Track 15: Shot Through the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” I asked.

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

“Certainly,” I said.

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

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

“Which part?” he asked.

“Uh… the part where you got shot.”

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

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

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I call first dibs,” John said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Track 8: Future So Bright

Things quickly settled back into a routine. Like an idiot, I had decided to get as many of the tough classes I would absolutely hate out of the way this semester as I possibly could and not go insane. That was physics, chemistry, and calculus. Anything more, and I’d go insane. I also had English II, because it was required, and over the summer, I had managed to get Computer Aided Design I and a course called Weaponsmithing: AKs and ARs included as well.

The reason for the last two was because I had an extracurricular activity I needed to do. Those Dragon’s Teeth were already way too far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of tech. The only problem was that their basic infantry weapons sucked. So, in my spare time, I was going to design a weapon that would be competitive with the Pilum assault rifle, maybe throw in a few other kinds as well.

The problem with this idea was time. Not only was I taking six really hard classes, but I was also tending bar four nights a week and had decided to do my radio show with Andy again. Functionally, that only left the weekend to design, prototype and test a range of modern weaponry with new ammunition designed to compete with something that was twenty years ahead of every weapon made on Earth. And the person making it would never have designed a gun before.

Needless to say, I hadn’t really thought this through enough. The one thing I did do right was decide to make the ammo first. That mean figuring out what the hell was in the bullets I had recovered. That meant getting them to May.

I met her the Sunday before class started. It was supper (which gave me ample time to recover from my hangover,) and we met at Sun Tzu. “Any particular reason you wanted to meet here?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, setting her stir-fry down at the table we had chosen. “I wanted an excuse not to eat in a place where nutritionists go to fight.”

“Sounds fun,” I said.

May shot me a withering look. “It’s not,” she said. “It feels like the menu changes every day, usually either to some completely artificial meal to entirely fruits and vegetables with no regard for the other three food groups.” She pointed to her stir-fry and glass of milk. “I need protein, I need grain, and I need sweets. This place has that in healthy portions. That’s not to say artificial ingredients, fruits and veggies are inherently evil. A girl just needs a little more than that. I also need the other food groups and food that tastes good. I admit, when I made Power Sludge, I didn’t take any of that into account, but I see that more as proving my point seeing as how miserable it made my life. But there were worse things I could do, y’know? I could have forced my new wonder diet on everyone because I’m perfect and can do no wrong just like that dumbass Ulrich! Or I could be like Tiffany Parker and throw a fit every time something other than joyless new-age crap… excuse me, ‘organize protests over Paleo-uncompliant meals.’ God, Paleolithic diets are the most…”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, sensing that May was going to go into one of her signature rants, “but I was wondering if you could help me analyze these.” I held a box. Inside was the bullets I had collected in North Korea and a note explaining how to open them and what I wanted them tested for.

“I guess,” May said. From the look of it, she didn’t seem exactly thrilled by the idea of helping me make a weapon.

“It’s going to a good cause,” I said.

“Yeah,” May said, “and so was the Gatling gun. Why do you need to fight… them? Because it sounds like more lives could be saved just by surrendering.”

I paused, considering my words carefully. “When I was… away,” I finally said, “I saw only one civilian. There was also only one surviving soldier, but his mind was so damaged by chemical weapons, I’m not sure if he counts as a survivor. Apart from soldiers on both sides and that one civilian, there were no signs of survivors.”

May gravely considered this horrifying news for a few seconds, then said, “Fine. But this does not end up on the civilian market, got me?” As she said this, she grudgingly put the package in her purse.

“I’ll delay it as long as I can,” I said.

We ate in silence, pursuing small talk for a bit. Suddenly, we were interrupted. “Hello, my friends!” boomed a voice with a strange accent. I looked up. There, standing next to our table, carrying their food, were two men I knew only as Eric the Entertainer and The Monk.

“Eric! Monk!” I said happily. “How’re you two doing? And where are the rest of you guys?” Eric and The Monk were two African child soldiers I had met in Hell Semester. They were part of a group of child soldiers that had some vague adventures. Eric was the leader and heavy machinegunner. The Monk was designated marksman and the calmest human being I know. MC Disaster was a reclusive demolitions expert who rarely spoke. Ray-Gun was an excitable sci-fi nerd who usually spotted for The Monk. Doc was the somewhat crotchety doctor.

It would be very hard not to look at any of them and not guess their history. Between their accents and skin tone (The Monk had the lightest, with dark brown skin) it would be very easy to tell they were from Africa. Their height and build suggested constant malnutrition, with only The Monk and Ray-Gun being around the height of an average American. However, their most striking shared feature, at least to me, was their shared predatory poise. These were people who had been killing since before I could read.

They had also really helped me during those first few months of school. For that, John and I both owed all five of them a hell of a lot.

