Track 18: Take the Psycho Bowling

After Timothy made his presentation, we shooed him out of the room. Once he was gone, we unanimously agreed to give him a temporary position as business manager for a small percentage of the profits. Surprisingly, he was happy with that. I honestly thought he’d push to make it permanent or get a bigger cut. Instead, he just smiled, and said, “You won’t regret this.” May didn’t seem too convinced.

Still, I had more immediate problems. Midterms were that week and I needed to do what felt like all the work. At this point, between my extracurricular weapons design, bar tending and actual school work, I was pretty much fueled by soda, candy, hot chocolate, and tea instead of actual sleep. At supper on Tuesday, May confronted me about it.

“Nate,” she said, “you’re falling asleep in your noodles.”

“What?” I said. Then I realized I was face-down in a plate of angel hair noodles. As I sat up, I was thankful that I didn’t put any sauce on the spaghetti. Being covered with parmesan cheese and olive oil was bad enough.

May sighed. “After you finish your food, I’m walking you home. You will go to sleep.”

“I…” I began.

“Did I make it sound like I was giving you a choice?” May asked. “Because if so that was a mistake, and I apologize.”

As she frog-marched me back to my dorm, I began making incoherent promises about sleeping more. May just rolled her eyes. “Don’t try,” she said, “do.”

I was actually able to do that for the rest of the week, mostly by putting the assault rifle design on the backburner. Due to how tired I constantly was, I actually managed to sleep better.

John, however, seemed to be doing better than me. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night due to nightmares, anxiety or simply needing a bathroom break, he’d be sleeping pretty well. I was kind of annoyed by this. If the guy who had been put into critical condition a few months ago could sleep, why couldn’t I?

There was also an awkwardness between us. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we’d just had a huge fight. It had been that way for a while, but I was really starting to notice it. So on Friday I decided that I needed some air.

I had just finished all my midterms and didn’t have to go to dinner or my bartending job for quite a while. For the first time in months, I was feeling rested. Originally, I hadn’t planned on being outside long (the island’s weather was as rainy as usual,) but then I saw him.

Ulfric Trollbjorn was sitting down on the bench outside the building I had my class in. As usual, the people who knew him by reputation (I don’t think anyone actually knows him, except maybe Alma) were giving him a wide berth. Even sitting down, you could tell he was a giant. His AMS hoodie was soaked, hanging off him. This revealed that, while he was incredibly ripped, he was still surprisingly lacking in muscles for someone who could literally rip people apart with his bare hands.

At first, I considered walking away. Then I noticed that Ulfric’s normally smiling face was downcast and he was staring at the ground. I stood there for what had to be around two to five minutes, staring directly at him. During this time he didn’t once look up. Eventually, I decided to walk up to him.

“Ulfric?” I asked over the sound of the rain when I was standing right next to him, “You ok?”

Ulfric looked up at me in surprise, and I could see that his eyes were slightly puffy. He held my gaze for about a second or two, then, finally, he asked, his voice hoarse like he’d been crying, “Do you wanna go bowling?”

“Sure,” I said, out of a combination of fear of a completely snapped Ulfric and a genuine sense of compassion. I mean, he had killed dozens of people not too long ago, but even so, I couldn’t just leave someone sobbing in the rain. “I didn’t know they had a bowling alley on the island.”

Ulfric gave his wide, completely joyful grin and got up. He motioned for me to follow him. I did. He led me down the main street. Near the gate, we got to a building by the hospital. I had probably walked by it dozens of times, yet I hadn’t seen the bright neon sign labeled “Bryke’s Bowling,” complete with dancing bowling pins. As soon as I saw it, I realized that it had probably always been there. Well, it wasn’t like I was the biggest bowler out there.

Ulfric, moving with his usual disturbing speed and grace, walked up to the cashier, a pimply brown-skinned man and plopped down a piece of paper. The brown-skinned man turned almost as white as Ulfric. When Ulfric saw this, he made his high-pitched giggle. For a few seconds, the sounds of people bowling and conversing stopped. This caused Ulfric’s shoulders to sag.

To his credit, the receptionist managed to ask in a quivering voice, “I see that you have decided to use your ticked for two. Who…?” Ulfric pointed to me. I waved. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Would you gentlemen please hand over your shoes?”

We handed over our shoes to the receptionist, and he handed over some bowling shoes to the us. When the shoes were on, he pointed us over to an empty lane. I’m not a bowler, so I’m not even sure if we were doing it right. I just know that Ulfric was consistently knocking all the pins down with one ball, whereas I sometimes couldn’t even knock them down with the balls allotted to me.

After a few rounds, Ulfric asked out of nowhere, “Am I defective?”

I honestly had no idea how to answer that question. Up until this point, I had thought of Ulfric as a ruthless, highly intelligent killing machine. I had known he had feelings, but didn’t know that he was capable of introspection. He had always seemed so child-like, an impression that was cemented by his baby face and his usually joyful smile.

“Depends on what you mean,” I said. “I mean, what’s your idea of a functional person?”

Ulfic shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know that most people can talk whenever they want every day. I know people act the same every day.” He paused. “There’s also some unspoken rules I don’t get.”

He then went back to bowling. I tried to engage him in conversation several more times, but he went back to being his usual mute self. I had once noted in Hell Semester that he had days where he might literally not speak at all and days where he could string several sentences together in any language. However, this was the first conversation I had ever seen him have. It also seemed to physically exhaust him, because after speaking, he sat down and rested for a bit.

We continued to bowl until the machine stopped giving us balls. After we got our street shoes on, I asked, “You want me to walk with you for a bit?”

Ulfric nodded. We headed out the bowling alley and down past the hospital and into AMS/Shadowhaven territory. As we did so, Ulfric seemed to be getting back to his cheery self.

I wondered how he could still be happy. It’s not like I hadn’t noticed it before, but everyone seemed to be avoiding him, especially now that we were in an area where people were more aware of who he was. People would literally cross the street rather than come into range. They would also glance at his sweater, specifically around his armpits. Despite their small size (compared to Ulfric, that is,) you could still see the twin .50 AE Desert Eagles with their drum magazines.

Of course, most people here were armed. I, of course, had my Berretta and SIG-Sauer. The occasional Campus Security officers we saw would have their standard-issue FiveSeveN strapped to their hips. There was also the fact that many of the students and teachers who needed to brave the rain, usually the ones in the AMS and Shadowhaven hoodies, had their concealed carry weaponry revealed by rain-soaked clothes. A few also carried large, rectangular cases in addition to their backpacks that my experience told me were most likely long guns.

Here, everyone would know how to use their weapons. Yet they were still afraid of Ulfric. I wondered what that would be like, to live in what was the equivalent of a heavily-armed ghetto in a village full of people who hated and feared you, and were also highly armed and superbly trained. I would have been a wreck. Of course, I already was a high-functioning train wreck at that point.

