2310: Forsaken

Posted: November 5, 2007 by Kelly in league, stories

We’ve built our confidence
On broken dreams now left for dead
Yet we’ve been condemned
To chase these dreams that never end

As I Lay Dying – “Forsaken”

I’m not a victim,
till I let you take me down.
I’m not a target at the sites of your mercy,
I never asked for anything,
I’m not asking now.
I will not be afraid,
I will not be afraid.

Stone Sour – “Hell and Consequences”

FORSAKEN

Millions of households are tuning in at the news right at this moment. The word spreads like wildfire: it is happening, right now! Broadcasts are interrupted for this special breaking news. Citizens zap to the right channel – the one that paid the most money for the exclusive broadcasting rights of the Summers Trial, as they call it. Today is the day, now is the time: the verdict is coming in on the case of Daniella Summers.

The newsreader smiles at the camera. She elegantly wipes a stray lock of dark hair out of her heavily makeupped face and says to the audience: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Stella Keys and this is the moment everyone has been waiting for. From the day we saw the innocent blood of Jorn Berntsson flow on live broadcasts during that fateful finale of the Survival Game half a year ago, we have all been waiting to hear what would be the verdict in the trial of his brutal murderer: Daniella Summers.” She grins charmingly at the camera. “The news is coming in right now. Okay, let’s go to John Stone, who is at location at the courthouse at the moment.”

The screen switches to a blond and tanned man with dimples in his cheeks. He smiles just as charmingly at the camera while behind him the court hall seems to be in total chaos. Journalists and audience seem to be everywhere, pushing each other out of the way. Everyone wants to have a piece of this, it seems. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a verdict. Not very surprisingly, Daniella Summers has just been found guilty on all charges. When she was given the choice for death by lethal injection, or participation in the next game of the League, she responded the following…”

A fade-over to images that obviously have been shot just minutes ago. The Judge, an older man in robes, is looking sternly at a young woman with ragged blond hair. She is wearing the orange overall that is sported in prison and her hands are bound, but still she manages to look defiant.

“Daniella Jennifer Summers, after careful consideration the Jury and I have come to the decision that you have been found guilty on all charges,” the Judge declares. His glare into the hall shushes the gasps and sighs of surprise that the audience is omitting. “You now have a choice to make, Miss Summers,” he continues, his voice as stern as his face. “What will it be, death by lethal injection or participation in the League?”

And the girl – she shakes her hair off her shoulders, and she smirks. Like she never expected anything different. Like she has counted on it. Anyone watching this broadcast wonders if she did. She doesn’t lose composure for one moment. Her green eyes sparkle with repressed anger; the kind of anger that might have sparkled in her eyes the moment she pulled the trigger and so brutally shot the beloved League Presenter Jorn Berntsson in cold blood on international television. “Participation,” she answers, her voice ringing clear and true through the hall, “I’ll enter the deathmatch.”

“Granted. Case closed.”

And that’s when the image switches back to John Stone again, who is obviously straining to stay upright in what seems like a mass of people. There’s a bit of perspiration on his brow. “The experts were right; Summers’ own statement after the murder is what sealed her fate. Her repeated declarations of ‘not regretting anything’ is what earned her the verdict. However, in a surprising turn of events she chose to enter the League instead of the death sentence. Does she really think she has a chance in the Arena just because she stayed alive during the Survival Game? Has she lost her wits? Back to you Stella!”

The image switches back to Stella Keys, who is joined by a psychologist in the studio – at least, that’s what the subtitle at the bottom of the screen says. At this time the speculation begins and many households will already know all they need to know. The murderer of beloved public figure Jorn Berntsson will enter the next League match, which will be in the Southern League in four months. Matters of psychology, sponsorship, fighting prowess… it’s not very interesting for most citizens. They’ll tune in for the show in four months, and they’ll be longing to see Daniella’s blood flow. Isn’t everybody?

***

CHAPTER 1: LEFT BEHIND

I spent my last day mostly in solitude. I had little interest in some last minute exercising or socializing with the other prisoners. Not today. I needed to focus, I needed to gain control over raging emotions. The anger had kept me alive thus far – it wasn’t easy, Berntsson apparently had a lot of fans over here in the female wing of the Northern State Prison. I survived two murder attempts on my person, but I never really had the time to be upset about it. I was living in borrowed time anyway. The League was upon me, so I needed to be angry and focused.

I was about to enter an Arena with seven competitors from all over the world. Convicts like me, or people who were out for money and glory. And we’d try to kill each other, to see who would win the Southern League of 2308. There hadn’t been a League in a while – not since the World League a few years ago, so people were extra hyped up for the first one after two years. They’d gotten impatient for blood after the climax that was the World League ended so long ago. A world addicted to arena tournaments, it was like the Roman age all over again. It was just fancier weapons, this time.

They’d given me the flak cannon that I asked for. I wondered how much my sponsors had to bribe the Corporation for giving me the gun that I wanted. If it were up to the Corporation they would have given me a weak gun like the Bio rifle or something equally useless; I should be grateful to my sponsors. On the other hand, they’d gotten bucketloads of exposure for supporting me, and they’re of the opinion that even bad publicity is good publicity, so they were gaining from this sorry situation as much as the Corporation was.

The only person suffering here was, of course, me.

I was trying to see a way out of this all. Entering the League meant a slight chance of survival of this whole ordeal. And hadn’t I been surviving since the moment since they plunged me in a game for survival without my permission? I’d just be doing what I’ve been doing since the moment I woke up with poison in my veins and Berntsson smugly telling me that I was on live broadcasts as a participant of the Survival Game, and that I had to get my ass over to the studio’s within an hour to get the antidote or I’d die. To this he added that naturally they wouldn’t just let me get there easily. They’d be trying to stop me.

First there was panic. Then there was determination as I fled through the Compound, breaking out of a metro after people recognized me. And finally, when Berntsson was bribing the young girl that held the key to my possible survival, there was hate. So much unbridled rage and hatred, bubbling up and setting my blood aflame in my veins. At first I thought it had been the poison in my system that had clouded my judgement, but when I loosed a round of bullets into him and he was bleeding on the artfully architected garden of the Corporation studio’s, there was no regret. The assh ole got what was coming to him.

The /glee/ he’d had in announcing the death of countless participants in his game was flashing through my mind the moment my finger caressed the trigger. All I had to imagine was that same repulsive glee as he announced my death, and suddenly it wasn’t all that hard to shoot. I just wanted his death, and I was fast enough to get it.

I used to be such a nice girl.

You know, the works: university degree, finding her first job as a network technician, doing good work and just starting to pay off the ridiculous loan I’d gotten from the government to fund my study. Socializing often with friends in the pub to watch the Games and drink beer, currently single after a relationship of four years stranded. Just… ordinary. Normal. I could have been everyone in the Compound.

Except for this one thing. Five years prior me and some mates had watched the finals of the Asian League in the Pub over pints of beer. There was this girl/boy standoff for the longest time, and then Li Nguyen died messily at the hands of Chang Kun Wei. It was a thrilling finale to a Game that seemed to have gone on forever. They’d stalked each other for hours, Nguyen cleverly getting herself out of every nasty situation that Wei tried to get her into. It was one of the best matches ever. We’d gotten quite intoxicated by the time Nguyen died and Chang Kun Wei was declared the winner.

That night it was me and the boys in the Pub. They started bantering about how it was obvious that Wei had won, males were obviously superior to females, it was only natural. I called them misogynistic, they called me the weaker gender, all in all we had a great laugh. There was a lot of booze involved. And apparently… apparently we decided to settle this matter for once and for all. I can’t remember who came with that idiotic idea, or even the wording of it. I just know that I signed for something that night, in one of the recruitment centers. I remember holding my then-boyfriend Stephan as he puked all over the pavement before the recruitment center in the dead of the night. In hindsight, I hardly even knew what I signed for… or that I had signed at all. It was all a big blur.

We realized the morning after what we’d done and Stephan even rang the recruitment center to ask what was up. Had we really signed up for the preliminaries of the Fortress Games and the League? The girl at the other end of the line just laughed and said that we weren’t their target group; probably not suited for participation in any of the Leagues. They got a lot of people that way, singing up drunk, apparently. Anyway, Stephan related to us later: if we’d be selected to participate, they’d let us know. For now, we weren’t even remotely suited. Meanwhile they had our signature that we’d given them permission to do anything with us on international television – but we didn’t really realize that. Hell, I was nineteen years old and drunk as fuck. Of course I didn’t realize that.

When the World League Championship came and passed and Valentina Marin was declared the very deserved winner, it was also announced that Stender, owner of the Corporation that held the rights to and organised the League, was retiring. Stender, the great man, was retiring. The League would go on a hiatus, since most of its champions had left this plane for another in the latest Game. The world needed time to breed more champions, Stender had said in an official broadcast. He had smiled at that, in that wistful little smile that women the world around would die for.

So even if I would have had /any/ suspicion of ever being called whether I wanted to participate in the League, it was surely gone by that time. I never saw Stephen and the boys again. After the train wreck that our breakup was, shortly after the World League Championship, there was just nothing to talk about anymore with those guys.

When the ads were broadcasted for the Survival Game, I didn’t think anything of it. I was really busy with work at the time, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. It /never/ crossed my mind that when I’d given the Corporation permission to call on me anytime for participation in any of their programs.

And thus I was lifted off my bed one night only to wake up the next morning in a hospital – on live broadcasts, with Jorn Berntsson – THE Jorn Berntsson, beloved announcer of many Fortress and League Games – smugly telling me that I had about an hour to live. At first I didn’t even remember signing up. My lawyer looked into the whole signing up drunk thing and perhaps he might have been able to make a case out of that, but in the end the rage that came because of being enlisted in the game against my will didn’t weigh up against the public opinion. And the public despised me for using that rage to take away one of the most beloved public figures on TV after Stender. I shot him in the heart, throat and chest; three point-blank hits. He died even before the fourth bullet could hit him. The other two were misses, but that didn’t matter anymore.

I’d collapsed very nearly with Berntsson – the poison in my system was wreaking havoc on me by that time. According to calculations I only had ten minutes to live by that point. The Corporation reacted adequately: I was arrested while I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and given the antidote. When I woke up with a head that felt like it had been used as someone’s punching bag and a body that was bruised all over, there was a vaguely familiar looking man sitting next to my bed.

He had russet hair that he’d combed back, and he was wearing an expensive suit – expensive enough that it could feed a small hungering nation, I’d say. He was wearing a headset for his communicator, but he currently wasn’t talking into it. It was like he just left it on for when he might be called any moment. Just a general businessman. The guy you’d see walking around in management departments, or being an accountant or the like. There was something about him that I couldn’t place. I /knew/ I was supposed to know him, but with my pounding head I couldn’t really think straight. The morning light that was streaming through the half-closed blinds was like daggers stabbing into my already so battered brain.

“Who are you?” I asked, trying to process everything that had happened to me the night before.

“You don’t know who I am,” he seemed to conclude on that. He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair. There was a lapscreen on the table next to him and some empty coffee cups. It looked like he’d been with me for a while already. He sighed a bit and then said: “My name is Young.”

That was enough to let alarm bells in my head go off. Young, the heir of Stender, the new CEO of the Corporation. While Stender still held the majorities of stocks in the Corporation, he had given over the management to his most trusted employee, to his right hand. Young has been COO before that; in charge of operations and Head of the Broadcasting department. He’d done so almost eerily well – managing the operations part of the Leagues to the tiniest detail. Under his supervision the Games had crystallized into the League that we know and love today. He introduced the cloaked drones with the camera’s, he did away with boot camp, he did all kinds of stuff.

Young. THE Young. He had also stuff to do with my own ordeal in the Survival Game.

“Why are you here?”

He shrugged. “I wanted to discuss a few matters with you, just so you know where you stand.” When I didn’t respond he continued: “You’re completely fucked, Summers. Even though I couldn’t stand Berntsson, the Corporation will not let you kill one of its most sought after announcers on live international television. Bad press, you know.”

I felt the blood drain from my face. He delivered it all in such a casual manner – yet there was a bite between those words. An icy sarcasm that could kill. “Why did you give me the antidote, then?”

“Because the viewers need you to be punished,” he responded just as eerily casually. “And that’s rather hard when you’re pushing up daisies.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

He shrugged again, looking thoughtfully out of the window. “It’s as much a joke of your bullets being pumped into Berntsson’s body.” He then focused his greyblue gaze back on me again and grinned a shit-eating grin that would give me nightmares for the next two weeks. “Just see it like this, Summers – fuck over the Corporation, and we’ll fuck you right back. Whatever you do now, you’ll end up thoroughly screwed.”

“I kind of figured that,” I answered. I felt defeated, deflated. In hindsight that was probably the moment that I realized what was going to happen. It was also the moment I decided that if I was to go out, I’d go out with style. No, I didn’t regret killing Jorn Berntsson. I still don’t. That guy was a motherfucker, and I didn’t regret that his life was ended so violently. I also found a perverse sort of pleasure in the fact that I was the one that ended his life – me, who he had been taunting during the whole game. He’d been messing with my mind, torturing me throughout the whole ordeal. He’d also been an ass also to other participants in the Fortress and the League throughout the years. The glee in his voice had repulsed me so much – why had he wanted me so much to suffer? What had I ever done to deserve this? – those were the thoughts in my head when I made my way so frantically and desperately to the studio’s.

Damn you Berntsson, I thought vehemently, staring at the open blue sky over the recreation area of the prison. /I hope you’re burning in Hell right now. And when I come to join you, I’ll be sure that your level of discomfort will be even higher./

They were surprisingly nice to me in prison on my last days. One of the inmates came to sit next to me on one of the benches as I mindlessly watched some girls playing basketball a little more violently than the game had ever been intended. It was a mousy girl that I’d never seen before, I didn’t think she had been there for more than a week or two. “You’re Dani Summers, right?” she asked.

I nodded, waiting for the inevitable declarations of eternal hatred. I’d gotten enough of /those/ in the past few months that I sat around here in prison. Between gruelling exercising and gun practice that my sponsor wanted me to do and the relationship with the rest of the inmates, I’d had an interestingly miserable time in here. “Yeah. What of it?”

She shrugged, staring at her shoes. Her averagely dark hair had a metallic blue hue in the sunlight – quite pretty actually. I wondered idly where she’d gotten that hair dye and if I could do my hair like that before the Game. When she looked up at me, she smiled a bit. Apart from the acne on her face, she actually had a nice smile. “I just wanted to say that I would have done the same.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“In the Survival Game,” the girl said. “I was watching you on the live feeds at work. I was shouting at the screen for you to pull the trigger. And I wasn’t the only one. I just wanted you to know.”

The world was blurry all of a sudden. I blinked tears back and smiled at the girl. “That is the sweetest thing I’ve heard in a long, long time. Thank you.” It warmed my heart so much that I felt like it had swollen with those feelings until it was twice its size. “What’s your name?”

“Tara,” she said. “Tara Andrews.”

I’d heard about her. She was here for an armed bank robbery. It’d been a bloodbath, according to the news. I idly thought that perhaps it might mean bad things that a homicidal bankrobber would have done the same as I did, but right now I was too touched by her support to care. “Cheers then, Tara.”

When I went back to my cell for my last night here in the Prison facility, I felt like a weight had fallen off my shoulders. Morbidly enough the wardens were treating my last night here as a last supper. Apparently they allow you time with a priest and give you whatever foods you’d want as a last meal right before your execution – I never knew – so they decided that was what they’d do for me as well. Since I was as good as dead and all.

I declined the priest and happily gorged on two buckets of cookie dough ice cream. Those little things in life I’d gotten very grateful for in the last few months. Tara’s comment, ice cream, the fact that I had a private cell instead of a shared one, the way my muscles didn’t hurt anymore after a gruelling exercise session, the now familiar feeling of the flak cannon in my hands, dreams in which Young died a painful death, the tattoo I sported on the low of my back now, saying ‘Flak Monkey’… there were lots of things.

When you lose your life, your family and friends, your job, and everything that used to be /you/, you tend to get appreciative of the smaller things in life. I didn’t sleep all that much that night; I was so wired up on adrenaline that I wanted to go forth and /do/ stuff. The forced idleness didn’t help me much. You’re supposed to contemplate life, the universe and everything in such a night, but I didn’t do much of that. I just went over the stats of the other competitors in the Game and wondered how badly /they/ would want to kill me. It was all the rage these days to want to kill me; and these people actually thought they’d stand a chance in the Arena. Some of them had fought their way through the prelims and the Fortress to get here – they’d have actual battle experience. I’d been in training simulations and I’d had the Survival Game, but that wasn’t the same as the real thing. Well, at least I knew how to stay alive – that was something.

And that was something I was planning on. Staying alive felt like a great plan to me.

The morning came way too soon. I allowed graciously that they drugged me up – standard procedure, they said. I understood the reasoning. If I was too busy seeing pretty colours, I wouldn’t try to escape. They gave it to me in my drink when I politely asked them not to inject me. Another little thing in life to be grateful for. Ever since that whole Survival Game experience I was terrified of being injected with anything. Sometimes I’d wake from nightmares scratching at my wrists, wanting to open my veins because I felt as if there was still some leftover poison in there.

Soon enough I found myself getting terribly distracted by everything. I felt stoned, like I’d been smoking too much grass. My mind was aimlessly wandering from one thought to another, straying. I’d spend forgotten minutes staring at a stray of sunlight falling into my cell, or being extremely fascinated by the creases of the sheet on my bed. I even wept a few tears at leaving my cell, which had become home to me in the past months.

Eventually they came to get me. The way to the pod is a big blur to me now, like a dream half-forgotten. I remember inmates staring at me, some shouting at me to die tomorrow. I smiled back at them in my drugged up state and told them I loved them too, I think…? Soon enough there were impressions of the inside of the pod, taking me to the Compound of Cidade. We’d be in a high security facility, together with the rest of the competitors. The audience would get acquainted to us all as camera’s would register our every move, every action. There’d been footage of showering contestants, even. They wouldn’t go into details on live broadcasts – sex or sleeping or showering would be glanced over, quick images for the audience to give them the impression of peeking, but they wouldn’t go into detail. Still, it should have disturbed me more that they were watching all of my moves. By this point I was far beyond caring though. Who cared what they thought of me when they saw me drool all over my pillow in my sleep? They hated my guts already anyway.

I mostly dozed through the forty-five minutes that the pod ride lasted, ignoring the two enforcers that were sharing the small space. They were looking bored, in the times that I was awake enough to actually register their presence. One of them was toying with his lapscreen, probably chatting with some of his friends, and the other one was lazily watching me with his feet hanging over the side of the chair. I was harmless enough right now, and I didn’t mind them much. These guys were just doing their job, why should I be a threat to them? Maybe they felt that about me, or maybe they trusted on the effects of the drugs on my system.

Surely enough I couldn’t have kept my thoughts together long enough to attempt a coup on them and escape, so maybe they were justified in their bored laziness.

Eventually we arrived. They took me through hallways, into elevators, and finally installed me in a four room apartment that looked to me like a sea of space and luxury after the cell that I’d been locked up in for the past few months. There were gilded household items everywhere, expensive art hanging on the walls, a small sauna room, and I’m sure there would be a jacuzzi in the oversized bathroom.

“If there’s anything, just call and we’ll get it for you. Dinner’s at 6pm local time, that’s in six hours,” one of the enforcers said to me. “Don’t try to leave, this place is locked. Don’t try to jump from the balcony, either. It’s a /very/ high drop.”

“Not planning to,” I slurred, smiling at him. “Can I sleep now?”

“By all means.”

I flopped down on the queen-sized bed, found to my delight that it was a waterbed, and promptly fell asleep.

***

CHAPTER TWO: FOR REASONS UNKNOWN

“Aw just look at her, she’s drooling in her sleep. She doesn’t look like a homicidal bitch right now!”

“All Death Matchers are cute when they sleep. Even you. Don’t let it fool you.”

“I’m not a death matcher anymore, thank you very much.”

“You still could be if you wanted to. Say the word and I’ll put you in there again. The Southern League is your ballpark.”

“No thanks, I’m fine with just presenting the Games now. I’d like those pretty cybernetic implants to last a little longer. The good doctor worked hard enough on me as it is.”

“I’m sure you could’ve had any of these newbies for breakfast, Ruiz.”

“Maybe. I think for now I’m just fine with narrating their death instead of causing it.”

Soon enough it was dinnertime. I took my time to shower extendedly (and oh, the luxury of having my /own/ shower instead of having to be on the lookout for my unfriendly fellow inmates!) and took some time to make myself pretty. If I was going to be on international television again, I might as well look halfway dressed up for once.

It was still just jeans and a top, but I took the time to actually get my rather ragged-looking blond hair in some decent curls and put some makeup on my face. I looked good, I decided when I checked myself in the mirror. Like the healthy young woman that had gone to the pub a few months prior – but just more toned. I’d lost weight in some places and gained it in others. My arms looked as if they could hold a flak cannon now, at least.

Not that it was going to matter much. Even though I was muchly planning to kick ass and take names in the Arena, I didn’t really think I would be getting out alive. I smirked at my reflection in the mirror. So much for looking good.

The enforcers knocked on the door as a sign that it was time for dinner. I opened the door and smiled at the two poor schmucks that had gotten the assignment to guard my ass against doing stupid things. Like I was planning my escape right now. My chances were much better once they’d actually let us loose in the Arena. Not that I had any idea on how to do /that/ – so I’d be just participating for now. “Time to meet the other participants?” I asked them with a slight smile, and they nodded.

It turned out that my quarters weren’t all that far from the dinner area. Of course, with the way these elevators were constructed we might as well have been on the other side of the Compound. Once inside the fast elevator you never really were able to judge distance or time. Within half a minute we were arriving at our destination. They let me into the dinner area, a large room with a monstrosity of a chandelier was hanging from the ceiling. The light it emitted was being sent all through the room because it was reflected on its myriad crystals. The windows were high and sprawling, but there were bars before it to prevent anyone from getting out; I’d never seen that on the broadcasts before. And at the large table which was set elaborately with gleaming silverware and crystal wine glasses for eight people, I found that I was among the earlier arrivals.

There were two guys present already. One looked to be a little older than me, the other a bit younger, but still in his twenties. I grinned a greeting at them as the enforcers undid my cuffs and told me that the killing could only start tomorrow, in the Arena. Killing another contestant before the Games begun were punishable with death, no questions asked. I knew about that already of course, having been an avid Game fan since childhood, just like everyone else in the world.

The two young men looked pretty different from where I was standing. They’d been conversing quietly earlier. One of them was slight of build and small. He was olive-skinned and had a quick, charming grin that he obviously used a lot. Raoul Martin. He was a convict like me, sentenced for large scale weapon smuggling to what used to be the Eastern Alliance. He was also an accomplished embezzler, using his superior hacker skills to dupe banks and financial institutions. When they’d finally caught him he’d been as rich as many a rock star or politician. I’d read up on him when he had chosen to participate in the Death Match rather than be sentenced to death. In a way, he was like me, I guessed.

Next to him sat a young man that I remembered. The world knew his face; he’d been broadcasted into every livingroom in the world when his wife died in the World League Death Match of 2306. Walter Lane. Dark brown hair, startling blue eyes, stocky build. He looked like he’d been working out since the last time we saw his face. I wondered what his reasons were for participation – his wife Lannie had died a pretty spectacular death under the guns of Valentina Marin. Why would he sign up? Did he want to join her? And wasn’t he handicapped or something?

Once the enforcers let me go I sat down next to them, uncaring of whatever cloaked camera pod might be watching us. I knew that people would be watching this, but I decided a long time ago not to let that bother me. “Hi,” I told the two young men on the other side of the table. “I’m Dani Summers,” I said, just to introduce myself formally.

“Raoul Martin,” said the dark-eyed young embezzler. God, he looked like a fucking whiz kid. How was he going to hold his own in the Arena? He didn’t look very well-trained at all… just very intelligent and charming. Could he even /wield/ that flak cannon that he had selected to use in the Arena? At first I thought I’d be screwed when I heard there’d be another flak monkey entering the Arena, but now I thought I might even stand a chance. And I immediately hated myself for thinking such things, when I liked this guy on first sight. “Nice to meet you,” he added, and it sounded sincere.

I grinned. “I don’t hear that a lot,” I said to him, and then moved on to introduce myself to Lannie Williams’ bereaved husband. “Hi, I’m Dani Summers,” I said, and then I met his eyes squarely.

What I saw there was… understanding. Anger. There was grief too – he definitely had the eyes of someone who had seen too much, but that seemed to be on the background. More importantly, he looked like someone who has had everything that meant anything taken from him, and who is fucking /angry/. It was like looking in a mirror. I felt an instant connection before he’d even properly introduced himself.

“Hi,” he said, gripping my hand and giving it a slight shake. “Walter Lane.”

And all I could say was: “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I don’t think he expected that. His hand froze around mine for a moment, and for one heartbeat there was a world of hurt in his skyblue eyes. “Thank you,” he said softly, squeezing my hand shortly.

“Did you think of Summers as a fucking flirt? She’s ALL over these guys.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. She needs all the help she’s going to get. It’s a typical female strategy, chatting up the big male competitors in the hopes they protect you. /You/ of all people should know all about that, Ruiz.”

“Watch it, punk. One more and I’ll show you that a cybernetically enhanced body is still completely able to pound your skinny ass into a pulp.”

Before the other contestants even arrived there was a kinship here. Raoul inquired friendly whether they’d given me a ‘last meal’ in prison as well, and then cheerily told us that he’d asked for caviar and the most expensive whiskey they could find. “I felt like a king in that cell. The whiskey was awesome. I have a bit of a hangover now, though… should be gone in the morning. I wanted to get drunk one last time before going to hell.”

“Why did you choose for participation anyway?” Walter asked. “You could have died an easy death and be done with it.”

Raoul shrugged and grinned that infective grin again. “What can I say? I just don’t want to die yet.”

I laughed. “I can relate to that.”

At that time the other contestants began to arrive. First up was the only other female that was going to participate in this edition of the Southern League: Mégane de la Croix. She was one of the voluntary participants – and oh, the world had never seen a more voluntary contestant before. Hell, this girl was a complete League fangirl. She had fought her way through the prelims and the Fortress with lots of gusto and enthusiasm. When Stender had said that the world needed to breed new champions, Mégane had taken it upon herself to make it so. In addition to training and fighting, she also looked like she’d spent a complete fortune on plastic surgery (those breasts couldn’t be real, impossible) and as if she spent the rest of the time in a fitness studio. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on her whole body. I suppose that with that body and those boobs and her undoubtedly half-fake dark tresses she looked like every fanboy’s dream. For me she just looked kind of pathetic, as she took in the splendidly sparkling dining hall with tears of happiness in her dark eyes. “I can’t believe I’m actually here!” she squealed.

“Yeah, neither can we,” Raoul remarked snidely, but the grin on his face took the edge off it. “Welcome anyway.”

It was obvious that Mégane didn’t know what to make of it. She sat down next to me, thinking she might have an ally in me perhaps.

By the time she was seated though, the doors opened again and the enforcers escorted in a tall, broad, Scandinavian-looking man. “Those shoulders!” I peeped out when I noticed how /broad/ they were, and Mégane laughed. The man pretty much dwarfed out the three enforcers that were bringing him in. Pretty scary. With that chiselled face he sure had the intimidation factor down pat. He nodded at us and quietly sat down at the table, staring at the sparkles of the chandelier and avoiding our looks. Was he a construct, maybe? But no, from what I knew of him, he was just this guy.

His name was Kahn Johansson, and he used to be a bodyguard to one of the most fucked up sects that the world had known in present years. The Cult of the Dying World they’d called themselves, until they all ritually killed themselves. Kahn and the cult leader were the only ones to live, basically.

He didn’t talk to us now, perhaps he had nothing to say. However, I’d seen Kahn on television. I knew that he had the most annoying accent when he talked – the way they talked around Nokia, with the traces of Scandinavia still on their tongue. I was fine with him not talking, I realized. I didn’t think he had anything to say that I’d want to hear. Much like Mégane really, who was whispering to me that he was a devil with his modified mini gun, and that we’d have to be smart if we wanted to take him out.

