There is little in the universe more miserable than a day-long wait for an automatic water cannon to wash someone else’s urine out of your hair. Except knowing that once you get out of your filthy, cramped cage, worse awaits.
The prison transport is the most wretched place I’ve ever been. Including jail. They have us stacked like boxes in a warehouse, in metal pens too small for us to stand up or stretch out in. Three high. Nude. The woman in the cage on top of mine has peed on my head twice.
By my count, we’ve been “showered” by programmed water cannons eighteen times and fed thirty-eight “meals” on the transport before the door to our cargo room slides open for the first time. Just as the floor beneath us lurches. As the ship around us groans.
We’re coming out of light speed. Which can only mean we’ve arrived.
“That her?” the first of two guards says from the doorway, nodding in my direction. “Middle row, second from the left?”
“Yeah. Sylvie Wolfe. Doesn’t look like much, does she?” Both guards wear dark gray Universal Authority uniforms, complete with the iconic low-profile, red-brimmed hat.
“I thought she’d be bigger.”
My fellow inmates’ gazes turn my way. The woman in the cage beneath me moves to the front corner of her pen and cranes her neck to look up at me.
I’ve never liked being the center of attention. But I guess that’s a feeling I’m going to have to get used to.
“Take her first, as soon as we dock,” the first guard says. “Keep an eye on her. And at least one hand.” The door slides closed, cutting off the rest of their conversation, but I can still feel gazes trained on me from all around the prisoner hold.
The woman above me taps the sheet of metal mesh between us to get my attention. “What the fuck did you do?”
I don’t answer.
“Bitch, I’m talking to you.”
I’m probably making an enemy by ignoring her, and if she gets the chance, she’ll throw a punch. Or maybe try to rip out my hair. But if I can’t handle her, I’m as good as dead where I’m headed.
Minutes later, the door slides open again, and the second guard—his name tag reads “Beardon”—is back, with two more. “Middle row, second from the left,” he says as he taps something on the curved screen strapped to his left forearm.
The other two guards—Waite and Cottrell, according to their name tags—stalk toward me. Cottrell is carrying what looks like a large roll of tape. “You really need three of us for this?” Waite asks. “I’m pretty sure I could blow her over with a firm breath.”
Beardon shrugs. “It says level one precautions.”
“Okay.” Waite shrugs as my cage door clicks, unlocked by the screen on Beardon’s arm. “But this feels a little ridiculous.” He opens the cage and fixes me with a gaze that’s more curious than cautious as he throws a bundle of pale gray cloth at me. “Put these on.”
Getting dressed in my cramped cage is a pain in the ass, but after eight weeks or so without clothing it’s worth the effort.
“Turn around and scoot toward us with your hands behind your back,” Waite says when I’ve managed to shimmy into my pants. “You so much as twitch, and we’ll put you out. I’m guessing you don’t want us to dump you unconscious in the bullpen.”
I definitely do not. Nor do I want to arrive injured. Which is why I scoot backward with my hands behind me, as directed. I can play nice when I need to.
The wires that go around my wrists are no surprise. I wore them pretty consistently while I waited in jail on my homeworld for the prison transport to arrive. Twice, while I was there, I saw male prisoners half again my size brought to the ground by electricity run through the wires. The guards didn’t even have to touch them. They just tapped a button on their wrist coms and men who’d been spitting and biting a second before lay drooling on the ground.
I’m prepared for the wires. But not for the strip of adhesive—like a thick piece of tape—that goes over my mouth. Without the use of my hands, I can’t remove it. And when I try to loosen it with saliva, searing heat fires through my tongue.
Instinctively, I try to scream through the tape, and the guard behind me laughs as he hauls me from the cage by my arms. “Tried to lick it, huh? Yeah, that’ll hurt for a while.”
In fact, it burns so badly that I can’t focus on anything else as they lead me, barefoot, out of the room and off the transport ship, onto a shiny, sterile station orbiting the prison planet. “Station Alpha,” Beardon tells me as the fire in my tongue finally begins to fade. “This is the main guard base. It also operates one of the gates in the pyro-shield surrounding the planet, which are the only ways off the Red Rock. Not that that’s relevant to you, since you won’t be leaving the planet. And that…” He points up. “Is your new home.”
“More like her grave,” Cottrell says with a chuckle.
