Archive for the ‘deathmatching’ Category

2300: What We Cannot Speak Of

Posted: May 14, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, league, stories

It feels like he dozed off only minutes ago when the intercom buzzes, announcing a visitor. The lights go on a few seconds later on the ambient night setting that he can control with his voice. Mike Kwon sits up sleepily in the unfamiliar bed and rubs over his eyes. /What the hell?/ “Who is it?”

“Lon Singh here. Can I come in?”

He blinks. The beautiful female Game announcer is pretty much the last person in the world he expects right now. He has to fight in the Asian League finale in less than six hours. What the hell does she want from him? “I’m not quite decent,” he says, while he touches the command to open the opaque glass sliding doors to his quarters. “Is there an emergency? Did I do anything wrong?”

He cannot for the life of him imagine what could be up. Pre-League dinner had gone off without any problems. He’d mostly teased Len Moon all night; but despite her crippling shyness she seemed to take it like a champ and had made some decent conversation with him. He’d been trying to get a rise out of the quiet young woman to see why she was such a favourite to take the championship, but she was just that; quiet, reserved, shy. Her smile was even kind of sweet. And yet she was also an expert marksman who killed because it came easy to her. Like a hunter, coldly taking out prey. He’d seen the vids; and rhyming those two images with one another had been most entertaining during dinner.

Lon Singh had been in the room as well, making the rounds and talking to the contestants. He’d seen her look at him, smile at him. But Lon Singh seems to smile at everybody. Flirting comes easier to her than breathing. She’d sat at the head of the table in this slinky black dress that left little of her gorgeous curves to the imagination and… she is still wearing that dress as she steps into his room. “I don’t mind if you’re not decent,” she says with a playful smile on her pretty features. “And no, there’s nothing wrong.”

“How can I help you, then?” Mike asks, just to be polite. She’s one of the two people who will be in touch with him while he’s in the Arena. In a way, she represents his link to the outside world, his sane voice in the madness of the Arena. She’ll talk to him, announce the other deaths. Maybe his as well. It’s better to stay on her good side.

She sits down on the edge of the bed, completely relaxed and confident as she leans in his direction. Her artfully curled dark hair tumbles over her shoulders and draws his attention to her cleavage. Dear God, she’s stunning. “I have a proposition to make,” she says and she smiles like an angel.

He knows immediately what she means. “I have a girlfriend.”

Lon laughs softly. “She’s not here and you might die tomorrow. She doesn’t have to know.”

He watches how the ambient lighting caresses her curves. It’s distracting. “The cameras are watching.”

“The cameras only broadcast what I want them to broadcast. Don’t worry Mike, this will be our little secret.” She is nearly purring and /God/ it might be the sexiest thing he’s ever heard in his life.

He tears his eyes away from her cleavage and looks at her face. “What, you asked Khan ‘please kill the cameras in Kwon’s apartment, I’m off to fuck him’?”

“Oh, Mike. I like you, you’re pretty, I’m up for a fuck if you are. Simple as that. Don’t overthink it.” She laughs. It’s a true laugh, full of mirth and warmth. She throws her head back and her neck is exposed. He wants to suck on that slender neck, her glorious tits. He can feel himself growing hard.

/I’m probably going to die tomorrow and one of the most beautiful women on this side of the globe wants to have sex with me. Why the hell am I hesitating again?/ There’s one last fleeting thought of Seia, sitting at home. They’ve been together for four months and she’s always known that his days are numbered. She’s always known that he’ll enter the Arena tomorrow. What’s a fuck with the beautiful League announcer compared to that?

He smiles at Lon Singh. “Right now the only thing I’m thinking is that you’re wearing way too many clothes for that to happen.”

She grins at him. A lurid grin full of promises as she kicks out her high heels, pulls her dress over her head and carelessly tosses it in a corner. She isn’t wearing any underwear and her body is as beautiful as he hoped, as beautiful as what the prettily cut dress was hinting at. Better, even. She moves over the bed to sit next to him. “Better?”

“Oh god yes,” he breathes, tugging off his own boxer short and t-shirt. He only has eyes for her as he pulls her close and kisses her passionately. She tastes like cherry; it’s probably her lip gloss, but it fits her. Her lips are soft and she’s obviously an expert kisser; enough to lose himself in it completely. His hands find her breasts and she moans into the kiss.

Their lovemaking is urgent and passionate at first, but after they’ve both had their first climaxes they slowly ease into another round, and that one is slow, almost tender. It leaves them both completely spent.

The ambient light has brightened in the time they’ve been busy – it’s the promise of morning that’s lighting up Mike’s quarters. Lon lies with her head on his chest, her hand resting comfortably on his shoulder, leg draped over him. They are both somewhat sticky and completely languid with afterglow. Her dark hair is damp and tangled and her makeup is smudged, but to him she looks more beautiful than ever.

“You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you,” Mike says, smiling into her hair. It tickles his face and neck, but he refuses to move. “Wearing me out with mindblowing sex so I’ll die in the Arena. I bet you’ve got money riding on my defeat.”

She chuckles softly and looks up at him, mischief sparkling in her dark eyes. “You’ve got me. Sorry about that.”

“Bitch,” he says good-naturedly.

“Gullible,” she counters just as good-naturedly. She thoughtlessly traces patterns with her fingers on his skin. The light reflects on the tiny gemstones in her nails. “Seriously though, you will be fine. The stimms should pick you right up if you’re exhausted. We don’t want contestants to be tired, and many of them do not sleep the night before. Too wired, or too busy fucking. Like us.”

“Do you always fuck the ones you like?”

“Only the pretty, gullible ones.”

He laughs and yawns, an odd combination. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I.”

“You did. But honestly, I’d like it if you’d survive the day. I wouldn’t mind doing this again sometime.”

“Same,” he rumbles, before he dozes off to sleep. It’s the last bit of sleep he’ll be getting for a long time.

——

2304: Fortunate Sons

Posted: April 26, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, fortress, stories

2304: Fortunate Sons

Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord

Their boots are loud on the pavement behind her, clearly audible even over their shouts and the sound of her own heartbeat. She knows she’s bleeding, feels the throb of the wound in her thigh, but she ignores it. She’ll have time to worry about it later, or she’ll run out of time to worry about anything at all, ever again. She rounds another corner, deeper into the fortress maze. It’s her favorite fortress, the North-West one. Close to home. She’s had many a victory there. This is her homeground, and this preliminary match is supposed to be a formality, at best.

And yet she’s running, carelessly flinging herself around corners to put distance between herself and her final two competitors. Robert Lahey, ex-military man, good with a railgun, bad with people, slow in his draw but flawless in his aim. Christian Sykes, convict, sloppy with a flak-cannon but fast, so very fast. Individually they pose no threat to Valentina, but together they’re lethal.

The problem is that they aren’t supposed to be together. There had been nothing in their files to suggest that Sykes and Lahey would get along well enough to form an alliance, let alone an alliance that could hold. And yet here they are, two against one. Odds that she doesn’t flinch at on any given day, but today hasn’t been in her favor so far. Out of seven kills so far only one is on her name. Sykes and Lahey are a force of nature together, scoring four kills in the first hour, and another two in the second.

She bares her teeth in a grin and forces herself deeper into the fortress, their voices calling out to her from far too close by. They’re not even trying to be stealthy anymore. And why should they? They’ve got the upper hand, the undefeatable duo that should not be, and all she has are her guns, her wits and a leg that’s going to give out long before she can risk seeking out a regen point. She’d be cocky too, if she had been in their shoes. The only thing she has over them right now is fortress experience, and she’s going to need every shred of it.

“Come out, pussycat!” Sykes hollers behind her. He sounds wild, crazy, and for the first time in years Valentina wishes she had decided to participate in the bootcamp, just to gage with her own eyes where his weakness lies. She’s seen hour after hour of footage, and yet she seems to have missed crucial facts in her preparation, not in the least regarding his unexpected alliance with Lahey.

“He’s going to kill you, you know,” she whispers, glancing directly at where her probe hovers. It’s cloaked, invisible to her eyes, but she knows how it moves by now. “He’s going to kill you when you least expect it… he’ll ram that railgun right in your back and rip your spine out where you stand.”

There’s a delay of several seconds, but she knows Stender relays her taunt when Sykes howls behind her. “I’m going to piss on your corpse, bitch!” He shouts behind her. His voice is distorted by the distance. Two hallways, at most. Close quarters, where his flak canon will tear her to shreds if he gets her in his sight. She hears a thunk behind her, and she imagines it’s Lahey, hitting Sykes in the back of the head.

“Stay focussed. We kill Marin, then we’ll duke it out between us. Eyes on the prize, my friend.” Lahey sounds gruff, but in control, the way he had in all his interviews. The contrast with Sykes’ rage is jarring.

“When this is over I want to see the fucking footage of how this alliance came to be,” Valentina tells the probe hovering to her left.

“If you survive this,” Stender says. He almost sounds bored, which tells Valentina that he’s worried, and that Hugh is probably egging him on. Valentina arches an eyebrow at the probe, not gracing him with further response.

The hallway stretches out in front of her, ending in bright light. The fortress courtyard. She grits her teeth and pushes forward, forcing herself into a sprint while Lahey and Sykes close in behind her. Just a little further, and she’ll be less vulnerable to Sykes’ flak cannon at least.

Behind her Sykes cackles, and she knows he’s rounding the corner. She can hear him flick the safety of his gun as she throws herself outside. She lands on her knees and elbows on the cold stone of the courtyard, just as the blast of the flak cannon thunders overhead. She feels the searing heat of the shrapnel as it cuts into the stone beside her.

“Nowhere to hide now, Marin!” Lahey calls out behind her. She rolls to the side and pushes herself to her feet, ignoring the sharp stab of pain in her thigh. Later. She’ll deal with that later. She has less than twenty feet to gain speed, but that’s alright. She’s done this with less. A treacherous voice inside her tells her that it’s been years since she last tried it. She pushes it aside. Self-doubt is for dead people.

She sprints forward, racing towards the wall in front of her. Too high to climb, they say. She can almost hear Stender inhale sharply. She’s four foot away from the wall when she leaps, her left foot hitting the wall perfectly while she pushes off with her right, propelling herself upwards. For a breathtaking moment the ledge seems too far away. Inches maybe, but enough for her to fail. Then her fingers curl around the edge and she’s six feet above the ground, pulling herself up onto the ledge while her feet scramble for purchase. She rolls over the ledge just in time to hear Sykes screech.

“Bitch! Come down here so I can kill you!” He fires another shot at her, shrapnel burning its way into the wall below her. Useless, in the open space of the courtyard.

“Where is she!” Lahey roars behind Sykes. Val’s grin is replaced by a wince as she rolls onto her wounded leg. She can feel the blood oozing from it, the wound made worse by her antics.

“She ran up the fucking wall, man. Right up the fucking wall like a fucking spider or something.”

Her fingers close around her gun, slowly easing it out of her thigh holster, just as Lahey steps out into the courtyard. “Bullshit,” he says. She imagines him taking in the height of the wall and thinking of her wounded leg. “Did you lose her, you worthless piece of shit? Did you?!”

“No man, I’m telling you she ran up the wall! Right there, that wall!” Sykes fires again, sending a spray of shrapnel over the edge. Valentina holds her breath, pushing herself farther away from the ledge. Sykes might still do damage by accident.

“Well… this was a fucking waste of my time.” Lahey mutters in the courtyard beneath her. She resists the urge to peer over the edge to see what he’s up to. She can hear Sykes pacing back and forth like a mad bull, and she can hear the whir of Lahey’s railgun, charging. One… two…

“We need to get up there, man. There’s gotta be stairs or something. She’s up there, I’m telling you, she’s u…”

Lahey pulls the trigger, cutting Sykes off for good. The shot thunders through the fortress, the bullet burying itself deep inside the wall. Valentina rolls into action, dropping off the ledge in the time it takes Sykes’ headless body to sag to the pavement.

Lahey stares at her wide eyed, swinging the barrel of his railgun towards her. One… two…

“Too slow, motherfucker.” She grits out, her gun in hand. She squeezes the trigger once, twice, three times. Two of her bullets hit him in the neck, above his armor. The third lodges itself in his skull. His railgun clatters to the ground, followed by the man himself. Seconds later Val follows, falling to her knees with a wince.

“Guess you’ll get to see the footage after all.” Stenders voice tells her. She glares at the now decamouflaged probe.

“Shut the fuck up and send a pick up, you useless piece of shit,” she grouses, pressing her hand to her thigh.

“Such language. Should I be worried that you’re slowly turning into Huey?” There’s mirth in his voice now that the battle is over.

“You’ve got me. That’s my lifelong aspiration, to one day be as pretty as Huey.” She rolls onto her back and stares up into the blue sky.

“Stay awake, will you? You’ve got the media to attend to when you get back.”

“No rest for the wicked…” she mutters, “Seriously though, fuck this match and fuck all alliances. They never last. I wish these dumb fucks would stop trying.” She kicks out at Lahey’s corpse. It sends another spike of pain through her leg.