After I considered this, I said to Ulfric, “You know, if you ever need to talk, you can call me.” Ulfric turned towards me and smiled gratefully. “Also,” I added, “from what I’ve seen, you could probably talk to Alma as well.”

At this, Ulfric stopped and turned completely pale. I stared at him. I never thought anything could scare him. I just didn’t know if it was because he was scared of Alma, me or both of us. Or why he’d be scared.

“Sorry,” I said, trying to pretend I hadn’t realized he was scared. “I just saw you two together around campus once or twice and…” I trailed off, then finally said, “Just forget it.”

“Forget you ever saw us together.” I turned to see Ulfric staring at me with the kind of fear in his eyes that made me think he would hurt me if I didn’t agree. He then placed a massive hand on my shoulder and added, “Please.”

Looking at the giant hand, I was reminded of how Ulfric had once ripped someone’s arm off and beat the victim and his friends with the soggy end along with a dozen other incidents.  Not wanting to risk that he’d avoid confrontation because we were in public, I said, “Sure. Don’t worry about it.”

Ulfric stared at me for a long, long time, trying to see there was any hint that I would go back on my word. Eventually, he let go of my shoulder and nodded, satisfied. We then began to continue our walk back to our dorm. It turned out that Ulfric had a room right across from my dorm building. It was a single, probably due to a combination of the fact that he was Ulfric and that Hell Semester had taken more lives than usual in our year. It was supposed to be a double, but Ulfric had dragged the two beds together and had gotten sheets and blankets big enough to cover both mattresses. There were probably other signs that he had the room all to himself, but he wordlessly shooed me out. I didn’t argue.

When I got back to the dorm I shared with John, the first thing I did was grab a change of clothes (I had been soaked to the bone from being out in the rain for so long) and a towel and head to the bathrooms. Deciding to get ahead of the laundry for once, I threw my soaking clothes into my laundry basket and took that to the basement.

When I entered the room for the third time, I said to John, “I saw Ulfric today.”

“What’d you do?” John asked, turning from his computer to look at me for what felt like the first time in weeks. “Go bowling together?

“I swear I’m not kidding,” I said, “but that’s exactly what we did.”

“You’re fucking shitting me,” John said, laughing somewhat.

“I swear I’m telling the truth,” I said. “I even had kind of a heart to heart chat with him. He said more in two hours than he has in the rest of his NIU career.” There was a pause. John’s look of amusement began to fade. “Just out of curiosity,” I asked, “have you ever seen him and Alma Hebert around?”

John sighed. “Look,” he said, “I’ve been only doing this for, like, a year, but I’m starting to develop a sense of when things are going to go bad.”

“Next time you say you have a good feeling,” I said, “I’m going to hold you to it.”

“Key word,” John said, rolling his eyes, “is starting.” He leaned in close and said, “Listen to me, Nate, I have no clue what connection you’re going to draw from this or what it might motivate you to do, but I’m going to tell you right now: leave. It. Alone. No good can come of you doing your thing.”

I was going to argue. I really was. Then I considered my track record and my current workload. “You know what?” I said, “I’m going to concentrate on not fucking up what I’m currently doing.”

“Really?” John asked skeptically.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got enough to be doing. Besides, what would poking at it fix?”

 

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Track 19: Life Goes On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need that, right?” John asked.

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

“I call top bunk!” Eric shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a problem, Nate!” Eliza said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No trouble at all,” Charlotte said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to do something.

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

Track 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 9: Until the Seven are Supreme

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

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

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

“…What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh good,” I said, “Eric’s not here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Certainly,” I said.

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

“What is a Double-A?” Eric asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is actually really cool,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“That was fast,” I said.

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

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

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

“Why am I being checked?” John asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ok,” I said. “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

“No.” Eliza said.

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

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

“You’re right,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have no idea,” Eliza said.

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I asked suspiciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was Trollbjorn in it?” Mendez asked.

“Who?” the receptionist asked.

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

“Who’s Ulfric?” the receptionist asked.

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

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

“Don’t you?” Eliza asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Snubbed?” Eliza asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s still a spy,” Li grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not helping,” Eliza said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you blame me?” she asked.

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

“What did I do?” she asked.

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

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

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

“I wasn’t…” Eliza said defensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sizes are bigger in Massachusetts!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused. “Any questions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you’re joining?” Eliza asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track of The Day

Track 8: Bring your Friends

This was very bad. This was very, very, very bad. From what I understand, in a hostage situation, the ideal is to have the negotiators be calm, rational people who can talk the other person down. If that fails, you want them to be able to be fast and surgical, able to take all the hostage takers out without hurting the hostages.

Ulfric did not meet either set of requirements. With a normal person, he might be able to intimidate them into surrender. However, if that failed, I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to tell the difference between the people holding me and, well, me.

Then there was Eliza. She was too much of an unknown factor for my liking. I knew she didn’t enjoy killing. I knew that she also could be extremely brutal when provoked. However, I was unsure what she wanted with me. I also only had a vague feel of her negotiating style. The one time I could claim I saw her negotiate, she had definitely been in control of the situation.

Here, however, as far as I could tell, no one was in control. One side had hostages. The other side had three nukes. At least people had stopped kicking John. I watched as he tried to get up before someone, a woman, put her foot on his chest and told him to stay down.

Disturbingly, a crowd had begun to gather in the silence that followed Eliza’s introduction. This was bad because no one likes to back down in front of a crowd. If everyone was going to come out of this intact, people were going to have to make compromises which often times looks like weakness to stupid people.

Eliza spoke up. “You wanna let my mate go? I’d really appreciate it.” She looked up and smiled her normal Cheshire-cat grin. “Besides,” she said, “You know you can’t win, Salim. You’ve got what, fourteen half-starved guerrilla soldiers? I’ve got a living legend and Mr. Giggles.”

Ulfric gave his high-pitched giggle again and smiled. To my amazed disappointment, Salim’s gang did not immediately break. Also, I found it weird that my nickname for Ulfric had caught on.

“If it is the incidental,” Salim said reasonably, pointing at John, “I am perfectly fine with letting him go. I have no quarrel with him, only with Nathan.”

Eliza’s smile dropped. “Listen mate,” she growled, “I tried bein’ nice, but I actually rather… I actually rather you didn’t kill Nate. Let him go, and I won’t rip ya to bloody little shreds.”

With that, she popped her claws. I could hear the wet crack they made as they pushed her knuckles apart and pierced the skin. They were made of white bone, like well-brushed teeth. Eliza then shifted into the position of a runner. “You’ve got five seconds.”