“We,” Eric said, sitting down, “are doing fine. Also, we’re… enjoying hanging out with different people on occasion.”

“Ray-Gun is watching every single episode of Ultimate Spider-Man,” The Monk said, “MC Disaster is listening to those CDs May loaned me,” he turned to May to quickly add, “by the way, thank you for those. I particularly liked Fearless. If you want them back…”

“If like it,” May said, “you can keep all of them, except for K.O.D. I got that signed by Krizz Kaliko and Tech N9ne.”

“What about that one signed by Justin…”

“Keep it!” May shouted. “Please! Dad got me so many embarrassing CDs. I wanted K.O.D, he’d get me My World 2.0. I ask for The Rose That Grew From Concrete, he’d get me Up All Night. Ugh! It was so annoying!”

“Where’s Doc?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” May said. “Thanks for reminding me, Nate. Where is Doc? I heard he did pretty well over summer semester in a few of his med classes.”

“Cross got in this morning,” The Monk said. Michael “Cross” Castellan was a son of a New York mafia hitman. He also was the kind of guy you never would suspect of being gay… until he got drunk and started feeling up dudes and talking about sleeping with Triad bosses. “He and Doc are having… quality time.”

“By ‘quality time’” Eric said, “we mean butt fucking.” From the way he said it, I could tell he was trying to gross May out.

It flew right over May’s head. “Speaking of long-distance relationships,” she said to me, “how are you and Eliza doing?”

“We actually haven’t talked since yesterday,” I said. “She said something about having to cancel her meeting with me today.”

“I see,” May said with a disturbing flatness.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “She’s just busy, that’s all.” May, meanwhile, just nodded.

The rest of the meal was fine enough. I left early, smartly realizing that this night would be the last chance I had at a full night’s sleep and freedom to do whatever. May was able to talk me into doing a study group that she was setting up, something to do with wanting to help “idiot sophomores who’d bitten off more than they could chew.” Despite getting the impression that she had just had the idea a few seconds ago, I accepted.

That turned out to be a very good idea. As soon as class started, I quickly realized my mistake. Everything was hard.

The CAD class, for instance, assumed you had used something similar before. There were three things that saved me that first class. The first is that I had spent the portion of Sunday I hadn’t been hungover playing around with the CAD software and reading the book. The second was that I had touched on CAD programs as part of the Maynard Public Schools curriculum and my misguided quest to become a game designer. The third thing was that Nari was sitting right beside me. By the end of the class, we were all able to create a plastic, spring-loaded… thing.

The most interesting thing about that first class (not that it was boring, quite the opposite in fact,) was an announcement at the end. “Now being in this program allows you certain privileges,” she said. “During this course, and upon passing it, you will have a set ration of plastic and cardboard for 3D-printing at your discretion.”

Plastic and cardboard. Damn. I couldn’t make a gun out that. I was so busy worrying about how I’d get some actual materials that I almost missed what the instructor said next.

“If you feel like you need better materials,” the instructor continued on, “you may ask your student advisor to sign off on the materials.” I smiled. Suddenly, I had a way to make a gun. It all depended on Kreiger.

Physics, chemistry, calculus and English were also shaping up to be hellish. The bright side was that the chemistry classroom had a similar deal: you could access a variety of compounds and elements, and more if your advisor authorized it.

However, the best class was the armory class. As soon as I got in, the teacher said the most beautiful words I had ever heard all week. “Hey y’all,” he said, “I’m Don Haliburton. Now, this is the first day and we’ve got plenty of time, so I’m gonna take it slow for a few sessions.”

It was Friday. The only thing any of us had been hearing was “You guys! The semester only has twelve weeks! We need to hurry!” I swear, as soon as we heard this, the entire room had to suppress a cheer. I turned to look at Doc and Cross. All three of us had huge grins on our faces.

When Professor Haliburton was done with the lecture and had us start work on stripping some weapons, Nari said, “Honestly, I am somewhat sad. I would like to have been challenged.”

“Wait,” Cross said, his tanned face wrinkling in confusion, “aren’t you like, ten, or something?”

“You’re off by about a week, sir,” Nari said, a blank expression on her face. “My birthday is on Saturday.” From what I knew about her, that look and tone of voice indicated either contempt or annoyance, tinged with a fear that contempt or annoyance would get her disappeared. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear, either back in North Korea or at NIU.

“But you’re in college…” Cross said, somewhat stunned.

“You’re in college,” Nari said, “and yet somehow you got a C in Algebra last semester.” She suddenly went white with horror, realizing she had just insulted a Hell Semester graduate who had just finished re-assembling an AK.

“Oooooh,” Doc said. “She got you, man!”

“Shut up,” Cross said. “I got honors in high school!”

“This isn’t high school,” Doc said in a sing-song voice.

“Oh yeah,” Cross asked. “What’d you get in English again, genius?”

