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White Mesa Chronicles

Gladiator

Kimia Wood

Dedication

Soli Deo gloria.

To G.K. Chesterton…because I’m not intimidated to write a narrative of worldview conflict even if I don’t do it so well.

Extra special thanks to Ben Smith and Kim Bishop, beta-readers, and my long-suffering family.

Thanks to cover model David Foy for being a good sport!

Copyright © Kimia Wood 2018

Cover image of Chicago skyline courtesy of Tyler Sichelski via Wikimedia Commons. No endorsement implied.

Title font used is Optiko (and variants), courtesy of JerakDurzan.

Table of Contents

Prologue

1. Burglar

2. Long Arm of the Law

3. Cockroach

4. Tommy

5. Introductions

6. First Fight Day

7. Femme Fatale

8. House Rules

9. Questionable Ethics

10.Threatenings

11. Pick on Someone Your Own Size

12. Mounting Desperation

13. Multi-Fight

14. Ben v. Stumper

15. The Cavalry

16. Ben v. Guards

17. Opposing Force

18. Lull

19. Assault

20. The Tourist Thing

21. Clock

22. Maneuverings

23. Plan A

24. Plan A Part 2

25. Plan B

26. You’re On Your Own

27. Plan C

28. If I Had a Super Weapon—

29. Heading for the Portal…

30. …And Going Home

About the Author

* * * *

Prologue

"I don't like it," said Tommy Thaxton, crossing his arms as he stared at the map.

"Is that why he didn't ask you?" asked Ben, grinning and punching him in the shoulder.

Tommy grimaced. They might be best friends, who had grown up together on the homesteads of White Mesa, but Ben was still learning he punched a lot harder than he had before topping six feet and packing on the musculature to match.

Tommy, while no bean-pole, looked wiry in comparison.

Dr. Radcliff grunted and scribbled something in a notebook. "You don't have to like it, Lieutenant. I don't like the proliferation of z-germ parasite, and without further material I can't hope to diagnose the full nature of the threat."

Tommy nodded.

For almost a decade, the White Mesa militia had been sending teams past the boundary fence to the nearby Chicago ruins, three or four hours away by truck. There, they scavenged for legacy tools, raw materials, and recyclables. The main dangers had always been gangs, wild animals, and road hazards – until the past couple of years.

Now ferals were a regular sight, and nowhere were they more numerous than near the New Republic – a rising, expanding city-state with lots of people, plenty of food, and all the corruption that went with tyrannical power.

Tommy shivered. What the New Republic was doing to the helpless, docile zombies was abominable. Were they dumping their slave workers out into the waste once they devolved into animalistic monsters, or were the creatures simply escaping? Either way, the up-tick in the feral population directly endangered White Mesa and its people – not to mention the rest of the city natives.

"Hmm…no watch…no weapons…" Dr. Radcliff was muttering, glancing over his notes. "He can take a mirror, though, as a heliograph, I hope? He'll need some way to contact the scavenge teams."

"I thought this wasn't a militia mission," said Ben, toying with the straps on his deerskin backpack. "Since the security council thought it was too dangerous, we shouldn't get involved, blah blah blah."

"A remarkable imitation of Tommy's impression of the security council," said Dr. Radcliff.

"I wasn't allowed in the meeting," said Tommy. "But yes, my dad says it's been getting really rough. Isolationist sentiment is high. Some councilors don't even want us running scavenge missions."

"Yeah; because if we don't go out into the world, the outside world will just go away," smiled Ben.

Tommy grimaced. "To hear some of the patriarchs talk,” he said, “You'd think our fences and our secrecy were enough to keep off the apocalypse."

The booming feral population wasn't something that could be wished away, though. Tommy still didn't like the mission, but they had to know exactly what the New Republic was doing to the z-germ zombies if they were going to combat it. No matter what "certain members" of the security council said.

"You're taking a mirror," said Dr. Radcliff, deliberately poking items in his notebook with a pencil. "Anything we've forgotten, Tommy?"

"Take care of yourself," sighed Tommy, looking at Ben. "Tell the team exactly how you're doing — I don't want to worry about you, and wonder if you're dead or just ignoring us."

"We were worried about you," said Ben. "When you stopped sending messages, it was all we could do to keep your dad from barging down there personally. And what else could we do? Without some kind of hint what the matter was, we couldn't just barge in to rescue you, and…"

"I know." Tommy swallowed. The team had pulled him out when the time came, but he'd had inside contacts to help send the warning. He didn't like operations where he couldn't control all the variables.

"You know what your problem is?" said Ben, running a finger over the map of the city and the New Republic, going over his route one more time. "You worry too much. I've got a hundred times the intel you had before going in on your mission. I know the trouble spots to avoid. I know exactly what I'm looking for. We'll be fine."

* * * *

1 Burglar

Day: 00

The overcast night was dark except for the glow of the New Republic's border lights, several blocks away. Ben glided from cover to cover down the city street, the echoing of guard patrollers’ boots creating a map of movement in his mind. Up ahead, he spotted the low apartment building he'd been making for, a pool of yellow light marking the torch by the front door.

Ben crept alongside the building, and crouched near a basement window. He could hear a sentry pacing and clearing his throat by the front door.

Inside, the Afflicted workers would be fast asleep in their dormitories, while the few Security watching them would be grouped together playing dice. The medical supplies – the Afflicted's daily injection – they kept in one of the side rooms.

That much had been easy to learn, especially with the help of Daisy, the girl who lived across from his apartment. She'd been more than willing to show a new immigrant around the New Republic, and had never asked questions about Ben's eagerness to learn. She did odd jobs and made deliveries for the black market, so her "live and let live" mindset made sense.

Slipping a screwdriver out of his pocket, Ben eased it behind the plywood sheet that blocked the ground-level window beside him. It took several moments before it worked free and he leaned it against the wall.

Behind the plywood, two-by-fours spanned the space horizontally. Ben pursed his lips a moment, then rocked back on his hands, gripping the lowest board with his feet.

With a soft crunch, the board yielded. Ben balanced it on his leg for a moment, and pulled it through with his hands, setting it beside the plywood.

