Track 24: The Architect Revealed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 9: The Southern Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 12: Who Let the Dogs Out?

So, yeah, this was a fucking awful place to be. Not only was I in a room full of rotting meat, not only was I probably infected with some horrible disease due to the sludge I had swallowed, but now dogs were after me. I turned back to the pile of meat. I was going to have to climb it again.

I tried to run, but the goop around my feet was slowing me down. The dogs were getting closer. It seemed like they were having as much trouble navigating the slush as I was, but they were still gaining. “They are quite large,” I heard The Monk say in a conversational tone of voice. “I did not know dogs could get this big.”

“Those are wolves!” Someone yelled. “Holy shit, they’re fucking wolves!” I tried to run faster.

When I got to the meat mountain Eric and his gang were on, I suddenly realized that the bone I had pulled out had been a key structural support. Not only was the meat mountain now much closer to being vertical, but the animal parts were now loose and shifting. I realized this the hard way when I grabbed for a hand hold, only to cause the mountain to crumble a bit. It took me a bit, but I finally found a good place. I started climbing, still holding my club. After all this bullshit I just went to get it, there was no fucking way I’d be letting it go.

Then I heard someone scream. I looked and saw that in a nearby meat mountain, a large dog had grabbed someone by the leg and was beginning to pull him down. His friends were moving in to help, and the wolf knew it. My guess was its plan was to drag the guy down to where the rest of the pack could rip him to shreds. Before I turned away, I made eye contact with the wolf. I wasn’t well-versed in dog body language, but I could swear it was thinking, “shit, that guy was probably a much easier target!” Then the wolf’s victim kicked it in the face. The wolf let go and whimpered. I got back to climbing.

“Come on, Killer!” Doc said, a shank made out of a toothbrush in his hand. “Move your butt!” I noticed that he was looking not at me, but at something moving at a rapid pace on the floor. I heard barking and splashing. I continued moving as fast as I felt safe, as the meat mountain kept moving under my hands.

“Hurry up!” Ray-Gun yelled at me. I was about to say something about the precarious state of the “ground” I was climbing up when I heard a snarl. I rolled to my left.

Instantly, I was thankful for my decision. If I hadn’t, a wolf would have landed on my chest. It turned to face me, but I lashed out with my club, hitting the wolf on the noggin. It slid down the meat mountain, a slightly concussed look in its eyes.

“Fuck off, Balto,” I said. I couldn’t help it. I was feeling like a complete bad ass. I watched as the dog slid down the meat mountain…

…To where the rest of his or her pack was looking up at me. I noticed two things. First, they were all very pissed-off looking doggies. Second, they were enormous. Standing on all fours, they’d come up above my waist. I no longer felt like a badass.

“Fuck me,” I said. Then I began climbing like my life depended on it, mostly because it did. I was terrified.

One of the wolves growled. I heard a thrashing sound, then the meat mountain began to collapse underneath me. I sped up, but took a quick look over my shoulder. One of the wolves was charging up after me, but despite how fast its legs were, it wasn’t getting very far.

What it was doing was causing the mountain to collapse. I’m not sure, but one of the other five was looking thoughtfully at its pack mate. I didn’t stop climbing, but slowed down a bit, seeing as they were changing tactics.

When I finally got to where Eric’s group was, Doc and Ray-Gun dragged me up. “Don’t scare us like that, Killer,” Ray-Gun said. “We thought you were dog food.”

Doc shrugged. “He may still be dog food. He’s pretty new at this.” Ray-Gun slapped him upside the head. “It’s true!” Doc protested. “This fight is nowhere near done! He could probably end up dying!”

I wasn’t really paying attention. What was happening on the ground and the other meat mountains was more interesting. There seemed to be two other wolf packs versus us humans, who were spread out across five meat mountains. The smallest pack (there were only four) had decided to go after a person occupying a meat mountain alone. He screamed as a huge wolf grabbed him by the throat and shook, but it quickly died off. When he stopped struggling and screaming, the other three moved in and began to eat.

On another mountain, a group of seven wolves had surrounded a similarly sized group of humans and were making runs at them. Most of the humans there had knives and toothbrush shanks, and both sides were taking heavy casualties. A few of the humans were in really bad shape, and their friends were trying their best to protect them.

Back on the ground, the wolf trying to climb the pile was starting to give up. Most of the others in his pack were circling to make sure none of us escaped.

However, another wolf was just standing there. It was a huge wolf, possibly the largest one in the entire room and definitely the largest in his pack. His coat was jet black with a white underside and he seemed to be observing the situation very carefully. Due to his size and intelligence, I guessed it was the alpha.