“You can’t blame people for trying, Val. And look on the bright side, you won again and no one was bored. A glorious victory if ever I saw one.”

A few feet away from her the feet of headless Sykes spasm, his body not yet caught up with the inevitable.

“Yeah… glorious. Come pick me up already, ok?”

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2306: Delusions Of Grandeur

Posted: March 18, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, league, stories

It all comes down to moments. Heartbeats. Fractions of seconds. Instants.

In the end, that is all it takes.

Saxa Owens is completely aware of that. She’s fought her way through the Fortress and the other contestants in the Euroleague and in the past months she’s looked death in the eyes on more occasions than she would care to admit. In many cases it came down to moments like this.

An action and a counter-reaction, and she would just have to pray that she was fast enough. The stats all say that she should be; her reflexes are supposed to be quicker than anyone else in the arena. She can take down most of them in hand-to-hand combat. She’s had to train her rifle accuracy like an idiot, but she’s better than most of them at shooting as well now. It all looks so very good on paper, but reality tells a different story. In reality, it all comes down to moments like this.

Night has fallen over the abandoned buildings that once made up a main street in a small town. There’s not much light to go by; the Corporation only fixed up enough streetlights so the viewers at home will actually be able to see something on their screens while the contestants battle it out. The butter-coloured streetlights illuminate a dreary, muddy street, damp with mist and the remnants of this morning’s rain.

Saxa hides in the shadows and is grateful for that extra year of training that Rune Murray’s actions have granted her. Shitty as the whole situation might have been, she’s a better competitor now than she was last year around this time. It’s the only good thing that has come out of the whole ordeal. Milan Anders died in the 2305 Euroleague with Laurent le Blanc’s bullets buried in his body, and Saxa now has to deal with Merle Jourin.

When Saxa had taken out Girelli with a long distance shot that she’d been ridiculously proud of, Karl Lorentz had cheerfully announced that once thing was certain at least; the Euroleague of 2306 would have a female winner. It had been some time since the Euroleague had one; Varya Cheverina had been victorious five years ago, and she’d been the only one. Not like the Northern League, which has been dominated by Valentina Marin for years now.

It doesn’t mean much to Saxa, apart from the fact that the worst one is saved for last. Say what you will about Merle Jourin, but she’s /fucking/ dangerous. In the eight hours that have passed since the beginning of the deathmatch she’s been good for four kills. Saxa’s on two – and it might end here right now, in this very moment. It’s just the two of them now.

Saxa figures it’s better to let Jourin come to her. She crouches on top of a pod docking station in an alleyway. The height of it gives her a good overview of the alley and the street beyond. There is a balcony in the house above her, but the building should be inaccessible and even if it is, it is easy to keep surveillance on it. She should be fairly safe from sneak attacks here.

Time passes; she has no idea how long, but suddenly she feels something – hears something – from the balcony above.

And like a demon, Merle runs onto the balcony – and /jumps/ off, pulling the trigger of her ripper with a maniacal grin on her face. Despite her momentum and her jump, her aim is dead-on. The blade goes flying through the air and Saxa is too late to dodge.

/Well, fuck,/ Saxa thinks – in that one second, that one split second that is granted to her.

/Why have you signed up for the League?/ a journalist had asked her, somewhere last year, during a Fortress boot camp promo session.

She had smiled at the journalist and said: /Because I feel I can do this. Why does anyone test their skills? To see if they can. I think I can./

/You think you can win?/

/Of course I think so. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here./

Milan Anders and Walter Lane, her direct competitors, had been sitting right next to her. She had grinned at them and the both of them had grinned back because they understood. Milan and Walter fought for money, but while the money was a huge bonus, Saxa fought for glory.

She doesn’t feel glorious now that she sees the ripper tear through the evening air. Its trajectory is a straight arc, right for her throat. And she can’t get out, she can’t jump, she can’t crouch in her corner. There is not enough time, not enough moving space.

She does the only thing she can think of.

While Merle Jourin lands on her two feet in a pool of shadows right next to the pod docking station that Saxa is standing upon, Saxa raises her rifle in a last ditch attempt to shield herself from approaching death. Anything to keep that ripper blade from biting her throat.

Her reflexes do not fail her.

The shock of the ripper blade tearing into the metal of the rifle reverberates in her arms. Her throat is safe but her rifle is rendered useless, the blade buried three inches into the metal.

Jourin either screams or laughs below and raises her ripper again, ready to shoot upwards and make sure that Saxa is really dead this time.

This is the moment. That one moment in which everything converges. Death is smiling at her, ready to welcome her home like Milan was welcomed home last year. She doesn’t stop fighting, though. She seizes the moment and does something that Merle Jourin doesn’t expect – what she /should/ have expected, because Saxa has better reflexes than Jourin has.

Saxa jumps off the pod station, right leg perfectly outstretched. Her aim, where it comes to her own body, is always flawless. Her right foot connects with the ripper in Jourins hand, kicking it away. Saxa can hear bones breaking over the sound of her blood thundering in her ears. That same moment, half an instant later, her left foot connects with Jourin’s chest.

And another instant later they both hit the gravel in a tangle of limbs. Jourin slams with her head against the ground with a sickening thud.

The moment is not over. Saxa uses her momentum to roll over and drag Jourin with her, so she straddles the older woman in the muddy, filthy street, on the edge of a gutter. Jourin’s long dark hair has come loose from the bun she had tied it in and fans out in the muddy rain water. There is blood in her hair.

Saxa has to be quick now before Jourin regains her senses and starts to fight back. The ripper is lying discarded in a puddle only a few feet away; Jourin should not be allowed to get there.

So she starts pounding on the other woman’s face. It’s a moment of pure need; pure survival instinct. She’s fought in MMA tournaments and on the streets in the Dregs. She’s fucked up people’s faces. She’s broken noses and jaws. She kicked someone in the head once, on the street. He had barely survived. It’s child’s play compared to what she’s doing to Merle Jourin right now.

The woman wrestles and fights for all she’s worth, but Saxa holds the upper hand. She evades Jourin’s grabbing hands and instead connects with cheekbone, jaw, nose, temple. When Jourin bucks like a wild horse, attempting to shake her off, she finally gets the momentum she needs to make a finishing move.

She doesn’t even hesitate. She flips Jourin over on her stomach so the top half of the woman’s body is lying in the muddy rainwater. Jourin almost manages to get her hands underneath herself; it’s almost enough to get up. Saxa is faster and doesn’t let her. She grabs the woman by the hair – her wet, muddy, bloody hair – she will remember the exact feeling of that filthy hair in her hands for a long time – and then slams Jourin’s face on the ridge of the gutter. Bone connects with concrete with an awful /crunching/ sound.

Merle Jourin twitches a couple of times, but Saxa doesn’t let go and slams the woman’s broken face down on the concrete once more, twice, three times.

“You can let go, Saxa, we have a flatline,” Karl Lorentz suddenly says in her earpiece.

She untangles her hands from Jourin’s hair and sits down on the edge of the gutter. Blood and gore mix with rainwater and mud. It washes over her shoes and Saxa watches numbly as the horrid mixture slowly courses away from her. Downhill. To the sewer and the sea.

“Congratulations, Saxa Owens. You’ve won the Euroleague of 2306 with a respectable three kills!” Karl says and plays his customary victory music over the speakers that must be hidden in the alleyway and everywhere in the Arena.

Saxa looks up to the origin of the sound above her and smiles faintly at the darkened sky. The clouds look amber and brown from the light pollution of the nearest city. They are heavy with rain. It shouldn’t be too long now before the rain will wash away Merle Jourin’s snot and brains and blood completely.

“So what’s going through your mind right now, Saxa?” Karl pushes to get a reaction out of her.

Saxa rubs her hands over her mist-damp face, uncaring that she smears blood over her face. “I wonder why the fuck I ever thought this was a good idea.”

“It was; you took the victory as you said you would. The glory and the grandeur you sought are yours, and you deserve them.”

She thinks of Walter Lane, sitting at home with a crippled leg, watching her take the victory that Rune Murray stole from the both of them. She thinks of Milan’s blood staining concrete, like Merle Jourin’s doing right now. Would his blood still be visible on the concrete, or will the rain have washed him away as well by now?

“It was lunacy,” she says finally, looking at the corpse at her feet. She feels unreal, like she is dreaming. This doesn’t feel at all like she thought it would. She thought she would feel elated. Instead, she feels sick to her stomach and completely exhausted. “Delusions of someone who thought this would bring glory. The boys were right, they were just fighting for money. That’s the only real thing this brings.”

“Fame, glory, money and victory,” Karl says thoughtfully. “We’ll get a team to pick you up, Saxa. After a long shower you’ll be right as rain again.”

“Yeah,” she says with a smile she doesn’t mean. “Right as rain.”

She sits down again on the edge of the gutter and waits underneath the heavy clouds.

The real rain reaches her before the pick up team does.

——

2305: The Night Is Dark

Posted: March 3, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, league, stories

2305: The Night Is Dark (And Full Of Terrors)

His heart is pounding slowly and heavily in his throat by the time the dropship lifts off from the landing platform. He looks around the dropship at the faces of his competitors, while the amiable face and voice of announcer Karl Lorentz talks the viewers at home through everyones stats and stories. There is a heady air of expectation in the dropship. Some of the twelve faces are showing signs of excitement, some a schooled blankness. The convicts are just looking aggressive.

Karl announces them first; since they haven’t done things like bootcamp or sponsored events, they are the unknowns to the audience. He starts with the most famous of them all; Bertrand Razon. This long-haired man with the scarred face took an assault rifle to a playground and emptied his rounds in the innocently playing children. Fourteen dead, many more traumatised. Conflicted army veteran, full of PTSD and medication abuse that has escalated in the past couple of decades since the war ended. He’s good with that rifle, though, Milan notices, when Karl announces Razon’s stats. Near sniper like accuracy, trained for combat situations. This is one to watch out for. Milan watches the older man’s face and hopes that Razon will die quickly. He certainly wouldn’t mind taking him out.

Then there are Henrik Idesson and Wendel Sprenger, who are both cultists who have been planting car bombs in Scandinavia to make the world pay attention to the Cult Of The Dying World. They are together responsible for about two dozen deaths. They have known each other for years and it seems likely that they will work together in the arena. Alliances in the arena are not unheard of, and Milan is sure these guys will watch each other’s backs for at least a while. They’re even sitting next to each other right now, like a unity. Their rail guns are held in similar gestures. Milan doesn’t agree with them being here; this match will bring only more attention to that crazy cult of theirs. Yet apparently the world wants to see them bleed and Milan isn’t the one who makes these decisions.

Karl moves on to introduce dark-haired Landra Abrantes. Iberian, thirty two years of age. An athlete, like Saxa. She trained for this gig her whole life. She was a terror in the South Fortress with her shock rifle. She had been the favourite from the very first moment she entered bootcamp. Milan quite likes her. She speaks with a beautiful south European accent, which makes her seem exotic. She also offered him drinks last night, which he declined in favour of phonecalls with Rune and a bottle of his own champagne. He smiles at her when her great stats are discussed, and she smiles back at him in return. “I think there’s quite some money riding on you in the betting stations, Landra,” Karl says. “It’s been a while since we had a female Euroleague champion. Do not let your fans down.”

“I’m not going to,” Landra says. Her smile is bright and excited as she places her shock rifle on her knees. The shock rifle reminds Milan suddenly of Walter.  /You should have been here, not me,/ he thinks fervently. /I’m going to win this one for you. For you and Saxa and to prove that I can do this; that the Fortress wasn’t a fluke, dammit. I’ll show the world./

From there on, Karl introduces the others. Goran Brody, winner of the Southeastern Fortress. He had won by the skin of his teeth, with only one kill. Milan doesn’t pay him much mind; according to the stats he can own Brody’s ass any time of the week.

Stan Horak, East Fortress. Karl prattles on how Stan is short for Stanimir, and it apparently means something like to hold, or to become. “Here’s to hoping your name will bring you luck,” Karl says friendly. Horak needs it, his stats are pretty average, despite the fact that he fights with a minigun.

“It’s gotten me this far,” Horak says cheerfully. He has crooked teeth and a mop of dark curls on his head, but when he grins he seems somehow endearing. It is said that he has quite the fanbase at home in Eastern Europe, and suddenly Milan understands why Horak is here and why he does this. /First the money, then the bitches/. His own words, echoing back at him over the course of the past two months. It seems like a lifetime ago when he spoke those words to Walter in bootcamp.

Sven Kowalski, a blond guy that fights with a rocket launcher. /Dangerous in close areas,/ Milan judges. /Only to be engaged in open spaces, preferrably from behind. Need to make use of rocket loading times and gank him in the meantime./ He’s not that fast either, his stats tell the world.

