Archive for April, 2009

2308: Pending a God

Posted: April 29, 2009 by Brenda in league, stories, the world

For a while there was only silence between us. After Valentina pulled the earpiece out of her ear, and I carried her to the jet. It was enough. I could practically feel her heart pounding against her broken ribs, but she seemed to be unbothered by it. She always did. I’d seen her come in with broken arms and legs, a face so bruised that she was barely recognizable and worse. All in all she looked great, for someone who had just taken a dive of a steep cliff, and came out victorious. Adrenaline played a big part in that, I guessed. Her eyes were bright with it as she looked up to me.

“You’re really going to leave the League to Young?” she asked me as I walked us up the ramp to the jet. I shrugged. I was done with it. For over a decade I had used it to achieve everything I had wanted. Everything I had needed. As I gently sat Valentina down in the regen cabin on board the jet, I realized that I had nothing left to want. “It’s all his.” I said, cupping her face in my hands. All of it… Except for her. She smiled at me, before settling back into the seat. “You need to step back, unless you want to get scrambled.” she said, grinning broadly. I did, and flipped the switch to the regen device. A blue beam shot up from the floor, and dozens of monitors around the cabin sprang to life, assessing the injuries she had, and figuring out ways to fix them.

“Wouldn’t that be hilarious though?” she asked, her eyes still fixed on my face. “For me to win the World League, and then join you in retirement only to get turned into mush by a regen device before we can enjoy it?” I laughed wryly, thinking of the way Adhiambo had looked after Tijs de kler splattered her in that blue beam. Not a pretty sight. “I’m sure Young will put a nice spin on it if that did happen.” I offered. Something on the screen to my left caught my eye. I turned to look at it, but Valentina demanded my attention again.

“Stender?” she asked, her voice sounding oddly similar to the way it had earlier, right before she had almost passed out. I looked at her, worried. “I love you.” she said, repeating her earlier message. I walked over to the regen cabin, putting my hand on the metal next to it. Her eyes were bright with something more than adrenaline. “I love you too.” I said, smiling at her. “Always have.” We smiled at each other for a while, before she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the wall of the regen cabin. I glanced back at the screen that had caught my attention earlier, but it was blank.

The regen cabin beeped, indicating that it’s cycle was almost at an end. At the same time the pilot called in, saying that we were two minutes away from landing. “I suppose there’s no use in hoping that Young hasn’t scheduled at least five press conferences already?” Val asked me, stepping out of the regen cabin and walking up behind me. I felt her arms slip around me, and her head press against my back. A press of a button showed us that the first press conference was due to start four minutes from now. “Ugh. I don’t even get the time to change?” Valentina complained behind me. I smiled, though I knew she couldn’t see it. “People like seeing you dirty.” I offered. “Sick fucks, the lot of them.” she concluded. Then the jet started it’s descent, and she removed herself from my back. I shivered slightly at the loss of contact. There would be more of that later, I promised myself.

~

Valentina was charming as usual. She answered the questions shot at her with patience and wit, allowing Young to walk us all through the game again. Ralph sat next to her, looking both nervous and excited. He looked at home already, and the press seemed to accept him as my natural successor. A new public face. I smirked. They were probably getting bored with mine already. This lead me to ponder the fate of the Southern League. It had just lost its front man. I shook my head, smiling at my own idiocy. It was time to let go. Young could deal with the Southern League.

The room around me went eerily quiet. I looked up, my eyes instantly locking with Valentina’s. She was pale, far paler than she had been when we left the jet. Her breathing was shallow and laboured. Next to her Ralph leaned over, placing a hand on her arm. “Valentina?” I heard him ask. There was panic in her eyes, and her hands moved to the collar of her shirt, pulling at it. Her lips formed a single word. Stender. There was no sound to go with it, but I could hear it as clearly as I would have if she’d shouted at me. I was on my feet and at her side in seconds. Not in time to keep her from falling sideways. I gathered her in my arms, holding her as she clung to me. Then her grip loosened, and I lost her.

“Medic!” I heard myself shout. People stirred around me, but I hardly noticed them. Valentina’s skin was pale, clammy with sweat. Her breathing came in short puffs, and her eyes were closed. Moments later hands were pulling me aside, and she was placed on a gurney. I followed it, only vaguely aware of the fact that Young was at my side, talking into a mobile device. “What the hell is wrong?” I heard myself ask. “She was just in a regen cabin, and all her readings were fine. She was fine, Goddamn it!” The gurney burst through the doors of the medical wards, which closed again before I could get through. I stopped in front of them. I could enter if I wanted to, as there are no closed doors for me in the compound. A hand on my shoulder stopped me though. “Let them do their job, Stender.” I heard Young say. His words made sense, yet at the same time I felt that there had to be more. I had to be able to do more.

~

Hours after she was first taken to the medical ward there was still no news on the condition of Valentina Marin. Young and Ralph deflected the media, giving no details but assuring the public that she was doing well, and that she just needed some rest. I had spoken to a few of the doctors brought in, but they avoided my questions. That said it all to me. Valentina was dying. I watched her chest rise and fall with difficulty. She hadn’t been awake since she passed out at the press conference. I sat by her side, keeping an eye on the heart monitor. The signal was weak.

Eventually one of the doctors gathered the courage to speak to me. He was still young, no more than five years older than Valentina herself I guessed. He had the same look of self confidence about him that she always had though. The look that said he knew what he was doing. Of course he did. The compound didn’t work with anything less than the best, and Young knew better than to bring anything less than the absolute best into the medical ward now that Valentina was the patient. The look on his face was grave though.

“There isn’t anything left for us to do, sir.” he started. “When she was no longer protected from the radiation on the island her body took a serious hit. The original scans from the regen devices she was in all claim that they cleared her body of the damage completely, but the test results we’ve done now show serious tissue damage to all of her internal organs. It’s like her own cells are fighting against each other to get rid of the radiation poisoning that she’s suffered.”

His words washed over me. I sat quietly for a while, watching Valentina’s chest rise and fall. I took her hand in mine, shocked again to feel how frail it was. “You’re telling me there’s no hope?” I asked the doctor. I didn’t have to see his face to know the look on it was grim. “Little to none, sir.” he whispered. I held her hand between mine. So small. So cold. “Leave us.” I finally said. My heart felt like a stone in my chest, frozen solid and aching for that which I was losing. That which I never really had in the first place. Something shifted behind me. Young, I guessed. “There has to be a way…” I heard myself say to him. “It can’t end like this. There has to be a way.”

I heard the door open behind me. “If there is a way, I’ll find it.” I heard Young say, right before he left the medical ward. His voice was clipped, even more so than usual. It made sense. He and Val had been like siblings from the moment they met. Both in service of the great Stender. The man who was said to have everything. I laughed, a wry laugh that echoed through the room. “It’s not worth anything. What’s the point in owning half the world if I can’t even use it to save you?” I asked the silent woman in the hospital bed. The silent beeping of the heart monitor was my only answer.

~

Two days passed, and I saw or heard nothing of Young. I knew he was around though. I knew he’d entered the room several times, to check up on Val. I didn’t hear or see him though, as my world had shrunken to the woman on the bed, and the beeping of he heart monitor. Two times it had faltered briefly. Both times it had started up again, before the doctors could get there with crash kits and shots of adrenaline. The young doctor who had spoken to me before told me that she didn’t have much time left. Maybe two days, maybe less. I held on to Valentina’s hand, clinging to her in the hope that there was some way I could keep her with me.

I barely heard the footsteps of Young as he approached me. “Stender.” he said, calling for my attention. With force I pealed myself away from Valentina. Young was there, looking tired for the first time in his life. With him was a woman in her mid thirties somewhere. Dark hair, blue eyes, and a pleasant yet serious face. I looked at both of them, realizing that I probably looked like hell, but failing to give a damn about it. “I’m Charlene Pelletier.” the woman offered. “Doctor Charlene Pelletier. I… uh… well, I looked at the readings from the regen cabin in your shuttle, and I think I can save her.”

It felt like my heart jumped in my chest. Hope. I looked at Young, who smiled just the faintest hint of a smile. Hope. “There’s little time though. We need to move her to my lab immediately. I believe you have a shuttle?” she asked. I nodded, and looked at Young again. He grinned, then, and sped off, no doubt to arrange all that needed to be arranged for Valentina’s transport. “It’s not going to be easy, and there’s a chance the treatment won’t stick.” Charlene told me. I barely heard her. “It will get worse before it gets better, and it will take time. She’ll need you, there. She’ll need you more than ever.”

Hope.

~

Her body was floating in a tank. Through the clear glass I could see her, but I could no longer touch her. It had been three days since the transport, and there was still no sign of improvement. Still, Charlene was positive. Three days was more than the two that had been offered to me in the compound. There was a mask over her mouth and nose, which provided her with oxygen. Wires and tubes were stuck in and on her body. A complex mixture of gene therapy and nano technology was working to restore the damage done to Valentina’s cells. In time, her body would be restored to it’s healthy self, or so doctor Pelletier hoped. There was no way to be certain. She had had both successes and failures in the short time she had used the technique. I clung to the hope that Valentina would be one of the successes.

I took short breaks from watching her, when Young came by to visit. Some food, a shower, and back to her side as soon as I could. For the first time ever I even resorted to the same stims that Young used during the games. Anything to stay awake. I had to be at her side at all times. I had to be there when the therapy started working. I had to be there when she finally woke up. A strange sort of routine settled over us, with Young visiting twice a day. Mostly to keep an eye on Valentina, but also to make sure I ate. He talked to me about the outside world from time to time, and I found myself listening, and wondering what Valentina would make of the news.

“Ruiz da Costa survived the game.” he told me on the sixth day of Valentina’s treatment. I turned to look at him, surprised for the first time. Young smirked. “The coroners found him about four hours after the game ended. There was some confusion during that time…” Because that was also the time when Valentina collapsed, and every capable medical officer was trying to keep her alive. I smiled wryly. “But apparently the coroner they sent was able to keep him alive long enough for me to ponder on the situation. His pod was malfunctioning, obviously, otherwise we would have known he was still alive. He was messed up pretty badly, but he’s in good hands now.”

“You’re keeping him alive?” I was surprised. News like this could unbalance the entire league. Anti League Activists would jump on the chance to accuse the leagues of being rigged. “I gave a nice spin to it.” Young said, smiling vaguely. “Either way, he won’t be competing again. He has a few implants that make that… unlikely now. In time I’ll offer him Hugh’s spot over at the Southern League.” I pondered on that for a while, and came to the conclusion that it was a good decision. I said as much, ignoring the smug look on Young; s face.

The conversation did remind me of a loose end that had been like a thorn in my side ever since Valentina collapsed. On day ten of the treatment, there were still no signs that she was getting any better, and the Thorn named Hugh Sanchez Cuberes festered in my side more every day. His actions had directly caused the current situation. If he hadn’t tampered with Valentina’s inhaler, she would never have been poisoned by the radiation. She would have been at my side, alive and well. I began pacing on day eleven, walking in front of the tank like a caged wolf. Charlene avoided me, checking in only for the essential readings. She seemed hopeful, but I was beginning to believe that this was it.

Valentina was gone. The body in the tank would sleep forever, and I would never get the chance to hold her again. All the time we wasted weighed on me, pressing me down further. So I paced, thinking of Hugh Sanchez Cuberes, rotting somewhere in a cell until his trial started. That treacherous dog. I hated him, as I paced and waited for Charlene Pelletier to tell me that the treatment had failed. The mere fact that he was alive somewhere when Valentina was as good as dead tore at me, until I could no longer deal with it. When Young visited on the fourteenth day of the treatment, I asked him to stay with Valentina a little longer. I had matters to tend to.

~

The prison was dark and dirty, the way prisons had looked in movies of old. I didn’t even know that there were still prisons like these around, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Young had found the very last one of it’s kind, just to put Hugh in. The air was rank with fear and desperation, and the cries and shouts of other prisoners echoed through the halls. The guard walked ahead of me, glancing back anxiously every now and then. He had reason to be anxious. Behind him walked Stender, clean and polished as he always looked, with exception of the two weeks that had passed. Behind him walked the ruler of the new world. No one had dared to search him for weapons and other illegal items. It was as he had expected.

“We did everything as mr. Young said, sir.” the guard reassured him again. “We put ‘im in the darkest hole, fed him the worst food, and kicked him around on a regular basis. Bet he ain’t so uppity now, eh? Bet he regrets ever crossing you.” The guard sniggered, before glancing anxiously at me again. Worried he’d upset the mighty Stender, perhaps. A wry smile played around my lips. The guard didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was my destination here. “There it is.” the guard said, pointing at a door at the end of the hall. He handed me the keys. “No questions asked, sir. Just as mr. Young said.” With that final statement he turned, and scurried down the hallway. No doubt to wait around the corner for my return. Wouldn’t do to let Stender get lost in the prison maze, after all. No, that wouldn’t do at all.