I follow Beardon’s aim and find the planet visible overhead, through a neat honeycomb of transparent, pressurized panels framed by a network of metal beams. For a moment, I can’t catch my breath, and this time that has nothing to do with the toxic adhesive patch over my mouth.
The view is stunning.
Rhodon. The Red Rock. Seeing it in person, I understand why people also call it Devil’s Eye. With its crimson landmasses and rust-colored oceans, Rhodon looks like the eye of some demon awakened in deep space, glaring out at the rest of the universe.
The demon looks angry. Ready to devour me.
Footsteps at my back draw my attention as the rest of the barefoot prisoners are marched from the transport in a line that quickly overtakes us. Though they’re dressed just like I am, they’re not cuffed. Their mouths are not taped shut.
They stare at me until the guard leading the line shouts for their attention.
Beardon and the other two guards guide me past the long line of female prisoners, who’re now standing in line, receiving uniforms, rations, and supplies.
I hesitate near the supply line, assuming that’s where I’m headed, but Waite pulls me past by one arm. “They’re going to one of the open population zones,” he says. “You won’t need most of that crap in the bullpen.”
The guards lead me to a smaller room constructed of the same shiny metal panels the entire station is made of. Inside, a brand-new backpack stands on the table, unlatched, with the flap hanging open.
“This is your starter kit.” Beardon lets me go and starts pulling things from the bag. “A spare set of clothes. You’ll be a lot smaller than everyone else, so they might just let you keep them.” He sets a folded bundle of pale gray cloth on the table, followed by two soft canteens of water and two thick brown plastic envelopes. “Meal packets. When they’re gone, you’ll have to wait in line in the cafeteria like everyone else.”
The brown envelopes are labeled with the foods they contain.
“Personal hygiene.” He sets a thick, white bar of soap wrapped in cellophane on the table, on top of a white terrycloth rag. Next come a cheap toothbrush and a tube of baking soda toothpaste. “Hygiene may seem pointless where you’re headed, but you should use these. The cleaner you stay, the less likely you are to get an infection. They don’t issue shampoo in zone one, though, so you’ll have to make do with this for all your hygiene needs. You’ll have no use for matches, or water purification tablets, or any of that crap they issue in the other zones, because they still have running water in the bullpen. So far, anyway. But these might save your life.” Beardon holds up a bottle of pills. “One-dose antibiotics. Follow the directions on the bottle, at the first sign of an infection.” He frowns. “Can you read?”
I can only glare at him, with my mouth still taped shut.
“Damn it. Let her talk,” Beardon snaps.
Cottrell rips the tape from my face.
“Motherfucker!” I shout, as the adhesive pulls away from my skin.
Beardon looks amused. “Can you read?” he repeats.
“Both the common language and a local dialect from my homeworld,” I snap.
“Don’t look so insulted. It’s a fair question.”
“I’m a teacher,” I inform him. Then I have to correct myself. “I was a teacher, anyway.”
Beardon stares at me as if I just grew a second head. Waite snorts. “What the hell is a teacher going to do in the bullpen?”
Beardon taps something on his wrist screen and his eyes move back and forth as he scans the information. “Corrective vision surgery at age twenty, in Earth standard solar units. Wisdom teeth removed in adolescence. Tonsils removed as a kid. And…you were sterilized upon conviction, of course. Any other health conditions we should know about?”
“Just a really short temper.” My life is a book open for him to read. As my death will likely be, for the whole world.
Beardon laughs. “Well, teacher, you certainly have the right attitude for the bullpen. Too bad your body can’t cash the checks your mouth’s writing.”
“Gentlemen.” A man in a dark blue suit steps into the room, and all three guards snap to attention. “As you were.” He assesses me head to toe while they relax, then he fixes his hard focus on my eyes. “Sylvie Wolfe. Are you going to be a problem?”
I shake my head.
“Sir—” Beardon protests, but the man in the suit cuts him off.
Beardon nods at the other two guards, and Waite disappears behind me. A second later, I feel his hands on my wrists, then the wires fall away. I rub my wrists, frowning at the indentations from the wires in my flesh.
The man in the suit clears his throat. “I’m Warden Shaw.”
I frown up at him. “Do most prisoners get a personal welcome from the warden?” I ask, in lieu of an introduction.
“No.” He’s not smiling, but he looks more curious than intimidating. “However, you’re a unique case. Are you sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into? It’s not too late to change your mind. I can have someone here with a syringe in fifteen minutes.”
He’s offering me an easy out. A quick and likely painless death.
