This story is really, actually free, but of course, I have an ulterior motive.
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“Lamarr, I’ve got to admit,” said Bill as they turned down yet another passage to head deeper into the base, “I was surprised when I heard you stole your ship. You always seemed so… by the books.”
Cordell shrugged. “I fought for my country, and that’s gone. Not about to hand over what’s left to the enemy.”
Bill shook his head appreciatively and poked Cordell in the chest. “And that’s why we need to be doing business! You do what needs to be done and damn the consequences.”
“Yeah,” Cordell agreed, but the consequences had damned him in return plenty of times. “And what about you? I would’ve thought a general would be living the good life somewhere. Didn’t you get a payout?”
“About that,” said Bill, “I’m not exactly welcome in GATO worlds anymore. There were misunderstandings about some of my actions toward the end of the war.”
Cordell knew how to translate that: war crimes prosecutors were after him. At the beginning, General William Scarrett had been beyond reproach. Maybe the eyewitnesses were enemy combatants with an axe to grind.
The den of vice on a dead world, home base to a cadre of lawless mercs and desperate scavengers, spoke otherwise.
However, the Capricious’s hold was full of unlicensed explosives, corrosion bolts and enough BZ stims to send an army into a berserk rage. He couldn’t offload those on a civilized world, and until Bill paid, his crew had to float the cost. Otherwise, he’d be looking at six hundred grand in undeclared losses.
“Whatever you did to the Kandis is no business of mine,” Cordell muttered, trying to make himself think that way.
“But Lamarr, my man,” said Bill, holding up his hands like he was measuring a fish. “You don’t need civilization to be happy. We’ve got the four M’s right here: Motivation, Materiel, Millions of argents… and Models, am I right? You see some of those ladies out there?”
On instinct, Cordell glanced at Sunny, who maintained her mechanically sweet expression. On the Link, he would’ve mistaken it for flirtatiousness, but after the nasty slap she gave Armin, Cordell didn’t know what to think.
He didn’t have much time to ponder the question, because Bill shoved open a pair of doors, revealing a spectacular desert arena.
The central feature of the arena was a scarred-up sandstone obelisk, its facets blistered with black glass from dozens of slinger bolt hits. Hundreds of rocky cubes formed a dusty, makeshift labyrinth, the pathways between scattered with rubble from various explosions.
Cordell expected a gust of hot wind to bowl him over, but the place still smelled like the same recycled air that flowed through the rest of the base.
Plush leather seats and tables ringed the arena, stuffed full of people in smart suits, laughing and enjoying themselves. Waiters and bots busied themselves about the crowd in tux and tails, serving up sparkling wine and cheeses, crusty bread and cups brimming with precious, oily ganache.
“It’s the brunch show,” said Bill, “so you’re just in time.”
“The ‘brunch show’ of what?” asked Armin.
“See, I knew you’d get your voice back!” said Bill, leaning toward Cordell and whispering theatrically, “Sometimes they get a little shy after a good reprimand.”
Cordell gave him a polite laugh, but unease nipped at the ends of his nerves. “What kind of show?”
Bill yanked them both inside with a wild smile on his face. “The kind that’s going to put us back on the map, Lamarr. The kind that I’m simulcasting to hundreds of mansions, private clubs and leaders across space. The kind,” his words oozed from his mouth like sweet syrup, “that will build an army powerful enough to occupy our sorry, blighted planet. Don’t eat the shrimps, by the way; they’re made of duraplast.”
Cordell grimaced. “Excuse me?”
That was when he noticed that no one was wearing nice shoes. There were tuxes, evening dresses, sparkling jewelry pieces of every shape, but everything at ground level was pretty boring. There were also nicks in the surroundings in a number of places, revealing that the sumptuous ring of wealth that surrounded the sandy arena was made of cheap imitation materials.
“You’re on a set!” said Bill. “These are my employees. I dress them up, tell them to party for the imagers, and we watch the matches together. The swells offworld like to feel like this is a classy place, you know?”
Cordell noted the imager drones flying around, capturing people’s faces as they reveled, carefully avoiding anything that might give the cheap ruse away. “And the big sandy pit in the middle? What’s that? A simulation?”