Some hope uncurls in the pit of Milan’s stomach. He is better than these three. Landra might give him a run for his money, and obviously Le Blanc, but he is not the worst statted person in this drop ship. This is good news.

Then there’s the only other female in the dropship. Mirna Milovan, a bulky and heavily muscled woman who fights with a flak cannon. She’s incredibly strong and has a stamina that is unheard of; she hardly even needs stimms to stay alert all game long. She’s not fast, but strong and steady has won her the race in the Central Fortress. That, and a fucking good aim.

Dennis Meier represents the Northern Fortress, and does so very well. His stats are comparable to Milan’s, only he fights with a minigun. He’s fast, a very good and accurate shot, and he seems to be able to think his way out of situations quickly. Milan was glad they didn’t meet in Northwest, where he had been situated. He would have been competition for Walter, Saxa and himself. And fuck knows there had been a lot of talent in Northwest anyway.

“Next up, Milan Anders,” Karl says cheerfully. He pulls up one of Milan’s more flattering pictures and then goes on to some pre-mixed footage of him in the Fortress. “Trained by Rune Murray till the bitter end.”

“Hopefully not very bitter,” Milan interjects quickly, trying to ignore a pretty graphic image of Rune and himself in the throes of passion. “This story isn’t done yet.”

“It already ended with Saxa Owens disqualified and Walter Lane crippled. That’s a pretty bitter end for the Northwest Fortress, at least,” the announcer says mildly, while the images focuses on a distraught looking Saxa, hunched over a bleeding and unconscious Walter. “And even though Murray hasn’t been convicted yet, we all know what happened here.”

“The things we do for love,” he sighs, stopping mid-breath when he realises that he’s just spoken out loud. He catches himself, smiling a wry grin when he hears some of the others chuckle. “And stupidity, I suppose.”

“That’s how we like them in the Arena, young and stupid,” Karl says. There are wrinkles of amusement around his eyes and somehow Milan doesn’t like him as much anymore. “But honestly though, we checked everyone’s guns here in the dropship, and they are fine. No more sabotage for your victory. You’ll have to do it all by yourself now.”

Despite everything, Milan offers him and the audience a brilliant smile. “Bring it on, bitches,” he says. Next to him, Meier is laughing.

And then, last but not least, respresenting the Western Fortress and the Euroleague of last year: Laurent le Blanc. Dual guns, expert marksman, all of the combative skills from his time in black ops. Ice cold under pressure, a predator, and  pretty damn terrifying to share a room with. He exudes danger and death like a bad odor, and he keeps staring at Milan with that unnerving pale stare of his. /How will you fare under my guns, Milan Anders?/ the man asked him last night.

Milan glances at the stats and hopes that perhaps Landra or Meier will take this guy out for him. Because according to the stats, he’ll be in real trouble when he runs into Le Blanc. Just like everybody else. Le Blanc is the absolute favourite for this match, that much is sure. /Let’s see if you’ve taught me enough then, Rune,/ Milan thinks. /If it’s enough to stay alive in an arena with the likes of fucking Le Blanc. It’ll give the viewers at home something exciting to look at, at least./

He hits the ground running five minutes later. He’s the sixth one to enter the Arena. It’s a cityscape, reminding him of the Dregs, but then even more in ruins. The air smells like sewer and filth and the area looks like it hasn’t been cleared up after the war bombings had reduced parts of it to rubble. Still, it looks like a pretty neat Arena. There are buildings to stake out in, to take the high ground, areas with low walls to hide behind, alleyways for sneaking around. There are no lights, no flickering advertisements gliding over the concrete walls. All the colours in the shops and the apartments have bleached out years ago. The place looks incredibly depressing under the unforgiving steel grey sky. “This is not the place where you die,” Milan whispers to himself, and then runs for a good place to take cover while the others enter the Arena at their own intervals. There are only five people before him, it could have been worse. One of them is Le Blanc, so he needs to be extremely careful. The Belgian menace is the last person Milan wants to come face to face with.

He can almost feel the stimms and the enhancers latch onto the adrenaline in his system. As he scouts out the area and finds shelter in an abandoned ground level apartment, the world snaps into clear focus. For now, all of his doubts about Rune are gone. He doesn’t wonder if he deserves to be here; he /is/ here now and he is going to fight for his survival. His heavy pulse gun feels like a comfort in his hands. When the sun starts shining like silver daggers between the heavy clouds, it feels like a blessing.

In the bliss of his focus, it almost seems too goddamned easy when he suddenly spots Idesson and Sprenger walk down the street. They are both scouting their own sides of the street, and they are staying so beautifully close together. Milan breathes shallowly through his mouth and soundlessly cocks his gun through the cracks of the broken window. The sunlight is illuminating the street and reflecting off the window; there is no way they can see him stand in the darkened livingroom. They hardly even look his way, dismissing the angle of the shot he would have to take to get them both. Still, he feels confident he can make it; he can nearly see the lines of trajectory through the nearly deserted street.

He softly pushes the trigger halfway and listens with satisfaction to pulse gun humming to life in his hands. It’s charging the plasma within the barrel, filling it with green shiney death, just waiting to be released. And when they even come to a short stand still in his line of fire, it’s like God himself is giving him a fucking break. It’s the easiest thing in the world to pull the trigger. He aims slightly in between them, where Idesson is holding his rail gun.

The street flares up green and explodes in fire when Milan’s shot instantly kills Idesson and heavily wounds Sprenger when Idesson’s gun explodes. He falls to the ground, screaming. He is full of plasma burns and his face and arms are a bloody mess. Not dead, but dying.

With an icy coldness that Milan doesn’t know from himself, he doesn’t take the next shot just yet. He waits a few seconds, while Wendel Sprenger’s agonised screaming fills the air. He watches and waits if any other competitors will be drawn by the sounds of the fighting and dying. Maybe someone wants to off Sprenger and get the money for the kill. Seconds pass and Wendel’s screams die down to moans. No one shows up. Milan surveys the street one more time, but there isn’t anyone but the dying man out there. He shifts his position slightly and takes the mercy shot. For the second time in as many minutes the street lights up green and Sprenger’s cries are abruptly silenced.

He’s already out of the back door by the time Karl calls first blood and the death of the two crazy cultists. “Good riddance,” Milan mutters and smiles at the empty alleyway he finds himself in. He looks up, but there is no way anyone can take a shot at him here. There is nobody, but this situation will never last. He needs to get out of here, keep moving. See that nobody gets to him; not Landra, not Meier, and definitely not Le Blanc.

Still, he made first blood and took out two competitors already. He already has two of the three kills he boasted he would have, and he feels pretty damn good. /Are you watching this, Rune? Tell me again how you didn’t teach me enough./

It is almost enough to throw the feeling that he’s being watched and stalked.

For a while there, nothing much happens. He stays on the move, quietly moving beteen buildings and pods and rubble, taking in situations, always calculating the best shooting angles, imagining the best hiding places. Minutes pass, and then hours. Some competitors are taken out of the game. Meier apparently kills Goran Brody, Kowalski kills Horak. The latter fight he can hear from a distance when the sounds of rocket explosions echo through the afternoon air, but it is taking place somewhere upstairs in some building and he isn’t planning to fight a battle with someone who has the higher ground.

He avoids that battle and then nearly runs right into Landra Abrantes. The angle for shooting her is all wrong and he isn’t sure he wants to try to take her on anyway. She doesn’t see him while he ducks away and exits the place like his ass is on fire. Two minutes later he hears gunfire and Karl calls the death of Sven Kowalski by Landra’s hand. Landra hadn’t seen him because she was apparently going to confront Kowalski. Milan exhales deeply in relief and goes on to search a better hiding spot. The weaker statted people are all dead, all that there’s left is Meier, Landra, Milovan, Le Blanc, and Razon. Fighting these people will be tougher. He needs to up his game. That, and he needs to stay close to a regen station. Any chance to make it out of here, he’ll take it. He’s still not planning to die here.

The skies are darkening with the onset of both rain and evening by the team he hears the tell-tale sound of a flak cannon going off in the street next to him. The sounds echoes trough the alleyway and he hurries out, towards the sound. He’s still careful though, moving quietly through the ink black shadows. A flak cannon means Mirna Milovan. Who is she shooting?

He finds out a second later, when he peeks around the corner and finds Milovan kicking someone to the ground. The man is moaning, trying to say something, but he is bleeding in his shoulder and his legs both.

“You fucker,” Milovan hisses at the man. It is Razon. The man doesn’t look nearly as imposing now as he was on the news all those weeks ago. Even in the limited light Milan can see that the man’s scarred face is ashen and that he is bleeding out in places. His gun is far out of his reach, lying discarded in a gutter. The look on the child-killer’s face is a mixture of rage and horror, as Milovan yanks up his head by his dark hair and turns his face towards her flak cannon. “They were kids,” she shouts passionately, tugging at his hair to keep him upright. “They had parents, a family! You fucking cunt!”

“Please,” Milan can hear Razon say over blood-flecked lips.

Milovan doesn’t have mercy. She pulls the trigger and the flak cannon goes off in his face. His head explodes in the most gruesome of ways and the lifeless corpse of what once was a vindictive, dangerous and insane individual now crumples to the pavement.

Milovan stupidly nearly shoots her own hand off in the process, injuring her hand pretty severely. “Worth it,” she mutters to herself, holding her left hand against her chest armour. The blood stains look black in the faint light. She looks up at the regen station that is situated at the end of the street. He can see her consider the possibilities of an ambush where she can’t escape, then look at how her left hand is now coated in her own blood. It must hurt like a bitch.

Milan smiles when he sees her turn towards the regen station after a quick look to ensure herself that she is alone. /You aren’t,/ he tells her in the silence of his thoughts, and cocks his gun again.

“Sorry, Mirna,” he whispers soundlessly and pulls the trigger.

The street abruptly lights up green. His plasma hits her in the back. She doesn’t even have the time to turn around. She goes down flat on her face and doesn’t get up anymore.

Karl confirms the kill only ten seconds later. “Mirna Milovan dies at the hands of Milan Anders. Think that’s your third kill now, Anders. Are you going for four today?”

Milan grins at where he thinks the camera drone might be, somewhere to his right. “Sure, why the hell not. I’m feeling lucky.”

The next moment, it feels like someone hits his gun hand with a hammer. His pulse gun clatters to the ground, combined with the sound of a gunshot from the left. The first moment there is a feeling of shock; his heart skips a beat and the air in his lungs stills and he can’t think, can’t register. He stumbles backwards against a burnt out pod and his pulse gun is by his feet, he can’t shoot anymore and /Oh god, my hand…./ He’s lost fingers and there’s blood everywhere. He turns, whirls around.

Sees Le Blanc standing there in the shadows of an twilight-darkened alleyway, smiling slightly, his head cocked. Dual guns pointed at Milan’s chest from only ten feet away.  “Not so lucky,” the man says. “But at least you got your three kills.”

Milan’s gaze flicks one panicked moment to the rifle that lies on the cracked pavement, but then realises that there is no way he can pick it up in time, no way to shoot it without a proper hand to hold it or pull the trigger. /It is over./

He looks back at Le Blanc and just nods dumbly. “I should have checked my left, shouldn’t I?”

“Yes, you should have,” is all Le Blanc offers him, and then Milan can /see/ him pulling the trigger. In a horrible slow motion, he can see the bullet leave the barrel, the explosion of it, the scent of gun powder in the air over the already present smells of burning flesh from his own pulse gun. The trajectory to his chest; flawless, perfect. It’s only a split second until impact.

It doesn’t even hurt that much. The world greys out, then goes to black.

Hundreds of kilometers away, Rune Murray watches him on her viewscreen in her holding cell and bursts into tears.

——-

2305: Heartflusters

Posted: February 11, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, fortress, league, stories

2305: Heartflusters

Stop, start, do not engage
with the wrong kind of nasty people
down by the rail lines
Playing games without any thought
for your heart and your body…

– Maybeshewill, “Heartflusters”

The room is bustling with activity. Apart from the twelve contestants there are lots of other people about that haven’t really been introduced yet. The smells of perfume, sweat, alcoholic drinks and food from the buffet are mingling in the air. From the position where Milan Anders is sitting, it looks like the room is filled to bursting. And all of it is recorded on cameras he cannot see. It makes him feel claustrophobic.

“So what are you in for?”

Milan looks up at the dark-haired young man that sits down next to him on one of the large shimmery lounge chairs. He can’t help but grin at the other, glad for the distraction. “You make it sound like a prison sentence,” he says, recognising one of his fellow competitors. “Are you a convict?”

“If imminent bankruptcy over gambling debts is a crime, then I totally am. How about you?”

“I’m not a convict either,” Milan laughs and raises his glass of beer. “But also bankrupt, so I know how you feel.”

“Ah, fellow gambler, then?”

“Regular bankruptcy. My business went under in the most spectacular of ways.” Milan shakes his head and can’t help a pang of sadness. It had all seemed to go so well, and now the investors and his loaners have come calling, demanding their money back. Money he doesn’t have.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the other says.

