“Thirty meters,” Wildman thought to himself, “just thirty meters to go.” His legs were aching as he ran down the narrow corridor toward a large crate filled room. The anti-grav boots he wore were heavy and he was tiring carrying the extra weight. If he could just stay ahead of DethDealer long enough to get into the room and get the Rocket Launcher— but the footsteps behind him were gaining; he may not make it.

Behind him, he heard the zing of a Ripper firing a blade. The corridor was too narrow to dodge, so Wildman hit the floor rolling. The Ripper blade buzzed by, narrowly missing his head. Wildman continued to roll onto his feet and fired several shots back down the corridor with his Enforcer over his shoulder. He did not wait to see if he hit anything. If he was lucky, he might have gotten a few extra seconds.

The room was now only half a dozen meters away, but the footsteps were now very close. Wildman could hear DethDealer loading a frag canister into a Flak Cannon. The Flak Cannon was probably the most deadly weapon at close range, spraying a deadly cloud of hot, jagged shrapnel that could puree a victim.

Wildman strained for every ounce of strength and burst into the room just as the ker-chuck of the Flak Cannon sounded behind him. Wildman jumped and the repulsers in the anti-grav boots fired sending him soaring high into the air toward a ledge that ran the length of the room near the grime covered ceiling. The Rocket Launcher was on the ledge.

Below him, he heard the sharp crack of the Sniper rifle and at the same instant, the bullet slammed him square in the back. His body armor absorbed the impact, but the force of the bullet was knocking him off course. He was going to miss the ledge!

He stretched forward and barely snagged the edge of the ledge with his fingers. For a second he hung in space, skin peeling from his fingers as his grip slipped, then his fingers steadied on the rough concrete. He was a target hanging here. He had to get onto the ledge.

A Ripper blade careened off the ledge beside his left hand, spraying concrete and hot metal fragments in his face. He managed to get his arm over the ledge and began to pull his body over when another Sniper round slammed into his side, penetrating his weakened body armor. The force of the impact drove him over onto the ledge, and the bullet lodged in his side like a burning ember.

For the moment, DethDealer could not reach him. He found a Medkit on the ledge, rummaged through the kit and found a Medpatch. He stripped off his body armor and ripping apart his blood soaked jumpsuit, slapped the patch on the wound. The patch contained a cocktail of painkillers, antiseptics and nano-surgeons, tiny machines that repaired damage to human tissues. A second after he applied the patch, the bleeding stopped, the burning in his side cooled and the wound became numb.

Wildman stood slowly and looked for the rocket launcher. It was gone! In the same instant, he heard the boing of a pair of anti-grav boots and knew that DethDealer had found a pair of boots and was on his way to the ledge.

“Ah, the rocket launcher is gone, is it?” DethDealer asked over the communication net. “Don’t worry. I’m coming to give it to you.”

“Eat me,” Wildman answered. DethDealer popped up, arching toward the ledge. Wildman jumped just as DethDealer fired a rocket. The hot wash of the exhaust blew by Wildman and the rocket exploded behind him filling the sky with shrapnel. He heard DethDealer grunt as a fragment hit him.

Wildman arched high into the air and then dropped toward DethDealer. He pulled out his Impact Hammer and began charging the modified mining tool. DethDealer tried to fire the rocket launcher again, but a fragment had destroyed the targeting computer. DethDealer dropped the launcher and tried to pull out his Enforcer, but it was too late.

“See you in hell,” DethDealer said as the two made contact. The Impact Hammer fired when it touched DethDealer and blew his heart out the back of his body.

Wildman landed and rolled as he heard the announcer’s voice boom over the arena loudspeakers, “Wildman wins the match!” He stood and a camera floated into view. He faced the camera and saluted, as was the custom, then slowly crumpled to the floor unconscious.

He awoke in the Liandri Company hospital. His side was tight, but the pain was gone, the nano-surgeons having done their work. The Doctor, a chain-smoking, gray-haired gnome that did not seem to have a name other than Doctor, signed his release papers. His keeper was waiting for him at the front desk.

“Glad to see you up and around,” said Jeremiah Tandley, Wildman’s court appointed officer. Tandley was bailiff, probation officer and media agent for the Deathmatch Games run by the mega-corporation, Liandri.

