Archive for the ‘fortress’ Category

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?”

2309: Natural Born Chaos

Posted: February 15, 2013 by Kelly in fortress, league, stories

2309: Natural Born Chaos

Wait for chaos, wait for welfare
At this point of no return
Bleed for money, bleed for justice
Going straight to hell with a wounded soul

~ Soilwork, “Natural Born Chaos”

It’s been an exhausting day, but closing time finds Saxa in the boxing ring anyway, taking out her frustrations on a punching bag. She’s put loud music over the speakers and the beat is making the floor under her bare feet tremble. She’s fast and furious, imagining that the punching bag is a representation of all of the administration and bullshit that comes with running her dojo. Not for the first time she wonders if she shouldn’t just hire somebody to take care of this stuff, because she hates administration with a fiery passion, but she’s not sure who she would trust to take care of her baby. And so she’s kind of trapped in doing something she hates to take care of something she loves. /Ah well, that’s a first world problem,/ she tells herself. /Remember how you used to be barely able to get food on the table? You’re living the dream, you whiney idiot!/

She takes a step back to wipe the sweat from her face and suddenly tenses when she realises that she isn’t alone. All of her survival instincts are immediately screaming at her that there is someone in her dojo. /Fuck. Haven’t I closed the door?/ That’s a stupid, stupid mistake, in the middle of the bad part of the Dregs. Her assault rifle is locked away in her office, all she has is her fists. She’s not sure that will be enough.

She whirls around and takes a fighting stance anyway, as she takes in the not so deserted dojo anymore. And then immediately drops her hands when she recognises who has joined her.

“Walter,” she says, blinking at him in a mixture of confusion and relief that it isn’t anybody worse. With a snap of her fingers she kills the sound system. Silence falls between them. “How did you get in here?”

“The door was open,” he says. He is leaning on the ropes of the ring, looking tired. He has a sportsbag on his back and is dressed in a sweater and jogging pants, as if he could climb in the ring to have a sparring round with her at any moment. “Still haven’t lost your form,” he says with a slight smile.

Memories flood over her mind. Bootcamp, his blood on her hands, the hospital, drinks in a bar, talks and forgiveness. And later, the footage from the World League…“God, Walter,” she chokes out, taking a step in his direction. “It’s been ages. I haven’t seen you since the-”

“Since the funeral, yeah,” he says. His blue eyes are naked with the pain of remembrance and she hates herself immediately for bringing it up. “And then I didn’t even talk to you that day. Sorry about that.”

Saxa shakes her head slowly. Her dreads feel heavy and wet in her sweaty neck. She wipes them away and comes to sit next to him, on the edge of the ring. “You get a pass on that one. Seriously though, how are you doing?”

Sitting so close to him, she can see the faint lines around his eyes, the paleness of his skin underneath what should be a healthy tan. The fatigue shows in every movement he makes, every line in his face. “I just got out of revalidation. I had my surgery.” He smiles at her, a rueful smile that doesn’t look like anything she’s grown to know from him in the past couple of years.

“You did? Show me.”

He sets his leg against the edge of the ring and pulls up the hem of his pants. There are some angry red scars around his knee, beyond the faded light pink ones from all those years ago – the ones she’d given him. But his kneecap looks whole and right; underneath his skin there are implants and cybernetic parts that take over the workings of his leg.

She looks up at him. “Can I?”

He nods, and she touches him on one of his angry scars. Underneath the skin under her fingertips it feels weird; not like a real leg should feel. Still, it feels like everything is in place, even though it feels subtly different. “And it works completely fine?” she asks.

“Utterly fine,” he says. “I had to learn how to walk all over again. My balance was completely fubared after years of favouring my other leg, and I needed to get used to the new muscles. But it doesn’t ache anymore in the mornings. Not even when it rains. It’s pretty goddamn amazing. I had forgotten what that feels like, to not be in any physical pain.”

“I’m so glad,” she whispers, tracing one of the old pink scars. “This is what she wanted for you, right? This is what she did it for.”

When their gazes lock, there is that thousand yard stare again in his blue eyes. “If only she would have been there to share it with me. It’s useless without her.”

“Don’t say that,” she says firmly.