I walked towards the door, trying to ignore the stench that seemed to saturate the place. The key the guard had given me turned easy enough. I opened the door, and gave the man inside some time to adjust his eyes to the light. It also gave me some time to adjust my eyes to the sight presented to me. Hugh Sanchez Cuberes was sitting on the ground, wearing a dirty prison overall. Every inch of his skin that I could see was covered in bruises and sores. He’d lost more weight than he could afford. “Hey, look what the cat dragged in.” he said when he recognized me. He tried a smile, but it looked more like a grimace.

“Hugh.” I said, stepping into the cell. “I have no doubt that you know why I’m here.” my voice sounded cold even to my own ears. Hugh shrugged. “Took you long enough. Figured you’d drag your sorry ass here the moment your hellcat got sick. Figured you’d be bent on revenge way sooner than this. Doesn’t matter though. I’m not going anywhere. Wasn’t ever going anywhere, old buddy.” Hugh rambled. Oddly enough it felt like old times. I half expected him to produce a cigarette from somewhere and light it with a merry twinkle in his eyes. That twinkle was gone now though. Hugh just looked tired. Bone weary. Ready for whatever it was that I had in mind.

“You shouldn’t have pushed me aside just like that, buddy.” Hugh said, looking up at me. “It was one thing for you to get that runt in, but to let him pass me by like that? You shouldn’t have done that.” He chuckled. “You weren’t trustworthy, Hugh. You proved that much, in the end.” He looked at me again, his eyes looking surprisingly focused. “I wasn’t ever trustworthy, you cunt!” he yelled, a shadow of is former strength passing over his face. “Remember why you came to me in the first place? Remember why I was the right one to help you start your Goddamn League? I wasn’t ever a trustworthy man. I was a Goddamn crook. A Salvador made man. Exactly what you needed.”

He let his head fall back against the wall. “You were always too clean. For all your manipulations and all your games, you never knew how to get real dirty. You always needed people for that. Young, he’s the same. He’ll break someones knees if they need breaking. Even Val is the same. Someone needs to be dead, she’ll take care of it. You never could do that face to face. That’s what made you great, but that’s also what makes you weak. You never expect people to come at you sideways. Then when they do, you get all pissy. Well that’s what people do, Stender. They come at you sideways. Even the people you trust. You think Young wouldn’t have pulled something eventually?”

He shrugged. “Not that it matters anymore. You’re retiring. You’re leaving it all to Young. Now people are going to come at him sideways. People he likes will come at him. Stab him when he ain’t looking. That’s the price. You should’ve known that that’s the price.” I reached behind me, putting a hand on the gun I had tucked in the waistband of my pants. “You shouldn’t have messed with Valentina.” I ground out. “You think you’re here because of me? You’re here because of her, you shit.”

Hugh laughed, a weary, wry sort of thing. “Figured it would distract you a bit, at least. You always let your guard down when it came to the hellcat. And it did, didn’t it? I just forgot about Young for a moment. Didn’t think he was sly enough to have as many tricks up his sleeve as he did. That was my bad. I forgot that Young is like me. You’re not though. You can stand there, looking all tough, with that gun in your hand, but you’re not going to shoot. You’re a white collar crook, Stender. You don’t know how to get dirty.”

I let go of the gun, and smirked at him. “Suppose you’re right about that one. I guess the thing for me to do is to leave you here to rot. Maybe you’ll make it to a trial, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll make it to a death match, maybe you won’t. Time will tell.” I turned away from him, unsure of what it was I came to do in the first place. To kill Hugh? He was right. That had never been my style. I used people to get what I want. Hugh’s use had run out years ago. I used him to start the league in 2297, and that was where his usefulness to me ended. I should’ve cut him loose years ago though. Should have. Could have. Would have. None of those things brought Valentina back to me.

As I turned to walk out of his cell I heard Hugh choke a little. As if he wanted to ask me to end it, but couldn’t. Damned pride of his. Got in the way all the time. I could hear Valentina’s voice in my head. “She liked you, Hugh. Backstabbing bastard or not.” I dug around in my pocket, and tossed something to Hugh. “An aspirin? Gee, buddy, you shouldn’t have.” he said, holding the pill in the light. “I didn’t.” I pointed at the pill. “Your way out. Your choice.” He looked at the pill, and then at me, and back again. “Is it painless?” he finally asked. I turned back to him one last time. “Was Valentina’s disease painless?” I asked him, before walking out of the cell. “No chance in hell.” I heard him say as I turned the key, leaving Hugh in the dark with an easy way out.

~

The flight back went smooth as always. Smooth, but pointless. There was nothing left for me there. Valentina in a tank, floating and floating and floating and gone. My shoulders slumped, and I held my head in my hands as I grieved for the loss of the only person that had ever mattered. All the faces of the people I’d known and lost flashed before my eyes, all turning into the one face that I held dear. The jet landed, but I didn’t move. What was the point? The jet idled next to doctor Pelletier’s facilities, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. Couldn’t bring myself to talk to the doctor, to discuss the most logical course of action.

I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t move on. What was there to move on to? “Sir?” the pilots voice reached me. I looked up for a moment, at my hands. They were shaking. I’d never seen my hands shake before. I turned to look at the pilot, who glanced away. Uncomfortable in the sight of his broken boss, I imagined. “Uh… mr. Young asks if you’re coming inside. He… has something he wishes to discus with you.” I nodded, slowly rising from my seat. I couldn’t imagine what was worth discussing. Maybe he had news about Hugh. I didn’t care, but I walked into the building anyway. One step at a time.

There was no sign of Young in the living quarters. I dawdled, not wanting to go into the lab, where Valentina would be floating, lost to all the world. Eventually there was no choice though. I walked down the stairs, and into the lab. Doctor Pelletier was there. A man was standing next to her, with a hand on her shoulder. Her husband, I guessed. Young was standing a few feet away. Smiling. He saw me and walked towards me, just as I glanced behind him. “Good news.” he said, grinning like the cat that got the cream. I walked past him though, towards the tank.

Valentina was floating. Her eyes were wide open, searching. Sweeping the room, back and forth the way she had done so many times before, so many battles before. Then she settled on target. Her eyes met mine, and I could see that, behind the mask that helped her breathe, she was smiling.

2309: Sixty Minutes

Posted: April 26, 2009 by Kelly in league, stories

There’s no reason
there’s no lesson
No time like the present
tell me right now
what have you got to lose
what have you got to lose
except your soul?

~ Slipknot, “Pulse of the Maggots”

Sixty minutes

I remembered my nightmares the moment before I woke up. They stood out brighter and more horrific then my last memories before I went to sleep, as if my dreams have been enhanced by drugs somehow. When I opened my eyes I knew for certain. They were not nightmares. And they weren’t just memories either.

The face hanging above mine, the prick of a needle, the soft sound of dripping, the brainscan.
The voices telling me that as per contract, I had given the Game all rights to jeopardize my life for the sake of viewer ratings. When tears trickled helplessly over my cheeks and I mumbled through a haze of drugs and fear that I didn’t remember ever signing up, that same voice had informed me that there was evidence of me signing up six years ago on a drunken night, on a dare. The evidence had already been okayed by a team of impartial attorneys.

The moment I opened my eyes I knew.

I rolled out of my bed and stood swaying on my legs in the middle of the hospital room, wearing only a hospital gown and squinting against bright sunlight. I saw myself reflected in the windows – a skinny girl with pale blond hair that looked unkempt, and a face that looked bloated with sleep. There were red spots all over my neck that stood out like lover’s bites. I didn’t know how they got there.

“Good morning Miss Summers,” the familiar voice of Game presenter Berntsson sounded over an intercom that I could not see. It was a voice that everybody in the world knew. He’d been one of the main presenters of the World League for years. “You are now live on channel 879,000 as a participant of the Survival Game. You have been injected with a virus that will sadly kill you by means of heart failure within the hour if you can’t find your way to the other side of the city. You will find the antidote in the Game studio’s. If you make it in time, I will hand you the antidote.”

Still, despite knowing, hearing it being said out loud was a shock in itself. My knees went weak and I sagged through them, biting back a whimper. “You can’t do this to me,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, trying to breathe evenly. Stars were swirling on the edge of my vision. “I never signed up for this willingly. I was drunk for crying out loud!”

“I can assure you this is all very legal,” Berntsson said with a hint of sardonic amusement in his voice. “We wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast this otherwise, and Stender’s corporation is too intelligent to take such risks. You should know that, Daniella dear. I heard you’re a frequent watcher,” he chided. “Why don’t you get moving, hun? Time is ticking away, and people are watching.”

I’d seen the announcements that this stunt was coming all over the vids in the past few months. I had even anticipated the show, wondering what it would be like. And now I was a participant. “But I can’t /remember/ signing up,” I whispered, horror-struck, over bloodless lips.

And then of course I did. It had been under the influence of alcohol indeed. Me and the boys, countless pints of beer, talking about the Game. The boys had been saying that it was obvious that Chang Kun Wei had won the Asia League Championship once again. He had been the last one standing, killing off his media-hyped opponent, Li Nguyen. The Korean girl had been a terror in the Fortress, doted upon by the media and the viewers, and predictably it had been the two of them in the end in a bone-chilling finale that lasted over six hours. During those six hours the whole world had screeched to a halt, watching with fascination how this legendary showdown was going to end. I had called in sick at work, too. I’d watched it with the boys and silently rooted for Li. The boys in the end had said that Chang Kun Wei had won because he was, simply said, male. And males were obviously superior. We’d been utterly sloshed by that point. I had said that wasn’t true, that males and females were evenly matched, that I’d be a match of any of the three guys was with at any time. We’d all signed up that night, laughing uproariously when Stephan – my then-boyfriend – had messed up his signature no less than four times because he hardly could hold a pen. He’d vomited later too, when we had dragged him outside.

I’d forgotten all about that night until now. Now it all came back to me – I’d completely blocked out the aftermath of that legendary Wei-Nguyen battle. “So I hope I will win some money then, if I get my hands on the antidote,” I said bitterly, stripping out of my hospital gown and into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that were lying on a chair next to my bed. There were millions of people watching, but they’d probably seen me drool in my drug-induced sleep too, so I wasn’t too bothered about trying to save face. “I didn’t sign up for just the fight for the right to live.”

“There is 40 million involved, if you would be interested,” Berntsson’s voice reassured me. “You won’t ever have to work again if you get out of this. You are our first test subject, so we don’t know whether you even stand a chance, with the virus we injected you with. You might be allergic or something. We ran some simulations of course, but that’s nothing compared to the real thing, good as our AI might be. Still, you should be alright in regards to that. It’s the rest that’s going to be the true challenge.”

I looked up as I tied my shoelaces hurriedly. “What is so hard about getting to the other side of town in an hour to get an antidote? I’m in St Miguel’s Hospital, right? That should be doable.”

Berntsson chuckled. “Oh, I didn’t tell you, did I? We’ll be trying to stop you, of course.”

My hands froze for a moment. “So I’m poisoned AND I could be shot?”

“Yup. Better run, Dani. You have roughly fifty-seven minutes to live.”

Bile was welling up in my throat. “I hate you.”

“I know,” Berntsson replied, sounding strangely subdued. And then, on a more worrying note: “They’re here.”

“What?”

“Our people, here to stop you. If you want a shot on life, you better get your cute ass out of here.”

And the pounding on the door started, people shouting my name, shouting for Daniella Summers to show herself, that I was to be contained to this room as per regulations of the Survival Game.

Strangely enough, this was the moment that reality was starting to sink in. They were going to kill me unless I didn’t do anything about it. And I was a participant in a new variant of the Game. The Survival Game they called it, and I would have to fight against people with monitors, camera’s, eyes everywhere – while the world watched, hungry for blood. What kind of sick game was this? At least the League worked with convicts and people who signed up for glory – they were trained warriors. I was not. I was a network technician for crying out loud! “No,” I whispered over bloodless lips. “No, no, no.”

The pounding on the door continued and I looked around, to see if I could find something, anything to get out of here. There was the window, of course. I opened it with a wild swing and found that I was at the second floor at current. It was a bit of a drop, but it should be doable, I judged.

“We’re coming in, Miss Summers!” someone shouted as I worked myself out of the window and onto a ledge. I turned around and lowered myself until I was hanging from the ledge, rough concrete biting my fingers. I tried not to think about the drop I would make as I let go off the ledge and crashed onto the pavement of the alleyway below. The blow rattled my teeth and made me fall over, but I thought to bend my knees properly so I didn’t break my ankles.

My heart was thundering in my throat as I got up. One glance upwards, where curtains were billowing in the afternoon breeze out of my open window, before I decided I didn’t want to see that they saw where I was going. I had to run. There was a poison in my veins, and it was killing me. So I did.

“Well done, Dani,” Berntsson congratulated me. He sounded close, as if he were whispering in my ear. They must have built speakers and camera’s into my clothes – or perhaps they’d given me implants. I’d probably never know. I didn’t answer him, so he just continued. “Once you’re out of this alley, you’ll be entering the mall. You can either choose for the metro station, which we’ve closed off for you by the way – your metro chip is malfunctioning so I don’t think you’ll be able to ride the metro legally, or you can try and find the road to see if someone will take you to the studio. What will it be?”

