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Ryan Jenkins sat on the cold, metallic bench in the Crows’ locker room, the world on mute around him. The locker room was a dingy place—the hinges of each door was caked with rust and dirt was mired between every tile—all because the apathetic and underpaid janitorial staff could not be bothered. It was just as well; Jenkins hadn’t noticed even after he had taken off his utilitarian, almost featureless helmet to reveal a short crop of brown hair and an innocent face. There were no scars or wrinkles, he was just a boy, really; his adolescence had extended well into his twenties just like most of the jury of his peers. All manners of grime covered his armored hands, but Jenkins could only focus on the splashes of blood decorating his gloves. As he sat on the bench, he could not stop from vividly recalling how the stains had gotten there.

Roberts sat a few meters away and watched Jenkins while scratching at the brown fuzz on his scalp; his hair had not had a chance to grow back, yet. Although Roberts was two years Ryan’s junior, his tired eyes betrayed several lifetimes of fighting on the fields of Eris. Upon seeing his teammate still in shock, Roberts gave a weary frown, but he knew the physical and emotional trauma that came with the first game. Roberts had spent four years on this prison world and had seen so many supposed “athletes” come and go, but none of them had been heroes from the start.

However, to a soldier like Roberts, it seemed like Jenkins was not cut out for this kind of work. Nobody really was, but his new teammate had already been gaping at his hands for ten minutes. Roberts had to guess it was because of the dried blood covering the grey power armor, which—aside from the crimson and black crow on his shoulder plates—was plastered with corporate logos and mottos, most notably the iconic image of McCoy’s crescent moon painted onto the left of Jenkins’ chest plate. It was the exact same logo etched into Roberts’ set of armor tucked away inside his locker, but that was expected since the fast-food chain was their major sponsor. It was an odd choice, because whenever Roberts saw the icon on his teammates’ armor, it hardly made him want to enjoy one of their cheeseburgers.

Not when it was associated with blood and pain.

Roberts sighed at the rookie’s shell-shocked behavior, but some paternal instinct kicked in and he knew that he would have to help Jenkins get over this trauma, whatever it was. Roberts stood up—freshly dressed in off-duty, standard-issue khaki fatigues—and walked over to the rookie, maintaining a reasonable distance. Sometimes the new soldiers would snap, and Roberts did not want a recruit to break his nose again just because he was being too friendly.

“Jenkins, you okay?” Roberts asked, wishing he was better at this. He would have used the rookie’s first name, but he hadn’t had the chance or desire to learn it. It was much easier to yell last names over explosions and gunfire and there was no reason to break the habit outside of the battlefield. Especially since a fair amount of soldiers would either be retired or traded away eventually.

Jenkins did not answer him at first. Not verbally, at least. He looked up, away from his hands, and slowly turned his head toward Roberts, looking past him and making him feel uncomfortable in his own skin. Jenkins breathed out heavily and drew in breath deliberately, his lip quivering as he did. It seemed as if breathing was no longer involuntary; as if he had to force himself to keep going.

“He died.”

Roberts had no idea which he Jenkins was referring to. There were a dozen likely suspects—their fight against the Warthogs was quite the bloodbath—and Jenkins had present for most of those deaths. Shifting his weight to his other foot, Roberts contemplated his approach; he needed to narrow it down.

“Um... who’s he?”

“Warner. He died right in front of me. He was yelling at me for something and... and...”

Roberts remembered now; he had been there to witness that particular act of stupidity. Warner had been standing above cover like an idiot and yelling at Jenkins when a soldier on the other team took a pot-shot at their position. The bullet had promptly landed in Warner’s temple. Hopefully, the violent convict would learn from his lapse in judgment, but Roberts would make sure Warner did not take any more chances like that during the next game, especially if they ended up being paired together. That kind of behavior could end up getting Roberts killed and death was usually something he tried to avoid.

“Hey, look,” Roberts said, awkwardly patting Jenkins on the shoulder with his delicate hands, which should have been rough and weathered after four years of combat. Though he was thinking about how many bodies he had used since his arrival on Eris, Roberts breathed in deeply and tried to console his new teammate.