Eventually, the other wolf ceased its attempts to try and scramble up. At first, I was glad because the various animal parts I was balanced on were starting to shift in a most disturbing manner. Then the alpha moved in. I wondered for a moment if the alpha was going to start trying to climb up. That would be bad. He could accidentally bring down the entire meat mountain.

It turns out what he was planning was worse. He was digging. I could tell because he was making no effort to gain ground. A little while later, I noticed he was also being very selective about what places he would dig, and that over time the tremors would get more frequent.

I tapped Eric on the shoulder. “We’ve got a problem. Have you been noticing that our mountain is dissolving?”

Eric nodded. “Yes. Do you know why?” I pointed at the wolf digging away. Eric’s eyes widened. “Is that what is causing our position to crumble?”

I nodded. “Pretty sure.” To underscore my point, the mountain crumbled again. “Also, it’s probably my fault.”

“We can point fingers in hell,” Doc said. “Right now, we need a plan.”

“I have one.” Eric had become very grim. “We counter-attack, catch them by surprise, then make our way to the next mountain, and pray to whatever god we want we don’t die.”

“Good plan,” I said. The others seemed surprised that I had agreed. “Just… can they be surprised?”

They ceased to be surprised and laughed. “Killer,” The Monk said in his calm voice, “Animals think of things in term of predator and prey. They do not think of things in terms of soldier versus soldier.”

I was about to ask what that meant, then said, “Ok. Got it. We go down there and kick their canine asses?”

“You are learning, Killer!” Eric said, clapping me on my shoulder. He then drew the knife he had acquired. “On three, ok?”

“Yeah!” Ray-Gun said. “Let’s do this!”

“Ok,” Eric said, “On three!” He paused for us to get ready, then began. “Three, two, one…” He took a deep breath, then yelled, “CHAAAAAAARGEEEE!”

We ran down at our inhuman opponents, yelling at the top of our lungs. The alpha looked up just in time for Eric to kick him in the snout. He then used the opportunity to charge in and stab at the wolf.

Balto, the wolf who had been the first to charge at me, then leaped at Eric. I swung my bone like a baseball bat, hitting him in the stomach while he was in mid-leap. The dog fell backward but the bone also flew out of my hand.

I quickly grabbed for the bone, just in time to see another wolf slam into Eric. Doc and The Monk quickly moved in to stab at the wolf with their toothbrush shanks. By the time I had gotten my bone club again, Doc was helping Eric up. I didn’t see what had happened to the wolf, but both Doc and The Monk’s hands and arms were covered in blood. Then something hit me from behind.

My mouth was open so I got a big chunk of green slime in my mouth, causing me to gag. I was also drowning in it, so that was fun. Claws ripped into my shoulders and I could literally hear nothing and I could feel paws pressing me down into the awfulness.

Before I could panic, the paws moved off me, and a hand pulled me up by the shoulder. “You ok, Killer?” MC Disaster asked.

“Yeah,” I said. Then I threw up and sneezed at once. I opened my eyes, which I hadn’t realized were closed. My vision was blurry. “Shit,” I said, “where are my glasses?”

“Is that really important?” a blur that sounded like Doc said. What I could see made it look like the team had surrounded me. Beyond them, blobs on four legs were standing between us and the next meat mountain.

“I honestly can’t see your face from here without them,” I said.

“I’m not facing you,” Doc said. He sounded scared, which is exactly how I felt.

“Well, there you go,” I said. “My eyesight’s complete shit.”

A black stick (probably an arm) reached out and fished something out of the muck. “These yours?” MC Disaster asked. The arm moved the object towards my face. I could kind of tell they were glasses. I wiped off the green slime, then put them on. My eyesight was restored, except for some residual slime. I immediately wished it wasn’t.

We were still on the ground. The three remaining wolves in the pack were circling us, blocking us from climbing the nearest, non-dissolving meat mountain. They were also preventing us from moving to the sides, and could easily run us down if we tried to go back up our original meat mountain. The one who had tried to drown me had been gouged in the eye, part of it had actually fallen out of its socket, but the others were all fine.

We weren’t. I was still catching my breath from the second time I had almost drowned and Eric had a few cuts. We weren’t in terrible shape, but the reason we had won the previous battle was surprise. Also, our situation was getting worse.

“Looks like our opponents are getting reinforcements,” I said. The pack of four was getting curious in what was going on and heading over.

“This may not be so bad,” Eric said. “Watch.”