“Afraid you were going to lose your fee?” Wildman asked. Tandley ignored the comment and followed Wildman out of the hospital. Tandley had a car waiting and without a word, Wildman climbed into the back seat. The car was opulent with real leather seats, a holoscreen and wet bar. The leather, imported from one of the colony worlds, was worth more than gold. There was no room to raise cattle on Earth.

“Great match last night,” Tandley said as he settled into the car and motioned the driver to take off. The car rose straight into the air, and then accelerated over the city toward the Liandri towers. Tandley busied himself at the bar.

“I was lucky,“ said Wildman.

“That is part of the game. Did you know your match last night was the fourth highest rated neurocast game ever? Quite impressive since you’ve only had three matches.” He handed Wildman a whiskey, straight up.

Wildman sipped the drink. The whiskey was the real thing as well. “And only one more,” he said. “The Judge said four matches and I’d have served my time. If I survive one more, I’m walking.”

“Have you considered going pro? Your style is quirky, unpredictable and you are lucky in the games. The viewers like that and they like you.”

“And make one slip and get my head blown off. No thanks. The only reason I agreed to the matches was so I didn’t have to spend ten years in Slam.”

“Oh, come on, I’ve read your bio. I doubt you are afraid of dying and you are obviously adept at killing. Do you know what your take would have been for last night’s match if you were a pro fighter?”

Wildman shrugged. “20 million credits,” Tandley answered. “The more people watch, the bigger the purse. In addition, on a match like last night, with that surprise ending, the residuals could amount to an additional 1 million per year on reruns. Hell, the highlights alone could bring 10,000 credits per showing.” In spite of himself, Wildman was impressed.

“Let’s say you do walk,” Tandley continued. “What are you going to do? How are you going to live?”

Tandley had him there. He had no idea what he was going to do or how he was going to live outside the games. He stared at his reflection in the window. Blonde hair cropped in a flat top, blue eyes and chocolate-brown skin, a thin scar that ran from ear to chin on the left side of his face. The face looking back at him was fit, strong and confident. Go back to mining? The face he wore when he was mining was haggard, tired and defeated. No, he could not go back to mining.

Tandley was also right about his excuse for walking after his final match. He was not afraid of dying. There was death in the mines just as in the arena and, at times, just as swift. Worse, the death in the mines could be long and drawn out, as cancer ate your bones or rot destroyed your lungs. No, death held no fear. He had seen too much of it.

What was his real reason then? Maybe he was tired of the puppet masters who pulled the strings. At first, it had been the Marines, then the mining bosses and now the faceless media executives who controlled the Deathmatches. He wanted to live his own dream, not someone else’s.

“What are you going to do?” Tandley repeated. “Go back to the mines? Somehow, I can’t picture you going back to the mines. It’s not you, it’s not your life. Tell me John, what is it you want to do?”

John. The name already sounded foreign to him, although he had only been in the games a couple of months. When you became a gladiator your “handle,” your nickname, became your name. Wildman had picked “Wildman” simply because it was the first thing that had popped into his mind.

Wildman looked at Tandley who was patiently waiting for an answer. He had never really liked Tandley with his fat, pig-like face and watery, gray eyes. However, there was more to the man then Wildman had credited. It seemed he could almost read his mind.

“I’m not sure what I am going to do,” Wildman finally answered truthfully. “Maybe join one of the colony ships as a security officer.”

Tandley nodded. “Yes, I could see you doing that. It will take money though. The fees and expenses add up quickly. How are you going to get the money?”

Wildman could see where the conversation was heading: go pro and get a good stake before retiring a rich man and living whatever life he chose to live. The hell of it was, Tandley was right. The games were his only option.

Tandley did not repeat the question, just refilled Wildman’s drink. When the car settled on the East Tower landing port, Tandley leaned over as Wildman was leaving the car and said, “Think about what I said. I’m a good agent. You could do worse.”

Wildman did not doubt it. “I’ll think about it,” he said.

It was evening when he finally made it back to the closet sized room that he occupied in the dormitory. He sat on the bed, swung the small data screen beside the bed in front of him and checked his email. He had quite a few messages from his fans that he read and answered. He also had a notice from the courts that he had only one more game to fulfill his sentence. He had planned to take a couple days off, but suddenly changed his mind. He wanted to get on with it. He fired off a message to the Games Commission that he was ready for another match. After reading and answering a few more messages, he showered, changed his clothes and headed for the Commons.