“That wasn’t your fault. Warner’s an asshole a lot of the time. I’ve had my own fair share of stupid behavior… even before I landed myself on this rock. We all make mistakes we pay for,” Roberts said before falling back into his own memories. He wondered how he had been foolish enough to think becoming a corporate-sponsored gladiator was better than prison. Shaking the thought from his head, Roberts tried to remember that he could not change the past. He looked back at Jenkins to see that his teammate had shifted from his position on the bench.

“I know, I know. It’s just the first time I’ve seen it up close. I’ve watched the games since I was a kid but it didn’t seem so... real before,” Jenkins replied, giving an exasperated smile at the end of the statement. Now that he was finally talking, Roberts had to change his mind about the new Crow. Jenkins would be salty and experienced soon enough; it would just take him a little more time.

Roberts did nothing to hold back his sigh at the realization; getting used to Eris was not exactly a good thing.

“Just wait until your first kill. That’ll be something,” Roberts said, the last words warped by a grunt as he sat down on the bench besides Jenkins, wondering just how the rookie would handle that first dose of guilt. The first death in the games was always a little traumatic; the first kill always depended on the person. However, as Roberts made eye contact with him, Jenkins looked back like he had been startled awake.

“Actually, that really wasn’t a problem. I got two or three guys today. Warner, though; I knew him. I’ve been eating meals with him for a month now. Then he just went and died in front of me. I guess it’s affecting me more because I knew the guy. The people on the other team could’ve been robots or aliens for all I care,” Jenkins said before shaking his head. He pinched the bridge of his nose as if he felt some sinus pressure, but it was a relic of another time.

Before he had come to Eris—back when he called it War World like everybody else—Jenkins had worn glasses and the pinching was one habit he had not shaken. It did not matter that the Commission had sliced and modified his eyes until Jenkins had perfect eyesight. The compulsion came less often now that he had been living on this asteroid planet for a month, but every once in a while he forgot there was nothing above the bridge of his nose.

Shocked by Jenkins’ claim, Robert could only stare at his new teammate; usually the new guys would take a few matches until they could hold their own. Roberts himself had not killed anybody until his third game, and War World had called him a prodigy at some point.

Kids these days, Roberts thought, starting way too young. The modern gladiator ran his hand along his scalp and then propped it up against his chin, trying to figure out how this rookie would adapt. Obviously more comfortable, Jenkins looked back at him and chuckled before letting out an anxious sigh and continuing.

“It’s going to be so weird to see Warner tomorrow.”


***


Jenkins shuffled forward in the line, staring at the unappetizing food displayed in front of him. He was dressed in the standard issue fatigues—a far cry from his battle gear—but for some reason he was still uncomfortable. The material did not breathe right, the beige cloth was just a little too starchy, and it made his skin itch terribly. Jenkins thought it was the Commission—the organization responsible for the day-to-day operations for all of the soldiers on Eris—trying to keep them on edge. Comfortable gladiators were not very entertaining.

Jenkins grabbed a processed chicken sandwich and placed it on his metallic tray with all the other food, a smattering of oily vegetables and easily-produced foodstuffs. The constant training for the gladiators really built up his appetite, but it seemed like he was the only one who seemed to crave more than a few bites of anything. Every other soldier on the Crows had a modest amount of food piled on their trays, enough for survival and little else. It forced Jenkins to wonder why he was the only one with an appetite.

After loading up his tray, Jenkins walked over to the few soldiers he recognized. There were about two dozen people sitting in the three rows of benches—mostly men—but Jenkins was still a rookie and only knew a handful of the people in the brightly-lit room. As he trudged to the second row of benches, Jenkins tried to ignore the buzz of the fluorescents above him that were seemingly designed to keep him on edge, eventually sitting down next to Cortes and Feldman.

Cortes—a sorrowful man whose only trace of Spanish lineage was black hair and slightly darker skin—gave Jenkins a bit of a glare, but Feldman did not even look away from his tray. Feldman was a titan on the battlefield, but in the barracks he usually kept to himself. The giant soldier was more than two meters tall and had a small amount of black hair on the top of his head, but after just five days without shaving, the brute already had more hair on his face.

