2308: Those Who Left

Posted: February 26, 2013 by Kelly in league, stories, the world

Bringing the whiskey was a spectacularly stupid idea, I realised through the haze of my burning tears. I blinked them away and tried to focus on the view of the spectacular sunset before me. The clinic was situated on the shore of the Pacific Ocean and faced the sea, so the view from the veranda was always beautiful in the evenings. I spent most of the evenings right there in my hoverchair, either snoozing or trying to entertain myself with movies and music on my handheld.

In the first weeks after my surgery it would happen that one of the other patients would come up to join me, mostly to say that they wondered what they knew me from – or, if they did remember where they’d seen my face, to give me condolences and to ask me how I was doing, but I had mostly blown them off. I really didn’t feel like being sociable and had no qualms communicating this, so after the first two weeks the attempts on communication mostly ceased.

I was glad to be left alone, but the downside of this was the crushing loneliness. It stared me right in the face; especially on nights like this when I was alone, exhausted, and my whole body trembled from the exercise regime my trainer had put me through. My muscles were aching and my legs felt like concrete blocks. I was tired, done with everything, and I had been stupid enough to ask one of the supporting staff members for a stiff drink. He had brought some seriously great whiskey, and by now I was on my fourth glass and watching the sunset, feeling so incredibly alone and missing my wife so much that it hurt to breathe. I felt so goddamn miserable.

It had been four months since Lannie died on international television. Four months since I’d let her die for her pride. Four months of feeling like my soul had been cut in half and my heart had been broken in a million pieces. Apart from the horrific nightmares in which I helplessly had to watch her die over and over again, I woke up some mornings thinking that she was still lying next to me. Through a haze of half-sleep I would reach out to her and found myself alone in my bed. Sometimes that was even worse.I would find myself wanting to tell her things, share stupid little inside jokes we’d picked up in the seven years we had been together; or wanting to reach out and just hold her close- and that one instant in which I realised what I’d been doing and that she was /gone/ would just kill me a little more each day.

/I’m saving us,/ she had told me almost a year ago, and wanted me to believe it. Needed me to believe in her. And because I was a stupid spineless fuck I let her go. I let her go, and I couldn’t call her back. I let her enter an arena with the most famous killers in the world and watched helplessly as she went choked on her own blood, while there were bullets buried in her chest. Bullets that were fired by a woman she had called friend only weeks before.

I did not blame Valentina Marin for pulling the trigger on my wife, not really. Lannie would have done the same to her if the roles had been reversed. Those were the rules of the League; the law of blood in the Arena. I understood, because I’d been there too, in that mindset. I’d had friends and alliances in boot camp, too. I’d had people who I had called friend in there. And I too  would have pulled triggers on Milan and Saxa, if it would have been me in the Arena. It was just how things went; the moment you entered the Arena, all alliances, all friendships – they ceased to exist. It was just that my chance to enter the Arena had been cut short by a sabotaged weapon in a training session. A weapon that wasn’t supposed to shoot live bullets suddenly had, and with one fell swoop Saxa Owens and I had been prevented from entering the Fortress and the Arena that year. Saxa was disqualified for shooting that sabotaged gun, and I was crippled. I would never fight again; Saxa couldn’t enter the Arena until they found out that she was innocent of this, and that her weapon had been sabotaged by another. She went on to participate the next year and won the Euro League in a blaze of glory. /It should have been you in there, Walter,/ she had told me ruefully in that club in the Dregs. We had been drinking whiskey together, much like I was right now.

I thought of the naked pain on Saxa’s face as she spoke those words and agreed with her in the privacy of my own brain. If I would have entered the Arena that year, I would have probably died under the guns of Laurent le Blanc, just like Milan did. I had been a damned /good/ Arena fighter, but no one could touch Le Blanc that year. I would have died, but at least I wouldn’t have gone through this.

I thought of the blood bubbling on Lannie’s lips as she died. Blood and my name on her lips, and then the light went out in those blue eyes and I was alone. My soulmate was dead. She had died for pride and money and love; so I could have this operation and have my leg fixed. And now my leg was fixed, I was revalidating to get the full use of my body back… and I was alone. It seemed such a cruel, cruel fate.

The burning horizon before me drowned behind a veil of tears.

“Shit Lane, they told me you’re not the biggest bag of fun out here, but isn’t this overdoing it a little?” an amused male voice sounded behind me all of a sudden.

I turned around and looked at a face that I instantly recognised; despite the hoverchair, the braces, and the stasis goo around his battered body. A familiar face on a broken body. It was a surprise, though – I thought he had died in the Arena like Lannie had. He had competed in a death match that had spawned only one winner; and that winner had not been him. “Ruiz?” I asked incredulously. “You’re Ruiz, right?”

He laughed that laugh that he was famous for. The throaty, rough one. Lannie had not made a secret about the fact that it had made her swoon a little. The russet sunlight glinted on the chrome of his hoverchair. “Right. You’re not the only famous face around here. Didn’t you know?”