Bill led them up to his private box and stopped at the entrance to wink at them. “Oh, that’s real-ish… The arena is somewhere else and projected into here… for safety concerns.”
“Nice projectors,” said Cordell.
“Drama production quality. Near perfect resolution,” said Bill, settling into a large chair in his private box. Attendants flocked to his side to lavish him with attention.
“So,” Armin began, “people offworld are going to watch a broadcast of us… watching a broadcast, because…”
A wave of explosions rocked the arena, sending up startled gasps from the crowd. Bits of rock and shrapnel came screaming into the audience, only to stop at the border between sand and wealth. A man with a four-armed, mechanical exosuit came barreling into the arena, concussive slingers firing in every direction. Madness marred his expression as he swung from column to column like an orangutan.
Cordell recognized the harness; the shipwrights used them to get around the service docks before the war. He’d never imagined the extra arms as gun mounts, but the cackling weirdo in the arena seemed to be making do.
“What are we watching, Bill?” asked Cordell.
“The future,” Bill replied, wild-eyed, before rushing to the edge of his platform to address all assembled. He tapped one side of his throat, and his voice filled the space with enough thunder to shake Cordell’s guts. “Greetings fight fans across the galaxy! How are we feeling today?”
The roar of Bill’s many admirers filled the arena like a bomb, and Cordell glanced at his compatriot. The finance guy’s expression seemed to say, “What the hell have you gotten us into?” and Cordell tried to channel the message, “please just be cool with it until it’s over.”
“You have come to this place to witness something sacred,” said Bill, his voice amplified and echoing while shredding music wailed in the background. “There’s nothing like desperation, is there? When someone really understands that they’re fighting to stay alive, that’s when you see what they’re capable of!”
Another shout boiled up through the audience. Beside them, Sunny pulled out a portable comms terminal and keyed on its projector. Cordell didn’t understand all of the graphs and charts, but he fully grasped one of the stats: “Link Stream Value, One Point Three Million Argents.”
Bill glanced back at them before throwing his arms wide like an ancient showman. “There is no greater thrill! No contest more pure! Tonight, one of these fighters will eat… and the other will feed the crows. In one corner, a man in the prime of his life: once a construction worker in the Arcan shipyards, now a deadly whirlwind of slinger spells and metal, he once ate six people for looking at him wrong. It’s the Dervish!”
Upon hearing his name, the Dervish launched a few more explosive rounds into the air and cackled maniacally. It was all a show, of course. Cordell had seen people crack on the battlefield, and they weren’t nearly as careful with their shots.
Bill turned around to grin at them, tapping the side of his throat to turn off the amplification. “Well what do you think, Lamarr?”
“Stop the match,” said Armin, and Cordell spotted what he was looking at: a trio of children had managed to get into the arena. They looked like scavengers, with sad, scratched-up weapons and gear, and they must’ve wandered in by accident.
“Oh, them?” asked Bill. “That’s the other team. Can’t have a fight without them.”
“They’re children,” said Armin.
Bill shrugged. “And they’re good at killing.”
“That’s immaterial,” said Armin. “You’re not seriously going to make them fight.”
Both factions squared off in the arena, as if in answer to Armin’s question. The shipwright sneered at the kids with broken teeth, and for their part, they looked rather put upon to be there.
“Listen—” Armin scooted to the edge of his seat to make his case, and the ringmaster shot him a murderous smile.
“If you speak one more time while I’m trying to do my thing,” said Bill, “I’m going to have Sunny tear off your jaw.”
Sunny flexed her fingers beside Cordell, but made no move for Armin. Cordell could swear he heard servos in her musculature, but it was difficult to tell over the din of the crowd.
Bill switched on his amplification once more. “But who, I ask you, could be a match for a madman? What power could rival a monster who has seen the dark depths of humanity and still decided they would taste good in a pinch? Only someone hungrier, faster, cleverer than the rest. They’ve been surviving in the wastes since they were little children, but now they’ve come to apply their talent for terror to our illustrious arena. They’re the Desert Rats!”
Sunny returned her attention to her boss. “Link stream value at one point five six.”