Jenkins knew better than to talk to either of them; he had not earned the right to speak to them as equals and neither one of the Crows were exceptionally friendly. Glancing around, Jenkins found Roberts sitting further down the dining table, just lifting his gaze after poking a piece of broccoli with a plastic fork. After shrugging and giving Jenkins a half-hearted smile, Roberts lifted the overcooked vegetable to his mouth and munched on it without enthusiasm, doing his best to avoid eye contact. Jenkins knew the smile was just an awkward show of courtesy, but it was a comfort; to a degree, one of his teammates accepted him.

After a minute of silence, one of the Crows at the other end of the table snorted and almost choked on a piece of synthesized meat before looking over at Cortes in excitement. Jenkins had seen the red-haired Englishman a few times during his training, but had never learned his name; he had never had a chance to ask. Luckily, Cortes would be his savior.

“What, Norris?” Cortes asked their smiling teammate, noticing the look but refusing to make eye contact with the red-haired soldier. Norris grinned even wider at the reaction and picked at his green beans, which were being stubborn and rolled around his tray.

“Nothin, mate. Just remembering that chainsaw fellow from the Vipers game,” Norris said, finally able to spear a bean on the flimsy tines of his fork. Cortes had to search for the memory in his head, but eventually he looked back at Norris and twisted his face in discomfort.

“The one you shot through the knee?” Cortes asked, biting his lip before seeing Norris nod in approval.

“Yeah, bastard never saw it coming. Fell on his chainsaw. Just thought it was funny and I wanted to relive the memory with you. He just couldn’t get back off of it, no matter how hard he tried,” Norris mused with a smile before turning back to his tray. Giving up on the green beans and cutting into his synthesized protein, Norris used the edge of his fork instead of bothering with a knife that would likely break in his grip.

“You’re hopeless, you know that?” Cortes asked without expecting a remark, and it was just as well; he did not get one. Norris went back to eating his mystery meat with a smile; Cortes went back to his rice with a sigh. Most of their meals were like that, just like all the other teams in all the other barracks. There wasn’t much for these supposed athletes to talk about; the only things these men had in common were their debts, their crimes and the experience of killing men and women for sport.

Jenkins was chewing on his bland sandwich when another soldier walked into the far-too-bright mess hall. Jenkins was oblivious for a moment, but as the silence fell over his teammates, he glanced up to see Warner, his partner in the last game against the Warthogs. Warner stopped mid-step when a hush fell over his audience, but after a moment’s hesitation he continued to the lunch counter. In contrast to how he had looked yesterday, Warner was almost bald and looked gaunt and worn-out, as if he had substituted caffeine for sleep for too long. Although Warner usually sported thin, sandy brown hair, after every resurrection each soldier had to start with nothing. They would still age in the stasis cell, but the fresh clones would emerge without foot-long nails or manes of hair. It was one of the first problems the Commission had needed to solve when the games were introduced.

Jenkins could see the anger hiding behind Warner’s eyes, the perpetual scowl on his face, but there was not much he could do about it. Warner had killed men even before he had come to this rotten asteroid and Jenkins did not want to provoke him. He just watched as Warner progressed along the line of sub-standard food, but by the end of it the convict had only filled up a quarter of the tray. Resurrection apparently killed the man’s appetite.

Warner picked up the small amount of food and headed to the table closest to him, scowling at those soldiers who dared to look at him. Midway through his journey, Warner stumbled and almost emptied the contents of his tray onto the floor, only just keeping the tray from flying from his hands. Quickly, he recovered and jerked up to his full height before scanning the room for any person foolish enough to laugh. After scowling at his teammates for a moment, Warner shuffled forward and sat down at the far end of the table, staring at the dull, bland food that was his lunch. Warner did not seem to want company or any special attention.

He was getting it, anyway. Masked in sidelong glances and the stretching of necks, nearly everyone had their eye on Warner. Resurrection—while commonplace—was not something to be taken lightly, and the Crows needed something to occupy their thoughts. Roberts, however, had his eye on their newest teammate. He could see a yearning; a dumb, foolish, idiotic desire to make things right.