By then the fifth contestant entered the room. Salvador Diaz Latias was his name – I sure knew about him. Didn’t everybody? He’d caused a bloodbath of the Cidade Fortress a few months ago, it had been all over the vids. It had been thrilling to see that happen. Him lying on that rooftop, taking out all those unsuspecting participants one by one. They never saw him coming. Of the twenty people that entered the Fortress that day, he’d been responsible for the death of seven of them. They were comparing him to the likes of Kyle Jairam and Logan Falk already.

He’d be one to watch out for. I grafted his face into my memory as he walked over to us and politely shook all of our hands, even Johansson’s. “Nice to meet you all,” he said, and sat down next to Mégane. She immediately took that as a hint and started to prattle his head off. I was silently grateful for it, thankful that she’d found a new victim.

“Glad that she’s left you alone now?” Walter said softly in my ear. His breath tickled my neck, and I laughed. “You have no idea,” I murmured back. “I’m kind of surprised she wants to make friends with me; after all I killed a presenter of her favourite game.”

Raoul winked. “Maybe she was more of a Stender fangirl.”

The hissing of doors opening announced the next contestant. He was a middle-eastern looking man. Ah yes, Omar Aykut. From Constantinople. He was one of the voluntary ones, I knew. Raoul knew the rest of the story. “Apparently he’s so neck deep in money problems with some mob that they’d killed off half of his family. He’d signed up as an act of desperation – he needs the money or his wife will die next.”

“What a sad story,” I murmured.

“I can relate,” Walter said quietly. “Lannie and me, we signed up because of money problems, too.”

Raoul grinned. “But for you guys it was gambling, right? This guy was a swindler and a fraud that made some bad calls, if that makes you feel better.”

Walter grinned back. “Not really, but thanks anyway.”

“What /are/ your reasons for signing up, Lane?” Raoul asked the question that was on all of our minds.

He shrugged. “I’m sure you got the whole story on the news already; Lannie and I were gambling addicts, and to pay off the bills we entered the League. My knee got shot to shit in the Fortress, so Lannie entered the Rookie League to pay our bills. And then she started winning. The day after she won the Euroleague we paid off most of our debt – finally we were free, finally the money problems were over. But there was no money to fix my leg. By that time I’d mostly gotten over the fact that I couldn’t participate in the Game or walk around painlessly for that matter, but it was eating away at Lannie. And so she went to the betting station and she bet everything that we had in the hopes that the money would quadruple and I could get the surgery that I needed.” He sighed. “Well, you know the story. She lost. We had lost everything, and then Young came to visit us, and he made Lannie an offer she couldn’t refuse. If she’d only enter the World League Championship, she’d get enough money to pay off our debts, fix my leg, and enough to live like royalty for the rest of our lives. She felt so guilty after losing all of that money that she signed up immediately.”

“She knew that there was a chance of dying, right?” I asked.

“Of course she knew. She was just optimistic… and she felt like she owed it to me. I begged her not to do it, not to risk her life… but she always had a way to turn the tables on me. I’d been in the Fortress, where they shot to kill. Why couldn’t /she/ risk her life? It didn’t matter to her that she’d be risking her life in a match with the greatest champions that the world has ever known. She was damn good, she got far, but in the end nobody’s been able to stand up against Valentina Marin yet. Lannie was outmatched, outwitted and outgunned.”

I remembered that clearly, sitting in that pub that had gone completely silent. During Valentina’s chase conversations had dwindled and died eventually. Everybody had been watching the screens intently with a growing sense of dread. Valentina and Lannie had both been fan favourites, and nobody wanted them to die. In the end there could only be one winner, though. I remembered blinking away a few unbidden tears as Lannie died with her husband’s name on her lips, and Valentina respectfully closed the dead girl’s eyes.

“She put up a good fight though,” Raoul said. “I loved the way with how she dealt with that Christelle chick. Oh, and Halver!”

Walter smiled at that. It lit up his whole face. “Yeah, that’s Lannie alright. Full of spunk.”

“But why are you entering the Game then, Walter?” I asked.

“She gave her life so I could have that surgery. When she died, I had a long hard debate with myself not to just kill myself. The guilt was crushing me. But then I remembered what she’d said on the issue to me. She wanted me to have that surgery, no matter what happened. And so I did.” He smirked. “And you know… I just wanted to fight this battle for her, too. We deserve a League win after everything we’ve been through.”

“I’m sure as hell am not going to argue with that logic,” Raoul said, but he was shaking his head. I could only agree with him; Walter’s reasons seemed somewhat strange. It didn’t match with the anger I saw boiling under the surface of his eyes. He looked like someone who didn’t care anymore whether he lived or died, there was just anger. There was just this jolt of kinship every time I looked into his eyes, it was unsettling.

We’d nearly missed the entrance of the last contestant. This one was pegged as the possible Champion by the media. Petyr Jovanovic, affectionately dubbed Jova, from the Black City in former Russia. Jova was an older man with a close-cropped greying hair. He was of average height but very muscled. His light green eyes seemed to burn with an anger that was even fiercer than mine. He looked like someone you didn’t want to mess with. I made a mental note to avoid him in the Arena and let somebody else kill this guy.

From what the media had told me, this man had simply snapped one day. He’d been officer in some secret government organisation in ex-Russia for years and years, until he got kicked out for bad behaviour after a serious fuckup where he went on a killing spree and ended up spraying the walls with the blood of some important ambassadors. Nobody had expected him to choose the deathmatch at his trial, but when I thought about it, it made a wicked kind of sense. This guy was a complete homicidal maniac. Of course he wanted to kill people if he was going to go out anyway.

“Good evening everybody,” he said, before he sat down abruptly. He didn’t make the round like others had done, but at least he’d told us hi, in contrary to Johansson. I was sure that psychologists and assessors had a field day with what was happening here: Raoul, Walter and me clumping together, Mégane who was all over Diaz, Aykut who was obviously uncomfortable with his situation, and the silent menacing twosome that was Johansson and Jovanovich. The stage seemed pretty much set.

Of course, that was the moment that the Corporation men entered. Young, looking smug and completely composed in yet another bloody expensive suit, and he was flanked by… “Ruiz?” I blurted out incredulously. I’d seen him die – everybody had seen Ruiz Trafalgar de Costa die on live television in the last World League. He’d been impaled by Chang Kun Wei. I could still see the katana sticking out of his chest, pinning him to the ground. Wei’d pretty much had to /wrench/ his blade out of Ruiz’ ribcage. And the announcers had called his death. He’d flatlined. Everybody had seen that.

Ruiz’ face split into a wide grin. “Good evening people! Nice to see you all assembled. I see some surprised faces here… I know, I know. Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

“We all saw you die, didn’t we?” Mégane asked. She was smiling though, obviously happy to see him. “You died.”

Ruiz shrugged. “I was clinically dead for a few minutes there, apparently. Long enough to lose the Game. But you know, can’t keep a cool guy like me down.” His dark eyes found Walter next to me, and he grinned at him. “Sup Lane, good to see you again.”

Walter nodded. “Likewise. I’m a bit surprised though to see you here.”

Young smiled slimily. “I had a good offer for Ruiz to put his talents to good use. He’s not just a great fighter, he also has the attitude of a great announcer.” His eyes went over the assembled contestants and then rested on me, adding icily: “And we needed one, after the untimely demise of poor Jorn Berntsson.”

My blood boiled, but I settled for a good glare and an icily: “Somehow I can’t bring myself to care.”

Young just laughed at that and wished us a good dinner. At his sign, waiters arrived with our food. The food was excellent. I found that I was pretty hungry by that point and gorged on some of the best food I’d ever eaten. There was caviar and deer and liver and all kinds of delicious stuff, but I found myself gorging on the stuffed turkey.

The meal was pleasant enough apart from the great food. After the first course everyone seemed to relax a little bit and conversations were popping up. Between bites of that godsmackingly glorious turkey I asked Walter: “So how do you know Ruiz?”

He grinned. “I met him in the clinic where I was recovering from my surgery. He got pretty messed up in the League match, don’t let anyone tell you different. They had to replace nearly half of his body with implants and artifical bodyparts. His recovery time was extended – he was there before I came in for surgery, and he was still there when I left after revalidation.”

“I gave you booze and called you an emo boy,” Ruiz suddenly said, standing behind us. He must have overheard us talking about him. He was grinning.

“Which was a bit uncalled for, I think,” Walter said, grinning back. “I was just sitting and watching the sunset over the ocean. The booze-giving was nice, though.”

“You were moping.”

“I was not! Okay, maybe I was. But I had reason to!”

“Heartbreak is the best moping reason in the world, emo boy,” Ruiz said. “It is not a good reason to get you killed, though.”

“I know. We talked about this before, I’m not going to change my mind.”

“Such a stubborn emo boy.” Ruiz then looked at me. “Hello, Dani. So tell me hun, are you plotting my death as well or was it just Berntsson?”

From any other person I might have gotten pissed off. Similar remarks from Young had inspired many a bloodthirsty daydream, but when Ruiz said it I took it for the banter it was. He seemed to be the kind of guy that could say anything, do anything, and get away with it. Despite his rugged looks and the fact that he wasn’t the most attractive person in the world, this guy /had/ something over him. Meeting up face-to-face, I suddenly understood why Ruiz’ always had such an extended female fanbase. So I laughed. “Not yet. Are you going to be an ass to me?”

“Only if you want me to be, babe,” he said, laughing. I wondered if anyone else would have dared to flirt with me in this careless manner. I had killed his colleague, I was on record saying that I didn’t regret it… and he was flirting with me. Then again, Ruiz had flirted with death itself for most of his adult life. Maybe he wasn’t just very easily scared. Especially not when the object of fear happened to be a wiry blond chick.

By that time it was time for dessert. I treated myself to a second helping of strawberries and icecream, because I didn’t think that I might be eating strawberries anytime soon. Funny how I didn’t expect to die, and yet I didn’t expect to live, either. The strawberries were delicious though. I was just finishing up my last one when Young ticked a spoon to his crystal wine goblet and said: “Okay ladies and gentlemen participants, I’d like your attention for a moment.” Suspended in mid-air above us a holo whizzed into view. It held a map of one of the better-known Arena’s in Cidade’s neighbourhoods.

“This is the Cidade arena, as I’m sure you all know,” Ruiz said, picking up from the Corporation CEO flawlessly, as if they’d rehearsed this. “This is the Arena you will fight in tomorrow morning. I’m sure you all know the rules. You’re all dropped off in different locations in the Arena, in completely random intervals. We have your listed weapons in our database. If you want another weapon, now is the time to go and announce your change of heart.”

Nobody spoke up, so he continued: “As per Corporation regulations, if you are a voluntary participant you have until 4am to forfeit your participation. After 4 am you will have signed up for the League and there’s no getting out of that one – that’s when your contract starts. Convicts, for you counts pretty much the same; you can still go for your death penalty until 4 am. After 4, you will go for the League. Which I advise you to do, because it’s a better chance on living. Capice?”

Everybody nodded, some more enthusiastically than others. “Alright then. You are free to move through the restricted part of the facilities. Go to the gym, get some sleep, fraternize, rent a hooker, I don’t care. Just make sure you’re ready and fresh to kick some competitor butt by 7, because that’s when the transport leaves. Are there any questions?”

When they weren’t, he grinned. “Well then. Good luck, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you enjoyed your meal, and I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

***

CHAPTER THREE: START SOMETHING

“You just /had/ to meet her, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. She doesn’t seem all that crazy if you just talk to her.”

“I think she has plenty of crazy to go around. I want the enforcers to watch her closely, I don’t trust it.”

“What, you think she’s going to attempt something?”

“Call it gut feeling and a hell of a lot of experience with League participants.”

“And the psych assessment she was subjected to, I suppose.”

“That too.”

“So,” Raoul said after Ruiz’ announcement. We were all getting up from our positions at the dining table. “Is there any place where we can get a drink around here?”

“I thought you wanted to get rid of your headache?” I asked mildly.

He chuckled. “I debated that with myself, but you know, I’ll be all doped up on stims and painkillers once I enter the Arena anyway. And I would kick myself forever in hell if I would die without having tasted a good lager one last time. Are you up for a pint?”

“Sure,” Walter and I chorused. We looked at one another and laughed, startled. For one moment I felt completely at peace with the world and everything it. I’d suffered spite for so long now that I’d forgotten the joy that I had in companionship. For once I was spending some time with people who didn’t hate my guts from the moment they found out who I was. It was liberating. It was also a little intoxicating.

Walter checked with Ruiz where we could get a drink. It turned out that this facility did have something resembling a pub. It was more of the equivalent of a bar or a hotel lobby, we found out. There were people, though. Quite a few of them were Corporation employees, but apart from a passing glance they didn’t pay us much attention. We sat down at a table near the exit and Raoul took the liberty of ordering a round of Heineken for us.

“So, our last night here on this plane,” Raoul said cheerfully, as he plunked three pints on the table.

“Aren’t you the optimistic one,” I said. I took a healthy chug from my glass. The beer was cold and had exactly the right amount of foam. It was exactly what I needed.

“Well, if I speak in generalities, then it is. There can only be one winner.”

“According to the rules, yeah,” Walter said darkly, and that was the moment I knew it for sure. He was in it for revenge, not for the glory of his dead wife. He did this for her, but not in the way he had told the management of the Corporation. He was in the League because he wanted to sabotage and kick the system as much as I did. He wanted to /do/ something, something to bring it all down upon them. He wanted to start something.

I nodded at him, letting him know that I understood. I didn’t know where the cloaked camera drones were. Hidden camera’s were following our every move or word. We couldn’t say it out loud, but we had to talk in riddles, we understood that, all of us.

Raoul prattled on, lighting a cigarette. I was wondering if he was doing this to cover up the unspoken communication, or whether he was really enthusiastic about his idea. “We could stick together during the Game – see how long we can hold out by working together.”

“Alliances are uneasy things during the Game,” I said, pretending to ponder his suggestion. “They fall apart all the time. How can we know whether we can trust one another? No offence boys, you seem like nice guys and I’d have a beer with you anytime, but there’s going to be guns involved. ”

Raoul shrugged. “All I’m saying is that we could guard each other’s backs until there’s just the three of us left. At the very least it’ll help us with surviving in the field a little bit longer. I think that Walter is the only one with actual Arena experience.”

“The Fortress, actually,” said Walter after swallowing another gulp of beer. “But the essence is the same.”

“I remember you being pretty awesome with a shock rifle,” Raoul continued. “I wouldn’t mind that rifle covering my ass, and I’d promise to guard yours.”

I crossed my arms, playing devil’s advocate. “And how could he or I trust you not to shoot us in the back?”

“You guys are better shots than I am, I’m sure of it. Why would I want to kill the guys who can keep me alive?”

A short silence fell between us. The world around us kept moving and changing – people were finishing their beers, the airco sucked up the smoke from Raoul’s cigarette, stories were exchanged over drinks. There was only a few handfuls of people in the bar area, and none of them was paying any attention to us. They were used to participants walking among them – apparently even when one of said participants was famous for killing one of their colleagues. Perhaps they just trusted the enforcers in the room and the camera’s following us. In the end, it didn’t even matter why.

“Fair enough,” Walter said. He looked first at Raoul, then at me. “Let’s make the promise, then.”

“Fine,” I agreed. “I won’t kill you until we are the last three left.”

“I won’t kill you until we are the last three left,” Raoul said.

“Ditto,” said Walter. His blue eyes lingered on me for a moment, and it was like we were telepaths or something. We just understood one another, we reached the same conclusions. Raoul wanted to live, he was probably using the two of us. For now though we didn’t care. Every bullet that wouldn’t be coming at us was one that wouldn’t kill us. I wasn’t quite sure whether to even trust him not to kill us anyway, but the point he made was a pretty compelling one. If we were his best shot at living as long as possible, of course he’d join up with us and keep us alive.

Walter and I, however… there was more going on between us. There was this tension between us, something electric in the air when our eyes met. It wasn’t quite sexual or loving – it was obvious that part of him had died with Lannie. Also, I wasn’t sure if he really was my type anyway. He wasn’t very sexy, just above average looking, with startling blue eyes. But there was something, this unspoken communication.

It was as if his heart was shouting out its rage in sequence with my own. /What the hell did I do to deserve all of this?/

“They’re not even acknowledging us,” Raoul noted, waking me from my musing.

“Who?”

“The other bargoers around this place. See?” He gestured in the general direction of the rest of the bar. “They just seem to ignore us, as if we’re not here.”

Walter smirked. “Soon enough we won’t be.”

“Isn’t that a little morbid? Do they really work that way?”

“Sure they do. We’re already given up on by society, Dani,” Walter said. There was a tinge of passion to his voice, a touch of anger. “We’re the forsaken. We are the ones that are left behind by society, left to die on international television. Some by choice, some because they fucked up and society wants them to bleed for it. But we’re forsaken nonetheless. No wonder they don’t acknowledge us. To them, we don’t exist.”

“That’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard,” Raoul said. He even looked a bit bummed.

“Did you ever experience that?”

“Not really; but then again I usually wanted to be left alone the night before a match. Concentration and all.”

“Except the times that you wanted to be with a girl.”

“Exactly. And somehow there always seemed to be one at hand exactly when I needed one. But anyway, what do you think of the alliance?”

“It was to be expected, I suppose.”

“You sound doubtful.”

“I don’t think this is all of it. Still, there’s no way of finding out unless we watch them closely. I’ll be on these cams for a while longer, will you check up on the other participants?”

“Mégane is fucking Diaz, Jova and Johansson are in the same gym and ignoring each other, and Aykut is sitting in his whirlpool. What else would you like me to do? Twiddle my thumbs?”

“You might as well. You have to be patient for good footage, Ruiz. It takes some time, but you’re always rewarded. In the meantime, you can wonder whether De La Croix’ moans are completely genuine or if she’s faking.”

“She probably isn’t. She’s a groupie; she gets off on the idea alone of having sex with a fellow participant.”

“You should know that.”

“You’re just jealous, punk.”

In the past hour, the both of them had been asking me all about the Survival Game. It was only fair, I supposed. We’d made Walter recount the death of his wife, even though we’d all watched it happen at the same time as he did – and now I was asked about the Survival Game, even though they had undoubtedly seen the footage.

“But what was the exact moment that you decided to kill him?” Raoul asked, taking a long drag from his cigarette.

“There wasn’t really a moment that I consciously decided. I just hated him so much, that when I had the gun and I knew that it would kill him, I just pulled the trigger. It just… happened, before I even knew it,” I answered, lost in the memory for a moment. The pod had landed, I’d taken the taser gun from the little girl whose pod I’d hijacked to get to the studio in time, and then the girl said: “I lied, it isn’t a taser.”

And I’d pulled the trigger. Just like that. “I think the moment Berntsson tried to bribe Lisa away from me was the moment that sealed it for me. That was what got me into that final state of utter rage.”

The girl Lisa had been riding a pod from school to home, and I’d hijacked her ride, waving (rather non-threateningly, I saw later on the vids) with a knife I’d found in some doctor’s bag that I’d snatched. I’d begged her to reprogram her pod to bring me to the studio, because I was dying. By then she’d figured out that I was the participant of the muchly anticipated and advertised Survival Game. I offered her half of my prize money if she’d bring me to the studio. I had a hard time convincing her, but she promised to help me eventually. By that time I was seeing swirling stars and I’d a hard time staying conscious. Having a conversation took a lot of concentration, I wasn’t sure that I was making sense anymore. I told her that she could be a hero.

The girl took pity on me, though. She gave me the stun gun that she carried around for protection, to help me out. “I guess it’d be rather neat to be a hero. Use it wisely. I want you to live.”

And then Berntsson, who had been following my every move, chimed in. He’d overridden the alarm system within the pod and his voice came from the speakers. I’d never forget the smug sound of his voice. “Lisa Che Man, I have it on authority of the Game that we will double whatever monetary offer Daniella just made you. All it would take is one shot with that stun gun, and all that money will be yours.”

So. Much. Hate.

“I never thought it was possible to hate that much,” I told the boys. They were listening intensely, hanging onto my every word. By that time we were getting rather inebriated.

Walter shrugged. “That’s the Corporation for you. You know what they did to me? They rang the doorbell and broke my legs, so I wouldn’t be able to get to the phone on time to call Lannie before 4 in the morning.”

I nearly choked in my drink. “What? Why?”

Raoul was equally incredulous.

“I think they were afraid that I was going to talk her out of it, and they weren’t even that far off the mark. I really wanted to… And they /didn’t/ want me to. They left me on the ground of my own hallway broken and bleeding and unconscious, and later on they sent some guys over with a portable regen station to fix me up again. When I came to, it was seven in the morning and Lannie was already on her way to the Arena.” He closed his eyes and cringed at the memory. “I never even got to say goodbye.”

I just had to cry at that point. Tears were spilling over my face as I laid my arm around his shoulder. “Oh my God,” was all I could say. I lay my head on his shoulder and let out a few sobs with him, sharing in his misery.

“I am so, so sorry,” Raoul said. “Now /this/ is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“And you know the worst part,” Walter said, stroking my hair for a moment and then sitting straight up again. His blue eyes hardened. “The guy that brought the enforcers to break my legs, that was Young.”

“Motherfucker,” I whispered. I balled my fists in my lap, digging my fingernails in the soft flesh of my hand palms. “The filthy mother/fucker/.”

“I think she’s deciding to kill you too now, Young.”

“She’s free to decide whatever the hell she wants. She has a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting close enough to me to even attempt it.”

We stayed for another while, chatting about several things – including Raoul’s unfortunate last heist that had gotten him in this situation. It was a smuggling case gone completely wrong. It hadn’t been his fault, though . Somebody else had fucked up, and suddenly there was police everywhere and there was a tear gas bomb going off and the next thing he knew was that there were handcuffs around him and that somebody backhanded him in the face.

“I told myself that it was just a matter of time before I got caught. With the amount of successful heists I’d pulled so far I felt like it should have gone wrong so long ago. Maybe I was tempting fate, even.” Raoul grinned. “At first I couldn’t believe I’d gotten this far and this rich on my own wits alone. But then it became a game. Deep down inside there was some part of me that wanted to see if I could get away with the most outrageous ideas – and horrifyingly enough I did. I got past the disbelief and I was just started to believe that yes, maybe I couldn’t go wrong. Maybe I was /really/ that good. And that’s when they descended upon me.”

“I heard that you were the one that supplied the Cult of the Dying World their nerve gas and that’s what got you the death sentence,” Walter suddenly said. “Is that true?”

My eyes widened at that. “Raoul! Really? Did you?”

“I could guess why they wanted to have it,” Raoul said sheepishly. “And yeah, I supplied it to them. At least those guys really wanted to die. They killed themselves with it, nobody else got hurt.”

“There were /children/ in that cult! Children!”

His face darkened. “I try not to think of that too often. Please, I’m going to die tomorrow. Can we please talk about something else?”

I was too shocked to think of anything else. I’d seen the news broadcasts of that mass suicide action. The youngest death was a three year old girl. Her face and little body had swollen up like rotting fruit. Her eyes had been bleeding – there’d been streaks of blood all over her face, in her hair. She’d been holding a teddy bear when they’d found her. “But… children…”

“It disgusted me too when I saw the outcome of my deeds. I didn’t sleep for months, I kept seeing those images. Shit, Dani, do you want to play a blame game now? It’s not like you’re completely innocent, either. Berntsson had a wife and kids too, you know!”

“I know, I know,” I sighed. A trophy wife with two adorable little twin toddlers with blue eyes and white curly hair. The children looked like their mother. Of course I knew he had a family. “Look, sorry. I’m just a bit drunk and emotional and I think I’m going to die a painful death tomorrow, so I’m getting a bit edgy,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “Perhaps it’s time I try and get some sleep.”

“Perhaps it’s better when we all do that.” Any cheer that had been in Raoul earlier this evening was surely gone now. “Let’s go.”

We didn’t have to pay any bill – all the drinks were courtesy of the Corporation. They paid us well to record our every move and broadcast our deaths, I thought sourly.

It was a silent troupe that left the bar. Raoul left with his enforcers the moment we walked out of the door.

Walter and I lingered.

I smiled wryly at him. “The funny thing is that although I know I need my sleep, I also know that I just don’t want to be alone tonight.”

His blue eyes were sad. “If you want to, I could come with you. You know, just so you won’t be alone.”

“Just that, though.” I knew he was grieving, I didn’t want to infringe on his dead wife’s territory. I just wanted somebody to hold me, basically. I didn’t want to be alone, not tonight. There were so many people out there lusting after my death at that moment. I didn’t want to start believing them in the dead of the night all on my lonesome.

“I know. Come on,” Walter said, and then his face suddenly lit up in a smile. “Your place or mine?”

I just had to laugh at that. “I don’t care about that.”

“Let’s go to your place, then.”

The hallways of the facility were quiet. The hour was fast approaching midnight and thus people were mostly elsewhere, preparing for the big game of tomorrow. Our enforcers trailed us at a distance far enough to give us some semblance of privacy, and close enough to jump into action if we would even start to think about doing anything stupid.

We hopped in the elevator to my quarters and left our enforcers behind. They’d be posting at the door most probably. We didn’t look at them but just walked inside. “What do you want to do?” Walter asked. He grinned again and said teasingly: “Do you want to go straight to bed?”

I grinned back at him. “We could probably use the sleep.”

A few minutes later we were in the waterbed, trying to keep still on the mattress so the other wouldn’t roll out of the wobbly bed. Walter was still wearing his t-shirt and his underwear, and so was I. There was nothing sexual about our being together, so close against one another. He just lay companionably next to me, breathing slowly.

I listened to the sound of his breathing slow down. It calmed me too, enough to make me drift away on the beginning of slumber. I had to ask him something, though. “Do you miss Lannie very much?” I whispered in the twilight of the darkened bedchamber.

He reached out and pulled me against him. “Always. Sometimes it hurts so much that I can’t breathe.”

I wrapped my arms tightly around him and hugged him. “You’re not alone tonight.”

“I know,” he said. I could hear his smile. “Thank you.”

And with that, we fell asleep.

***

CHAPTER FOUR: FIRST BLOOD

“And thus the morning finds all of our competitors sleeping. Some of them together, some of them alone.”

“And all of them but one will have slept their last night of sleep.”

I slept like a baby that night. There were no nightmares, no sudden awakenings, nothing. When my alarm rang at five thirty in the morning and the lights in the apartment went on all of a sudden, Walter and I were instantly awake. I yawned. “Good morning,” I said.

He grinned back at me. “Hopefully it will be,” he said. “I have to run to my quarters and get my gear and take a shower. I’ll see you in a while, alright?”

“Okay,” I agreed while he quickly shot on his jeans and raked a hand through his darkbrown hair. “See you in a bit.”

When the door closed behind him I instantly felt alone and abandoned. /Stupid girl,/ I told myself. I undressed and stepped into the shower to freshen myself. I washed myself vigorously and soaped up my hair. For one moment I thought to cut it off for the battle, but I eventually decided to tie it into a bun in my neck so it wouldn’t be in the way. I dressed simply; camo jeans, a black t-shirt and a camo-coloured bulletproof vest that was supposed to protect me somewhat from shrapnel and kicks in the ribs. The flak cannon alone was heavy enough to drag with me, and I didn’t want to tire too soon. Even though I’d been focusing on stamina and strength in the past few months and I was much stronger than I looked, a League was often a lengthy business, and I’d rather not let go of my flak cannon because I’d be tired, not even for a moment.

Eventually I was all geared up. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a determined young woman look back at me. I didn’t look as someone who was about to die, I realized. I looked like someone who was going to kick ass and take names. I wouldn’t die today, I resolved. I’d held out for so long, I’d survived murder attempts in prison… it wasn’t going to end here. I’d live to tell my story, and in the process I would kick the Corporation’s ass. Especially Young’s ass.

I grinned at the camera that was installed in the corner of the room. “Are you getting all this?” I asked the camera. “Because I’d like to tell you that I’ll survive this stint. I survive whatever you throw at me, just like I did before. Do your worst, you motherfuckers. I’ll survive. I promise.”

“Hey Young, was that a threat?”