Milan is sure he’s heard the guy’s name during the initial round of introductions, but the list of names had gone so fast that he’s pretty much forgotten all of it. It’s no matter. He’ll get more acquainted with his fellow contestants soon enough. He looks at the young man sitting next to him and smiles reassuringly. “Thanks, I guess. Nothing to do about that anymore, so now it’s onwards to amends and glory. First the money, then the bitches.”

The other man is just taking a chug of his beer and promptly misswallows. He coughs it back up, laughing in surprise. “That’s a good way to look at it. I got my girl already sitting at home, though.”

“Good for you, you’re already halfway there,” Milan says. “I’ll drink to that.” He takes a chug from his beer to demonstrate. When he lowers his glass, the other is looking at him, smiling. He has dimples in his cheeks when he smiles. His eyes are startlingly blue. /He must be a real hit with the girls./

“I’m Walter Lane, by the way,” he says, holding out his hand.

“Milan Anders,” Milan retorts, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you, even if it’s under these circumstances.” He gestures to the busy room, where their fellow contestants are getting to know one another, aided by booze and watched over by cameras. The sponsors are watching already; as are the viewers at home. Tonight hallmarks the start of a grueling six week session of training, mock battles, and hopefully a lot of drama before the contestants will enter the Fortress at the end of their boot camp. And in the Fortress, they’ll be set to kill one another in a death match setting. If they win the Fortress, then it is on to the European League. The money they’d earn in there will be enough to solve anyone’s money troubles; even Milan’s. It was his only option left and he grabbed it with two hands. With the kind of people he’s been loaning money from, he’d probably end up dead in a ditch before summer if he hadn’t taken these measures. Dying in the Fortress or even in the League seems like a better option. If his life is forfeit together with his business anyway, he might as well go down with style, he figures.

“We still have six weeks before shit gets real,” Walter says, following his gesture and scanning the room. He sips from his own drink and shrugs. “Might as well enjoy the time we’ve got left here.”

“Exactly. Enjoyment and smiles for the camera, and the sponsors will line up,” Milan says brightly. He’s been in sales, he knows how the game works. Maybe it’s time to start playing. His eye falls on a girl that has her back turned to her. She has a full head of dark curls, but all he can see is the curves on her toned figure and her ass. It is a glorious sight. “Also, girls.”

Walter follows his gaze again. “Is that your type?”

“Hn,” Milan hums. “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed. Actually… I’d probably try to get her in there.”

“Well, you’re in luck. That’s Rune Murray. She’s one of the trainers and she doesn’t have a boyfriend.”

The girl turns around as she’s talking to someone. She’s wearing a short skirt that makes her legs seem to go on forever and he can’t keep his eyes off her.

“You know her?”

“Heh, yeah. Despite the fact that she’s one of the best trainers that this place has to offer, I worked with her brother for a while in the Amsterdam betting center and kind of ended up stealing his girlfriend. Don’t think I can get her to be my trainer, she doesn’t like me very much.”

“Ah, pity. So you can’t introduce me to her, then?”

Walter shrugs. “She’s standing next to the buffet anyway. Let’s go say hello.”

Milan takes in the room as they cross it together. Soft music is playing in the background. People are standing around the buffet table, giving each other their best assessing stares while smiling even better smiles. Everyone is sizing each other up, wondering if they will run into each other in the Fortress or the League. The testosterone is heavy in the air; from the twelve contestants there are only three women.

The handful of other women in the room is either sponsor, benefactor, or affiliated with the Corporation. And Rune Murray is by far the prettiest. Milan watches her as she throws her head back and laughs. She’s gorgeous.

“Hey Rune,” Walter greets her quietly as he goes to stand next to her, leaning over the buffet to fill up a plate. “Hope you’re well.”

Her eyes dart in his direction and Milan can see a hint of distaste around her full mouth. “Walter,” she acknowledges him. “I’m not surprised to see you here. Finally blew all your and Lannie’s money?”

He takes it on the chin and offers her a lopsided grin. “We both did. We drew straws who would enter the Fortress, I won. Lucky me. How’s your brother?”

“Fine. Laughing his ass off to see you here on the vids, I imagine.” Her gaze leaves Walter’s face and moves over to Milan. She smiles at him and it is like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds. “Well hello there,” she says brightly.

Milan grins back at her. It’s infectious. “And how are you doing?”

Somebody pushes glasses of champagne in their hands and he doesn’t leave her side all evening. They strike up a conversation and they just never stop talking. Rune is sharp-tongued, yet mischievous and witty. She is a delight to talk to; as intelligent and tough as she is beautiful.

She hints that she’s looking for trainees and she’s had her eye on him even before tonight. They immediately, amidst loads of flirty remarks and witty banter, start talking about strategies. She’s read his file from the initial assessments, and from the comments she makes, she seems prepared.

“Thought you’d be my type, when I read your files,” she says, dark eyes sparkling with mirth. “I think I’ll claim you as my trainee. You’re different from my usual ones.” By that time they’re far from sober. They’re with only a few people left, most of the other contestants have gone to bed already. They are sitting in the shimmery lounge chairs and she is leaning against him, her hand resting on his thigh.

“Isn’t this totally illegal?” Milan teases her back. The world is pleasantly woozy and her hand feels hot to his skin, even through the fabric of his pants. “Flirting with your trainee?”

She laughs. “Not if I help you win the League. Who cares how I help you to your victory? Your sponsors certainly don’t.”

“I do,” he says, not breaking eye contact.

She smiles at him and leans in to him. Their lips meet, and it is oh so sweet. Sweetness turns to passion, and the viewers at home who happen to follow the night feeds get a good eyeful of the two of them together. Milan hardly cares; until the next morning when she drags him out of bed and his hangover is killing him.

She slips him some water infusions and tells him to man the fuck up, but she’s smiling.

And during breakfast, Walter sits down next to him with a bowl of cereal and a plate of bacon and eggs and says: “Looks like you’re halfway there, too. Good for you.”

Milan just grins at him.

***

Bootcamp is pretty brutal. Intense training sessions alternate with mock battles, in which the contestants use their real weapons, but shoot blanks. It is all meant to make sure they get used to the feeling of the weight of their weapons in their hands and to create stamina and strength alike.

They’re not taught many tactics, per se, but there are evaluations on how they do in their mock battles. Milan likes those sessions best; going over the vids together, seeing what could be improved, what stupid mistakes are. What will get him killed in the Fortress if he keeps doing this. He’s done enough shooting games in the city arena’s during his life. Paintball, laser gaming, shootouts. He knows he’s a good shot. He knows he’s a fast drawer and he can improvise situations quickly. He never knew, though, before now, that he favours his right side and that his left side is a weakness. He doesn’t check his left enough, when he takes in a situation.

Rune is merciless. She throws him in situations where she lets him battle it out with his right eye blinded and his right arm tied on his back. “Let’s see if we can get you a little more ambidextrous,” she says with a smile on those full lips and by the time he gets out of the exercise session he’s not sure whether he wants to kiss her or slap her. Slowly but surely he does get better, though. He creeps up in the rankings, too.

Every Sunday and Wednesday the rankings are revealed to the group of contestants, along with new sponsor contracts and their standings in the betting stations so far. In the beginning he finds himself between rank #5 and #7, but as the weeks progress, he sees his stats increasing. More kills, more accurate shots. Speed and stamina increases. After the third week, he gets over the worst of the muscle ache and exhaustion, and it all seems to get better. He gets the hang of his pulse gun and the mock battles become /fun/; especially when he cracks the top 5, and then goes up to #3 and #2.

The #1 never changes, though.

“Good game today,” says Milan, as he sits down next to Walter at dinner. He is freshly showered and feels like his cheeks are glowing. Rune had joined him in the shower; the only place where the cameras aren’t running all the time. It had been spectacular. The slick feeling of soap on her caramel-coloured skin. The steam around them making it hard to breathe. The way her moans echoed from the tiles. He can’t help but grin at the memory of it.

Walter looks up at him and grins back. His hair is also wet and he looks exhausted, but cheerful. “Keep it up and you’ll reduce me to a smear on the wall at some point.”

“When we enter the Fortress we should totally have a plasma battle or something. My pulse gun versus your shock rifle,” Milan agrees. He grabs a pot of mashed potatoes and serves himself a royal helping. “Want some too?”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“It would be epic to see that happen. Your blue plasma against my green. Everything exploding in fire and melting down.”

Walter laughs as he cuts his meat. “Didn’t they used to say something about not crossing the streams and stuff?”

“I’m sure the audience wouldn’t mind.”

“I hope you’re okay with me avoiding that particular scenario. Death by plasma is not how I want to end. Even if it looks ridiculously cool for the viewers at home.”

Milan takes a bite from his potatoes and nods. “Ah yeah, you have a girl to get home to.”

A smile. “Yeah. She’d be terribly upset if I wouldn’t make it back. Also, I think Rune wouldn’t appreciate your plasma-y end, either. She’d probably kill herself and come kick your ass in the afterlife. She’s intense like that.”

“Ah, I’m sure she’ll find some other trainee to have hot shower sex with,” Milan retorts cheerfully. “It’s nice though, for as long as it’s lasting right now.”

Walter shoots him a sideways look. “I’m not kidding, man. She’s not in it for these six weeks; she’ll want to be with you for longer. She won’t let you go. She’s really that intense. Wicked jealous, too, from what I remember.”

On the other side of the room, Rune enters the doorway. She shoots him a secret smile and moves on to the other side of room, where she enters one of the offices and disappears from his sight. “I’m sure it’s all fine,” Milan says, keeping his eyes on her backside as she walks. “Besides, I’m probably dead in three weeks if I have to go up against you in the Fortress. So we might as well enjoy ourselves for now. She knows what she’s getting into, right?”

“I wonder if she does,” Walter murmurs, laying his fork and knife on his plate. “But yeah, it’s your business, I won’t butt in. Just thought you should know.”

“It’s appreciated,” Milan smiles. “But right now I’m more worried about you and your shock rifle than I am about Rune’s crush. So yeah, priorities.”

“Point taken. I worry about your pulse gun as well, so we’re even.”

***

Three days later there is another ranking update. Milan is third, but he’s been slow and tired that day so it’s not very strange. Fellow contestant Saxa Owens surpassed him. She’s always breathing in his neck, but now she’s managed to overtake him. It annoys him enough that he can’t sleep that night, and Rune is not in the building to distract him from thoughts, so he goes to find Saxa and talk to her. Maybe she can tell him how she did it, his own sluggishness notwithstanding.

Despite the fact that it’s nearing midnight and the lounge is pretty much deserted and the lights are already dimmed, he finds her in the communal area watching vids on her handheld. He sits down next to her on the lounge chair. She is thoughtlessly twirling a blond dread around her finger as her green eyes are glued to the screen in her other hand. The silvery tattoos on her wrists shimmer softly in the white light of her handheld.

“What are you watching?” Milan asks her.

She looks up and smirks. She’s not an extremely attractive woman, but there is something striking about her. Milan has liked her from the start. “I’m trying to learn from the best.”

He glances at her screen and recognises images from last year’s Euroleague. The screen shows Laurent le Blanc in action, taking out one of his competitors with a long range shot. He shoots the other man in the eye. The man crumples immediately. “And? Is Le Blanc teaching you anything?”

She shrugs. Her blond dreads dance on her shoulders. “He’s good with long range. I thought I’d give him some extra attention. I’m good with up and personal, but my long range shooting needs some work. I’m not precise enough.”

“That’s…. very honest,” Milan says. He can’t keep the surprise out of his voice. “Are you sure you should be telling me this?”

“It’s nothing you don’t already know from the stats,” she says. “Everyone has points for improvement. How’s your left side coming along?”

That takes him aback. “How do you…” his voice trails off. “Do you talk to Rune about this?”

“Fuck no.” She barks out a laugh. “I have eyes in my head and I watch the competition, same as you do.”

/She watches for weaknesses and strategises. I need to keep my eye on her./ He nods and smiles his best smile at her. “Fair enough. Can I watch Le Blanc with you? Maybe he can teach me something, too.”

“Sure, I’ll hook up my handheld to the screen. Why don’t you get a bottle of wine to go with it?”

They end up sitting companionably on the lounge chair, watching last year’s Game on a large plasma screen in the communal room. The only bright lights are the ones on the screen. Explosions thunder through the room as people shoot at one another with rocket launchers and guns. Milan and Saxa watch the game with interest, commenting on the events of the game and fastforwarding through the parts that are slow going.

The cameras register the image of them, their heads close together and talking in muted tones, watching the game, pouring each other drinks and laughing softly at one another’s comments.

It is near 2 am before his head finally touches the pillow. It feels like there are only heartbeats until the next moment, when the sun is shining brightly in his eyes and Rune yanks at his arm. “Wake up,” she says sharply. “It’s almost seven and we have training to do.”

Milan rolls over on his back and drapes his arm over his face to shield him from the sunlight. “Five more minutes,” he suggests with a yawn. “Please, Rune.”