“I thought you were dead, actually.” My heart was thundering in my chest. How the hell could he still be alive? I had turned off the feeds after Lannie died, but I knew he had followed her in death not very long after. He had flatlined. It had been all over the feeds, all over the news. Ruiz had /died/ in the League. The only person to walk out of that Arena had been Valentina Marin. Everyone else, including my wife, had died.

“I was only dead for a couple of minutes. Two hundred seconds without a pulse. Long enough to lose the match and get me in this state.” Ruiz steered his hoverchair next to mine and lifted one of the glasses on the tray on the side. It held whiskey like mine did; but the liquid sloshed in the glass. Ruiz’ hand was trembling with exertion. The Southern League champion frowned at his glass and took a quick sip before setting it down on the tray again. “I thought I’d raise a glass to your pretty wife, Lane.”

I bit on the inside of my cheek to keep from tearing up again, but I raised my glass anyway. “That’s awfully nice of you,” I grounded out.

“Just paying my respects to the dead,” he said, closing his eyes for a moment. “We only hung out for an evening or so, but I’ve seen some of her matches and promo material. She was a good fighter. Nice lady to be around too. A good woman.”

“Yeah, she was. She shouldn’t have been there.” I took a swig of my whiskey and thought of Saxa’s words. /It should have been you./ Different circumstances, but I couldn’t help think that way. Maybe it was a bit of a hero complex, maybe it was an easier way out of this; if I would have been the one to die, I wouldn’t be here, feeling like shit. But would that have been fair on her?

Ruiz scoffed. “Fuck that, man. We all chose to be there. Every crazy motherfucker in that arena made that choice.”

It was not what I wanted to hear. Pretty much the very last damn thing what I wanted to hear. It inferred that Lannie chose to die, and that was so close to home, so close to the horrible truth that cut through my soul, that I lashed out. “So why the hell are you still alive, then?” /Why are you still alive and is Lannie dead?/

“Because apparently I can’t be snuffed out. Maybe I’m immortal. Maybe I’m the luckiest motherfucker on this rock. Does it make a difference to you at this point?”

“Fuck you,” I spat at him and finished my drink. I wished I could stalk away and turn my back on this conversation, but I could hardly get up out of my hover chair and his was blocking the entrance to the clinic. Instead I just turned my head and stared at the blood red sun as if I could set it on fire.

“Why? Because I live and she doesn’t? Not something I can change at this point.”

“I know,” I sighed and felt like an asshole. I tasted bile in the back of my throat as I pushed back my unfocused anger. “For what it’s worth, she would be glad you’re still alive. She fancied the snot out of you.”

“All women do,” he retorted immediately. A practised, lighthearted reply. I didn’t look at him, but I could hear him lifting his glass to his lips again.

“Should you be drinking in your state?” I asked curiously.

His glass tinkled when he sat it back down on the tray. “I probably shouldn’t even be awake in my state, but fuck that. I survived death, I think I’ll survive some alcohol while I’m doped up on painkillers that don’t work.” He paused for a couple of seconds. “Seriously, fuck Chang. I’m glad he didn’t make it out; I might have had to hunt him down and fuck him up for putting me through this. That would’ve been shit though. Fucker had some skills,” Ruiz shook his head with a wince, “Though I may still dig up his corpse and piss on his face once I get out of here. Motherfucker… I’ve never been this sore.”

I had never seen the rest of the match after Lannie passed on. By that time it was only Valentina, Chang and Ruiz left. “Who killed Chang? I guess that was Valentina, then?”

“Yeah. Chang took me out, she took him out and emerged victorious. I saw the feed much later, when I was freshly out of my first surgery. Old news by then, of course. You never watched it?”

I shrugged. “No. Chang was one hell of a fighter, so were you and Valentina. After Lannie died, I didn’t care which one of you made it out. No offense, but to me all that mattered to me was that she died.”

“Fair enough. Do you want to see it? I’ve seen it a dozen times by now. Can’t get enough of it. Val was magnificent.”

My heart churned in my chest, but I realised that I /did/ want to know. The League junkie in me was curious, for the first time in months, how the match had ended. Lannie and I had strategised this match so much, looked at all possible angles… we had hoped so fiercely that the Valentina/Chang showdown would happen early in the game. If they would take each other out, it would have made it easier on everyone else. Lannie had thought Valentina would win that encounter. I had not wanted to make that choice; it all depended on circumstances. Chang Kun Wei was amazingly dangerous, and so was Valentina Marin. It was strange to know this age old debate had been settled now. And the League fan inside of me wanted to see the images. Besides, what else was there to do but drink whiskey and feel like arse? “Yeah, sure. Let’s go inside and I’ll hook up my handheld to the viewscreen.”

“The sun’s almost set anyway,” Ruiz said thoughtfully.

I looked over my shoulder and saw the last sliver of red dip under the horizon. “Yeah,” I acknowledged, saying goodbye to Lannie in my heart for the millionth time in the past few months. Swallowing broken glass would hurt less. I wondered idly if this feeling would ever fade, but then wondered if I wanted it to. It was all I had left of her. /God, I need a drink./ I took a shuddering breath. “Right. I’ll order some more drinks. Let’s watch the League and have a toast to those who left us.”