For an instant, he thought he detected the thumps of quiet feet on the edge of hearing. It wasn't the first time tonight, but once again when he scanned his surroundings, he couldn't pick up any unnatural movement.

Dismissing the sound, Ben rolled onto his stomach and snaked backward. His feet went through the window into the dark space beyond — then his legs, hips, and torso wormed after.

Ben dropped through the opening and crouched against the interior wall, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

He was in the Afflicted barracks – a place his friend Tommy had spent much too much time in. But short of passing alert guards, fences, (sometimes) electrified wire, and raiding the central HQ complex itself, this was his best bet for grabbing a sample of the medicine.

Whatever weird experiment the New Republic was doing with z-germ, Dr. Radcliff and White Mesa needed to know.

After Tommy's mission in the New Republic – and the sorry wreck he'd been upon his return – the security council had ruled further "interference" with the New Republic too risky. But Dr. Radcliff really, really wanted a sample of the Republic's medicine, Ben and his family had no objections to a covert mission, Ben had gotten a few months' vacation from the militia (possibly with the help of General Thaxton), and boom – here he was, in the middle of the enemy's base.

Assessing his surroundings, Ben found himself in a long, narrow room, tables and benches marching down the middle in orderly rows. Perfect for feeding zombie workers or the guards who baby-sat them.

Ben glided toward a nearby doorway, ears pricked for any sign he'd been noticed. Muttering and clattering came from behind the door. The dice game.

He moved to the other end of the meal room, where a second door opened into a dark hallway. Feeling his way forward, Ben listened some more. Snoring or breathing sounds came from doors on either hand – the zombies.

How like the apartment building where he himself stayed! That had been a cinch to sneak around in, as well.

Halfway down the hall was a door that must be a broom closet of some kind (from the size and position). Pressing his ear to it, Ben could hear no sounds of breathing or shifting in sleep. When he tried the handle, he found it was locked.

Digging in the cargo pocket of his trousers, Ben fished out a long, skinny bit of metal and knelt beside the lock. Mr. Jones had coached him. He closed his eyes to force himself to work by feel. There wasn't enough light here for his eyes to be any use.

Easy, gentle, twist…click! Ben grinned and tugged at the door, moving slowly to keep the noise down. The door glided open as the whisper of a creak sighed down the hallway.

Ben held his breath, but nothing in the building stirred. Rising, he squeezed himself through the door and blinked around at the new room.

Total darkness filled the internal space. Wishing he had a flashlight from White Mesa, Ben eased the door almost closed and pulled out a legacy lighter that he'd bought from a black marketer at great expense. The expense was because it had several drips of fuel in it still, perhaps scavenged from some abandoned house on the outskirts of the city, or some sealed apartment that had not yet been cracked by raiders.

With a flick of his thumb, light flashed in the room. Fire danced from the end of the lighter, then vanished as Ben let go of the button.

A table stood against the opposite wall. Two steps brought Ben to it. He had seen cabinets underneath it, but he groped on top for a black bag. Holding the lighter in his off hand, he clicked on his light again and poked in the bag, finding several needles, a few damp clothes – and several screw-top glass jars.

Ben grabbed one of these and held it up in his sputtering light. Tommy had described the substance as clear, and this was clear. He didn't see any other samples of drugs around, and at the very least he could deliver it to a White Mesa scavenge team and come back to the Republic pending further instructions. The militia officers hadn't sanctioned his mission, but the teams still stopped by at R6 in case he'd left a message or something.

Shoving his light back into his pocket, and securing the vial of drug, Ben slipped back out the door, pausing to lock it again before continuing down the corridor.

The sounds of the night had not changed. The snores and sighs behind the doors in the hallway continued undisturbed. As Ben pulled himself up through the window he'd entered by and slid the plywood back over it, he smiled.

A presence disturbed his senses. His instincts tingling, he whipped around, his back to the wall. A dark shape lunged at him out of the darkness.

Ben blocked, throwing off the attacker's grab. Having felt roughly where his opponent's head should be, Ben threw a punch. A loud thump against the pavement assured him he'd connected.

Footsteps surrounded him. Ben abruptly bent over to drop his profile and made a dash down the road toward the fence-line.

He rammed into someone with his shoulder, and someone else grabbed him around the neck. As he was throwing the second person against the wall of the building, the light of lanterns burst around a nearby corner.

Ben staggered and blinked, struggling to focus as dark figures darted around in front of the bright flames. Men – wearing the blue uniforms of the Security – surrounded him, most hefting the unloaded legacy rifles that served them as clubs and symbols of authority.

"You're under arrest!"

As Ben was just getting his bearings again, one of the Securitymen threw his arms around him, trying to knock him to the ground.

Ben threw him off, only to trip over another guard and fall to his knees. Someone held a lamp up in his face, forcing him to squint and blink. Four or five others pounced on him, forcing him to the ground and dragging his arms behind him to bind his wrists.

"Ow! What gives?" Ben cried. Since force wasn't an option anymore, he'd go for bluffing.

"Don't you know you're breaking curfew?" demanded a guard from above his head.

"I couldn't sleep."

"Just what were you doing climbing into that building?"

"What building?"

"That one," answered a Securityman with a captain's badge. "That we saw you climbing through the window of."

"Oh, that." It was time for the cover story, apparently. Tommy and Dr. Radcliff had made sure it was deep enough to be convincing.

"Well, I guess the patrols around here are heavier than I figured," he chuckled.

"Actually," muttered one of the guards, "We got a tip."

A tip? From whom? And about what?

"Hey," cried one of the Security as they pulled Ben to his feet. "What's this?"

He unbuttoned the front pocket on Ben's jacket and pulled out the glass bottle of the drug Ben had collected.

The captain's glare turned ugly. "We'll see what you have to say about this," he growled. "Back to HQ."

The HQ, eh? The infamous inner compound, where – according to Tommy – the Alderman of Security did his mysterious experiments with ferals. What was waiting for Ben now? How would he get the vial back?

Ben watched the guard hand it to the captain, who pocketed it. Dr. Radcliff needed that sample to find out exactly what the New Republic was doing with their drone program, and what it meant for the number of ferals in the waste.