The Commons was the hot spot in the Liandri dormitories. The large open-air room held a cafeteria with surprisingly good food, a bar with just about any drink imaginable, a couple of large vid screens for viewing matches and various tables, couches and chairs scattered about islands of greenery.

“Hey Wildman!” A voice called as he headed toward the cafeteria, “good match. Just wait till you and I meet though!” Wildman did not answer, just raised his middle finger in the general direction of the voice and kept walking. Laughter erupted from the area.

After loading up a plate from the cafeteria with a synthetic steak, baked potato covered in fake sour cream and cheese, a salad and some strong ale, he found an empty table beside a bubbling fountain and sat down to eat. He was always surprised at how good the food tasted, considering it was mostly soy, seaweed and chemicals.

“May I sit down?” A silky voice asked him. He looked up to see a pretty, red-haired woman standing beside him holding a tray from the cafeteria. He started to say “No” but stopped as he looked at those deep green eyes. They were captivating.

“No,” he finally muttered after a moment and turned back to his plate. The woman ignored his answer and sat down.

“You’re Wildman, aren’t you?” She asked.

“Yes.” He looked at her as she sat across from him. “What do you want?” He said it harsher than he had wanted. It was those damn eyes.

The woman did not answer but took a bite out of the sandwich she had on her plate and chewed slowly, studying him. He studied her as well: Short red hair, a pert nose covered generously with freckles and eyes a clear, brilliant green, sparking with amusement.

“They told me you were a bit anti-social,” she finally said.

“They, meaning the other fighters, I assume. I don’t like to socialize with someone I may have to kill,” he said.

“I’m Angel,” she continued as if she did not hear him. “I saw your match last night. Impressive.”

“I was lucky.”

“Your bio says you were a miner before the Games. I didn’t know miners could fight like that.”

“I wasn’t always a miner,” he said trying to get back to his steak.

“Oh, what did you do before that?”

“I was in the Marines.”

“How did you go from the marines to mining? Sounds like an odd switch.”

“I resigned my commission.”

“Resigned? Why? The Marines sound like a good career.”

He sighed. She obviously was not going to leave and oddly, he found he did not want her too. It had been a long time since he had just talked to another human being, and he was surprised to find that he missed it. With her forward manner, Angel had awoken a need he had not realized he had.

He swallowed a gulp of ale and leaned back in his chair. “My unit was called in when a colony began having trouble with the indigenous species. The planet was supposed to have been uninhabited, but it wasn’t. The colony said they were caught in a full-scale uprising. The locals were killing the colonists and razing the homesteads.

“When we got there we found that the locals were savages. All they had for weapons were spears, bows and arrows. I contacted my superior and notified him of the situation and I suggested we relocate the natives to another part of the planet. The government didn’t want to take the time or spend the money, though and I was ordered to eliminate them.”

He paused, remembering the sick horror he had felt when the order came from headquarters. It was genocide and he simply could not do it. “I wasn’t going to wipe out a whole species just for the convenience of some colonists. I resigned my commission on the spot. They field promoted my lieutenant and he carried out the orders. The locals were wiped out.”

“Since I had resigned, they left me on the planet. I was there a year before a transport ship from Earth arrived. I bought passage on the ship and came back here. When my savings ran out, I took a mining job since it paid better than anything else I could do. Looking back, I should have hired on as a bodyguard or something.”

“I hear mining is tough,” she said around a mouthful of sandwich.

“Yeah, but that’s not what I meant. One day some crazy-assed miner came after me with a knife because he thought I was sleeping with his whore. I wasn’t, but he was high on MadJack and was out of his mind. That is where I got this.” He tapped the scar with his thumb.

“I killed him with the impact hammer I was using. I was sent back to Earth in chains and at my trial, the judge gave me the option of ten years in Slam or four Deathmatch games. I chose the games.”

“Sounds like it was self-defense to me,” she said, sipping a simulated ice-tea.

“The Judge thought with my background, I could have disarmed him. He was right. I just didn’t give a damn at the time.”

She cocked her head to one side and looked at him. “Your next game is the last one, right?” She asked.