“Cross got a C! Cross got a C! C is for Cross, that’s good enough for he!”

“Oh yeah?” Cross asked, elbowing Doc (unadvisable, seeing as Doc was holding an M-16A4.) “This is from the guy who got a D in English and a D up the butt!”

“Guys,” I said, “not in front of the mini-person, ok?”

“Are…” Nari asked, now even more concerned, “…Are they… homosexuals?”

“Nah,” Cross said, “we just like sucking each other’s dicks.”

“Hey! Lovebirds!” Professor Haliburton shouted from across the room. “Am I gonna have to put you two in separate pre-schools?” Professor Haliburton was an older man, with a bit of a paunch, but he had been in Special Forces. Plus, he was faculty. You had to be an idiot to disrespect him.

“No, sir,” Cross and Doc said in unison. Professor Haliburton glared at them for a few seconds. After what felt like an eternity, he moved on.

A few seconds later, Cross said, “So, Doc’s group is going to watch the run-down of the Fresh Meat. We’re also inviting a few others, too. You want to come, Nate?”

“Can’t make it,” I said, looking up from my sketch of an AK-107 counterbalancing mechanism. “I’m going to be doing overtime at The Drunken Mercenary. Apparently, anything to do with Hell Semester, soccer…”

“You mean football,” Doc corrected.

“…and the last few days of finals are the busiest days for the bar and all hands have to be on deck.” I shook my head. “Sorry guys.”

After class was finally over, I was one of the last to leave. I had gotten the actual assignment done extremely quickly and had spent the rest of class examining the counterbalance mechanisms of the AK-107 and AEK-971. From what I understood, their design was both more effective and simpler than the Pilum. All I’d have to do was copy the design, and I’d have a better weapon. The future was looking bright, if only for my designs.

I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice that Nari had been watching me take notes the entire class.

 

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Track 10: Party at the Nerdy Colony

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

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

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

“He’s Andy Sebaldi,” I said. “He’s…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I talk!” MC Disaster protested.

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

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

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

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

“Charmed,” Charlotte said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 16: A Mad Rush

“So what you’re saying,” Bai said over the radio as we moved towards the direction where we thought Eric would be, “Is that if you kill enough of them, they won’t attack the main camp?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “We’ll also need some reinforcements.”

Gunfire echoed over the radio, announcing Eric’s entrance into the conversation. “Yes. Back-up would be very welcome.”

The radio crackled to life. “We’re on our way,” a cockney-accented voice said grimly. I started.

“Eliza?” I asked. “Did Bai send you?”

“I actually did not realize she was gone…” Bai noted dryly.

“Did you really think I’d bleedin’ sit about while… while there was a fight?” Eliza asked. “Where’s it at?”

“They are slowly forcing us to the inner bend.” Eric said, with no gunfire in the background. “It doesn’t seem like they have any idea what they are doing.”

Just as soon as he finished, I burst through a bush. I found myself in a clearing. About two hundred meters away, a group of six people were standing, all of them armed.

Instinctively, I dropped to my knee, raised my gun, and yelled, “Contact!” One of them heard me and turned around, but I had already fired. I had made sure to switch the G-3 to semi-auto so I didn’t waste ammo. It jumped a little with a sound halfway between a thud and a pop, and the sudden burst of heat was hot enough to hurt my hand.

The guy who had seen me turned around just in time to see one of his friends’ head snap back. The remaining five enemies raised their guns, but I had already shifted my focus to another. Two shots from the G-3 and he (or maybe she, I couldn’t tell at that range) stumbled back and fell.

I turned and aimed at another target. However, before I could get a good bead on him, the first of the enemies had begun to fire. I jumped a bit in shock, so my shot hit him in the shoulder, instead of his chest. He spun around and fell from the force of the bullet. In the meantime, bullets began kicking up around me. The snow around me began to kick up as rounds began to hit. I fired three more shots, taking down another guy before they finally managed to hit me.

The bullet slammed into my flack jacket, knocking the wind out of me and causing me to fall over. I thought about getting up, then realized they had stopped shooting. They thought I was dead. I decided not to disabuse them of that notion.

As they approached, I heard them start arguing and swearing in their native languages. The guy I had shot in the arm was screaming. Someone yelled at him, “It is not so serious. Stop being a baby!”

As they argued louder, I began to recognize their language as French. Finally, they began heading towards me. In the meantime, I wondered what Doc, Monk, and John were doing. The arguing group approached me while I wondered. There were only two left mobile. The injured guy had stopped screaming and started bitching.

His friends, however, kept getting closer. Since I was lying on my back, I couldn’t see them. If I sat up, there would be the chance of them shooting me. Needless to say, I really didn’t want to test my luck any more than I had already.