“Sounds like a plan I can get behind.”

Our hover chairs hummed softly while they guided us back inside.

—-

In the course of the following weeks, Ruiz and I usually ended up on the veranda together in the evenings. It was strange, because I could tell I was trying his patience, but still he kept seeking me out as much as I looked him up. He was pretty much the only person I could remotely stand in the clinic, but at first I couldn’t really figure out why he put up with me.

I was emotional, moody, and prone to lashing out. Ruiz just sassed back or told me to shut the fuck up, and that was usually that. But sometimes I saw his dark eyes flash and knew I had crossed some line with his patience – sometimes I could almost see him wish that he could get up and punch me in the face. Just my luck that the guy could hardly move while his body mended.

It wasn’t until he approached me about the incident in boot camp that I understood what he wanted with me.

Ruiz needed someone to talk to who knew about the League, about pain and death. I was the only person in the clinic – maybe even in the world – to fit the bill. There was also something else that we shared: we had both gotten seriously hurt in the Game and lived. Ruiz had to face the fact that he had nearly died, but also the fact that his body had quit underneath him. That was something I had walked around with for years, and he knew it.

“I saw the vids of that gun going off in bootcamp,” he suddenly started on a night on the veranda, under the night sky. The night was cloudy, so all the light we had was the reflected light pollution against the sky. We had a bottle of whiskey between us and we were nearing the bottom of it.

I waited until he would say more, but he didn’t. He just stared into the darkness. I wondered where he was going with that line of discussion, so I just said: “Yeah. I remember realising that the sound of her rifle was off. That these were no blanks but real bullets. By then I only had a split second to jump. If I hadn’t, I would have been dead instead of crippled.” That moment of realisation still gave me nightmares. It had been so bloody unexpected. Saxa and I had been smiling at one another only minutes earlier, talking how it would be the last time we would measure our skills against one another, the last time of playing before things would get serious. We had looked at one another, smiled at Milan, and I had grinned when he told us to have fun. Because that had been exactly what we were going for, Saxa and me. We were planning to have fun for the last time. And then the bullets were suddenly real, and I only had that one split second to save my life.

“You went knock-out immediately against that wall, right? Do you remember anything of the pain?”

“No. I blacked out and woke up in the hospital.” Lannie’s tearful face hovering above mine. Red-rimmed blue eyes. Dark red strands of hair sticking to pale wet cheeks. /Oh baby, I’m so glad you’re okay… don’t ever do that to me again Walter, I can’t lose you…/

He just nodded. “That sounds better than my deal. I remember dying. Every fucking second of it.”

I leaned back in my chair and topped up our glasses with the last of the whiskey. “That must have sucked,” I commiserated. “Do you remember anything afterwards?”

“Besides waking up in agony?”

“Hmm.” I thought of Lannie, how it had been for her, dying. The hot lead burying itself in her lungs. Drowning in her own blood. Valentina hovering over her. Clinging to life, and then having to let it go. Where had she gone?

He snorted. “No tunnel or a white light or any of that bullshit, no. Just – nothing. Like blacking out, without dreams. And then waking up, fucked up beyond all recognition.”

“And then this place.”

“Yeah,” the twofold Southern League champion said. “And then this fucking place.”

“They’ve worked miracles on you, you know,” I said as gently as I could. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive and talking. You could have had brain damage, being dead as long as you were. You’ll be on your feet again pretty soon and have your life back.”

He shook his head. “Whatever they did, it’s not enough. Even if the League wasn’t on hiatus; or gone, whatever – I’ll never be in the Arena again. I don’t think I even officially qualify as human anymore, with all the cybernetic parts in my body.”

I hesitated for a few seconds there. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. “Fucking sucks, man,” I offered, a lot more compassionate than I felt. I had to swallow buckets of bitterness away. “But at least you’re still alive. That’s more than the other people who entered that Arena could say.”

He didn’t say anything, he just sipped from his drink. The whiskey sloshed in his glass, and for a long time I didn’t say anything either.

That night I dreamt of blood bubbling on Lannie’s lips as she whispered my name and I woke up in tears again. The helplessness stayed with me all day. I had wanted to reach out to her, help her, at least console her, but there were thousands of miles between us. Thousands of miles and cameras and the eyes of the whole world on her as she died.

I dreamt of the blood on my own hands and the agony I felt; that one moment before I passed out. Vision toppled sideways while a blond man systematically destroyed any and every comm device in my apartment that he could find. Blinking, slowly, tortuously, trying to cling onto consciousness. One last image of my own blood staining my hands and the floor and my body aching so furiously – and then blackness. Blackness like after Saxa shot me. The same pain, the same unconsciousness.