“Pff, whatever. It’s not up to her whether she lives or dies.”

“It makes for some great footage though. The audience is going to love this.”

I was picked up and escorted to the transport not long after I finished my breakfast. Apparently I was the last to enter the vehicle; everyone else was already sitting in their respective seats. There was only a spot next to Jova open and I reluctantly sat down next to the dangerous-looking man. “Good morning everyone,” I said.

The other competitors either nodded or murmured at me. Walter and Raoul both gave me a smile. I smiled back from my uncomfortable position next to Jova, who’d only grunted at my morning greeting. Such a nice place to be… not.

The vehicle was not very large. It had the impression of the back of an old army truck, but then with the addition of a huge plasma screen on which we’d be watching the intro to the battle. We’d be watching the same information that was being fed to the viewers at home, with all the tricks in the book to make us more menacing and threatening and worthy of our League status.

Soon enough the vehicle took flight and once it was in the air, the plasma screen glowed to life. Ruiz’s face appeared and he was grinning at us. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen! Isn’t this exciting? This is the first League battle in two years and you get to be in it! The eyes of all the world are upon you this morning – you’re the ones risking your neck out there for glory. Of course you all met each other last night as humans, but I’d like to introduce you to each other and the audience as League competitors now.”

Ruiz was altogether way too exuberant for the early morning for me. Even though I’d had my stims and painkillers and caffeine shots, his tone of voice grated a little on me. I exchanged a glance with Walter, who shrugged slightly.

“Let me introduce you first to the lovely Mégane de la Croix.” Her face flashed on screen, smiling brilliantly down on us. The picture was obviously manipulated, because it was simply not possible to shine /that/ much. Her teeth were a little too white, her skin a little too perfect. “Twenty three years of age. Shock rifle specialist. Mégane herself says that she’s been training for this battle all her life, and it shows. She was a terror in the Fortress.” Footage flashed by of Mégane smiling, Mégane taking her Fortress trophy, Mégane swinging from a ceiling in the Fortress on one hand, kicking somebody in the head and then finishing him off with her shock rifle. The mess was considerable. Finally, her stats flashed on the screen. She looked like a good competitor. Her aim wasn’t flawless, but she showed determination and stamina by the bucketloads.

“Next up, Omar Aykut.” Omar’s face came into view. He wasn’t smiling as Mégane had been. Images of him fighting in the prelims and the Fortress. He was a decent shot, but mostly lucky. “Omar is here for the money, and he has good reason to want the dineiros. Well, good luck Omar, you’re going to need it.” His stats came into view – they weren’t stellar. Mine were better. “You’re fighting with dual guns though, like Valentina Marin. Perhaps that’s lucky. Be sure to live up to her victory, man.”

“I’m going to try,” Omar said, nodding at the screen. He looked determined enough at least, like a man on a mission.

“Alright then. Our first convict on this fine morning; Raoul Martin.” They were showing Raoul’s jail picture; him holding a screen with his name and prisoner number. “Smuggler and fraud extraordinaire, got himself famous as the supplier of nerve gas to the Cult of the Dying World and weapon smuggler to our friends in the Eastern Alliance. I guess we all need someone to hate,” Ruiz said cheerfully. “Anyway, he fights with the flak cannon. I hope for your sake that you’re any good with it, Martin. Your sponsor supplied us with the following statistics on your prowess.” They showed on the screen. They looked better than Omars, but weaker than mine. Much as I might think that Raoul was a decent chap, that was a heartening thought. At least I wasn’t the weakest competitor in the field.

“Our second convict,” Ruiz continued cheerfully while another face came into view, “is muscle man Kahn Johansson. One wonders if he’s the one that received the nerve gas that Raoul supplied the cult – because Kahn was the bodyguard of cult leader Eli Lynch. Arrested right after the mass suicide on suspicion of killing cultmembers that changed their mind about changing the temporary for the eternal, Kahn is about to do the same.” Ruiz laughed. “Or not. But I think you are, Johansson.”

Johansson shook his head but didn’t say anything. Surprisingly, Ruiz got his answer from Raoul. “We never met,” he said sulkily. “Don’t give the audience any wrong ideas.”

“In that case I stand corrected. It would have been cool, though. Everyone being connected and all? Speaking of which, I have another connection for you. The ones among you who thought that Walter Lane’s face looked a bit familiar, are completely right. Walter Lane is the husband of the late Lannie Williams.” And just to be cruel, they showed the footage of Valentina Marin jumping from that ledge with thundering guns, yelling: “Surprise!” and shooting a very surprised and already wounded Lannie who was on her way to a regeneration point. I looked at Walter, who had averted his eyes from the screen. Still, I couldn’t help looking back again, because now they were showing footage of a much younger Walter in the Fortress. “Walter was a decent participant in the Fortress himself, until on one fateful day he found himself wounded in a way that would cripple him forever. It was then that his partner Lannie picked up where he left off… quite successfully, as we all know. With the price money of his late wife, Walter has finally been able to get the surgery he needed to patch him up again. He’s also pretty fond of vodka/orange juice mix drinks, I’ve found in the past,” Ruiz grinned. “Oh, and here are Walter’s stats. He fights with a shock rifle, like his wife did.”

“Ugh,” Walter murmured. “I knew he was going to do this, I just didn’t think it’d hurt this much.”

“Chin up Walter,” Ruiz said, who’d obviously overheard him. “You’ve got the chance to win this match for Lannie today. Not many people are be given such a chance.”

“I paid enough bribe money to let me in without any prelims, I’d say,” Walter said cheerfully.

Ruiz frowned. He was obviously unhappy with that revelation on international live television. “That, and you’ve already been in the Fortress before. You got far enough to allow your entrance. We’re nice people here at the Corporation, you know.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that. It came out as a bit of a snort, which caused Ruiz to look at me in irritation. “Our next competitor and convict is Daniella Summers. Dani entered the League in hopes she’d survive a little longer, because that’s what she is, a survivor.” He sounded professional now, being nicer to me than I probably deserved. The screen showed me pulling the trigger of the gun in the gardens of the studio of the Corporation. They didn’t show the bullets hitting their announcer Berntsson, interestingly enough. “She fights with a flak cannon, and her sponsor has been kind enough to provide us with her stats.” My stats were the best shown so far apart from Walter’s, I noted with some degree of satisfaction. “You better put them to good use if you want to keep up your surviving streak, Dani,” he said with an edge of acid to his voice. “The Arena is a dangerous place for little girls like you.”

“I remember that they called Valentina Marin a little girl too, once upon a time,” I couldn’t help saying.

Ruiz laughed. “Oh, that’s cute. You’re fancying yourself Valentina now? Let me tell you girl, Val kept herself alive in the League for six years, and then she won the World League, taking out the biggest and baddest fighters in the world.”

“Including you.”

“Not quite. But hey, if by some miracle you do manage to stay alive during the match, which I don’t think you will, I’ll be happy to wipe the floor with your puny skills, girlie.”

What /was/ it with me and League announcers? Why did I always have to make such enemies out of them? “Sure, whatever,” I sighed, raking my hand through my hair and wishing I would have kept my big mouth shut. I could still remember Young’s threat very clearly. If I would make an enemy out of Ruiz as well, then I’d truly and utterly be screwed. So perhaps that hadn’t been the smartest move. Then again, I’d insulted Ruiz… /the/ Ruiz, on international television. That was pretty cool!

Meanwhile, Ruiz had already moved on to the next contestant. “Salvador Diaz Latias was picked up by our scouts at age fourteen. He chose the sniper rifle as his weapon, and everybody remembers what he did with it.” He showed footage of Diaz on the roof, taking out many of his competitors before they even realized what was happening to them. “Here are his stats.” And that nearly made me fall of my chair. He had a nigh perfect hitrate. Pretty much every shot that he took hit someone. It depended a bit on how fatal the shot was, but the amount of headshots he’d made was… well, pretty staggering. I would have loved to see how he would have fared in the World League Championship. He might not have been as perfect a shot as Logan Falk, but he did damn well so far.

Diaz grinned smugly at the looks on our faces. “Be sure to watch out in the Arena – you could be on my crosshair and never even notice it until your brains would leak out of your ears…”

“You’re such a poet, Diaz,” Mégane laughed.

Ruiz laughed as well. “I love a bit of shit talking. Keep on practising, Diaz, and one day you’ll be as good at it as I am. Anyway, last but not least is Petyr Jovanovich, also a convict. I understood you have plenty of battle experience though.” The picture they showed of him was creeping me out. Jova looked directly into the camera and the lighting was thus manipulated that his light green eyes were luminous. There was no expression on his face whatsoever, though. “Jovanovich fights with a pulse gun, and here are his stats.”

“Oh my God,” I murmured. And here I thought that Walter, Diaz and me had good stats. This guy was apparently a complete menace.

Ruiz quickly moved on though. “This is the Arena you’ll be fighting in; on the outskirts of Cidade. You should know this Arena by now, it’s been utilized quite a few times for the Southern League in the past.” It was one of the smaller Arena’s, probably because we were such a small group. It consisted of a Fortress-like building, a surrounding area that used to be a parking lot but now had concrete blocks standing here and there with the obvious goal to provide cover against gunfire. There was a river on one side, and a fence on the other side. The fence, I knew, was under 100,000 volts, so there was no getting past there. Besides, there’d be only jungle on the other side.

The river was broad enough to swim across – perhaps. Still, with all the spring rains lately it was a muddy place, and there was also the matter of heavy pollution and the pull of the water. On the other shore of the river the Cidade Compound was situated. My eyes lingered for a bit on the Compound corner of the map. If only we’d be able to get out of there and into the city, perhaps we could flee.

Heh, wishful thinking. First, there’d be people with guns coming after me. Perhaps I should focus on that now and cross that other bridge when I’d come to it.

“We are now arriving to the Arena. I’ll let you guys enter the Arena at different intervals on different locations, so get your gun ready, and then we’ll start.”

I grabbed my flak gun and cradled it in my lap, watching Jovanovich from the corner of my eye. His pulse gun looked like it could cause some serious damage. I also took in the other competitors. Nobody looked particularly nervous. Most of them looked just focused, concentrated. Nobody was talking to one another. Even Mégane, usually so chatty, was lost in her own thoughts. Maybe I should focus some more too, but I just wanted to take in the faces of the people that would be trying to kill me in a few moments.

I lingered at Walter and Raoul, who both nodded at me. So our alliance still stood, that was good. I smiled at them, speaking without words, thinking of loyalty and what it would be like in the arena. We’d be dropped off in different locations, how the hell were we going to find one another before we’d die? I found to my horror that I didn’t even have a real strategy yet beyond shooting anyone who’d want to kill me first.

Maybe that would be enough, in the end.

Omar Aykut was the first to leave the vehicle, according to Ruiz. He nodded at us and jumped out of the vehicle when the door slid open. I could only see the concrete beneath his feet, so I had no idea where he’d been dropped off. Mégane followed directly after, and then it was my turn already. Ruiz glared at the camera as if he could see me, and didn’t wish me good luck or anything. But as I walked past Walter, his hand found mine for a moment. “See you soon,” he whispered, and I smiled at him before I exited the vehicle and found myself in the middle of the parking lot before the entrance of the Fortress. And naturally I was wide open for any attack. If Omar or Mégane would be in the neighbourhood, they could have shot me the moment the vehicle took off and I was taking in my surroundings.

My heart skipped a beat when I realized where I was, and then I jumped into action and began to run. I’d be safer within the Fortress, I figured. And that was when I spotted Mégane, hiding behind one of the blocks of concrete to offer her cover. Her back was turned to me, I’d been dropped off further from the entrance than she’d been. For one moment I wondered why the hell she’d lingered so long outside, but then I decided I didn’t care and took a tighter grip of my flak cannon, which was annoyingly enough already starting to feel heavy in my arms.

The yellow weapon in my hands was already loaded, so all I had to do was shoot, essentially. It was pretty easy, in the end. The cannon thundered in my hands. The backlash was something that made me miss a step, but it didn’t slow me down much. In all that time I’d been training I’d gotten used to the weapon and how to utilize it.

BLAM! The flak cannon said.

And the shrapnel buried itself deeply in Mégane’s back and upper legs. She screamed and fell over on her bum first and then on her back, her dark eyes staring up at the sky in disbelief.

I closed the distance between us and kicked her rifle out of her hands. She didn’t put up a fight, though. She just stared at the hazy blue sky above us and whispered over blood-flecked lips: “I didn’t think it’d be over so soon…”

“I’m sorry,” I said, but her eyes already rolled up and she couldn’t hear me anymore. A few bubbles of blood bubbled up on her lips as she took her last rattling breath, and then it was over.

I’d killed again.

“Fuck, that’s quick.”

“Better announce it to the people. So that Summers bitch is more homicidal than you thought, then?”

“Apparently.”

I was just picking up Mégane’s rifle with numb fingers when Ruiz’ voice resounded through cleverly hidden speakers. “First blood goes to Dani Summers before even all competitors have entered the Arena; Mégane de la Croix bit the bullet.”

I smirked at where I thought the cloaked camera pod would be and tried not to show how shaken up I was.

Within the first minute of the game the first lifeblood had flowed, and by my hands. This was the second time I killed somebody in my life, but that didn’t mean that it was easy or anything. In the case of Berntsson I had /wanted/ him to suffer, but this girl was a completely different matter. All she’d ever done wrong to me was signing up to the same League as I did. And I’d had to kill her so I would survive, so I would have one less contestant to worry about. I was trembling, I noticed as I hooked the shock rifle behind my belt.

No time for lamenting, though. If I wanted to keep surviving, I had to stay on the move.

So I ran.

***

CHAPTER FIVE: LIVING IS A PROBLEM BECAUSE EVERYTHING DIES

Millions of households are tuning in to the League Game. They’re already sitting on their couches with drinks and pop, occupying pubs, or are secretly watching the game on their lapscreen at work. It’s been way too long since there last was a good game and they’re hungering for it. Everybody wants to see blood, in their heart of hearts. And so yes, there is cheering when Mégane de la Croix dies with blood frothing on her lips and a shattered spine. Even though it is the reviled Dani Summers who has done her in; it /is/ first blood.

And Mégane should have covered her back, she should have looked over her shoulder. Ruiz Alfredo Trafalgar de Costa, ex participant in many a League Game and champion of all but them but one, tells them this. He is expertly narrating the Game as if he’s never done anything different.

Everyone is listening intently to him, hanging onto his every word. Berntsson is nigh forgotten, Ruiz is the new announcer and he does his job with gusto. He teases the audience, he banters, he knows exactly what to say. And he is critical enough of Dani Summers to get away with it when he he gives her the first blood announcement. Whatever will happen now, at least she has that.

The Fortress smelled dank, like I had expected. It was like any old abandoned building I’d ever been in (which were surprisingly many, come to think of it – I used to play in whole deserted neighbourhoods, empty after the war) – dusty, faintly smelling of fungus. At least it didn’t have the same smell as the real Fortresses that people participated in. Those buildings soaked up blood and sweat and feces on such a frequent basis that the smell never left the place anymore. People had complained of this in the past, and asked for a solution to the Corporation. There’d never been any. I think Young secretly liked the romanticism of the smell.

The hallways seemed deserted, even though I knew that Aykut must be hiding somewhere out there already. Diaz would most /definitely/ want to search a high place to set up camp, so he could snipe us when we least expected it. To my horror I found that the ten story building was built like a square, with a fairly large open courtyard in the middle. There were windows surrounding the square, so if Diaz would be able to get up high, he could easily shoot into rooms from all sides.

That… was not a good thing. I cursed softly as I started to climb dusty stairs. If Diaz or anyone else was taking the high ground, then so was I.

“Okay, that was the last one.”

“Did you really have to put Martin so close to Johansson? You don’t like him, do you?”

“The dropping off is completely random, Ruiz.”

“I never really believed that. I always thought that good television drama was the randomising factor.”

“Oh it helps. But it turns out that we usually have enough drama as it is anyway.”

“So, Raoul Martin versus Kahn Johansson, who’s going to win?”

“”Ten bucks says Johansson.”

“You’re on.”

I found shelter on the sixth floor in a room in the eastern corner of the building. I knew it was better to stay on the move, but with a sniper entering the building perhaps it was better that I first figured out where he would be before I started floundering about. Sure enough, the building was completely silent. I didn’t hear or see anything, even though I was sure that by this time everyone had to be in the Arena already – and eighty percent of the Arena was made up by this building. Where would they be? What were they doing?

Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. I squatted in the corner of the room, next to the window and with the wall in my back, trying to look everywhere at once while nothing happened. Just the morning sunlight, just undecorated concrete walls. Nothing else.

Once I thought I was hearing footsteps on the floor below me, but it was so faint that I might as well have imagined it. I stayed near the window, peeking out at irregular intervals.

Nothing.

I was fearful to spend too much time looking out of the window because of the sniper rifle. As an avid League watcher I’d seen what a sniper headshot would do to you and I was not quite eager to have that happen to me.

But others weren’t that careful, apparently. I nearly dropped my weapon when I suddenly heard the thundering of shooting. And somebody screaming in pain. That sounded an awful lot like Raoul!

“Quite eventful, this League tournament! Looks like I’m going to get my money, Ruiz!”

“As long as Martin is still running, you’re not getting any of my money. Let’s see how this pans out, because Johansson has followed Martin right into the square.”

“Maybe Martin’s smarter than we gave him credit for.”

“Maybe. We’re in for a few eventful minutes anyway – he’s bleeding like a motherfucker.”

I had to risk a peek when I heard footsteps echoing in tune with the shooting. There was somebody shouting profanities, and that’s when I knew for sure. It /was/ Raoul. He stood sharply outlined in the sunlight in the square, smack in the middle. He was running, zig-zagging to avoid the bullets that Kahn Johansson was shooting at him.

And Raoul was bleeding! Oh my god, his shoulder! Some bullet or shrapnel must have buried itself into his shoulder right next to where his bulletproof vest had ended. If he’d only been wearing shoulder pads he would have been completely fine, but as it was there was blood soaking his shirt and his vest both. I couldn’t judge how bad it was from there, because Raoul was, very smartly, on the move.

That one instant of taking in the situation seemed to last forever. Raoul knew how to dodge bullets, I had to give him that. I was biting on my knuckles with fear. What if he would die right here, right now? He was supposed to be my ally, we’d had beers and companionship last night, what if he’d die? No, he couldn’t die.
I felt utterly helpless from my position high above. My flak cannon simply didn’t have the range to do any harm to Johansson down below.

Raoul was on his own here. Goddammit.

He screamed, stumbled and fell as another bullet buried itself in the same shoulder. He had to let go of his flak cannon, unable to carry it any longer. It clattered loudly on the ground as he sagged through his knees and slammed on the weed-infested cracked concrete.

“Pay up! Martin is not going to shoot anyone anymore. He has lost his gun and he is bleeding up a storm.”

“Oh no, it’s not over yet. Just keep watching.”

Johansson barked a short laugh and walked over to his victim, intent on finishing the job. I hated that man fiercely for that split instant. Perhaps I hated him just as much as I hated the fact that I couldn’t do anything to stop him. The range on my cannon simply wasn’t big enough and even if I would leave my current hiding spot and go for the mad dash downstairs, Johansson would have finished off Raoul before I’d had the chance to do something. All there would be left would be revenge.

But then a shot sounded – from above, nearly on level with me – and all that ended, because Kahn Johansson was abruptly ended.

His head simply… exploded.

A spray of red mess exploded around his head and the large man fell over as if he’d been punched in the face. It was nothing like the hole in the head of Tijs de Kler during the World League, when Logan Falk abruptly ended Tijs’ life; this was a much larger calibre bullets. There wasn’t much left of Kahn Johansson to regen; there was just a lifeless husk where there had been a large, intimidating man before.

Salvador Diaz had made his first sniper victim.

And instantly, I knew what other target he’d been aiming at next.

The promise we’d made last night over a pint of Heineken flashed through my mind. We were supposed to guard one another, help one another. And here Raoul was lying on the ground, staring in astonishment at the man who would have ended his life. He must have seen his life flashing before his eyes, but now Johansson was dead and Raoul was wide open still to the sniper.

I looked directly at where the sniper shot had come from, and saw it, clear as day. The window was even /open/, and the barrel of Diaz’ rifle was boldly sticking out. Because nobody ever looks up, now do they?

What else could I do?

That realisation occurred in the moment that Diaz was focusing on his new goal. So I threw open my own window and screamed: “Raoul! Take cover! Sniper!”

It might have caused enough of a diversion for Raoul to actually do what I advised him, because for that one instant, the shot didn’t come. There was no bullet exploding Raoul Martin’s head yet. And thankfully he took the hint and rolled himself over just as Diaz regained his composure and loosed his shot.

The bullet missed Raoul by an arm’s length, burying itself in the concrete in a spray of dust.

That was my cue. I’d blown my cover and thus I had to run – if I would stay here I’d be a sitting duck. I ran out of the room I’d been hiding in and prayed to whatever deity that might give a shit that Raoul would survive this. As my feet thundered on the stairwell, the announcement took me aback.

The tournament is surely off to a good start. First there’s the death of Mégane de la Croix, and then Raoul Martin is ambushed by Kahn Johansson. All he can do is flee to the wide open, in the wild hope that somebody else will be able to take Johansson out. And surprise of all surprises (or perhaps not), there is indeed Diaz, sitting before the window on the top floor, right under the roof. His gun is sticking out of the window and he chooses to shoot a stationary object: that would be Johansson, since Martin is running as if his ass is on fire.

Livingrooms all over the world are abuzz with excitement. There are cheers resounding in pubs and cantina’s. Two co-workers in the Dregs on lunch break high-five one another as they see Johansson’s head explode in a red mist. Two teenage girls in Constantinople burst into giggles because of it.

/This/ is the kind of tournament that people love, full of twists and turns and unexpected happenings. This is also why the audience loves snipers in the League matches – because when they strike, it’s always unexpected.

But wait, this is not over yet!

Diaz’ focus shifts upon Raoul Martin: lying on the ground, helpless and bleeding and unable to carry the weight of his gun anymore. The smuggler makes an easy target, he should be an easy kill, right?

But then a shout resounds over the square. A female voice, shouting at him to take cover. It turns out to be Daniella Summers, warning Raoul Martin of imminent death. Across the world, people are exchanging surprised glances at one another. Even though they’ve seen the footage of the threesome alliance that was formed last night, they’d never expected her to do anything.

The Corporation allows the audience of a glimpse of Daniella Summers leaving her position at the window, but then quickly switches back to Raoul rolling out of the way of the trajectory of Diaz’ rifle. Just in time.

“Well done Martin,” Announcer Ruiz cheers through the speakers in the building. “Now keep yourself alive!”

And surely enough, Raoul Martin gets himself up on unsteady knees and he picks up his gun with his good arm. He starts running, but the shot never comes.

Instead, there are distant shots, muffled above.

The image switches to Salvador Diaz Latias, and the fact that he isn’t alone in the room.

Diaz turns away from the window, his hand going for the knife at his belt, but he is too late. He only has one moment to look at the silhouette of Jovanovich outlined in the door opening to know that he doesn’t stand a chance. Jovanovich has his pulse gun ready in his hands, and he looks concentrated and so ready to kill, that Diaz even hesitates. Why even bother, he must think…?

The image slows somewhat, manipulated by the Corporation for the maximum effect. Jovanovich grins. And pulls the trigger. Close to a billion people watch how the pulse gun rattles and the room lights up in green. The plasma bolts that the gun emanates are a bright, shining green, and rather deadly if you get painted in the stuff like Diaz is.

The plasma both eats and burns away into a human body, leaving only a smoking husk where there had been a living and breathing human being before. This is what happens to Salvador Diaz de Latias. Such promise, such talent such a great sniper prowess – it all ends with just one moment of heat.

The green light fades away and Jovanovich smirks at the dead body. “I hate snipers,” he sneers in that Black City accent of his. “Sneaky motherfuckers. I knew you’d be up here. I’m glad I got you before you got me.” And then he walks away.

For two seconds everything is quiet. The camera’s pan in on Jovanovich’ retreating figure for a few heartbeats until Ruiz seems to realize that he is the announcer and he has a few deaths to call.

“Ladies and gentlemen, those were a few intense minutes. Kahn Johansson just left us by means of a headshot, and his killer Salvador Diaz Latias bit the dust only a minute later through death by pulse gun. I wonder if anyone in the betting stations has foreseen this. I sure as hell didn’t. We still have five competitors left at this point, including Raoul Martin who’s gotten pretty riddled with holes from by Johansson’s weapon.” He laughs that famous laugh of his. “I suggest you find a regen station while you still can, Martin.”

The camera pans in on Raoul Martin, who holds his blooded shoulder and cradles his heavy weighing flak cannon like a baby. He leans against a wall, panting heavily and obviously battling rather wrecking pains. The next regeneration point is shown as on the other side of the building. There is one outside, but that would mean leaving the relative safety of the Fortress. He’ll have to be in pain for a while, and all around the world people feel for him, nerve gas smuggler or not.

“Haha/you’re/ the one who has to pay up, Young.”

“With ratings like these, I gladly do so. Did you see how many people have just started to download these vids? When the sponsor money of those downloads come in, we never have to work again. I can’t believe these figures!”

“Sure you won’t mind if I just nab ten bucks from your wallet here on the table.”

“Whatever. I have money to burn anyway.”

“Perhaps I should go into betting with you more often, then.”

“I’m usually right, though.”

“Really now? So who is the next one to die, then?”

“Martin. Or maybe Aykut. Mark my words, mark my words…”

Something I’d learnt from being a League fan for many years was that the dying usually happened in spurts. There were long periods of waiting, but once somebody had given away his or her position and the shooting started, there was suddenly a lot of action all at once. I used to love those spurt moments (unless when they happened when I was taking a toilet break from the avid vid watching), but living them out was a whole lot less entertaining, especially because I simply wasn’t around to /know/ what was happening.

And of course there was the peril, as well. As audience I could see all the action and be relatively safe with my mates in the pub. Right now however, I had a very real chance of dying, and that was something I didn’t want to. I had too much to do, too many asses to kick. I wanted people to hear my name and be disgusted, I wanted to scream at everyone that what I did wasn’t a vile thing, that Berntsson was a fucking psychopath and that the rest of the Corporation had similar issues. But who would listen? Nobody. So I wanted to fight fire with fire.

I needed to find Walter and Raoul. The boys had been right; if we would be together we’d be able to cover for one another. We’d be a big group, with only Aykut and Jova still out there (how had it all gone so quickly? Was this going to be the shortest League match in history?) but I wasn’t really going for the win anyway. I was going for survival, and humans tended to survive better in packs instead of alone, I’d always heard.

So… where were they? I figured that Raoul would be somewhere downstairs on his way to the nearest regen point. Would he be waging a dash for the one on the other side of the building? Going there would mean either running through endless hallways with the chance of running into Jova – who undoubtedly must have gone downstairs again – or Aykut.

And Walter… I’d no idea where he would be. He was fighting with a shock rifle, which worked well in pretty much any kind of environment. So where could he be hiding?

I reached the bottom of the stairwell and held still for half a minute, listening for any sound of movement. There wasn’t anybody here, as far as I could here. The building seemed quiet, as if it were waiting for something. My heart pounded in my chest, calming down after my dash down the stairs. Well, at least I’d gotten away from the position where I’d given myself away. And Raoul was alive, so it had been utterly worth it. Now all I had to do was to get out of this damn stairhouse and into the hallways. I wondered what this place had been when it was still occupied. I figured it was something of an office or a factory or something, but all the rooms had been so stripped of all its furniture that it was pretty impossible to make any educated guesses.

My best bet, I suddenly realized, to find /any/ competitor would be with the regen point. It would also be a safe point, because if I would get myself riddled with bullets but still alive, I could use one of my five credits to regenerate. Of course then there was still the matter of staying alive enough to do /that/, but that was always the point, wasn’t it?

So I checked the map and decided to go for the regen point. It was in a stairwell on the other side of the building. Perhaps it would be better if I’d go up the stairs again, circle the building through the hallways on the second floor, and then go down again at that point. That /sounded/ reasonable at least, so that’s what I set out to do.