That being said, they were way too close to comfort. I was just about to sit up and see if I could pop them when gunfire erupted. First there was a simultaneous burst of FAL and AK fire. Then the wounded guy yelled “Merde! Merde merde merde!” Then a single FAL shot. Then silence.

I sat up. “Took you guys long enough.”

To my left, Doc’s incredulous voice came. “Killer?” He asked. “You’re alive?”

“Yeah,” I said, getting up stiffly. “I’m alive. Man, that hurt. Feels like Ulfric punched me in the sternum.” As I got up, I looked around. Doc and The Monk had flanked around slightly, entering through a part of the clearing that wasn’t overgrown. They were on opposite sides of me, guns still at the ready. In front of me were two corpses. I tried to ignore the growing pools of blood around them.

“I am as surprised as I am glad you are well,” The Monk commented, laconic as usual. “I thought you had to have been turned into mincemeat, due to all the gunfire.”

“Yeah,” I said, still trying to avert my eyes from the two corpses. “I got lucky. They only hit me once. My armor stopped the round and knocked me down.” I heard a rustling and whipped around and raised my gun. John, who had just come out of the bushes raised his hands.

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” He said. “Easy, Nate!”

I lowered my gun. “Jeez, John,” I said, “you fucking scared me.”

John looked over my shoulder. “Is that your handiwork?”

I turned back to where the enemy group had been. “Three of them. Plus one non-fatal.”

“Damn, Killer!” Doc said.

The Monk, however, was continuing to move forwards to where the enemy group had been before I had started firing. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t think that one is dead. He is too lucky.”

Before I could comment on this, a cell phone rang, its tone that of a first-gen Star Trek communicator. In response the not-dead guy sat up and pulled out a pistol. The Monk and I opened fire. He ended up firing a single shot, but I swear to God he ended hitting himself in the leg. The phone was still ringing.

“Let’s make sure he’s dead this time.” The Monk said.

“Agreed.” I said. We then began to edge closer, Doc and John covering us. Eventually, the phone stopped ringing when we got to the guy. I bent down, ignoring the other bodies and checked his pulse. After I was satisfied he was dead, I began to search through his pockets.

“You are very good at this, Killer.” The Monk commented, just a little impressed. “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?”

“Shh… Thanks,” I said, somehow avoiding telling him to shut up as I rifled through his pockets. I avoided the ones that had bullet holes in them. The blood was already freezing, and getting my hands wet could be a death sentence. “Huh,” I said, trying to change the subject, “these guys don’t seem to have brought along any body armor.” I then pulled out a package of hot chocolate mix. “Or anything useful.”

“I cannot speak for the hot chocolate,” The Monk said, “but this armor slows you down and can imbue a false sense of invulnerability.”

“Or maybe they just watched too many movies where the minion’s body armor did nothing,” I said, pulling out a few clips of ammo and a lot of hot chocolate mix and tea bags. “I mean, I know enough to suspect that our side isn’t exactly on its A-game, but I’m pretty sure these guys are too stupid to know they suck.” Then my hand came in contact with something hard and plastic. “Found the phone!” I said.

I pulled it out. It was, as I figured, a smart phone. It wasn’t a brand I was familiar with, but it was open to a map of the surrounding area. On it was a dot labeled “You are here!” and a bunch of other dots were moving around. At the top of my screen, it said. “Find My Friends.” The guy with the phone must not have wanted to take his gloves off to operate the phone, so he had set it so it wouldn’t automatically lock.

“Well,” I said, “this is either a trap or these people are really stupid.”

The Monk cocked his head. After I explained it to him, he shrugged. “Either way, we’ll know where to look for Eric. If they are trying to surround him, they will all be heading towards a central point.”

“Shit, you’re right,” I said. “You’re a genius, man.”

After a quick conference and salvaging what we could and informing our radio contacts of what we had found, we were in hot pursuit of where we thought Eric’s team might be. It took a long time and I kept having to do all sorts of stuff to keep my fingers and toes from becoming too numb. I was beginning to understand why the AK idiot from earlier had been shooting his gun off so much. It had kept his hands warm.

Finally, we began to hear gunfire. “Eric!” Doc said into his walkie-talkie. “We’re hearing gunfire! We think it is you and your new friends.”

“Well, then hurry up!” Eric said. The gunfire that came over the radio matched up pretty well with what we were hearing in the distance.

We picked up the pace, moving closer to the sounds of fighting. We avoided going through any bushes, seeing what happened last time. Our opponents, on the other hand, had not learned that particular lesson. A group of ten came through some bushes right in front of us.We unloaded in response. Not a single one of them was able to get a shot off.

My G-3 (ok, my stolen G-3) ran dry pretty quickly. I instinctively remembered that I had put the stolen pistol in my left pocket, so I pointed my G-3 at the ground, reached my left hand into my pocket and pulled out the P229. I wasn’t sure how accurate I was, but since I was in a panic and firing with my offhand, it probably was terrible. However, I was intrigued at how quickly I had been able to do it. I was reasonably sure I had been able to do it faster than just reloading my G-3.