Her voice is ice and steel. “It’s your own damn fault, sitting up with Saxa all night. Now get up.”

Milan sits up and blinks at her. “How do you know that? Were you watching the feed?”

“Of course I was. You looked real cozy.”

“We were just sitting, watching the game. Is that not okay?” He pauses, cocks his head at her and regards the fury on her pretty face. He suddenly remembers what Walter told him about her. “Are you /jealous/?”

Rune crosses her arms. Defiance given flesh. “She was nearly sitting in your lap, rubbing against you.”

He rubs his eyes and sighs. He hardly remembers such a thing, but there was wine involved last night and he isn’t sure he can trust his own judgment. “We were only watching the game. Why is it a problem?”

“Because you’re mine for the time we’ve got left here, Milan.”

There are cameras and microphones in his bedroom. Milan freezes and wonders what the viewers at home are thinking, hearing her speak those words. “You can’t claim me, Rune,” he says as gently as possible. “I’m crazy about you and you’re my sunshine here, but I do not take lightly to being claimed like a possession. I’m my own man and I’m probably going to die in a couple of weeks. Cut me some slack.”

“You won’t die,” she says. Her eyes are sparkling feverishly. She hops on the bed and straddles him where he’s sitting. “I’m going to do all in my power to keep you alive.”

“Good,” Milan says and kisses her.

She kisses back furiously, full of passion. For the first time, he wonders about her – but he dismisses the thought in favour of the feeling of her soft curves under his hands. When he takes her shirt off and is rewarded with a full frontal of her perfect breasts, all coherent thought is forgotten.

He’s late to training that day.

***

That Sunday the newest rankings are revealed, which show Walter in first place again, followed by Milan back in second place and Saxa in third. There’s a huge gap between Walter and Milan, but Saxa is hot on his heels. Then there’s another gap until number four, five and six. This is nothing new; it’s been like this for weeks.

Milan is really beginning to worry about Walter and Saxa, and so is Rune. She has been giving him extra training on how to take down Saxa in a one-on-one battle. It is only a little after 7 in the morning when they find themselves sparring with hand to hand combat. She fights him like a demon. “Never get her too close,” Rune hisses. “If she’s this close, then you’re dead.” She breaks through his defenses easily – on the /left/ – and her elbow connects with his cheekbone. “Like this.”

Later that day there is a promo event. All of the contestants are subjected to a day of interviews, photoshoots, and analyses. The make up artist grumbles at him when she tries to cover up the massive bruise on his face. It’s swelled up and creeping upwards, to his eye socket. Before the day is out, he’ll have one hell of a black eye. “Leave it,” Milan tells her. “I earned that one.”

“You’ll look weaker,” his publicist says. It’s an older woman, issued by his sponsor. She’s been giving him her advice on his media appearances since he first stepped foot in here. He’s mostly gone along with her so far. She never said anything about Rune, after all.

“I’ll look like someone who is training,” he retorts flatly. “I can show weakness, I’m only second.”

She presses the issue some more, but Milan gets his way eventually. He sits down at his interview with a huge bruise on his face. Of course there are questions about that. There are lots of questions about his relationship with Rune as well. Most of the speculations are amusing and he answers them with the smile they’ve grown to know from him in the past few weeks.

“There were some discussions on Rune’s treatment of you,” one of the interviewers says. “Like she’s not going hard enough on you because she likes you too much.”

Milan cocks his head and touches the bruised side of his face briefly. “You think so? I’ll let my face speak for itself.”

“She’s been much harder on her trainees in the past. Haven’t you seen the work she’s done with Elmontz and Lenham?”

Both of them are past Euroleague winners. Milan recognises the names immediately. “They were trained by her?”

“Bellini as well. You’re in good company.”

He can feel a flush coming up on his wounded face. He’s never paid much attention to the actual workings of the bootcamp. He usually only tuned in for the actual Fortress and League games. Some people loved all the drama and alliances that sprung up during bootcamp, he watched the summaries and the rundowns before the actual killing started. He has always been aware that Rune is a good trainer and that she’s been involved with bootcamp training since the very beginning, but he hasn’t taken the time to see who she’s trained exactly in the past eight years. Lenham’s name especially makes an impression. Lenham was supposed to have been the best thing to happen to the Euroleague until Laurent le Blanc came along. He remembers seeing the man being a menace in the Fortress and the League game both; he’d dominated completely. He remembers being disappointed to hear that the man retired immediately after his victory.

“You’re the first one to take her into bed, though,” the interviewer presses on. “And she has been a lot gentler on you than on the others. The stats don’t lie and you are regularly late to training. What do you have to say for that?”

Milan shakes his head and laughs. “I say bullshit. You’d think she has more reason to keep me alive, right?” He looks directly at the camera and smiles. “And if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to die, it’s me. So Rune and I agree on that one. I’m going to make it out of the Fortress alive, you just watch me.”

He’s glad when it’s time for the joined interview with Walter and Saxa. There’s supposed to be this vid item on the top three of the contestants. All they want is some video footage of the three of them together in their sparring gear, some quotes and some pictures. The photographer wants fierceness, but it is the end of the day and by now they’re all pretty done with the whole ordeal and they end up in friendly banter and laughter. It’s the first time Milan hears Saxa actually giggle and the sound of it is warm and infectious.

He ends up tackling Saxa to the ground and tickling her mercilessly, just because he likes the sound of her laughter. She’s not really trying to get out of his grip beyond some flailing and wriggling. “I’ll kill you for this,” she gasps between bouts of helpless giggles.

He instantly lets her go. “I have no doubt you will,” he says with all the light-heartedness he can muster up. The thought of it is sobering. “You’ll have to wait a couple more weeks to do so, though.”

That night in bed he looks at the pictures of that day on his handheld and tries to imagine actually pulling the trigger on Saxa and Walter. He doesn’t really want to kill them. He’ll do it to survive; he /has/ to survive. They’ll kill him just as easily. And they probably will. He thought that he’d come to terms with dying in the Fortress, but in the loneliness of his room, without Rune’s warm body pressing against him, the reality of killing and/or being killed becomes all that much harsher.

Sleep doesn’t come for a long time, and when it does, it’s full of dreams in which he dies.

***

“They say you’re going easy on me,” he whispers in her ear. Hot water rivulets over their embrace, nearly drowning out his words. He confronts her here on purpose, where it is hard for the cameras and audio equipment to record their conversation. Her skin is slick against his. The amount of steam in the glass cabin makes it hard to breathe.

Rune stiffens in his arms and looks up at him with a slight frown. He’s only three inches taller than she is, but it is enough that she has to look up to him when she is in his arms. “Who says that? The media?”

He nods. “Are they right?”

Her eyes harden and her mouth tightens with that same distaste that she showed when addressing Walter on the night they met. “The media is full of shit,” she says. “Doesn’t your publicist tell you not to listen to them?”

“She tells me lots of things. I’ve been going over old vids though. I’ve seen how you were with the others. You /are/ cutting me a lot of slack.”

After he’d awoken from the gazillionth nightmare he’d sat up in bed and dug in the old League archives to see how Rune had been as a trainer, something he’s never done before. At first it was fun to see her that much younger. During her time with Elmontz she had been in her early twenties; it was amusing to see her interact with the much older, battle-experienced powerhouse that Elmontz was. Despite all that, she earned his respect by going hard on him. It had been the same with Lenham, Bellini, and all of the others. Even the ones who had died in the Fortress had been trained well; none of them died in the early waves. Nearly seventy percent even made it to the League.

But to see how harsh she had been with the others, how unrelenting, how early she had dragged them out of bed – that was pretty shocking to him. Her smiles, her teases, their heated sex in the morning… that is all for him. None of the others have had this treatment. And it terrifies the living daylights out of him.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think you’d be okay,” she says, but to his utter horror he can see a trace of uncertainty in her pretty eyes.

He takes a step back and leans against the steamed window. “You’re getting me killed,” he whispers. /Walter and Saxa are going to do me in, and it’s your fault. I’ll be on my own out there. On my left-impaired own./

She shakes her head fiercely. Her dark curls are sticking to her wet face. “No, I won’t,” she says. Her eyes sparkle dangerously. “I’m going to make sure you survive this, no matter what. I promised you before and I promise you now. You are going to live.”

***

One week before the bootcamp ends, Saxa sits down next to him on the balcony. Night has fallen hours ago, but the light pollution from the city makes sure that he can make out her features easily. Her silvery tattoos look nearly golden in the odd amber light. She smiles at him over her shoulder as she leans on the railing of the balcony. “Sup Milan?” she asks pleasantly enough. He’s not buying it. She’s beaten him that afternoon during a hand-to-hand spar and he can see the mirth in her eyes.

“Come to rub it in?” Milan asks. He can’t keep a sulk out of his voice and he hates it. He quickly takes a swig from the beer bottle in his hand.

“What, the fact that I wiped the floor with you today?” Saxa smiles lopsidedly and shrugs. “Not really. It’s nothing new that I own your ass in hand-to-hand. I wanted to give you another consolation.”

“That’s nice.” He reaches out to the six-pack of beer bottles next to him and holds out a beer to her.

She takes the bottle with still that smile on her face. Here, in the forgiving amber light of the megacity reflected against the darkened sky, she is suddenly strikingly pretty. Milan can imagine Saxa’s fans screencapping the moment and writing love declarations to her. Hell, in that brief instant he can imagine doing it, himself.

“I’ve seen the vid feeds from what you’ve been doing the last couple of days,” she says quietly. She opens the bottle against the balcony railing without even looking at it. She turns to him and regards him.

“Why?” he asks, not breaking her gaze while he takes another swallow of his drink.

She shrugs again. “You’ve been moping ever since the day we had those promotional interviews. I wondered what was up. So I checked it out.”

“What do you think I’ve been up to?”

“Worrying over the fact that Rune isn’t training you hard enough. Badgering her to ride you harder. No pun intended.”

He tilts his head. “Nice pun, though.”

She smiles again, raising her bottle to her lips. “Am I right?”

“You are. And you’re trying to console me over that? I thought you were a strategist, Saxa. Why would you help me with this?”

“I’m also an athlete, and I like you enough to want to beat you fairly in the Fortress. Is that enough of a reason?”

He barks out a laugh. “I sure as hell am not complaining. What consolation can you offer?”

She hops on the railing and is backlit against the city lights. Her bare feet dangle in the air and he notices she is tattooed on her feet and ankles as well. “Rune has been softer with you because you don’t respond well to pressure. It’s in all the psych evals. You’re not Lenham or Elmontz. You don’t have a military background, you’re rebellious by nature.”

“What are you saying?”

“She’s softer with you because you respond better to honey and kisses than you would respond to strictness.” She takes a sip from her beer. “So do not worry. She knows what she’s doing.”

“She says she’ll keep me alive no matter what.”

Saxa laughs. “I think that’s ultimately up to us, but it’s good she’s trying, isn’t it? She’s more motivated than my trainer is.”

He cracks a smile and laughs with her. “Yeah, I guess that’s something. Thanks, Saxa.”

“Anytime, Milan,” she says warmly, and he wonders what the viewers at home will think of this exchange.

***

“Fuck!”

The pulse gun clatters as Milan throws it on the ground. “Piss-cunt of a piece of crap!” he shouts at the innocent weapon lying on the concrete. Around him, the dimmed lights are turned up, indicating the end of the practise session. He yanks the sensors off his body, which are glowing accusingly red. /So damn close./

“Sorry about that, Milan,” Walter says. He puts his shock rifle back in the holster on his back. He looks disheveled and exhausted; dark hair wetly sticking to his sweaty face, but his blue eyes are sparkling and alive.

“Oh, fuck you Lane,” Milan growls. “I nearly had you.”

Walter pats him on the shoulder. “Not near enough, I’m afraid. You’re the one glowing red, not me.”

“If not for that /fucking/ gun being off-balance again…”

Walter nods in commiseration. “I’ll be glad when we have real bullets to shoot with. Those blanks are just off. I can’t believe they can’t get it right. It shouldn’t be that hard, should it?”

Milan shrugs and toes his gun, pushing it forward over the concrete with a scraping motion. “It’s not as if you let that stop you.”

Walter doesn’t respond to that. “Come on man, let’s take a shower and a celebratory beer. We were the last two standing again, that’s awesome.”

Milan follows him quietly. It isn’t until they are both standing in their respective shower stalls that the conversation continues, shouted out over the cascading water. “It’s just that I wished to beat you one last time before the final rankings.”

“We still have the one-on-ones tomorrow,” Walter calls back encouragingly. Milan can make out his shape through the fogged up windows of his stall. His rival looks healthy, standing up straight, eagerly rinsing himself off. Like he never played a game at all. Like Milan and the others were no competition at all. He teases himself one moment thinking about legends like Le Blanc and Marin and Delmont, and he wonders idly if he’s looking at the next champion through foggy windows. And then he looks at his own reflection as he leans against the window and leaves clear handprints in the fog. The trails his hands leave would look like blood if they had been red.