I bit my lip and just kept running until I found myself in the busy street. Shops, bright lights, and people were everywhere. Some of them were looking at me. What was it going to be? I didn’t waste any time. I ran. My metro chip was not working, and the studio’s were over twenty miles away, on the other side of the city. It was too far to run, so I needed something or someone to bring me there. As my heart thundered in my throat and I ran through a sea of colours and impressions, I decided to go for all or nothing.

I was a technician, and I’d sooner trust computers to take me somewhere than people. Even if said computer was programmed not to let me in. There was the entrance. I hurtled down the stairs, dancing out of people’s way, squeezing myself through, and jumping over initial scan ports. Those only were as high as my hip, and thankfully I was enough in shape to avoid those. I saw people watching me, startled, but they didn’t come into action… yet.

The tiled metro walls were a blur as I squeezed myself through the crowd. It was rush hour, about five in the afternoon, and as hellishly busy as it usually was around St Miguel’s station. I turned a few corners and then found myself near the implant scanners. In the end, it was pretty easy to manipulate them. I’m a network technician, and the metro network was one of the things I was responsible for. I know their flaws. So as a man of middle age was getting himself scanned to enter the platform, I stood next to him and hit the dead man’s switch. It wasn’t a switch, but more like a code that could be punched in if for some obscure reason someone’s implant was malfunctioning. Like mine. Only staff could do that, and I was staff. Well, remote staff, but I knew the codes anyway.

I briefly wondered if Berntsson knew, and then I figured he might because someone shouted: “Hold that woman!”

Back on the run, through crowds. Thankfully the metro arrived the exact moment I ran onto the platform. A woman looked me straight into the eye the moment I squeezed past her – it was a look of recognition. “Please,” I mouthed, giving her a desperate look. Her dark stare lasted for another moment. I looked at her face, at her shabby clothes, her unwashed hair, and I wondered if she might be jealous that I was on TV, or perhaps if she wondered if she would get a reward if she’d bring me in.

A drop of sweat trickled down my neck. I was feeling lightheaded, and my neck was itching.

The metro doors closed, trapping her and me and thousands of other people into a cabin that would race through the city.

And then she winked at me, laying a finger on her lips.

I smiled at her, absurdly grateful. The metro began to move and I scratched at the red spots in my neck while trying to avoid the eyes of the other metro passengers. It was a ride that should take ten minutes by metro. Surely it couldn’t be this simple?

“You’re lucky so far, Dani,” Berntsson suddenly said in my ear. I nearly jumped with the shock of it. “The metro is eating away the distance to the studio’s, and the poison is eating away at you. I think you might be allergic after all, with all the spots that are appearing over your body. I have your vitals right here, and you might want to hurry.”

My heart, already beating erratically since I started running, skipped a beat. “You’re fucking with me,” I whispered.

“Am I?”

“You must be. I’m not being held up as you hoped I would be, so you’re just making me scared now, hoping I mess up.”

“Am I?”

“You are.”

Soft laughter in my ear. He was famous for that laugh, Jorn Berntsson. That throaty laugh had earned him his fame as a presenter. Sure, he wasn’t Stender himself, but he was a viewer favourite. “You really think you’re so smart. I’m almost /not/ sorry to prove you wrong.”

“Fuck you.”

“You should be nicer to me, Dani. Don’t forget I hold your antidote and I hold all the informations on what your vitals are doing,” he reminded me blithely. The metro cabin was hot, there were people pressing against me and the scent of sweat permeated the air, but I didn’t notice anything of it. There was just me and Berntsson and the situation. “Never mind that I could alert the metro patrol.”

“You could,” I agreed. “But would that be good TV?”

“You won’t believe the viewer ratings. You might want to say hi to the viewers at home.”

“Wouldn’t want to disappoint them, would we?”

And to think that once Berntsson had been my favourite presenter. I had loved his throaty laugh. Now I wanted to kick him for it. Kill him, maybe.

The metro stopped, let people out and in, and left again. I was getting closer to my goal, but the minutes were ticking away and I couldn’t stop scratching. My neck was not the only place itching now. I noticed spots appearing along my arms as well now, as well as my legs and back. It felt as if whatever was in my bloodstream was being carried all the way through my body, spreading slowly like the poison it was. I scratched at my wrist and left red marks. Just imagining that stuff spreading through my brain as well made me feel uneasy. I wanted to scratch the poison out of my veins. I couldn’t help but think the damage it might do up there, and hated Berntsson, hated my life, hated my fate.

Sweat trickled down the side of my face, in my neck, matting my hair.

An older man with a professional-looking suitcase in his hand and an expensive watch around his wrist looked me in the face suddenly and said: “Are you alright, miss?”

I forced myself to smile at him and said: “I’m on my way to pick up medication. Thank you for your concern.”

“If you need any help, I’m a doctor.”

I closed my eyes for a moment. “Thanks. I don’t think you can help me though. As soon as I get the antidote I should be fine.” And here I gave myself away. I should have said medication, not antidote. I was handing him my poisoned state on a silver platter.

He blinked slowly, once, twice. Realizing. “You’re the Survival Game girl,” he blurted out.

My heart chilled in my chest. “Please do not-”

But others had overheard, and ripples of awareness spread through the metro. And someone hit the emergency brake. The metro screeched to a grinding halt. We all fell over, but strangely enough there was no one who broke my fall. People made space for me. “Oh please,” I shouted. “You can’t do this to me! Do you /want/ me to die? Are you getting paid for this, you motherfuckers?” Whoever had gone for that emergency brake might have sentenced me to death right this instant. I climbed up and pressed myself against the window, looking at their staring faces, panic tightening my throat. Now what? Would they do something to me? Would they detain me? Would I die, writhing in pain, poisoned, in a crowded metro? How the hell had Stender even gotten this cleared with the authorities?

The suitcase in the doctor’s hand was metal. And I was standing next to a window.

I used the two seconds of confusion and excitement around me to grab the suitcase and smash it against the window with as much strength as I could muster in my limited movement space. Glass shattered around me. People screamed, pushed against me. Someone tried to grab me but I shook the hand off my arm and somehow I got myself out of the crowded metro, onto the tracks. The tunnel was dark, and I was bleeding from a scrape on my arm, but I was running. The light of the halted metro lighted my way enough until the next turn.

I wanted to scream while I was running, screaming out with the injustice of this. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to fight, I wanted to hurt someone for what was happening to me. This couldn’t be happening. I’d had nightmares that went like this: me running, time running out. I didn’t even know what the hell I should do once I reached the next metro station. How would I go on? The metro was obviously off limits and I still had some ways to go until the broadcasting station.

It was easier not to think, but to run. So I ran through a tunnel that became eerier with every step I took. There were orange emergency lights blinking on regular intervals, often drowned out in the pale green light of the magnetic field on which the metro operated. It added to my feeling of living in a nightmare. And through it all, with the onset of fatigue and panic, the lightheadedness increased until there were stars swirling at the edge of my vision. I had to stop regularly to catch my breath. I stumbled ahead, keenly aware of Berntsson watching me. The millions of viewers were irrelevant somehow, the knowledge that Berntsson was so close and watching me was enough to be maddening.

His laughter rang through my head even though the only sound I heard was of my own ragged breathing.
“Fucking bastard,” I whispered, through bursts of breath. “You can’t do this to me, I don’t want to die.”

“Keep running then,” Berntsson advised me. I wondered if I was imagining his voice or maybe he was real, because he did not elaborate.

I thought for a moment how he would feel if the roles were reversed – sixty minutes, and then you die. What do you do? /What WOULD you do, Berntsson? Would you laugh that horrid laugh of yours? Would you hate like I do?/

Turning another corner, I found myself on another metro station. Stender Station – how delightfully ironic that was. I didn’t even know the founder of the Game had a station called after him, despite having lived in this part of the Compound for most of my life. I would have laughed if I would have had any breath left. As it was, I just made my way onto the platform and cheerfully ignored the people already standing there. As long as I acted if nothing was wrong, they would think the same.

I found that I was still clutching the briefcase of the doctor. I wondered what might be in there, and if I could use something as a weapon. Coming to a halt in one of the lesser crowded hallways of Stender Station, I took a few seconds to check. It was mostly papers and an expensive-looking organiser in there. Undoubtedly there was some priceless patient information on that thing, but that didn’t interest me in the least. What was much more interesting was the keychain that was in there. It featured a pocketknife that was surprisingly sharp. Running my fingers over the blade, I felt it bite in my skin.

I ignored the thick red blood trickling over my hand and dropped the suitcase, ready for the final stretch to the broadcast studio’s.

“What are you going to do with that blade, Daniella?” Berntsson inquired. There was curiosity in his voice.

I didn’t reply, lest I would threaten him physically. If he knew I was coming right for him, I would most certainly never make it to the studio’s alive. I wanted to live very badly, but I was starting to boil with bloodlust. I wonder if it was a side effect of whatever vile stuff they’d injected me with. I never was a very violent person to begin with, but the thought of killing was becoming rapidly very appealing. And killing Berntsson for his laughter, for his disdain – that could be very, very sweet.

“How long do I have?” I asked, instead.

“Thirty minutes, give or take,” he said. “I have some experts looking into the spots that are appearing on your body. They said you should start to experience the effects of the potion about now. Dizziness, shortness of breath.” He chuckled. “From here on it’s going to get /real/ interesting.”

I was on the move again before he finished talking. People looked at me go, but thankfully no one tried to stop me. My feet hit the tiled hallway floor in a steady, staccato rhythm. I stumbled twice, bloodied hand sliding over a tiled wall. Once I sprawled all over the floor, but I was standing on trembling legs again within three heartbeats. I was counting my heartbeats now, wondering how many I had to go until my heart would give out like Berntsson had promised. My heart was hammering feverishly in my chest at a fluttery 140 beats per minute or something, and the minutes were running out. I wiped hot tears from my face and stumbled my way to the exit of the metro station.

Blinking in the pale late afternoon sunlight, I took in my surroundings. I had never been in this part of town – above ground, the upper part of the Compound. It was mostly made up from apartment buildings and bridges that connected them. The buildings rose up tall and grimey against a steelgray sky, slashed through with the green light of the magfields up above. There weren’t many people, most of them were on their way from one place to the other – riding pods both on the ground and floating on the magnetic fields – all of them were on various forms of transport. I needed transport too.

And badly. My hands were shaking so badly by now that I had a hard time holding onto the pocketknife I’d stolen. /Thirty minutes, give or take./ Was I really allergic? Was I dying sooner than anticipated? Fuck, I wished they’d found someone else to test their new Game on. Why me? It was not fair. What did I do to deserve all of this? I wasn’t a convict. I wasn’t a contestant by free will, goddammit. I was sure that if I could get my hands on a lawyer I might be able to talk my way out of this.

Yet for now, there was poison eating at my veins – at my /brain/ – and I had thirty minutes to find a way to live.
So I ran over to a pod distributor, waited a few seconds in line, and then illegally hopped on the first pod I could find. It was an open one, made up of only a platform with a bench one’d have to strap himself in, and with a roof to shield against rain. A budget pod. The current inhabitant was a young girl in her school uniform. She looked vaguely Asian and she was barely in her teens, I judged, as the girl asked me: “What the fuck are you doing? This is /my/ pod.”

“I’m hijacking it,” I told her friendly, as the pod began to tremble slightly in its ascend. “You can either drop me off where I need to be, or I can kick you off.”

“Why?” There wasn’t quite contempt, but there was a lot of distrust in her. A twelve year old girl riding the pods alone in the afternoon in the Compound had to be. I had not forgotten what it was like to be her age.

I decided to be honest with her. “Because I /really/ need to get to the broadcast studio, or I’ll die. Have you heard the announcements of the Survival Game?”

Her dark eyes suddenly widened. “I wanted to watch that! Has it started yet?”
“It’ll be over in half an hour if Berntsson gets his way.” I showed her the spots and the bloody scratches on my arm. “I’m dying. Please. Will you reprogram the pod to bring us to the studio? You could be a hero… what’s your name?”

“Lisa.”

“You could be a hero, Lisa. You could be my hero and every viewer that’s watching me and rooting for me right now.” The ground was now several stories beneath us and the pod was starting its trek through the afternoon sky. I could have looked into the windows of high-up buildings if I would have cared to. I could have fallen to death if I wanted to. “You’re on live television. Will you let me die?”

“There are rewards,” the girl said. “It could pay off my study loans. School is expensive on my family. They’re bleeding to let me go to this school.”

My heart sank. Money in the new World Order; was there a magic or a technology more powerful? “That’s wonderful of them. I’ll be sure to make a donation to your study funds if I get out of this alive. I’ll be thankful, I swear. Will you please help me?”

She eyed me for a moment more and then grinned a shit-eating grin. “Sure,” she said. “I guess it’d be rather neat to be a hero.” She reached over to the console and ran her fingers over the screen, working in a new destination. “How much will you pay me?”