“Why do you care?” I’m not trying to be rude; I’m honestly interested. “I’m just one more dead inmate, either way, right?”
“Ultimately,” he concedes. “Have a seat.” The warden sinks onto the chair behind the table and waves me toward the one across from him as he sets my supply pack on the floor, clearing the space between us.
I hesitate for a moment before pulling the chair out. I didn’t expect this kind of attention. From the staff, anyway. “I don’t understand what’s happening here. Why the personal interest?”
The warden stares at me for a second. Then he taps the table between us, and the surface lights up. My file is on display, my mug shot staring up at me. The warden plants one finger on the table and drags it in his direction, and the file flips to face him. “There’s no mention here of any kind of technical abilities. Do you have any experience in…hacking?”
I frown. “Um…no? I’m just your run-of-the-mill murderer.”
“Ms. Wolfe, if that were true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Do you have the ability to write code? Design viruses? Manipulate technology beyond its intended purpose?”
“No.” My frown deepens. “I can work my personal com device, but that’s about it. Not that I have one of those anymore. Why? What’s this about?”
“We had a little trouble with our last female death row inmate. But that’s nothing that concerns you. Just to be clear, once you step into zone one, you’re in for good. So, this is the time to change your mind. The bullpen is no place for a woman, no matter how strong you think you are.”
“I’ve made my decision.”
The warden seems unconvinced. “Ms. Wolfe, you’re the only woman who’s ever requested the arena.”
“Requested!” Beardon snorts. “She fucking demanded it.”
Warden Shaw shoots an angry look at his guard, and Beardon’s mouth snaps shut.
“Death row inmates get to choose their method of execution,” I remind them. “That’s my right, same as anyone else.” In fact, it’s the only right I have left.
“That’s true,” the warden says. “But before you take to the arena—assuming you make it that far—you’ll also be the first woman to step into the bullpen. What you may not know, from what’s aired on the feeds, is that the bullpen can be more dangerous for the new guys than the arena itself. Especially for you.”
He pauses to let that sink in, but I’m not surprised. Official combat is one-on-one, but off camera, there are no rules. I know what I’m getting into. I’m here because the only one way out of a death sentence is through the arena.
I have no other choice.
“You’ll be the only woman there,” the warden continues. “Locked up with nearly one hundred men. One hundred monsters. These are the worst of the worst, all of them either trained fighters or soldiers, or brutes who learned to kill on the streets of some filthy, backwater planet on the edge of known space. Some of them have been there for more than a year without seeing a woman. I have to be honest, Ms. Wolfe. I don’t think you’ll survive long enough to even see the inside of the arena.”
“Warden, I appreciate your concern.” I slide my hands beneath my thighs so he can’t see them shake. “But I’ve had weeks on the transport shuttle to think this through. You might be right. I might die in there tonight, before they even turn the cameras on. But I would die immediately from lethal injection. This is my only shot.”
“Okay then.” His expression hardens, as if he’s offended that I’m not jumping at his offer of a quick death. He swipes three fingers over my file, and it disappears, only to be replaced with an image of an arena I’ve seen a hundred times on the feeds, back home. “You may already know some of this, but I’m required to go over it with new fighters,” he says, and I nod.
“Combatants are paired by our system, and they are leveled, which means that for your first fight, you’ll be against another rookie. But that doesn’t mean your size or abilities will be evenly matched. Our system doesn’t track any of your stats or skills from before you were convicted.
“If you make it through your first fight, you’ll be paired against a category two opponent—someone who’s survived at least one but no more than three fights. If you make it through three fights, you’ll move up to category three. Survive a total of six fights, and you make it to the top tier, where you could face the current champion as soon as your seventh fight. But there are men who’ve had twenty fights without drawing his name. That part is random. Any question about the bracket system?”
“How will I know who I’m fighting?”
“The morning of the fight, the bracket will go live, and you’ll be able to see it on the screen in the yard. Moving on. Most of Rhodon is taken up by open population zones, which have no guards on the ground. The only reason they’re divided into zones is to keep prisoners from congregating in large numbers and forming cities. But zone one is different even than the other execution zones.
“Geographically speaking, it’s much smaller, and there are no gates in the exterior wall. Except on fight days, inmates are restricted to the yard and the bullpen. Guards will put boots on the ground if they need to—there are security cameras everywhere—but because of the obvious danger, the bar for ‘need to’ is set pretty high.