“Wait!” I said. Everyone stopped and looked at me. “Now, maybe it isn’t my place to speak up…”

“It isn’t,” Salim said.

“But you haven’t even made one of those ridiculous offers for my safety!” I said excitedly. “I mean, look at the three people you’ve got right there. Now, I know you guys are willing to throw your lives away…” one of Salim’s minions yelled something at me. I ignored him and continued anyway. “…but why waste all your lives on me when you could get something from them? I mean, these guys are accomplished killers. Ulfric alone could probably kill all of you.”

I turned to Eliza. “I mean, surely there’s some deal you two could come to, at least temporarily.” I turned between both of them. “I mean neither of you guys like those ISIS bastards, right?” They were both nodding, like what I said was making sense.

“Interesting offer,” Salim said, “But you are just stalling for time.” I noticed something strange. The entire time I had been talking, Salim had been glancing at the crowd. I wondered why.

“Salim,” I said nervously, “you haven’t made a deal with ISIS, have you?” Salim smiled nastily. “And you’re stalling for time, too.” Salim’s smile faded a bit. I turned back towards Eliza to yell, “They’re behind you!”

Salim yelled out something in Arabic, but his reinforcements had already been moving. Five people jumped onto Ulfric and another two began to run at Oro. Both were fast on the draw. Oro pulled out two knives and threw one at one of her attackers. Then she stabbed the other attacker in the jugular and twisted, simultaneously taking their knife. Ulfric clotheslined three of his opponents, then grabbed the arm of a knife-wielding opponent and pulled. The fifth, however, climbed up onto Ulfric’s neck and hung on for dear life. Eliza used the opening to charge.

She was stopped by a rush of six Al-Qaeda grunts. Salim smiled nastily. “Your friends failed,” he said. He then stabbed me in the chest.

I opened my eyes. I hadn’t even realized I had closed them. A quick look around and it seemed like some other people had joined on my side. Also, three of the Al-Qaeda guys sent to intercept Eliza were on the ground, bleeding from the stomach and face. Two more came in to support the remaining three, the rest moved to stop Ulfric and the people who had moved to support Oro. However, that wasn’t what was important. I wasn’t bleeding! The vest had stopped it somewhat, though I could feel a bruise starting to form.

“Ha!” I said. “You suck!”

I regretted that decision immediately. A look of hatred passed over Salim’s face and he began to stab me repeatedly. The only good thing about his new-found rage was that he kept stabbing me in my vest’s ceramic plates, not realizing that stabbing there with his switchblade was like shooting a tank with a .22. Suddenly, the two people who had pinned me let go. I could see them run off to deal with something, but I didn’t care. Instead, I used the opportunity to grab a chunk of dirt and mud to fling it into Salim’s face.

It hit him in his good eye. He stumbled back, and I got to my feet. My feet must have fallen asleep because by the time I had done this he had wiped his face.

I ran at him but he countered by stabbing me in the side of the head, then pulling a second knife to stab me in the stomach. This stab got me right in the stomach. Salim then pushed the knife forwards and upwards, causing a shooting pain in me. I could also swear he was twisting the knife as he went.

I gave him a shove and staggered backwards, blood dripping out through the wound. Shoving Salim off probably was a mistake as that had created a much larger hole. Salim smiled triumphantly, his face twisted by hate and his hand stained with my blood. I staggered back and fell, one hand trying to staunch the blood, the other raising to protect my body.

That’s when we heard the howl. We both looked for the wolf. Instead we saw Eliza. The seven Al-Qaeda members who had tried to stop her were on the ground in front of her. One or two were lucky and had died quickly from their throats being slashed or hearts stabbed. Some were bleeding from multiple cuts and stabs on their legs, others were dying slowly from stabs to the gut. One poor girl, I think the one who had restrained John, was desperately trying to keep her intestines from falling out.

Eliza herself was a sight to behold. She was drenched in blood. While I guessed most of it was from her mutilating her… I suppose at this point it would be fair to call them her victims, some of it was hers. After all, she had part of an ear missing, an eye was swelling shut, and her nose appeared to be broken. One of her claws was also snapped off, as well. However, as I watched she began to crouch down, like a wolf about to pounce. Her face was contorted into an expression of animal fury.

Salim turned around to face Eliza. Instead of looking worried, he laughed and shouted a challenge in Arabic. Or maybe it was English. I was starting to lose consciousness and black out due to blood loss. You know, because of being stabbed in the stomach. Oddly enough, I thought I heard a rumbling in the distance.

With a wolf-like growl, Eliza charged. They exchanged blows as quick as lightning, Salim blocking with his knives, Eliza furiously slashing and stabbing with her claws, both their faces contorted with rage and pain.

From the start it was obvious Salim would lose. It became even more obvious when Eliza slashed his face, cutting his eyepatch off and shredding that side of his face. If this were a movie, Eliza would have paused, giving Salim time to gain a second wind. Instead she swept his feet, knocking him to the floor.

Before she could press this advantage, Salim kicked her in the stomach. She was staggered, but it didn’t give Salim anywhere near enough time. Eliza lunged as Salim struggled to get up.

Then something large sailed through the air to hit Eliza in the chest. Then, with a chest-rattling explosing, my world turned white. I was blind and bleeding, which made it somewhat disconcerting when people started to try moving my hands from my stab wounds. I could also feel the ground shake with explosions.

Oh God, I thought, this is the end of the world.

Eventually, my hearing and vision returned. I saw that the people trying to get me to move my hands were Campus Security Guards wearing heavy armor and gas masks. “Sorry,” I said.

“That’s ok,” one of them said, “You didn’t punch us, so that was nice.”

In the camp, the chaos was becoming brutally controlled. Where there had once been a crowd was now a billowing cloud of smoke. Yells, screams, chest-rattling thumps, gunshots, and bright flashes of light constantly came from the cloud, but the only people who exited were Campus Security Guards in riot gear and gas masks dragging hog-tied students. I noticed Ulfric was on his knees far away from the ruckus with several guards standing about ten paces to the rear of him, guns trained on him.

Another thing I noticed, which was much scarier, was that my vision was starting to blur. Also, I was pretty sure I should be in a lot more pain then I was currently in and that the yells and gunfire should be louder. “Hey guys,” I asked as the people working on me began to stuff gauze on my wounds, “how bad is it?”

“Don’t know,” one of them said. “You feeling funny, hermano?”

“Everything’s getting echo-y and blurry,” I said.

The guy opened his walkie-talkie. “This is Gravedigger 2 to Gravedigger Actual. We got a possible immediate here. Did you scoop up that expectant yet?”

“Ja,” a voice on the other end said, “she’s just about to head out, actually. Hurry up with your immediate, though. Those Mengele wannabes say they want her fresh.”