With Security surrounding him on all sides, they headed toward the middle of the New Republic, and the main government compound. Ben reviewed in his mind what he was to say – Tommy had helped write the cover explanation, so it must be good.

Besides, even if it didn't work, White Mesa could come get him, as it had come for Tommy. Mr. Grimthorpe and the security council would have conniptions, but whatever. His one worry was what would happen to the drug sample. He needed that, or his mission would be a waste.

* * * *

2 Long Arm of the Law

Day: 1


The Security captain paced back across the floor. "I don't believe you."

Ben rolled his eyes. "What do you want me to tell you?"

The captain stopped in front of him, hands clasped behind his back, and glared. "The truth."

Ben sighed and shrugged – as well as he could shrug in the bonds. After going back and forth all night, nothing he said would make the captain happy. "I don't know who the guy was, but he looked like he could pay well. How should I know what he wanted the drug for?"

The captain leaned toward Ben’s face. "This isn't just an ordinary drug. It's special. How did you know that?"

"I didn't,” said Ben – again. “The guy who hired me told me what he wanted – that's all."

The captain gestured with his head, and the guard at Ben's shoulder smacked him across the face. Ben grunted, weaving a little in the chair. They were going to have to do better than that; the cover story was the cover story. After this many hours of practice, you'd have thought they'd come up with a new trick.

"You should be grateful," the captain growled. "We took you in and gave you work. We let you enjoy the protection of our fences, and our food. And for all that, you join a black market ring."

"I didn't join them, I just agreed to do a job, for payment. That's all."

"Where did you meet this man?"

Ben shrugged again. "I told you. That one tavern, the Cockroach."

The door creaked, and another Security official stepped into the room. He and the captain exchanged a few murmured words. The captain glanced at Ben, glaring.

"He's my capture," he began to protest.

"The Sheriff is interested," the newcomer answered, drawing himself up. "You'll get your due credit."

The captain grimaced, and finally gave a jerk of his head. The guard behind Ben loosened the straps that pinned his wrists to the chair back, and shoved him to his feet.

After binding his hands behind his back, they ushered Ben out the door and down the hall. Now what? He thought he remembered talk of a "sheriff" from Tommy's report of his mission. Apparently no one had tried to steal the Afflicted's drugs before, or the Sheriff probably wouldn't be interested.

They filed up a staircase and along corridors swept clean of debris. Ben noted dawn light coming in through glass windows – it was a pity such beautiful buildings were full of such dangerous, foolish people.

Three Securitymen clustered around Ben, in addition to the captain and the second commander, who led the way. Ben smiled to himself. If he tried to escape, he probably wouldn't get very far. As long as he stayed here, he might have another chance of getting his hands on the z-suppressor sample.

At length, they came to a door, where their guides knocked. At the invitation to enter, the captain glanced back at Ben, and pushed open the door, letting the guards usher Ben after him.

A wide room opened up. The far wall was lined with windows, and directly opposite the door sat a desk, stacked with slates. Bookshelves lined the walls, loaded with books.

A middle-aged man rose from behind the desk. Although his face showed lines of care, and his dark hair was streaked with grey, he stood erect. Ben raised his eyebrows with appreciation. From his hands to his spine, the Sheriff showed determination.

"Sir," began the captain.

"Thank you, Captain Bruce," cut in the man behind the desk. "You can give your report later. Jackson, that will be all."

The Security officers glanced at each other, then at their boss. With throat-clearing that might have been grumbling, they filed out, followed by all but one guard, who positioned himself across the door.

"What is your name?" asked the Sheriff, sitting again.

"Benji Shalom," Ben answered, using the name he'd given when he entered the Republic. Whenever he said it, he couldn't help remembering the brief – very brief – period he and Tommy had thought it would be fun to call each other by their middle names. He stifled a smile.

"What are you smiling about?"

"Nothing. May I ask who you are?"

The Sheriff smiled and came to Ben's side of the desk. "My name is Sylvester Brown. I'm the Alderman of Security here in our New Republic."

"Pleasure."

Sheriff Brown smiled again. "Not many people say that about meeting me, especially in your position. I can't help wondering, you know, what you were doing?"

"What have they told you?"

Brown laughed. "I'm supposed to be the one asking the questions. You give me your story first."

Ben drew a breath, and launched back into the cover story. "I was hanging out at the 'Roach…just relaxing, you know? Well, this guy came up to me –"

"What kind of guy?"

"Older guy. And he said he had five spare cards for me if I'd do a little job for him."

The Sheriff's eyebrows shot up. Five extra cards had inspired Shoe, too, when the black market guys had been throwing around numbers. Of course, Shoe hadn't believed they could deliver on that price, either.

"Go on."

"Well, I asked to see the cards, and he pulled them out. They looked pretty nice, too. So then I asked what kind of job, and he told me about that building with the drug."

Brown shook his head. "And you trusted him, just like that?"

Ben shrugged, twisting his wrists in their bonds. "You don't carry around new cards just for fun. And it sounded easy, the way he described it."

"You realize it was against the rules."

Ben dropped his head and shuffled his feet. "Well, it seemed worth the risk. I mean, out in the waste, you can't choose your trouble."

"Where did you come from, Benji?" asked Brown.

"Oak Parkers," Ben answered. "We got word of this place, and I decided to check it out for myself. I mean, it's nice not to have to watch your back every moment, even when you're sleeping. 'Sides…"

Sheriff Brown cocked an eyebrow. "Besides what?"

Ben cleared his throat. "Well, I was going nowhere fast in the Parkers. Leech didn't like me, and as long as he was captain…"

"I see. How do you like it here?"

Ben shrugged; his arms were starting to get stiff. "It's not bad. I mean, it's weird not being able to get, uh, buy anything you want. You need a card for everything."

"We do have a different economic system, yes."

Ben grinned. Tommy would love to talk about economic systems, but that wasn't the cover story. "Well, whatever it is, it's different. But it is nice that there aren't so many things to jump you."

"You like the fences."

"Yeah, those are helpful. No more bobcats."

Brown laughed. "Go on. I've heard how you got into our building. How did you choose which bottle to take?"

"The guy who hired me told me which one he wanted."

"Could you recognize him again, if you saw him?"