Bill grimaced and muted his throat. “Well that’s disappointing. Better get them riled some more.”
Two of the three kids pumped their fists for the benefit of all assembled, but the third remained stock still. Cordell squinted, trying to make out the details of the one in the center: black hair, dark eye sockets and sunken cheeks. Filthy bandages covered bits of face and bare arms. Red sunburns warmed otherwise pale skin. A scuffed metal circlet rested upon the child’s brow.
Ice-chip eyes remained fixed on the opponent–stance loose, expression ready. This kid had exactly what it took to win. The other two, probably not.
“Now, I see y’all hemming and hawing about this fight,” bellowed Bill over the amplifiers, frowning like a sad clown. “I’m watching these bets, and I’m wondering if it’s worth my time—wondering if it’s worth their lives. Honestly, I ain’t so sure, so this is what we’re going to do: Bet ten thousand, and I’ll project your message into the arena. Anyone who bets more than fifty large can speak to our noble warriors before the match. You choose which team, and you can say anything you want. Tell them to go die for all I care. Fight starts in an hour.”
Dozens of strings of text appeared inside the sandy battleground: Chew ‘em up! Dervish all the way! Rats forever! You’re going to die down there. One of the messages was just a video of a steaming plate of soup dumplings with a sad emote on it and the words, “You hungry?”
Bill tapped his throat before plopping down into his chair. “That ought to do it.”
“Link stream value up four percent, sir,” said Sunny.
Cordell worked his jaw and flexed his fingers as he watched Armin contemplate speaking again. It hadn’t sat well with him, either, seeing those hungry children standing across from a maniac. He wrestled his voice into an even tone. “You’re really going to let him kill those kids, Bill?”
Bill soured. “Oh, not you, too, Lamarr. Don’t get all high and mighty after we bombed entire cities. What, you think you ain’t killed a few kids before? I know I have.”
“That’s war,” said Cordell.
“Whatever you’ve got to tell yourself, Lamarr. Now are you going to play, or get the hell out of here? Some of us have a business to run.”
“I’ll buy them from you,” said Cordell. “How much?”
“Ain’t for sale at any price you can afford.”
He knew he was about to say something foolish, that it would enrage his crew and endanger their cash. If he’d asked them, not one of them would agree to his stupid idea. Then his eyes fell on the quietly seething Armin, and Cordell knew he’d have at least one supporter after all of this.
“I may have recently come into a lot of money,” Cordell began.
Bill’s incredulous expression made him look less like a bulldog and more like a wary pug. “From where?”
“Sunny,” said Cordell, “have you transferred the funds for our delivery yet?” and Armin’s eyes widened.
“No, Captain Lamarr,” she replied, cool and professional.
Bill shook his head. “You are just too much, sometimes. Bet or don’t. It’s not a supermarket.”
Cordell leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers. “I’ll bet you our entire delivery fee against their freedom. If I win, you let them leave with me and you pay us. If you win, I just gave you a metric assload of supplies and ammo absolutely gratis. That’s six hundred large on the Desert Rats.”
Bill’s lip curled, and he pressed the tip of his tongue to a canine as he contemplated the offer. Given the size of the Link stream, Cordell couldn’t have been the biggest spender around, but his delivery commission was nothing to sneeze at.
Finally, the ringmaster nodded. “All right, Lamarr. Sunny, set it up.”
“And I believe we’re now entitled to a conversation with them,” added Armin, raising a finger, “since we just bet a lot more than fifty thousand argents.”
As soon as they were out of the arena, Cordell turned to Armin. “Look, I know it’s not my money to bet, but—”
“I was going to resign before you did that,” Armin replied with no hesitation. “I suppose you’re not a total loss after all, Captain Lamarr.”
“Oh, uh… Thanks?”
Sunny led them down the hall, through several sets of doors, and into a large, empty chamber with a raised dais. Projectors spun out details, coalescing into a trio of children. Their appearance ignited fresh anger in Cordell’s gut, and he was tempted to turn on Sunny. Sizing her up, he had little doubt that’d be the last bad idea he ever had.
“Please enjoy your five minutes, Captain,” Sunny said before backing up and closing the door, leaving the pair of men alone with the kids.