“If I get out of this? How about a few million? That should cover you for the rest of your life.” I stumbled and my bloodied hand found the railing of the pod. My hand was slippery with half-dried blood though, and I slipped and fell against the railing. I blacked out for a few heartbeats there and then, I suppose, for I found the girl standing over me.

“Are you dying?” she asked me boldly. “Because I would like to get that money.”

“I sure hope the fuck not,” I said, touching the back of my head. I wasn’t bleeding, but it felt mightily bruised under my hair. I blinked against the light, which suddenly seemed too bright for my eyes, and reeled. The world swayed drunkenly before my eyes. The next moment I was hanging half out of the pod, puking my guts out while Lisa held me back from falling. I didn’t see where it would hit people, but I didn’t really care. When it was over, I rolled back into the pod and lay on my back, looking up at the gray-and-green sky where the roof of the pod didn’t cover my view.

“Did they inject you with radiation sickness?” The girl asked, kneeling next to me and looking concerned. “They taught us about it in class today.”

“I don’t know,” I said, squeezing my eyes shut against the intruding light. “I just know that I don’t have very long.” Vaguely, I wondered why Berntsson was so quiet. He had not said anything in a while, even though I knew he must be tracking me, controlling the various camera’s in the Compound to follow me. I’m sure he had hacked into the camera in the pod now, and that millions of livingrooms were watching me and the girl Lisa.

“I tried to set the pod into the highest setting,” Lisa said. “Estimated arrival time is in seven minutes.”

I took that as a cue to black out some more. I must have, because I lost a few minutes there. When I came to again, I hated myself for wasting those possible precious last minutes of my life unconsciousness, but it wasn’t as if I had a choice in the matter. My body was shutting down on me. I didn’t itch anymore, but I had problems keeping my eyes open and the world was swaying every time I turned my head.

“Are you sure you’re able to get into the studio like this?” Lisa asked. “I checked the Survival Game on the nets and it said they were going to try to stop you to get to your goal.”

I held my head in my hands as I sat up. Swimming, swaying. I wanted to retch again. “I don’t know. I suppose I would need a weapon or something. They might not let me in if I don’t fight for it.” I didn’t think I’d stand a chance, with whatever weapon I could conjure between here and the studio. But I wanted to hurt something, anything. I wanted to hurt whoever was responsible for my predicament. A weapon sounded great. Pity there was no way I could get my hands on one right now. /Motherfuckers!/ Why did they do this to me?!

“If you give me more money, then I could maybe help you,” Lisa said. Her young face, still sporting some babyfat and not yet entering the lanky teenager stage, looked determined. “I carry a stun gun. My mom gave it to me, because I have to ride the pod alone every day to school. So I can defend myself.” She took the bagpack she had slung over her shoulder – pink, and full of written love and kisses from her best friends, and dug a honest to god stun gun out of it. “If you keep your promise, I want you to have it. Use it wisely. I want you to live.”

And then suddenly, from out of nowhere, Berntsson spoke. His voice came out of nowhere, quietly speaking from speakers that must have been installed in the pod somewhere. How he had hacked his way into them, I had no idea. But he spoke. And he spoke horrible words to the girl. “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.”

“You have /got/ to be kidding me,” I whispered.

Lisa’s eyes widened again. She nearly dropped the gun and bit on her knuckles. “They weren’t kidding on the Nets when they said the Game would try to stop Dani from reaching the studio.”

“This is my offer for you, Lisa,” Berntsson nearly crooned. I hated him more than ever. “Never would you or your family lack for anything. You don’t have to kill her, just keep her there. We will take over when you reach the studio grounds.”

“STOP that!” I screamed at him. That disembodied honeyed voice, stealing my only ally away from me. He couldn’t do that to me. “Fuck you!” I wanted to scream more, but my voice broke and I was sobbing now. Desperate tears were streaming over my face and I couldn’t keep my head up, I was so dizzy and the world was silvery stars and insanity.

“Oh,” was all Lisa said. She was biting her knuckles and staring at me with those wide, innocent eyes. She was tempted, I could see that. “But I don’t want her to die, you say I won’t be responsible but I will be.”

Berntsson hummed. “You would have watched her die on the vids otherwise. It’s not your decision, sweetheart. It’s up to fate. But in this case, you’d be taken care of. You and your family, you would have riches to burn.” He sounded so reasonable. So friendly. I wanted to kill him, but all I could do was cry. “All you have to do is either to shoot her with the stun gun, or to keep her at gunpoint…. and turn her in to us. That’s all it takes.”

“Please don’t let me die. What is twenty or forty or eighty million?” I whispered. “It’s more you can spend. What do you want in life, Lisa? Study? A nice life? A cute guy? Some great sex and lots of cute children?”

“I… I….”

A mechanic voice cut in right then. The Pod. “You have reached your programmed destination. Have a good day.”

“Please,” I sobbed pitifully at the twelve year old girl that held my life in her hand.

As the pod docked, Lisa was still standing with the gun in her hand, hesitating. Outside the studio, I could see the reception party waiting for me. Berntsson and a dozen enforcers with guns, ready to welcome me home. What would they do? Pin me in place and wait for the poison to run its course, only to die with my eyes fixed on the antidote in Berntsson’s hands? Wasn’t that horribly unfair? Wasn’t that inhuman, and illegal?

I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to go for that final lunge.
So I took Lisa’s decision for her. Somehow, I found myself on shaking legs and grabbing the gun from Lisa’s hand. It felt oddly heavy in my own hand, much heavier than a stun gun should be. As I sprinted out of the pod on legs that felt like water, stumbling into viewing (and shooting) range of Berntsson and his party, I thought about what I knew about stun guns. Six bullets, all to stun. It wasn’t enough to take out the enforcers. Perhaps I could stun myself so I wouldn’t feel death as it would come in a few minutes. It would have been an option, if I wouldn’t have felt so angry.

And then a voice behind said me: “I lied. It’s not a stun gun.” Lisa’s voice sounded cold, and much, much harsher than a young girl’s voice had any right to be. “You have six bullets. Make them count.”

Six bullets might have given me a chance to go for the antidote. I was too angry though.
My eyes fixed upon Berntsson; the announcer of the Survival Game and the prelims for the Fortress and countless other Game Arena’s. This was a man that had cheerfully announced the demise of countless people and would smile just as much when announcing mine. His face burned in my mind; just a man nearing his middle age. Dark eyes with the laughing lines around them, the square jaw. His dark hair, tied back in a tail.

Jorn Berntsson.

I looked him straight in the face and raised the gun. It felt right and true in my hand, even though I never had taken many shooting lessons beyond the basic courses they offer at school. I hated so much. And it felt so right.

So I pulled the trigger.
And thus it came to be that I killed Jorn Berntsson.
I watched coldly as the bullet tore his handsome face apart, in front of the eyes of the enforcers, Lisa, and millions of viewers at home.

And I still don’t regret anything.

—-

2307: Killing Us

Posted: April 26, 2009 by Kelly in deathmatching, league, stories

Have heart my dear
We’re bound to be afraid
Even if it’s just for a few days
Making up for all this mess
~Snow Patrol, “Run”

Killing Us

The dream ended in tears.

Lannie’s tears, to be precise. I heard her sobs the moment I entered our apartment.
It was a gorgeous spring morning, the daylight was still pink-and-orange with sunrise and there seemed to be no one on the streets as I walked the short distance from the pod to our flat. The weather was dry enough that my knee was not aching for once and I’d had a pretty good night shift, so I came home in a relatively good mood.

Things had been looking up for us lately, after Lannie’d had her victories first in the Rookie Euroleague and then the World League. We were planning our marriage and maybe even a small honeymoon, delirious with the sheer sensation of our money problems finally being over. We’d managed to pay off the debts that had been killing us. Every moment I woke up, I thought I had been dreaming and it was not true after all – but it was, and the feeling was as wonderful as it was surreal.

But then I walked through the front door and I knew it was all over. The dream had lasted all but a week and a half. We were to be married in a month. I stood in the door opening of the living room and found her in a heap on the couch, crying heartbrokenly. From the disheveled state she was in, I gathered that she’d been at this for several hours now.

And somehow I knew. In that split second before I ran through the room and took her in my arms, I knew.

“I’m so sorry,” she choked out, burying her face in my neck. I could feel her tears wet against my skin. I held her tightly and didn’t ask. I didn’t need words to know what had happened. In the years, we’d had enough of these kinds of scenes. Arguments, screaming, blame, racking guilt… but above all, the addiction. It had loomed over us since we’d gotten together, like a ghost. It was so strong and overpoweringly present that at times I’d thought that we should just split up, that we were dragging each other down in a downward spiral we couldn’t get out of. Still, despite everything we loved one another fiercely, more than even the addiction. And we understood one another. By now we carried enough guilt towards one another that the blame game didn’t even apply to us.

I should have been outraged, I should have been screaming at her. We’d finally/finally/ been in the clear. The nightmare had been finally over, we had stopped our gambling. And now this? But all I felt was a numbness. It had been too good to be true anyway, too unreal to ever have a chance on existing. And on a deeper, more base level, I was perhaps a little glad that it wasn’t me who had destroyed our dream.

“I didn’t mean to,” Lannie sobbed against my neck. She was limp and heavy with exhaustion, heavily leaning onto me. “I wanted to- oh God, I wanted to give you a gift and I blew it all… I’m so fucking stupid… I ruined it all…”

It all started with how we met – in a betting station. I was interviewing for a job after the company I used to work for had abruptly gone bankrupt and we were all laid off with about ten minutes notice. Since I was a frequent visitor of the betting station, I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, I had enough knowledge of the subject – I had worked in real estate, so I knew all about flows of money and how to manipulate them.

I got the job, mostly because I was friendly already with the guys who interviewed me. And there Lannie was. She had purple hair back then, a brilliant hue of violet that she accentuated in her choice of clothing. I thought she was radiant and flirted with her, until I found out that she was the girlfriend of one of the other employees. But as things go, she and I ended up in bed together.
We were madly in love. She was cute, sweet, funny, but also tough and independent. The two of us shared a passion for athletics and shooting games, as well. We would lie in bed after steamy sex on a hot summer evening with all windows open and the fan blowing, and think about what it would be like to participate in the League, instead of staying up all night to watch legendary League matches. It was just dreams. If one would have told us back then where we would end up, we would have laughed… we were so young and naive.

We pulled all-nighters at the betting station, biting our nails during League matches, laying in our own money on competitors. Our finances took huge hits and got immense boosts. It got so far that we lost so much money that we were kicked out of our apartment and lived in my car for a while. That’s how bad things got. Then a few weeks later we earned the money back in another match, but it was always a thrill how bad it could be, or how good.

The most money we ever won was during the now legendary Li-Nguyen match in the Asia League in ‘03. That was the best moment we ever had, and the highest amount. We threw a wild party with the prize money (nearly spent half of it on one big drugged and boozed up haze, but it was worth every penny). We lost the rest of it during the next match, but the delirious happiness stayed with us anyway. But then the debts started accumulating, and suddenly we found ourselves with a sinking boat that we didn’t know how to keep afloat anymore.

We started training in earnest in a last-ditch effort to maybe make some money in participating in the Fortress, and later the League… if that would work. We practiced with shock rifles and found that we were both good shots – Lannie even a bit better than me. I had more strategical insight than she did on top of a lot of mock combat experience in lasergames and paintball, though, so we decided that I would enter the prelims for the Fortress. It would be a last ditch effort, though – we hoped it would never get to that point. But then of course it did.

We bet it all on the Stateleague of 2304; the one that Valentina Marin won against all odds, AGAIN. We thought that Valentina’s luck would have to run out at some point. Her competition that year was shaping up to be good; there were some real terrors in the Fortress at that point… and we thought she just would trip this time. We thought her fire she was so famous for, would burn out. The only thing it did was burning our money.

Things were earnestly going wrong now. Lannie and I took to the city arena and had a shoot out to determine which one of us would sign up for the Fortress. It turned out to be me; I wiped the floor with her that day. I was just so determined. I got immediately scouted by a sponsor that day as well; someone video’d our match.

I managed to get into bootcamp for the Fortress the very next season. Lannie agonised a lot over the fact that I could die in the Fortress or the League, but I told her that I’d be fine. I didn’t want to die, I had something to live for, I told her. I loved her so much, that I wanted to make it all right again. It was a simple fact that the prize money was higher if you had a chance to die in the Game, so thus I had to go for the more dangerous games.

I dominated bootcamp. I was the absolute favourite… and then on the last day of training, there was an accident. A gun that was supposed to shoot blanks shot true. And I remember so well Saxa complaining that her weapon felt weird, but the blanks made /all/ of our weapons slightly unbalanced, so we didn’t pay much attention to it. The moment she loosed the shot, I knew immediately what was wrong. She’d had me pinned, too; the only one in bootcamp who even /could/ take me in a one-on-one fight. I whirled myself out of the way and off a platform, but I was too late.