Minutes passed at an unbearably slow pace. Roberts already knew what was going to happen and the delay was only making him anxious. He almost breathed a sigh of relief when Jenkins stood from the bench and started toward Warner’s position, his breathing and steps light so he could minimize how much noise he was making. Though Roberts was about to speak up and talk Jenkins out of it, a deep voice rumbled and took the responsibility from him.

“You shouldn’t.” No one recognized the voice at first, but they didn’t hear it very often. Jenkins looked behind him to find Feldman looking at him through droopy eyelids, as though he was staring right into Ryan’s soul. This man, whoever he really was, seemed to be more than just tired. Jenkins tried to ignore his own thoughts and sighed before shrugging, his defiance born from obligation rather than the desire to do the right thing.

“I have to,” Jenkins said, giving a forced smile to the giant staring him down. Feldman held his heavy gaze for only a few more seconds before looking back to his tray and picking up a stale biscuit covered in soy-based gravy. Feldman had said his piece; he did not presume to have any control over his teammate’s actions.

Jenkins continued toward the newly-resurrected soldier trying to eat his meal in peace. A thousand thoughts and scenarios rushed through his mind, but Jenkins felt like he had to do something. He had to acknowledge the likely scenario that Warner felt he was responsible for his death. The world slowed down as Jenkins approached the ruthless killer; time expanded and even Warner’s lazy chewing seemed to take minutes. After an eternity, Jenkins reached the end of the table and stood there close to Warner, who was shakily holding his plastic knife.

“What do you want?” Warner asked, setting his knife and fork to the meal in front of him and avoiding eye contact with Ryan. He viciously cut into his synthetic steak, which could have been cut easily by a spoon, and quickly raised a piece to his mouth before slowly chewing the artificial beef, his eye twitching as pain raged at the muscles of his jaw.

“I’m just... I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” Jenkins mumbled, shoving his thumbs inside the waistline of his slacks and rocking back and forth on his heels, feeling more awkward than he ever had been back on Earth.

“Sorry? Sorry for what?” Warner asked, sniffing loudly as he continued to cut his steak into smaller bites. He had still not made eye contact with Jenkins and it unnerved him.

“Because you... well, you didn’t make it,” Jenkins blurted out, finally realizing that every Crow was watching their interaction.

“Kid, sometimes we don’t make it. If that’s all you wanted to say you can go sit back down. I don’t need to hear your apologies,” Warner said dismissively before picking up an orange and starting to peel the rind away from what healthy food he could find. He turned to face Jenkins and popped a slice of the fruit into his mouth, determined to act unaffected by his teammate’s apology. Although Jenkins looked slightly taken aback by Warner’s reaction, he soon regained his composure and nodded at his former partner.

“So... we’re good, right?” Jenkins asked. The convict’s eyes flashed with anger at the question and he stood up, knocking the table with his knees. He practically spit out the orange slice in his fury.

Good? No. No, we’re not good. Because of you I died. Again,” Warner said with an icy tone, shoving his index finger against Ryan’s chest. “I was finally starting to earn money and in a couple of games I might have been able to start making a profit and get off this fucking planet. But now with all these resurrection costs I’m in even MORE debt! You are the reason I’m in the red,” he said, punctuating the statement with another tap of his index finger.

“I was able to pay those fucking bloodsuckers back, but now the dream’s gone. I’m probably never, EVER, going to have another chance. We’re in prison, kid, and only the lucky buy their way out. And you?” Warner asked, a frustrated smile on his face as he backed away from Jenkins and stood above his bench. “You’ve given me an awful case of bad luck. Get the fuck back in your seat.”

With each of Warner’s words Jenkins could feel years-worth of repressed rage pouring out, poisoning the air they all breathed. Warner was angry at him, certainly, but even more than that he was just angry with his life. As he plowed through his tirade, telling everyone exactly what Jenkins had done to him, there was little movement from the other soldiers. They fully expected Warner to find some reason to kill their newest teammate.

The rookie muscled through the speech with a quiet resolve, doing his best to stop himself from biting his lip and trying to maintain a masculine stance. When Warner finished talking and turned back to his tray, Jenkins almost breathed a sigh of relief that it was nothing more than angry words. The young soldier had almost made it through his penance unscathed, but in yet another poor decision in a long chain of poor decisions, Jenkins opened his mouth again.