“Good news, man,” the medic said, “You’re going to be alright. We just gotta put you on a stretcher and get you to the ambulance, ok?”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Why aren’t you taking off my vest?”

The other medic spoke up. I suddenly realized that she was a she. Also, possibly from India. “Standard procedure. We do not want to take off your vest only to find out it was the only thing keeping your insides from spilling out.”

“Ok,” I said as they began to move me onto a stretcher. “Can I go to sleep?” The two medics exchanged worried looks. “Guess that’s a no.”

“Yeah,” the male medic said, “we don’t want you sleeping yet, buddy.”

They carried me out. As they did so, I noticed the vehicles that they had come in. First there was a row of some strange mix of fire truck, snow plow, and Bearcat (you know, those armored cars SWAT use whenever they want to play soldier.) There were only three of them, and the next few rows were the more traditional, lower-to-the-ground paddy wagons, you know, the kind that look more like delivery vans than armored cars. There were also a few two-and-a-half ton trucks as well. All three types were painted black with the blue-and-white NIU Campus Security logo.

Finally, we got to the rear. Ambulances (both normal versions and Bearcats modified to be ambulances) were parked there. A driver in one of the Bearcat Ambulances leaned out and said, “Put him in here!”

When they got me into the Bearbulance, I could see why they used it. Normal ambulances can probably only carry one or two patients. This could fit four patients, plus the medical staff required to fix them. In this case, I judged the staff to be one or two professors from the medical program and a bunch of students.

“How is the expectant?” asked the female guard.

“The experimental,” one of the professors growled, “needs to move soon or our procedure won’t help her.” Since I was being placed right next to the other patient, I could see that it was the girl Eliza had eviscerated. She was unconscious and hooked up to all sorts of gadgets.

“I apologize for using standard terminology,” the guard said sarcastically as some of the students began hooking stuff up to me. They would occasionally look up, because the fight between the security guard and the professor was getting good.

I, on the other hand, much as I wanted to listen to what they were saying, was starting to black out. I mumbled something along the lines of “I can’t hear you and I’m really tired.”

Instantly, there was a response. One of the students working on me yelled something and some of them began to gather around me. The two guard/medics quickly got out, with one of the doctors shooing them out. People kept trying to talk to me, or shouting to each other. I could feel the Bearbulance start to move as well.

I didn’t care. I was tired. I just wanted to go to sleep.

So I did.

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Track of the Day

Track 7: Load Up on Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greetings,” The Monk said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric nodded. “True.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Africa,” Ray-Gun said noncommittally.

“The less civilized part,” The Monk added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three.”

“Is it important?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need help?” I asked.

“Naw, man,” he said, “I got this.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can it be fired?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you take a step backwards?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am!” we shouted.

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

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

“Aim! Fire!”

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

There was a chorus of “Yes, Ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross laughed. “You’re just annoyed because I’ll hit the target the first time.”

Doc laughed. “Oh really? Good luck.”

Cross was true to his word. When he came back with the highest score of his group, he stuck his tongue out at Doc. Doc just glared. None of the rest of his sub-group (we were all in sort of the same group now, but Eric, Ray-Gun, The Monk, MC and Doc were still their own thing) had done anywhere near as well.

I also noticed that other people did better with the M-16 than the AK. Kyle (AKA Dumbass, AKA, the guy who had turned his back MC and Ray-Gun while waving a knife at Eric,) seemed to be doing better with the M-16. Others like Ricardo and Richard were equally proficient.

Me, personally? I liked the M-16 a bit better than the AK, once I figured out how to use it. It was lighter, but had much less of a kick. Accuracy-wise, I’m not sure I was a good enough shot to notice a difference. The potential downside, though, was that I was afraid the stock wouldn’t be that good of a thing to club someone with.

It managed to even impress Doc. When preparing to go out for our run the next morning, Doc grudgingly told me, “I actually like the M-16.”

“Is this the kind of thing I shouldn’t tell Cross?”

Eric laughed. Doc punched him the shoulder, which only made Eric laugh harder. Doc then turned back to me. “I do not care, Killer,” he said. Eric made a coughing noise that sounded like “liar.” Doc ignored him and said, “The M-16 is actually a very good gun to shoot, but I will always be afraid it will break in combat or that I will lose a piece while cleaning it. I do not have that fear with the AK-47.”

He paused. “If you tell Cross I said any of this, I will stab you in the shower.”

“Understood,” I said.

As usual, I was near the back of the pack with John. At some point, being near the back had become a choice. We could have moved up to above the mid if we really pushed ourselves, I think, but normally, that would have been a bad idea. The fifty percent mark was where you started to get around the scary people. For instance, that was where Eyepatch and his friends hung out. Usually.

“John,” I asked, “do you notice anything different about the people running with us today?”

John looked at me curiously. I jerked my head to the left. He looked and saw Eyepatch and two other Al-Qaeda people matching pace with us. Another three were on the other side. John’s eyes widened. “Fuck,” he said.

“You can drop back or speed up,” I said quietly. “They might not be after you.”

“No way,” he said. “I’m staying with you.” He smiled. “Besides, Kreiger’s got to be around here somewhere.”

“I overheard some of the drill sergeants talking,” I said. “Krieger’s going to be busy with Bai this morning.” I hefted the wooden block cut to resemble a rifle that we had just been issued that day. “At least we have these.”

The next few minutes were tense. Every crater could conceivably house another of Eyepatch’s crew. Finally, the gate to the camp was in sight.

“Let’s do this quickly,” I said when we got close enough. We picked up the pace from a steady run to an outright sprint. As we ran, we failed to notice that Eyepatch had slowed down to a leisurely stroll.

When we got to the gate, about seven people piled out. I was near one side, so they just had to use one of the fake guns to smash me in the sternum. I felt my legs fly out from under me and I landed on my back, struggling for breath. My attacker then rammed the butt of the gun into my face. I was pretty sure that I’d have a black eye if I survived this.

Meanwhile, John had been able to get one of our attackers before they brought him down. As someone dragged me to my knees to force me into a kneeling position, I saw two people kicking him. Someone familiar watched, a look of terror on his face.

“Hey Mubashir,” I managed to cough out. “Long time, no see.”

Before Mubashir could respond, I heard Eyepatch say, “You are not allowed to talk.” I turned to look at him. He and the other five that had herded us in to the trap were almost here. He stood in front of me. “You,” he said, fixing me with a disturbingly empty stare, “are a dead man.”

“Funny,” I said, “I’m still breathing.” Eyepatch slapped me across the face. “Still not dead,” I said. “If your only weapon is bitch-slapping me…” he slapped me again, “….we’re gonna be here a long time.”