Once the firing had stopped, John asked, “Are we done here?” He reloaded what I was pretty sure was an M-4 as he spoke. Everyone else was reloading as well.

“Don’t know,” I said as I covered them with my pistol. “Hopefully.”

The radio crackled. “Hey guys,” Eric said frantically, “I just heard gunfire to the rear of my position. Please tell me that was one of you guys!”

“This is Monk,” Monk said. “We ran into the enemy. They are now dead. Also, I believe that if we keep heading straight, we should be at your position soon.”

“Oh good,” Eric said, sighing in relief. “We are surrounded on three sides.” After a pause, he said, “It would be nice if you could bring some ammo. We are running dangerously low, and may need to resort to our surprise.”

Doc chimed in. “If we take a bit of extra time, we can collect some.”

Eric paused. “Do it.” He finally said.  “Unless you are already carrying a huge amount of ammo.”

“Ok,” Doc said, “You heard Eric! Finish reloading, then gather every bit of ammo you can!”

We did so, taking turns covering each other as we stuffed our backpacks packs full of ammunition, and even a few medical supplies. Thankfully, this group had decided to bring as much as possible. We were pretty loaded down, but we still ran pretty fast. After all, our friends needed us.

After about five minutes we saw a group of people on a small hill hiding behind some rapidly splintering trees and, oddly enough, snow barricades. “HEY!” I called out, with what little breath I had left, “ERIC! WE’RE HERE!”

Eric turned around and then yelled, “BEHIND YOU!”

We all turned around. There, coming right towards us, were about ten enemy troops carrying assault rifles and SMGs. They also heard Eric yell, so they raised their weapons.

The area we were in was built in a weird way.  It was shaped in an oddly funnel-like manner on the side we were on. To the left and right was thick vegetation, with a path through to the center. This made it possible to take cover or at least find concealment. However, for me, it took a second to get to behind a suitably thick tree. Thanks to the bullets impacting into the snow all around me, though, the journey felt like it took hours.

I took a peek out from behind my tree for about half a second. John was on the other side of me and a few trees ahead. Beyond that, where the vegetation was less thick, was the flanking group. I only peeked out for a short time because a bunch of bullets hit tree and ground around it, causing splinters and bits of snow to fly around.

From behind, I heard Doc yell, “John! Are you all right?”

“Yeah!” John said.

“When I give the word,” Doc continued, “The rest of us are going to provide cover fire. When you hear a break in the enemy’s firing, you run like hell! Understand?”

“Hell yeah!” John said. “Then I wait until you give the signal, then cover the next guy, right?”

“Correct!” Suddenly, there was a break in the fire. Doc instantly yelled, “COVERING FIRE! NOW!”

I leaned out, brought up my G-3, and took aim. A couple of soldiers were already pretty close, so I triple-tapped one of them.

He fell back, his partner turned to see where the bullet had come from. Before either of us could fire, the snow behind him was kicked up by bullets and sprayed red with blood. I didn’t know if it was from Doc, John, or The Monk, and I didn’t really care. I just looked up from my scope to see if there were any other priority targets.

The second I did so, I saw John begin to run. Then there was a crack and he stumbled like someone had punched him in the small of the back. He continued running. I then noticed that someone was kneeling and pulling the bolt back on a rifle with a telescopic scope of some kind. “Sniper!” I yelled.

The sniper, possibly hearing me shout out “Sniper!” aimed and fired at me. He obviously hadn’t had much time to aim, because the bullet kind of skimmed the side of my Kevlar vest. I aimed, and fired. He fell, but I didn’t see sign of a hit, so I shot at him again. He rolled out of the way, causing me to miss all three times. For the rest of my clip, I made sure to keep an eye on where he was, but it was hard. Eventually, the bastard finally popped his head out again. He fired, I’m not sure at who. I fired twice. One shot hit, causing the asshole to jerk back. The other caused my gun to click. I watched through the scope to see the little prick go back into cover and to confirm that I had hit him. When he moved, I saw a lot of blood in the snow. Good. No one snipes my friends.

Over the radio, I heard John’s voice say, “Ok, guys, I’m up.”

“You’ll be happy to know I got the guy who sniped you,” I said while I reloaded, surprising myself how calm I sounded. “He’s still alive, but I don’t think he’s going to be shooting anyone for a while.”

“Oh.” John said, not sure what to do with this information. “Cool, I guess.” He paused, then added, “Thanks.”

Doc cut in via the radio. “Ok, Killer, you go next. Are you good to go?”

“I’m… I’m ready.” Yeah, considering how satisfied I was at making another human being bleed, I was pretty far away from being “good.”