“I’m sorry.”

Warner whipped around and threw a right hook into his jaw. His form was off and he didn’t follow through with his hips, but Warner had made his message known. Jenkins staggered a bit from the initial hit and tried to regain his footing before Warner was able to follow up with a haymaker.

But he didn’t regain his footing.

Warner connected with the next blow and almost knocked him out, forcing Jenkins to fall to the ground as he reclaimed his senses. Only years of scrapping in the dens of New Chicago saved him from further punishment. As Warner came down on him with his next assault, Jenkins threw up his forearms and blocked the blows before pushing the older man off of him with a powerful push of his legs. After claiming some room, Jenkins threw himself up to his feet just in time to see Warner preparing to tackle him. However, by that time Feldman and Cortes had gotten out of their seats and before Warner could connect with his tackle, there were three other Crows between them. The fight was effectively ended, but Warner’s rage was hard to contain.

“You’re a sack of shit and I swear to God if I ever get traded to another team I’m going to hunt your ass down!” Warner roared his threats and sounded almost unintelligible by the end of them; civility was clearly the last thing on his mind. It seemed almost irretrievable until an authoritative baritone broke through the noise, causing each soldier to stop mid-action.

“Warner, back off. It’s not his fault.” Warner craned his neck to see the speaker and even within that short span of time he had calmed down noticeably.

“It IS his fault! I was yelling at him to cover me before it happened! That FUCKING rookie has my blood on his hands!” he shouted, breathing heavily and pointing at Jenkins with a shaking index finger.

A man looking to be in his late fifties broke through the crowd of warriors and walked deliberately to the side of the Crows. Jonathon Carver was gruff, to say the least, and a fair amount of salt was mixed in with the pepper of his hair. His face was tired and the elasticity of his skin had long since given way, but the blue-eyed veteran still looked formidable. He walked right up to Warner, who no longer had to be restrained, and breathed out in a disappointed huff.

“Organize your support before you break cover. It’s a simple idea. You can’t blame the kid because someone took advantage of your incompetence. Sit down,” Carver chided their teammate, but Warner shook his head violently.

“But...” he almost seemed to whine, but Carver reduced his eyes to slits.

“Just sit down and stop embarrassing everyone here. The only reason this is a big deal is because you made it a big deal. Eat your goddamned food; it’s gonna get more unappetizing by the minute,” he said, his stoic face daring Warner to disagree. The convict looked like he wanted to say something to Carver, but the words would not come. When Warner eventually turned to the rest of his teammates, shame flashed over his face and he let out a labored breath.

Pushing past the men in the crowd, Warner sat back down at his solitary place at the table. He was tempted to throw his tray on the ground as an act of rebellion, but eventually decided against it; it would accomplish nothing. Instead, he lowered his head and went back to eating his cold food. After watching Warner for a moment to see if there was still a threat, Carver turned his gaze to the rest of the Crows and lifted an eyebrow.

“What? Is this a party? If you’re done eating, head back to your rooms. All this standing around nonsense is just that,” Carver stated, looking to stare down those who would object. No one took him up on that offer, and soon afterward the Crows shuffled back to their seats. Within a few moments, the two dozen men and women were grazing cattle just like before. The old soldier then turned to Jenkins and grunted after looking him over.

“Alright, kid. We’re going for a walk.”


***


Jenkins followed three steps behind the older man, feeling a like he was back in grade school and due for a scolding. It was an odd feeling to be this close to a legend; Carver had done so much in his time with the Crows that War World had even aired a retrospective of his career. Jenkins remembered watching a much more youthful Jonathon Carver on the giant televisions in New Chicago; all heroics and symbol for all that was man. The athlete had been larger than life, but as Jenkins took in his surroundings, he had to remind himself that he was just three steps behind that very same man. His back wasn’t as straight and his skin was weathered, but the old man was still intimidating.

Those blue eyes of his had not faded in the slightest.