"Sure, I bet so. I mean, the light was bad, but I bet so." There wasn't any guy to recognize, but it couldn't hurt anything to look, right?

Brown raised one eyebrow. "Well, perhaps we'll swing by the Cockroach and see if we see him."

"He won't like it if I don't have the drug, or if I have Security with me."

"We'll take care of that."

Were they really going to send him back to the Cockroach with a vial of z-suppressor? Even if he did have a tail of Securitymen, he'd have a chance to complete his mission and get the sample. Unless they gave him fake medicine to carry.

"Did you have any friends to help you with your job?" asked Brown, heading toward the door and gesturing to the guard.

Like he'd squeal on his friends, if he had any. Then again, just who had given Security a "tip" last night? And what else might he or she have told them?

"No," said Ben. "Just me. Unless the guy hired someone else to try to get the drug, too, and didn't tell me."

Brown raised an eyebrow again.

Apparently something in his story wasn't adding up. The story was supposed to be iron tight. He'd even spent five weeks in the New Republic working at a job to build up his cover persona.

"Captain Bruce,” said the Sheriff, turning to one of his men. “Mr. Shalom says he got the job to break into our building from someone else. Tonight, we'll go down to the Cockroach to see if his employer is there. Wear ordinary clothes, and stay near Benji to keep him safe. I'll give him a bottle of medicine to take to the man."

"Very good, sir," answered the captain, frowning and smiling.

So they were trying to catch the mystery man who didn't exist. Good luck to them. At the first opportunity, Ben would ditch the dour captain and head for the fence.

Until tonight, Security goons.

* * * *

3 Cockroach

Ben glanced around the room full of tables, chairs, and shady citizens. Daisy had first brought him here, to "help him make friends", and Ben suspected several of the patrons were buying and selling things that couldn't be got from the New Republic venders – or at least, not for that price.

He glanced over at the Security lackey who was supposed to "keep him safe". Somehow, the man still had an official squareness to his shoulders even in civilian clothes. Ben smiled and looked away.

The door opened, and Ben fought down a reaction as Daisy and Shoe, her live-in, walked in. They were talking about something, their heads together as Shoe guided Daisy toward a table.

Ben swiveled to look away, examining the patrons on the other side of the room. If Daisy or Shoe noticed him and acknowledged him, they'd be tagged by Security. Likewise, if he seemed to be watching them at all closely, Security would probably start following them, just for the sake of it.

On the other hand…that guard had said they "got a tip" about Ben's whereabouts. Who better to know he wasn't in his apartment than the man and woman across the hall? He'd always kind of liked Daisy – she had a simple openness to her that contradicted her stealth when running black market packages. He'd even considered asking to borrow her bicycle when he had to get across town for his burglary, before deciding against it. The less anyone in the New Republic knew about his plans, the better.

Ben realized the tapping sound was the Security officer, trying to get his attention. When Ben looked over, the man bent his head toward an older man sitting a few tables away.

Ben raised an eyebrow and shook his head. The Securityman rolled his eyes. Ben suppressed a smile – they were wasting their time here. There was no black market employer boss — Ben had not broken into the Afflicted building for the black market drug trade. But Sheriff Brown was never going to learn that.

Covering it with a stretch, Ben scanned the room again. He hoped they weren't going to make him wait until the closing bell – he wanted to get going. He had a bottle in his pocket – just in case the mysterious Mr. Big appeared. With that, he could head for the fence-line as soon as this clod took his eyes off him.

"How should I know?" exclaimed Shoe, standing up and banging his chair back. "Can't you talk about anything else?"

"It's not like him," snapped Daisy, tossing her head and making her thick, dark hair swing around.

"You've known him how long? Two, three weeks?"

"Longer than that –"

"What's gotten into you? I told you, he's not safe to be around. You never –"

"Well, you never listen to me!"

Shoe threw up his hands and stomped out the door, leaving Daisy to flick her hair back in contempt. Ben's skin crawled with the bizarre feeling they were talking about him. Why would they be doing that? So what, he hadn't been at the apartment since yesterday evening. It wasn't like they worked together. They passed in the hall; sometimes they walked to the warehouse together – he to load boxes of scavenged merchandise for the warehouse, Daisy to run deliveries with her bicycle to the various New Republic vendors.

He rubbed his face and shrugged at the Securityman again. The man grimaced and shrugged back. They were staying.

A bell rang out in the city, clanging loud and brassy through the streets. Curfew warning.

"Closing time, everyone," called the owner, starting to pick up glasses and plates.

As the Cockroach's staff cleaned up and wiped tables, the patrons settled their bills, shuffling stacks of LINK cards back and forth, and drifted out the door. Daisy jerked to her feet and left, without glancing toward Ben.

Finally, it was him, and the Security. He rose to his feet, watching the Securityman imitate his movements, and headed for the door.

"No go, huh?" grunted the Securityman as Ben stepped through the door.

"Didn't see him," answered Ben. "Must not have come toni– Hey, I forgot something, be right back!"

Before the man could turn around, Ben ducked back inside the restaurant and darted past the staring bartender. Following a hallway past the kitchen, Ben spotted the EXIT sign over the back door and shoved the door open, slipping through.

A hand reached out of the twilight beside him and grabbed his shoulder. The bell for curfew echoed down the streets.

"Breaking curfew," growled Captain Bruce, un-shuttering the lantern he held.

"My bad," chuckled Ben. "Must have gotten the wrong door. I was looking for your man."

"You were looking for the exit, is what you were looking for. I know 'cause I have men who watched you."

"Well, the old guy didn't show up tonight, so I figured I'd go home. No point in wasting our time, right? And I'd hate to break curfew by accident."

"You seem to have forgotten you already broke curfew, and our window, and stole the New Republic's important medicine. And knocked the wind out of two of my best guys. You have to be punished for that."

Ben sighed. "Well, I had a feeling you'd remember that, somehow. When's the trial?"

"Oh, I've already received instructions for your sentence. You're going to the fighter barracks; the Sheriff says you'll do forty fights."

"Forty… What's that mean?"

The captain grinned without humor. "Take him away, men."