I hit my head against a wall and never felt how my knee was completely shot to shit. I woke up in the hospital, with Lannie sitting next to my bed. She was wide-eyed and quiet, her blue eyes bloodshot with too little sleep.

It turned out to be sabotage. Saxa’s weapon had been tampered with by one of the trainers who would have rather see her protegee win. This way, Saxa and I were both out of the equation. For the duration of the game, she was disqualified… and I would never fight again. The Corporation, even though they were not liable (their lawyers made that very clear) paid for all of the hospital bills. I even got a nice sum of money to not sell my story to the press. And that was it.

Lannie and I were right back where we started; the money was gone soon enough and I was too invalid to participate the next year like Saxa did. You need your knee to turn, to jump, to walk, to run. I couldn’t do that anymore, not in the way I used and needed to.

It scared the living shit out of us; the very real concept I could have died. We decided Lannie wouldn’t enter the Fortress, then. She’d go for the finals in the Rookie League. It was now all up to her, she would be our only source of substantial income. I loved her for her determination, for her courage. When Lannie wanted something really badly, she would get it. I’d fought for money, back then, but she fought so much harder, so much dirtier than I ever could. She worked out day and night, read up on all literature there would be… but most of all, she was great with the media. Because the media noticed her. Our story had a certain sense of tragedy to it, and they loved it.

As she fought her way through several amateur leagues, money started trickling in. She gained sponsors, media attention. I did all of her secretary work, coached her during her exercises and fitness. I massaged her long hours after training sessions and matches, I pored over battle strategies with her. I tried to help her as much as I could. She gratefully let me do it, but I felt that it was never enough, it was never what had to be done. I should have been the one in there, talented as she might be. I was supposed to be the better one, the favourite in Fortress bootcamp. And now with training she was the better of us, the faster one, the /useful/ one, but I felt a horrible partner to her that I let her get out there.

She never complained, though. She even relished in it, in the fans, the media attention.

Sometimes we’d lay in bed at night, cuddled up, and she would say in the darkness: “Maybe this is was meant to be for me. Maybe I was born for this…”

I loved her too much to refute. She /was/ brilliant in the Arena, truly. Despite her holes in her game strategy, she had stats that would put several League champions to shame. She was lucky, too. “All the luck I don’t have in money, I do have in the Game,” she would laugh. But after that, we started to have luck in both. First there was sponsor money, but then bits and pieces of prize money started coming in. And by smart betting (I always bet on my Lannie/always/) we were able to double, triple, or quadruple the prize money. Suddenly we were paying off debts, filling holes in our sinking ship.

And then Lannie qualified for the Rookie Euro League and wonder of wonders, she /won/. She was magnificent. That’s when the media circus truly began. One day she was checking out the nets on her touchscreen (courtesy of one of her sponsors) while soaking in the bathtub and squealed that she had her own /fanclub/. We popped open the bubbly at that, it just seemed too weird and too fantastic to be true. It felt as if we were dreaming those weeks before the final of the Rookie World League. One big dream, flashing before our eyes. Paparazzi in the bushes, screaming fans, sponsor offers going through the roof. With sponsor money alone we could pay off half our debt already.

Lannie and I, we were living on a golden cloud. It seemed like right now, after seven years of disaster, our seven years in the sunlight had finally started. Because she won, of course. My Lannie won the Rookie World League in a thrilling battle. It was a close thing, but she won fair and square due to her superior reflexes and her quick thinking. Sometimes her improvisations were sheer genius – and this had been one of those moments. I was so proud of her I could have exploded.

That was when we started to discuss marriage. With our debts for 95% erased, we finally were able to get married, so we could afford to be financially dependent on one another.

And just a couple of nights ago, Lannie asked if she should use the money she would win with her next wins to contact that doctor she had heard about, who was said to be able to use cybernetic implants to fix people. “Maybe he could fix you up again,” she mused.

“I’m not broken, Lannie,” I said, even though I was. Even though I resented it. “And besides, it’s going to take forever for you to get that kind of money. I’ve heard those prizes, it’s more than you could win and earn in five or ten years, sweetheart. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” she said vehemently. She’d sat straight up in bed, sheets falling away from her. The streetlights and neon signs from outside our window illuminated her lovely body. “It eats away at me that I win and win, while you sit at home like a fucking invalid. I’ve never seen you more alive than when /you/ were the one doing the winning Walter, and I hate to see you in pain when it rains, or when you turn too quickly. Or the look in your eyes when we have to climb stairs. Dammit Walt, I hate it!”

“Don’t worry about it. It just is that way. And maybe in five or ten years, we indeed can afford such a medical procedure,” I soothed her. “It’s fine.”

And now this. Of course I understood what happened. As her story was blurted out in bits and pieces, between the tears, the image painted itself. There had been a match last night. And Lannie had gone to a betting station, betting all of her World League prize money. Not to my department, but to another one in the neighbourhood, so I wouldn’t know. I wanted to kill them for not stopping her. I wondered if they could have, because Lannie usually got what she wanted. She was the kind of person that everyone wanted to see smile. Hell, I know I always gave her what she wanted just to see that radiant smile.

She had lost it all. And beyond. We were neck deep back in debt once again, like the whole Rookie League had never happened. We were back at square one, back in the nightmare. AGAIN.

“I wanted to give you the surgery as a wedding present,” she wept. “I’m so sorry. I ruined it all…”
That she did. But I couldn’t find the heart to blame her, because in the end it might as well have been me. Eventually. We were just so hopelessly fucked up, one of us was bound to abruptly end that dream one day.

I just held her and told her I loved her for trying to make me better, trying to help me. I also told her that she was a stupid fucking idiot, but that I still loved her anyway. What was there to say? What was there to do?

Eventually she fell asleep, exhausted. I brought her to bed and lay next to her, staring at the daylight-illuminated ceiling as outside the city was waking up. Life outside was going on even though our life was ruined once again. Our dream had ended… again. I felt numb. When we got up, we were too lethargic to do much but order pizza and sit on the couch, drinking wine and trying to forget our life was in shambles. We watched the Corporation feeds and listened to the rumours of an actual World League – a real one. Where they shot to kill.

I stared at the feeds for several hours in a bleary haze of depression and sleep deprivation when suddenly the doorbell rang. It was early the next morning and I couldn’t even remember the night passing. I cursed and shot on my jeans and a shirt, walking to the door barefoot and disheveled.

When I opened the door, I saw two men in Corporation uniforms and a tall russet-haired man in a black suit in front of me. The man in the suit looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him.

“Mister Lane?” the man in the suit asked.

“Yeah. Can I help you? If you’re here to collect the money, I’m sorry but-”

The russet-haired man smiled a smile that made me abruptly shut my mouth. “Please, mister Lane,” he said. “My name is Young. I’m here on behalf of the Corporation. I have an offer for Lannie Williams that I’d like to discuss with her. Can I come in?”

And that’s when the nightmare started in earnest.

***

Lannie must have known exactly what was up when she walked into the livingroom. One moment she was rubbing over her puffy eyes and raking a hand through her sleep-tousled dark red hair, and the next she dropped dead in her tracks. She recognized the russet-haired man in the expensive suit that was sitting on our couch immediately. I saw her mind racing in that one second before she said with baited breath: “Walter, go take a hike, will you?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, crossing my arms. We’d never left each other alone in situations with debt collectors, I wasn’t about to start doing so today.

She sighed. “I think I need to do this one alone, babe. Sorry.”

Dread towered over me like a tidal wave about to crash. I had an inkling where this would be going and I was very sure I wouldn’t like this. My nerves were still raw from what happened yesterday morning, so perhaps I was paranoid but… dammit, they’d been watching us, waiting until we fucked up so they could sweep in and… what the hell was that offer that Young was about to make to Lannie? “This is my life too,” I protested.

“Not until we are married, love. Not your money, not your problem. I created this mess… let me do this one alone. I deserve it.” She looked at me with those hurt-stricken blue eyes and I couldn’t refuse her. How could I, when she gave me that look? Something inside me gave way and I gave in to her. “Alright. I’ll go grab us some breakfast or something. Take care.” I took her hand and squeezed it for a moment, near-limping out of the room. Damn leg was always at its worst when I just woke up.

In the end I didn’t go far. Breakfast be damned, I wasn’t hungry at all. I just walked to a playground a block away from our flat and flopped down on one of the benches, leaning back and staring at the hazy blue sky. Staring at the sun. Trying not to think, not to speculate. I don’t know how long I was there. I must have fallen asleep at some point as well, because I started when Lannie came to sit next to me on the couch.

“So,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were still luminous and aching. She’d washed herself up, though. She’d tied her red hair in a ponytail and was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, just like any other day. If you didn’t look too closely you might have even missed the red rims around her eyes.

“So,” I said. “Did he make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?”

She shifted her gaze to the grey concrete underneath her feet. “Pretty much.”

I didn’t say anything. I just thought of the rumours, that there was going to be a World Tournament, one in which they wanted to bring all of the League champions together in the deathmatch of the century. The betting stations had been abuzz with the possibilities. Discussions and arguments on who would win such a match had already started while the whole Tournament hadn’t even been confirmed yet. Never mind the bets that had opened on the names of the participants alone.

“It’s going to be the World Tournament,” Lannie confirmed. “Young wants all the League Champions to compete, even some Rookie Leaguers.” She paused for a moment, lost in thoughts. “He immediately began about the money.”

“So they know.”

Lannie shrugged. “They’ve been watching us like hawks apparently. Knew that I’d screw up before I did. And now we’re back in money problems they…” She turned around and took my hand, squeezing it painfully. “The /money/ they’ve offered, Walter…”

I didn’t even hear her anymore. All I could think of was all those games we’d bet upon. All those Leagues. All those /deaths/. All those people; talented in their own right. Gored, impaled, shot, decapitated, smeared over concrete. All those /people/. And Lannie… /my/ Lannie…

“You’re not going to do it. Please don’t do it,” I breathed. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shut out the world. Trying to shut out the possibilities. “Lannie, seriously. I’d rather break my other leg than seeing you enter that Arena.”

“I know,” she said softly. “But you forget what I’ve done to you. What I’ve done to us. I could atone for it, I could make things right again. This is my fault, Walter.”

“I don’t care about the rest of the world. We can have every money issue in the world and they could kill us for it and I wouldn’t care. Not if you were with me.” I started to shiver despite the gentle breeze and the warm sunlight. Images in my head, tearing at my sanity. Gut-wrenching panic. “I couldn’t bear you becoming one of those people who are cussed out because people lost money over their death. That can’t be you, babe. It can’t be.”

She tried to be reassuring, but I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. I knew her for over a decade, of course I would hear it on her. Still, she tried. “It won’t be. I won the Rookie League, too.”

“The Rookie League doesn’t shoot to /kill/. How do you think you’ll fare under the guns of Ruiz or people like Chang, love? Or even Valentina, if she would compete? Those people have won multiple times; they are experienced killers. You have yet to draw blood /anywhere/!”

“Have a little fucking faith in me!” she suddenly shouted, jumping up from the bench. Passersby gave her a glance, but not more than that. We were just a couple having a domestic spat to them. In neighbourhoods like ours, people were used to much, much more.

I got up from the bench as well. “You’re brilliant, sweetie. Seriously. It wasn’t a fluke that you won the Rookie League. You’ve got skills, talent, flair, you’ve got it all. You’d be a good contestant in any actual League – even if they’d shoot to kill. But seriously… some of those contestants are /out of this world/. The League… it’s all they are, all they know. You are so much more – and you came to it late. You’d be a great contestant, but honestly I don’t think you’d be able to beat the best of the best out there. Maybe with rigid training regimes for the next five years… but not yet babe. Not yet.”

“They could kill each other and leave the easy ones for me.”

“They could,” I agreed. “But as I said, I’d rather break my other leg than betting on that chance. You’re worth so much to me, baby.” I took a step in her direction and a jolt of pain shot through my knee. Ah, fuck. That happened when I was careless and swept up in emotions; I placed my foot wrong and then this would happen. For a moment I had to suck in my breath and weather through the pain, but when I opened my eyes again, Lannie was looking at me with all of the hurt of the world in her eyes.

“I let /you/ enter the Fortress, Walter,” she said softly. “You were in the Fortress, and I respected the fact that you could die. You wanted to enter, I hated it, but I let you go.”

“Yeah, and see where it brought me!”

She wiped tears from her eyes. “You’re here, you’re alive. And I had that confidence in you. Please have some confidence in me, Walter. If you don’t believe in me, how the hell can I believe in myself after what I’ve done?”

My heart was breaking all over again when I realized what she was asking from me. She wanted me to show my love for her by supporting her in letting her enter the Tournament. I had to believe in her skills in the Tournament, because she felt it was all she had ever done right in the world. She’d fucked up everything else, and she had to believe that /I/ believed she was worth anything in the Arena. I had to believe in the fact that she could make everything right again, because she was hating herself so bloody much right now.

“Lannie, you’re killing us,” I said. My chest was tight and painful with emotions that were too much to bear. I loved her more than ever.