One of the wolves from the new pack came near. Balto turned around and growled at it. The newcomer backed off, but only a tiny bit. Another wolf from the second pack tried to use the distraction to move forward. Soon the two groups were hissing and snarling at each other. I noticed that the third pack was also taking an interest. There were only two of them left, as the humans on their meat mountain had done a wonderful job defending.

Sensing the threat, one of the first pack turned around to face them. That’s when everything went crazy. First, we heard a yell. The wolves on our left turned around just in time for a force of humans lead by Salim to crash into them. Then, to our right, the group still on the meat mountain charged, taking the pack that had pinned them by surprise. Eric, Doc and Ray-Gun pounced on the wolf that was walking by them. MC Disaster, The Monk, and I turned to where Salim’s group was fighting.

Balto tried to get past us and escape, but I slammed my bone club onto his head again. This time I managed to draw blood. The remaining wolf in the first pack then tackled Doc. Eric, Ray-Gun and MC Disaster turned to help. I didn’t because I was concerned I’d just get in the way. Besides, The Monk had just gotten knocked over by a wolf, and another was dragging a person away.

I helped The Monk first. I ran towards the wolf chomping at him and with a shout of “FUUUCK YOOOOOOUUUU!” hit the bastard’s head like it was a baseball. There was a cracking sound as I connected. The Monk used the distraction to stab his opponent with his toothbrush shank. It hit a vein, spraying blood.

I turned my attention back to the wolf dragging the person away. Most of the other wolves were busy holding off Salim’s group, but one was turning towards me. I charged forwards, yelling. The wolf froze, unsure what to do. I bopped him on the head and he fell down. I probably should have checked to make sure the wolf was actually out, but the person being dragged away was out of reach of everyone else, so I charged.

The wolf was too busy savaging its prey to notice me until I brought my club down on its shoulder. There was a crack as it finally broke. The wolf let go of its prey and growled.

In response, I jabbed at it with my club. “Back off!” I said. “I’ve had a really bad day, and I’m ready to take it out on you. Back off.”

It began to back away. I glanced down quickly. I had just saved Salim. Oh well.

“You ok?” I asked. I could see he wasn’t. His arm was bleeding, having been torn at by the wolf.

“I’m fine,” he said. He stood up unsteadily. “Or I will be after we’re done with this. By the way, I don’t owe you anything.”

“Hey,” I said, “you saved my life as much as I saved yours.” He nodded. I then asked, “Think we’re going to have to kill all of them?”

“Of course,” Salim said. “Doing distasteful things is the point of this exercise.”

“Ok…” I said, “…let’s just hope this works and doesn’t get more distasteful.” Before Salim could answer, the wolf jumped. I raised what was left of my bone club and it bit on it. I fell on my butt. The wolf tried to push me down further, but there was no way in hell I’d be dunked in that fucking goop again. The wolf, however, had over ideas. It seemed to get heavier and started to push me into the diseased slime.

Before it could succeed, Salim did a running kick into it. The good news was no longer putting pressure on me. The bad news is that it was still holding onto my bone. It had also managed to slash Salim’s face in the burned side. He staggered back, and I got to my feet.

The wolf was getting to its feet as well. It got to all fours, but it wasn’t facing me, so I took a chance. I ran towards it, and fell on from behind, wrapping a hand around its neck. It began to thrash, but I held on. That was a bad idea as it rolled over, dunking me once again into the awful muck.

At this point I thought something along the lines of Oh my God, I am going to drown in unidentified, disgusting muck and the video recording will make it look like I’m sodomizing a wolf. That’s around the time someone began to kick wildly. It had to be Salim. Judging by his fight with Eliza, the only person that could be that wild and insane, yet still non-lethal, with their kicks was Salim. Eliza would be using her bone claws, and Ulfric… Well, with Ulfric I’d look like a pancake covered in marinara sauce.

One kick hit my head. I opened my mouth to protest. I was reminded of where I was by a foul-tasting slurry entering my mouth. I loosened my grip. The wolf tried to break free, accidentally helping me by raising my head above the goop. In the few seconds my head was above the unnamed goop, I gasped, I coughed, I wretched. Then Salim kicked me in the back.

“SALIM, YOU FUCKING MOglrbrlbrblbl,” I yelled as the wolf rolled on its back again. This time was even more fun! Now I not only had to deal with Salim’s kicks, being crushed by God-knows-how-many tons of thrashing canine, and lack of oxygen, but also the fucking slime. It was both burning my mouth and making me gag. My only comfort was my foul mouth and sarcasm.