Words failed Ben. It was efficient – but far from balanced. If there'd been a trial, with arguments and counter-arguments, Ben had missed it. Oh well…It'd probably have been boring, anyway.

One of the Security took the little bottle from Ben, and they led him down the streets of the New Republic. Now what? Until he could get his hands on the sample again, he had a mission to carry out.

The Security led him toward the north side of the New Republic, not far, actually, from the apartment building where he'd lived. As they approached a darkened building, a sentry at the door stiffened to alertness.

"It's all right," grunted the leader of Ben's escort, then muttered something else. Ben strained his ears, in case it was a pass-phrase of some kind, but couldn't catch the words.

The sentry turned and rattled a key in the lock. The door was solid and well-maintained. Ben eyed it as he was ushered past by three of the guards, noting places it had been reinforced with strips of wood.

On the other side of the door, the Security captain commandeered a lamp from a second sentry and led the way up a staircase. In the dark interior space, a second light somewhere up above shone plainly. A half-dozen steps up, they reached a landing, and Ben glanced at the doors that opened off it on either side. Both bore fifteen chalk-marks.

On the second landing, the door to the left only had twelve chalk-marks. A guard rose from his chair and greeted the captain — a candle on a stool beside him was the source of light.

"One more," grunted the captain, jabbing a thumb at Ben.

The guard shrugged and pulled out a ring of keys.

Ben shot a glance farther up the building, where the wooden steps retreated into darkness. There was probably one more floor; he'd noticed three rows of windows on the outside of the building when they arrived. Were there more guards up there? More prisoners?

The door – reinforced with metal strips, this time – swung open. The sentry gestured inside with his head, grabbing a piece of chalk from the stool and moving toward the row of tick marks.

The Securitymen pushed Ben into the room. Ben scanned his surroundings. The windows were barred with boards, which were covered with chicken wire. Cozy.

Shadows danced in a mad tangle as the captain led the way with his candle. Ben stared at a row of human forms, gradually realizing they were not mottled and scored with wounds, but simply behind chain-link fences. Cages, in fact – wire and chain-link cages subdivided the long, narrow room, leaving a corridor between the apartment's interior wall and the stretch of gates.

A shiver ran down his spine against his will.

Trailing after the head Securityman, Ben eyed the forms inside. They were all men, most of them rolled in blankets, some with a cushion or two clutched under their bodies. One or two cracked their eyes open, blinked and glared at the captain's candle, then rolled over. No one seemed unduly interested in Ben.

Halfway down the row, the captain paused and jangled the sentry's ring of keys for a moment. With a rusty grinding, the lock snapped open and the gate creaked open. A couple of the sleepers growled and re-fluffed their bedding.

The Security behind Ben shoved him forward, one of them tossing a blanket into the cell after him. As he spun around, the captain slammed the gate and clicked the lock shut again.

"'Night," he grunted. "The wardens'll see you in the morning."

With that, he and his men thumped to the door and closed it behind them. Ben listened for the click of the lock, then felt his way to the front of the enclosure.

A narrow-spaced wire mesh covered the front of the cell, preventing him from getting his fingers through. There was also waist-high chicken wire covering the chain-link of the divider wall, preventing Ben from seeing if his neighbors had similar shielding on their gates. Fingering the backside of the lock was not helpful – he probably could have picked it from the other side, but without a way to reach around, that was useless.

Next he followed the fresh air and the dim glow from the border-lamps to the window. His cell wall ran against a window frame, and the supports from his cage were anchored to the frame. Unfortunately, the opening itself was in his neighbor's cell. Of course, he would have had to conquer the chicken-wire over the opening before facing the two-story drop to the street below.

Returning to the front of his prison, Ben felt out the sturdiness of the structure. The wire and chain-link was anchored to metal posts driven straight into the wooden floor. Reaching up, Ben followed the criss-crossing wires as far as he could reach. Did they go up to the ceiling? If not, he could climb them easily once he took his boots off –

As he gave an exploratory pull, the posts creaked and rattled in protest.

"Shut up and go t'sleep," snarled someone nearby.

"Newb," hissed someone else.

Ben forced a smile. What else was there for him to do? In the morning light, perhaps something would suggest itself. He felt around the cell until he found the blanket the guards had given him, and curled up as close to the window as he could. A warm summer breeze was seeping through the grating, bringing the smell of grass.

Closing his eyes, he imagined himself camping out on a wide, open hill…wide and open…

* * * *

4 Tommy

Tommy watched Dr. Radcliff hum and shuffle papers, alert lest the doctor make a move for the hypodermics. After his adventure in the New Republic, and the month and a half of out-patient rehab afterwards, the sight of a needle almost made him sick.

He stole a glance at his adoptive brother Dell. Dr. Radcliff hadn't demanded a sample of their blood since last autumn, when they'd finally convinced him their bodies had gotten rid of all traces of z-germ. But Tommy's report – and Dell's initial blood scan – had intrigued the doctor.

Perhaps "worried" was a better word. What was the New Republic playing with? They had dozens of z-germ-infected who didn't behave like typical ferals – at least not right away. They weren't completely in their right minds, but they weren't nonverbal and violent – like every other symptomatic feral White Mesa had ever encountered. Hence Dr. Radcliff's urgency to get an untainted sample of what the Republic was working with.

"What's that for?" asked Dell for the fourth time. This time, he pointed at the bucket of tongue depressors – washable, not disposable as in the Final Century.

"That's for looking down your throat, for inflammations and swellings…" answered the doctor, grabbing one and pouncing on Dell.

Dell squawked and kicked one leg as his throat was examined.

"Lovely! A perfectly healthy throat," said Dr. Radcliff, chucking the depressor into the "dirty" bin for sterilization.

"Gak," protested Dell. "That's a rough one. Hey, can I look in Tommy's ears with your flashlight-magnifier thing?"

"It's called a –"

Tommy groaned. "I thought you wanted to be a mechanic, not a doctor, Dell."

Dell gave his head a flip. "I haven't decided yet."

"Well, you've plenty of time to think about it," said the doctor.

"But Mattias Parker is going to be a apprentice, and he's fifteen, and I figure I'm fifteen, too, so I'm trying to decide quick."

Tommy sighed. "I'm not sure you're fifteen."