He nodded. “There is quite a bit of buzz on the vid about whether you’ll go pro or not,” she said.

He was surprised. He did not watch the matches nor was he interested in the hype surrounding the games. The closest he came was answering the email he received. If there was this much interest in him though, no wonder Tandley was putting the sales job on him.

“Are you?” She asked, sipping her tea.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just take it a match at t a time, right now.”

“You’ll probably do pretty good for yourself if you go pro. That’s what I have been working for and I finally made it. I just got promoted to the pro ranks.”

“You’ll get yourself killed,” he said quietly.

She looked at him for a moment, a puzzled expression on her face. She then smiled and looked at her glass of tea. When she looked back at him, the smile was gone. “According to your bio, you’re from the City so you know what it’s like out there. My mother was a prostitute, and after seeing that life, I wanted to get out. When I was old enough, I joined the games and started in the training program.”

In order to keep a steady flow of replacements for the games, an extensive training program was available for gladiators looking for fame and fortune. Ideally, the training started when the recruits were children and continued until they were ready for the pro Deathmatch games.

“I advanced quickly through the trainee and semi-pro ranks. I am fast and my petite size makes me a difficult target to hit. For the past couple years I have been on the pro CTF and Domination circuit, and finally got my rating up high enough to get into Deathmatch.”

Capture the Flag and Domination games were a variation on Deathmatch where teams competed for points using non-lethal weapons. Although some people specialized in these games, most serious pros moved on to the Deathmatch games. The public loved the blood, gore and loss of life and Deathmatch was where the fame and money lie.

“You could make a living in CTF,” Wildman said.

Angel snorted. “I could barely cover my expenses. No, I had to get into Deathmatch. I just need a couple games and I can win enough money to book passage on a colony ship. I know it’s a risk, but what other choice do I have?”

The question struck home. “I don’t know,” he said.

Suddenly, the Commons erupted in boos, cat calls and insults. Wildman looked and saw Jackman heading into the cafeteria, his face a stony mask.

“What’s going on?” Angel asked.

“That’s Jackman. He forfeited a match a while back. It makes you a bit of a pariah but I don’t blame the man. He’s alive to fight another day.” A gladiator could forfeit a game, but the act usually marked the fighter as a coward and brought the scorn of the fighting community, the public and the Games Commission.

“Have you ever forfeited a game?” She asked.

He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to play the matches out. It’s part of my sentence.”

Wildman stood. “It has been nice talking with you. Good luck on your career,” he said.

She stood as well. “See you around.”

He strode quickly out of the Commons but did not go back to his room. Instead, he took the elevator to the roof, walked to the edge of the observation deck and looked out over the City. It was night, but the lights stretching in every direction reflected off the clouds overhead creating a false day.

The wind always blew on the observation deck, but it could not dispel the bitter, rancid odor of billions of people scratching and clawing for life in this sea of lights.

“How many are dying tonight?” he asked those lights.

“How many are being born?” A voice asked behind him. He turned and saw Angel walking slowly toward him.

“You followed me,” he accused.

“Yes,” she said.

He tried to be angry, but failed. “Being born into what kind of world?” He asked her as she stood beside him.

“Whatever kind you make it,” she said. She looked out over the lights of the City. “It’s beautiful from up here. All the colors and patterns of the lights look like stars in space. The lights on the aircars look like shooting stars. You can’t see it like this on the street. You have to get up here, get some distance, before you see the beauty.”

He tried to see the lights as she saw them, like stars in space. They did resemble constellations and galaxies that seemed to be swirling around the Liandri Towers. The Liandri Towersthe Liandri Corporationthe center of the universe.

He felt her slip her hand into his. He looked at her, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. A voice in his mind was screaming at him to turn and walk away, but he stood rooted to the spot. She turned toward him and looked up into his face.

“Life is what you make it,” she said softly, putting her free hand on his face. “In an ugly world, you have to make your own beauty.” He was trembling as he bent down to kiss her and she trembled as she pulled him down to the observation deck.

The next morning, he received an email message from the Games Commission. His last match would be the featured match that evening, in the downtown Coliseum. It was going to be a big deal.

Wildman spent the day in his room, only going out briefly for a tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich in the cafeteria. In the afternoon, he received a flood of email mostly wishing him luck on the match. He answered what he could before Tandley arrived to escort him to the arena.