By that time we were a little over half an hour in the Game.

“Meh, they’re all avoiding one another.”

“Don’t be so disappointed, they’ll meet up soon enough again and then the fun times will roll once again.”

“I’ll just have a drink in the meantime then.”

“Hold that thought… I think Jovanovich and Aykut are on a collision course…”

Well then, the stairwell at the other side of the building. “That was easier than I thought,” I whispered to myself. Even the door to the stairwell was wide open. Slants of silver sunlight illuminated the hallway. I could see countless specks of dust floating amidst the light. It was beautiful in a way, but I had no time to stand around and admire it.

Because the next moment there was this loud slam, this intense buzzing sound, and the small room that held the stairwell suddenly lit up in a bright green hue.

“Fuck!” I breathed, pushing myself against the wall.

That was Jova’s pulse gun, I /knew/ it had to be. The shock rifles that Walter and Mégane carried (of which the latter was in my possession now) both emitted a bright violet plasma, so it could only be him.

So – Jovanovich. But who was he killing? Who was he fighting? I didn’t dare to check. I wanted to scream and kick things but instead I bit at my already abused knuckles again, keeping myself from shouting out my frustration. Why was this guy still alive? Why had nobody taken this menace out yet?

Raoul must have been on his way to a regen point. Or Walter, what if it had been Walter?

“Fuck, fuck, fuck…” As the green light died out, replaced by the bright silver of the sunlight that reclaimed its rightful light source again, I was debating what to do right now – but thankfully Ruiz could fill me in. He filled everybody in.

But not before the stairwell lit up green even brighter than before and then died out a second time, much more final.

The Control Room sees everything and shows it to the viewers at home who hungrily drink in all the images.

This is what they’re drinking: it is Omar Aykut, clutching his weapon and rounding a corner to the stairwell, who suddenly comes eye-to-eye with Petyr Jovanovich. The Russian man had anticipated running into someone, and he’s been readying himself already for a while, waiting for Aykut to walk into his trap. In the end he’s a hunter waiting for his prey, and Aykut has set himself up to be slaughtered. That’s how it goes in the end. Aykut rounds the corner, and before he can react Jovanovich slams him against the wall. And while Aykut gets the wind knocked out of him and he slams painfully enough against the concrete wall to make several of the viewers at home cringe, Jova cocks his pulse gun and unleashes his pulse.

Aykut is hit in the stomach area where it singes his bulletproof vest and armour, but it sets his clothes aflame. And somehow/somehow/ he manages to tear himself out of that deadly beam of plasma, and he doesn’t scream. He chokes out a few coughs, leaves a trail of blood when he doubles over, and he stumbles and falls around the corner.

“He is going for the regen point, ladies and gentlemen,” Ruiz tells the audience. He makes sure that the two contestants do not hear him. “Omar Aykut, you have my respect. That’s some quick thinking you’re doing there!”

Even though Ruiz takes care that he doesn’t give it away to the contestants, Jovanovich is smart enough to figure out the same.

He dashes after his prey, into the stairhouse.

The image flashes for a moment to Dani Summers, who presses herself against a wall, only one floor above them. It switches back to Jova and Aykut. Quick close-ups of Aykut’s pained face as his hand reaches for the regen credit device at his hip that should activate the regeneration point… and then an image of Jovanovich, grinning broadly as he cocks his gun in a similar manner as he did when he took out Diaz. And then he pulls the trigger before Aykut’s fingers can press the regeneration button.

Aykut never really stood a chance.

The bright green light of the plasma outshines the sun. Electricity crackles as the regeneration point goes out of commission – these devices were not constructed to withstand plasma assaults, and rightly so.

Both Aykut and the regen point die at this point in a messy, green way.

“Wow!” Ruiz shouts in his headset, jumping up from his seat. “Did you see that ladies and gentlemen? Omar Aykut dies at the end of the first hour in the Southern League. It is death by plasma, and he doesn’t die alone… our regen point dies with it too. Jovanovich, if you win this gig I promise we won’t bill your family for the damage you did to our property just because this was so awesome!”

And the audience at home laughs at Ruiz’ witticism. Well, most of them are.

Aykut’s wife, now his widow, covers her face in her hands and weeps, for she is now at the mercy of those who were after her husband. The participation money alone was not enough to pay off their debts, they’d needed a win for that. All that hope is down the drain now.

But this world isn’t about to pay attention to her grief… the League is still going on.

I took a deep breath when the green light died and Ruiz’ announcement echoed through the loudspeakers in the building. I tried to regulate my breathing, but I was so full of adrenaline and stims that I felt light headed and a bit too paranoid for comfort. My hands were trembling, I noticed half-heartedly… and then suddenly those alarmbells in my head were going off.

It came from nowhere; it was pure survival instinct. Suddenly there was this fear-induced thought lighting up in my brain/What if Jova comes upstairs?/

There was not a moment to waste. It was either Jova right here, and the only other people in the building are Walter and Raoul. And even though I could not trust them fully, they were better than fighting Jovanovich head to head. I loved my flak cannon – yellow monster that it was – but I didn’t particularly fancied that I was a match for his pulse gun.

So I was running again, through endless hallways. It was like the sort of nightmares I used to have as a little girl. Running in an empty building from something pursuing me and there was no one to help me, no one to save me, and meanwhile the monster that is following was coming closer and closer…

/Is it? Is he? Am I?/

I rounded a corner and peeked through the window that looked directly onto the open space above the square. It looked straight at the window around the corner, where I could see the empty hallway where I’d just been running. I forced to check myself if I was indeed being pursued – and then to my utter horror I saw movement.

Jovanovich was coming for me!

I wanted to scream, but instead I clutched my flak cannon against me and started running once again. I did /not/ want to die at the hands of a Russian madman! I had gotten too far to let it end this way. I had too much I wanted to do, I couldn’t die this way!

Pure unbridled panic was coursing through my system. It gave me wings; I never truly ran for my life before, but I now realized that I was a pretty decent sprinter. Jovanovich might have longer legs and be stronger than I was, at least I was faster.

I ran in a daze of panic and focus on the need to get the fuck out of his way when I rounded a corner and suddenly a hand hooked around my neck and slammed me against a wall.

I bit back a scream and found myself face-to-face with Walter Lane.

“Shh, don’t say anything. Come on, there’s a room here, we can ambush him from there,” he said. There was a focus in his deep blue eyes that I had not seen before. There was no fear, no distraction. Here was a man on a mission. And I was all too happy to hand over my fate to him.

As he ushered me into the room and whispered that I should provide some cover fire on his mark, because he was going to need it, I realized that he had not shot me.

I had been wide open for any unfriendly fire and no one would have minded to scrape me off some wall because his plasma would have reduced me to some burnt smear, but this had not been the case. Walter had stayed true to his promise.

And here he was, helping me out with Jovanovich. Of course he could still betray me afterwards, or both he and I could die horrible deaths – Jova /was/ one mean motherfucker, after all – but the fact that I was not /alone/ right now was warming my heart.

I’d forgotten what it was like to not be alone. This one gesture of protection, of a shared goal… it went so much further than the hug I’d given him in my bed in the dark. This was /being together/ on a completely different level. So much deeper. I could have cried, I could have hugged him if I would have had the time, but we still had the matter of the Russian madman coming after me.

“Raise your hand if you saw this coming…”

“Meh, I think it’s kind of lame that they didn’t make out. That would have made for much better television.”

“Make do with some close-ups of those intense looks they’re sharing. That should make up for it.”

Walter’s plan was rather simple, in the end. The shock rifle had two settings; one was the plasma beam, the other was a slower moving “shock core” or ball of plasma. If Walter would combine the two by shooting off the shock core first and then send the beam right after it, then the results would be devastating. However, even though this tactic was sure to kill anyone who would walk right into it, it also took time.

Between the shooting of the plasma ball and it’s actual collision with the beam, Jovanovich would have plenty of time to get really close. And his pulse gun was a nasty piece of work that could easily kill us all. So here we would be, the three of us in a hallway. Walter would need some cover fire so he could fire his beam around the corner.

Soon enough we heard Jova’s footsteps resonate through the hallways. He was wearing army boots with steel in the heels, so he was easily audible.

“Get ready,” Walter whispered.

I nodded and gripped my flak cannon tighter. It was slick in my grasp with my own sweat. “We won’t fail,” I whispered back at him, hoping it to be true. I left our hiding spot and waited for Jovanovich to round the corner.

I was waiting for him in the middle of the hallway. My flak cannon thundered familiarly in my hands, like an old friend. It created a storm of hail and shrapnel, so Jova’s first response was, very wisely, to jump back behind the corner again. I didn’t hesitate and pursued him, and so did Walter. I mostly shot around the corner while Walter charged his shock rifle.

The hallway was riddled with my hail. I heard Jova grunt at some point and knew I’d gotten a few hits in; perhaps from rebounding shrapnel, or from a direct hit. It didn’t matter in the end, really. All it did was buying Walter enough time to jump into Jovanovich’ direct view and launching his plasma orb.

“Oh fuck, just look at the two of them kick ASS! How would I have loved to be in one Arena with them! That would have been SOME battle!”

Jova cursed and started to fire back, but Walter had obviously trained for this. He /swept/ out of the way, pressing himself against the wall and out of the direct line of green fire. And before Jovanovich had the time to adjust the line of his fire, I was there again with flak cannon, riddling the hallway with my own shots.

The blue-purple plasma orb floated through the hallway with a sense of inevitability. Jova found himself pinned by my flak cannon; pushing himself against the wall he was fairly safe from the brunt of my hailstorm. However, the orb was making its way to him faster than I had thought it would.

I remembered a similar move that Lannie Williams had made during the World League, and I thought that it had been slower then, too. Maybe the Corporation had slowed it down for dramatic effect for the viewers at home, or perhaps it was my own adrenaline at this moment.

It was only a handful of heartbeats before Walter’s finger tightened against the trigger of his shock rifle once again and violet drowned out the green light in the hallway. For one moment, everything was as bright blue as Walter’s eyes as the orb and the beam collided and everything exploded.

It catapulted me against the wall, and it floored Walter; but when the dust settled we could see that Walter’s shot had been true. The explosion of pure plasma energy had been fatal for the Russian maniac. All there was left of Jovanovich was the proverbial smear on the wall.

And there was Ruiz. “One hour and ten minutes into the game, and Jovanovich died. Good teamwork, people. Our contestants are now down to the still wounded Raoul Martin, Daniella Summers, and Walter Lane.” He paused for a moment. The echoes of his voice in the mostly empty hallways died away slowly. “This is also the moment that the Corporation would like to relay a message to its contestants from the outside world. Normally we wouldn’t do this sort of stuff, but we got a call from Jill Berntsson, that she will personally double the prize money for whoever takes out the killer of her husband. Apparently she’d really like Dani Summers to die. So… I just thought I’d pass on the message. Good luck, boys.”

My heart froze in my chest.

***

CHAPTER SIX: FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE

“That look on her face is just priceless. I think she’s going to cry.”

“Did Jill really call you with that message? I thought she was pretty happy that Jorn died. They didn’t have the best marriage ever and he left a lot of money.”

“Jill’s all about keeping up appearances. Dani Summers is just one of the many things that she and I agree on.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do. You’re well matched in many ways, right?”

“Shut up, Ruiz.”

I couldn’t help myself. I balled my fist and pounded it against the wall, severely hurting it in the process. “Young, you motherfucker!” I screamed. Helpless tears of frustration were rolling over my face in an explosion of all the tension, all the horror that I’d seen in the past hours. Perhaps it was even an explosion of everything I’d been through in the past months. “I’ll fucking kill you for this, I swear!” My voice broke and I sagged against the wall, sobbing.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d fought so hard, I’d proven myself in the Fortress – and this was what he did to me. I’d entered the Southern League in their game, in their rules, as per the rules that they had set. I’d worked hard to stay alive thus far, but here Young went all Berntsson on me by bribing the people around me for betrayal. It was the Survival Game all over again and I hated it, I hated it so much.

Two arms wrapped themselves around me in a big, warm hug. I clung onto Walter, crying desperately in his neck, unseeing, uncaring if he would put a gun to my head. I couldn’t cope anymore, all I could do was sob brokenly, the same thought over and over again – I didn’t deserve this, what the hell had I done to deserve all of this? From the moment I’d woken up with poison in my veins my life had become nothing short of one complete catastrophe and I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it was this way, how the hell I ended up like this, crying my heart out in the arms of someone who might as well kill me the next minute.

It was just so unfair, so fucking unfair.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Walter suddenly said softly in my ear. Like before, his breath tickled my neck. He was speaking so close to my ear that there was a very real chance that the camera pods were not even registering what he was saying.

I ceased my crying just like that. I looked up from his embrace, wiping my face of the tears and looked at him in confusion. “Why not?”

Walter smiled sadly. He looked around to where the cloaked pods were probably hovering and then his smile broadened in nasty, shit-eating grin. “You know when I said that I was in the League to win it for my dead wife’s glory?”

I nodded.

“Well, I lied.” He laughed at my astonished expression and continued: “I’m not in it for the money or the glory, Dani. I’m here to fuck the system. And if I’m not mistaken, so are you.”

I wanted to kiss him. “I knew you were. I hoped you were.”

But then Ruiz cut in. His voice boomed through the speakers just a little too loud for comfort. “What the /hell/ are you guys talking about?”

“Nothing to worry you, mate,” Walter said friendly enough. “We’re still in the Game, and we’re still with three. Dani and I just had a moment of understanding. I’m not going to kill her to appease Berntsson’s trophy wife.”

“Are you sure?” Ruiz asked, his voice mild. “Sixty million for the win, plus a million for your kill… that’s quite a lot of money if you think about it. And think of your wife, she would have loved for you to win the League.”

Walter smiled wistfully in the general direction of the speakers. “All Lannie wanted was for me to be happy. She knew I loved the game and thus would have loved for me to win it because I would think it’d be awesome, but it was never the end of all things.”

“So what are you going to do now, then?”

He grinned. “We are going to see Raoul.”

Nearly two billion of viewers are watching how Walter takes Dani’s hand and they walk through the hallway to the stairwell. There’s confusion in many of the viewers. What does this mean? Schoolgirls are squealing about the two being in love, but other people are not so sure. What is happening here goes beyond a normal League alliance. Regular viewers will have seen many alliances rise and fall in Fortress and League games of the past, and even during those games it never went as far as this.

And what’s all this about messing up the system? Instantly, people are phoning one another and posting on discussion forums, wondering what is going to happen. Is this some form of Anti League Terrorism? They’ve seen some of that in the day; people who were protesting against the League, who were willing to go as far as to give their life for their cause if only the League would be aborted. But never /within/ the League. The competitors had always given their life for the glory and the game. Never before two competitors had rebelled so wholeheartedly against the institution, and why would they?

The ones who entered the League of their own free will were in there for the glory or the money or whatever unknown reasons they might have had, and for the convicts the deathmatch represented one last chance of life where the alternative was death. Nobody had rebelled before.

Young is pacing the Control Room by now while Ruiz talks to Summers and Lane, fishing for their motivations. Lane dodges the questions though, and won’t go into the comments he and Summers had just made. He doesn’t trust the situation, and rightly so. For the first time since the whole Summers situation came up, he is contemplating to contact Stender.

Still, Stender and Valentina are halfway on the other side of the world, enjoying their very well deserved vacation together. He doesn’t really want to disturb Stender, because the League is not Stender’s concern anymore. Young inherited the League because he was supposed to be able to manage it on his own now. He doesn’t really want to admit yet that there might factors at work that he doesn’t quite have under control. So all he does for now is bark orders to increase the alert level of the enforcers around the Arena, and to keep an eye on the competitors. For now, all he can do is wait. Thankfully, that’s something he’s good at.

We didn’t speak of our plans anymore in the minutes that it took us to walk downstairs to the entrance of the building. “If Raoul has any wits which I’m sure he has, he’s going for the regen point. He knows that everyone else but us is dead,” I mused. “So after he’s discovered that the regen point inside the building is demolished by means of plasma gun, he’ll come here and try and get to the regen point outside.”

“What makes you think he hasn’t already done so?”

“I don’t know, call it female intuition,” I said. “Care to and go check the regen point to check my theory?”

So we did. We made our way over the parking-lot turned pseudo shootout zone. We passed Mégane’s lifeless body which obviously had not been picked up by the cleanup crew yet, and I couldn’t help myself. She was staring at the sun, which was now brightly shining in a hazy blue sky. The whole world around us was silverwhite. And Megane shouldn’t be staring at the sun like that, even when she was dead. I sank through my knees and took one moment to close her eyes, before I got up again and walked with Walter to the outskirt of the former parking lot. There, in the western corner, was a regeneration point.

It looked deserted enough. Raoul was nowhere in sight; there was just the sleeping regeneration point and the fence, with behind us the forest that looked as dense as a wall.

“I don’t think he’s here.” I said.

Walter nodded. “I think you’re right. But he’ll come here eventually, so all we can do now is wait.”

I hopped on one of the low concrete blocks that was supposed to be a place for cover during a shootout and said wistfully: “You know what I’d /really/ like right now? One of Raoul’s cigarettes.”

“I didn’t know you were a smoker,” Walter said. He was not taking it easy like me, but he was pacing around and scanning the area for movement.

“Not for a long time. I tried a few when I was fourteen. I always liked it, but I could never support the habit,” I said. “Still I’d like to have one right now.” I paused for a moment, wiping sweat-drenched blond hair out of my face. When had it gotten so warm? It was still around 10 in the morning and I was already feeling the sweat trickle down my back underneath my armour. I dug into my small backpack and opened a bottle of water. The water wasn’t all that cool anymore, but it was pleasantly wet. I finished off half the bottle and then passed it onto Walter.

“I hope he didn’t pass out somewhere,” he said with a slight frown.

“Should we go and check?”

“I don’t know. For all we know he’s dead already.”

Ruiz laughed softly through the speakers. “Silly runts. If Martin would be dead, I would have called it. He’s not dead, and not passed out. In fact, he’s very aware of where you are.”

I blinked. “Raoul!” I shouted. “We don’t want to shoot you, we just want to talk.”

And Raoul Martin answered. His voice came from the entrance of the building, a hundred feet away. “Who says that I don’t want to shoot? Mrs Berntsson made a compelling argument to do so.”

“I thought we were supposed to be allies!” I called back.

“Until we were with the three of us,” he shouted. “And unless I’ve been miscounting, we most definitely are. My only way to stay alive is to kill the two of you. I’m not planning on dying yet.”

“You can’t lift your weapon, Raoul,” Walter reminded him gently. “And we’re blocking the way to the only working regeneration point here in the Arena. Are you sure that your current course of action is the wisest one?”

“I don’t think I have a choice.” He sounded pretty miserable. I wondered how badly he was bleeding.

“Way I see it you have two options,” I called. “Either you trust the Corporation, who is famous for screwing people over royally – just look at Walter and me, we’re walking and talking proof and not much longer, if it’s up to them… or you can throw in your lot with us. We’re the rebels. We could make a stand.”

“What would you be planning, then?”

“We are planning to fuck the system!” Walter shouted gleefully.

“Oh. This is /not/ good.”

“What the hell are they planning?”

“More importantly, how the hell can I counter it?”

“You know,” Raoul’s voice drifted over the parking lot or whatever it was, “it would be nice if I would know what your masterplan would be.”

“If I tell you, I tell the Corporation. So no. You’ll just have to trust me.”

I looked at Walter from my position above him on my block of concrete and wondered about him for a moment. Had he really joined the Game to avenge Lannie? No, that was not true. Lannie had entered the League by choice. She had entered out of guilt, because she’d blew their fortune on a bet in the hope that she could fix her husband’s leg. Young had made her the offer and she had accepted, even though Walter had begged her not to do it, not to leave him. I could imagine his anguish as she walked out the day before the World League. I’d seen the vids of her entering the pod that would bring her to the Compound. Her, Valentina Marin, Chang Kun Wei and Logan Falk. The vids had not shown family waving after them, or any significant other passionately kissing them goodbye. I wondered when they’d said their goodbyes.

I knew now though why Lannie had been waiting with the phone the night before the match, intently waiting for her husband to call her – and then calling him and not getting any response. Her eyes had teared up for a moment, she’d called herself a fool, and then had gone to the gym where she’d had that run in with Christelle Jones. Oh, I remembered that one. I had not been awake for that part, but I’d watched the broadcasts in the morning before I went to work (and parts of it during work).

Lannie had been waiting for the phonecall that Walter wanted to make, wanted to but couldn’t. They’d broken his legs so he would be unable to get to a phone where he could’ve begged her not to do this, to come home and continue with the Rookie tournaments. At least she wouldn’t have had to die for their mistakes. I understand why she’d taken the step to enter the League, but I understood even more why Walter had wanted to talk her out of it. It was fine to be determined to risk your neck and promise not to die, but for the one left behind the uncertainty was a million times worse.

It was a mixed blessing that he was unconscious for most of the time until the match had started, really. But the fact that they’d broken his legs so he couldn’t tell his sweetheart to come home… or to tell her that he loved her for doing this… that was so bloody cruel that it made my heart cringe.

No wonder something had snapped inside of Walter Lane. No wonder he wanted to hurt the Corporation. I was angry because they’d taken my life without permission, but Walter had as much reason to be angry. He had lost someone he loved because of it. Would he have been able to talk her out of entering the League? He might have. In the end, today, it didn’t matter anymore.

All Walter knew was that he wanted to kick the Corporation, and I felt that he was as much in his right to as I was.

Raoul was a bit of a loose cannon, more of an ally than a kindred soul, but he could be useful. I wondered if we could trust him enough. He was broken and bleeding at current and unable to shoot his gun without risking a much more serious injury. I’d seen the mess that was his shoulder, and I knew what kind of backlash the flak cannon made. His was an even heavier model than mine, I’d noticed earlier in the game. He’d pretty much kill himself if he wanted to shoot his gun right now. That was okay if he wanted to go for a last ditch effort, but against the two of us he was severely outgunned.

If we would let him use the regeneration point the odds would even out once again. What if he did take Jill Berntsson’s offer to heart and he would shoot us both in the back? I could even kind of understand why he would do it. He didn’t have much problems with the Corporation after all; he’d just been delivered into their hands after the legal system of the State had condemned him. He would either die by lethal injection or fight for his life on international television, as far as the State was concerned. The Corporation had offered him a chance on life, and Raoul was a survivor. I didn’t doubt that he would stoop low to ensure his own survival – probably as low as I would be willing to go.

I suddenly realized where my thoughts were going. “Walter,” I murmured, “if we let Raoul regen himself, he’ll be completely able to take us out after all. Or at least severely injure us.”

“It’d be two against one, and I’ve seen you toil around with Mégane’s rifle,” Walter answered, staring in the distance where Raoul would be. “But it’s still a risk I’d rather not take.”

“But I’m guessing we need his trust and his firepower, if we want to get somewhere. How else can we make the point of coming over to our side and the Corporation being bastards if we don’t even let him heal himself?”

“I know,” Walter grumbled. “I don’t think we have much of a choice.”

“We can’t trust him, though.”

“I know.” Walter held his hand over his eyes to shield him from the sunlight and shouted: “Hey Raoul! We’re not going to shoot you, we need you! Come over here or do I have to come and drag you here? I’m sure you need that regeneration.”

“I’m not sure whether trust you, man!”

Walter laughed. “Likewise. I think we’re in the same boat here. Just get your ass over here, and we’ll figure it out.”

While Walter and Raoul were negotiating, I was suddenly realizing that Ruiz was oddly silent. They must have been initiating some crisis management procedure by now. I looked at the hazy blue sky to see if I could see any pods or choppers appear, but the sky was just as empty as it had been before. What were they up to?

“What are they up to?”

“I think that they’re going to try to escape.”

“But /how/?”

“You’re a bloody League competitor, you think of something. You’re supposed to be creative enough for it!”

“I think you need to call Stender.”

“Maybe. Let’s try to come up with some disaster scenario’s first.”

Raoul had problems walking straight, I noticed as he crossed the distance between us. He was swaggering, dragging his flak cannon still with him. He obviously had a hard time carrying the heavy weapon with just one working arm. As he walked closer, I could see how the blood had soaked the white t-shirt he was wearing underneath his armour.

His dark hair was sticking to his face, which was pale but drenched with sweat. He looked like death warmed over.

“Are you okay?” I asked as he finally joined us.

“Never been better,” he said ironically. “I was just thinking of dancing a fucking jig. Of course I’m not okay! I have two bullets buried in my shoulder and it hurts like a motherfucker!”

“By all means, do something about it,” I said, gesturing at the regen point. “It’s all yours.”

“Cheers.” He dropped his flak cannon and climbed onto the platform. He unceremoniously hit his credit device at his right hip and then waited. It took two seconds before the machine under his feet responded with an inflectionless female voice intoning: “Subject identification required.”

“Raoul Martin,” he grunted.

“Subject identified. Scanning…”

This was the one minute in which the device was scanning for any physical injury throughout the whole body. Whatever would be wrong with you be it bullet wounds, burn wounds, or perhaps radiation sickness, the regen point could cure you by simply regenerating whatever dead cells there were on your body. The only thing that could go wrong was when you’d be missing bodyparts. It couldn’t regrow bodyparts, although if your arm would have been severed and you’d take it with you, it could get reattached.

The technology was terribly expensive, though. Only the rich and the famous could perhaps do it once in their lifetime – but the Corporation paid dearly for it to have it incorporated in their League. It did make the game more interesting if participants could get themselves healed and back in the action. At the very least, it could prolong the game, and change the outcome.

Walter and I looked on in fascination as the regeneration device whatever physical problems Raoul might have. For a while, nothing seemed to happen apart from a slight buzzing, and then suddenly this wave of goldenyellow energy washed all around him. We’d seen it on the vids before of course, but to actually see it happen in real life was something completely different. I could sense the overpowering energy that radiated off him. It made me want to reach out and touch it, but I kept myself from it because that would have some devastating consequences for both me and Raoul.

It only lasted about ten seconds before the golden glow was suddenly gone. Raoul fell painfully on his knees and panted, obviously trying very hard to remain conscious. Together with him, two small objects fell on the metal device beneath him. I walked over and picked them up, realizing that they were completely obliterated pieces of bullets. The regeneration device had taken them out of his body and patched Raoul back up again by simply stimulating his skin, sinews and muscles to grow anew. If he would push his bloodied t-shirt out of the way, there wouldn’t be even a scar.

“How are you doing?” Walter asked.

Raoul looked up and grinned wryly at him. “You’ll have to give me a minute here. This was both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

“Why the worst thing?” I asked.

“It was the most painful and creepy thing ever, while at the same time it tickled at whatever creates pleasurable sensations in my brain. I nearly creamed my fucking pants.”

“Bwaha, he’s right! That’s exactly what it feels like!”

“Focus, Ruiz! There’s more important stuff going on here.”

“Whatever. You just read your emergency protocols, punk, I’ll be watching the runts here.”

Raoul came to his senses quickly enough. He sat on the regen point for a while, breathing deeply while staring at the blue sky above us. “When did it get so warm?” he wondered idly.

“We’re nearing noon, hun,” I reminded him. “Of course it gets warmer as the day progresses.”

“Of course,” Raoul grinned. “So, what’s going to be the plan now?”

Walter stared the dark haired smuggler straight in the eyes, not holding back, being completely bold and direct. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Raoul, you showed earlier that you don’t trust us. We don’t trust you either. We let you regenerate because we need you to help us with our plan, but we also know that allowing you to do so makes you a force to reckon with. So, Raoul, I’m not going to tell you anything. And you’re going to walk in front of us, just so you can’t shoot us in the back.”

“Fair enough,” Raoul said, but he didn’t look very happy.

“I’m sorry it has to be this way but I’m sure you understand, right?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t trust me either if I were you guys. It’s completely understandable, even though I have to admit that it does sting a little.”

I patted him on his newly regenerated shoulder. “It’s nothing personal.”

Walter nodded. “Well then, time to go. Let’s go fight fire with fire, people.”