Eyepatch pulled out a knife. “Ok,” I said, “now that might make things go a little quicker.” I can’t say I was even more terrified because I already as scared as I could possibly be at this point. Also, since things were as bad as they possibly were, and the person holding me still had a very good grip on me, I might as well shoot my mouth off.

“So, Eyepatch,” I asked, “what’s going to happen to John?”

“My name is Salim,” Eyepatch said. “And he will be dealt with after we are done with you.” Eyepatch then turned to Mubashir, held out the knife, and said something in Arabic.

Mubashir held up his hands, and refused. Eyepatch stood up and started yelling at Mubashir. “Come on,” I said, “you can have your lover’s quarrel later! I don’t want to die of boredom when you’ve got some perfectly good clubs and knives!”

Mubashir and Eyepatch ignored me to focus on their fight. Someone else whacked me in the head with the fake gun. “Shut up, Zionist scum,” he said.

“Come on, you assholes,” I said, “you don’t have all day!”

“’E’s right,” a Cockney-accented voice called out.

Everyone turned around. Standing there, head bent down slightly so you couldn’t see her eyes, was Eliza. She was flanked on either side by Oro and Ulfric. “In fact,” she said, “time’s pretty much run out.”

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Track of the Day

Track 6: Saturday

I woke up at around four, which is the normal time. I noticed that Eric’s group were all back, all safe and sound, the pain in my hand (as well as the gel in the bandage) pretty much gone. I also heard groans from all around, and I couldn’t hear that much chanting from outside. I got up slowly. When I did, I saw Robert staring at me balefully from his bed. He seemed to be trying to sleep, and intensely jealous that I seemed rested.

I took in the room. From my position in the corner, I could see across the entire room. The beds seemed to be mostly full. Some people were moaning in pain, others were groaning, others were sleeping, others were sitting up talking. Then, I noticed that Michael seemed to be sleeping, or at least, someone was sleeping in his bed. Then I realized that it wasn’t someone tucked in really well, it was a body bag laid on top of the bed.

“You realize we have the day off today, Killer?” Robert asked muzzily. “Which means we don’t have to get up?”

“Oh.” I paused, then tried to go back to bed. “Sorry.”

The problem with that was that idea was that I couldn’t. I tried to, but in the end I probably did more to wake up the others than just getting up would have. So I got up and quietly walked out into the barracks.

I made sure to avoid bumping into the various medical personnel in the barracks when I moved into the main corridor that separated the male half from the female half. As I did so, I noticed how many beds were filled with body bags. When I actually got to the main corridor, I noticed the two Campus Security Guards standing by the door, with what looked like black SCAR-H assault rifles pointed at the ground.

I debated internally whether or not I should talk to them for a few minutes. Then a guard motioned for me to stop. “Sorry,” he said with a slight French accent, “but you are not allowed to be leaving ze building.”

“Can you at least tell me what’s going on outside?” I asked.

“There ees only a few people left,” he said. “They should be done witheen zee hour.”

“Ok,” I said, “just waiting to see if any of my friends made it. They mostly live in other dorms. Everyone I care about in this dorm’s back, so…”

“So I’m not your friend?” A cockney voice quipped. “I’m right hurt by that, mate.”

I didn’t even need to turn around to know who it was. “We’re friends?” I asked sarcastically. “I didn’t know that stalking, blackmail and beating the crap out of people was something you do with your mates in jolly old England.”

I turned towards the women’s side of the barracks after I said this. Leaning against one of the beds was Eliza. She was covered in mud and blood, the mud spread evenly across her body, the blood mostly staining her kevlar jacket. Due to the jacket being unbuttoned, I noticed that the white t-shirt beneath it was still mostly clean and not ripped or torn in the slightest.

Her face, however, told a different story. She seemed defeated by something. Her normally mischievous look was replaced by the smile of someone who was desperately trying to find something to be happy about. I wasn’t exactly sympathetic, but I began to debate toning it down.

Her smile faltered. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I acted like a right shite, didn’t I?”

I nodded. “Kinda. If it makes you feel better, most people are still behind the curve here.” She brightened a bit. “I’m still more than a little pissed,” I continued, “and it’ll be a while until I forgive you, if ever, but I need all the allies I can get at the moment.”

“Fair enough,” she said, “Come on, step into me office.” She headed off, motioning for me to follow. I did, figuring I had nothing to lose. As we walked, I noticed that most of the beds had body bags on them.

“Unless things changed a lot after I went in,” Eliza said, “girls were just as likely as boys to be slabbed. However, for some reason, I got put in a section with all the silly little bitches who knew nothing about fighting.”

“Maybe they want some sections to suffer higher casualties than others,” I said. “You know, simulating an actual battle.”

We finally got to her bed. I realized it was in the mirror position of mine. “Reckon you’re right,” Eliza said as she sat on her bunk. “Right sick bastards they are, so it wouldn’t surprise me.” Something about her posture suggested she felt the same thing could be applied to her as well. She then shook it off, and then patted the spot on the bed next to her. “Sit, sit. No need to stand.”

I looked around a bit. I saw that on the bed behind me was a body bag. “No worries,” Eliza said. “I don’t bite.”

“You do have a tendency to stab people with bone-claws,” I said on reflex. I instantly regretted it.

Eliza’s face became very blank. “You ‘eard ‘bout that, didn’t you?”

“I made friends with one of the medics,” I said. “From the way I hear it, it was surprising anyone managed to beat you.”

She laughed bitterly. “I’m undefeated. You can recuse yourself, remember?” She began to get more animated. “Y’see, the bloody awful thing about being a feral is that you, meaning the conscious part of you, doesn’t exactly ‘ave the control over your subconscious that the average human does. Some wanker pulls a knife on you, you don’t get the option of not popin’ out your claws an’ givin’ ‘im a good slice across the belly.

“Originally, I thought I could learn to control it. Maybe through practice, maybe through meditation, maybe through medication, maybe through some combination. So tonight, combined with the fact that I wanted to win, I made quite the bloody fool out of myself.” She began to glare at the floor. “The thing I learned tonight? I bloody can’t control myself. I’m not… not a human. But I can choose the situations I get in, right?”

“To an extent,” I said. “I mean, you could have left after three people, sure. But sometimes you don’t have that option.” She nodded at this. Then suddenly, something hit me. “If you don’t like doing… this… why don’t you leave?”

She turned the glare from the floor to me. “Why don’t you?”

Seeing as it was the kind of glare that normally makes you try to remember appointments coming from a violent parahuman not fully in control of her own actions, I said hurriedly, “Not sure. I should see if I can get back to sleep. See you around, I guess?” I then hurriedly beat my retreat.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. When the call came out for us at around six to form up outside, most people grumbled and groaned trying to get up. I, personally, was relieved. I really hate it when I try to go to sleep but just can’t.