And then waking up – but this time Lannie wasn’t with me. This time Lannie was thousands of miles away on the other side of the world, throwing her life away so she could improve mine. It was so wrong. As soon as I could, I placed a call to the Corporation anyway. I begged to talk to her, I cried and begged to the clerk on the other side of the line, but Lannie’s comm was terminated and they wouldn’t put me through to her. No calls after 6am; from that moment on, her life would belong to the Corporation.

Some fuck out there re-ran the images of Lannie looking at the camera right after that – the ones I had just missed – images of her all armoured up and cutting her red hair short. As if to mock me. As if they knew.

She had looked at the camera and she had smiled her brilliant smile. Millions of livingrooms had watched as she addressed me, and she had looked so radiantly beautiful. “Walter,” she had said, “Thank you for trusting me to do this. Thank you for not talking me out of this. I will do this, and I /will/ come back to you. I know you don’t believe it yet, but this is me, saving us. I will make things right again. I love you. Please don’t ever forget that I love you.”

She had /thanked/ me for not calling her. Thanked me, while all I wanted was to give her that call and instead my blood was pooling on the floor. The Corporation had wanted Lannie’s blood so they had spilled mine. Just because they were afraid I’d talk her out of it at the very last moment. I’m not sure I could have, but even if I couldn’t have… I would at least have had that one last talk, that one last goodbye. If they would take my wife from me, why wouldn’t they have at least given me that?

I sat in my bed, hugging my own shivering body. Stabs of pain shot through my thighs as my muscles in my knee were obviously not up to sitting in this position yet, but I ignored it and tried to calm my hyperventilation. I stared a hole in the wall as I tried to forget her radiant smile as she promised to come home, tried to forget how that blond Corporation guy had taken me by surprise. How one moment I had been standing there, half-distracted… and the next moment there was blood everywhere and I fought to stay awake through the pain. And she had /thanked/ me. I bit on my knuckles until I drew blood, and then some.

When I came to, it was noon and one of the nurses sat next to me, trying to talk me out of my panic attack. She was red-haired. Not as dark red as Lannie, but more ginger. I hated her for not being my wife, so I chased her out of the room. It took another hour until I was ready to venture out. They brought me food which I hardly touched, threatened to put me on intravenous feeding if I kept up my atrocious eating habits, and I ignored it. I found Ruiz in the viewing center, watching an old illegal death mach on one of the large screens. He had chased the other patients out of the room with it. The unedited sounds of explosions, gun shots and deathrattles were a little rough on most of the people in the clinic. I steered my hoverchair next to him and sat down to watch the game with him.

“I like the illegal games better,” Ruiz said thoughtfully, after some time. “The pay and the benefits of participation were shit, but it seemed easier. Less complicated.”

“There was no one to revive you if you slipped up,” I reminded him.

He shrugged. “You shouldn’t count on that anyway. The only way to become champion is not getting hit. Just don’t lose and then you win. Easy as pie.”

I smiled a smile I didn’t mean. “Easy as pie, huh. What do you mean with less complicated?”

“It’s less fancy and new school,” His face twisted in a snarl at the memory off the modern league, “I always knew where the camera guys were. They were in nearly as much danger as I was and it added to the thrill. Real guys, instead of those fucking drones that I always see rippling in the edge of my vision.”

“I thought they were supposed to be invisible. They’ve got cloaking devices, don’t they?”

“Oh yeah, it’s neat tech and all. Just not neat enough. If you move too fast past complicated surroundings, they can’t cloak fast enough to keep up with you. If you’re running, you’re forever seeing the sky ripple around you. That way you always know where the cameras are.”

“Huh,” I said thoughtfully. “So if you’re sick of the camera drones you could just shoot them.”

“You could do that in the illegal League as well,” Ruiz laughed. “Shoot a camera, kill a camera guy for free. It’s more fun that way.”

My hands ached for the weight of my shock rifle in them. Right now, if I would step into an Arena, I would shoot everyone, camera guys, drones, I wouldn’t care. I would then move on to the Corporation and blow up whatever I could find. Find the blond guy that incapacitated me in my living room. Find Young, who had made my wife sign her life away. Find that chick on the phone, who wouldn’t put me through to Lannie on that last morning. Everything, everyone. I would paint the world blue with plasma and it still wouldn’t be enough to make up for all that had happened.

Yet my hands were empty and my legs were weak and thin on the pillows of my hover chair.

My thoughts and heart were filled with blood and bile and I had nothing to channel it at. This wasn’t going anywhere. Sitting in the clinic, I couldn’t do anything but heal for now. Thoughts of blood and darkness weren’t helping my body heal. I needed to do this, break out of this feeling of transit I was in. What I was doing now was ruining both my mind and my body and Lannie would hate to see this. This was what she wanted; she had wanted me to get better. She made me promise that I would walk again, without pain. She had died for this. I needed to get out of here.

In the weeks that followed, my leg muscles became stronger. I spent more and more time in the gym, trying to channel my frustrations and hurts into something more positive and constructive. Sitting and drinking with Ruiz wasn’t helping me in any way, and I’d found that if I was physically tired, I would sleep deeper and thus have less nightmares. It didn’t help with the flash backs, but my appetite returned somewhat and I slept better. It was a start. I felt better too, and the medical staff applauded my interest in strengthening my body. It helped with the healing process and would make sure I would revalidate more quickly.