They had walked out of the mess hall and down the dingy hallways toward the training yard—the empty, center square the barracks was built around—and then up into the battlements, which were little more than hip-high walls skirting the roof where the Crows could stand if they wanted to look at the outside world. From the roof they could see the charred and blasted landscape of Eris, their home asteroid covered in a perpetual haze of clouds and smoke; Jenkins had not seen a truly sunny day since he had arrived at the barracks. It was hard to think that only half of the planet was covered in that warzone, that there was a place outside the constant destruction and death. The other half of the asteroid was devoted to supporting the games, covered in satellite cities for the staff and agricultural communities to help feed them all.

As he looked out on his new home, Jenkins wondered if he would ever visit one of those fabled cities. Neither he nor Carver had said a word on their way up to the battlements, but after a few moments of gazing at the war-torn and pockmarked landscape, Carver turned his head slightly to face his new recruit. The veteran still looked toward the horizon, but it was clear he was watching Jenkins out of his periphery.

“You didn’t owe him anything,” Carver said in his gruff voice, scolding Jenkins for his compassion. Looking back at his arms, which he had folded over the wall in front of him, Jenkins tried to resist the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. Although he was unnerved by the distant din of gunfire and artillery—even after a month of training—Jenkins gathered his resolve and responded to his elder.

“He died, sir. I felt like I should say something,” he said in a clipped tone, as if he was talking to a superior officer. Though they held no ranks in the Crows or any of the other teams on Eris, Jenkins felt like he owed Carver respect, at the very least.

“It’s not the first time. Warner’s died forty times now, or something like that. Comes with the territory,” Carver explained, still watching the horizon in front of him. A gust of wind brought the smell of gunpowder to his nose, causing the older man to close his eyes.

“But—”

“But nothing,” Carver interrupted, opening his eyes and turning to face Jenkins directly. “That kind of man has to save face. He has to be the top dog. Thing is, he just doesn’t have it in him, so he has to have excuses. You were his excuse and then you walked right up to him and owned up to it.”

“But—”

“Stop it,” Carver interrupted again, brow furrowing as Jenkins fought his lesson. “It only encourages people like him and he doesn’t need any more of that crap. The only thing you should ever apologize for is friendly fire. Everything else doesn’t really matter.”

“Oh...” Jenkins muttered before looking back up to the piles of dirt, rock and broken roads spreading out around the barracks. The Trade Union had done a decent job with this false planet, and it made him wonder about the other seven asteroids in Earth’s orbit. It was hard for him to tell that he was on an asteroid that had been reconstructed into a serviceable colony for the ever-expanding human race. Anxious at the thought of being a day’s space travel away from Earth, Jenkins looked over at his elder and could see no discomfort in Carver’s expression. He looked like he belonged.

“Sir, I have a question,” Jenkins started, but the old man’s eyes twitched at the title.

“Don’t call me sir, Rookie. That’s the second time and you’re not gonna like what happens after the third,” Carver threatened, turning to face the horizon once more.

“Um... okay. Just… I was going to ask why you’re telling me all this,” Jenkins said, forcing Carver to break his staring contest with the sky and look at his newest compatriot. His gaze softened when he looked directly at Jenkins.

“I know all that out there seems scary, so I just wanted to give you a tip or two. I have a bit of a soft spot for you new guys.”

“Because we remind you of when you were young?” Jenkins asked jokingly, laughing as he spoke the words, but immediately regretted saying anything once the veteran’s eyes flickered with annoyance. This was not a man anyone wanted to annoy.

“No, you child. I’m not that old,” Carver said and resumed his gaze towards the endless hills of battlefields, seeming to sink into himself. “Shit, who am I kidding? I am that old,” he said before breathing out deeply and leaning up against the railing.

“It’s just ... nobody deserves this,” Carver said as he stared into the distance. Jenkins thought it inappropriate to interrupt him, but his curiosity would not let him be.

“Sir—I mean, Carver...” he quickly corrected himself. Luckily, Carver’s mind was still absent.

“How do you keep doing it? I mean, how have you been doing this for so long?” The old Crow looked back at Jenkins, his blue, unfocused eyes betraying a tortured view of the world.

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?”


End of Sample

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