She shook her head. “No, I’m saving us.”

I wrapped my arms around her – that oh so familiar gesture, so close against me. Her arms snaked around my waist like they’d done countless of times before. We felt so good together. I wanted to cry, I wanted to tell her that no, she /was/ killing us, but I didn’t have the heart to. I /wanted/ to believe in her as much as she did. I thought of the pure happiness radiating from her face when I ran up to her after her victory. Camera’s had been flashing everywhere, my leg had been hurting, and she’d been covered in mud and blood, but I hadn’t cared. All I’d seen was the happiness in her eyes, and the all-consuming love and pride I’d felt in that moment. My girl, the victor. She had done what I couldn’t; she had made everything right again in that moment. And she believed she could do it once more. She /had/ to believe in it, otherwise she couldn’t live with herself.

Well then, who was I to refuse her anything? She wanted this, she /needed/ this.

It was just so completely terrifying to realize that the fact that she needed this might be bigger than my need of her. I buried my face in her hair and hated everything. “I love you, baby. I’ll support you in everything you do if you want me to.”

Her arms squeezed around me. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I love you too.”

***

What does one do the day after you’ve decided to enter the Deathmatch of the decade? In our case, Lannie and I snuggled up on the couch. The Corporation went live with the news about the World League Tournament the very night after Lannie had given me that rueful smile and told me she’d accepted the offer of participation.

We did not want to talk to people. We did not want to tell people; it was bad enough we were in this situation. There were people still thinking that we were still rich and would be getting married in a couple of weeks. The prospect of telling anyone nauseated the both of us, so we just shut ourselves off from the whole world and sat on our couch, half-watching the League tournament rumours trickle in through the feeds.

“If only they knew,” Lannie said with that smirk of hers that I knew so well.

I buried my face in her red hair and listened to the lively discussion on the screen. “I think they’ll know soon enough.” And when Lannie’s name would be listed as a participant, everyone else would know about us soon enough, as well.

I felt her sigh. “Who do you think the other competitors will be?”

“Ruiz, probably. He doesn’t seem like he’ll ever quit.”

“The African League winner as well,” she added. “Adhiambo. She looked like someone who would keep going until the bitter end, too.”

“Logan, the sniper.” I could still see the Euroleague winner before my mind’s eye. A quiet, withdrawn man. However, despite the fact that his reaction to his victory had been full of blazing emotion, his reaction hadn’t really been one of joy. It had been /relief/. I’d seen the same relief in his eyes as there had been in mine and Lannie’s when he took his victory in the Euroleague. He was in it for the money; and when you needed as much as a League victory gave you to pay for something, then you probably needed a lot more, too.

We speculated a while longer while eating dinner, and later, with a bottle of wine. People were calling us and sending us messages regarding the rumours that there would be a League announcement today, but we did not respond. Tonight was just for Lannie and me and our couch. My stomach was still all knotted up from our confrontation earlier that day.

Speculating about the killers she would be facing in the Arena didn’t do much to make me feel better. The worst thing was that my League-conditioned mind immediately started going over the stats, comparing them to my girl. Thinking who she could take, who would be a problem. As if she was just another of those contestants. As if she wasn’t my fiancée. I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t help myself. A lifetime of watching games and a year and a half of coaching my girlfriend through competitions was betraying me. I wanted to beg her not to do it after all, but I was firmly trapped in her plea. /If you love me, you’ll let me participate/. She hadn’t said it, but it was what she /meant/ when we argued. It only made me drink more.

The wine hit me like a ton of bricks. I still had not slept properly since my night shift two nights ago and the emotions of the day were wringing me out like a wet rag. Maybe I dozed off at some point somewhere, because when our League news tag started glowing and the newscast immediately came on screen, it rattled me more than it should have.

It showed Stender himself, in all his charming glory. Could that guy ever look anything else than calm, collected and a little ironic? He started talking. I wrapped my arms around the love of my life and felt my mind slipping in and out of focus as a death-cold fear took a hold of me. “This is it,” I whispered out loud. Lannie’s hands clenched around my forearm, nearly tightly enough to bruise. I hardly felt it.

He was saying things about the Rookie League World tournament, and how it had been the success they had hoped for. And that of course with such a success, the actual League could not stay behind. “I am thrilled to announce the first World League championship,” he said with a pleased smile. There was no irony in his voice; he seemed more honest than he’d ever been on screen.

“I’d like to announce the names of the first contestants that have signed up already. A few more names are likely to follow in the next few days, but we could not keep this news for ourselves anymore. Not with the names we’ve already acquired for you.” He paused a moment, purely for dramatic effect. It worked.

“Here we go,” Lannie said. She felt rigid under my arms. Every muscle was tensed up.

“First of all, from the Rookie League, we’ve contracted the runner up and the winner of this year’s World League, Bijou Sanchéz and Lannie Williams.” The images flashed in the screen next to him; Bijou’s blonde hair flying as she was taken down by Lannie’s guns. Lannie, in all her brilliant glory with her radiating smile as she accepted the trophy. “I’m sure Ms Sanchéz would love to take revenge for losing to Lannie Williams in the Rookie League final. And we couldn’t withhold Lannie Williams from you of course, after that brilliant victory. Time will tell if she’ll do as well in the Arena when the bullets are real.”

Lannie breathed in sharply. “Bijou as well,” she said.

“Well, at least you know you can take her on,” I said sourly.

She dared a quick grin. “Maybe luck is on my side after all.”

Stender kept talking, however. He had already moved on to the winner of the African League, Adhiambo Merari. They showed pictures of her brutally killing one of her opponents with a shot in the throat.

“As expected,” she mumbled. I didn’t reply, but just kept staring at the screen at the smiling face of the man who would put my girlfriend in an Arena to be killed.

Next, they moved on to Logan, which was not a surprise either. His final shot that had given him the victory over the Euroleague had been a nigh impossible one under extreme circumstances, but he’d made the shot. A perfect headshot; and then he was the only one left. I remembered that one very well; we had not been betting on him. No money in the Euroleague because we were too busy working on Lannie’s victory. We should have bet on him; Logan was a fucking legend. Snipers were usually ganged upon by the other participants, nobody felt safe with a sniper around. But Logan had showed them all.

Stender also announced Adil and Halver, which were a surprise. Both convicts and old war criminals with a huge grudge against one another, famous, violent. A great catch for the League; the audience would love this. Lannie just shrugged. She calmed down a little in my arms, her carefully nurtured tactical mind taking over. “We’ll see how they fare. Right now it’s impossible to say.”

And Ruiz. Fucking Ruiz with his ripper. Expected, of course, but not desired. “That will be dangerous,” I told my girlfriend. “Ruiz is a menace.”

She looked at me and had the actual audacity to grin. “Is it really bad that I can’t really wait to meet him in the Arena? He’s a legend, and I’ll get to compete with him.”

I wanted to say something that he would probably kill her, but I bit on the inside of my cheek and just nodded.

“And last but not least,” Stender continued. His eyes were sparkling with mirth. Oh, he was so pleased with himself. My heart skipped a beat in anticipation. The name he would give now would change /everything/. I suddenly knew it with a crystal clear clarity. /THIS is it,/ I thought and I felt sickly.

“We are honoured to announce that we’ve managed to contract Valentina Marin, six time Northern League champion, to return from retirement for this very match of the decade, and we can’t /wait/ to see her in our Arena once more.”

Everything went still for a moment, before the sound of breaking glass cut through the thundering of blood in my ears. Lannie’s wine glass had dropped to the floor. Shards and wine were everywhere. I didn’t even notice at that moment. I just grabbed my girlfriend tightly and tried not to faint.

“Valentina,” Lannie breathed. “Oh, fuck.”

And with that same crystal clear clarity I looked at the beautiful girl in my arms. I took in every feature of her face, her hair, her jawline, her collarbones. /I love you so much,/ I thought brokenly. This was it. This is what she had said yes to. /What the fuck have you done?/

“Lannie,” I choked out.

Her blue eyes were wide as saucers, full of emotions I could not really name. “Yes?”

“You will marry me. Tomorrow, at the town hall. If anything, you owe me that.”

“Why?” she asked. Tears were welling up. She knew the answer, but she asked anyway.

“Because you owe me. And because I will not let you walk into that Arena on your own. I will watch you in there as your husband, Lannie.” My throat was tight, I could hardly speak. “Please.”

Tears rolled over her face. “Of course I will,” she said, throwing her arms around me and sobbing in my neck. “First thing in the morning…. I promise.”

And so we did.

2304: A Bit Of Luck

Posted: April 26, 2009 by Kelly in deathmatching, fortress, stories

A bit of luck

The first thing that made her realize that she had indeed been hit was the sudden absence of pain. So far she had been bleeding and burning from a dozen of small lacerations and bruises, and that was the sensation that registered first: she didn’t ache anymore.

The second thing was an image and a feeling: she collided rather ungracefully with the concrete floor. It was littered with a myriad of scarlet drops of blood, and her hands smeared through them as she rolled over.

And that was the moment that she noticed that she didn’t only feel pain anymore, but that she in fact didn’t feel anything anymore below her waist.

Charlotte’s manic giggling echoed through the hallway, accompanied by her receding footsteps as she probably figured that she had hit true and her opponent was dying.

Myrian watched her go for a moment, unable to return the favor. Her own gun had jumped from her hand the moment she’d been hit and had spun out of her reach for now, a couple of feet away from her.

And she couldn’t feel her /legs/ anymore.

She gulped heavily, swallowing back a sob of desperation and fear. /My legs/.

This meant definite trouble. She’d been in dire situations before since this game had started, but this time it was serious. If she could not get to a regen point soon, it would all be over.

She reached behind her back and felt the warmth of her blood drenching her shirt and armor. Yes, if she did not act fast, she’d be dead. Either Charlotte or any of the other players would finish her off eventually, or she’d simply bleed to death before that time.

Shit.

Myrian closed her eyes and visualized the map of the fortress before her mind’s eye, trying to recall if there was a regen point close by. And there was, she remembered. She turned her head to the glass doors that led to the balcony. It would be a drop of thirty feet, but on the shore of the river, right below the balcony, there was a regeneration point. She still had two credits left… if she could only get there, she’d still have a fighting chance.

And Myrian was a practical kind of girl, so she bit her lip and fought back the senses of fear and desperation creeping up upon her, and began to crawl. It was this mindset that had gotten her so far in this game, and damn her if it wouldn’t save her life once again. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t gotten out of dire situations before. Even if she couldn’t feel her legs anymore, she would make it.

Down the hall, Charlotte’s hysterical laughter reverberated. Myrian wished for someone to shut her up for once and for all, and tried to block out the paranoid notion that her assailant was actually coming back for her as she crawled slowly and picked up her gun in one hand. It was harder than she thought it would be, with her legs and feet rendered completely useless. Inch by inch Myrian approached the glass doors, leaving behind a trail of blood and gore. The bullet had left her body through her stomach and it had her bleeding like a butchered pig. It also robbed her rapidly of her strength, and that was infinitely more frightening. When she had finally arrived to the glass doors, she found that she didn’t have the strength anymore to open them the regular way. The door handle seemed too far upwards and she couldn’t reach it.

Only one option remained: she took a tighter hold of her gun and waited for gunfire to commence somewhere close. If people would hear her fire her gun, they would come here to check it out because they’d assume there’d be a fight going on here. They’d come to kill the winner of that engagement and to loot the weapons of the dead people in the room. It was a technique that was tried and true: Myrian had obtained her current gun that way when her own had been shot out of her hand (and she had regenerated the lost fingers).

There it was: close enough to drown out her own shots, the sound of gunfire filled the air. Myrian aimed low and shot the glass doors to hell. Thankfully, the glass shattered and didn’t explode, so she only had to push feebly against it to get it to fall out of its hinges. Shards cut her bare arms (and undoubtedly her lower legs too, but she didn’t feel it and didn’t dare to check on it), but she grit her teeth and kept crawling.

Time was the essence now. Elsewhere the other gunfight had ceased, rendering someone a winner, and all Myrian could hear now was her own labored breathing. She couldn’t hear Charlotte’s voice anymore and hoped with all her might that someone had finished the bitch off.

In a way, she thought, it was a good thing that she couldn’t feel the damage on her legs. It allowed her to concentrate on survival instead of pain. The only thing that scared her was how her strength seemed to drain away so quickly as she crossed the glass-littered balcony.

/I’m dying./

Thankfully, the railing was only a couple of feet high, and with her last strength she managed to get her self on top of it. Balancing precariously, Myrian peered downwards.

“Fuck,” she breathed when she took in the situation below. Thirty feet might seem like a feasible drop under normal circumstances, but without her lower body functioning she was not sure whether she could aim and time her jump well enough to fall directly upon the regeneration point. Who the hell had come up with the bright idea to install one on the shore of the river anyway?

The difference between salvation and drowning was only one foot.

Yet, she was a bloody mess, and staying here would mean a certain death. Pushing herself off this railing and hoping she would touch the regen point would only mean a possible death. All she needed was a little bit of luck.