He smirks at her, straightening his shoulders. “I can say whatever the fuck I want. I’m the one who has to live without her. Either way, I’m here because I wanted to ask you a favour.”

“Anything,” she says softly. “You know there is blood between us. I can’t refuse you anything.”

“And I feel like a real asshole to call upon it, but here it is.” He takes his sportsbag from his shoulder and reaches in its depths to show her a handheld. It bears his signature on a very familiar form with a very familiar Corporation logo.

Her heart skips a beat as she skims over the information. “The Southern League?” she asks incredulously. “You mean to join the League?”

He nods. “I’m already in. They let me in, even without the Fortress. Said some stuff about how I’d proven myself already. One last gift from Rune, I suppose. But yeah, I’ll be entering the League in seven months.”

“What would you have of me, then?”

And then he smiles; the first real smile she’s seen of him since he walked in here. It flashes her back to another smile she’s seen years ago, in a bar in the Dregs.

***

Ruhr-area, The Dregs, 2306

The overpowering beat of the music was droning in Saxa’s ears. It was supposed to be enticing, supposed to get the heart beating faster and the blood flowing; and from the look of the other club goers on the dance floor, the music seemed to be doing what it was composed for. Saxa’s friends were all partaking in the fun, dancing and doing shooters on the dance floor, laughing and having the grandest time. All Saxa had was a bloody headache.

She took her last swig from her drink – she didn’t even know what it was, something whiskey based that looked near greenish in the strange lighting in the club – and slammed her glass on the bar. She sucked her breath in between her teeth and had to grin when she felt the headrush. “Damn,” she breathed, closing her eyes against the sudden stinging tears.

“Strong stuff, eh,” somebody said close to her ear.

Saxa swiveled around on her bar stool, her hand clenched around the glass and already half-raised in attack, when she suddenly recognised Walter Lane sitting down on the stool next to her. “Wow, the drink must have hit me harder than I thought – Walter?”

“Hi Saxa.” He smiled apologetically. “Sorry for startling you,” he continued, gesturing at the hefted glass in her hand. “Can I buy you a drink to make it up to you?”

She sheepishly set the glass back upon the bar and checked to see if the bartender had seen their exchange. He seemed to be over at the other side of the bar, busy mixing drinks. Good, she did not want to make any trouble. “That would be nice,” she said. “Sorry, I’m a bit wired, I guess.”

“Big match coming up in three days, right?”

“Right,” Saxa nodded, watching how Walter ushered the bartender over and ordered a round of ‘whatever she was drinking’. “I’ve been living and breathing the Fortress in the past months. Everything is survival these days. It tends to wear on you.”

“I remember,” he said, barely audible over the din of the music. “I nearly strangled Matthew when he came to wake me on that last morning of bootcamp.” Then he smiled, a sudden grin that showed the dimples in his cheeks. “Speaking of which, I like how you skipped out on the boot camp this year.”

“Fuck bootcamp,” Saxa hissed as the bartender set down two glasses before them.

Walter raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that,” he said with a lopsided grin.

“Yeah, I guess you would,” Saxa offered. She took her glass and turned to him, looking him in the eye – /really/ looking – and said: “Walter, I’m so sorry for what happened. If I could take it back, I would. I would do it a thousand times over. I-”

He shook his head; that was all that was needed to cut her off. “Saxa, you pulled the trigger, not knowing your rifle was sabotaged. I do not blame you. I never blamed you.”

It seemed as if all the music around them had been turned down, tuned out. Saxa could only hear the beat of it, pulsing in her ears. Or perhaps it was her own heart beat? “I nearly /murdered/ you. I crippled you for /life/!”

“It wasn’t you,,” he said, and the expression on his face was so oddly gentle, so understanding. “Rune Murray wanted me to die, not you. At least, not at that moment.” He grinned suddenly, the same kind of wry grin they had shared after a day of hard training, when one or the other had been bested and they knew that what was a game for the viewers at home now, would turn to deadly reality in the Fortress. The kind of grin that said: /we are friends now, but there is a shadow of death hanging over us… and I’m not backing out./

“I would have gladly measured my skills against you in the Fortress, Walter. It should have been you in the Euroleague, not Milan.”