Dell wrinkled his nose. "Betcha I am too. And if I was a doctor, I could hang out with Abigail Zieg…Zieg…"

"Ziggy's oldest girl? Very nice, isn't she?" smiled Dr. Radcliff. "Very bright. Be running me out of my own clinic before we know it, I shouldn't wonder. Congratulations, Tommy, I declare you totally and completely recovered from physiological dependence. I promote you off patrol duty to do scavenge missions – assuming the security council approves any more such missions."

Tommy nodded. Dr. Radcliff might prattle, but he could tell what was going on under the surface of things.

"What's that for?" asked Dell.

Dr. Radcliff followed Dell's finger and picked up the reflex hammer. "It's for subduing combative patients. Here, let me show you…"

* * * *

5 Introductions

Day 2

Ben woke to the sound of rattling fencing and creaking floorboards. He cracked his eyes open and lay for a moment, watching the other prisoners moving about their cells, rolling blankets, rubbing eyes, and standing over buckets in the corners of their cells.

Looking around, Ben saw that his cell also had a bucket. By the time the guards appeared through the front door a few minutes later, he felt much better.

The New Republic bells clanged outside, signaling the end of curfew and the beginning of the workday. The guards began opening cell doors. As each prisoner filed out of the cell, he lugged his bucket forward and dumped it into what had once been a rolling plastic garbage can.

Ben imitated them. While he'd been living in the apartment building, all the tenants had sold their refuse to the waste-wagons that collected it for the HQ. What they did with it, he didn't know – Tommy had theorized fertilizer or a methane digester.

Ben replaced his bucket and slipped out of the cage as quickly as possible. It was wide and long enough for him to lie down in, but not much more than that.

At the door, the guards were handing out packages of something.

Coming close enough to see what was happening, Ben watched a man he recognized as his cell-neighbor arguing with a guard.

"Gimme meat," said the prisoner, holding out a cracked LINK card and a chipped plastic bowl.

The guard snickered. "That's only a half-card; you can't get meat for that. Egg?"

"I hate eggs." The prisoner glanced at the others nearby, and dug in some pocket near his torso, finally coming up with a different card. "Fine – meat," he repeated.

The guard – Sharpie, Ben thought someone had called him – rolled his eyes, but took the card and dropped what was almost certainly a roasted rat into the man's bowl.

Sharpie glanced at Ben. "What'll you have?"

"Uh…" He'd been traveling light when they'd caught him at the drone pens, and there'd been no chance to collect his belongings since then.

"I don't have any cards," Ben answered.

"Newbie, huh?" Sharpie smiled. "Here." He dug in his carton, and held out a bowl with two potatoes and two eggs in it. "That's your breakfast ration, for being part of the family. Once you start earning cards in the fights, you can get something more interesting."

"Interesting nothing," snapped one of prisoners behind Ben. "You call rat-meat interesting?"

"If you didn't dump all your cards into booze," began another.

"Thanks," Ben said to the guard.

Sharpie smiled. "We'll be back for lunch."

"Stop hogging the line," said someone behind him.

Ben returned and sat just inside the doorway of his cell, noting that all the gates stood open now. Perhaps locking the cages was a nighttime thing. He wouldn't complain about that.

Munching baked potato, he eyed the cages. The struts and wires did in fact run all the way up to the ceiling. Although the gaps were wider at the top than at the bottom, in the daylight he could see the posts probably wouldn't support his weight. Climbing the fence might bring the cage down on top of him, and his fellow-convicts.

The prisoner with the rat sat in the cell next door, gnawing meat off the tiny bones. Ben didn't mind rat, as long as you were careful not to swallow any of the crunchy little vertebrae.

He and his neighbor made eye contact, and looked away. He chewed his potatoes thoughtfully, starting to peel one of the boiled eggs. His first order of business was finding a way to escape. Then, recapture a vial sample without getting caught again. One hurdle at a time.

The crowd of prisoners dispersed, everyone munching on something, a few muttering together. The guards left, locking the front door behind them. Ben nodded; the cells were only locked at night. There was a chance he could sabotage his lock ahead of time — he'd pay attention to see if the gates were inspected before bedtime.

Four men were heading for Ben's door. He ground his teeth on potato peel and tucked his second egg into his pocket, automatically sizing them up and timing when to stand up.

The one in front stepped into Ben's gate and paused. Ben felt the prisoners in the rest of the room tense. He shoved the last of his potato into his mouth and rose to his feet, the gaze of a dozen eyes prickling his consciousness.

"Who're you?" demanded the man in the doorway, crossing his arms. The first two fingers of his right hand were missing.

"Benhi," Ben answered around potato, and swallowed. "Benji. And you?"

The other man smirked. "Stumper," he answered, showing his right hand. "Some call me Stumpy – but not for long."

"Some people aren't kind,” said Ben.

Stumper stepped back, letting the three men behind him push forward into the cell.

Ben frowned, automatically stepping backward. He didn't care to fight against a wall unless there were knives involved – it limited his mobility. "Who are your friends?"

"They're my guys," answered Stumper, stepping to the side so he could watch through the cage. "They do what I say. Everyone on this floor does what I say."

The first of the three swung. Ben blocked him and spun him like a top into the fighter beside him. The third dodged the collision, and sprang forward with a grasping stance.

Ben sidestepped and caught him a blow as he passed. As the man staggered, groaning, one of his companions lashed out with a kick. Ben blocked the blow with his own leg. A punch and a flip, and two of the fighters were tumbling out of the cell, tripping over their companion on the way.

Bending, Ben grabbed the third man's arm in a pin hold and dragged him, thrashing, to the doorway, where he heaved him through.

"Thanks for visiting," Ben smiled.

Stumper spat. "You think that's something?" he grunted. "Just remember this: I own this floor. I win all my fights, here or in the ring, so stay in line and nobody gets hurt."

"Works for me," Ben shrugged, as Stumper and his three "guys" stalked toward the back of the apartment, the goons throwing glowers over their shoulders at him as they went.

Ben returned to his sitting position, watching the remaining prisoners. Most of them pretended to not be watching, while shooting glances through the chain-link at him.