And then footsteps sealed it.

Myrian heard them coming. She leaned back to give her push some momentum and felt/heard a bullet cut the air right next to her left ear.

“Dammit,” Charlotte said behind her, sounding almost sane, “will you just die already?”

As the other woman fired again, Myrian let herself fall.

For one instant, the air whistled in her ears and the wind blew in her face – and she wondered whether she had aimed good enough for the regen – she wished for that tiny bit of luck that she needed so badly…

And the next moment, as water splattered around her and she sunk to the bottom of the river like a stone, she knew she had not.

Myrian opened her eyes and looked at the water surface above her. Around her, tendrils of crimson were tainting the clear waters, and she would have cursed if she could have.

It was only ten feet, but Myrian knew that it might have been ten miles for all she cared. She would never reach the water surface again. Not like this.

Game over.
Pity.

2298: Shadows

Posted: April 26, 2009 by Kelly in deathmatching, fortress, league, stories

And I can tell you why
People go insane
I can show you how
You could do the same
I can tell you why
The end will never come

~ Audioslave, “Shadow on the Sun”

The top of the Fortress was a windy place, even on a warm spring afternoon like this one. All the way up here, the spring breeze was surprisingly chilly. It tickled my neck and cut through my armour and jeans. It felt like a breath of fresh air after the dankness of the poorly ventilated building. At least the breeze didn’t smell of blood and feces and sweat, and that had been exactly what I’d needed to clear my head. Even when you’re responsible for some of those horrid smells, they do kind of get to you after the better part of six hours.

So far so good. Below me, fresh blood and gore of dead bodies was staining the hallways. I’d fought my way to the top of the building in the middle of the grassy hills.

It was the Northern League finale and I was still alive. It had been easier than I thought. There was another announcement just ten minutes ago, telling me that we were down to three contestants. Sheva, Juanez, and me.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that Juanez would have held out this long. He was a bloody menace with that ripper of his. Old-fashioned weapon or not, he knew exactly how to use that thing to its fullest advantage and he knew no remorse whatsoever. I’d seen footage of him a million times; from day one in bootcamp and the prelims he had been the one to watch out for, next to Elmontz.

Juanez had admitted in interviews that he is addicted to the feeling of it all. Death, killing, power. He said he’d never stop doing this for as long as he was alive. I understood what he meant: I’d felt like walking around in a daze for the past few months. I felt like I had the world at my feet and with my minigun in hands, I had the power of a god. Nothing could touch me. I didn’t think /I/ would ever stop doing this.

It all depended on whether Juanez would prove to be a more powerful god than me. Most of the kills made in the Arena today are his. As for me, two out of fourteen kills were mine.

My first kill today wasn’t my most graceful one. It had been part luck, part thanks to my quick reflexes. Two hours into the Game, I’d rounded a corner and had completely unexpectedly looked straight into the face of Eventine, right into the barrel of her rocket launcher. She had been as surprised as I was, but I had been just a tenth of a second faster to pull the trigger of my minigun. I hit the rocket launcher. The weapon had exploded in her hands, blowing parts of Eventine up as well. The shock of the explosion threw me on the ground like a rag doll. Her blood was hot on my skin. I’d never even exchanged more than two words with the girl with the short ash-blond hair, and now I had ended her life. Most of my earlier kills in the prelims had been from a distance. It had never been this up close and personal before.

I’d looked at my bloody hands and realised not all of it was Eventines. Bits and shrapnel of her exploding weapon had hit me in the face and my neck and I was bleeding profusely. I don’t think that a major artery had been hit, but I was bleeding too heavily for comfort. I quickly sought cover and quickly created a makeshift bandage of my t-shirt and had gone to see if I could use one of my credits to patch myself up at a regen point.

My second kill was exactly at that location. It had been a close call. Of course it had been. Of all the people in the arena, I’d had the rotten luck to run into the current reigning champion of the Northern Alliance, Steiner Elmontz. As it turned out, Steiner just had a run in with his rival Juanez and had come out of it rather banged up, but alive. He had been on his way to the regeneration point and so had I; the cellar we’d ended up in had been too small for the both of us.

It was a good thing the cellar featured many places to use for cover. The firefight that we ended up in lasted for a good ten minutes before I finally got Steiner where I wanted him and managed to take him out of the fight. I’d finished him off by standing over him and shooting him in the face.

At first I thought that the feeling of triumph was making me lightheaded. I’d taken out the reigning champion after all! Even Stender had made some impressed noises.

The lightheadedness was not triumph, though. It was blood loss. I was seeing swirling stars and darkness on the edges of my vision and I had a hard time concentrating. I needed that regeneration /badly/. The shirt that I had wrapped around my neck had become completely soaked with blood and Elmontz had managed to nick my leg as well.

The yellow light of the regeneration set things right, though. The experience of it was mind blowing and left me out of breath and slightly disoriented, but completely healed. For the rest of the duration of the Game, I’d kept myself mostly hidden, figuring that I could finish off whoever was left when the smoke cleared. I’d been able to take out motherfucking Elmontz; I should be able to take on the others as well.

And now there are two. Juanez… and Sheva.

Standing with my back against the wall on the roof of the Fortress, I find my first target.

Sheva Lopes; of Portugese descent, twenty-five years old, wielded dual guns. I didn’t know all that much about her besides the sob story that the PR has provided. Everyone had tearjerking bios if it was up to the media, I hardly paid attention to them. It wasn’t like it mattered, anyhow.

I had seen her briefly at the pre-game dinner last night, but she was seated on the other side of the table and we did not exchange any words except a greeting. She was a more than decent competitor in the Fortress; quick, good reflexes. Her stats from boot camp were fine. She hadn’t made that many kills in the Fortress, but she was obviously cautious enough to stay alive so far.

Stender rarely told the contestants directly who was exactly responsible for the killing that took place in the early stages of the game, but he indicated a lot. And I never even remotely heard him say anything that was about Sheva. /Has she been hiding so far?/ Until Stender called out our three names, I’d almost forgotten that she was in the Game at all.

But here she was. In the silver glaring afternoon sunlight, she was sitting on the edge of the roof with her back turned to me. Her feet were dangling in the air. Her guns lay discarded next to her, glinting innocently metallic in the light. Her armour lay next to it. There was no blood or sweat stains on her clothes, nothing in her hair. Nothing that even remotely indicated that she’d been anywhere but here since the games started. She looked serene, relaxed.

/I don’t get it./ My adrenaline-induced nerves immediately made me look around for the catch, the danger. /Is it a trap?/

“I know that you’re here, Delmont,” her soft voice suddenly sounded. She didn’t turn to me, she didn’t reach for her weapon. She just sat there, outlined brightly by the blue sky behind her. Her curly dark hair showed golden highlights in the sunlight.

Perhaps two seconds had passed since I exited the stair house and entered the roof. Those where two seconds that I was disoriented by the chilly breeze and the blinding silver sunlight. Precious seconds in which she could have turned and taken me out without relatively few problems.

My hands clenched around my gun and I aimed for her unprotected back, but I didn’t shoot. /Not yet, not yet./ Perhaps it was stupid and reckless, but I needed to know. “Why don’t you shoot me, then?” I heard myself ask. My eyes flitted over the otherwise deserted roof. Besides us, there was nobody there. I still didn’t trust it.

I could hear her smile. “Why would I?”

“Isn’t that what you’re here for?” /Maybe I should just shoot her./

She shrugged and tilted her face upwards, towards the warm spring sun. “I didn’t come here to kill.”

Sheva Lopes, grown up in San Angels, ex-prostitute and pickpocket, recovering speed addict. What else did I know about her? I’d seen her stats. She’s was okay with her dual guns, had passed all the preliminary tests without many problems. She did fine in the Fortress. There was nothing to indicate she wasn’t here for the kill or the money or the fame and glory. Just another participant of the Games; assumed to pay debts off with blood. Or perhaps to drown her inner demons in the blood of other participants. Who knew? Everyone had their own reasons to enter the Game. Maybe her bio was even true.

It had to be a trick of some sort, but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what she was trying to accomplish here. I refocused my aim upon her again, ready to riddle her back with a storm of bullets, ready to shoot her off the roof. “Then what?” I challenged her.

She stood up slowly and turned to me, still not picking up her weapon.

My mind was racing over the possibilities while I tried to make sense of her actions. /Is she in league with Juanez? Stender’s been awfully quiet since the announcements, perhaps they are leading me into some kind of trap?/

But then the sunlight glinted on her face. There were tears in her eyes, there was wetness on her face. She’d been crying. Was crying still. “I came here to kill and lost my taste for it. I thought I needed to kill but I don’t. It’s just not working.”

I didn’t say anything. I just kept aiming my minigun at her chest.

“I’ve been sitting here the whole match, trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me. I was so angry after my daughter died, I thought I needed blood to get rid of that anger. In the Fortress, I thought it was working. But when I entered the Arena today, I just didn’t see the point anymore.”

So it was true after all, what the media claimed. Sheva’s seven year old daughter, born of one of Sheva’s former clients, had been raped and beaten to death in one of the bad neighbourhoods in the center of San Angeles. With all of the gang activities and crime syndicates it had turned into a bad place after the Great War, and Sheva had lived in the area with her daughter. The girl had disappeared one day, and Sheva’d found the girl six days later. She had only been able to identify the girl by the dog tags the kid had been wearing before she was taken. No wonder she signed up for blood.

“Then what did you come here for, Sheva? Don’t waste my time, Juanez is still out here.”

Stenders voice suddenly resounded from one of the loudspeakers nearby. It came so suddenly that I nearly pulled the trigger in reflex. “Don’t let the thought of Juanez ruin your little tea-party, people. He’s still five floors below you.” He sounded thoughtful, not nearly as dripping with biting wit and amusement as he normally was.

“What did you come here for?” I insisted.

Her dark eyes fixed upon my gaze and captivated me effortlessly. For a moment, the whole world narrowed down to the two of us on the roof. Nothing existed anymore save for her and me and what she had to say. And she smiled a little, crazily enough. “I came here to die,” she said. “I guess I just didn’t want to die alone. I wanted people to be there with me, to watch me as I died.”

/Aw, shit./ Millions of living rooms were tuned in to this confrontation. I understood what she was getting at, but I remembered the empty look on Steiners face as I finished him off. I remembered the glint of shock and fear in Eventine’s light coloured eyes the moment she knew she was going to die- the moment my finger found the trigger and hers faltered. One nano-second of pure intensity. It was a moment I shared with them, but not in the way Sheva thought.

“You’re wrong there, Sheva,” I told her quietly. “Everybody dies alone. Your daughter died alone, and so will you.”

She made a shadow against the bright sunlight. “At least we’ll be together again, then.”

“Maybe.”

My finger found the trigger again and for a moment, she stood outlined against the sunlight and her eyes met mine for the tiniest of moments as my bullets tore through her unprotected body. There was shock in her eyes as there was in Eventines, before she fell backwards off the building. She hit the grounds seconds later with a soft thud.

“Sheva Lopes, died from a fall off the roof after a meeting with Peter Delmont’s minigun,” Stender announced. He sounded somewhat subdued. “Delmont, Juanez, it’s down to you two now. We’re entering the final stage of the game.”

I walked over to the edge of the roof and looked at Sheva’s lifeless body all those stories below.

“Everybody dies alone,” I told her quietly. “I’m sorry, though.”

One. Two. Three heartbeats I gave her.

Then I turned around.

/Time to find Juanez. Time to get back into the shadows. Time to end this./

—-

2299: Perfect Enemy

Posted: April 26, 2009 by Kelly in fortress, league, stories

Perfect Enemy

“Wake up!” she shouted, kicking at the limp body beneath her feet. No response. The yellow energy of the regeneration point sparkled around them for a moment in a cascade of shimmering golden drops and she was having a hard time to keep her wits about her in the onslaught of restorative energy, but Zach was lying still… too still. The dried blood was caked all through his hair and over his face, staining his armour and his clothes.

Another kick. Still no response. May balled her fists in frustration and continued her tirade: “Wake up goddammit! I didn’t drag you all the way out here to let you die on me Zach, wake up!” She didn’t mind the fact that she was wide open for any attack. Her gun was lying on the ground where she had dropped it and it was out of immediate reach, but it was about the farthest thing from her mind.

On the dusty ground of the cellar, cloaked in shadows and the faint glow of the regeneration point, Zachary was lying for dead. And it shouldn’t be this way. “Face me!” she demanded, but he didn’t respond.

She had found him on the first floor, lying in a pool of his own blood.

Five minutes prior Stender had called out the names of the survivors so far, and there had been three names. Herself, Peter, and Zach; but Zach wouldn’t make it long anymore, Stender had added cheerfully. “Pity your big rival is out of the running, isn’t it May?”

The announcement had set her blood on fire: it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Zach was hers.

And yet Peter Delmont, that despicable son of a bitch, had taken him out. No, it could not be. She had ran down three stairs and had found him eventually, lying too still, too quiet.