***

CHAPTER SEVEN: STARING AT THE SUN

I handed Walter Mégane’s shock rifle, which he slung over his shoulder. “You know, if you really have to go down guns ablaze, then with two shock rifles would be just the way to go,” I grinned at him. “Don’t you think that’d be really cool?”

Walter just laughed and shook his head. “I’m not planning to go down in a blaze of glory, though.”

“You’re just in it for the coolness factor, then?”

“You could say that.”

We grinned stupidly at each other and watched Raoul as he was scouting the area ahead of us. He seemed to be exhausted, but still aware. I could imagine why, the duality of the regeneration device went farther than the pleasure/pain duality. It also messed with your own energy. While it jolted you with psi-energy to regenerate bodyparts, it also took a lot of energy to actually finish the job. Many League contestants who utilized the device lost consciousness during the whole procedure. It said something about Raoul that he didn’t. He seemed to be the kind of guy that always survived everything. Where others would fall, he would find a way out of the situation, because he was just versatile like that.

I could appreciate that in a person. If only I could be sure that we could trust him…

We were currently circling the building, seeing what was on the other side. For now there were only walls and voltaged fence behind which there was forest and jungle. I didn’t feel much for an escape attempt into that green madness. The jungle was dangerous for people who didn’t know what they were doing, and I was a Compound born and bred girl myself. I’d seen nature before, but that was usually in reservations and in large and sprawling parks on the higher levels of the Compound. This forest would have wild animals and spiders and snakes that could kill you. Even with a flak cannon, I didn’t think we’d have much chance of getting out of that jungle alive. I knew that Salvador was supposed to be roughly to the west of here, but that would be too far away to ever get a decent shot of ever getting there.

Not without having a ride or anything.

/A ride?/ I stole a glance at Walter and wondered where the hell he’d get a ride from. The only ride that would be here still would be the vehicle that had flew us in, or the vehicle that would arrive once we’d all kill one another: the one that would pick up the winner and host the cleanup crew that’d get all the corpses out of this place.

The second idea would require fooling the camera drones that held all of our lifesigns, which I didn’t have any idea of how to sabotage, and the first one would mean a shootout with the band of enforcers that were currently guarding the thing on the shore of the river.

Come to think of it, obliterating the camera’s would be a good idea anyway.

“Walter?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you have any idea where the camera drones are?”

“Funny you asked that,” Walter smiled. He was scanning his environment intently, while turning around. “While I was recovering from my surgery, I had the most interesting conversation on the topic with an ex League competitor. I was a bit drunk at the time, and so was he, but I still remember that clearly what he said.”

Before us, Raoul paused before he’d be turning the corner around the building. He turned around and watched us while Walter was talking, leaning against the outer wall of the building where he’d nearly lost his life.

“So we were lying in those hammocks overseeing the ocean and my leg was hurting and his everything was hurting, so we were getting smashed. And then we had this conversation. I asked him about the World League. What he thought of my wife, of the other competitors… and then about the game mechanics themselves. And then he told me that he got so annoyed by the cloaking devices around the camera drones when he was running, because they couldn’t cloak as fast as he could run. And he’d be forever seeing them from the corner of his eye.”

“Ruiz? What the hell?”

“Oh fuck. I didn’t know! It was just idle talk! We were drunk and recovering from surgery, goddammit! I didn’t even /know/ he was going to participate!”

“So if you run…”

His blue eyes shifted on the environment behind him. “There’ll be three of them. Dani, Raoul… RUN!”

We were smart enough to avoid turning that corner where the enforcers would be. Instead, Raoul ran towards the forest and then took a sharp turn towards me. I started running and followed his example. Walter looked up at the blue sky and laughed as he pulled the trigger. For a split second, there was plasma light coming from above and I shed a second, more bluish shadow on the concrete beneath my feet, and then the plasma beam hit true and I had to cover my head because it was raining bits and pieces of camera drone.

None of them actually hit me or Raoul. I laughed delightedly as I took aim with my flak cannon. “Let me take out yours, Walter!” I called out, and he nodded. I fixed my look at the air in his direct vicinity, and found that it was even easier than I’d thought. It was this … blur, even when the cloak was working fine. If there was movement, even in a similarly coloured area, then the drone still had to work hard to remain hidden.

And I wasn’t a lousy shot with my flak cannon. The drone was close enough for me to take it down in a rain of bullets. It crashed onto the concrete quite spectacularly. We didn’t dwell on what they looked like, but instead high fived one another in delighted laughter.

“And now for the next step of my bold plan,” Walter grinned a devil-may-care grin, “we are going to assault the enforcers that are now undoubtedly coming our way. We kill them, and then we steal the vehicle.”

The viewers at home watch with morbid fascination as the camera focuses upon Walter with his shock rifle. He looks up directly at the camera, his blue eyes beaming into all those livingrooms and pubs.

“Oh my God, he’s really going to do it!” Awareness ripples through all of the viewers. Some are fascinated, others are horrified. Some are cheering for him to do it, shoot the camera… and again other people are realizing that this way they won’t have a live feed on what’s happening anymore and hope that he’ll miss.

But first there’s a blue flash and one point of view dies – Raoul’s camera goes first, with Dani’s camera following quickly after. And then the third camera drone that had been focused upon Walter shows from the side of the screen Dani’s laughter. She narrows her green eyes, cocks her yellow flak cannon, and the last thing the audience sees before it all goes black is bullets coming their way.

And then there’s static, before a picture with ‘We’re currently experiencing technical difficulties’ fills the screen.

All around the world people cannot believe what is happening right now.

“Stender?”

“I was just going to call you, Young. What the /fuck/ are you letting them do?”

“I’m not letting them do anything. They’re just running away with things and I’ve checked every crisis manual we have lying around this place, but /nothing/ says anything on competitors actually taking out their camera’s and escaping. We had this one foiled attempt in 2301 and that wasn’t even anything like this-“

“Young, shut up, you’re prattling. You sent the enforcers at location after them already, didn’t you?”

“Ruiz is arranging that as we speak, but Stender… I think it’d be better if you’d come here.”

“I am on /vacation/.”

“You’re watching the Game with Val on some yacht in the middle of the Pacific at the moment. You’re hip deep into this. And it’s not like this day isn’t ruined already.”

“Whatever. We’re on our way.”

“Sorry, Stender.”

“We’re with you in twenty minutes.”

Raoul hardly had the time to peek around the corner before they were upon us. “They’re coming!” he shouted at the same moment he took his first shot. And from there on, chaos erupted. Five enforcers appeared around the corner, all of them wielding dual guns. The range on those things was great, and they had hardly any recovery time between shots. The only faster gun out there was the minigun, but because they were carrying two weapons that all balanced out.

I’d never been in a free for all shooting match and from the first second on I decided that I hoped I’d never be again, either. I moved near the wall, so at least there wouldn’t anybody be coming from behind my back. I losed my first and my second shot, but missed unfortunately.

Raoul and Walter were luckier. Raoul’s first shot hit somebody in the head, and once Walter had his two rifles placed securely in his hands, he was a bloody menace. He took out the second enforcer in a blaze of violet plasma. That left three of them, and one of them was aiming for Raoul – simply because he was the closest target.

I screamed and charged towards him, but it was too late. Raoul ended up shot for the second time that day. Before my own bullets could fuck up the enforcer, his own bullets had already left his guns. Raoul screamed and fell against the wall in impact as he was hit once in his leg and twice in his abdomen.

I hardly even saw the enforcer die – just some nameless guy in a suit who was trying to kill Raoul – who I’d beers with last night. The hate was back again, completely. Everything drowned in a red haze of utter rage as I turned towards the fourth enforcer and just… shot him. It was like with Berntsson. Once I set my mind to it everything just snapped into focus. I wasn’t afraid, I just didn’t care about anything anymore but for the kill. I threw my soul and my life in the balance to go for that kill, and the enforcer went down in a rain of blood and bullets.

Until something seemed to /punch/ me in the stomach and slammed all the air out of my lungs. It had to be a bullet colliding with my bulletproof vest. I screamed without making any sound, gasping for breath as I fell, dropping my gun in the process and trying to protect my head as I painfully collided with the concrete.

And behind me to the right, Walter was pulling the same stunt as he did with Jovanovich. While the enforcer was aiming for me, he sent out a plasma orb and then followed it up with a beam to explode everything. Because he now had two guns, the load time between the different settings was greatly reduced.

Everything lit up purple, and then it all returned to normal again.

Where there had been five enforcers, there were now five dead men.

I took a deep breath and rolled over to check the damage that had been done to my stomach. Indeed, there had been impact, but all I felt was bruised and battered, not punctured. Christ, if I hadn’t been wearing any armour… I was so glad for that vest right now that I could have cried.

But then Raoul coughed and groaned. It was a pitiful sound.

It made me immediately turn around and stand up on legs trembling like straws. I sprinted over those last few meters to the wall, where Raoul was half sitting, half lying against. Walter was checking out the damage already, looking worried. “It’s like that bastard knew where to hit you, man. The bullets are buried right where your vest stops.”

“Again,” Raoul choked out. “I’m an unlucky fuck today. God…” His face was contorted in pain and way paler than it had been earlier today. It was like…

I shifted my eyes to the bulletwound in his leg and found to my alarm that the wound in his leg had gone all the way through. That bullet had exited him again and hit some major arteries in its wake. The blood came from his leg in spurts before it pooled with the rest on the ground, and I knew exactly what that meant. It had not been just some major arteries, but his aorta had been hit. All he had was minutes.

Walter had followed my look and froze for a moment. “Raoul, your leg…”

“I’m dying, aren’t I?” he wheezed. “I’m getting lightheaded already and there’s blood everywhere…”

“Not if we have anything to say about it,” I said. “Walter, your belt…”

Walter, bless him, seemed to understand once again exactly what I was saying. He tugged off his belt and wrapped it around Raouls thigh, to stop the flow of blood going to his leg. “This should buy you some time,” he said.

“It took some time to actually get them to function, but it seems like we have the old facility security camera’s to work now.”

“There’s no sound and the picture sucks, but at least we know what they’re doing now.”

“What /are/ they’re doing?”

“Ah, dammit, they took out our men. Fucking crap. Martin’s hurt. And they’re talking – look, he’s badly hurt.”

“No way we’re going to be able to use Martin against them now, that guy is dying.”

“Unless they get him to the regen point and fix him up again.”

“Oh, they won’t.”

“Why? And what buttons are you hitting?”

“We can’t just take him into the vehicle like this,” I said. “He needs a regen point.”

“Do we have /time/ for that?”

I met Walter’s blue eyes without flinching. “Probably not, but can you live with yourself if we’d left him here to die? He /fought/ with us, Walter. He’s one of us.”

Raoul laughed. “Actually I was contemplating betraying you both but that’s probably stupid to say, isn’t it?” He spit up blood and gasped for breath again. “Fucking karma. I was only /thinking/… not /doing/…”

“Which is what makes you one of us, not one of them,” I said quickly. “Can you stand?”

“I… I… I’m not sure.”

We dragged him upright, and he would have fallen down again. His shot up leg was completely useless, and the pain in his abdomen made it nigh impossible to stand upright. Still, we both took an arm and hoisted him up between us, so we could drag him to the regeneration point.

It was heavy work and we left a trail of blood behind us, but I decided not to give a shit about that. By the time we’d returned to the parking lot I was completely drenched in sweat. I could feel the water running over my back and my legs, but we didn’t say anything and just pressed on. I told myself to bite through fatigue, to battle on regardlessly. Raoul was the one in pain, not me.

If he would die because I was too much of a weakling to help dragging him any further, then I surely couldn’t live with myself.

Somewhere along the way, Raoul had passed out. He was a dead weight now but at least the blood was still spurting, so we knew his heart was still beating. I passed a glance with Walter, who looked ashen with worry. “I hope we’re even fast enough to heal him while he is still alive,” I panted, using my free hand to wipe trickling perspiration off my face.

“Me too,” was all Walter said, focusing upon the destination in the distance.

The regeneration point looked deserted. The metal plate upon the device shimmered in the afternoon heat, quietly waiting for us to place the bulletwound victim upon it. It seemed like eternity before we finally reached it. By that time, we couldn’t wake Raoul anymore. His body didn’t even respond when his skin came in direct contact with the sun-cooked metal plate that we laid him down upon.

I turned around and saw the trail of blood that we’d left behind and wondered how much longer he had to live – a minute or two, maybe. Would the regen device even be able to fix him up?

Walter slapped the blood-stained credit device on Raouls hip and backed off quickly. We waited breathlessly for that female voice to ask for subject identification – but nothing happened. We exchanged a worried glance while Raoul was still bleeding upon the machine. Walter hit the device on Raoul’s hip again, but no response.

Had the device on his hip been hit as well? Was it broken because of the amount of bleeding Raoul had done upon it? What was going on? My heart was skipping a few beats there while I poked at the machine underneath the metal plate. It had a reset button and a power button and I hit both just to be sure.

And that was when the thing responded. “System offline,” it said.

“What?” I screamed, hitting the power button again.

“System offline,” the regen device repeated.

“No, you can’t be offline! You were working fine just fifteen minutes ago!” I shouted.

And from out of nowhere, Ruiz laughed. His voice sounded eerily close to my ear, like Berntsson had sounded. “Sorry peeps. The regen device only works for participants of the Southern League. Young decided that you two forfeited your participant status when you shot our camera’s.”

“You have GOT to be fucking kidding me!”

“Oh, and by the way… the cavalry are on their way. There is NO way you two are getting out of this place.”

“Two?” I whispered.

Walter made a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. He rolled Raoul over on his back and laid his fingers on the neck of his fellow competitor. All the colour drained from his face. “Raoul, damn you, don’t die on us!”

There was still blood dripping from his leg, despite the belt that was attempting to stop the circulation. And the intense spurting had diminished to a mere trickle. That was not good. That was not good at /all/.

“We’re losing him, aren’t we?”

Walter didn’t respond, he had his fingers against Raoul’s neck. “Losing… losing… oh God, he’s gone. I’m so sorry Raoul, we tried.”

I covered my face in my hands. There were no words, no curses anymore.

Raoul could have been saved, and they didn’t let him. They sabotaged his only chance on survival. And even though from their point of view it was probably the only sensible thing to do, it broke my heart.

“I’m sorry Raoul,” I whispered, reaching out to wipe his dark hair out of his face and closing his eyes. I didn’t want him to stare at the sun, either. And then I cried.

***

CHAPTER EIGHT: TAKE TO THE SKIES

She’s crying. Martin is dead.”

Good, that’s one rebellious competitor less to worry about.”

Young, you really are a heartless bastard.”

That’s what I get paid for.”

The trek back around the building was a sad one. Walter had taken my hand and dragged me away from Raoul’s lifeless body and didn’t let go of me. We just walked together in silence while I hated Young, Ruiz, the Corporation and the whole world. Whatever Raoul’s problems might have been and whatever shady things he might have pulled in the past (never mind his confession that he’d been thinking about betraying us), I couldn’t help but feel miserable about his death. Bled to death on a regeneration point, could it be any more ironic?

That’s when I remembered that Walter’s wife had died because of a malfunctioning regeneration point as well, and I squeezed his hand softly to let him know that I knew. He looked up at me with a sad smile. “Life’s a bitch, isn’t it?” he murmured – echoing Valentina Marin’s last words to a dying Lannie Williams before Lannie died of the bullets she’d taken to the chest.

“It sure is,” I said softly.

By this time the day had warmed up enough that I was sweating by the bucketloads. It was known to get hot in the Compound, but I was a Northern Hemisphere girl and I never experienced what it could be like here in the south. If only I’d asked for the Northern League instead of the soonest one. Then again, if I would’ve, I’d never have been able to pull this off: the Game done, me holding hands with the other surviving competitor, gunning down Corporation employees. And Raoul would undoubtedly have died in another horrid manner.

We reached the scene of our shootout again. There was blood everywhere, I noticed to my horror. Blood and… bits of bodies, among the corpses. It sure was a carnage. I held my hand before my mouth as we walked past it, trying not to gag at the look of the mess beneath my feet. Blood stuck to my boots, leaving red bootprints where I walked. I tried not to think that these men had families too, that they’d been living, breathing and dreaming people just doing their job as much as I’d done when I fixed up networks for /my/ boss way back when – it was better for my own sanity to label them as evil in my head, deserving their deaths.

It all dazzled me for a moment – this morning had been one big rollercoaster of fear, hysteria and blood. I couldn’t stop to think about it; if I’d sit down and start dealing with things I’d surely collapse, I knew that. My only option was to keep going relentlessly and getting the hell out of here. Walter pulled me along to the vehicle. It was indeed the same that had brought us here. We’d killed the pilot, but once we got this thing going it was easy enough to fly one of these things.

“So Dani, you’re into networks and stuff, right?” Walter asked, his blue eyes sad, but all business nonetheless. No time for tears, no time for fear. Just action, from now on. “You think you could get this thing to fly?”

I climbed into the cockpit and looked around. It looked easy enough on the inside: steering wheel, terminal, keyboard, and a lot of lights and indicators on the state of the vehicle. The terminal showed a screensaver; the golden logo of the Corporation spinning and gleaming on a black background. I hit the space bar on the keyboard to make it go away.

“I was into subway network technology mostly, but as I understand this kind of vehicle is not much different… apart from the fact that it doesn’t follow a rails and a predestined route. You just need to log onto the network and find out access codes for the grid, and then this thing will fly itself where we want it to be according to the easiest route that the computer decides. The steering wheel’s just there for when we lose power or something. The autopilot does the rest.”

“And how can you log onto the network when you don’t have the password?”

I grinned at Walter. “Be a dear and fetch the ID of the pilot for me, will you? Nine out of ten times it’s his date of birth plus his employee ID number.”

“Okay, back in a bit.”

I was glad that Walter was the one that was going to dig into the pockets of blood-covered corpses, so I had a moment for myself. I dug through the dashboard to see if I could find a manual, but I couldn’t find a hardcopy. My second move was to see if the terminal had one. I hit the search command and typed in ‘manual’ and surely enough, it showed everything I wanted to know.

I hadn’t been far off with my educated guess. All I needed to know was the code for the location of departure, but with a quick search command in the automated log of the vehicle I got the code. There was a pen in the dashboard closet, so I used that to write it on my wrist. The ink didn’t really stick on my sweaty skin, but it was enough to get us somewhere.

So where did we want to go? I supposed that our best bet was just to go into the Compound. If we could lose ourself into Cidade among its millions of people, then that’d be our best bet to get off the Corporation’s radar.

A sound at my right at the door opening told me that Walter had returned. “I got it,” he reported, holding up a blood-stained ID card.

“Alrighty then,” I said, taking the card for him and punching in the birth date of the deceased pilot along with his employee ID. I held my thumb over his picture on purpose. I didn’t want to dwell on what he looked like and who he was. I hit the ‘send’ button and held my breath for a split second when the terminal went ‘ding! Code accepted’. I grinned at Walter. “So, where do /you/ want to go today?”

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of frantic speculation going on in the Control Room at the Corporation Studio’s. Stockholder and ex CEO Stender is on his way, but Ruiz and Young are doing all they can to control the damage. The viewers at home are looking at a commercial break that’s been going on for way too long now, and they need to do something to appease the viewers, the media, and to keep their rebellious contestants from wreaking more havoc.

They’re in our vehicle, aren’t they?” Ruiz asks, trying to hack his way into the camera that undoubtedly has to be in the cockpit of the vehicle.

Nothing we can do about it. Unless you want to mess with the whole grid to try and take it out of trajectory,” says Young impatiently, hitting other buttons that get him in touch with the enforcement police in Cidade.

Can’t you ask Grid Control for permission?”

Not necessary. We’ll get them once they land in the Compound,” Stender steps into the Control Room, Valentina Marin hot on his heels. They both look as if they’ve stepped off a yacht in the middle of the pacific, indeed. They’re both tanned – even Valentina, whose strawberry blonde hair shows highlights and who seems to have a lot more freckles in her face than usual – and are wearing shorts, sandals and a t-shirt.

Hi Stender, hi Val,” Ruiz says. “The cavalry has arrived.”

Good to see you in standing in one piece, Ruiz,” Valentina grins at her ex rival for the title of League World Champion. The two of them go back a long way.

Ruiz grins back. “Likewise, babe.”

Stender’s all business, though. He pulls his headset off his head and sit down next to Young, booting up a new terminal. “Bring me up to speed, Young – what happened since we last spoke?”

I nearly yelped when the doors suddenly whizzed shut and the motor started running. “God, I never expected this to work as easily as it did!” I sighed to Walter, who was rummaging through the dashboard closet. “What are you looking for?”

“A phone, a communicator, anything.”

“What, so you can order fucking /pizza/ while we’re on our way to Cidade?”

He laughed. “That’d be cool. No, I thought that we might as well reserve a pod or something to get to the outskirts of the city. I’ve loaded some of my money and credits to a separate account, so we’ll be able to use that money without the Corporation knowing about it. I’m fairly sure that once I access my normal account that they’ll know instantly.”

“I’m sure it won’t go /that/ easily.” The vehicle whirred and then took off without a hitch. I looked out of the window and saw the ground below us sink away. Well, there we were, taking off – and so far we didn’t have the Corporation on our neck yet. I focused my look on the sky though. There were enough vehicles and pods darkening the sky over Cidade, but I expected a high-speed jet to show up any moment to shoot us down. I could already imagine our burning vehicle crashing into the river. Would they be able to get away with that?

So far, so good though. No jets shooting us down, no problems. The vehicle smoothly took flight and the river shimmered prettily beneath us in the sunlight. Underneath the blue sky the polluted water almost looked blue.

We’d be landing on the parking place of some rich bobo on the top of his apartment building, Walter had decided. Some quick searching on the networks had told him earlier that the rich guy was presently on vacation in the Mediterranean and that he wouldn’t be returning for a few days yet. There should be space enough there to land. We’d just have to hijack another of his vehicles there, and make our way out of there as quick as we could.

I thought it was an excellent idea and grinned at the fact that we’d get such a head start on the Corporation. Looked like things were turning out to be easier than I thought. But then again – the city was waiting for us. And once we were in the Compound, it would be the Survival Game all over again. The two of us fleeing, and the Corporation and all of the City coming after us again.

I didn’t doubt that by now we were all over the news and the prices on our heads would be terribly high. Wanted, dead or alive. Dani Summers. Walter Lane. Anyone with a gun would most probably come after us. I knew what that was like, having lived that nightmare once before already. While the idea of going through yet another Survival Game once again nauseated me, it /was/ something that I knew. I’d survived it once before, I should be able to do it once again. Still, though… I had to comment on the irony of it to Walter.

“Once we’re in the city, what then? We run for our lives like we’re in the Survival Game?”

“Pretty much,” he said, intently watching the air around us. Here above the river there wasn’t much traffic, and the few vehicles out there didn’t seem to pay much attention to us. He blinked. “Oh Dani, I’m sorry you have to go through all this again.”

I grinned wryly. “Life’s a bitch, right?”

Now that Stender’s in the Control Room, it suddenly seems as if everything is manageable again. Young is visibly relaxing, easily slipping in his role as operational manager instead of the one that takes the decisions. He’s on the phone with the enforcement police; rattling off the details of the situation and how he wants the City police to be on guard for them. “We prefer to handle this ourselves, but if there’s no time, you’re completely welcome to shoot them on sight,” he informs the Chief of Police.

Valentina sits next to Ruiz, watching what he’s doing and giving pointers on how to single out vehicles on the Grid. “There,” she says, pointing out a vehicle that’s currently flying over the river. As her finger hovers above the screen, the vehicle ID glows up. “That’s the one with Lane and Summers.”

Check out where it’s going,” Stender says, holding his hand over the microphone of his headset for a moment. He’s currently assembling a reconnaissance team that’s supposed to pick up the two rebel contestants. “I’ll make sure that we’ll be waiting for them.”

On it,” Ruiz says. His fingers fly over the keys.

The ride only lasted for the better part of ten minutes. The river glided past underneath us and nobody shot us out of the sky, to my surprise. Nobody even looked at us twice. My heart was pounding in my throat by the time the vehicle was making itself ready for landing on that roof.

Walter was intently checking out our landing area, using the rear-view mirrors to check out every nook and cranny of the platform. It looked deserted. “Looks like mister Taylor is truly on holiday,” he remarked lightly. “Unless there’s an ambush of course.”

“On an empty platform?” I asked. “I find that a bit hard to believe.”

“Not completely empty,” Walter remarked. “See the pod dock over there? Luck of all luck, mister Taylor is rich enough to own his private luxury pod. This man doesn’t have to take the subway to work, I am guessing. He uses his pod.”

“Good for us. All we need is to override the damn thing and use it to get the fuck out off that roof.”

“Can you do that?”

I laughed. “No. Unless his pass key is either his own name, ‘admin’, ‘beer’, ‘sex’ or ‘god’. Those are the most common passwords in the history of mankind.”

“Wouldn’t he have any fancy alarm systems with iris scan or anything, then?”

I shrugged. “Why would he? Pods are programmed to return to base eventually. It can only ride over this fucking rails. If someone would ride his pod somewhere, its docking station would still be here, and the pod would return.”

A screeching sound told me that the landing gear was fully functional, and thus we’d be landing in a couple of seconds. Walter looked up in alarm and grabbed one of the two shock rifles he’d slung over his back. “Are you ready?” he asked.

I picked my cannon up from the ground and nodded. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose.”

The vehicle touched the ground with a bang and wobbled somewhat on its gear, but all in all it was a good landing. The auto pilot had done its work marvellously. Walter reached for the door handle, but then he suddenly grinned at me. “You know,” he said. “Lannie would have loved you to bits.”

And while I was still recovering from that, he pulled the door open and everything exploded.

It was all survival instinct.

I screamed and dropped myself to the ground of the vehicle while Walter did something completely different; he pushed himself behind the door and opened fire on whatever was attacking us. The roof lit up in that strange violet light and silhouetted within it, I saw a young man with long bleached hair in cut-off shorts and a black t-shirt standing on the roof.

Walter’s shot missed by a mile, of course. It had been a defence shot, not an attack. “Who the fuck are you?” he shouted, while the figure on the roof yelped and jumped back within the access doors to the roof. The kid might have been carrying a rocket launcher, he wasn’t very proficient with it. I wondered how the hell he’d gotten his hands on it. Damn rich kids.

Walter quickly dragged me out of the vehicle and behind it, so we had at least some measure of cover.

“My name is Benjamin Taylor and I’m making a citizen’s arrest on behalf of the Corporation!” the boy shouted. “Surrender or I’ll be forced to shoot you, they said to get you dead or alive!”

I had to laugh at that. The kid was maybe eighteen, judging from his voice. Perhaps he was the son of the rich mister Taylor, alone at home for the first time in his life? “What, they sent /you/ instead of a batallion of enforcers? I feel insulted.”

“Oh, the enforcers will be here any moment now,” the boy shouted from his own position of cover. “I just have to keep you here, and then I’ll be rich.”

“Benjamin, luv, we have you outgunned,” I told him with laughter in my voice. I didn’t care anymore, I didn’t give a shit. This was the Survival Game all over again. I felt myself back in that metro again, surrounded by people who wanted to pin me there and wait for me to die. Cheap television, in your own metro! This boy was just one of them. Just another person who wanted me dead. Where the hell it had all gone so wrong with humanity? Had our sense of empathy for other living beings been bombed the hell out of us during the War? “Who says we won’t kill you right away? You /know/ who we are, don’t you?”

“I’m not afraid of you!” the answer came back. His voice was trembling, though. Still I had to give him credit for even trying to put up a fight.

I looked at Walter, who was frowning in irritation. “So,” I whispered. “You do cover fire, and I’ll go and check whether Benjamin’s dad is as uncreative with his passwords as I hope him to be?”

“We might as well,” Walter grumbled. He aimed his rifle around the side of the vehicle and sent a plasma orb in the general direction of the door where the kid was standing.

“Alrighty then.” I got up quickly and ran towards the docking station, quickly looking over my shoulder if Benjamin was shooting at us despite the violet plasma orb colliding with the floor right before his door. He wasn’t.