“Yeah,” he murmurs. “There’s still tomorrow.”

Tomorrow they will have the final face-offs that will determine the rankings. The rankings technically don’t do anything, but it will give the betting stations a final rundown on favouritism in the Fortress and a first view on what might be happening in the Arena during the actual League game. Where it comes down to fan popularity, Milan beats Walter as often as not. He knows he is likable and knows how to play a crowd even better than Walter does – Walter is quiet and friendly and has a girl waiting for him at home, but Milan has sales experience, wit, and is, quite frankly, better looking. Yet where it comes to the betting stations, when the real money is involved, nobody is looking at fan popularity. There the stats rule supreme and where the stats are involved he loses to Walter every single time. He hasn’t laid a hand on the other young man in the five and a half weeks they’ve been here.

Saxa has, but her overall stats are lower than Milan’s. She had another of her off-days today, too. Milan is hoping she’ll have an off day in the Fortress as well. If she has a good day, she’ll wipe the floor with him. At least he has a chance with her, though. He’s just hoping Saxa will take Walter out before he has to face him. That would be sweet.

He muses for a long time while the hot water massages the muscles in his back, until Walter shouts at him that it is time for beer. They share a beer together, toasting to their success.

/Heh. Success./ It gives Milan a bitter taste in his mouth. He toys with the idea of asking for an alliance, but Walter doesn’t really seem like a team person to him. Maybe Saxa would be interested in joining up to take Walter out. She seems to like him enough for it. An alliance would perhaps be the only thing that would give him an actual chance. Either that, or dumb luck. He doesn’t count on luck anymore ever since his business went under.

He spends some time in the gym with Rune afterwards, trying to ignore the sluggishness and the heaviness of his limbs after a couple of bottles of beer.

“Do you want a water infusion?” Rune asks, always sharply knowing what is going on.

He shakes his head and just beckons her to attack him. “I deserve to feel like ass after losing from Walter today. Again.”

“You don’t,” she says firmly, attacking his legs. He manages to dodge the attack on his ankles and grins at her while he goes for her face instead. She blocks his punches effortlessly, but the shock of flesh connecting on flesh sends tremors through them both. He surprises her by embracing her and kissing her full on the mouth under the bright lights of the gym. There are other contestants around, but he ignores them.

“I guess I’ll feel like ass when I’m dead,” he says with a smile when he ends their kiss.

“Not gonna happen,” she reminds him, wriggling out of his grip and taking on another fighting stance. “Come on, big boy. Fight me if you can.”

Despite the alcohol, he manages to work her to the ground a solid thirty minutes later. She laughs delightedly when he does so, even though her violent collision with the mats must have knocked the wind out of her. “Well, that’s a good note to end upon,” she announces breathlessly. “It’s nearing midnight and you have a big day tomorrow.”

He holds out his hand to pull her up. “Stay with me tonight?”

She smiles a brilliant smile at him. “No other place I’d rather be.”

Their lovemaking that night is slow and sweet. By the time she is laying in his arms, heavy and languid with afterglow, it’s nearing 1.30. Way too late to still be awaket, but for some reason they both do not want to go to sleep yet. When they’ll wake up tomorrow, it will be the last day of mock battles. After that, it’ll be over. The bootcamp will end and there will be only one more week in which the contestants go home and do whatever the fuck they like to say their goodbyes, before they enter the Fortress. Bootcamp is ending and he’s not quite ready to let go of Rune yet. It seems to be mutual.

“So what do you think of Saxa?” she asks him thoughtfully. Her hand is tracing patterns on the skin of his chest. “As a person?”

“Is this a trick question?” he counters. He remembers all too well how she responded to his friendship with Saxa a couple of weeks ago.

She shakes her dark head slowly. “No. I know you like her. If you’d wanted to fuck her, you would have already. I meant genuinely in your friendship. Between you and her as human beings.”

Milan kisses her in her hair, grateful for her understanding. /Looks like you were wrong after all, Walter./ “Saxa is a great gal. I think we wouldn’t have been friends if not for boot camp and our situation, though. Different lives and goals and such. But here in boot camp she’s the closest thing I have to a friend. I think we understand one another. We’re both so close to the top, and it’s going to be so edgy if we live. We’re in the same boat and we understand that to live, the other must die – and we both do not like it but will do it anyway.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to kill her?” Her face is turned away from her. He can’t see the expression on her face, but her voice is guarded. Neutral. He can only feel her embrace clench around him, a little tighter than before.

“It depends on whether she has one of her good days or not,” Milan says softly, playing with her hair. He twists a lock around his finger and looks at the contrast of his slightly tanned skin against her dark hair. “I do not know. I honestly don’t.”

“And Walter?”

“Pretty much the same. I know you don’t like him, but I really do. He’s a good guy. Despite that I’m kind of hoping Saxa will take him out before I have to face him.”

She lets out a sound that holds the middle between a chuckle and a sigh. “Your hope and mine.”

Her answer bothers him. He had hoped for reassurances like she’d given him earlier, but she remains vague. And staking faith in hope is not how he knows her. She is better than that. She should trust him more than that. She should trust her own training more than that. /Why don’t you?/ “You’ve trained champions,” Milan whispers.

She snuggles up against him and lays her head on his chest. Her breath is warm on his skin. It should feel like a comfort, but it doesn’t. “Yes, I have,” she answers, but she doesn’t say anything else anymore. He can hear her breathing slow down and he knows she is falling asleep.

It takes a while before he can do the same.

***

The one-on-ones are incredibly tense. The draw is pretty random, but it’s going to end with the three top dogs in the end; Saxa will fight Walter first, then Milan will fight Saxa, and then it’s Milan is going to try and see one last time if he can take Walter down.

Watching the fights through the soundproofed glass, Milan calculates how badly he needs to win to beat Walter’s #1 ranking and realises it’s pretty much impossible. He fights well that day, though. He’s fighting better than Saxa is, but she confides him him that she doesn’t care about the rankings behind her. “The gap with Fedres is large enough that I can afford to lose some points earlier, so I’m fresh when I fight you and Walter,” she confides in him while they watch Fedres and Diven duke it out behind the glass. Fedres is #4, Diven is #6. They fight well; they are motivated to improve their rankings. Maybe they hope to improve their chances.

Milan wonders what it’s like to be such an underdog. Would he give up, if he would be so far behind? His position with Saxa and Walter alone is enough to give him nightmares, and he leaves ten people behind him. If he would be lower in the rankings, his death in the Fortress would be so much more probable. Slim as it might be, he has a chance. The others notwithstanding – he can take them on anytime, he’s proving that with ease today – if Walter and Saxa take each other out, if he has a good day, if he’s lucky and focused… anything can still happen.

As the day progresses, exhaustion sets in. He sees the wisdom in Saxa’s approach, but he needs it, for himself, to bridge that gap between himself and Walter. If he doesn’t, he won’ t be able to sleep all week before he enters the Fortress. He is struggling with his pulse gun all day. The balance remains off, no matter how he tweaks it. It drives him nuts and keeps him from being as good as he can be.

Saxa struggles with the same problem. She spends a lot of time not watching the matches because she’s with the techs, looking at how to balance out her assault rifle and her blank rounds. Her trainer is making a huge fuss out of the whole thing, shouting at the techs.

Milan is glad that he’s not the only one with this problem; everyone is suffering from it and thus it doesn’t skew the rankings. Still, it’s annoying as all hell. Rune isn’t very impressed by it either. She also spends a lot of time with the techs and with the weapons, giving advice on how to balance the loads better. He doesn’t see much of her today, but after last night’s awkwardness he’s not quite sure on what he would have to say to her anyway. Her training is done, there’s not much she can do for him anymore – and he has the sinking feeling she doesn’t have enough faith in him. He’d rather not be confronted by it when he looks her in the eye.

He’d rather hang out with Walter and Saxa today; sizing up his opponents. Enjoying the last time of mock fighting and the thrill of battle without the deadly consequences. After today, they’ll be shooting /real/ bullets at one another. It’s not real yet – today they can still be friendly rivals and fellow competitors. After today this will all be over. Milan wants to savour the moment.

It is nearing 9pm when it is finally time for the top three fights.

Saxa is fighting Walter first; then Milan will fight her – and finally he’s going up against Walter. Milan leans against the wall next to the entrance, water bottle in his hands, when he wishes them luck. Walter gives him that dimpled grin that his fans have grown to love over the past six weeks.

Saxa just frowns and shifts her rifle in her hands. “Now the damn thing /really/ feels off,” she complains.

“Don’t be a baby and just fight me, Saxa. One last time,” Walter tells her, but his smile is gentle enough that it’s not an insult. “Enjoy the imbalance, it’s the last time.”

“Hey, don’t discount the battle against me,” Milan speaks up. “We all still have two battles left.”

“We’ll make your downfall glorious,” Walter promises Saxa with a mischievous grin.

She nods and smiles back at him. “No, you’ve got it backwards. I’ll wipe the floor with you today. I’ve been waiting for this one,” she says. The worried look is still in her eyes, but Saxa Owens is always one for a challenge and they all know it.

The buzzer goes off and they all grin at one another.

“That’s our cue,” Walter announces perhaps a bit superfluously.

“Have fun,” Milan says, and then the doors open.

Behind the glass, Walter and Saxa take their positions in the arena. It’s not a big venue; basically just a large room with platforms, stairs, walls and places to take cover or to stake one another out. There are cameras everywhere, although for Milan and the others they are not really needed. They are looking down on most of the room through the glass, and very few corners are hidden from sight. The sound equipment, though, that is sorely needed. The glass doesn’t let any sound through – sound travels two ways and the contestants shouldn’t be distracted during their battle. And God knows it can get rowdy on the side of the spectators. Milan is not above shouting encouragements and curses during a match, either – and he’s one of the quieter ones.

Milan watches closely how they draw their weapons and wait for the buzzer to go off. Both of them are tense, focused, coiled like springs. It’s a mock battle but soon enough it will be a real war, and they need to gauge their opponent. Every mock battle is a setup, a tell, something they can use during the real fight in two weeks. He can feel his heart beating in his throat with them.

The buzzer goes off and it is /war/ down there. The cameras drink in all of the images. Stalking, taking cover. Spiraling around one another. They know the layout so well by now. Which corners can be used to keep track of your opponent. Which angle is ideal to shoot your opponent just so; enough to take him out when he or she stands just there. By now, everyone knows all the best spots and there are battles fought for them.

Not so in the case of Saxa and Walter. They are both strategically so damn sound. They never shoot their guns unless they are completely sure their prey is in sight. It is hair-raising and nail bitingly awesome to see them stalk one another like predators.

At some point, Milan realises that Rune is standing next to him. For a moment, he tries to catch her gaze, but she doesn’t look at him. She doesn’t say anything, she just frowns at the vision below as she watches Walter and Saxa.

His fellow competitors chatter excitedly behind him and around him. He can imagine the announcers filling the viewers at home in on what’s happening, eagerly sharing their excitement on how awesome this is, how tense. How this forebodes an epic fight in the Fortress; how they can’t wait to see these two duke it out for real.

All Milan can think of is that he really doesn’t want to be the one caught in between when they decide to take each other out. He’s going to stay the fuck away from them in the Fortress. Let others try to take these two, he’ll be safely far away from them. /How’s that for a winning strategy, Rune?/ he thinks, absently chewing on the inside of his cheek as minutes tick away in there.

Walter is the first one to pull the trigger, but he misses by a hair. Saxa has lured him in and is nimble enough to move out of range – and then she whirls and she is glorious enough to be able to cock her assault rifle at /him/ and she looses her own shot.

It is a sight to behold to see her move so fast. Saxa /doesn’t/ have an off day today. She is brilliant – and for that one moment, before the delay of the sound system actually allows him to hear her shot, Milan is half in love with her because she is just a thing of beauty.

The next moment Walter is jumping off his platform because he heard it earlier; but he is too late.

The sound of Saxa’s gun going off is not the one they’ve gotten used to over the weeks. It is so much louder. So definitive. So deadly.

Her gun is /not/ shooting blanks.

And Walter is too slow.

Mid-jump, the bullet tears into his left leg and his knee explodes in blood as he tumbles down, hitting his head against a wall. He is unconscious before he hits the ground five feet below.

“Oh my God,” Milan whispers, while around him the room erupts in chaos.

Somebody screams for a medic. Is that Saxa’s horrified voice?

Next to him, Rune lays her hand on the glass window and doesn’t say anything.

***

Dawn finds him sitting on the edge of his bed in his own apartment with his head in his hands. He hasn’t slept a wink tonight. It’s all been a blur; from Saxa’s tears and Walters blood to the hurried and messy ending of the bootcamp and the podride home. There was supposed to be one week before the Fortress but God knows what is going to happen now.