Ben's young cell-neighbor shuffled on his bedroll, scanned the room, and rose, rounding the divider fence to join Ben in his cell.

"Not many newcomers can hold their own with Stumper's group," he began, eyeing Ben. "You done fighting on the outside?"

"Not regularly. You guys fight in here?"

The young man shook his head. "We're not supposed to, but Stumper likes to size up the new guys. We're supposed to save ourselves for the ring." He shuddered.

Ben scratched his head. Frankly, he'd been expecting the Afflicted barracks. This didn't sound like what Tommy had described. A house full of men with the express purpose of fighting?

"I'm Clock, by the way," his acquaintance went on.

"Benji. Nice to meet you."

Clock sighed and smiled. "Well, welcome to the family. Learn to win, or decide to die."

"Die? As in…"

Clock nodded. "It happens. 'Specially if you fight someone really good."

Ben had heard about the fights, but he'd never gone with Daisy and Shoe to see them. It'd always sounded uninteresting.

"Is that the actual ring fights?"

"Yeah…" Clock cocked his head at him. "You an outsider? Ain't you heard of the fights?"

"I haven't lived here long, and I never went to the fights."

Clock gave a knowing nod. "You'll catch on. Looks like you'll be good."

Ben smiled. "Better than dying, right?"

* * * *

6 First Fight Day

Day 3

As Ben had surmised, the guards returned at evening to lock each prisoner into his own cell. They also checked the doors and locks before securing the prisoners.

Despite the disappointment, Ben slept well, although he did adopt the practice of his neighbors by sleeping in the middle of the cell as much as possible.

The next morning, Ben was just finishing his potato and egg breakfast when two guards stood at his cell door and gestured him out.

One of the watching prisoners gave a wolf-whistle, and Ben followed the guards with his nerves tingling at high-alert.

Three guards led him through the front door to the street again. Across the road stood a heavy gate; through the gate, Ben found himself walking a fenced-in corridor that led to a shed-like structure. Once in the shed, the guards paused and stood around, waiting.

Ben eyed the contents of the shed. A thigh-high table stood to one side, surrounded by bandage material and other crude medical instruments.

"The fights?" he breathed.

"Yep. First time?" answered one of the guards, chewing a rolled leaf of some kind.

Ben nodded.

"Make sure you follow the rule: don't hit 'im when he's down."

Ben nodded again. "And?"

"When he's down, no hitting him."

Ben swallowed. "Anything else?"

The guard shrugged. "Make sure you don't do that. Crowd doesn't like it if guys get killed on the ground. Oh, and Hack is banned from weapons for a while, so there's no weapons in this fight."

"Shut up; it's almost time," said another guard.

A trumpet called out three times. One of the guards leaned forward, poised to throw the door open. Ben swallowed.

Cymbals crashed. As the door swung open, the sound of people shouting swelled.

Ben blinked as he emerged into full sunlight. A large circle of trampled ground lay before him, enclosed by a tall chain-link fence (well anchored by sunken metal posts) and a crowd of people. As Ben scanned the surroundings, noting the bleachers that rose behind the front-row spectators, he picked out three Securitymen armed with crossbows, perched on platforms just behind and above the level of the bleachers. Three or four more guards were mingled with the crowd on the bleachers or posted near the gates. He saw one gate – closed and locked – for leaving the arena, and could guess at another gateway leading from the spectator area to the street.

On the opposite side of the circle, a man (one of Stumper's guys who'd attacked Ben yesterday) was emerging from a door similar to Ben's. The doors slammed shut and the cymbals clanged once more.

"Bring it on!" shouted Ben's opponent – Hack – before charging at Ben. The crowd hollered.

Ben just had enough time to note a third shack that opened to the arena before Hack was on him. Ben stepped out of the way and scooted to the other side of the arena while Hack was stopping himself. A few taunts shot out of the audience.

To one side of the arena, a platform rose above the spectators. Three men sat in chairs there, watching Ben and Hack. One folded his arms and leaned back, closing his eyes.

Hack stalked toward Ben again, his fists up and ready. He'd learned to control his momentum, now. Ben braced. It seemed the fastest way out of here was to get this fight over with as soon as possible.

Hack swung. After a second or two of traded blows and blocks, Ben struck Hack on the jaw. His opponent reeled back, losing his footing and falling flat on his back.

Ben shuffled backward a few steps, eyeing the men with crossbows. They were all watching the fight closely, but two didn't even have their weapons shouldered.

Glancing at the three "judges," Ben saw the bored judge sitting up and leaning forward. Ben looked down at Hack again. The fighter was just starting to pull himself upright, still hauling in breaths. Ben frowned. He hadn't really meant to hit him that hard. Exactly what were the objectives for this "fight," anyway?

The cymbal-ringer on the judges' platform raised his arms. Hack threw a hand into the air.

"I got this," he gasped, and struggled to his feet.

Ben smiled. If the alternative to winning was dying, Ben wasn't going to lose – but he wasn't going to kill Hack, either. Not if he could help it.

Hack came back at him, cautiously, weaving a little in feints and false swings. Ben rolled his shoulders and waited. Mentally, he wished himself back to the militia training grounds, facing off against Ricco or Tommy, where scenario practice and exercise were the only goals.

Swing, block, strike, block, fake-out, low-cut, block, kick – they moved in a dance that no one knew the moves to, not even really them. Then Ben saw his chance.

Deflecting Hack's guards out of the way, Ben drove a punch in and connected with his head. Hack spun and sprawled — his body lay motionless in the dust.

Ben bent over him a moment, then scooted back, remembering the crossbows. At least it looked like Hack was still breathing, and his hands groped at the ground, trying to reground him in reality. Scattered clapping and shouts rippled around the fence-line.

The cymbals clashed. Two Security entered, felt Hack for a moment, and nodded.

"The winner: Benji," called one of the judges, standing.

Ben bowed and glanced at one of the Security. "Will he be okay?" he breathed.

The guard stared back for a moment, then shrugged. "I'm no doc," he grunted. "Guess he'll wake up."

Ben nodded, and followed the Securityman back to the door he'd entered from. Inside the shed, an officer of the Security held out one LINK card. Ben blinked.