“Most of the cells in the bullpen still lock, but the locks are automated, and they only engage from sundown to sunset. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
I shrug. “During the day, I’ll have nowhere to hide.” Not that I can afford to hide, when everyone else is training.
He nods. “On combat days, show up at the arena when your name appears on the screen. Unarmed, even if you managed to find a weapon in the yard or the bullpen. You’ll be dressed and prepped for the fight. Then you’re on your own.”
“And if I don’t…make it?” I don’t want to think about that, yet it seems foolish to ignore the possibility—the probability—that I will die in the arena. If not before.
“Unless your family has previously made arrangements to claim your body and pay for its return, we will deposit your remains in a disposal site outside of zone one.” He says it with no hesitation. No inflection or emotion. Because disposing of corpses is a routine aspect of his job.
Would my parents claim me? Could they afford shipping? What few assets I’d had were seized by the government to pay for my upkeep in jail, while I waited for my trial.
“What happens if I win?” I ask, and the guards behind me snicker.
The warden looks skeptical, but he maintains a professional bearing. “You live to fight another day. The reigning champion at the end of the season will have his—or her—death sentence commuted to life in prison and will be released into the general population.”
Which is exactly why I’m here. “How far away is that—the end of the season?”
The warden taps the surface of the table between us, then taps again to open some kind of schedule. “Nine and a half weeks. If you’re still in the running at the end of that, there’s a six-week hiatus before next season. Use it to get back in shape and stay that way. If you can.”
“Make a friend,” Waite suggests. “A friend with damn good benefits. Someone who will watch your back so you can heal.”
Cottrell scoffs. “One won’t be enough. You’re going to need a fucking army to survive in there, so you better pick men who play well with others.”
“If they played well with others, they wouldn’t be in the bullpen in the first place,” Beardon snaps.
I expect the warden to contradict them. Or at least tell them to shut up. Instead, he swipes the table to clear away the schedule, then he stands. “Ms. Wolfe, there’s been a lot of interest in you on the corporate side. Some of the investors are, well, cautiously captivated by the novelty you represent and the viewership you could draw. I’ve warned them not to get too excited. As I’ve said, I don’t think you’ll make it to the arena.”
And suddenly I understand. Shaw isn’t concerned about me. He’s worried about Universal Authority. Or maybe his position within the company, after whatever went wrong with that other female prisoner. He’s trying to talk me out of going into the bullpen and trying to squelch the investors’ expectations.
“But I’ve been wrong before,” he adds. And based on his sour expression, the memory has left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Either way, there won’t be any exceptions for you because you’re a woman. No one is going to ride to your rescue if someone in the bullpen decides you belong to him. Or if it becomes a free-for-all.”
“I’m not asking for exceptions, Warden. I only want the same shot everyone else gets. A chance to walk out of there alive.”
Shaw leans toward me with both palms flat on the table. “Ms. Wolfe, let me be clear. There is no chance of that happening. Nothing awaits you in the bullpen but a hell you can’t possibly imagine. And you’ve agreed to let Universal Authority broadcast it, down to your very last breath. Are you sure this is what you want?”
He looks nervous. So I have to ask. “Warden, why do you keep offering me an out?”
Shaw scowls. “I’m trying to show you the last mercy you will ever see.” But he’s lying. The warden is uneasy about sending a woman into the bullpen, but his concern isn’t for me. So what is he worried about? Riots? Upsetting the status quo?
“I appreciate your concern. But I’ve made my decision.”
“Then what happens to you is out of my hands.” For a second, I think he’s going to extend a hand for me to shake. But then he turns abruptly and marches from the room.
“What was all that about?” Cottrell asks as he sets a pair of white socks and gray sneakers in front of me and motions for me to put them on. “He doesn’t usually editorialize the briefing.”
When I’ve tied my shoes, Beardon pulls me up from the chair and out the door. “She’s not the usual fighter.”
“If he wants to fuck her—”
Beardon cuts Cottrell off with a glare. “After what happened at the Resort—” He shakes his head and starts over. “This is about money. If she survives long enough to step into the arena, the ratings will go through the roof. We’ve never had a female fighter before.”
Waite makes a scoffing sound in his throat. “And we never will again, once they see her slaughtered on camera.”
“The warden’s right.” Beardon leads me toward a transport shuttle waiting for us on the landing dock. “She’s not going to live long enough to step onto the sand.”