We all went into the entrance. The camp commandant and head of Shadowhaven, an older Russian woman named Professor Zemylachka called out, “Form up, you svezheye myaso! Parade positions! Professor Blunt is here!”

Everyone did exactly as ordered. Parade positions are basically everyone gets into a group of fifty (based on where you sleep) and face the cafeteria. Today, there was a portable stage with a podium on it, as well as two bundles of flags on either side. Leaning on the podium was Professor Blunt, a weary look on his face. Standing right besides him was Professor Zemylachka. Judging by how rested she looked, she had gotten a break last night.

Meanwhile, our normally neat ten by ten rows were gone. A few were almost intact, some, like Eliza’s, were almost gone. Most were like mine, with around half the people missing. Between us and the platform was a two deep line of Campus Security. The front row somehow managed to seem at ease despite the fact that they were carrying riot shields. I couldn’t quite see what the second row was carrying, but if I were to guess I would say they were carrying six-shot grenade launchers loaded with tear gas and/or flashbangs.

Due to the formation changes, I had a new person right next to me. He seemed Arabic, and he wore an eyepatch, and had a scar on his throat. Without turning to look at me, he said, “You’re as dead as Amir, you Zionist piece of shit.” Anger throbbed through his voice.

Eric, who was to my other side, responded with, “Careful. You mess with Nathan, you mess with me and my mates.” He paused. “Am I making my position clear? Or would you like to retort?”

The person who I was starting to suspect was Amir’s second-in-command snarled, “I don’t have anything to say to you. You don’t really threaten me, clown.”

If Eric was going to reply (which I don’t think he was) he was interrupted. “Congratulations, maggots,” Professor Blunt said, his voice blurred with sleep. “You fucking did it. You survived and…” He stared off into space for a bit, muttered something along the lines of “what was I going to say,” then said “…You were really bloodthirsty. Fifty-eight point eight casualty rate, from what our medics tell us.”

He blinked a couple times, then continued. “So, what does that tell me? If I was an asshole, I’d say that meant ya’ll were just a buncha pansies or something, compared to the yearly average of forty-nine point nine.” He began to get slightly more animated. “But I’m not. And I was there. Most years, we don’t get four ferals or whatever the fuck Ulfric is.”

At this there was a high pitched giggle. Everyone turned to where the sound was coming from. There was Ulfric Trollbjorn, flanked by two heavily armed Campus Security Guards at the far end of the boy’s side. Apparently, somehow every person in his fifty-person section was either dead or in ICU. I wondered how many of those he had killed personally. I noticed that everyone seemed tense. A few of the Campus Security Guards even turned off the safeties on their weapons.

I noticed that even Professor Blunt eyed Ulfric warily for a few seconds before continuing. “And those of you who did go against… him all showed massive amounts of courage. Incredibly, a few of you are even standing here. However, there is one person I’d like to single out.

“You see, in no other year have I seen any newbie who could take down Ulfric. Hell, I kind of doubt a good chunk of our graduates could.”

Ulfric giggled again. Instantly, some of the Campus Security people raised their weapons to point at him.

“However,” Professor Blunt said, “We found one person this year who could. Why do I think that? Because I saw it happen with my own two eyes! Recruits, I’d like you to give a hand to Bai Feng!”

People clapped wildly. Apparently, people had lost more than a few friends to Ulfric. For example, the guy who had just threatened to kill me was clapping like a madman and yelling something in what I guessed to be Arabic. The TVs on the cafeteria switched on to get a clear look at Bai. She was leaning on crutches, but as soon she noticed she was being filmed, she dropped them.

Bai walked up from somewhere in the girl’s side, limping a bit. I noticed that she had a cast on one leg. She must have been in quite a bit of pain, but she didn’t wince. When the line of Campus Security stepped aside for her, a few of them saluted.

When she got to the platform, Professor Zemylachka offered her a hand, which she shrugged off. She was ushered to stand next to the podium. As she did, a highlight reel began playing on the TV. She apparently had only four fights worth showing. In the first fight, her opponent had gotten lucky and broken her leg. Contrary to all common sense, in the final fight, she had apparently chosen to fight Ulfric.

That was when things had gotten really interesting. She had managed, despite her broken leg, to dodge every single one of Ulfric’s attacks. Her return blows seemed to have targeted nerve clusters, temporarily paralyzing certain areas. Needless to say, I was impressed.

Professor Blunt immediately echoed my feelings. “I know I’ve already expressed my sincere admiration for your talent, humility, determination and professionalism,” he said once Bai’s highlight reel was replaced by an NIU logo, “but this time, it is on behalf of the President and NIU. You have done amazingly well. You should note that we have noted your special circumstances and have allowed you both time to heal from your injuries and we’ve committed to making sure you still are able to complete this course.” He then turned the microphone towards Bai.

Bai blushed. “No, no,” she said, “I don’t deserve it…”

Professor Zemylachka made a dismissive noise loud enough to be audible from where she was standing. Professor Blunt turned back to Bai. “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. But I have to ask: where did you get the idea to attack the nerve clusters? From what I understand, that’s one of the most difficult moves you can do.”

“It was simply part of my training before I came here,” Bai said modestly. “Also, nothing else seemed to be working.”

“Yeah.” Professor Blunt seemed embarrassed by that. “I guess that’s a decent reason for trying it.” I wondered if the good professor had tried tasing the monster. He then continued on, “So why Ulfric? Why do the dumb thing and go against the monster who’s killed more people at Fight Night than the next two deadliest contestants combined?”

“I had broken my leg,” she said, as if explaining the most obvious thing in the world. “My career was over.”

Professor Blunt shook his head as if he was hearing the stupidest thing in the world. “What do you think you are, a fucking horse?” He asked with impatient disgust. “A broken leg doesn’t end a fucking career. Getting your head ripped off by a kill-crazy giant does.

He turned back to the rest of us. “LISTEN UP, YOU STUPID ASSHOLES!” He shouted, his face going red. “IF THIS WAS A THEORETICAL EXERCISE, AND ANYONE SUGGESTED THAT SACRIFICING A HIGHLY-SKILLED OPERATIVE, WHO HAS BEEN TRAINED FOR NEARLY EIGHTEEN GODDAMNED YEARS OUT OF SHEER STUBBORNESS, I WOULD FAIL THAT MOTHERFUCKER!” He stopped, took a breath, and resumed shouting.

“THE ONLY REASON I HAVEN’T FAILED HER FOR THIS IDIOCY IS BECAUSE SHE HAD THE DECENCY TO GAMBLE HER OWN LIFE! AT THIS POINT, THE FACT THAT HER GAMBLE PAID OFF IS MEANIGNLESS, BECAUSE IT GAINED HER VERY LITTLE.” He then turned back towards her, and said in a very low voice, “You’re a highly skilled martial artist and really good at sneaking around. However, you are in the wrong program. You’ve enrolled in a program that can teach you nothing and are sorely lacking in other skills, such as common sense and self-preservation. Switch programs.”