“Ok,” Doc said, “Suppressing fire… NOW!” The three of us leaned out, Doc and The Monk to shoot anything that wasn’t on our team, me to get a good idea of when to run like hell. When I did, I felt like there were fewer people there than there should have been. I shrugged, took a few potshots, and ran like hell.

I was almost to the top of the hill when it happened. I was running so hard I was kind of leaning down which probably what saved my life. There was a crack, and something hit me in the head. Eric yelled “Sniper!” and began shooting at somewhere in the front of the crater.

I just kept running, despite the fact that a warm, sticky fluid was leaking into my eyes. It was so blinding that I didn’t realize the hill was actually a giant-ass crater. I only realized this by tripping over the rim and sliding down face-first.

John ran over to me and flipped me over. “Shit, dude, you fucking got shot again!”

Cross, who was busy engaging targets on the top of the rim, yelled down, “What the fuck do you mean, ‘again?’”

“Yeah, I kind of figured,” I said, taking my helmet off and shrugging off my backpack, searching for the bandages. “Can you help me bandage this up before it soaks my uniform and freezes?”

“Sure, man!” John said, moving to help search my pack. I had to stop to wipe the blood out of my eyes.

A voice crackled through my earbud. “Hey Killer,” Doc said, “What are the enemy doing?”

“Yes,” Eric said, “That is a good question.”

I whipped out the stolen phone to check. My face turned into one of utter horror. “Get in here NOW! I repeat, get the fuck in here!” I yelled. On the screen, all the “friends” were gathering a good distance away. All of them.

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Track 15: They Shot Their Own Eyes Out, Honest!

I quickly hooked up with the rest of my group. Cross, Doc, The Monk, MC Disaster and Ray-Gun were busy setting up camp, with tents in a roughly circular formation. “Where’s Eric?” I asked.

“Right behind you, Killer,” he said. I turned around to see a slightly annoyed Eric. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Oh?” I said.

“It’s just,” he said, “that you seem to be very close to the center of all this. Would you mind telling me what’s going on?”

“Yeah,” I said, “about that. Well, last night, Salim and Richard were on patrol with me.”

Doc and Cross laughed. Eric, through chortles, asked, “How did you three not kill each other?”

“Apart from them knowing they’d be kicked out of school and tortured to death if I died? Ulfric wanted us to play nice.”

John’s eyes widened. “Ulfric was the peacekeeper?”

“Weird, right?” I said.

Everyone who wasn’t laughing or as chill as The Monk answered with a resounding “YES!”

“Anyway,” I said, “when we weren’t being stalked by someone’s dream-self, we were talking about what the assholes in charge were going to do next. Both me and Salim agreed that it’d be something big.” I paused. “So what do you guys need me to do?”

“Just unpack your stuff,” Eric said, “and make sure to eat one of your packets of power sludge. Apparently, if you don’t eat it after your run, you’ll end up collapsing like a sack of bricks.”

“Ok,” I said. “Probably gonna give me cancer in a few years, but what the hell.” I reached into my backpack until I found some. “Holy shit,” I said, “they come in a squeeze pouch! That’d be awesome if it wasn’t so disgusting!”

“Finish it up and set up, Killer,” Doc said. “We need this camp done pretty soon.” As he finished, I saw a snowflake land on his nose, contrasting with his dark skin.

By the time the camp was set up, it had begun to snow in earnest. When Eliza came to get Eric, I could barely see them from my tent, despite it being only a few feet away. When I poked my head out, I barely got a glimpse of Eliza’s red hair as she led Eric away. I immediately closed the tent flap to stop the warmth from leaking out.

The tent was actually heated. There was a battery of some description and some heating devices. I wasn’t sure how it worked, but it said that it would keep the tent at sixty degrees for the next forty-eight hours. I was wondering how technologically advanced it all was, then I saw the NIU logo on the controls. So it was probably very advanced.

After a while, Eric came knocking at the door of my tent. Combined with the howling wind that occasionally pierced the tent, and it was nearly the straw that broke the camel’s back. I opened the flap. “What is it?” I asked. I had to shout to be heard above the wind.

Eric shouted back, “We’ve got first watch in the forest. Grab some water, a radio, your power sludge, and your training rifle. We are going hunting!”

“You realize we’re the ones being hunted?” I asked.

Eric laughed. “You are partly right, Killer,” he said, “but if the people hunting us make a single mistake, they become our prey.”

We kitted up. We started off trying to make small talk, but it was almost impossible over the sound of the wind. Our radios had mono earbuds, but we didn’t want to drain the batteries unless we had to.

The trek itself was long and arduous. The worst part was going through the large space of open land, also known as the majority of the journey. There were a few forward posts being constructed, basically some snow walls surrounding some tents, but they were just a somewhat nice place to stop before we had to go out into the biting cold.

