Arcs - June 1994
Wargames - Stian Ingebrethsen
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Wargames

"Dreams! You know where you stand with dreams. It's the reality I can't stand."

I blinked and turned my head slowly to the left. Through a haze of broken promises and despair, I saw the old man lying next to me. His shirt was clean, cleaner than most hospital walls, and his pyjama trousers were striped blue and white. He turned towards me, slow as a tortoise, exposing his balding pate where his greying wisps of hair gave way to tanned skin freckled with brown spots. His forehead was covered with wrinkles and thin, long grooves running at right angles to them, telling their story of ages long gone, battles long forgotten and scars that no one wanted to remember.

His eyes were a story of themselves, small, sunken in and hazy with thoughts from a forlorn past. But yet they had an inner shine to them, a sign of experience few could hope, or wish, for. His voice, barely audible over the din of our surroundings, was of a fine quality, croaking, crackling with age but with a timbre to it indicating his reluctance to grow old. His hand (he had but one) was bony and wrinkled, thin and scrawny but with sinews and muscles still showing. His right sleeve was pinned to his shoulder, showing clearly where his arm ended, where it had been amputated or ripped off years ago. His remaining hand was resting on his chest, occasionally pulling at his right sleeve, toying with the pin, being tormented by it. His eyes rested a half inch above my nght ear, fixed at an illuminated point only he perceived.

"You, for instance, will never understand this, although you yourself are a dreamer..."

He was rabmbling now, I was convinced. I didn't have a clue what he was on about. He turned his head back, his eyes following an unseen adversary. A faint excuse for a smile crossed his lips and he bared his teeth, clearly enjoying the situation.

"You actually believe you'll get out of here, get out of this place, don't you?" It was more a statement than a question "Youthful ignorance!" he harumphed feebly, making his thin chest rise and fall ever so slightly.

"Who are you?" I asked, pain gripping my abdomen, sending sharp spikes through my body. I hardly expected an answer, the man was clearly mad as a bicycle He didn't react, he was too clearly lost in his own personal world. A bout of coughing suddenly raked through my chest, rasping at my throat, making my stomach muscles cramp up The silvery mercury taste of blood spread out through my mouth, filling it up,- forcing a small trickle out the comers of my lips. You didn't have to be a med school student to recognise the bright blood for what it was, oxygen-rich 'life fiuid' clearly indicating that there was a hole in my lungs, spewing blood into the cavity of my chest, filling me up and making me drown slowly. My only hope, albeit a half- hearted one, was that the blood would drain out the hole in my side faster than my heart could pump it in to my lungs. A child's waterballoon was fairly reminiscent of what I felt like just now. Between the convulsions I reached for my medikit, the sparsely equipped satchel of first-aid stuff, bandages, morphine syringes and tablets.

"That won't help you," he croaked. I glanced quickly, guiltily at him. He was staring off into the void above us, counting something that was invisible to all but him. I clenched my teeth and pulled the small bag towards me.

"You don't get real medicine. It's far too valuable-" He was cut off by a great roar as an ICHE-shell burst nearby, imploding a batch of dirt and mud, transforming it instantly into numerous compressed spikes of ceramics that flew out through the other side of the point of implosion with the energy of a ten ton truck. Luckily the hemispherical blast didn't include the two of us lying slightly lower in the terrain than ground zero.

He glanced absent mindedly over at the point where a group of men had been engaged in hand-to-hand combat but where only their finely shredded, bloody combat fatigues remained.

"Expunging the wastrels..." He looked yet again over to where I lay My helmet had by now slipped halfway over my face, covering the gash in my forehead "Pruning the wretched." He slowly appraised the torn body lying beside him, the autobullets still eating their way through the flesh - my flesh! I ripped open the medikit, which I had finally managed to unhook from my bandolier, and started to sift through the meagre contents I knew I would find...

He was right, dammit! The bag opened to show the picture modulator and transducer that were hooked up to the sight of my assault rifle that lay useless in a ditch some twenty yards from my position. Unfired. Unused. I still didn't know whether it was I who had been thrown the twenty yards when the grenade hit, or the rifle.