Somewhere along the line there was Christmas and New Year. I was walking by then, no longer bound to the hoverchair like Ruiz was. We sat on the veranda with a couple of other patients and unlucky staff members that had the night shift while in San Angeles people were counting down the minutes to midnight. We were drunk as all hell by the time the clock struck midnight.

Fireworks exploded over the bay. The fiery colours lit up the night sky, reflected on the water below.

I stared at the gorgeous display and hardly saw anything of it. A new year, utterly alone. I had started 2308 on an Amsterdam rooftop, shivering in the cold and my arms around Lannie. The furry lining of her coat tickling my frozen cheeks. She had smelled like gunpowder and cheap booze and like /herself/. She had been right there, I had been holding her in my arms. Now all I held was a glass of whiskey and I hated the new year, I hated everything.

Next to me Ruiz laughed at something that the ginger-haired pretty nurse had whispered in his ear. “Oh yes,” he answered to whatever question she had asked. Confidence dripped from his voice and she laughed delightedly. “Later, babe,” he promised, and I knew that someone would get laid tonight. She wouldn’t be the first female member of the medical staff to end up in his bed. I had no idea how he was even able to perform in his current physical state, but he apparently could and I didn’t ask. I just chugged my drink and stared at the multicoloured sky.

“So,” Ruiz asked me somewhat later. “Got any new year’s resolutions?”

I shot him a look over my shoulder. “Apart from getting out of this fucking place?”

He nodded. “That would be a start for us both. But apart from that.”

I set down my glass on one of the tables and shrugged as I spoke the words that had been boiling on the inside of my mind for the past few months.. “I don’t know, I just want to fuck some shit up.”

“Doesn’t everybody,” Ruiz said and laughed as he finished his drink. “For now I’ll just settle for a fuck in general. Night, Lane.”

“Have fun,” I told him, and I thought of the feeling of Lannie in my arms, one year ago on that rooftop. It felt like an eternity ago.

It was early March when I stumbled into the viewing center after a grueling workout session. My therapist had been extremely pleased with me and told me that it wouldn’t be long now; they’d probably declare me completely recovered within the next few weeks. He had applauded the fact that I’d been pushing myself so hard in the past couple of months and that it showed in the leaps and bounds I’d taken towards recovery.

Despite that, I’d nearly fainted under the shower. I’d been pushing at my boundaries for the past week and I’d been sleeping like arse, so I was exhausted. My leg had buckled underneath me and I had scrambled to find the handholds to stay upright amidst the slippery glass and tiles. I had assembled the plastic chair for the rest of my shower, something I hadn’t done in months at that point. It felt a bit like regression, but I knew it was only temporary. /I’ll be out of here in April. And then what?/

These thoughts were occupying my mind when I walked stiffly into the viewing center, walking up next to Ruiz and two other patients who were intently watching the huge screen. It showed a wiry young woman with yellowblond hair that reminded me vaguely of Saxa climbing out of a window and jumping off a ledge, landing painfully on her feet quite a bit below. She took a panicked look upwards and then sprinted out of the alleyway. At first I thought the images on screen were a movie, but then I recognised the logo at the top of the screen, signifying the feed as a Corporation broadcast.

The next clue was the unmistakably familiar voice of Corporation announcer Jorn Berntsson sounding over the speakers, obviously speaking to the young woman. “Well done, Dani,” he told her. There was a hint of glee in his voice, some maliciousness, even beyond what we’ve grown to know from his broadcasts in the past couple of years. “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 you can find a pod or someone will take you to the studio. What will it be?”

“What the hell are you watching?” I asked Ruiz, sitting down next to him on the couch. Ruiz was out of his hover chair by now. The vehicle stood parked next to the couch, but he could sit on his own, even walk short distances if he wanted to. He seemed to be in less pain these days and his mood had brightened considerably. He seemed more interested in the rest of the world again; more so than I was.

“Survival Game,” Ruiz said. “It’s a new Corporation gig. Blondie over there is called Dani Summers. She’s been yanked off the streets and shot up with a fast-working poison. If she can get to the other side of town in an hour to get the antidote, she lives. Otherwise she’ll die. And they’ll try to stop her, of course. Can’t make it too easy.”

“Huh,” I said. “Who would sign up for such a thing? That sounds like a terrible idea.”

“She did, apparently. While drunk, years ago. She’s fucking terrified now, and completely unsuited for this shit. She’s no fighter and she’s been set loose in San Angeles in this state. This is going to be a fucking trainwreck. I can’t wait.”

“I think it’s great television,” one of the other patients said from the comfort of his hover chair. “It’s unpredictable. The Arena was becoming stale and repetitive anyway.”

Despite his frail state of being, Ruiz still managed to get up from the couch lightning-quick and sharply kicked against the man’s hover chair, who collided with a side table with an audible crack. The man in the hover chair groaned; it obviously hurt. “What the hell?” the man snapped.