“Well, this will be the last time I’ll have to do this for the state,” Tandley said as he walked Wildman to his locker room. “I hope it’s not the last time I do this though.”

Wildman ignored the comment.

Tandley smiled. “Good luck on the match.”

Each fighter in the match had a private dressing room. None of the fighters would know who they were facing until they all met in the teleport room. Wildman’s pre-fight routine was simple.

First, he exchanged his street clothes for a red and black, one-piece jumpsuit and utility belt. The jumpsuit had the Liandri company logo on the chest, a Ripper blade spinning past the word Liandri. The logo was more than advertising, it was a micro-sensor array that would monitor Wildman’s vitals during the match. If he died, the logo would notify game control of his demise.

Next, he examined his start weapons. Each gladiator started the game with a loaded Enforcer and portable Impact Hammer. The Enforcer was a reliable, compact, automatic handgun firing a hefty .50 caliber bullet. The gun was accurate at close to medium range and could pack a deadly punch in the right hands.

The Impact Hammer, a portable version of its larger cousin used in mining, could be extremely powerful if used correctly. The small dura-plastic housing held a pneumatic hammer that could punch a man’s heart out through his back. The Impact Hammer had saved his ass more than once when he had exhausted his ammo supply.

The rest of the weapons and armor used in Deathmatch would be teleported into the arena at game time. The essence of Deathmatch was seeking and destroying; seeking weapons, armor and power-ups to gain an advantage so you could destroy your opponents. Deathmatch was a game of luck and skill, and a fighter had to have both to survive.

Once he was satisfied with the operation of his weapons, he put on his helmet. Each helmet had a built-in communication link and heads up display. A laser tracked his eye movement and displayed a roaming pip on the dura-plastic visor as he looked at different objects in the room. If he looked at another fighter while in the match, their name would flash on the visor.

With his preliminary routine completed, he sat down on the bench in his dressing room and waited for the chime that marked the beginning of the match. His mind drifted back to the night before and he smiled. It had been simply wonderful. Angel had indeed brought a splash of beauty to his ugly world. If he survived the match, maybe he could convince her to leave Deathmatch and go with him. Together, they could make it without the games.

The chime sounded and he stood and took a deep breath. He strapped on his helmet and clipped the weapons to his belt, then strode slowly down the short corridor to the teleport room.

As he entered the room and looked for an empty teleport pad, he saw Angel. It felt like an Impact Hammer had gone off in his gut. So many emotions clashed and clawed in his mind that he could only stand there and look at her. She made no sign that she had seen him, her face a mask of grim determination as she stood on the pad.

Slowly, he got his feet moving and stepped onto an empty teleport pad. There were 12 pads around the perimeter of the round room. Five had gladiators standing in them. He made six.

The timer was ticking off the seconds and his mind raced. What was he going to do? In one instant, he wished he had never met her and then in the next he knew the wish was a lie. The timer sounded down to the final second. It was the end of the dream and the beginning of the nightmare. The teleporter fired thrusting him into Deathmatch.

He materialized in a dim corridor. He pulled his Enforcer from its holster and pressed his back against the cold, concrete wall, scanning up and down the corridor, straining to hear any sounds. He seemed alone in the corridor.

He turned right and began to jog down the corridor, looking for a better weapon and some armor. Ahead, he could see a glint on the floor and he increased his speed to a run. As he neared the spot, he saw it was a Ripper. The Ripper fired hand-sized, razor-sharp buzz-saw blades that could decapitate a fighter in one shot. Just as he was within a meter of the weapon, a gladiator dropped out of the ceiling and scooped up the Ripper. On Wildman’s visor, the name Redman flashed.

Wildman hit the ground and rolled, bringing up the Enforcer and squeezing the trigger in rapid-fire mode. The Enforcer bucked steadily in his hand as the .50 caliber bullets punched holes in Redman’s body. Wildman tracked the Enforcer higher and Redman’s head exploded in the hail of slugs.

“Wildman draws first blood,” the announcer boomed over the arena loudspeakers.

He rolled to his feet and grabbed the Ripper, the blade spinning slowly, glinting in the dim light. He scanned the corridor for some ammo and found it against the wall, behind a small crate. He squeezed in behind the crate and loaded as many blades as he could into the Ripper, hooking the rest to his belt.

