘Cease Fire,’ you will stop shooting. Every time you hit the target, you will earn a point. Points earned increase every time you hit the target consecutively. If you miss, all your points get taken away. When you run dry, you are out of the game until next round. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Then take aim!” The professor paused. Then she yelled, “Fire!” A few people began firing. Professor Zemylachka angrily yelled, “Cease fire, cease fire!” The people who were firing stopped.

“You have to listen to my exact words,” the professor said angrily. “Let us try this again. Fire!”

That was the kind of thing we could expect from that exercise. I ended up coming in second in each of the five rounds of Open Fire/Cease Fire. Eliza, obviously, came in first.

When we were told to go and sit back down, I took out my notebook and began taking notes on who went up. Eric and his friends were disturbingly good, for instance. They had adjusted the sights to a much better setting while they were waiting their turn. Ray-Gun even got a point on his first shot.

They were far from the only ones, though. I mean, I expected the Al-Qaeda people and the other people who had been called up to get their sights sorted pretty soon, but it was a nasty surprise when Richard managed to get a point on his second try.

Tuesday we did the same thing, but this time with M-16s. Doc was not happy. “Look at all the parts we have to remove!” he complained. “And see how we’re doing it over a tarp? That is because if we put them on the ground, the dirt will cause them to jam because this is the A1.”

Cross laughed. “You’re just annoyed because I’ll hit the target the first time.”

Doc laughed. “Oh really? Good luck.”

Cross was true to his word. When he came back with the highest score of his group, he stuck his tongue out at Doc. Doc just glared. None of the rest of his sub-group (we were all in sort of the same group now, but Eric, Ray-Gun, The Monk, MC and Doc were still their own thing) had done anywhere near as well.

I also noticed that other people did better with the M-16 than the AK. Kyle (AKA Dumbass, AKA, the guy who had turned his back MC and Ray-Gun while waving a knife at Eric,) seemed to be doing better with the M-16. Others like Ricardo and Richard were equally proficient.

Me, personally? I liked the M-16 a bit better than the AK, once I figured out how to use it. It was lighter, but had much less of a kick. Accuracy-wise, I’m not sure I was a good enough shot to notice a difference. The potential downside, though, was that I was afraid the stock wouldn’t be that good of a thing to club someone with.

It managed to even impress Doc. When preparing to go out for our run the next morning, Doc grudgingly told me, “I actually like the M-16.”

“Is this the kind of thing I shouldn’t tell Cross?”

Eric laughed. Doc punched him the shoulder, which only made Eric laugh harder. Doc then turned back to me. “I do not care, Killer,” he said. Eric made a coughing noise that sounded like “liar.” Doc ignored him and said, “The M-16 is actually a very good gun to shoot, but I will always be afraid it will break in combat or that I will lose a piece while cleaning it. I do not have that fear with the AK-47.”

He paused. “If you tell Cross I said any of this, I will stab you in the shower.”

“Understood,” I said.

As usual, I was near the back of the pack with John. At some point, being near the back had become a choice. We could have moved up to above the mid if we really pushed ourselves, I think, but normally, that would have been a bad idea. The fifty percent mark was where you started to get around the scary people. For instance, that was where Eyepatch and his friends hung out. Usually.

“John,” I asked, “do you notice anything different about the people running with us today?”

John looked at me curiously. I jerked my head to the left. He looked and saw Eyepatch and two other Al-Qaeda people matching pace with us. Another three were on the other side. John’s eyes widened. “Fuck,” he said.

“You can drop back or speed up,” I said quietly. “They might not be after you.”

“No way,” he said. “I’m staying with you.” He smiled. “Besides, Kreiger’s got to be around here somewhere.”

“I overheard some of the drill sergeants talking,” I said. “Krieger’s going to be busy with Bai this morning.” I hefted the wooden block cut to resemble a rifle that we had just been issued that day. “At least we have these.”

The next few minutes were tense. Every crater could conceivably house another of Eyepatch’s crew. Finally, the gate to the camp was in sight.

“Let’s do this quickly,” I said when we got close enough. We picked up the pace from a steady run to an outright sprint. As we ran, we failed to notice that Eyepatch had slowed down to a leisurely stroll.

When we got to the gate, about seven people piled out. I was near one side, so they just had to use one of the fake guns to smash me in the sternum. I felt my legs fly out from under me and I landed on my back, struggling for breath. My attacker then rammed the butt of the gun into my face. I was pretty sure that I’d have a black eye if I survived this.

Meanwhile, John had been able to get one of our attackers before they brought him down. As someone dragged me to my knees to force me into a kneeling position, I saw two people kicking him. Someone familiar watched, a look of terror on his face.

“Hey Mubashir,” I managed to cough out. “Long time, no see.”

Before Mubashir could respond, I heard Eyepatch say, “You are not allowed to talk.” I turned to look at him. He and the other five that had herded us in to the trap were almost here. He stood in front of me. “You,” he said, fixing me with a disturbingly empty stare, “are a dead man.”

“Funny,” I said, “I’m still breathing.” Eyepatch slapped me across the face. “Still not dead,” I said. “If your only weapon is bitch-slapping me…” he slapped me again, “….we’re gonna be here a long time.”

Eyepatch pulled out a knife. “Ok,” I said, “now that might make things go a little quicker.” I can’t say I was even more terrified because I already as scared as I could possibly be at this point. Also, since things were as bad as they possibly were, and the person holding me still had a very good grip on me, I might as well shoot my mouth off.

“So, Eyepatch,” I asked, “what’s going to happen to John?”

“My name is Salim,” Eyepatch said. “And he will be dealt with after we are done with you.” Eyepatch then turned to Mubashir, held out the knife, and said something in Arabic.

Mubashir held up his hands, and refused. Eyepatch stood up and started yelling at Mubashir. “Come on,” I said, “you can have your lover’s quarrel later! I don’t want to die of boredom when you’ve got some perfectly good clubs and knives!”

Mubashir and Eyepatch ignored me to focus on their fight. Someone else whacked me in the head with the fake gun. “Shut up, Zionist scum,” he said.

“Come on, you assholes,” I said, “you don’t have all day!”

“’E’s right,” a Cockney-accented voice called out.

Everyone turned around. Standing there, head bent down slightly so you couldn’t see her eyes, was Eliza. She was flanked on either side by Oro and Ulfric. “In fact,” she said, “time’s pretty much run out.”

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Track of the Day

Track 4: And Now I Bite The Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fight Night,” I said.

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

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

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

“What did you do?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yankee! You die!”

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

“You die like dog! You die like dog!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It… isn’t it wrong? Killing people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuuuuuck me…

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

Knew it.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi…” I said, extremely freaked.

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re toying with me,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track of the Day

Track 3: Preparing for Fight Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Cross,” I said, “what’s up?”

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

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

“I hear you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? Did she know him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nathan Jacobs?” the redhead asked.

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

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

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

“No.”

Oh fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re insane,” Dumbass said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the fourth group?” Eliza asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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