It got better after we finally got to the forest. Not that much better, but we were at least shielded from the worst of the wind. “O-ok,” Eric, shivering with cold, “D-d-doc, take our zen f-f-friend, Killer, and John.”

“W-why don’t I get a nickname?” John asked.

“B-b-because you’re b-boring.” Eric said. “A-anyway, D-doc, your g-group g-goes up on that side and get a good v-view on the airport. We’ll travel up by the running p-path in case anyone comes from that direction. O-okay?”

“Got it,” I said.

Everyone shot me dirty looks. “A-aren’t you cold?” Cross asked acidly.

“Yes.” I said. “I’m even colder now that I’ve stopped moving.” The dirty looks changed to shock and… something else. “Did I mention I fucking hate the cold?”

“R-right!” The Monk said. “L-l-let’s get moving!”

Everyone quickly agreed. As Doc led us on into the forest, I suddenly realized: they were afraid. “Hey guys?” I said after a while, “Sorry about snapping. Didn’t mean to scare you guys like that.”

“Don’t w-worry about i-it, man,” John said, his teeth chattering. “W-we’re all a little cranky.”

“Still shouldn’t have…” We were cut off by a staccato clatter. “Was that an AK?” I asked.

“Into the underbrush!” Doc said. “Get into concealment now!”

“I take that as a yes,” John said.

We hurried to follow his orders. John and I were about twenty meters behind Doc and The Monk. We waited for a bit. The cold bit into me. I heard Doc’s whispered voice through the walkie-talkie. “Command, this is control, we have possible contact to the Northeast. Repeat, contact coming in from the Northeast.”

“Understood, patrol,” I heard Bai say. “Do you see them?”

“No,” Doc whispered back, “but they have at least one Kalashnikov.”

“Understood, patrol,” Bai said. “Stay alert and see if you can ambush them.”

“Right,” Doc said, somewhat sarcastically.

We waited for a long time. Occasionally, I’d hear the AK chatter in the distance. Finally, I began to hear voices in the distances. They seemed to be all laughing and chatting like they were at some kind of party. Eventually, I could see one person through the bush I was hiding in pass by. He was carrying a G-3K, which is basically a tiny assault rifle in the same caliber as the FAL. This particular one had one of those flippy optics behind a reflex sight.

Suddenly, the AK chattered again. The guy with the G-3K whipped around and from behind him another person yelled in shock. “Jesus!” G-3 guy said, “Stop doing that!”

From behind G-3 guy, I could hear someone laughing. “Stop fucking laughing, man!” G-3 guy said. “The professors told us we should be using the nonlethals, not this shit! Besides, you keep giving away our position!”

From the earpiece, I heard Doc whisper, “Go.” I lifted the training rifle and began to run forwards.

“Man, it’s more fun this… LOOK OUT” The guy who had been laughing suddenly noticed that I had burst out of the bushes. Or maybe he noticed someone else. It was probably me because G-3 guy turned towards me. He almost shot me when John burst out of his bush and yelled, “Behind you!” This was all the distraction I needed. The wooden butt of my training rifle smashed into his jaw with a crack. He dropped his carbine, and clutched his cheek.

He himself didn’t drop. He did turn around from the force of my blow, so I clubbed him in the back causing him to drop to his knees. He fell this time. I threw the training rifle away and picked up the G-3K and aimed it at the hapless guy. “Hands on your head!” I said.

His hands strayed away from his hip, probably because he noticed that John was pointing his training rifle at him, but not that it was fake. This motion made me notice that he carried a pistol on his left side. I reached over, carefully avoiding his legs and keeping my new-found gun aiming at him but not touching him, and grabbed it out of its holster. After stepping away from the guy, I took a quick look at the pistol. It was a vaguely Browning-ish shape with a silver slide embossed with the words P229. I flipped on the safety (which was kind of awkward to do left handed) and shoved it into a pocket in the coat. “Clear!” I shouted, returning my left hand to gripping the carbine.

Only then did I turn around. What I saw made me stop and stare. “Doc! Monk! What the fuck? Seriously, what the actual fuck?”

John turned around to look at where Doc and The Monk were. Doc’s snow-camo Kevlar vest had been splashed with blood and he was bent over and checking a shape in the snow while carrying a black AK. The Monk was choking a third guy with the sling of a FAL, the sling wrapped around the poor guy’s neck.

“Monk, that’s enough!” I shouted.

The Monk shrugged, reached down to FAL guy’s hip, pulled out a large silver pistol, pushed it to FAL guy’s head, and pulled the trigger. The guy I had beaten up flinched at the crack and the side of FAL guy’s head opposite the gun suddenly burst out. He stopped struggling.