“Enter an Arena and then tell me how fucking stale it is, you fucking cunt,” Ruiz growled at him.

I just ignored them. My eyes were glued to the huge screen, where the young woman was running through streets and making her way to St. Miguel’s metro station, even though Berntsson had just told her that she’d be unable to use her normal pass to get a ride. There was pure and unbridled terror in her big green eyes. I grabbed my handheld and called up all information on her that I could find. There were stats rolling by on the big screen; links for intel and videos about the life and times of Dani Summers, but I preferred to set up my own searches.

They still called up the information from the Corporation sites anyway. Daniella (Dani) Summers, twenty four years of age. Nearly twenty five. Born in San Angeles. Mother deceased, father living in Europe with new wife and baby. Her address information glowed under my fingertips and told me that she rented a shitty apartment in the north end of the city. Transportation network technician, working to pay off a huge study loan. Marital status: single. Just out of a four year relationship. Paid the bills, no outstanding taxes. Had placed some bets in betting stations, but nothing exorbitant. She wasn’t like Lannie or me or any of the people who signed up for death matches. Dani Summers abided by the rules and lived a life as normal as you can get in the Compound of San Angeles and a child of the new world. I called up her psych evals and they showed tenacity, stubbornness, single-mindedness. Somewhat emotionally volatile, prone to intense mood swings. High peaks, deep lows. She’d taken anti depressants at some point, but that was around the time her mother died.

“She’s just this normal chick,” I murmured as I looked up at my screen to see Dani Summers squeeze herself into the metro, in a throng of people. Her vitals showed on the screen. Heartbeat at 120, quick and shallow respiration. Information about the poison and what she should be feeling right now: dizziness, a quick pulse, difficulties to think clearly. She was still standing, though, trying desperately to seem normal in the crowd of bodies pressed against each other in the busy metro. The sound of their conversations sounded muted, compared to Berntsson’s sudden voice over the speakers.

“You’re lucky so far, Dani,” he said. He sounded close and intimate, like a lover.

Daniella looked startled. Her hands clenched around the metal railing she was holding to keep her balance as she listened to him speak in her ear. “The metro is eating away the distance to the studios, 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.”

We could all see the terror on her face. “You’re fucking with me,” she whispered, wetting her bloodless lips.

“Am I?”

And then she almost smiled. “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.” She was showing guts now, and I immediately decided I liked her. Despite the danger of the situation, she was processing information. Strategising. Again, she reminded me of Saxa.

“Am I?”

“You are,” she said, more confidently now.

Berntsson laughed at her for that. “You really think you’re so smart. I’m almost /not/ sorry to prove you wrong.”

“Fuck you,” she whispered, and for a moment she looked right at the hidden cameras. It sounded like a threat.

Ruiz leaned back on the couch and chuckled. “I don’t think Berntsson is making any friends. No surprises there.”

“She’s getting angry,” I said, my hand clenching around the hand held as I related to her desperation and her fear. I thought of my own desperation and fear in that split second before the blond Corporation enforcer had struck me down. My blood on my hands, on the wooden floor. How helpless and angry I had been. And so utterly powerless to do something about it.

“And rightly so. Berntsson /is/ fucking with her. He’s such an obnoxious cunt.”

“You talk as if you personally know him.”

“I do. He’s the guy that got me my sponsorship with the Corp. Without him, I wouldn’t have entered the League in the first place. He found me in the shithole backwater arena I was in at the time, then got someone with bigger balls to offer me a spot in the Fortress. I met him a couple of times after that though. He’s a suited up sissy white boy with a tiny dick. Rich, has a hot supermodel wife. Hasn’t known a day of hard work in his life.”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek and thought of all the corporate high-ups that were toying with people like Dani Summers and my Lannie. Destroying lives and then going home to their lives in luxury and riches, with not a care in the world. “And still he’s a asshole. Unbelievable.”

As we watched Dani get out of the metro and try to make her way towards the Corporation studios, there were spots appearing in her neck. Berntsson was trying to act as if her body was having an allergic reaction to it, even though the stats showed that the rash was a perfectly natural symptom of the progression of the poison.

Her heart rate rose to 140 as she made her way through the metro station, stumbling against a tiled wall for a moment before she retrieved herself. I could see how she was trying to keep from panicking, but it was getting harder as the poison was affecting her senses. She stole someone’s suitcase and gained a knife in the process; a weapon to defend or threaten with. Tears were running over her face as she exited the metro station and found herself amidst on a pod station. None of them were keyed in to her, but with the help of the knife in her hand and some desperate pleading she managed to convince a girl on a pod to take her along. By now she was having a hard time to stay conscious.

Information about the little girl on the pod showed on the screen. Lisa Che Man, eleven years old, on her way back from school. Her parents had moved to San Angeles during the war, wanting to raise a child in something that /wasn’t/ an irradiated wasteland. Immigrants as they were, they weren’t very rich, but they poured everything in Lisa’s education, hoping she could build a life for herself. They had taken on huge loans.