I didn’t notice the fact that the wolf had stopped struggling for a moment because my brain cells were starting to die due to lack of oxygen. Then, both me and the wolf were lifted out of the water.

“Let go, let go, man,” someone said. Other people began trying to drag me off.

“But we have t-to kill it…” I said, then burst into a gagging and coughing fit.

“The wolf is dead,” someone said. It took me a moment to realize it was Eric. “It is dead. Let go.” He was speaking softly, trying to reassure me.

I looked at him. “A-are you sh-sh-sure?” I wheezed. The stuttering was bad. To make matters worse, I was beginning to shake.

“Yes,” Eric said. “It’s ok, it’s ok… You can let go of the wolf now.”

I did. It fell to the floor with a splat. “I-i-it’s not over,” I said. The fucking stutter was still going on! And I was still shaking! This was on top of my various injuries, my soreness from standing up for an entire day, and my extreme hunger. I felt weak and vulnerable, like there was something coming, and the only thing I knew about it was that it would kill me and I couldn’t stop it. “I-i-it’s not over…” Here I began to break down and cry. “…And I kuh-kuh-can’t give anymore!”

Eric leaned in. “Hey,” he said jovially, “you can go on, Killer! You just wrestled an angry, oversized dog and won! Do you have any idea how amazing that was?”

Then Professor Blunt’s voice came in over a loudspeaker. “CONGRATULATIONS!” his voice boomed. “YOU’VE LIVED THROUGH YOUR FIRST COMBAT! In a few minutes, the door will open, and you will be decontaminated. In the meantime, get your shit together. It’s over.”

There was a pause. “He’s lying,” I muttered. “It’s not over. There’s always something.”

I was going to repeat it, but before I could begin Salim said, “You’re right. We need to move the bodies. We cannot let these corpses just fester. It is unholy.”

“You’re right.” I said. “You’re right. You’re right. Judaism and, well, c-common decency frowns upon leaving bodies here as well as Islam.”

“You know that part of the Qur’an?” someone asked in surprise.

“Yeah,” I said, standing up. “I read it in some book. Let’s do this. People don’t deserve to… to rot here, anyway. Everyone sh-should…” I gulped, then continued, “grab a body.”

We moved out, gathering bodies and arranging them into piles near the door. I recognized a few. They were the worst. When we had dragged about fifty corpses towards the door, it began to swing open.

I turned to Eric. “Wuh-where’s Salim?” Eric shrugged.

When the door was fully opened, two Campus Security carrying SCAR-Hs with strange underbarrel attachments came in. I recognized them immediately. “Officer Gupta! Officer Mendez! It’s great to see you guys again!”

“Good to see you again,” Mendez said. “Time for you guys to get the fuck out of here!”

“Not quite,” I said. “We’re bringing out the bodies.” The two guards glanced at each other. I kind of wished they weren’t wearing sunglasses so I could see what they were thinking about. “What is it?” I asked, instantly suspicious.

“The hazmat team usually takes care of that,” Gupta said. Something was off in her voice. She was lying. “They’ll come in later today.”

“Will they?” We turned around. There was Salim dragging a body. He lifted it up to show us all. “If that is the case, then why is this body mummified? Why is its uniform different from our own?” He wasn’t lying. The body was mummified, and its uniform was olive green instead of camo.

I turned back to Mendez and Gupta. “Thanks,” I said, “but I’m not entirely convinced a hazmat team’s coming. We’ll take these ourselves.” I was right. I had been convinced it wasn’t over, that they’d make us kill the wolves’ puppies. This was worse.

“Policy is to leave bodies in here,” Mendez said. Instantly, there was dissent. “I’m sorry,” he said above the shouts, “but I’m just following orders.”

“You are desecrating bodies!” Salim shouted. “My religion demands that I give a certain amount of respect to the dead. Leaving a body here does not satisfy that commandment!” People shouted in agreement.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” I said, “but the Al-Qaeda guy has the moral high ground here.”

People also shouted in agreement. “You tell them, Killer!” MC Disaster yelled.

I continued. “I mean, seriously, look at how fucked up this is! How many years has that guy Salim’s holding been here, huh? And you’re not taking people out because of orders?” For some reason, I was getting a bit light-headed. “This is… I can’t even begin to describe how utterly, horribly wrong this is!” I paused. “Why am I slurring?”

“It’s because of the gas,” Gupta said guiltily.

“Gas?” I asked dumbly. Then I blacked out.

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Track of the Day

Track 11: Nathan Jacobs and the Chamber of Horrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I groaned. “I fucking hate the cold!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave it, you fool!” Doc yelled.

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

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

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

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