Bai Feng looked visibly shaken and on the verge of tears. I had to admit, that was probably Professor Blunt’s intention. He then looked at the sheet. “All right,” he said, “Next up we have…” His eyes widened. “Oh my. Up next we have Ulfric Trollbjorn.”

Ulfric’s reception was massively different than Bai’s. As he walked towards the platform, his two guards pointing SCAR-Hs with fully automatic underbarrel shotguns at his center mass, people booed. People hissed. However, when he occasionally stopped to look at the crowd, people would fall silent where his gaze fell.

Ulfric also had a highlight reel. It was the most disturbing thing I’ve seen. There he was on the screen, killing people. Apparently, he was supernaturally strong, and everyone around him was made of cardboard. Bones were crushed, parts of bodies that should be attatched flew like jet fighters, and people were picked up and used like clubs to beat others to death. There also was a clip that proved how ineffective tasers were against him. He had just punched someone’s face so hard the people in charge had decided to actually pixelate the damage, then continued to beat the corpse. Professor Johnson told him to stop. He didn’t stop. Professor Johnson tased him. Ulfric pulled the leads off, and then glared at the Professor.

He actually looked me right in the eye, right before heading onto the platform. That was probably one of, if not the first up-close looks I had ever gotten at him. Now, I’ve known people who are huge, maybe not in that Sylvester Stallone-type way, but still, I know they’re no different from us regular-sized folk. That may be the reason why I never noticed the wrongness about him. It was hard for me to put my finger on it until he locked eyes and smiled at me.

It would have been bad enough if it had been a normal smile from a man I knew hadn’t even gone twelve hours since he had murdered dozens of people with his bare hands. It was the child-like… I don’t want to use the word innocence. Maybe lack of understanding… Anyway, it was the child-like lack of understanding of his actions that scared me. It was like he was a pre-schooler who had just seen his best friend on the playground after a long vacation. He then walked on towards the stage.

“There goes the most evil man I have ever seen,” Eric said. I turned. He had shuffled a good distance away from me, like someone had just said there was a bomb in my pocket.

“That we agree on,” the Al-Qaeda guy next to me said. He had also edged away from me.

Ulfric, meanwhile, was making his way towards the stage. I noticed that everyone there was slowly inching away, except as Bai. The TVs then showed the stage, giving us a view of Bai and Ulfric locking eyes, everyone else on the stage looking wary. Then Ulfric held out his hand.

Instantly, both Blunt and Zemylachka drew huge handguns, larger than any practical gun. The two Campus Security Guards cocked their weapons. Bai, though, took Ulfric’s hand and shook. After a firm shake, Ulfric leaned in and whispered something into Bai’s ear. Then he moved to stand right by her side.

After the Professors and the Security calmed down a bit, things fell into a routine. Professor Blunt would call them up, and announce why they were being called up. It was usually because they were very violent. Then, the person would be called up to do an interview with Professor Johnson. Then, they would attempt to walk by Ulfric. Ulfric would hold his hand out, and then, whether or not they took it, he would lean in close and whisper something to them.

The first person up was Ricardo Montana. He was a very smooth operator, from what I could tell. He was kind of like a young, somewhat beaten and mal-nourished Ricky Ricardio in some ways. He was able to joke with Professor Blunt and was even able to make Bai blush again. Despite the fact that his highlight reel showed how deadly he was, he still seemed quite likable, if a little cocky.

That overconfidence made him think, for some reason, he could charm Ulfric. For all I knew, he succeeded. However, whatever Ulfric told Ricardo made him go very pale. He then had the unenviable position of standing next to the monster of a man.

Next up was Bai’s twin brother, Li. Apart from the fact that they were both extremely fit Asians, I would never have guessed that they were twins. He was stockier, muscular, taller, and less respectful. He basically used his interview to get into a fight with Professor Blunt and didn’t back down until Blunt threatened to kick him out on the spot.

He also ignored Ulfric’s attempt to shake his hand, but Ulfric still called out to him. He did it loud enough this time for me to make out that it may have been Chinese, which was weird considering how white he was. Whatever he said, it was enough to make Li throw a punch at Ulfric. Li groaned in pain, and Ulfric giggled his terrifying giggle. At least a dozen guns were pointed at Ulfric before people realized that Li had hurt himself. It was at that point I became convinced Ulfric was some kind of parahuman.

After Li had taken his place next to Ricardo, the next person was Oro Okoro. Her skin was slightly darker than Eric’s, and her hair was in dreads. She was about the same size and shape as Li, but that seemed due to malnourishment. It was a somewhat disturbing theme among the people remaining. Also disturbing was how often she killed people with her bare hands. During her interview, through her broken English you could detect a bit of suspicion and hostility. However, she somehow managed to avoid being disrespectful.

When she walked towards Ulfric, she stood, looking at his hand for a moment. Then Ulfric said something. She took it and nodded. Ulfric said something else, and Oro seemed surprised. She walked to her place, as if she had been smacked.

Next up was Eliza. Professor Blunt gave her a pretty good introduction. “Now, here’s the event you’ve all been waiting for! During her second run, she managed to account for sixty wins! Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Eliza Henderson!”

Eliza walked onto the stage to somewhat forced applause, like an American President giving a State of the Union to a Congress controlled by the opposing party. I guess Eliza had killed her fair share of people, but had also saved a few from going up against the likes of Ulfric. In fact, apparently her kill ratio was only about two in fifteen, according to Professor Blunt.

I didn’t pay much attention to the interview. After Professor Blunt compared that ratio to the average (one in five,) I had begun to feel a little sick. I had killed someone. It also wasn’t like it was some random person, either. I had also seriously injured another. Eliza may have killed more people, but she actually had better ratios than me.

Also, I was really confused about Eliza. She obviously regretted killing the people she did, but she had killed. In fact, she could have recused herself before she had killed anybody. Also, was she blackmailing me, stalking me or something else? Either way, it was creepier than I really wanted.

This was why Professor Blunt had to repeat my name twice before I realized he was talking to me. I kind of realized that someone was being called up, so I kept clapping. Then I realized that the camera was centered on me. I pointed at myself, a look of utter horror on my face, and Professor Zemylachka responded, “Yes, Mr. Jacobs, you.”

As I walked forwards towards the line of heavily armed people, I could hear booing mixed in with the cheers. Apparently, I was somewhat divisive. I was honestly a little too frightened to turn around to see who was cheering and who was booing. I was reasonably certain, though, that eyepatch guy had booed me. I also didn’t particularly want to look at my highlights reel.