So I quickly took my place into the pod at the docking station and booted up the software. “Identify user,” prompted the recognition software. I didn’t know mister Taylor’s first name and was pretty sure his adventurous son Benjamin had more exotic passwords, so I decided to go for the administration override. “Username… admin,” I typed in. “Password… also admin.” I grinned and hit the ‘send’ button, just for shits and giggles. “Granted,” the pod told me cheerily, while a map of the Compound glowed up on the plasma screen with pre-programmed locations. “Desired location?”

I just had to laugh helplessly at that. Behind me, the sky was lighting up with violet plasma as Walter was providing cover fire, we had the Corporation and quite possibly the police hot on our tails, and this mister Taylor was too stupid to get rid of his standard admin account that he had gotten when he first purchased his pod. “Walter!” I shouted. “Leaving time!”

Given enough time I would have been able to override the given locations by creating a new preferred destination, but time was something we simply didn’t have. So I just went for the one at the top.

The Control Room is still abuzz with activity.

Our team will arrive too late, Stender,” Young reports. “The police can’t get to the location quickly enough, and there’s only a kid in the building.”

I know,” Stender mutters. “I have a visual on the place, just picked up the signal from their security cam on the roof. I think Summers is going to attempt to steal the pod while Lane is firing at the boy.”

Goddammit,” Young curses. “Won’t they just die already?”

We have to intercept the pod. What are the programmed destinations?”

Got it,” Ruiz pipes up. “That’s easy to pull from the system. “It’s Taylor’s work place, as far as I can see.”

Send your men there, Young. And hurry this time, we need to get there /before/ Summers and Lane arrive. Just this rich kid with a rocket launcher is not going to stop them. We should be lucky they didn’t kill the kid. That would have been some horrid press.”

Wait,” Valentina Marin suddenly says. “Where are your men, Young? I’m going with them. If you want to do things right, you’d better do it yourself…”

***

CHAPTER NINE: EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY

Walter high-fived me when he hopped onto the pod. “Well done, Dani,” he grinned as the pod began to move. It was definitely a big budget pod, because it moved so smoothly over the rails that it felt as if it were hovering a few inches above it. We both looked over our shoulder and saw the Taylor boy appear at the edge of the roof, rocket launcher still in hand.

“Oh… crap…”

For one moment I thought he was going to shoot us out of the air with it and my heart skipped a beat. If he indeed would have been so bold, then we would probably have died right there and then. We were still in range and suspended so high above the streets of Cidade, there was no way we could dodge his attack.

Thankfully, Benjamin Taylor was only eighteen years old and had not enough of a backbone to actually launch that rocket after us. His shoulders slumped and he dropped the weapon on the edge of the building, looking bummed and defeated. Maybe he hadn’t known that he would have been able to take us out with ease. Maybe he really thought we were out of range already. Before my mind’s eye I could already see Young curse at that and I had to smile at the thought. I closed my eyes and whispered a thankyou to a God I didn’t really believe in.

“Man, that was close,” Walter said, sitting down next to me on the leather-covered two seater. “I feel like I’ve been staring death in the face way too many times today already.”

“It’s just one of those days.” I squeezed in his arm and smiled. “And besides, you’re a League participant. The League isn’t exactly a walk in the park, you know.”

He snorted. “I don’t think we’re in the League anymore now. I think we’re in the Survival Game.”

The word alone made me taste bile in my mouth. “Even though I despise the Survival Game, officially it’s still a part of the League. And I think that our League match hasn’t ended yet, either. There are still two contestants standing.”

“If that’d be the case, why are they trying to kill us, then?”

I shrugged. “I think we pissed Young off.” Why /were/ they trying to kill us? Would they just kill us and be done with it – put a spin on the story that we were a danger to the public peace, that we killed indiscriminately and that we should be brought to justice? I understood that they’d do that with me. I was an escaped convict after all. But Walter… what kind of story were they spinning on what he’d been doing?

Everybody had seen the vids where he gleefully shouted that he was going to fuck the system. They’d seen the things he’d said to me and Raoul. (Oh, Raoul…) What picture would they paint of me? Would they go the homicidal bitch route with me again as they’d gone before? That thought alone made me want to hurt someone. I’d been a perfectly fine functioning part of society before they’d plunked me into the Survival Game because of one drunk signature five years prior. Ravaged by poison and rage because of the injustice of what was done to me, I had lashed out at the person who taunted me the most. That had been Berntsson. Of /course/ it had been Berntsson. Ruiz had the reputation, but he wasn’t as much of a sadistic fuck as Berntsson had been.

Hell, even Stender was less of one. Or perhaps if he was one, he just knew to hide it better. Come to think of it I couldn’t imagine the actual initiator of the League being any less of an asshole than his employee. Stender, however, even in the games he’d been presenting, had the reputation of being a bastard, but in that cool badass kind of way. If he saw his participants pull great stunts, he was the first to applaud them. Of course he was also the one who had told the easily excitable Charlotte Adams that her desired target Myrian Seltzer was doing better than her, giving her even more incentive to kill the other girl, but for some reason the audience accepted it from Stender. Hell, even I accepted it from Stender.

Berntsson had been copying that behaviour a bit nastier, I think. Still, he had been one of the most popular announcers for exactly that reason. The audience also revelled in the nastiness. I was pretty sure though that once /they/ would find themselves at the mercy of that nastiness, combined with some unknown poison eating away at their bodies, that they’d snap like I did.

I’d always been a person of extremes. It always had been everything or nothing for me. My highs were extremely high, my lows were extremely low. I’d never been an easy person to be around, that had also been the reason why Stephan broke up with me after four years. He couldn’t take it anymore, he said. I was too unpredictable, too intense. I’d met him right before my mom’s death, when I’d been on a great high, but then everything had been plunked into an abyss of misery and at some point it was just enough for him. He couldn’t deal with my intensity anymore. What he had liked in me at the beginning of our relationship had ruined us in the end. I wonder what he’d be thinking of me if he saw me now.

My father had dropped me like a brick the moment the world found out who I was and what I’d done. I’d hardly been in touch with him since my parents divorced four years prior, and he now lived in the old Lowlands somewhere with his wife and his new baby. There was a reason for the sparse contact, though. The divorce procedure had been so hard on my mother that she’d overdosed on her sleeping medication. That’s what killed her. I had blamed him for that, back then. And he hated me for blaming him, I think – that was why he had moved so far away.

During my time in prison, he had contacted me only once, two days after the fact. I was still in the prison hospital and sleeping off the remains of poison in my body when he suddenly appeared at my bed. I nearly cried, I was so happy to see someone there, someone to support me. However he didn’t support me. He shouted at me, what the hell I’d been thinking, how I had ruined my life and he sure as hell wasn’t going to stick around to pick up the pieces for me. I should have told him off, I should have done something, but all I could do was cry heartbrokenly. He told me I was as pathetic as I was stupid and walked out of there. I never saw him again.

“What are you thinking of?” Walter asked, while beneath us Cidade lay shimmering in the sunlight. “You look so sad.”

I shrugged. “I was wondering if my dad was watching the vids, and what he would think of me. He definitely made it clear to me what he thought of me after the Survival Game, and I haven’t seen him since.”

“Sounds like a great dad to me.”

“Just marvellous. What about yours?”

He smiled an odd little smile. “I’m a babyboomer orphanage kid. I was told that my dad was a soldier that knocked up some young girl in the celebrations after the final Cease Fire treaty. The girl put me up for adoption the moment I was born, but since there were a lot of babies being born at that time and everybody was making their own babies, I was eventually dumped in an orphanage in the Dregs.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I had a pretty good time there. They had some government funding, and there were always other kids to play with. I went to school, then I went to old Amsterdam to study real estate, found a job, worked for a few years, and then the housing market went awry and I found a job in a betting station.” He smiled. “And then I met the love of my life.”

I grinned. “Looks like you’ve been able to handle what life throws at you so far.”

“The keyword being so far. I didn’t handle Lannie’s death all that well, though,” he said, looking out over the city below us. “The evidence is the fact that I’m here, looking for revenge and ruining my own life in the process. I’m not sure Lannie would have been happy with this.”

“If it makes it any easier, I understand why you’ve done this. And I admire you for it,” I said honestly, laying my hand on his arm. “I’m not Lannie, but there’s someone on your side, at least.”

“Thanks.”

The pod suddenly slowed down and took a sharp turn to the right, starting a descent. “I think we’re at our destination,” I said. “So where is that other pod that you’ve arranged?”

“It’ll be a hike from here,” Walter said. “It’s near the Hilton hotel, on the outskirts of the center of the city. Do you know where that is?”

“I’ve never been in Cidade before,” I confessed.

He grinned and opened up a terminal screen with a map of Cidade. “We’re here,” he indicated a glowing dot in the middle of the screen. His finger trailed to the north east and stopped at some square that looked completely ordinary to me. All that I could see about it was that it was located in the middle of a maze of streets and podrails. I had no idea how to get there. “And this is where we’re going.”

“You’ll have to lead the way, hun.”

“Don’t worry, I will,” he assured me. His gaze flicked to the pod station where we would be landing. I followed his look. It was in the middle of a large street, right next to a huge gleaming tower that seemed to be full of offices. Taylor Tower, it said above the entrance.

“You sure weren’t kidding when you said that Taylor was some rich bobo,” I laughed.

But Walter raised his hand to shush me. “This is not right. The whole street is deserted. It’s Saturday, this is a shopping area, this place should be teeming with people.”

“You think that…”

“I’m sure. Can’t we reprogram the pod to go away again? Go somewhere else?”

“Not until we’ve docked. It’s already started its docking sequence,” I answered, breathlessly searching the deserted street for an outing of this situation. They were waiting for us, I was sure of it. But then I saw what was right next to the pod station. “But what we /could/ do… is try to make for the metro station. It’s not very far; only about a hundred feet or something before we go below street level, and I think it’s our only option.”

“Sounds fair to me.”

“Alright then. Truth be told, I’m fairly surprised they don’t shoot us out of the sky,” I wondered.

And that was when the first plasma bolts started to light up the afternoon sky around us.

Everyone is in position, waiting behind windows, behind parked vehicles, closed doors. They’re counting their heartbeats, counting the seconds, intently listening to their headsets and waiting for the moment to commence their attack against the two renegade League contestants.

The normally so busy shopping street is quiet. They’ve closed it off for safety reasons. If there’s going to be shooting, nobody wants to shoot civilians. Also, it’ll keep the media on a distance.

All eyes are on the docking station.

Valentina Marin is with them, her trusted guns resting in their holsters, just waiting to be used again. She is standing in the half-twilight of a darkened store, looking into the street through an opened window. Within the closed store, it is nice and cool because of the climate control system. Out on the streets it’s hot and stuffy. She is wearing her earpiece, awaiting information from the Control Room just as much as the rest of the squad. She doesn’t lead them, not necessarily, but they do look up to her, waiting for her nod of approval, her shouted command. Perhaps they’ll even listen to her before they listen to the squad leader, who is as much in direct contact with the Control Room as Valentina is.

It’s just like old times again,” she murmurs to Stender on the other side of the connection. “I hope I haven’t lost my touch.”

Of course you haven’t,” Stender retorts. “Not you. But I do wish you wouldn’t have to be out there. I thought we were done with all this crap.”

Valentina shrugs in the half-twilight of the darkened store. “It’s like I said. If you want things to go right, you’ll have to do it yourself.”

He doesn’t directly respond to that. “The pod is approaching. Get ready.”

I always am,” she says huskily, and he laughs.

She listens to the squad leader relaying the message about the pod, and surely enough, there it comes.

And then some halfwit starts shooting already, against direct orders.

Goddammit!”

There had been this one moment where Walter and I had clung at each other like frightened children. No matter that we’d been in peril so many times today already, no matter that we’d taken /lives/ today. There was green plasma coming at us and we had nowhere to go, so the first thing we did was grab the other in fear. I nearly wet my pants in pure utter horror. That one moment I remember crystal clear, thinking/Is this it? Is this how it’s going to end?/

It wasn’t. The guy missed and there was this one moment of confusion on the street, I think, because nobody was shooting the moment the pod actually docked. Thank /God/! That might have very well saved our lives. Walter and I threw open the door and stormed out of the pod and in the relative cover of the other pods in those two seconds that black clad policemen and enforcers were running out of buildings. Orders were being shouted and once again the street lit up in those sickening shades of violet and green.

I pushed myself against the smooth metal surface of one of the parked metal pods and sucked in a deep breath, holding my flak cannon against me as if it could offer me protection. “We can’t stay here,” I breathed to Walter, who was standing behind the pod next to mine. It was an eternal shame that the doors to those things were actually on the other side. If any of these two had been parked the other way around with the doors not facing the street but the rest of the docking station, we would have been able to hijack another one. On the other hand, they might have shot us out of the sky anyway as soon as we would have attempted that.

We needed a diversion. We certainly couldn’t stay here, but we also couldn’t leave – there was too much plasma and bullets being thrown around to even have a halfway decent chance to make it to the underground stairwell. The metro station seemed hopelessly out of our reach. “Now what?” I whispered furiously to Walter, who simply shrugged. He didn’t have an idea either.

I felt like I found myself in a bad action movie, in which the bad guys are taking the good guys under fire and none of them knows even remotely how to aim so the good guys could always walk away and shoot everyone flawlessly – one shot, one hit. I had always detested those movies, but I’d never taken into account how much of it was true. Most of those shots were just cover shots, to pin you place so you wouldn’t be going anywhere while they figured out what the hell they were going to do to overtake you. I understood that now. They were probably as decent a shot as I was, but the angle was all wrong, probably… and they were not /all/ that interested in killing us outright, that was just an additional bonus.

Meanwhile, around us things were burning. There was debris flying everywhere, and things were burning. Within an instant, the street had turned into this sort of warzone. It was terribly frightening to even linger here for even a moment, but it wasn’t as if we had much of a choice. There was plasma and bullets impacting in the pods and the walls and the vehicles around us. How the hell were we supposed to get out of there?

And then it happened.

It felt like it was all happening in slow motion. I felt it happen more than I saw it.

There was just this overpowering violet flash, and I actually /felt/ the impact of the plasma orb burying itself in the pod I was leaning against – on the inside. I screamed and dove out of the way, slamming myself against Walter, so we went rolling over the ground and out of the way. That was the moment that the enforcer guy with the shock rifle – so much like Walter’s – had copied Walter’s move. He sent a plasma beam to meet with the disintegrating orb. He shot straight and true, perhaps even truer than Walter had done in that hallway with Jovanovich.

The two plasma beams collided in the middle of the interior of the pod I’d been leaning against until a second ago, and the whole thing just exploded.

The sound was overpowering. For this split second I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I was just lying upon Walter where I’d fallen on top of him while the pod exploded. The brunt of the pod was catapulted right into two other vehicles, who on their turn didn’t survive the impact for very long. Their alarms sounded shrill against the beeping in my ear before they were silenced by yet another explosion. It was raining burning shrapnel and I was cut severely on my arms. I didn’t respond to that, until something hit me in the back of my head, and my hair instantly caught flame.

I smelled it before I felt it. I instantly slammed the palm of my hand upon it in an attempt to douse the fire, which thankfully it did, even though I earned myself a nasty burn in the process. I rolled off Walter and hissed: “Come on! There’s smoke everywhere now, we should be able to-”

I couldn’t even finish my sentence. He was up on his feet in an instant, grabbed my severely burnt hand and dragged me out of here. The air was filled with dust and chaos and burning pods, and they must have thought that we’d been killed because for a few seconds there was no gunfire. We effectively used the silence after the explosion in which everyone always wondered what the hell happened and who died to start our sprint to the metro station.

Of course, these people were trained professionals. We had only come half way until they recovered and bullets were flying again. I let out a scream and wanted to cover my head while running, but Walter was smarter, he took hold of his two shock rifles and loosed two plasma orbs into the street, while running. Apparently he’d been charging his weapons, because the orbs he emitted were about twice as big as his earlier work.

And because his face had been turned to the street, he saw that the police force of Cidade had an ace up their sleeve. “Shit!” he screamed, pulling me down to the ground. “Redeemer!”

I never saw his orbs impact anything, because by then we’d reached the metro station and we pretty much threw ourselves down the stairs. Everything to get away from a fucking Redeemer…

In the middle of the street, way out of the range of Walter’s plasma fire, there’s a young man standing. He is bulky and muscled and he /has/ to be, because he is carrying a weapon in his arms that weighs about fifty pounds. The weapon in itself is one of the most dangerous direct combat weapons that has been used during the war. It’s poetically called the Redeemer, because it can turn the tide of a fight when it’s used wisely. If fired at a street full of people the results can be cataclysmic.

The Redeemer fires a mini-nuclear missile over a long distance. The moment the missile leaves the gun, the viewpoint changes from the cross hair to a mini-camera on the missile itself, and it can be guided around corners and, well, into metro stations, if needed.

Valentina leaves her cover in surprise and lowers her guns. “A Redeemer?” she asks Stender through her earpiece. “You have /got/ to be kidding me.”

Not my idea,” Stender says. “The Cidade police force wants to fight fire with fire, apparently.”

And then the young policeman pulls the trigger.

He deftly guides the missile down into the shaft with the stairwell that leads to the metro station.

And before the eyes of the Cidade policeforce and the Corporation enforcers, the metro station simply explodes. The concrete street bubbles up, tears open, and then a fountain of fire and rubble darkens the sky.

***

CHAPTER TEN: AND STILL WE WILL BE HERE

I wasn’t awake when the missile impacted with the stairs we’d fallen down only ten seconds before. During our fall down the stairwell I’d hit my head against one of the steps and there was just blackness for a while.

When I opened my eyes, there was no light in the hallway. There wasn’t much of /anything/ in that metro hallway, really. Where there had been a tiled hallway with white lighting and ad projections on the walls before, there was darkness and rubble and dust now. The entrance of the metro station was completely blocked now, only a few rays of dusty sunlight made their way between broken support walls and rubble.

I was lying on my stomach in the middle of the mess, covered in dust and with a large panel of tiled wall pressing me on the ground. I was lucky; it wasn’t all that heavy. I groaned and rolled out of my precarious position, reaching around for my gun. Thank GOD I still had my cannon. It was lying only a few feet away from me. I picked it up, wiped the dust off it and flicked on the flash light on the device.

“Walter?” I asked, coughing because of the dust in my throat. “Walter, are you okay?”

As it turned out, he wasn’t all that far away from me. He was lying on his side, curled up in a ball, his arms over his face. There was just dust and plaster upon him, no heavy support beams or anything. He looked okay, at least… I reached out and touched his grime-covered face. “Walter?”

He opened his eyes abruptly, staring at me. “I can’t hear you!” he said too loud. “My ears…”

“It’ll come back,” I assured him, wiping grime and blood from my own face. I seemed to be bleeding from a million little cuts, but nothing seemed to do more than sting and bruise me. The painkiller cocktail they’d given me this morning probably took the edge off some of the pains I was suffering from, but I did feel pretty shaken up. I wondered if I’d live to see tomorrow, whether I’d be able to even walk. Already I felt stiff and bruised all over. I gave Walter a fierce hug.

God, we were lucky. We had been shot at with pulse guns, shock rifles, miniguns, and finally with a Redeemer, and we were alive. We were still here, still breathing. It seemed unbelievable, with the risks we’d been taking and the situations we were getting out of. For the first time I was beginning to wonder if perhaps we were /meant/ to get out of here, perhaps someone or something was watching over us.

This kind of luck was extraordinary, and of course it couldn’t last.

Are they still alive?” Young asks, joining the conversation between Stender and Valentina. “The explosion took out all of our cams around the place, I don’t have visuals anymore.”

Valeria shrugs, even though Young nor Stender can’t see it. She stands in the middle of the ravaged street. Where ten minutes ago this street had been deserted and peaceful, it now looks like a warzone. And Valentina, despite her shorts and her t-shirt, with her sunglasses still firmly planted in her strawberry-coloured hair, doesn’t even look /that/ out of place, strangely enough. She leans casually against a wall and watches enforcers and police force sweep the street. “The chief of police is scanning the place with infrared now. We should have a reading soon enough.”

What do you think?”

I think that the aim was all wrong; the missile didn’t get deep enough into the shaft. Chances are about fifty/fifty that they’re still alive. I think this guy blew his chance, pretty literally.”

And then a shout travels down the street. “They’re alive!”

Valentina smirks. “See?”

Walter and I pulled ourselves up and looked into the hallway. As far as we could see by the lights that were provided by our weapons, the hallway was a complete mess but still open enough to navigate our way deeper into the metro tunnel. There was dust hanging in the air everywhere and plaster was still occasionally raining down from the ceiling, but these hallways were built to withstand earthquakes – and it showed.

“Come on,” Walter said, more on a normal level this time. It seemed like his hearing was returning. “I’m sure that this metro station was taken out of commission, let’s see if we can resurface elsewhere.”

“They’ll be watching all metro stations from now on though,” I said as we started walking. The beam of white light our weapons were wildly dancing through the dusty hallway as we half walked, half climbed over piles of rubble.

Walter shot me a look. He looked like a fright in this light. There was grime and blood on his face as well. His hair was covered in a layer of dust and soot. “What do you propose, then?”

“I think we just have to try and make for one of the air vents somewhere. Maybe we should try and get out near another pod station, so we can go to the hotel where your reserved pod is waiting for us,” I suggested, squinting at the darkness before us.

Walter seemed to agree with that. For a while, we walked through blackened hallways. Slowly enough, there was less rubble and dust everywhere. And then we rounded a corner and suddenly we walked in hallways where there were only cracked tiles here and there. It was still dusty, though. We took turns sneezing violently, which made us laugh. We’d chosen for the north west route, which was supposed to bring us to a metro station that under normal circumstances would have taken us to where we needed to be. Over here the power was out, though. There was no metro, no citizens travelling to their respective destinations.

All there was waiting for us was darkness.

We shrugged it off and walked into the metro tunnel. If there weren’t any metro’s coming anytime soon, we might as well use their tunnels.

Okay,” says Young. He stands in the middle of the Control Room, where Stender and Ruiz are sitting behind their terminals. By now a team of four technicians are working here as well, setting up feeds to security camera systems throughout the city. “I just got off the phone with the major of Cidade. He has declared a situation of emergency throughout the whole Compound. Citizens are advised to stay inside, close windows and doors, and not travel anywhere. The whole metro and pod traffic flow has been shut down.”

Well done,” Stender nods. “Let’s see if we can flush out our rats this way.”

The metro tunnel took a rather sharp turn to the north, and that’s when we noticed it. Orange emergency lights, placed on regular intervals against the wall. We cheered when we saw them, glad to finally see something in our surroundings again instead of just blackness. It was enough of a momentous occasion for us to sit down and drink a few swallows of water from Walter’s water bottle. He still had a litre of water with him, bless him. Nothing in the world has ever tasted sweeter in my life. I was parched, but I never even noticed until I got water to rectify that situation.

The water was gone in less than a minute.

“We should really eat something too,” Walter said, as I threw the empty water bottle in a corner. “I’m not very hungry because right now it’s adrenaline that’s keeping me standing on two legs, but I am a bit light headed. Sugar low.”

“That, and the hit to the head that we took when the missile exploded,” I added sourly. Ever since the explosion I’d been sporting a splitting headache that seemed only to be getting worse. The pre-emptive painkillers they’d given me before the match had pretty much run their course now, and fatigue and pain were definitely beginning to take their toll on me. “We can’t keep up this pace for much longer, Walter.”

He shrugged, outlined against the orange light. “We’ll have to keep it up for as long as we can. The moment we drop our guard, they’ll take us out.”

“You knew this, the moment you planned this heist, didn’t you?” I asked. “I don’t think you ever expected to get out of here alive.”

“I hoped that I’d get this far. I made arrangements for this kind of situation. But no, I didn’t expect it. On the other hand, I didn’t expect to get shot at with a redeemer, either. Shows me just how much I know.”

“What /was/ your plan, then? You know, if we’d ever get out of the City?”

“I don’t know. Be happy with the thought that I’d broken the system for Lannie. Be smug with the knowledge that I kicked Young and the Corporation in the balls where it hurt.”

I stared at him. “You really don’t have a plan, do you?”

“Well, what was /your/ bright idea for today then? Dying in the Arena? Wow! I wish I’d thought of it, myself!”

My shoulders slumped. He was right. I hadn’t planned anything in this whole thing. I’d just wanted to fight back, and now all I wanted was to stay alive and never have to worry about the Corporation again. I just wanted to get out of here, but now it was suddenly dawning on me that this might be rather impossible. And even if we did manage to get away from Cidade, what would I do then? The police all over the world was looking for us. There were prices on our heads, most probably. I had no way to clear my name: no funds, no lawyer, no one who wouldn’t bring me in for a few bucks. Nobody would believe me. “We’re in a pretty depressing situation, aren’t we?”

Walter lay his arm around my shoulder. “There is one idea. During my stay in the clinic I didn’t talk to just Ruiz. There were all kinds of rich people hanging out there, and after my surgery there was plenty of money left from Lannie’s prize money. I bought this small island in Sulawesi with it from one of the guys there. There’s shitloads of coral reef, beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The water is heavily polluted after the war so you can’t dive there anymore like in the old days, but I think that this place would be pretty secluded there. You’re… if we ever get out there, that is.. you’d be welcome to join me there. I don’t think Lannie would mind.”

For some reason that touched me incredibly. My eyes stung for a moment with hot tears. “If I’d die before that time and I get to the afterlife before you do, I’ll be sure to tell Lannie what an awesome husband she has.”

He grinned. “You’re one in a million, Dani.” Groaning, he got up from his sitting position, picked up his guns and held out his hand. “Come on. Break time is over.”

“I think we’re at the part where we should be starting to look into a good vent to climb out of. There are enough emergency vents in the case of fire or something… let’s try and find one that ends up near or in a building or something,” I mused, picking up my own gun and noticing how heavy it was. Carrying it around took much more effort than in the beginning: I really was getting tired. If only I would have chosen for dual guns like the enforcers way back when! My advisor from my sponsor had whined about how the weapon was so weak, and it didn’t have enough fire power. But Valentina Marin had become World Champion bearing those double guns. I should have gone with my instinct, not with advice. Despite the awesome tattoo on my back, I should have gone for the sensible solution back then.

We pushed on, despite light-headedness and headaches, despite exhaustion. We didn’t speak much as we walked, trying not to think of consequences and the possibility of dying. I had always been the kind of person that rather lived in the here and now instead of dreaming and worrying about the future. Perhaps that was what made me a survivor. It also was what had gotten me into this situation, I suddenly realized. I never thought about consequences, I just thought about how badly I wanted to get /out/ of things, how I had to resolve things. But usually there was nothing crossing my mind about what it would mean.

In this situation I hadn’t had much choice. I could have turned on Walter and shot him, I supposed, but somehow that had never been an option for me. What he had promised me was much more appealing: a chance to tell fuckyou to the Corporation, to make them lose face in the eyes of the world. These days it looked like the Corporation could get away with anything; even after one of their announcers had been accused of fraud and had been thrown into jail.

It was said that Announcer Huey had been trying to fiddle with the outcome of the World League, severely compromising Valentina Marin’s chances of survival by messing with her injectors against radiation poisoning. She’d gotten terribly sick because of it after the League and escaped death only because of the heavy treatments she’d undergone. And who knows who else had walked around with sabotaged injectors? We’d never know, they’d all diied. Hugh had ended up in prison for heavy duty fraud, but the world had shrugged and moved on after the trial. Despite the fact that one of their own announcers had betrayed the Corporation, they’d gotten away with it.

And then there had been the whole Berntsson case. The Corporation needed something new after the World League, something exciting. Berntsson had claimed the world was ready for a Survival Game, that the audience would love it. And lookie here, he had this whole register of people who’d given their signature for League games now or later. It never had been specified /what/ League games, though. Nobody had even inquired whether that was legal. I had just gotten picked from that register and had been thrown into the Game unwillingly. After I killed Berntsson, everyone had just been focusing on that part. My lawyer wasn’t listened to when he claimed that I shouldn’t have been in that bloody Game in the first place.

Some fucking Game. They’d been trying to /kill/ me.

“Let’s try here,” Walter said, pulling me from my dark thoughts. “We should be far enough from the place where we were, and I don’t dare to stay underground for too long.”