According to the newsfeeds that are glowing on the screen next to his dresser Saxa has been disqualified and taken in for questioning, and Walter is out of the fight, possibly for good. He’s in the hospital and he’s in stable condition, but he is in surgery all night. He can’t sleep – not until he knows Walter is alright. He’s frozen one of the screens on a candid tabloid shot of the tearful face of Walter’s girlfriend as she jumps off the pod next to the hospital. Milan can’t stop looking at it. /I have a girl waiting for me at home,/ Walter had said. Seeing the utter devastation on her pretty face makes it worse.

The most horrific thing about it that he is deep down inside a little relieved that he won’t have to fight either Walter or Saxa. Rune even said as much to him, while everyone watched an unconscious and bleeding Walter being wheeled away. She had stood next to him, twining her fingers with his and squeezing his hand. “Well, this is convenient,” she had whispered. “Suddenly you’re number one.”

“That’s so inappropriate,” he had hissed at her, but she had just smiled apologetically at him.

“It’s true, though,” she had whispered back and squeezed his hand again.

He keeps thinking of the convenience of it all, and he hates the mixture of relief and bile he feels in his throat. Convenience for him and the end for Walter and Saxa. /Oh, Saxa./ He doesn’t believe one bit of what the newsfeeds are implying about her guilt. Even though she pulled the trigger, she is not responsible for what happened. She wouldn’t have taken Walter out like this. He still remembers what she said to him on the balcony, only a week ago. /I like you enough to want to beat you fairly in the Fortress,/ she had said, backlit by the light pollution in the evening sky. He believed her. Saxa, sitting on that balcony, had nothing to lose. She hadn’t been worried about him or Walter. She had been /looking forward/ to meeting them in the Fortress and measuring her skills against them.

He can still hear her horrified screams for a medic. He can still see how she rushed over to his side and the utterly anguished expression on her face as she fell on her knees next to him, apologising like there was no tomorrow. As if he could hear her through the depths of unconsciousness. How she had stayed by his side until they had pulled her away from him, handcuffing her. Even as they led her away she had kept looking over her shoulder. The naked emotions in her green eyes told volumes.

Rune has been shooting him messages all night. He can see the messages glow on the side of his screen. She had wanted to spend the night with him, but he had declined. He really doesn’t want to talk right now. It isn’t just Rune. There’s numerous messages from his publicist and sponsor as well. Friends. Family. His mother. He ignores them all. He just waits for a word from the news, something that will tell him that Walter will be alright at least.

Around 10am his feed starts glowing. Walter’s publicist looks grave. The man looks frazzled, as if he has slept as little as Milan has. There are shadows under his eyes and his hair is unkempt. Milan can see Walter’s girlfriend in the background of the room, obviously on the phone with someone. Her face looks tear-streaked. The camera focuses on the publicist. “Walter Lane is out of surgery. He is stable, awake, and has medication against the pain. The surgery and the cell replication treatment proved to be as successful as can be hoped for, considering the damage to his knee. He will walk again, with revalidation. He will, however, never enter the Fortress. His destiny lies not with the Arena. Not anymore. If there are any questions, I will happily answer them.”

Milan falls back on his bed and closes his eyes. /That’s convenient,/ Rune whispers in his memory. He hates himself, because in his heart of heart he agrees.

***

Ten days later Milan finds himself pulling the trigger on the back of his fellow contestant, Jonas Diven. The room glows green with plasma and Diven crumples before he’s even had the chance to turn around. Despite being sixth in the rankings, this guy was the one who held out the longest. /Shows just how much the rankings were worth,/ he thinks numbly as he stands over the corpse of a young man who has shared his meals for six weeks.

“Victor of the northwest Euro Fortress of 2305: Milan Anders!” echoes the voice of announcer Karl Lorentz over the speakers. “Milan, congratulations. With three kills, that was a fantastic display.”

“Thank you,” Milan says absently. He wipes the sweat off his face and grimaces when his hand comes back grimey and bloodied. Looks like that rebounding flak on the wall managed to nick him after all. “Is there a medical check at the exit?”

“They’ll take good care of you, don’t worry. Do you need directions to the exit?”

“No, I’m fine. I think.”

He ends up following the light indicators on the floor to the exit anyway. Karl plays a cheerful victory song for him over the speakers, but it is a surreal experience anyway to walk in an empty Fortress, only accompanied by the smell of blood, shit and gunpowder. He keeps his gun in his hands, keeps looking over his shoulder, expecting attack at any moment. There is nothing. The Fortress is empty, save for himself and the corpses. Three of those are made by his own hands. He wonders if he should feel something about it. He’s mostly numb and high on stimms, adrenaline and paranoia. He wants to hurt something, he wants comfort. He is so alive he doesn’t know what to do about it.

/Holy shit, I’m still alive!/

/I’ll keep you alive no matter what,/ Rune’s voice resounds in his memory.

“You did, Rune, you kept your promise…” Milan whispers at the empty hallway. “You kept me alive.” He finds himself smiling at nothing, forcing himself to try to believe that his life hasn’t ended. Forcing the adrenaline to go down, the paranoia to quiet in his mind. He’s alive. He is really alive and he’s made it so far. He’s fucking done it. “Oh God…”

And there it comes; the rush, the delirious realisation. He is alive, and he did it, and it is oh so very goddamn sweet that it takes his breath away. He stumbles and leans against the concrete wall, barking out breathless laughter.

“Are you okay there, Anders?” Karl asks over the speakers.

Milan looks up at where he thinks the cameras are and smiles brilliantly. “Just dealing with overwhelming relief here. It’s fine.”

“Feels good, doesn’t it,” the announcer commiserates.

“Fuck yes.”

The rest of the walk to the exit is a breeze. A dream. He feels like he is walking on clouds. He’s survived the Fortress and he hasn’t had to kill any of the contestants who were his friends. The other contestants couldn’t even touch him. It is onwards to the Arena and the League for him, and he owes it all to one person.

There are people waiting for him at the exit. The automatic doors slide open and there’s a team there; his sponsors, some of his friends, his mother. Press, of course there is press. Camera’s in his face, microphones nearly jammed down his throat and questions on how does he feel right now, in this very moment.

He hardly acknowledges them. He’s searching for Rune in the throng of people, but he doesn’t see her face among the crowd. She is not running forward to hug him. No congratulations and smiles from the one person that taught him how to survive this experience. He owes her everything, and she’s not here.

/Something is wrong./

It is not a gradual realisation. Rune is not here and there is something manic about the congratulations and the pats on his shoulder. Something forced. Something /off/.

He asks his publicist about it, and she just shakes his head and mutters something about “not now”.

And that’s when he /knows/ something is terribly wrong. In the pit of his stomach, he knows that things have gone horribly wrong. In his heart of hearts, he has an inkling of what might be wrong, but he forces himself not to think about that, because that would be horrible and he doesn’t want it to be true.

The sweet feeling of victory is fleeting out of his grasp, though. It doesn’t last under the suspicions. So he asks again, because he doesn’t have a choice.

He gets his answer. Amidst the crowd of people, his publicist looks at him with something akin to pity in her dark eyes. “I”m sorry, Milan. Rune has been arrested on suspicion of the attempted murder on Walter Lane. She’s still a suspect, but rumour has it that there is video footage of her sabotaging the rifle.”

And his world shatters.

—–

2300: Change of Heart

Posted: January 21, 2013 by Kelly in deathmatching, stories

The thing was, Peter Delmont noticed, that once you kept winning the amount of people that didn’t know you decreased rapidly. You started to get used to the fact that every restaurant could arrange a table for you despite the place being packed with people. There would always be bottles of the finest champagne on the house. Hotels always had the suite with the best view for you – once people knew that it was Peter Delmont who was asking for it, suddenly everything was possible.

And he got used to that. So when he met someone who didn’t treat him like a mixture between a war hero and a rock star, someone who saw the real Peter – the person who he was before he started winning – someone who didn’t want anything from him but himself, it shook him to the foundation of his being. He was a winner, he was a rock star. He felt alive in the arena; like a god that couldn’t be touched. As long as he kept winning, the world was at his feet and it felt like a drug to him. It gave the world a glow, it infused him with confidence. It gave him wings and he loved flying. Intellectually, he knew that one day his wings would fail and that reality would come calling. It would be brutal, it would be painful, and then it would be all over.

But it was all worth it. The druggy feeling of victory was worth everything to him. Until he met Sasha.

Sasha Tiselle. He met her in a restaurant in Eclat, where he’d been for some press-riddled gala event that his agent had wanted him to go to. With only weeks until the prelims of his third League tournament and him in the form of his life, they’d decided that his time would be best spent making friends with the paparazzi. Peter went where his sponsors wanted him to go. He liked the media attention almost as much as he liked the feeling of victory.

He had a bite to eat in the restaurant and was offered a bottle of red wine that must have cost a fortune; but that night he’d been alone and he wasn’t in the mood to drink on his lonesome. His handheld device was full of phone numbers he could call – people who would love to join him in those two hours before the gala would start, but he just happened to look at the table next to him, and the girl that was sitting there was just so gorgeous that he couldn’t help but invite her to join him.

Dark hair, hazel eyes. A dusting of freckles on her pretty face. A body that curved in all exactly the right places. And when she smiled at him, Peter felt his knees go weak. “Hi,” he said. “I couldn’t help but notice your lack of table partner and I just got this bottle of fine red wine and I had no one to share it with. So I thought you might be interested.”

“What, do I look like a drunk?” she asked, amusement sparkling in those gorgeous eyes.

That took him aback – he realized that she thought he was just a common flirt. She didn’t know him! It had been ages since that happened for the last time. He forced himself to smile and rose to the challenge. “You look like someone who could appreciate a fine wine. I’m not sure about the amounts of it, I’ll leave that up to you.”

Still, she allowed him (allowed him! Ha!) to sit down next to her and they chatted away the two hours that he had to kill. They talked about all kinds of things, but never once did her eyes light up in recognition, not even when she learned his name. He enjoyed getting to know her better; she had a rich laugh and commented wittily on whatever he had to say. She was a damn enjoyable conversation partner; much better than most escort girls and groupies he’d spent time with in the past few years. And this girl worked in social services, with juvenile teens. It was a rather lost cause and she was aware of the irony of trying to help kids in a lost cause, but it was just the way she ticked. “It’s what I do,” she explained with a shrug. “I can sit and bitch about the situation, or I can try and do something about it.”

His buzzer went off about an hour after the gala had already started with a reminder to get his ass over there if he still wanted to get noticed by the press. “Ah sorry,” he said to the gorgeous girl at his table, “I have to go, there’s this event where I have to be.”

She smiled, but he could see the disappointment in her eyes. “Duty calls,” she murmured. “It was nice to meet you, Peter.”

“I could just call my agent and tell him to go fuck himself, of course,” he offered. The thought was suddenly very appealing. “Or, I could ask you to join me.”

“It depends,” Sasha answered, her expression suddenly guarded. Her slender fingers let go of her crystal wine goblet. “What is the event?”

“Just some gala event from one of my sponsors, I’m not even quite sure. They wanted me to be there, and I go where they tell me to go.”

Sasha blinked. “What is it that you do anyway?”

He smiled faintly. There it was. “You’re not much of a League fan, are you?”

There was some confusion in her eyes. “No, my parents are anti-League activists. I never watched the games much. I’m not a nut as they can be sometimes, if people want to kill themselves in the Arena then that’s their stupid choice but-…” she trailed off. “Why are you asking?”

He bit on the inside of his cheek. Anti-League Activists. Great, just great. His agent would bite his head off if anyone had spotted him with this girl. It might be on the net already, gossip could already be running rampant. Who the hell would have thought such a thing? Anti League Activists in the middle of Eclat, less than twenty miles from the biggest Arena in old Europe? He had to tell her, though. And if she freaked, he could handle himself. “I’m the current reigning Northern League champion, Sasha. Two years in a row.”

She took it better than he’d thought she would. Her eyes just widened and she nodded. “Okay,” she said. There was no disappointment or anger or disgust, just that simple admission.

“I take it you won’t join me to the event, then?”

She bit on her lip and regarded him thoughtfully. “Why the hell not. I’m staying in the hotel above this restaurant… give me half an hour and I’ll have a change of dress.”

That was the hotel where he was staying as well, so they went upstairs to refresh themselves. He knocked on the door of her hotelroom half an hour later, flowers in hand. And when she opened the door, Peter suddenly realized he might very well be in love. “You look beautiful,” he said dumbly, because it was true. She was wearing a wine-coloured silken dress of simple cut and design, but there were little crystals sewn in with the silk that shimmered whenever she moved. She was wearing diamond-studded hairpins as well, which only enhanced the effect. He was pretty sure she’d also done something with makeup to her face, because her eyes were more accentuated and the cute freckles didn’t show as much. She looked like something lovely out of a fairytale.

“Thanks,” she smiled. “Let me get my purse, and then we’re out of here.”