Lisa herself, clothed in her school uniform, seemed to take pity on Dani Summers, who was sitting on the floor of her pod, shivering and sweating and clinging onto consciousness by her fingernails. “You could be a hero, Lisa,” Daniella told her intently as the pod began to ascend. “You could be my hero and every viewer that’s watching me and rooting for me right now. You’re on live television. Will you let me die?”

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

Dani hugged herself, rocking back and forth while she didn’t break eye contact with the eleven year old girl that held her life in her hands. Her voice didn’t waver. She sounded strong and confident for a moment; a contrast with what her vital stats were telling us. “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?”

The girl grinned and started haggling, but soon enough she settled for the amount of money that Dani Summers promised her. I felt relieved that things seemed to be going Dani’s way. Despite the circumstances and the poison wreaking havoc on her body, the young woman seemed to have a strong survival instinct and was able to think clearly under pressure. Maybe she wouldn’t be that bad in an Arena after all, if she’d know how to fight. If I would have money, I would have started betting on her at that very moment. I’d been rooting for her before, now but now I felt hope that she might even live and get out of here. She seemed so unwilling to be there. So desperate and afraid – yet she fought.

She even got Lisa to show and promise her the gun that the girl carried with her as protection from street gangs. My heart swelled for a moment and I was murmuring encouragements, even smiling at the screen. Maybe she would escape the clutches from the Corporation after all.

And then Berntsson’s voice resounded over the speakers of Lisa’s pod. “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 gun in your hands, and all that money will be yours.”

“That fucker!” I exclaimed.

Next to me, Ruiz just laughed. “Oh, you knew this was going to happen. That’s what I like about Berntsson. He’s a consistent cunt.”

The expression on the face of Daniella Summers reflected her shock and her hopelessness. All of her hope was snatched away and I saw the defiant light in her green eyes flicker. “You have /got/ to be kidding me,” she whispered.

Berntsson continued to try to convince the little girl. He was cajoling, pushing, nearly crooning over the speakers and was obviously getting somewhere, because the girl seemed at a loss what to do. She was biting on her knuckles, and we could all see her think. Her IQ flashed on the side of the screen, showing the girl’s superior intelligence. Next to it, the financial loans on the shoulders of her parents showed.

That was the moment something snapped in Daniella Summers. Her desperation vanished, and something /happened/ on her face. Something broke. “/Stop/ that!” she screamed at him. “Fuck you!” she screamed again and her voice broke into sobs. She tried to find her balance with the side of the pod, slipped, and covered her face in her hands as she laid on the metal floor, tears streaming over her face. There were rashes covering her arms and her face was flushed as she fought to stay awake, and my already broken heart broke in tinier shards.

“They can’t do this,” I murmured. The old feelings of bile and helpless rage churned in my stomach. I wanted to break something. “Seriously, how can they get away with this?”

“She signed up for this,” one of the other patients in the room said quietly. An older woman, who was wrapped up in stasis  goo in her own chair. Her arms and torso were packed and bandaged up. I had no idea what her name was; she’d been here for only a couple of weeks. “They’ve got her signature.”

“Did this girl /really/ sign up for this? This is psychological torture,” I spat. I was suddenly standing on wobbly legs. My muscles protested and the world swam for a moment, but I wasn’t sure whether it was exhaustion or the onset of hyperventilation. “Seriously. They can’t /do/ this.”

On screen, Daniella Summers begged for her life with an eleven year old child… and then the pod they had been riding arrived at its destination; the Corporation studios. The timer at the right hand top of the screen told us that Daniella had maybe less than fifteen minutes to live and was suffering from multiple side effects from the poison in her body.

As the pod docked, the audience was treated with an overhead view of the situation. The girl Lisa was still standing with her gun in her hand, hesitating. Outside the studio, a reception party waiting for Dani Summers. Berntsson was standing there, flanked by a handful enforcers with guns, ready to welcome her home. Would she even be able to take the antidote from Berntsson’s hands?

In a feat of beautiful cinematography, the camera found Daniella Summer’s face. I watched as desperation made way for determination as she took in the situation. I could almost hear her thoughts, how she decided that if she were to go out, at least she would go out in style. Her vitals stats showed a sudden peak of adrenaline as she got herself up and unceremoniously grabbed the gun from Lisa’s hand.

She jumped out of the still-docking pod and faced Berntsson and his party, the gun in her hands. The gun in her hands seemed small and insignificant compared to the rifles that the enforcers were carrying. She was completely outgunned.

“She should just shoot herself,” the older woman next to us said. “She has no chance here. If she shoots herself she’ll at least have died by her own hand.”

/She won’t,/ I thought, thinking back to her psychological profile. Stubborn, it had said. I didn’t think she would just lay down and die. I watched as she quickly checked the gun and took the safety off.

“Really, Dani?” Berntsson asked and he laughed that throaty laugh he was famous for. “You would really try that?”

And Daniella Summers cocked her head and looked straight at him. Her face was ravaged by tears, she had rashes in her neck and on her arms, was trembling with exhaustion and ready to lose consciousness, but the look in her eyes was one that I knew.