It was not as if above ground was much better – on street level chances were much bigger that somebody out there would recognize us and come after us with a bloody rocket launcher like that Taylor kid.

We climbed anyway.

I found them!” If Ruiz would have been any less manly, you’d say that he is singing. There’s such glee in his voice. “They’re in the northwestern tunnel right now, and I got them /right/ here on screen.”

Stender jumps up and stands next to Ruiz, peering at the plasma screen. The image is somewhat grainy because Ruiz had to adjust the brightness of his terminal, but sure enough: there they are. Two of them, walking through the tunnel, weapons on the shoulder and silhouetted against the orange emergency lighting. “Give me a location, and I’ll make sure Valentina will be waiting for them, together with a new reconnaissance team. And /this/ time, nothing will go wrong.”

The ladder that I was climbing was rusty. There was rust peeling off under my fingers when I made my way up, trying to be quick about it even though I had to carry a heavy flak cannon with one hand as well. “Do you have any idea where we’ll be?” I asked down, to where Walter was cursing against the flakes of rust that were raining down on him.

“Somewhere in Cidade,” he said curtly. “I know the Compound pretty well, and I have a general idea of where we could be. If I’m not mistaken we’re near a huge shopping mall that’s currently closed for renovations.”

I climbed further, towards the daylight that was blinding in all its intensity. “Okay, I’m here.” Blinking against the sun, I discovered a window of emergency glass. /In case of fire, break glass and hit emergency button. Door will open/ it said. “Well, that seems straightforward enough,” I murmured. “Watch out!” I called to Walter, and broke the glass with a simple thunk against it from my weapon. Glass splinters tinkled downwards. Walter cursed again and leaned out of the way.

I hit the button, and sure enough, I was able to pass through. The wireframe that had been blocking my way receded, and I could climb up the ladder in its full length. Thankfully the thing was not wired to an alarm, so nothing happened, apart from the fact that I made my way up into broad daylight again.

I hopped out of the shaft and blinked against the sunlight. I was standing on the corner of a long street, where sure enough people were walking, but not many. Next to me was the closed mall that Walter had been talking about. I wondered for a moment if they still sold any food and whether we might be able to nab some, because I sure as hell could use some.

And then somebody screamed. I whirled around and looked straight in the face of an elderly woman, who was standing before some store with mirrored panels. And in that mirror, I saw myself reflected. A scrawny young woman, carrying a large gun in her hands, covered in soot and grime and blood, coming out of the metro tunnel. Her green eyes looked awfully bright and wide against the greyness of her dirty face. And at present she was being joined by a man who looked just as bad. We looked like we had just stepped out of a warzone – which, in a sense, we had.

And on the front of the building the old lady just passing, there was a message being projected/ON BEHALF OF THE MAJOR OF CIDADE WE’VE DECLARED AN EMERGENCY SITUATION. PLEASE GO HOME, CLOSE DOORS AND WINDOWS, AND KEEP AN EYE ON THE NEWS/ it flickered on the wall. This lady had been going home, I guessed. And going home, she’d found herself eye to eye with exactly the reason why the emergency situation she had feared.

“I’m sorry,” I told her sadly, and that made her only more afraid.

Walter seemed to be clearer of mind and said: “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt you.”

She was trembling all over – this poor old lady. “I saw you on the vids…”

“Please,” I begged her, “walk on, go home, be safe. You have nothing to do with this, they’re /shooting/ at us!” I couldn’t put to words with just how disturbed I was that I was scaring old women. /How the hell did I end up here? When did I get to the point where I would frighten old ladies?/ I thought, on the brink of tears all over again. It seemed like all I did was scream, bleed, and cry today. What a fucking day. I wanted nothing more than just lay down and sleep and everything to go away.

“Dani, focus,” Walter hissed. “We /have/ to leave. People are taking notice of us.”

The old woman broke into a run, grabbing a communicator from her handbag and calling the emergency number, judging from the three number code that she punched in.

“Fuck,” I whispered. Time to run again. “Back in the Game, back in the Survival Game for a new round,” I said, grabbing Walter’s hand. There was a parking garage right next to the shopping mall at the end of the street. Perhaps we could steal a vehicle there.

So we ran again, like we’d done a million times already today. Breath was burning in my lungs and I was getting so sick of this – the smell of my own fear, my own panic. Walter, running for his life. He deserved to be home in the Lowlands with his red haired wife, betting on some stupid League Game. He didn’t deserve to be in it!

I blinked tears away while I wondered for the thousandth time /why/, when suddenly sirens screamed through the street.

“Oh no,” Walter whispered over bloodless lips, daring a look over his shoulder. He gave me a sharp tug and dragged me along, those final meters to the parking garage. I dared a look as well and saw bright red police vehicles dropping from the sky like bricks, only to hover over the street before they loosed their landing gear. First they followed us though, chasing us through the street.

“They’re here,” I sobbed, running.

“But so are we,” Walter panted between gasps of air, dragging me around the corner and into the parking garage. We pushed our way past ID control machines and onto the first level of the garage. He grinned then, that devil-may-care grin that Lannie must have loved to bits. “We’re still here, too.”

Val! Can you see them?”

Oh, most definitely. They’re going to the parking garage. They’re going to be /right/ where we want them.”

***

CHAPTER ELEVEN: HELL AND CONSEQUENCES

A quick scan of the place told us that there were no vehicles on the first floor.

“Just our luck,” Walter grumbled. “Come on, let’s check out the second floor.”

I threw a quick look over my shoulder, but the entrance of the garage looked just as deserted as it had been three seconds ago. “I have a bad feeling about this,” I said. “You shouldn’t be going up when you’re fleeing. We’ll only find ourselves trapped that way.”

“Not if our getaway vehicle is on one of the higher floors,” Walter retorted, throwing open the door to the stairhouse. More stairs. Goddammit. “Come on, let’s go up.”

My feet thundered over the steps. They felt heavy, as if I’d been drinking a few pints of lager and it’d all gone to my legs. Man, I was getting so bloody tired! Still, there was no time for lamenting and whining. We had to get to the next level and if there weren’t any cars here, the next one, and the next one. In this sort of parking you’d usually find that the vehicles were parked as high up as possible, because that provided for the easiest parking – one’d be coming in a straight line from way up in the air. Going to one of the lower levels required much more manoeuvring and was usually only done when the top level was already filled with vehicles. It was just annoying when you wanted to pick up your vehicle because you wanted to go home; it either meant a lot of stairs or waiting for the elevator.

And for us it was inconvenient too. On the second level, there were no cars either. I wanted to curse, but then I forcibly told myself that the shopping mall was closed today and everyone had gone home as per the orders of the mayor of Cidade, of course any vehicles that would be still parked out here would be on the roof.

“By the way, Dani?” Walter asked, when we were running up the third flight of stairs. He was obviously thinking of entirely different things than me. “What happened earlier today, in the Fortress? I heard you scream at Raoul, and I never really found out what was going on.”

What a strange moment to think about such a thing. The incident was far removed from my mind at this moment. But thinking of it distracted me from my hatred of the stairs, and it was a bit of a triumph, so I grinned. “Oh, that was the most insane situation, really. Raoul was being pursued by Johansson, who’d shot him. And Raoul, the clever bugger, ran straight out into the open square. I never got the chance to ask him but I’m sure…” I gasped for breath, leaning at the wall for a moment. My headache was still pounding but I had to keep going. “I’m sure that he did it on purpose. Each and every one of us knew that Diaz would be going for the high ground. Anyone who’d enter the square would be wide open for his shots.”

We reached the third floor. No vehicles, either. “What the hell!”

I was beginning to get worried now. What if they’d be waiting for us on the roof? I’d counted six floors for the parking garage, large and sprawling. It would /have/ to be the fifth floor, otherwise we might have a very serious problem. “So,” I said as I followed Walter up on the stairs to the fourth floor. “Raoul intentionally led Johansson into the line of Diaz’ fire. He died right there… and then Diaz shifted his attention to where Raoul had fallen. I saw it all from the window, so I screamed at him to get out of the way. He did, and it was just in time.”

“Maybe that was why he threw in his lot with us,” Walter said. “You saved his life.”

“Anyone would have done that.”

“Not really,” he said. “People in death matches are bitches. I think you’re just about the only person who would have called out. Despite the promise we made, I don’t even think that I would’ve… I just didn’t trust him.” With a dramatic throw he opened up the door and we didn’t even have to look all that far – this floor was just as deserted as the others. “Up to the roof, I guess,” he said, looking defeated.

“What if there isn’t a vehicle on the roof, either?”

“Then I hope there’s a bridge to the mall, and we fight our way through there. But I hope that we can do this the easy way.”

The police force is in the mall, the vehicles are nearing the roof, and my man is taking position.”

You told him how much he’d get for this kill, didn’t you?”

Of course I did. He found it very motivational. And I think he never really liked that girl much anyway. Say, am /I/ getting anything if I help turning these kids in for you, Young? I’m putting my ass on the line here, too. Everybody’s getting rewards, I want one too.”

It’s not like you don’t have money to burn, Val. I’ve seen the money you received for your League wins in the past years. Hell, I even put it on your bank account. Do you really need that money?”

It’s the principle of the matter.”

We didn’t speak on that last flight of stairs. Walter just ran before me, holding one of his rifles ready to shoot and opened the door with the other hand. The front of the entrance to the roof was made of glass and I was right behind him, so I could see everything. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but on the other hand it did make me realize instantly what was going on.

In a flash, I’d seen and understood the situation. Suspended in the air above the roof, there was a bright red police vehicle flying. It had open doors and in the door opening stood a grim-looking enforcer. His dark hair whipped in the breeze, which seemed to be heavier now that we were higher up in the air. I looked him straight in the face and saw his square jaw, the stubble upon it, the determined look on his face… and the rocket launcher in his hand. “Duck!” I screamed, grabbing Walter and yanking him back into the stairhouse and down the stairs again. We fell the first five steps, tumbling over each other. There was loud bang and a violet flash as Walter’s rifle went off, but thankfully it had been pointing upwards and because of this only the ceiling and the roof of the entrance got painted in blue-purple plasma. We lay there for only a heartbeat, because we heard the whistling of the enforcer’s rocket launcher.

One look was enough to get us to untangle ourselves and throwing ourselves further down the stairs. Above us, the entrance to the roof went up in an explosion of splintering glass and mortar. I think I screamed as I covered my head against whatever was coming down. A loud cracking sound tore through the place all of a sudden. Large cracks appeared in the wall next to me, and we both instantly realized that the top of the place was going to collapse.

Walter was swifter to get back on his two feet than I was. He dragged me out of the stairhouse and onto the fourth floor. “Stay low!” he hissed – and then the whole thing came down in an avalanche of glass and concrete and mortar.

A cloud of dust came wafting out of the stairhouse and rained upon us, while we were lying on the ground. I had to sneeze and laugh at the same time, because once /again/ we had escaped a narrow death by throwing ourselves off a flight of stairs. “How many times is this going to happen before this is all over?” I gasped between long bouts of helpless laughter. “Is this a fucking rule or something? If there be a stairwell, we have to throw ourselves down from it because people are fucking /shooting/ at us?” I was crying now too, hysterical with adrenaline and the absurdity of the situation.

Walter sat up and took me in his arms. He held me tightly for a moment, hugging me to calm me down. “It’s going to be alright Dani,” he promised.

“How?” I asked, hugging him back for all I was worth. “Because I sure as hell can’t see it right now. There are enforcer people downstairs, they’re upstairs, and all we are is locked in here like rats in a sinking ship.”

“We’ll figure something out,” he said. “Something. Let’s check out this floor, maybe there’s a bridge to the mall from here as well.”

I closed my eyes for a moment. Walter smelled of sweat and blood and dust, but also undeniably like himself. “And maybe Young walks in here declaring his eternal love for us,” I said. “Walter, what makes you think that the mall won’t be infested with Corporation employees?”

He let me go and looked at my face. “I’m thinking of that. And we got out of those kinds of situations before. Remember the enforcers at the Fortress?”

“They have /Redeemers/ now.”

“Fuck Redeemers, Dani. You gotta believe, or else we /will/ die in here.”

Do you have a visual on them?”

Not yet, ms Marin. They need to come to the front first, they’re cowering in the back at present.”

” Do you need them to be at the window?”

That would make it a lot easier.”

Okay, I’ll set to arranging that then. I’ll figure something out for you. You just wait one moment.”

Thank you, ms Marin.”

There was not much time to lose. With our escape via the roof being cut off and with enforcers undoubtedly blocking the exit below, it wouldn’t be all that long before this floor would be swarming with them as well. And when that happened, it would all be over. All we could do then was make one last stand, and I didn’t want to see that happen.

Near the back, there /was/ a bridge to the mall, we found to our utter relief. However, the entrance to the bridge was blocked. There was a fence blocking our way that looked perhaps a bit too sturdy to kick down. “I am /not/ going to let a fucking fence stop me,” I grumbled. “I’ve gotten WAY too far now to let a fence bother me.” I grabbed a better hold of my flak cannon, cocked it, and then shot at the fence mechanism at the side. It was just a simple lock system; if I would have had a keycard of the mall I’m sure I could have opened it, but as things went this was a great way as well.

The lock was efficiently obliterated.

“That works,” Walter said dryly, grinning at me. He kicked the fence open with a dramatic move, and it opened without any problems.

I grinned back at him, pleased with myself. “Dani Summers, for all your crisis management!”

“Come on, let’s go. We don’t have much time.”

I nodded. “The Corporation’s probably in the mall already. What if we walk straight into an ambush?”

“What if the ambush comes up the stairs?”

“Good point. At least this time we’re going to choose to immerse ourself in it, then.” I wiped my hair – which was stiff with sweat and grime – out of my face and nodded grimly. “Let’s do this shit. At least we’ll be kicking ass /our/ way.”

We never got to that point, though.

By that time, just as we were deciding to get in, a female voice suddenly loudly resounded through the parking garage. It was coming from outside, from below, enhanced by a megaphone. “Walter Lane, Dani Summers! Can you hear me?”

We froze. Of course we did. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Like I hadn’t been able to place Young when he sat next to my bed on the morning after the Survival Game – was it a Corporation affiliate that I just couldn’t think of right now?

There was no way to answer her, and I wasn’t quite sure if I would even if we could have. If this woman was indeed Corporation affiliated, there was no way I was ever going to trust her. “I have on authority of the Corporation that we’d like to negotiate some terms!” the megaphone blared.

Walter and I shared a look. He shrugged. I shook my head. “There’s no way they are going to keep to such promises. I’m sure they’re going to offer you money to take me out, or perhaps even vice versa since you seemed to the the initiator of this whole mess.”

“You’d rather go and try for the mall? It’s a mess there as well.”

I looked at him then/really/ looked at him. Had he looked like a fright before, he sure as hell did now. Where he’d just been a normal young man last night – bulky, not very tall, with an average face with sad blue eyes but an infective laugh – he now looked like a man who had walked through hell and back, and is suffering the consequences. Fresh blood was trickling over the side of his face, making trails in the dust and smear that was there already. He must have hit something when we fell down the stairs the last time. His dark brown hair was completely matted and dusty, a bit like mine had looked like when I had seen myself in the mirror out on the street. He was also bleeding in several other places. There were cuts and scratches everywhere and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how bruised he must be – like I was.

Most of all, he looked tired. Defiant and angry and very badly trying to survive, but he was getting tired – also like I was. It had to end sometime soon. I didn’t know how much longer we’d be able to hold on.

“Come downstairs and we can talk about it,” the voice on the megaphone offered. “I’ll make sure that there won’t be any surprises.”

And then Walter froze. He dropped his rifle in shock, going pale even under the dirt on his face. He swayed and I reached out to catch him, but he pulled away from me and ran away from me – towards the window. Because there had been something in that voice that he’d recognized. Something in the woman’s drawl, something in her accent. Something that must have rung a bell with him more loudly than with me.

And as I began to turn around to shout that he should stay away from the ledge, away from the window, that they surely couldn’t be trusted – then I suddenly remembered. I’d heard that voice too, on television. I heard it many a time, and I knew why it hurt Walter this badly.

Everyone has seen it on the vids. It was the best-watched show in the history of mankind, the day the world came to a standstill to watch this very show. The only people who didn’t watch it were probably either dead or unconscious.

Lannie Williams during the World League, bleeding badly after her run-in with Christelle Jones’ Ion Painter, who stumbles into view of the regeneration point, and the bloody thing is not working. It is trying to reassemble one of the competitors who’d been shot /off/ the device while it was scanning her, and it is now trying to reassemble parts of a corpse. It is pretty horrific-looking. All over the world parents are shielding their children’s faces from what is exactly happening there. Many other viewers are looking away for a moment, too. It is not a happy sight, especially when you’re just having dinner or something.

This is a horrible thing to happen to Lannie. She is bleeding, she is not thinking straight, she is fading and she knows it – she’s getting slow, getting tired. She’s mostly frustrated now, careless. “Piece of crap!” she shouts, kicking the regen device. “Stop trying to fix her and fix me instead!”

And then the screen switches to Valentina Marin, hiding in the bushes – also hurt and messed up, having been on her way to the same regen point, but not being as vocal about it as Lannie Williams. And as Lannie sighs and maps out her way to the next regen point, Valentina stalks her. It’s the easiest thing in the world for Valentina to follow the red-haired young woman on a ledge above Lannie.

The rookie, lost in her own world of pain and desperation and frustration, never looks up.

And everybody will later remember what happens next. Oh, the fights between Chang Kun Wei and Ruiz Trafalgar the Costa, and Valentina’s final confrontation with Chang are going to be equally legendary, but this is the last girl-to-girl combat in the World League, and Valentina and Lannie are two fan favourites.

Walter Lane sits on his couch at home, balling his fists as he watches it happen, helplessly. Breathlessly he watches, as the whole world watches, and nobody does anything because these are the rules of the Game, this is the World League and all its competitors signed up knowing full well that they might be killed.

Nobody wants either of these young women to die, but it is still going to happen.

The regeneration point comes in sight and just as Lannie’s face lights up because there’s no one in sight and she’ll be able to regen herself and have a fighting chance still after all – exactly /then/ Valentina comes into action.

She jumps off the ledge, guns ablaze. The sound of bullets thunder through the silence, before they bury themselves in the red-haired woman’s chest. Lannie Williams never even stood a chance.

And the words that Valentina shouts while she jumps? They are the same as the word she just used to address Walter. She uses that very same word.

Surprise!”

I wondered later if they planned it that way.

Fact was that the only thing in this world that might have been able to bring Walter to that window was the presence of Valentina Marin – the killer of his wife. In the end I couldn’t blame him. After a day like this, where we’d seen so many people die and so many things obliterated already, where adrenaline and fatigue were battling for control over our bodies, after a day that had only lasted for the better part of fifteen hours and yet had gone on for way too long already, who /wouldn’t/ flip when they’re confronted with the killer of their wife?

And sure, Lannie Williams might have just as easily taken Valentina out if she’d been given half the chance. She’d been responsible for some pretty gruesome deaths herself, in the Arena. Lannie had been far from an innocent maiden; she /knew/ what she was going up against the finest League competitors – the finest killers in the world. It had been Lannie’s own choice to die – and Valentina had handled out of self-defense as well. It was kill or be killed in the Arena. So Valentina had killed. Quite logical, really. I’d done the same.

He never said it with so many words, but I don’t think that Walter hated the World League Champion personally, for what she’d done. In the end it /was/ nothing personal.

But on the other hand, she /was/ responsible for Lannie’s death, even more directly than the rest of the Corporation had been.

And after a day like this, it just was enough to cease thinking logically.

I was hot on his heels when Walter leaned out over the window ledge and shouted: “Valentina! Why don’t you come up here and we’ll talk about it? Just you and me and my gun? How about that?”

“Is this about your wife, Lane?” There was some dismay in the voice of the World Champion. “As I told Lannie already, it was nothing personal. You should know that, you’re a League participant yourself even now.” I couldn’t see her face all the way up here, but I could see her standing there, next to a red police vehicle. The street was filled with them, there were black-suited Corporation employees everywhere on the street, and they were all looking up at us.

And then there, behind them, was the closed off mall rising up. There were no lights on within the building. It seemed deserted and quiet. So deceptively quiet.

“I only entered so I could show the world what a rotten institution the League is,” Walter shouted back. “They ruined everything. I want my wife back. Dani wants her /life/ back, for fuck’s sake. How can you work for a joint like this and still look at yourself in the mirror every day?”

There was a pause for a moment, before the acidic retort came. “As far as I know, the Corporation can’t raise the dead. Your wife /chose/ her fate. She fucking /loved/ the League. Dani is an escaped convict, guilty and sentenced for first degree murder. Quit whining about it.”

“You have /got/ to be kidding me,” Walter whispered over bloodless lips. He didn’t have an answer for Valentina right now, and in one helpless moment he looked at me. I wanted to say something, anything to him, but then everything changed.

It all changed between heartbeats.

Because Walter turned to me, he actually looked at me instead of down at the Corporation people in the street. And that was how he noticed how /another/ Corporation employee was taking action to finish off the situation.

With a sniper rifle. The red dot between my eyes gave it all away. It saved my life.

He never said anything. It was not really necessary, because the sudden appearance of all that naked horror in his eyes told volumes. That fraction of an instant, while somebody pulled the trigger on his sniper rifle on the other side of the street was all that was enough. That one fraction.

Walter’s hands were on my shoulders within that fraction, pushing me violently out of the way. He was jumping too, giving us enough momentum to /move/. I’d been half leaning backwards anyway because I’d been turning to face him, so I lost my balance instantly. And mid-fall, I looked directly in Walter’s blue eyes as he pushed me out of the line of fire.

Mid-fall, blood suddenly sprayed and his face contorted in pain – and that was it.

Everything exploded.

It had not been just a normal bullet. The monstrous thing that buried itself in Walter’s collarbone was designed to explode on impact.

His blood hit me in the face before we even hit the ground.

They’re down! They’re down! Who did you hit?”

I don’t know, I don’t think I got Summers. Sorry. She was holding so beautifully still, such a good target, but then Lane /noticed/ of all things, and he pushed her out of the way. The bullet exploded though, so I know we got /someone/… I think it was Lane. You better send in your troops right now.”

I will. Well done.”

Oh no, this couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be, it couldn’t be!

“No, no, no!” I pushed Walter off me, whispering feverishly. Blood was gushing everywhere; over my hands, my clothes, the ground. There was not much left where his shoulder and his neck had been – just blood and bits and pieces burnt and torn tissue. His face was a battlefield, destroyed by shrapnel – and oh, his eye – he had to be blind… And meanwhile blood was spurting everywhere, eerily much like it had been for Raoul. Only worse. Much, much worse. “Walter! Walter!”

“I’m sorry,” he gurgled. Blood flowed over his lips. Blindly, he reached out and grabbed my hand, squeezing it so tightly I thought he’d break my fingers.

“What? You saved my life, you don’t have to be /sorry/,” I said, and now I was crying, weeping heartbrokenly. “I should be so fucking sorry. Don’t die on me Walter, I can’t do this alone!”

I could hardly understand him anymore. There was so much wrong with his throat, and his talking made him only bleed harder. “Just… don’t surrender, okay? Don’t…”

“Don’t talk,” I said, crying so helplessly. I couldn’t look at him. A minute ago he’d been just fine and now… and now… “It only hurts, and I’m with you, I’m right with you, okay? Why the hell did you have to go and push me out of the way, my life is a train wreck anyway and you-”

“I don’t mind,” he whispered. “Lannie will be waiting for me and…”

“Damn you Walter, don’t die, I can’t do this! We’re supposed to get out of here!” I screamed, hysterically crying now. I couldn’t help myself, the anger and the hysteria were back, worse than anything. It was just one more blow to take me down, one more pillar of my world smashed to pieces. Would I have never have anything left, then?

“Just… survive this, Dani. Know you can. Win this.” His good eye rolled upwards, indicating that he was losing consciousness. He was fading fast and there was nothing/nothing/ that I could do. I squeezed his hand for all I was worth, crying as if it would make him better again. There was nothing to say, nothing to do. Walter might have felt somewhat of relief that he was going to Lannie, that he had saved my life, but I was alone again with the world in pursuit, and I didn’t know what to do anymore.

It was just one moment, though.

Because at the next moment, Walter took his last breath, and his blood stopped flowing so hard. He became a dead weight – the life and light left him right as I was sitting there.

Walter Lane was dead. He’d taken a bullet so I could survive, because he wanted me to live. He wanted me to get out of here. /Just survive this. Win this/, Walter had said.

They were probably running up the stairs right now, waiting to shoot me to shit like they’d done to Walter. Waiting to win this game after all, and show the world their superiority once again. I wouldn’t have it. I wouldn’t have any of it. Walter would have died for naught, if I’d sit here and let them take me.

So I squeezed his bloodied hand one last time, picked up one of his shock rifles and slung it over my back, and then I ran for the exit to the bridge that we’d opened previously. I ran with tears blurring my vision and anger boiling in my blood, but I ran.

Because I was a survivor.

***

CHAPTER TWELVE: BORN TO KILL

She’s going for the mall.”

I know. I’m on my way. She’ll be dealt with.”

I kicked the gate open to the bridge, uncaring that walking the bridge would leave me wide open for any sniper attack. If that motherfucker with his rifle was still lying in wait for me then he was more than welcome to shoot me off this bridge now. I didn’t care anymore. It’s funny how much freer you become at the moment you lose everything. I’d thought that I’d lost everything before, but now I didn’t even care about my own life anymore, either.

I just wanted to hurt other people for the hurt they’d done onto me. While for Walter it had been about justice, about missing his wife, about wanting to expose the Corporation for the piece of filth that it was, it had never been like that for me. For me, the Corporation was like Berntsson. They’d hurt me, toyed with me, pained me, ruined my life. I just wanted to make them pay for it. In the end it all seemed so very simple.

No sniper bullets whizzed around my ears. He must have packed up his stuff and blown off his mission the moment his bullet exploded in Walter’s neck. Bullseye, game over, time to go home and have dinner or something. I wish I’d known who it had been, then I would gladly return him the favour.

Running over that bridge, all I could see was that one drunken night when I’d held Stephan’s hair out of his face while he puked all over the pavement before the League recruitment center. I thought of our laughter, our camaraderie. Being with Walter and Raoul had reminded me of going out for beers with the boys. Watching the Game together. Funny that I eventually would end up /playing/ the Game. I’d never wanted to end up like this, but nobody had ever asked what I wanted. It had just all fallen apart.

The entrance to the mall was unlocked. I kicked open the door and whirled through the room, immediately diving behind the first cover I could find – which happened to be a column of fake marble. A quick scan of my surroundings told me that this part of the mall was made up out of huge galleries, spiralling around a large open space where some sort of huge monstrous abstract art object made of glass and metal was dangling. It caught the light of the high windows quite prettily, but that was its only redeeming quality.

I could hear something downstairs, though. Well, that figured. I was only on the fourth floor, and downstairs were obviously Corporation people and enforcers. If I wanted to get out, the only way was going through them – or… wait. I could also double back to the bridge on the fifth floor. There had to be a bridge to the roof of the parking garage. There were vehicles still on the roof, I could remember seeing them there.

And below on the ground Corporation people were walking around.

A slow smile started to spread over my face, but I can imagine it wasn’t a very happy one. I had murder on my heart in that moment, like I had when I killed Berntsson. And while in hindsight I regret this more than pumping those bullets in Berntsson’s vile body, I still can’t say that I don’t understand and relate to my actions at the time. I still sympathize fully.

Still grinning, I looked up at the metal wire that had been used to hang the ‘art object’ in place. The wire was pretty thick, but it was nothing that my trusty old flak cannon couldn’t handle. I took aim and from there it was so easy, once again, to pull that trigger.

It was a clean shot. My aim was true and it showed.

The metal wire broke at impact, and it seemed like the glass-and-metal works hung suspended in the air for only a nanosecond, as if it couldn’t believe that its support was gone. And then it came down in a mass of slamming and shatters. The look of it was spectacular, but I couldn’t stand around to look for long. I just saw it from the corner of my eye as I dashed over the gallery, spiralling upwards to where the fifth floor bridge would be. The sound that it made when it hit the ground was overwhelming – it reverberated through the whole building so loudly that I nearly had to cover my ears.