“Now it’s enough,” The Monk said, somehow laconic, despite having to yell above the wind. He stowed the gun in a pocket, and in a single fluid motion unwrapped the sling from FAL guy’s neck. When the corpse collapsed, he began to root through it.

Meanwhile, Doc had finished with his victim and was walking towards us, AK hugged to his chest and pointed down at the ground. He also had a belt slung over his shoulder. “I t-t-take it y-you are not g-g-going to let us shoot this guy, huh, K-killer?”

“Yeah,” I said, “because I’m really not a fan of killing unarmed prisoners!”

“Whoah,” John said, “c-c-calm down N-nate.”

“Wait,” our prisoner said, “your name’s Killer?”

“Only if you want to piss me off,” I said, turning back to him to say this. I then turned back to Doc. “Come on, let’s do a good deed. Besides, he might be able to give us some info.”

Doc walked over to John and passed the belt to him. “Here,” he said. “That dumbass had two pistols. I only need one. Might as well have a real gun instead of a large stick.”

Our prisoner stared at Doc like he figured something out. “You killed him,” he said dumbly.

Doc shrugged. “Probably.” Seeing our prisoner’s scandalized look, he glared. “Oh, like he was some kind of angel. He was walking around with an AK!” To drive his point home, he gestured wildly with said AK. “What was he going to do if he saw me, give me some coffee and a biscuit?”

“W-we w-w-weren’t… we didn’t want to k-kill you!” Our prisoner said desperately. “We weren’t s-s-seeking you out! J-just trying to s-scout out the, t-t-the forest!”

“So,” I said, “what on Earth made you guys think this was a good idea?”

“W-w-well, the t-t-teachers said we had t-to u-use the non-l-leathals on you or get expelled. Just soak a few of you with t-t-the water to simulate live-fire exercise or something.”

“Wait,” I said, “you were planning on soaking us?”

“W-well, not us in particular, but most of us h-have these m-modified g-grenade launchers th-that shoot w-water balloons. All that happens is you get s-s-soaked. S-see? No harm!”

I was now curious as to how this would work. Non-lethal weaponry was cool. “Wouldn’t that be like shooting ice balls at us?”

“N-no! No!” Our prisoner waved his hands at us. “Th-th-the balloons k-keep it liquid u-until…” His eyes widened.

“Until w-what?” Doc asked. He adjusted his newly-acquired AK to point casually at our captive. “It all s-sounds very interesting.”

“…Until the balloon bursts apart.”

That was not good. Our coats were very warm, but not very waterproof. They could stop water from a few squirt gun hits, but if there was a lot of water…

“So what you’re saying,” I said flatly, “is that these are weapons designed to cause us to freeze to death.” The idea was horrid. Our winter uniforms getting hit, the water soaking into and freezing inside the fabric… It was sadistic.

“I-i-it’s n-not like it’s…” our prisoner stuttered.

“D-d-did anyone a-ask your opinion?” Doc asked menacingly.

The Monk, who had wandered nonchalantly over by this point, put his hand on Doc’s shoulder. “Peace,” he said. They both laughed. Must have been some sort of in-joke.

I shrugged, figuring I could ask later about that later. Instead, I turned towards our prisoner. “So how many people are we dealing with here?”

“About a h-hundred and f-f-fifty. We’re all a-armed.”

“Shit.” John said. “We’re fucked.” He potentially was right. If they decided to just charge into camp, and if they decided to stick around instead of just soaking us, it would be a massacre. They had guns, and if they showed any shred of common sense, no amount of hand-to-hand skill could beat that. If they just decided to shell us with water balloons, we would end up all freezing from hypothermia. Unless…

“Alright,” I said to our prisoner, “time for you to go.”

“That’s it?” He asked.

“L-leave your a-ammo and your radio.” Doc said. He turned his head slightly to me and said, “C-c-can’t have him c-c-calling for help or y-you r-r-running out o-of a-amo.”

I nodded. Our prisoner undid his belt and pulled out several twenty-round magazines for the G-3K. The last thing he pulled out was a cell phone of some kind. After he was done, he stood up, looking at us for further instructions.

“G-get t-the fuck outta here,” John said with a nod of his head. Our former prisoner didn’t have to be told twice. He ran away from us and his deceased friends, occasionally tripping in the snow.

“We need to call this in,” I said.

Doc nodded. He picked up the radio, and pushed the talk button. “This is Doc. Eric, Bai, come in.”

“We read you,” I heard Bai say.

Suddenly, the chatter of gunfire came through the radio, as well as Eric’s voice. “Kind of busy!” he said. The gunfire stopped when his radio switched off.

“So,” I said, through my walkie-talkie, “Eric, would you believe we’re up against a hundred and fifty armed assholes?”

“Can confirm!” he said, gunfire in the background. “They are all coming towards us!”

“We’ll get there as soon as we can.” I said, “I’ve got an idea, but I can tell it to you on our way over.”

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