There were people at the event. Faces, meaningless conversations. Men in smokings and women in stunning dresses that could probably feed a streetblock in the Dregs for the next thirty years. Toothpaste smiles and empty chatter and champagne. Peter hardly registered it; his eyes were on Sasha, all night long. He waved away his publicist, who was hissing who the hell Sasha was, and what her story was – what spin he had to give on this girl. “She’s not important for you,” Peter mumbled, never taking his eyes off her.

“The paparazzi think differently, Delmont.”

“Fuck the paparazzi,” Peter smiled blithely and then went to get new glasses of champagne for himself and Sasha.

From that moment on, nothing else seemed to matter as much anymore. They’d ended up in bed at the end of the night, and didn’t get out of there until Peter’s personal trainer literally dragged him out of it three days later, snarling things about a training schedule and the prelims. He had a hard time bringing himself to care. He was in love, head over heels, and the rest of the world seemed so very far away. Being in love was perhaps even better than the feeling of a victory. But still; he had to train. He had duties to get to, training to do, interviews to give.

Sasha understood completely; she also had a life to get back to. She kissed him goodbye and whispered: “Call me.”

And he did, even before his shuttle had left the Eclat station. Before the week was out they had exchanged “I love you”’s. The feeling of it was intoxicating. Everything was amazing.

Every free moment, they’d spend together. It was suddenly a lot harder to pay attention to the League and it nearly got him killed right there in the prelims. The paparazzi had a field day with him. The announcers were snarky during his games and started to turn the public tide against him. He managed to shield Sasha from the worst of it and took most of the extra attention on his own shoulders, but it was inevitable.

As time went by and he qualified for the League by the skin of his teeth, she began to grow restless. By that time they were together for the better part of a year.

The night before he would leave on the pod to the Compound, she was quiet. They lay spooned up between the covers of his bed, only illuminated by the bright lights of the city outside. Outside, the wind was howling around the skyscraper. He held her tightly in the darkness. “Talk to me, Sasha,” he whispered. “You’ve been withdrawn for weeks. Is it the game tomorrow?”

She turned around in his arms and faced him. Her face was in the shadows, but he could tell her resigned mood easily. “Of course it is the game, Peter. I’m very much aware I could lose you tomorrow. It’s been so dangerous so far already. I really wish you wouldn’t do this.”

He gently wiped her dark hair out of her face. “It is who I am, Sas. I live for this stuff.”

“You’ll die for it.”

He smiled. “No, I won’t. I got someone to come back to, right?”

She clung to him and buried her face in his chest. “Don’t you think the others don’t? Peter, you nearly got killed in the prelims. How can I cheer you on in the game when I know this might take you from me? I just found you. I can’t imagine my life without you. Please cancel. Please stay with me.”

He thought of his sponsor, his trainer, his team of attendants. His prize money was paying their salaries. All of them had worked towards this point for so long; him as well. If he would step out now, years of work would go down the drain. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t even /want/ to do it.

Much as he adored Sasha and he couldn’t imagine his life without her, he wanted the game. He’d been working so hard, he so loved the thrill of the life-or-death situation. Death seemed so far away, so unreal. All that existed was his minigun and the sound of the explosions. The adrenaline, some sharp pain to keep him on edge. It was a thrill like nothing else in the world. And even though he’d realised that the world surrounding the game was shallow like a pool of piss; the game itself was pure. The blood and the adrenaline were real. The victories were real. It was a different drug than she was, but he wanted that, too.

“I can’t step out now,” he said softly.

To his horror, he saw her dark eyes well up with tears. She furiously blinked them away. “You know that I’m trying very hard to support you, right? The Game goes against everything I’ve been taught. It’s senseless violence and horror. I don’t want my boyfriend to be in the middle of it. The thought of it is killing me.”

“It’s only for one more game,” he said.

“And next summer, the prelims of next year. Time and time again, until you die. Eventually your luck will run out.”

He stared at her. He really /looked/ at her, the gorgeous dark-haired woman in his arms. The love of his life; his chance of love, of something real that was not violence and death related. She was giving him a chance to be loved for who he /really/ was, not the image of a guy winning the League games. One that would be forgotten if he would slip up in the League. Sasha would be there; she would remember him. Maybe they could have kids at some point or something. He could build a legacy. A real memory. “One more,” he promised in the darkness. “One more, and when I get out, I’m going to damn well marry you and have a normal life.”

Her eyes grew wide and she almost giggled. “Are you proposing to me, Peter?”

“If you want me to. Would you say yes?”

Her smile was radiant. “Of course I would. We can pick out rings once you get out of the Arena.”

***

Sasha was nearly right after all. It was a close call that year. Closer than it had ever been. He had been down to his last regen, down to his last stimm. It had been Livington who nearly did him in. He’d been a pain in the ass in the prelims as well. The bookies and the betting stations had him pegged as the new winner; they’d given him higher chances than Peter himself.

At first he had been offended, but after Livington had hunted him like an animal for hours, Peter understood what they had been getting at. The guy was merciless. Those oddly coloured light green eyes in that chocolate face would haunt him forever. In the end Livington’d had him trapped; completely cornered.

No way out except down into the chasm they were standing at. He’d retaliated, faster than his reflexes had ever been able to do it before. He’d been full of lightning and thundering gunfire and Livington had gone down. The guy had gotten cocky near the end. He had not expected Peter to fight back with all he had. /I fucking have someone to get home to, and you don’t,/ Peter sneered in his thoughts.

Half a second later Stender called the victory. His third victory over the Northern League in a row. And, as Sasha would have it, his last one.

The media and the Corporation officials made disappointed noises when they heard about his resignation, but he was let go relatively easy. He had to pay off some sponsor contracts but at the end of the line he still had more money than he knew what to do with. Three League victories would do that to one’s bank account.

Sasha and Peter married on Valentine’s Day of 2301 in Eclat. They held their wedding reception in the same restaurant where they first met and vacationed in a hotel room near a southern European beach, surrounded by strawberry and champagne. Those first three months were like a dream. They traveled, they drank in each other’s presence, they were madly in love and the world was at their feet.

And then they came home, back in the State. And all the memories were there. People still recognised him on the street. His gear was locked away in a closet but he would find himself getting up at night, when Sasha was asleep. He would open that closet and stare at the closet light illuminating his gear. Sometimes he would pick up his old minigun and stare at it, revel in the weight of it in his hands.

He started dreaming of the League again. Sometimes he woke up in the morning and his muscles would be aching with the phantom weight of his minigun. He would still smell the scent of blood in the air of their bedroom and he would be bursting with energy and adrenaline. He didn’t tell Sasha about this, but she could see him shooting looks at him once in a while.

As the weeks went by, it became the elephant in the room. He would work out a lot, spend whole days in the fitness wing and the shooting range in their house. God, he missed it so much. Yet he never said a word.

Until in May, the signups for the prelims started and things came to a head. He became grumpy, on edge. Bad-tempered like he had not been in /years/. His sponsor and trainer kept calling him, whether he didn’t want to change his mind. That there was so much great new young blood being pitched for admittance in the prelims. That it would be so great to have him back here. He listened to their voicemails over and over again, until he knew every cadence of their sentences and every intake of breath by heart.
.
“You can’t help it, can you,” Sasha said sadly, leaning against the doorway with her arms crossed.

He looked up from his terminal and removed the earbuds from his ears as if he’d been caught doing something illegal. “Sasha,” he said, but he couldn’t think of anything else.

“I’ve been watching you, sweetie. You’re going nuts.”

“It’s hard,” he admitted. “But I made you a promise. I’m staying with you.”

Sasha just nodded. It didn’t look as if she believed him, but for now it was enough. “Come to bed with me then, it’s after midnight.”

The next morning he got a call from higher up. The management of the Corporation personally invited him to join in on the Northern League. The money they offered was outrageous, but he didn’t care a bit about that. He had more money he and Sasha could ever spend anyway. When he replied in kind, they played the game differently. They talked about the glory of the victory, how his fans missed him, how life in the Arena was the most intense kind of living, only given to the selected few.

He /knew/ they were manipulating him. He /knew/ that they knew how to play him because of his psych evals. Peter Delmont, in search for glory and remembrance. The thrill-seeking attention whore. They knew how to talk to him. He knew that they knew. And still, it was working.

He sat with his head in his hands until Sasha came to sit with him that afternoon. She looked apprehensive and distant, as if she knew what he was thinking of. As if she knew he’d made his decision already and he was just wondering how the hell he should tell her. He knew damn well that he would break her heart with this. He would break his own as well; but still he couldn’t help it. He had to go.

She didn’t take it well when he tried to explain.

“This is who I am,” he said again, the age old argument.

“No, it isn’t, Peter. Unless you’re just a selfish shit who loves his glory more than he loves his wife. Are you?”

He didn’t answer. What could he possibly say to that? It was the truth and he didn’t want it to be; he didn’t want to admit that he was a horrible person. He had blood on his hands, he’d killed many people in the League for sport – and yet; /this/ was the lowest moment of his life.

Sasha’s eyes shimmered with tears, but her face held a steely, deathly determination. “If you love the League more than me, then I think we should end it here, Peter,” she said softly. “I can’t do this. I can’t play second fiddle to the League; knowing that it might kill you.”

“I know,” he whispered over bloodless lips. Divorce. She was going to divorce him. The horrible thing was that he was going to let her.

The silence between them was as raw and sharp as broken glass. Finally, Sasha rose from her chair and left the room. She walked away from him and he let her. He just sat there while she packed her bags. When she walked past his room, he called out to her. “I love you,” he offered.

She wiped tears from her eyes with the hand that wasn’t holding her suitcase. “I love you too, Peter. Too much to watch you die. I am sorry.”

And then she was gone.

He sat there like a pillar of salt for half an hour before he called his manager. “I’m in,” was all he had to say.

“Good,” his manager said with satisfaction. “I’ll send Seelie to your house tomorrow morning. Let’s get you fit for the prelims.”

***

“It turns out that fighting with a broken heart works just as well for Peter Delmont,” some announcer said on television, some insight piece on the upcoming Northern League final. “He’s been vicious in the Fortress. He’ll do well.”

Peter leaned back in his reclining chair and hovered with his hand over the remote of his terminal, not changing the channel just yet. It was always interesting what the media had to say. He always read the articles, he always watched the vids. He wanted to know.

“He has a lot of competition this year, though,” a smiling yellow-haired woman said on the screen. He recognised the woman as a sports journalist that never had anything good to say about him. He never liked her. “The prelims have been fierce and a lot of potential champions stood up this year.”

“You’re referring to Marco dos Santos and Valentina Marin, I assume,” her conversation partner offered.

“Especially Marin,” the woman nodded.

“Too young,” the man said. Images appeared on the screen of the two contestants. His words became a voice over while the audience could see recordings of their victories in their respective prelims. “Santos is battle-hardened. He’s been in the war, he’s been an enforcer for years. That girl? It doesn’t matter that it was David Lenham who trained the girl. She won’t make it. No experience. She won’t last against experienced fighters like Delmont or Santos.”

“And thank you,” Peter muttered. He’d seen the stats; he’d seen their fights. He worried about the both of them; Santos because of his vicious ruthlessness, but the Marin girl because of her crazy antics in the Fortress. She’d been a terror. Sleek, deadly. Never a movement that was unnecessary. So very precise. Like an assassin, almost.

“She’s spectacular, and I think Delmont should start to get worrying. Even though he’s gotten over the slump he was in last year, the stakes have been upped. Let’s see if his broken heart can give him the edge he needs.”

Peter flipped to another feed and left their speculations for what they were. He didn’t feel like watching anymore. Maybe it was time to get back to the shooting range or the gym, so he could work off the nervous energy that was building in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t want to think about possible defeat or how empty the world was without Sasha in his bed, in his arms, in his life. He needed to make sure that he would /win/. It was glory or nothing – now more than ever.

A week later he officially met his fellow contestants during a formal dinner the night before the match. They seated him next to Valentina Marin and to his surprise he found her friendly and likable during the whole meal. She was so young; she couldn’t be much older than twenty one. How could one so young be willing to step in a death match? She didn’t seem like she craved the glory; it was more like a challenge. One she had confidence she could meet, too; but at the same time she was enough of a good sport to congratulate him with his victory in the prelims and compliment him on some of his actions in there.

“I enjoyed seeing you in action in the Fortress as well,” he said honestly, while he took a healthy swallow from his champagne. “Go easy on an old man in the League arena, okay?”

She chuckled. “I can’t promise you that, though. I’m here to win.”

He grinned at her in understanding. “Fair enough, so am I.”

He thought of Sasha and wondered if she was watching him. She probably wasn’t; his now ex-wife was nothing if not full of principles. But he wanted to let her know that he was here and he would go all the way for his glory. This was what he was, after all.

And when he jumped out of the drop ship the next morning and found himself a wheat field near a forest and a huge abandoned factory building; killers and potential death everywhere, with the familiar feeling of adrenaline chasing through his veins, he knew he had done the right thing.

He was back, and it felt so very right.

This was what he lived for.

——