“Or you,” he retorted, sipping from his drink. He shrugged. “But hey, Le Blanc would have probably killed either of us anyway, just like he disposed of Milan. It doesn’t matter anymore either way. Le Blanc has transferred to the Northern League, and the Euro Fortress is yours.”

Saxa swallowed her drink and found that her throat was swollen and dry. “Why are you here, Walter?” she asked suddenly.

He smiled his dimple smile, brightly lit by the purple-and-pink lights that swept over his face. “To wish you luck for your upcoming games, of course. What else?”

She smiled back at him. “Thanks. I’m going to need it.”

“Not really. I’ve seen the stats from your competitors in boot camp. You can have them for dinner and not even break a sweat, Saxa. You’ll be fine there. It’s the Arena you’ve got to worry about. That’s going to be tougher, even without Le Blanc.”

She knew what he meant. She might have bailed on participating bootcamp, but she’d kept an eye on them nonetheless. “You’re referring to Merle Jourin from the Southwest Fortress, aren’t you?”

“Amongst others,” he nodded. “I got a bit of money riding on you though, so you better not lose.”

Saxa laughed and noticed that, strangely enough, she felt better. Her headache was gone, replaced by the familiar slight wooziness of impending intoxication. “Look at us, talking strategy. Like the old days. Only this time it won’t end up with you shot and me feeling like a total asshole for ruining your life.”

He remained quiet for a couple of moments. “Lannie told me to go talk to you,” Walter mused, toying with his half-empty glass. “She said, in what way of hers, that she would feel like crap if she were you. And that, if she might die in a couple of days, that something like my forgiveness would help. Does it?”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “Yes. It really does.”

“I thought you knew that I didn’t have any hard feelings,” he said, watching as she untangled her fingers from his.

“I hoped it. Despite that, It is unbelievably good to hear it from you.” Saxa finished her drink and set her glass back on the bar, where it was illuminated by bright neon green lights. She looked up to him. “There will always be blood between us, though. If there is ever anything I can do for you, just let me know, okay?”

“For now, just win the game. I would like to see you as Euroleague champion so at least one of Rune’s victims can cast off her shadow, eh?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Saxa said, and ordered another round.

***

“I want you to train me, Saxa,” Walter says, with his dark head as close to hers as it was in that club all those years ago. But now he’s leaning on ropes and the overhead lights are just white, not flickering in all of the colours of the rainbow. There are years between them and there is still blood, despite everything. And he’s come to collect.

Saxa blinks her green eyes slowly at him. “I am not a trainer like Matthew,” she blurts out reflexively, even though she’s done nothing else for the past two years in her dojo. That’s different, though – she’s been teaching martial arts, not how to survive a frigging League Game. “Wait, what, you really want me to train you for the Southern League? What would you possibly want there?”

He shrugs. “What does anyone want in the League? What did you want?”

“Glory and competition, you know that.” She leans back and crosses her arms. “But you were in it for the money, and you have it. Fuck, Lannie’s inheritance must have been running in the millions. You’re set for life. So what is it?”

He smiles that sad smile again and doesn’t say anything, just busies himself putting his handheld back in his sports bag.

Her breath catches in her throat. “You’re not committing suicide by League, are you?”

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

She studies his face for a moment and doesn’t say anything, thinking of the smiling young man she met all those years ago. How he had laughed the first time she had nicked him in mock battle and his sensors had glowed red. She’d been the only one in boot camp who could even touch him.

“If it’s your dojo, I have money enough, I would pay you to close the place for a while and never have any issues-”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll train you. I promised to help you if you would ever ask for anything.” Saxa stands up from her sitting position and extends him her hand to pull him into the ring. “Let’s see what you’ve got, then. I need to know what I have to work with.”

——

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.

—–

2304: A Bit Of Luck

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

A bit of luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

/I’m dying./

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

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

The difference between salvation and drowning was only one foot.

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

And then footsteps sealed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game over.
Pity.

2298: Shadows

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

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

~ Audioslave, “Shadow on the Sun”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now there are two. Juanez… and Sheva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

One. Two. Three heartbeats I gave her.

Then I turned around.

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

—-

2299: Perfect Enemy

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

Perfect Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach was hers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks a lot Stender,” May snarled.

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

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

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

Her own gun was out of reach.

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

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

2297: Imperfection

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

Imperfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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