“Dead as dead can be,” Stender had commented, amusement lacing his voice. “Now you won’t get your final showdown with Zach. How about you duke it out with Peter, instead?”

“Fuck Peter,” May growled at the cameras, She’d picked up Zach and dragged him to the regeneration point. Zach was still breathing, albeit shallow and irregular. Head injuries bled like crazy, so she tried not to worry as she dragged him down the stairs. She tried pretty hard not to think about anything – she was dragging her rival into safety. Millions of livingrooms were watching her on live television as she was trying to save her rival’s life… at her own expense. She was trying to save Zach and leaving herself wide open for any of Peter’s attacks in the meantime. Something was not right in that logic, but she rejected the thought. It seemed like the only logical thing to do. Zach couldn’t die yet. So she was saving him.

Only to kill him, she told herself. He’s mine.

“You are MINE, Zach,” she said to the still body on the ground, finding to her surprise the anger bubble in her blood and her fingernails sinking into her palms as she balled her fists. “You’re my perfect enemy, I… I’ve lived for this battle for years. You are NOT dying on me! You fucking disappoint me!” May stamped her feet in utter frustration and bent over Zach’s body to check his credits. One more left. She’d already spent two on him, but she had to try. Maybe he was so injured that two credits wasn’t enough to heal him. And if he’d be dead, which he wasn’t, then that last credit was worth shit anyway.

The device on Zach’s hip blipped as the credit was used and around them, the regeneration point flashed wildly and yellow. May dazzled for a moment as she felt the regenerative energy around her surge through the body under her hands, but a slight spasm was all that happened.

“Regen points only work if the subject is still alive, May,” Stender commented mildly through the loudspeakers that were scattered throughout the whole fortress. His voice reverberated on the walls.

“Thanks a lot Stender,” May snarled.

This way, Peter would know she was at a regen point. He’d also know where he’d last left Zach, and that May was obviously trying to heal whatever was left to heal about her arch rival. Oh, he’d be laughing… and he’d be on his way to finish her off. Goddammit. She’d have to leave Zach behind and make a run for it to save her own life.

But, looking down on Zach’s pale face, she found that she couldn’t. “Wake up and face me,” she said softly. Her voice was trembling, and so were her hands as she covered her face as she thought of her expectations of this battle, of the two of them and their alliance – how they would team up to take care of all the other contestants and in the end, they would turn on each other to see who was best in the end. He was her perfect enemy, all the statistics said so. Why had this happened then? How could this be? When had they gotten separated? And why had he let Peter surprise him? “Why can’t you turn and face me?”

“Because he’s dead,” Peter’s voice cut clearly through the cellar. He was standing at the top of the stairs, outline by the light that came from behind. He was holding his shotgun in his hands. She couldn’t see his grin, but she could hear it in his voice: full of confidence, arrogance and amusement. “As you will be.”

Her own gun was out of reach.

“Fuck you,” was all May could offer before bullets riddled her body.

Her last credit wasn’t in time to save her life.

2297: Imperfection

Posted: April 26, 2009 by Kelly in fortress, stories

Imperfection

To make that one shot, you have to be perfect.

The circumstances have to be perfect. You need to have exhaled, and in between breaths, the shot occurs.

You need to be perfectly still in your mind and in your body, balancing on a razor’s edge between perfection and a horrible miss. And that miss has consequences.

I am a sniper, and the best in this whole godforsaken building. While everyone around me is dying and using up their credits for regeneration, I still have all five of my credits left. My breath is shallow, my pulse is low.

I am lying in an air duct. For some reason nobody ever looks up when they enter a room. Did you ever notice that? Very stupid, of course. They check left, they check right, they creep into the room with their gun ready… and I simply shoot them in the head. Of course, this gives some problems with shoveling away the bodies, because when the bodies are piling up before the entrance, people are somehow reluctant to enter. I solved this quickly: after my first two kills, I just waited until they entered and walked out of direct sight of the hallway.

And *then* I took my shot. Works just as easily. And lucky me, one of the first to die sported a grenade, so at some point I just tossed the grenade at the bodies. When there’s a splattered mess that used to be people, nobody knows they’ve been snipered. And nobody will look for the sniper. Stupid, stupid. They *know* that I am here. They’ve seen me with the sniper rifle on my back, entering the fortress at my own interval. Everybody should know that I am here, waiting for them to walk into my trap. I’m at seven kills right now, no credits spent.

It is a bit of a risk though, to hide out so far from the nearest regen point. If someone would outsmart me and shoot me to hell, I wouldn’t probably reach the regen point in time. Unless I could wriggle myself deeper into the air duct, which is something I’ll only accomplish without my rifle and ten pounds less around my stomach and hips. It’s a two-sided coin, however. Because you see, my victims can’t reach their regeneration point either, and here I am holed up and out of clear sight, while they are leaving themselves wide open to my crosshairs. So far, so good. So perfect. I am perfectly still and quiet, while around me the battle rages. Sounds of gunfire and screaming reach me through the air duct and are carried through the long hallways with their many twists and turns. Glass shatters, and laughter occurs. I do not dwell on what might have happened there. I just want them all to spend their credits and leave me as the only survivor. There’s too much at stake. I have to be perfect. At least until the final showdown, I have to be.

There is one other sniper in the building. I know that, because I know him. He was the seventeenth to enter the building, while I was the fifth. A much better position if you want to hole yourself up in the trenches, waiting for people to walk by. Kyle is going to have a bloody hard time finding a place to hide himself with his rifle, since most of the people will be inside the building already. Perhaps somebody already shot his sorry ass to hell. Now there’s a happy thought… because even though I’m trying my hardest to be perfect, he IS perfect. Has always been perfect. He was called The Machine for a reason, with his eagle eye and his infallible shot.

While I scored 99% on my accuracy, he scored 100%. I’ve never heard of him missing his target in all those months that they’ve been training us.

They pay you a million for every person you kill. There’s a subtraction of a million for every credit you spent on regeneration. Twenty million extra if you win the game. Everybody knows that. I’m at seven million at the moment, and I’m probably one of the favorites. Soon, the first twelve hours will have passed, and they’ll announce the losers. The ones who died. Seven of those are littering the floor below my air duct, and it feels good.

The camera in my collar is watching me quietly and steadily. Through that camera, I’m beamed into millions of living rooms. People will be placing bets on my survival (or not), while I am lying in the airduct, the flows of air chilling my ankles and my feet. I’m used to being watched by camera’s by now. In the Training Camp, they even had camera’s installed in my fucking shower. Camera’s watched as I ate, took dumps, practiced my imperfect shots, and while I rolled in the hay with Kyle, because we understood each other. It is lonely to be watched all day. But that’s okay, because snipers are used to be lonely. And I’m perfect. I’m a sniper, I don’t need anybody else. Kyle was just… a distraction. I am certain that I meant the same to him. Just a pleasant distraction from days of training, perfecting skills, forming alliances and rejecting them again just as quickly with the other nineteen participants in The Game.

And all the time there were cameras were watching us. Living rooms were assessing us. Perhaps rejecting us. Because not everyone is perfect.

Suddenly, the loudspeaker blares next to me. I was expecting it, but it shocks me out of my perfect concentration nonetheless. The man speaking is Stender, the presenter of The Game. “Hello Kyle and Dana, you are the last ones left.” Stender tells us, his loudspeaker-enhanced pleasant voice trembling with a chuckle. “I suggest you seek each other out and resolve your issues before midnight. I think I speak for all of our viewers if I wish you a good battle. Kyle, you especially. I have some bets going on with the producer that you’re going to be our victor.”

I’m not going to leave this spot. Stender can shove it where the sun don’t shine. I have to be perfect, and this is the perfect spot. Kyle can come to me, I’m not even thinking about leaving this place. HELL no.

“Oh, before I forget,” Stender added cheerily, “this is the first time we end up with two snipers at the end. You are highly encouraged to leave your current location in the next twenty minutes, otherwise we’ll reveal your whereabouts to each other.”

Shit. Stender laughs. “Oh, I’m receiving some distress signals from your lifesigns, Dana. Are you afraid that Kyle’s going to kick your ass?”

I glance at my camera sideways and take the time to show Stender the finger. “I’ll be perfect,” I promise the presenter and the viewers at home. Sliding out of my secure hiding place, I cast a last glance at the spot that served me so well in the past twelve hours. My bladder is full to bursting, but I had not dared to pee in the air duct, afraid it would be dripping out somewhere that would give me away. So I quickly unzip my pants and do my thing, uncaring about the viewers at home. Kyle should still be a while away and I need to do this. In my perfect concentration I hardly felt it, but my bladder was as hard as a tennis ball, and about to burst anyway. And now to relocate somewhere. Preferrably as far away as possible. If Kyle comes here and smells the urine, he’ll know that I was here. Still, I have to be cautious. He’s relocating as well, and he could be anywhere. Maybe even as close as in the next room.

I put my sniper rifle on my back (at close range it’s almost useless) and grab my handgun instead. We’ve all been issued one standard gun, given to us by the program makers, and we were all allowed to bring our own weapon of choice with us. For me, it had been my sniper rifle, of course. Sometimes I feel as if I was born with a rifle in my hand. The handgun feels unfamiliar in my hand, but I hardly care. As long as my aim is perfect, it doesn’t matter what I am shooting with. The damn thing should be balanced enough, at least. I tried it yesterday evening and it seemed stable and not as wobbly as I had feared at first. It should be able to do the trick, if I can surprise Kyle. For one moment, I consider staying here behind the door, but I’m not sure whether this is against the rules that Stender imposed on us. Technically, I’ve left the air duct, but I’m still in the same room. But then again, this room smells of piss, so waiting for Kyle to show up here is going to be not very pleasant.

So I leave the room. I work methodically through the hallway, putting to use all those lessons and drills we followed in during the three months of training. Of course I have my strategy all laid out for me. Three months is a long time to consider all possible strategies, so I’ve thought this over many times and hammered out a plan that mostly considered if ‘if…then’ situations. My second option, if the air duct would become unworkable, was the roof. And since it would make sense for a sniper to look up high places, I kind of expect Kyle to do the same. It would make sense, wouldn’t it? The fortress is dead quiet and smells of dried blood and feces, of all things.

I try to ignore the stench coming from some of the rooms and slip into the stair house. Dead quiet. Kyle can’t be here. I would have heard him. Unfortunately, it’s nigh impossible to walk quietly so I hope he’ll use another stair house to get upstairs. If he enters after I’ve started to ascend the stairs, I’m dead meat. The metal in my shoes will resonate on the metal stairs. Of course. That’s the way they designed these damn things. Thankfully, I’m already on the seventh floor, and I need only three more stories to get to the roof. Still, I have to be cautious. I creep upwards, making my way slowly to the roof. The roof, I know, is flat, black and only has a small square sticking up out of it. And that’s the entrance from the stair house. The roof doesn’t have a place to hide, unless you climb on top of the stair house and wait for your target to come out of the stair house and shoot him from above. However, even that will make for a problem, because there are multiple doors to the roof. Three of them, to be precise.

And what if Kyle’s already sitting on top of one of them? Or hiding behind the low walls, waiting to shoot me to hell and collect all of the prize money? It’s very much possible that it’ll come to that, and the idea of that crumbles my perfect concentration.

The possibilities are racing through my mind and even though I try to keep my calm, to center myself and to cling onto my concentration, I can’t. Aside from that, the echoing metallic sound of my footsteps is driving me up the walls. I need to be calm. I need to be collected. I need to be perfect, dammit!

There is the door. It’s made of glass and is opened by pulling a bar downwards.
Here’s my moment of truth.

If Kyle is anywhere on the roof already, he’ll shoot me because I’ll be wide open upon entering. But if I dally too long, if I stall, then he’ll be able to enter the roof sooner, and then my chances on a clean victory will be ruined. Only one thing to do. I fling the door open wildly. The next moment, the glass door shatters and shards are exploding in the air before me. Oh, Kyle is *definitely* residing on the roof. I try to control my racing heart, but it’s pounding in my throat anyway. Funny how you think you are prepared and in perfect concentration, and then you aren’t. Perhaps I’m not as perfect as I always like to think I am. Stender is rooting for Kyle. Who else is? Millions of livingrooms?

Statistics show that females actually win Fortress games only a fraction more often than males do. It all depends on perfection. And that’s something I have not attained yet, while it seems he has.

“Damn you, Kyle,” I whisper hoarsely. I have to enter the roof to end this. We still have until midnight, but I’m not going to feel any better by then.

Now that I’ve let the nerves enter my system, I can’t calm myself anymore. Imperfections have sneaked into my system, and I can’t be perfect anymore. I need to end it. I need to end it badly, and quickly. All I can do is cover my ass while I walk out.

And so I do. In a whirlwind of bullets, I speed out, quickly rounding the corner of the stair house and pressing myself tightly against the wall.

“Hi there, gorgeous,” Kyle tells me amiably, his face blurry as I focus upon the crosshairs. A moment of heat ends it.