"That's your pay," the officer explained, holding it toward Ben. "You won, you get the prize."

"Oh. Thanks." Ben fingered the card as the guards conducted him back along the corridor and to the barracks. Perhaps he could buy a rat for supper tonight.

* * * *

Instead of leading him back to the apartment of cages, the guards ushered him through a different door in the barracks building, through a few dark rooms, and out another door on the other side.

Ben glanced around. Two buildings flared out on either hand, and in the square of their junction lay a large, grassy space, enclosed by a high brick wall. The prisoners milled around, some in small clumps, some sparring with cloth-wrapped posts driven into the ground along the edge of the yard. Most swarmed what looked like a break in the wall, near one of the buildings.

A few yards away, Stumper lounged against the wall of the building, his "guys" standing around him.

The guards shut the door behind Ben, and the lock snicked into place.

Straightening, Stumper moved his fists to his hips. He glared at Ben.

"Hello," Ben smiled, shoving the card into his back pants pocket.

"Where's Hack?" drawled Stumper, taking a menacing step forward.

"He'll be along; they said he should wake up fine," Ben answered, matching Stumper's stride and moving forward.

Stumper hesitated, eyeing Ben up and down. Ben returned his gaze. Tommy always said the way to deal with gangsters was to meet them on their own terms, then redefine the terms to benefit you. Or something like that. Ben always left negotiations to Tommy.

"Excuse me, please," said Ben, stepping forward again. "I believe the rules say no fighting in quarters."

Stumper glared at him for a moment, then strolled past without giving him another look. The "guys" jostled Ben as they followed their leader, but otherwise kept their hands to themselves.

Scanning the surroundings, Ben made his way toward the crowd at the break in the wall. On closer inspection, he could tell that where the wall stopped, a tall fence began. The figures of guards on the other side peeked through the bodies of the fighters clustered around.

"It's inhuman," a small, spindly fighter was insisting to the guards behind the fence. "I got cards right here; you should work with me."

"You can't buy booze for two cards," laughed the guard on the other side. "Not those cards, anyway. Go win a fight or somethin'."

"Scoot, Lytle," growled another fighter, giving the little man a soft shove. "You're holding the line."

"Hey, my girl showed up yet?" asked a familiar voice.

Ben turned to spot Clock leaning against the fence, intent on one of the Security.

The guard looked over his shoulder, and smiled at Clock. "Don't see her, so not yet."

Ben started to walk away when a fighter tugged at his elbow.

"You want to buy something, man?"

Ben eyed the knotted muscles and the streaks of grey in the hair, and smiled. "No, thanks."

The other shrugged, and lines appeared around his eyes as they softened. "It'll make life livable, but I don't blame you for saving to get out."

Ben opened his mouth, and hesitated, cocking his head. "Saving to get out?"

The older man nodded. "If you make it worth it for another fighter, and the guards, of course, you can have someone else do one of your fights. Saves you being in the ring, but still counts toward your limit. I even knew a guy who paid off his last ten fights that way – but of course, he had friends on the outside paying, too."

The only friend on the outside Ben had was Mr. Pollock, who probably couldn't afford that. "How many cards does it take? The guards didn't tell me anything about that."

"Yeah, well, it's a little irregular." The middle-aged man shrugged. "Kinda depends on who's matching your fights, whether the guards like you, stuff like that. Besides, some of the guards aren't very clear on the rules, themselves. They're just here because it's better paid than the Afflicted – all the side business, you see."

Ben nodded. Well, anything he could do to shorten his detour here, the better. Provided he didn't get caught a second time, he planned to be on his way to White Mesa with the sample the night after he was released.

"I'm Geezer, by the way."

Ben smiled and shook his new friend's hand. "Benji. Nice to meet you."

"What could be keeping her?" hissed Clock, pacing at the edge of the crowd near them, while other fighters pressed to the fence to do business. "Stumper's girl visited. Groove's girl visited."

"Relax, Clock; she'll be here," said Geezer.

"Jayva always comes. What would keep her?" Clock ran his hands through his hair, squeezing his eyes shut.

Geezer shrugged. "Maybe she can't get away from work."

Clock muttered a curse.

Geezer rolled his eyes and headed away from the fence. "Heard you flattened Hack this morning, Benji."

"Really? That was an hour ago."

Geezer smiled. "Guard chatter. We're like a family here; everybody knows everything everyone's doing."

"Is Hack all right?" asked Ben.

Geezer glanced at him. "From what I heard. Why?"

Ben shrugged. "The guards told me you can't kill anyone."

"Well, not when they're down. And not after the fight. And no fighting in barracks, either. But you're on Stumper's floor, so you know how that works out."

Ben rolled his eyes. "Everybody thinks they know best, and should make the rules. If the guards don't want people to die, don't they punish people who kill someone?"

"Well, if it's clear it was deliberate,” said Geezer. “Or outside the rules. But, see, they know accidents happen in the ring. Y'know, fans can toss cards as a tip, if you make a good show. And the crowd likes it exciting, so they'll throw you more cards if you make it impressive. Get it?"

Ben quirked his mouth and shrugged. "So what brings you here?"

Geezer sighed. "Long story. You're a perky newb, aren't you?"

Ben gave a chuckle. "Well, it's more fun than freaking out all the time, ain't it?"

Geezer looked over his shoulder at Clock, still pacing, and the rest of the fighters. "It's a rough world. Not a lota guys keep that."

They passed a tree (too short and too far from the wall to provide an escape venue) and headed toward the corner of the two enclosing walls. Even if he mounted one of the practice posts, Ben wouldn't be able to reach the top. The angles were wrong, unfortunately. Still, no need to knuckle under yet.

"How often are the fights?" asked Ben.

"They have sessions morning and evening – three or four fights back-to-back, depending on how good the guys are, and how long it takes. Not everybody fights every time, though; I haven't fought for a week."

"And you can't win cards if you don't fight, huh?"

Geezer shook his head.

"Bummer."

"Yes and no." Geezer sighed and lowered himself onto a hummock of grass. "I'm not as young as I used to be."

"Well, how many fights are you doing?"

"I'm here until I stop," Geezer answered without looking up. "Until I can't fight anymore."


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