“She’s going to fucking shoot him,” Ruiz said with satisfaction, a split second before she pulled the trigger.
She looked like a victor. Like a survivor. She looked like someone who was saying “Fuck you” from the bottom of her heart.

Jorn Berntsson died right there, on the lawn of the Corporation studios, before the eyes of his enforcers and millions of viewers at home. He bled out on the carefully maintained lawn, bullets buried in his throat and his lungs. He never spoke again. Two rattling breaths, and then it was over.

And I laughed.

For the rest of the month, I couldn’t get that last image out of my head. The /Fuck you, I’m not going to take this from you/ that had been written all over Daniella Summers’ face as she pulled that trigger. I finished up my exercise routine cycle and sat in on a lot of doctors appointments as they gave me do’s and don’t’s of starting my life up again outside of the clinic. Basically they told me to take it easy in the first few months and keeping up exercise to strengthen my body and force my new tendons and implants to work with the rest of my knee. “You’re one of our success stories,” the doctor said with some satisfaction. “So don’t let it go to waste.”

“I’m not planning to,” I reassured him.

Still, my mind kept dancing around Ruiz’s question at new year and my own thoughts of what to do once I got out of the clinic. That question, and the image of Dani Summers telling the Corporation her own very heartfelt ‘fuck you’. I thought of the League and how it casually destroyed lives, and not only the lives of people who entered the actual Arena. A few searches on the feeds taught me that I wasn’t the only one who had gotten shafted in the Corporation’s quest for great viewer ratings. They were little things, things that wouldn’t stand out until you started adding it all together. Manipulations, nudges, small meddlings and pushes in a direction that people normally wouldn’t take. The picture it painted horrified me. I wasn’t the only one. Far from it.

I thought of Saxa’s real bullets burying themselves in my body. Rune Murray who only got a slap on the wrist and a couple of years in prison for attempted murder. She’d gotten out a couple of months ago and had been offered a contract with a Corporation-affiliated organisation as a personal trainer. I thought of Young on our doorstep, less than twenty four hours after we lost all of our Rookie League winnings. The offer Lannie wouldn’t refuse. He had known. He had known all about us. Lannie wrapping her arms around Valentina to say goodbye. Dying under Valentina’s bullets only hours later. Dani Summers, begging for her life with an eleven year old child. Her trial, a complete farce. And me… helpless… bleeding… unable to make that one last phone call to convince my beautiful wife to come home.

And then the new Southern League game was announced. Signups were opening and it would all start over again. Dani Summers would participate. She had been deemed guilty during her trial and had opted for Death Match over the death sentence they would have given her. They would have made an example out of her.

An example for the people, that they shouldn’t fuck with the Corporation, even though the Corporation gleefully fucked with them if it would improve the viewer ratings.

The sheer enormity of it all nearly sent me into shock. I breathed deeply in a plastic bag to fight off the hyperventilation, trying to will away the images and the daymares that were taunting me at the edge of my mind.

/They can’t do this. I can’t let this happen. Fuck them. Fuck them./

Once I’d made my decision, the world seemed to snap back into focus. I didn’t feel lighter or better, but I felt stronger. Determined. Awake. Able to deal with shit, because there was a focus and an end in sight.

I said goodbye to Ruiz, telling him to get out of the clinic as soon as he could. I thanked him for his company and the shared booze and stories. He told me I should get the fuck on with my life already. I told him I would.

Within hours of leaving the clinic, I found myself in a dojo in the Dregs, saying hello to Saxa Owens.

“The Southern League?” she asked, when I showed her what I had signed up for. “You mean to join the League?”

I nodded. “I’m already in. They let me in, even without the Fortress. Said some stuff about how I’d proven myself already. One last gift from Rune, I suppose.” Either that, or they loved what I would do for the ratings. Extra drama, extra action. Oh, the stories they could spin on my broken life. They would revel in it. “But yeah, I’ll be entering the League in seven months.”

“What would you have of me, then?” Saxa asked. She wiped her dreads out of her face and I could still see the blood guilt written all over her face. She had killed in the League Arena, and it hadn’t meant anything. Her bullets had hit other people and that had been okay. The unexpected bullets in my body though – that had nearly broken her.

I smiled at her. Had she really not figured it out? “I want you to train me, Saxa,” I told her. She was the only person in the world I would trust enough for it.

She connected the dots not all that much later in our conversation. “You’re not committing suicide by League, are you?”

“Not quite,” I said somewhat truthfully. “I just want to fuck some shit up. Will you help me get ready?”

I wanted to fuck shit up in Lannie’s name. In my name. In the name of my sanity and what remained of it. In the names of everyone who got shafted, bled, destroyed, killed. And if I would join Lannie in the process, well, that was pretty okay with me. What else was left anyway?

I would be honouring the memory of the beautiful young red-haired woman who had kissed me passionately farewell and told me that she would save us. She said she would save us and left and didn’t return.

She had left, and what else did I have to lose?

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