And… play. Livestream is go.
Five minutes from the deadline. It’s quiet on the feed, but that’s the usual traffic this early in the game. Any people that are on are prowlers, the ones who obsess about my technique over the actual closer.
@thereathee: what model rifle is that?
@skilleez67: @thereathee it’s an S&W Dellax-77. He’s taking the shot from at least 49km.
@punfisher118: did he adjust for wind?
@feulkllr: @punfisher118 she, and yeah she did. She’s taken trickier shots than this.
@45yoigi gender is relative. #fluidsarepeople #equalityforfluidsnow.
Buncha nerds, geeking out about the little things. But prowlers and gun nuts justify the ad revenue alone. Gotta love ’em for that. Now if they only pledged more than the bare base donation amount. Cheapskates.
I tuned back in as Director Hobson came to the end of his welcome for the new interns. I’d heard his spiel numerous times before – he liked to have me there as an example of how agents could make multiple trips through the vortex and suffer no ill-effects.
Hobson drew himself up in a supposedly spontaneous display of righteous indignation, hands gripping both sides of the lectern. “…and despite what those deluded protestors outside may chant, we are not murderers, nor body-snatchers, nor are we devoid of conscience. All those we retrieve from the past vanished without trace – overlooked, unmissed, discarded by the society of their time. The organs and other genetic material we harvest both lend purpose to their passing and save the lives of countless recipients in the here-and-now.” He paused for an equally spontaneous smattering of applause, led by Miss Brunner, the head of Human Resources.
I shifted my weight to the other foot and idly picked at a barely healed scab on my left hand. The decay was troublesome, but time in the regeneration tanks didn’t come cheap.
How could they sit and eat—like fat sedated cows, while their fellow beings were carted off like chattel?
Three lives gone is as many minutes…
I could not say I knew the bull, or the twin-headed warrior from the Outerworld of Aldron, but I did know their suffering. I knew every curse; every sneer, every glance of contempt that they experienced.
We all did.
I looked up at the crowd. They laughed and chatted among themselves, swapping gossip, gesturing greetings, occasionally glancing down as the Emperor’s soldiers removed the ‘debris’ from the arena floor. Had they really no empathy for us. None? I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Soldan. “Ulserra, join us.”
Obbas, my Master of Games hovered to my right, hoping to stay invisible. I could feel the eyes of some of the Council elders on me. All knew the water-bearer had come too close for comfort.
Someone had to pay, and dearly.
I flicked my eyes toward Obbas. He drew near. “Your Imperial Majesty, please forgive me. The Arissian was watched for months, Your Majesty. We could not have known she possessed such power.”
“Within the time —
A few of the Council members furtively glanced my way. I gestured to my Lord Marshall. When he was still a few feet away I spoke, loud enough for the right ears to hear. “Our Master of Games’s sight has weakened somewhat of late. Take out his eyes, and bring them to my personal physician. Perhaps he can remedy what ails them.”
A ripple of fear sparkled around me. My dear late uncle was right; there was no sensation quite as satisfying as placing terror into the hearts of men.
* Winner of the 2017 Story of the Year Award *
Ok, so I’m in this closet in the hospital. The vid’s kind of dark, but I don’t want to turn on the light because somebody might find me. And I have to find Lily first.
I can’t go into surgery without Lily. I won’t. Fireman Jim gave her to me in the hospital after my house burned down. I don’t go anywhere without her. Ever. You know her, she’s my purple rabbit? Yeah, she’s in all of these vlogs.
He left Lily with me, and she was there when I woke up in the hospital. All I could remember was smoke … screaming … it hurt … I was upside down over somebody’s back and out the window OMG … and then everything was black, and I felt this soft thing with one hand, and she was the only thing that didn’t hurt. That was Lily, but I didn’t know her yet.
The lion man pulled away from me. “Why? Why are you helping me?
“Because—” I faltered. I looked around me, at the carnage. Two innocents dead, one about to die. The ones they had christened Aries, Scorpion and Taurus. Others knew them as brother, father…friend.
I had to tell the lionman, and the other players who did not know of our plot against the emperor. They had a right to know. “Warrior, there’s something—”
“I don’t form alliances,” the lion snapped. “I play a straight game. Yeah, I know that sounds hard to believe, Water Bearer, but I do, after my own fashion. You want partners, you’d best look elsewhere.”
A cry sounded near us. It was the bull. The crab man stood over him, a bloodied claw raised high, ready to strike. The wound in the bull’s side was wide enough to fit a human head. He lay on his side, his eyes turned upwards to the sky. His face looked – no…
He could not be serene. He was about to die.
The crab man’s claw came down with force. The clack of a shattered skull echoed around the arena.
“You ready?” asks Miller, Alec, owner-prime and enhancer of my system. He wants to tap my back, but when he sees his grease coated hands, he relents, not wanting to stain my exterior plating.
“I am prepared,” I reply.
“You remember what we talked about? Dodge at all times. All you gotta do is dodge. Then, when you get an open, you hit ’em with…what?”
“What?” I ask.
“No, that’s when you…never mind. It’s when you swing your arm. That’s under sub-router 12. Just remember your programming, and you might just stay in one piece until the first round, got it?”
“Affirmative sir. You will be pleased with your coat of paint,” I reply, as per my programming.
Blood bubbled up to my throat. I spat it out. It wasn’t blood. It was bile mixed with mucus. I thanked the gods. No internal injury. But the pain – the pain still pumped through my body.
I took a breath and tried to keep the hurt at bay. My heartbeat played in tandem to the crowd’s chants.
Anger began to take over from my pain. I despised this. These people. This bout. This life.
I despised my life. Everything about it.
My workday was unusually frustrating: more robo-carers needed urgent repairs; human carers asked for more help for clients whose condition had worsened; and the turnover of contract carers had gone into a spin with so many colds and flu bugs about. But I was managing, just.
And I had to develop that app to help wheelchair users have a bath on their own. This required real peace and quiet to get the ‘alter a bit here and tweak a control level there to bring it together’ right. Something I planned for the evening.
My auto-aide announced a surprise visitor.
He walked into my office in the full dress uniform of a civil servant: black bowler hat, navy pinstripe suit, white shirt, walking-stick umbrella and battered leather briefcase. The handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket warned me he was a high ranker. This was turning into an awful day.
I forced my number three smile normally reserved for my most awkward customers, stood up and offered to shake his hand. ‘How may I help, Mr … ?’
The cheer from the crowd was deafening. Emeran’s body was curled in upon itself, though his head still faced back into the arena. His eyelids were locked open. I followed the line of his lifeless stare. It was aimed at Maheras, the centaur. His assassin.
The crowd cheered out the centaur’s game title.
Maheras walked off, his back turned away from the crowd. And from me. I called out his name. “Maheras!” But he did not hear me. Or pretended not to. Well, he would hear me.
I closed my eyes, allowed his image to come to me. I would call him, and he would answer. He stopped dead in his tracks. I felt his fear. His fear weakened his aura. I readied myself.