As I walked towards the line of Campus Security, I practiced my relaxation technique, making sure to breathe deep while convincing myself that the crowd behind me was actually the crowd from my first improv night. I was still shocked, somehow, that Campus Security parted for me.

When I wondered why that was, I suddenly realized that, holy shit, the powers-that-be at NIU could know! They could be bringing me on stage to execute me as a warning to the other students. They already had the means to do it, and there was also the audience and…

I stopped, took a breath, then continued on stage. Honestly, I had no evidence that they’d do it. I had never seen them administer any forms of punishment, and if they shot me here, they’d have to worry about a bullet passing through me and hitting one of their best students or a guard. Besides, if they were going to blow my brains out, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it.

When I had climbed onto the stage, Professor Blunt motioned to stand so I could look down the row of violent nut jobs that the ceremony was supposed to honor, as well as giving me a good view of the violent nut jobs who weren’t violent or nutty enough to be “honored.” I could see that everyone on the stage except for Ulfric’s guards were staring at me. There was not a lot of love in the air.

“Nervous?” Asked Professor Blunt. I briefly wondered if he was referring to the little scream I had managed to choke back, the bug-eyed look of terror on my face, the fact that I looked like I was either going to faint or barf, or that I had walked onto the stage like a man being led to his execution.

“Nervous?” I asked with forced cheer, “When I’m surrounded by these teddy bears of human beings? Of course not!”

Other people might have laughed, if Ulfric hadn’t beaten them to the punch. His giggle was still as loud, shrill and ungodly terrifying as usual. Everyone shuddered.

“Thank you, Mr. Giggles,” I said slowly after the long pause that followed. “All comedians appreciate a good audience.” The audience laughed. I think it was the audacity of calling Ulfric Mr. Giggles that did it. Or maybe it was that I seemed to be the most frightened person there to a comical degree. Whatever it was, I got a laugh from people who didn’t have terrifying laughs.

“Thank you, thank you,” I said. “I’ll be in Barracks 3 for the rest of the weekend, performing my hit piece, ‘Hyperventilating into a paper bag: Oh God, Why Won’t It Stop!’ Please don’t come find me for more jokes!”

“Before you start performing your routine,” Professor Blunt said wryly, “would you mind answering a few questions?”

“Potentially,” I said. I considered saying something like my agent says I need a nice relaxing interview, but decided to go with “Go on.”

“So,” Professor Blunt asked, “have you ever been in a fight before?”

“Well,” I said, “The short answer is ‘no.’ The long answer is I have done Tae Kwon-do for about… nine or ten years, I think? I did my share of sparing then, as well as the hand-to-hand combat drills, but that probably doesn’t count.” I paused. “Some of the fights I had with Dickface did come close when the instructors weren’t looking, though.”

Professor Zemylachka’s head snapped to me. “Who is this ‘Dickface?’” She asked. “Killing other students is only acceptable when either myself or Professor Blunt approve.” A few people laughed at that, then realized that she was being serious when she glared at them.

“Y’all don’t know Richard Forrest Taylor the Third?” I asked in a cartoonishly fake Southern accent. I couldn’t stop myself. I had become a comedic monster, a stand-up train without brakes. “Come on, the man works hard to show us Jesus’s love by killing them Jews, blacks, an’ gays!” Professor Zemylachka turned her glare on me. “I… I don’t really like him,” I said in my normal voice. Professor Blunt chuckled. Professor Zemylachka continued to glare. “I’m sorry. I’ll stop.”

“Getting back to the questions,” Professor Blunt said, smiling a bit, “did you think you would be able to do something like this before you came to camp?”

“Well, honestly no,” I said, “I actually did not think I could do something like this. But you guys did help in every way you could.” I’m pretty sure Professor Blunt heard the implied accusation, he just ignored it to focus on the parts that would look good in the recruitment brochure.

“You see,” Professor Blunt said, “any one of you pansies can eventually become good as the people on this stage!” I was about to say something about how maybe Ulfric was an exception, but stopped myself. It wasn’t worth it.

Professor Blunt, oblivious to my thought process, continued on. “I want you all to remember that this little shit stain of a loser who’s never done a day’s work in his life can make it. So can you, you lazy assholes.” I rolled my eyes. Gee, thanks, professor, I thought sarcastically. Professor Blunt then waved at me to go on to my place on the platform. “Go on, get out of my face Jacobs.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, somehow managing to sound neutral and not say something incredibly snarky.

Before I could get to my place, Ulfric held out a hand. I put my hand in his palm, not grabbing because it was too big, and looked him right in the eye. His hand closed around mine, tight enough to prevent escape, but not tight enough to hurt.

If being trapped by a mass-murderer wasn’t enough, his attitude made the situation all the more disturbing. Someone as bloodthirsty as Ulfric should be an angry, bitter person. However, when Ulfric smiled, it was like he had never had a bad day in his entire life.

“You looked me in the eye,” he whispered, a slight Boston accent to his voice. “You’re very brave.”

“Trust me,” I said, “I’m pretty much terrified.

“You still let me take your hand,” Ulfric said, “and you know what I can do. You also aren’t stupid enough to think you can fool me.” He gave me a firm shake, then let go. I hurried to my place in line as fast as I could.

When I was in my position, Professor Blunt began to talk again. “Now that we know you are all somewhat versed in hand-to-hand combat, we will move on to basic rifle training this coming week. You little morons will learn how to load, maintain, and shoot standard firearms. We’ll also teach you gun safety if you assholes don’t possess any common sense.

“In more immediate news, you little shits get the rest of the weekend off. Meals will be at normal times, and you can shower whenever you want. Also, these seven will have their victory meal on Friday. And now without further ado, the best moments of Fight Night!” As Professor Blunt said these words, the screens began to turn on and NIU’s jaunty, militaristic theme began to play.

The images of Fight Night faded in from blackness as the music began to swell. People were beating, stabbing, and strangling each other. One of the more disturbing clips was of me delivering the killing blow to Amir. Apparently, the place I hit had a blood vessel in his head. I suddenly realized that I was still covered in his blood. I felt sick.

After several minutes of people I didn’t know, we got to one of Eliza. Someone had tried to use Amir’s tactic of throwing a rock. It worked until the poor girl got her hands on Eliza’s throat.

Instantly, three claws popped out of Eliza’s hands. One swiped across her face, the other raked across her belly. The poor girl staggered back, and Eliza fell on top of her, stabbing each other rapidly. I couldn’t see the expression on Eliza’s face but I could see her opponent’s look of utter terror and extreme pain as the scream died in her mouth.

I instinctively turned around to get Eliza’s reaction.

She was staring directly at me.

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