They were a sorry looking bunch, uncomfortably muscular for a trio of children who probably hadn’t even hit their teens. Their baby fat had been stolen by lives of hardship, and Cordell had seen their types before. He used to have nightmares about the bands of child soldiers that sprang up toward the end of the Famine War—vicious, hungry and pathetically undisciplined. They commonly clashed with infantry outside the supply depots, and many soldiers took their own lives after killing kids in the exchanges. The first casualty of that conflict had been the sanctity of civilian life, and Cordell would be damned if he countenanced one more second of it.
“Who are you?” asked the blond one. She clearly ate the most, and flashed a smile. “Are you going to send us some food?”
Cordell nodded. “Yeah. Let’s do that. How do I do that?”
Sensing his intent, the computer system popped up a button saying:
SEND THIS GLADIATOR A GIFT FOR 8000A.
Just to the right of the button, he saw his account balance with Bill’s organization: a big, fat zero. He was guessing they’d already deducted the bet he’d made—a bet which he would likely lose, shortly before losing his ship and his crew.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” said Armin, coming to stoop down beside them so he’d be on their level. “We’re out of cash.”
“Sure,” said the blond one, and all of them deflated a bit. “Okay.”
“What’s your name?” asked Armin.
“I’m Heidi.” She pointed to the scrawny white boy beside her. “That’s Sam, my second cousin.”
Sam was the smallest of the bunch, and looked like he’d scarcely make it through a stiff wind, much less a tricky battle. He shuffled in behind the other boy, all the while maintaining his haunted stare at Armin.
Cordell sank to a crouch before the third child—the fierce-looking young man with shaved black hair. Up close, Cordell spied dozens of white scars crisscrossing his face, and he would’ve had delicate features—if he’d been given half a chance at a normal life. The kid looked anywhere but at Cordell, crossing his arms over his frayed tactical vest.
“And what’s your name, son?” Cordell asked.
“My name is, ‘I’m a girl, and you can go kill yourself for all I care.’ Are we done?”
Cordell recoiled, blinking. “Uh, I see… Sorry about that, young lady.”
She inclined her head at him. “You’re not sorry about anything. You’re here to watch us die.”
“Orna, he bet on us,” said Heidi. “If we win, will you get us something nice? We always win.”
“Of course we always win,” said Orna, turning away to work on something just out of view. Sam, now exposed, darted after her to hide from Cordell. The distinct rasp of a spinning ratchet filled the small room.
“If we didn’t win, we’d be dead, so even these losers can probably figure that out,” said Orna. “I could use some servos, though, if you want to—”
“How would you like to come offworld with us?” interrupted Armin.
Orna’s projection spun to face him. “What do you mean?”
“If you win,” said Cordell, searching his pockets for a his smokes, “you get your freedom. You’re welcome to board my ship, and I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
“Anywhere?” asked Heidi, her eyes lighting up.
“Bull. What do you get?” asked Orna.
He found his pack crushed in his pocket, and Cordell shook his head, giving up on the cigarettes. “Nothing. I bet a lot money so that Bill would wager your freedom. I want to help you.”
“You’re a liar,” Orna scoffed. “No one would make such a stupid bet.”
“I’m an old ADF marauder captain, honey,” said Cordell. “We live on stupid bets.”
“More lies. If you had a marauder,” said Orna, “you’d just come get us instead of making us fight.”
Cordell looked around the room. It was made for these gladiatorial meetings—all blank walls except for a few imagers. Was anyone watching his feed? How much could he say without getting in trouble?
“Tell me where you are,” he said.
Then the projection flashed red and extinguished with a loud klaxon. The lights in the room went bright, and the door behind them opened, revealing Sunny. Cordell braced himself for a beating, but she only smiled cordially.
“Sorry, Captain Lamarr, but that discussion is strictly prohibited. I hope you enjoyed your time meeting the gladiators.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Cordell. “Can you turn it back on so I can finish my conversation? I promise I won’t ask again.”
Sunny stood to one side the door, calmly gesturing for the pair of men to follow her. “They need to prepare for the match. Please follow me. The fight begins in forty minutes, and your substantial bet entitles you to VIP seating.”