Footsteps were coming down the corridor and he ducked down behind the crate and waited. He was in a good position for an ambush, the crate blocking the view and covered in shadows. The footsteps neared, paused at the body and then continued down the corridor. He stepped out and leveled the Ripper, but did not pull the trigger. It was Angel. Instead, he turned and ran back the other way.

The corridor curved to his left and ended in a lift. He stepped on the lift and with a hum, the platform raised to the next floor. He stepped off the platform and looked around. He was in a large room with a ledge that encircled the room near the ceiling. In the center of the room, on a raised platform, was a rocket launcher.

He ran toward the launcher and halfway to the platform, a bullet smashed into his left shoulder sending him sprawling. He had not heard a sound, which meant a sniper was somewhere up above him. Again, he had been lucky. The sniper could have taken his head off. He rolled underneath the platform and searched the room for a medkit and a way out.

The lift he had used began to hum and a fighter, Emilia, seeing the launcher, raced into the room. She must have not seen him hiding under the platform. Wildman saw his chance and rolled out from underneath the platform just as Emilia’s head exploded like a water-filled balloon. He jumped up onto the platform, grabbed the launcher, dropped back down to the floor and rolled under the platform. A bullet whined off the floor just behind him.

He switched the rocket launcher to heat-seeking mode and pointed it upward just outside the platform. Another bullet struck the floor near him, spraying shrapnel. The rocket launcher could not find any targets so he tried the other side of the platform, pointing the launcher upward and slowly waving it slowly to cover this half of the room.

The launcher beeped. Holding it steady, he pressed the load button and a rocket slid into the firing tube. He pressed the fire button. The launcher kicked as the rocket roared upward and curved slightly to his right. He heard a scream that suddenly cut off as the explosion boomed above him, raining wood and concrete onto the floor.

He clipped the Ripper to his belt and cautiously climbed out from under the platform. His shoulder was throbbing badly, but the bullet had not hit any bone so he was able to support the launcher weakly with his left arm. Blood was streaming from the wound and down his side to puddle on he floor. He needed a medkit badly. A doorway to his right lead out of the room and into another dimly lit corridor that turned to the left after a couple meters. He headed slowly down the corridor.

Just around the bend, the corridor sloped downward and then turned back to the right. At the bottom of the slope was a medkit next to a small wall light. He set the launcher down next to the kit and pulled out a Medpatch that he slapped on his aching shoulder. Suddenly, a blue-white energy beam struck the launcher beside him sending him sprawling into the corner amid a shower of sparks and hot metal.

He jerked the Ripper free from his belt and fired three blades at the wall of the corridor as he rolled toward the slope. The spinning blades bounced from one wall to wall with a loud chink, as they flew down the corridor. Wildman heard a wet thunk and a grunt of pain. He fired two more blades from around the corner and heard a second wet thunk, a hissing sound and the thud of a body falling to the ground. He walked slowly down the corridor and saw a body lying face up in a pool of blood, a riper blade protruding from the chest. It was Jackman.

The corridor ended in a two-story, open-air atrium. Wildman could see buildings blazing with light in the skylight, and hear the wind blowing through the atrium. A warm breeze brushed his cheek. In the center of the room, some body armor materialized. He ran toward the armor just as Angel came from a side corridor and the two stood face to face.

She carried a Ripper and raised it, as did Wildman, but neither fired. The Rippers hummed quietly, the blades slowly turning, the razor sharp edges glinting in the light. He stood looking at her, trying to see past the visor and into those beautiful green eyes. The moment seemed to last forever.

“Forfeit,” he said. “Please.”

She stood there, the Ripper she held wavering slightly. After a moment, she shook her head. “I can’t.”

Her finger jerked on the trigger and he instinctively fired. The blades screamed passed each other and surgically decapitated both fighters. The headless bodies stood for a moment, as if unaware of what had happened, and then slowly crumpled to the floor lying side by side in a pool of blood.

For several seconds the only sound was the street noise and the wind blowing through the atrium. Then the announcer’s voice boomed over the arena loudspeakers. “Game over.”

Author's Note

Out of all my fan fiction, I like this one the best. This is one story that deserves a rewrite and a sequel I think.