One glance I allowed myself – one glance to see the mess of glass and metal glinting in the late afternoon sunlight that fell through the high windows. “That one’s for you, Walter,” I shouted, and then I had to laugh as I continued my run upwards. Tears were still running over my face and I had to wipe them from my face while running, never stopping.

Such was the Game, wasn’t it? I would have to run through the City, fleeing to somewhere, and they’d be trying to stop me. And I would be allowed to do whatever just to survive.

God, this was all one big catastrophe. I couldn’t believe what a fucking, utter mess it had all become.

She did /what?/”

She tumbled down an artwork upon their heads. Five men down, three dead. Get an ambulance or a regen kit here, whatever, just make sure this gets all cleaned up. I’m getting sick of this cat and mouse game Young, I’m going to end this /right now/!”

I didn’t get very far. By the time I reached the bridge I couldn’t take it anymore. I stumbled, tripping over nothing, and crashed to the floor, crying. I wished for Walter to be here to console me, for my mother who’d taken the easy way out all those years ago, hell I even wished for my ex-boyfriend Stephan and my father. Lying on my belly on the floor, aching everywhere, I suddenly couldn’t imagine what it would be like to stop running, to stop killing. I’d been transformed into a killer and it seemed like all those feelings were just spiralling out of control: rage caused killing and killing created more rage.

It seemed like I’d be running and hurting forever, and I didn’t want to know what to do about it anymore. Should I just accept it, go with the flow, give the Corporation what they wanted? Give Berntsson his game?

Fuck, I could remember the interview he’d been on, weeks before the show. I’d seen him on the vids that night, sitting at home. I’d been tinkering with some motherboard that was all spread out over my table in pieces, while my wall was one mass of plasma on which Berntsson was showing – dimples in his cheeks and all. “I believe that the world is ready for a new kind of League. I’ve been given carte blanche by the management of the Corporation to do whatever I thought would work in this sort of Game. And I think that so far the game concept that we’ve constructed should be creating some very interesting television. I am confident that the audience is going to love it.”

Cue to flashing images of a guy running up a hill, stumbling and getting up again, silhouetted against a dramatic looking sunset, and a dramatic sounding voice-over saying: “What if you found yourself racing against a clock, knowing that when the hour is over, you will lose your life? What if nobody is out there to help you? What if all you can do is run?”

The image had flashed back to Berntsson again, grinning that charming grin of his and saying to the audience: “Tune in for the Survival Game. Only ten days until D-Day.”

The most horrible thing was that I actually /thought/ at that point that I’d be missing the Game because I’d be at work. And that I was a bit sorry for it, because this whole new Game seemed pretty interesting. How the hell did I know that they selected their competitor randomly out of a database of League rejects who had signed up in the last ten years? How the hell was I supposed to know that out of those thousands of names, I’d be selected as the unwilling participant?

From there on it had all gone to hell. From the gun to the trial to the League…

I slammed my bare fist on the ground in futile anger and thought of Walter and Raoul, last night – two living breathing beings, laughing and drinking beer – and then the two of them today, broken, bleeding, dying. If this was a game, why then was there so much blood and heartbreak? Was this really what it was going to be?

I had looked up at the camera, geared up for battle, and I’d said that whatever they’d throw at me, I would survive. And Walter… he had also said that I should survive. I shouldn’t stand stop and think too long of the things I did to actually get there; it didn’t matter anymore. I really, honestly couldn’t give a shit that the woman who grinned when she planned the death of Corporation employees was so far removed from the person who I always had thought Dani Summers to be. This was the situation, I damn well better deal with it if I wanted to survive. No more tears, no more hysterical breakdowns.

Time to cross the bridge to the roof, and to see if I could hijack a vehicle and flee somewhere, anywhere. Not thinking where, just anywhere. Maybe I could go and visit Lisa, the girl who’d handed me the gun that killed Berntsson during the Survival Game, just for shits and giggles. She was in a youth detention facility because she was an accomplice in my murder case, so maybe I could go for a rescue attempt, see if I could get her out of there. She had to be pretty miserable in there, too. I should get her out of there. Maybe we could go on the run together again. It didn’t matter anymore anyway.

Are you in position?”

Nearly. Now get off the line Young, I need to concentrate.”

The bridge arched somewhat upwards, so I couldn’t quite see what was happening on the roof of the parking garage. Still I ran upwards, uncaring of the consequences. I had my gun, I had Walter’s shock rifle (I’d taken extra care to take /his/ rifle with him, and not the one I’d snatched off Mégane de la Croix), I had my wits, and I had a truckload of anger and frustration that I needed to get rid of.

There /were/ vehicles on the roof. I’d seen them earlier, when we had our run in with the enforcer with the rocket launcher, but it was a good thing to find out that I hadn’t been mistaken somehow. It was only five or six of them, but each and any of them would be enough. And I /knew/ how to hijack a vehicle. One does not spend months in prison without learning that particular skill at least in theory. Despite the murder attempts and the spite, there had been a few women in prison that were actually worth the air that they breathed. And a few of them didn’t walk away when I sat down next to them, but even talked to me sometimes. Not too much, lest they’d get their asses kicked for even socializing with me, but sometimes in the cantina, when it was busy, I could sit with them and overhear their conversations. A few of them had been pretty accomplished car jackers.

I chose the yellow vehicle. There wasn’t all that much reason for it besides the fact that it was nearby, really. It was also a smaller model vehicle, the one most commonly used by citizens. It resembled much the cars of old. I had one of these myself, and I knew how to fly one. That, and it was open; I could just open the door and step inside. Funny how so many people trusted on the security systems in their cars so much. Even if a would-be carjacker couldn’t just fly off with your vehicle, he could still piss all over your seat or something if he felt malicious. I always had the lock on the door of my vehicle. But then again, maybe I was just paranoid. I’d never been a trusting kind of person, even before this whole mess started.

The inside of the car was the usual mess. There were crumbs of food everywhere, dust, and cans that used to host energy drinks that should have been thrown in the bin ages ago. It smelled horrid inside this thing, and I figured that it must belong to some student or something. I dumped the guns on the passenger seat and quickly set to hardwiring the vehicle. With a well-placed kick against a panel in the dashboard beneath the wheel I found the wiring behind it. The wiring was exactly like my fellow inmates had described it to be, so I knew what to do. Once I got the vehicle started, I could do the rest with a manual override. If I stayed off the normal traffic grid, then I was sure I could avoid detection somewhat.

Well… somewhat. I completely expected pursuit. They must have figured that I’d left the mall by now, and they could have guessed that I’d went for the roof of the garage. I worked frantically to hotwire the car, trying very hard not to think that one floor below me Walter’s silent body was lying on the concrete in a pool of blood and gore. Just realizing this was the case was enough to have to blink tears away again. I tried to be focused, but the torrent of emotions was still dangerously close beneath the surface of my actions.

I swallowed heavily and connected the wires that my inmate had told me would spark the connection, and thankfully the vehicle ignited.

I smiled at that, booting up the terminal to show me the grid. It was almost completely empty, I saw. Of course it was, the Mayor had told everybody who hadn’t been watching the match already to go home and /stay/ there. Nobody was out there right now, there were fugitives on the loose, pods were exploding and Redeemers were being fired in metro stations.

“Quickly now!” I murmured and hit the appropriate commands to get this thing off the ground. Surely enough, it began to hover and retracted its landing gear. “Come on baby, let’s get out of here,” I murmured, thinking of where to go. Would I really go see about Lisa Che Man? Would I go to Walter’s island near Sulawesi? Would I be shot out of the sky after all those times we’d so narrowly avoided that?

It turned out to be the latter.

By the time I got the vehicle in the air and just took a sharp turn to fly off the roof, a red police vehicle suddenly appeared into view, the same one that had demolished the stairhouse. They even had the same grim-faced guy standing in its door opening with the same rocket launcher in his hands.

“Oh fuck.” Battling an intense feeling of deja vu, I smashed the button for a complete manual override and tugged at the wheel. I was a fair driver, but I’d never piloted a vehicle while someone was shooting rockets at me. Was it like zig-zagging through normal gunfire? I had no idea what the hell I should do, so I just hit the gas pedal as hard as possible.

The vehicle responded instantly, pressing me against my seat and speeding off the edge of the roof. I nearly hit the mall that way. It took another very sharp turn to steer clear of it. The adrenaline was completely back once again, booming through my system and sharpening my senses. It even dulled out the pain from my myriads of cuts and bruises, even the pains I suffered in my head and my stomach, where my vest had protected me from the bullet impact.

There was a whistling sound for a moment as the rocket that had been coming after me missed my wind shield my an inch or three. I sucked in a sharp intake of breath and roughly steered my vehicle the other way.

“That was close-” I was just blurting out, when I heard another sharp whistle – I realized in that split second that there was a second rocket, but there was nothing I could do to avoid it – and there was an ear-splittingly loud crash and an explosion behind me.

It catapulted me against the steering wheel for a moment, slamming all of the air out of my lungs and making my ears ring.

I screamed and pulled at the wheel, because I could /feel/ the fire/smell/ the fire, and I knew that the vehicle had been hit. And with vehicles, the main control system was in the back.

Even though the vehicle did take control and doused the fire by sucking out all the oxygen within the back, I still lost control over the vehicle. “Oh shit!” I shouted, as the vehicle promptly lost power and the motor died. All I could was use my current momentum to turn sharply and hope that my ride would respond adequately enough to at least /somewhat/ alter my course. I was right on my way to a collision with the concrete fifty foot below. And everybody knew what happened if your vehicle lost power this high up in the sky. You usually died.

Normally the vehicle had an emergency generator for power also in the front, but this small yellow one’d had a student driver. Budget drivers didn’t have their backup system in the front, where they were so much more expensive to install; they had them in the back. Just my luck for choosing the first vehicle I could find. Fucking broke students.

There was only one thing I could do. Using my current course and momentum, I steered towards the parking garage. I was still in time to try and aim for the roof. At least that drop wouldn’t be that gargantuan, I might even have a chance of survival if I’d crash there instead of on the ground all those feet below.

So I did. One last pull at the steering wheel, trying to alter its course enough so the nose of the vehicle would at least look a /bit/ upwards instead of boring itself into the ground, and then all I could do was cover my head with my arms and hope for the best.

The crash was horrible. There was this /huge/ slam into the ground, and the blow I took was incredible. I’d been geared up in my seatbelt and the steering wheel automatically retreated in favour for the airbag, but I could still feel the front of the vehicle simply crumple up upon impact, and so did the side, as it glided a bit further over the concrete, creating a wave of golden sparks.

The side was the worst, hough. My left /foot/ was there at the side because I’d tried to find support there when I braced myself, and it got caught in the whole thing. I heard the sound of bones breaking even over the sound of the crash. The pain hit immediately afterwards. There was no air to scream, the impact had slammed all of the air out of my lungs and I was too busy gasping for breath and trying to remain conscious. At least with the fall down the stairs at the metro station I’d been unconscious, so I hadn’t noticed much of the actual fall and the hit, but this time I felt everything. The seatbelt straining around my chest, slamming my head against the side window as I bounced back. And oh, my foot. It was like it was being pulled through a meat grinder. It was on fire, sharp daggers digging into bone, cutting through sinew and muscle.

I took a few moments to gasp for breath and to blink away tears of shock and pain, before I hit the mechanism to release my seatbelt. It didn’t seem like the fire had done much but decommission the engine because there wasn’t anything burning anymore, but I sure as hell didn’t want to stay in this vehicle any moment longer. I reached out for the two guns on the passenger seat…

…And then the door opened, and somebody stepped inside.

I hit my head against the dashboard in shock, but I didn’t flinch. The first thing I did was try to lunge at Walter’s rifle, but then a now familiar voice coldly said: “Don’t even try it, Summers.”

I froze.

Slowly I looked up at the figure in the vehicle. Long legs, wiry frame. Strawberry coloured hair, shit-eating grin. Two dual guns pointed at me. Oh yeah, that was Valentina Marin alright. Pointing guns at me, in a secluded space.

And before I felt anger at her for drawing us to the window, for causing Walter to be shot, for pointing guns at me… before all that was fear. A gut-wrenching terror I had not felt before on this day. Sure, I’d been afraid in the hallway with Jovanovich. I’d trembled with adrenaline during the fight with the enforcers. I’d seen my life flash before my eyes when I realized that they were shooting at us with a Redeemer. Most notably I’d been very afraid when I saw the naked horror in Walter’s eyes as he pushed me out of the line of fire. But it was /nothing/ compared to the fear I felt when I was confronted with Valentina Marin and her guns. Because Valentina was the League World Champion, Corporation-affiliated, and she was pointing guns at me in a secluded space and I had nowhere to run. I was /so/ dead.

So, ignoring the pain in my foot, the headache in my head, and the fear and shock in my system, I swallowed and said: “Hi.”

***

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: SURVIVAL

There is one moment of worry for Valentina Marin – have they killed the girl? Did she crash herself completely and did this Game to an anticlimactic end? But then she opens the door and looks into the girl’s green eyes, awake, aware, intelligent and immediately diving for her guns, and she knows that she shouldn’t have worried.

Don’t even try it, Summers,” she says, aiming her guns at the other girl.

And to Valentina’s surprise, despite the fear that radiates off the girl, the Summers girl tells her a cheeky “Hi”…

If I could have crawled into the smashed door, I would have, I think. Anything to get away from her. I was very near to soiling myself there and hated myself for it. Valentina Marin stood there, silhouetted by the afternoon sunlight from outside, for all the world with still with sunglasses in her hair and wearing shorts as if she’d walked straight off some beach somewhere, but the light was glinting on her guns and she was looking downright menacing. I cringed and waited for her to fire her guns, but she didn’t.

No bullets exploded my head like Johansson’s. I took another breath that I never thought I would, and my heart beat a beat I thought it would never get to. I wasn’t dead yet, and it surprised me.

What was she waiting for? For me to soil myself after all and die in disgrace? The anger, which had been boiling inside of me the whole time, took over again. “Come on then, shoot me,” I spit defiantly. “Be done with it. Let’s end this madness for once and for all.”

Valentina laughed. It sounded nice enough, as if she was completely relaxed with the situation. Maybe that was what happened to you after seven League Wins, a World Champion title under your belt, and just having survived a severe illness due to extended exposure to radiation during your latest League match. I hated her a little for it. “What,” she said, chuckling, “after this whole goose chase through Cidade you’d give up this easily? We blew up half the city to get to you, and now this?”

I balled my fist at her disdain. It felt like disdain, at least. I didn’t know what else it could be. My fingernails dug into the blistered skin on my hands, but I didn’t care about the pain. It wasn’t like I wasn’t hurting on other places all over my body. “I might as well,” I said softly, meeting her blue-grey eyes squarely, without flinching. I’d show her, goddammit. I would /not/ be afraid! “You got me pinned, I’m severely wounded and can’t get away, and you’re between me and my guns. It’s over.”

She grinned at that. “You were a hell of a lot feistier during the Survival Game.”

That was unexpected. My mind was racing. She seemed to be reluctant to kill me outright – what did she want from me? Did she want answers? My story? What?

“What,” I sneered, “do you want me to try and shoot you like Berntsson?”

“You could try,” answered the World Champion sunnily, completely self-confident in her own abilities. It radiated off her. “It wouldn’t happen though.”

I bit on the inside of my cheek. Of course it wouldn’t. “That’s what I thought,” I said. “So what are we still doing here, then? You’re not Berntsson, and this is not the Game.”

“Isn’t it?” she retorted, raising an eyebrow. “You sure could have fooled me. Contestants shooting one another, mad chases through the city. Bullets flying everywhere, explosions, crashes. Very spectacular stuff, great for the ratings.” She grinned. “It sure sounds like a Game to me.”

I shook my head. So what if it was? “If this is the Survival Game, then you can kill me right here and it will be all over.”

She cocked her head and smiled a strange little smile. “It only is a Survival Game if you want it to be, Dani.” Her blue eyes seemed to be assessing me, looking for an answer.

“But…”

And that was where my mind started racing. I saw flashes of the past day before me: myself before the mirror again, grinning up at the camera (“Do your worst, you motherfuckers. I’ll survive. I promise..”), the ride to the Arena, sitting in the vehicle with all the other contestants. Contestants. Eight of us, all very different, all very eager to get this show on the road. I remembered Mégane de la Croix’ excitement and how I’d shot her in the back. Diaz’ quiet confidence – and how he had killed Johansson from that high window. Johansson, so menacing, with those pale empty eyes, he’d gone so easily. Aykut, who had died a horrible death under Jovanovich’s plasma gun, as had Diaz. Jovanovich had been a menace – a trueblue League contestant. I’m sure his death had been a severe blow to all the people betting on him. I’d seen the stats, my own bet would have gone for either Jova or Diaz if I had been one of the viewers at home and still contently living out my life fixing up networks and having beers with friends. I’d probably have gone for Jovanovich though, because technically he would have been better equipped for a melee situation. And well, I’d done the melee thing with him. It had been /very/ close, and it’d taken the two of us to take him out after he’d embarked on his killing spree.

And then… Raoul; remembering our alliance and afraid we’d be turning on him, when it was just the three of us left. I remembered Walter and me, allowing him to use the regen point, and then teaming up.

Alliances were very common during League battles. They usually fell apart by the time it was just two contestants, but there’d been love and sacrifice in the Arena as well. I could still very clearly remember one of those first Fortress matches, where May Lesters had gotten herself killed by trying to revive her fallen rival. Everyone had pegged the two of them – I couldn’t remember the guy’s name, it was Zach or something – to take each other out at the end of the Game, but in the end May had tried to save his life. She’d paid the ultimate price for it though. She’d been spending her credits futilely on a regen point, trying to revive Zach, when Peter Delmont had shown up and killed her mercilessly, winning the Game.

Still, it had been an unexpected alliance that had lasted. Just like Walter and I had lasted, refusing to take out each other. There hadn’t been a love relationship between Walter Lane and myself – the shadow of Lannie hung between us too heavily, but maybe if I would have met him under different circumstances a couple of years ago, I might have been able to fall for him. But things went as they went, circumstances were as they were, and we hadn’t been given all that much time together. We had ended up in a death match together and we’d been bound together by fondness, sympathy, and an understanding of each other’s pain. It had been one look, but I knew the look in the eyes of someone who has had everything that meant anything to him snatched away from him, and who was suffering the consequences. I saw it in the mirror every damn day.

Valentina had not completely right when she’d told him off, and Walter had not been specific enough when he shouted his reasons for participating at her. What he blamed the Corporation for was not Lannie’s death, because he knew very well that she’d chosen her own death. He was just convinced that he would have been able to talk her out of participation at the last moment, with that one last phone call. And that /possibility/ of talking her out of it, that was what was eating away from him. That possibility of having her come home… and if he really wouldn’t have been able to convince him – then there had been the matter of that one last goodbye that had been snatched away from him. And he’d been hurting over that so badly. It was painful and horrible and so very understandable, because he’d loved her so much. It shone through in everything he said, everything he did.

Still, he’d signed up for the League. He’d participated for love, as many people had done so in the past. Love, money, glory, or because they were sentenced to either death or death match like… well, like me. I’d been sentenced to participate in the Southern League and for better or for worse, I’d participated.

I blinked.

Realization was dawning.

It was heart-wrenching, it felt like a punch in the face, but despite our refusal to take out one another, both Walter and Raoul had died, leaving just me as the last of the participants. Mégane, Johansson, Diaz, Aykut, Jovanovich – all the others – they had died. Some by each other’s hand, others by mine. All taken out in the line of fire, while the world was watching us, glued to their screens, betting on the outcome, cheering for participants, cursing about others. Betting stations were running in overdrive, merchandise was being sold.

So all fanciness, redeemers, and exploding metro stations aside… if you would go back to the basis, then it turned out that this might not be a Survival Game after all. “If this is a LEAGUE Game, then I’ve won, haven’t I?”

Valentina smiled. “Well, lookie here. All this time you were so busy trying to survive, that you were forgetting what kind of Game you were actually playing.”

I blinked again, my breath catching in my throat. “If this is a League Game, then I am not dying. I’ll probably be screwed over royally in another way, but it means that you’re not allowed to kill me, right?”

“I could kill you anyway if I wanted to, whether I am allowed to or not,” Valentina grinned, and it seemed like her face was aglow with mischief and possibilities. “I just don’t think one should /shoot/ a League winner. And you just happen to the be the winner of the Southern League. Congratulations, Dani.”

/I know you can win this, Dani,/ Walter’s last words had been. He told me I had to survive, that I had to win. And this was exactly what was happening now. Valentina Marin was handing me the victory on a silver platter. All I had to do is accept it. I couldn’t believe it. “Walter…” I sighed.

Valentina shrugged. “You can dedicate your win to him, if you want to. Now come on, let’s leave this vehicle. I don’t think it’s going to blow, but I’d feel better if we’d go outside.”

She reached over to me and pulled me up easily, as if I weighed nothing. I clung onto her like a child, wondering whether to laugh or cry. For a moment I just hung onto her, squeezing my eyes shut against the golden sunlight shining over a city that had seen way too many explosions today.

“Come on,” Valentina Marin said, right before I fainted. “There’s a whole world out there for you, waiting to meet the new winner of the Southern League.”

What the HELL did you do, Val?” Stender says incredulously in her earpiece while she stands on the edge of the roof, asking him for a pickup vehicle and some medical personnel. Daniella Summers is lying on the ground behind her, slipping in and out of consciousness from pain, dehydration and exhaustion. It’s a wonder that the girl has even held out this long.

Valentina shrugs. “I’m giving the League a winner for the Southern League. If Young can put his dick back in his pants and thinks about it for a second, then he’ll see that this is the best thing for the League. Let him put a spin onto things, use what footage that we have, and turn it into something that the League can use. He should be glad that I’m saving his ass this way. Just treat the Summers kid in a hospital, fix her up, pay her prize money, and then leave her the fuck alone.”

You think she will be quiet then? And stay quiet and out of her way?”

Valentina walks over to the younger girl and sits down next to her. She watches Daniella breathe evenly, unconscious or sleeping. The lights have gone out and the girl fell over, just like that. She’s not bleeding horribly anymore, and her heartbeat is stable. Exhaustion and pain had just taken their toll the moment they were out of the car and she’d deemed herself out of immediate danger. She smiles and wipes the girl’s hair out of her dirty face. “I think she will. Dani Summers wants to be left alone. It shouldn’t be that hard to give her that, don’t you think?”

She can hear him smile on the other side of the connection. “I could never refuse you anything, Val.”

***

It is three months later on a late summer afternoon when I enter the graveyard. The sky is dusty and golden and warm. The graveyard is still lush and green and heady with the scent of flowers everywhere. I haven’t been at Walter’s burial, simply because I was still in the hospital. I’ve been told that it was a small, quiet affair. Media and impromptu fans that had popped up after the game had been banned from the gathering. It had mostly been friends and ex-colleagues who’d been there, Ruiz told me, sitting on my bed and asking me if I wanted to see the vids of it. I respectfully declined, surprised that he had been there. He told me though, that Walter and he had had taken up some sort of friendship while he was recovering from his World League injuries, and Walter’d had his surgery. Despite everything that had befallen between them as announcer and participant, Ruiz had still wanted to pay his respects.

And so do I. I haven’t been able to let it go all summer, during surgery on my foot, revalidation and avoidance of the media. I am here now to pay my respects to him with brightly coloured flowers in my hand, because I want to do it my own way, at my own time. It’s taken me some time to gather up courage to talk to him because everything is still so fresh on my mind, still so bloody painful.

There are butterflies dancing through the air between the graves. It’s so sweet and pretty and peaceful here, here in the middle of old Amsterdam – a city lost in fumes and pollution and industrialization. I never imagined that there could be such a beautiful place here on the edge of the Dregs, but apparently there is and I’m absurdly grateful for it.

There’s no one else on the graveyard today. It’s a Saturday and I suppose that most people are outside in parks or something, because the day is beautiful and nobody should be toiling around in graveyards on a day like this, gorgeous and peaceful as it might be.

And there it is, then. Under the leaf shadow of a large oak tree I find the grave that I was looking for. With a shock I realize that he’s been buried together with Lannie, and I find myself tearing up over it. I wipe the tears from my eyes and I just have to laugh a little as I lay down the flowers. There are more flowers lying there. I don’t know whose they are and I don’t care, but I’m also grateful for that as well.

“Well then,” I say, trying to be strong and sitting down on the grass next to the tombstone. /Finally together forever,/ it says. /Lannie Williams-Lane and Walter Lane/. My hand trails over the smooth stone and I can’t keep it dry anymore, tears are rolling over my face. “I guess I can talk to the two of you, but I really came here for Walter…” I pause for a second, searching for words. “There were some things I wanted to say to you, things that were so rudely cut off by that godforsaken bullet. I wanted to tell you that I survived, like you wanted me to. The Corporation still exists, I have to admit, and the situation has been resolved in a rather unsatisfying manner. Stender has sent Young on an extended vacation while he’s taking back control over the Corporation and is cleaning up the messes. They put a spin on things. You’ve been shot down for insubordination during a League match, and they declared me the winner of the Southern League.”

My fingers tighten around the smooth headstone. I have to close my eyes for a moment, blinking away hot tears of guilt. “And somehow it seems as a betrayal to you, because I never wanted it to end this way for you. But I’ve been thinking a lot, and talking a lot to people. I talked to Valentina Marin. She allowed me to live. She could have killed me but didn’t, and she’s the one who arranged me to live. Young would have killed me, I think, but she didn’t. And I have to let it go, I have to move on, but I’m having these dreams and all this guilt flying around and I have to settle this with you somehow, I have to talk to you. I wish I could really talk to you or Raoul and explain things, new insights. I wish we could sit down in that fucking bar again and I could tell you what I’ve learnt.” I sigh deeply before I can continue. “Because you know, the Corporation is a bastard because the world wants it to be. And Young and Berntsson are bastards because the world wants them to be. They’re paid to be bastards, because pain and violence sells. Fuck, you and I and Lannie were avid League fans before this whole thing went to shit. And everybody is. That’s just the way of the world right now. And I hate it, but there’s not much we can do about it. We did make our point though, we did make our stand.”

I smile a little, lifting my face to the sun as if it can dry my tears. “Everybody watched us while we refused to kill each other. And I don’t think there’s going to be a League anymore in the way they used to be. That has ended. The Corporation still exists and I think that they’re going to try to do something else now, but the League as it was is over now. They can’t pull this shit off anymore. And we accomplished that for a part. So it was not all in vain.”

More tears trickle over my face. It seems that I cannot really stop it. It’s all coming out now, all the pain, all the turmoil I’ve been in during the past months, no, year even. “Because you know… you’re with Lannie now. You made your stand and I’d like to think that you’re together now somewhere. I don’t really believe in Heaven, but I do feel as if you’re finally together again and that makes me cry… see?”

I laugh softly. “I cry because it makes me happy for you, even though I’m going to miss you. You changed my life. You saved my life. If not for you I would have probably died under Jovanovich pulse gun, or later because of that fucking sniper in the parking garage. That bullet was meant for me but you saved my life and I survived because of you, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.” Again I have to wipe my tears.

“Because of you my life goes on, and hopefully we’ve made the world a bit of a better place, even though the Corporation is still in it, even though humanity is rotten and lusting for blood still. But you and I, we were there when it counted. And I’m not ashamed of that. I am proud of that, and that’s what I wanted to tell you. You and Lannie, take care of each other. And keep a place for me when I’m finally done surviving.”

I have to laugh again. The sound rings through the summer air. It sounds unguarded, happy. Like someone else. I haven’t sounded like this in such a long time. “It might be a while though. I am kind of starting to enjoy this living thing again, and I’m a survivor through and through. Like you wanted me to be. So thank you.”

I slowly rise from my place in the grass, leaning on the marble tombstone, my fingers tracing the inscription. /Finally together forever/. I might join them some day. But not yet.

Not yet…

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