"The magnificent battle of the gladiators of the modern day". He was chuckling silently, wheezing that annoying asthmatic laugh reserved for venerable toothless geriatrics, bringing forth associations of nasty old sugardaddies.

"Who are you?" I hissed. Something in my throat was bubbling I tried to clear it in vain, and turned my strained eyes heavenwards.

"You won't find the answer there. . . " He said it silently, yet unbearably mockingly, and he was right. The God, the Heaven I sought was beyond my grasp, as the grey walls of the dome 70 yards straight up flashed its eternally blind grin at me. its starlike teeth blinking with huge flashlights that illuminated the battlefield, only interspersed with the numerous pinpoints where the receivers for the camera transducers hung.

"The show that takes the fighting off the streets and puts it under strict control! More like bread and circuses to me .." He was chuckling louder now, a mocking half- laughter that challenged the ones responsible for putting the fighting on the streets in the first place. "And you believed - you actually believed that you could survive something like this and come out a victor on the other side. The chance of being the sole survivor, amongst these losers in a society which has been fighting since it was born, was minute. Even you should have recognised that." How unbearably right he was! How the realisation of my foolishness was an additional twist of the knife in my wounds. How could I have thought that I could compete with these criminals who had been born with Uzis in their hands? I had so hoped to win, to receive the enormous benefits that each victor got, sponsored education on Ganymede. Being the centre of education in the solar system, a degree from the medical college there would count for more than the fact that I was from Earth, meaning that I could actually get a job and be free from the constraints imposed on me and my co-inhabitants here in the city of JU-rop sector 11.

The noise of the fighting was abating now. The sporadic explosions and gunshots had moved away from where we were Iying, close to Exit E. I had been felled as I was running from the no-fire zone near the exit to the nearest dump in the ground to take cover. I hadn't fired one shot, hadn't hit even one enemy before I had to bite the dust. Yet I was proud, however low-life these creatures might be, I still felt it was wrong to take a life, no matter how degenerate and mutated it might be.

The screaming, blazing roar of battle was dying down - it would soon be over. Four bloody hours of slaughter and madness would soon come to an end, with only one person left standing.

"Your problem is that teamwork is an unknown phenomenon for all the others. You were betrayed by your group - cannon fodder to trigger the trap they knew had been set for them. One less to worry about winning, and one less person they would need to guard their back against." He was lazily examining his nails, polishing them and regarding the reflected image of the viewports for the few lucky ones who had managed to get tickets for the live action.

I stared at him, wishing that he would go away. I still had a chance! I wasn't dead yet and it was over! They could still choose me if there wasn't anyone left on his feet...

"You should never have broken the curfew - even a girl isn't worth the sacrifice..." He was sagely glancing at the ripped, shredded bodies around him. He was counting.

I knew that. I hadn't noticed that I had strayed out of the safe area, where the local vigilantes still roamed the streets, making it safe from hyenas and vampires and the cops who supplied the Game with fresh criminals. The prowling cruiser had pounced on me without warning, telling me to choose between working the rest of my life on the toxic garbage dump of Amric or going along to the Game. The choice was easy. And I still had a chance.

The blood filling my lungs came more slowly now, but still made speech impossible. I tried yet again to utter the words I had repeated several times already - who was he?

The battlefield was dead quiet now, the audience holding their breath in suspense as to who would emerge from the dirty smoke that swirled and covered the battleground Bets were placed on who would see the winner first, on whom it would be and how damaged he would be. I stirred, trying to move so that I could sit myself up to claim the prize.

Something inside me ripped with the sound of a zipper being drawn. Fresh blood started to pour into my lungs. My hand came away from the gaping hole in my side wet with bright, red, fresh blood.

He laughed like an autumn storm rustling dead leaves and looked at me afresh, his eyes burning feverishly. Out of the slowly melting smoke a figure emerged, striding purposefully towards the main exit. He was tall, and wide across the shoulders. His ancient rifle was held loosely in his right hand, the other hand slung in his pocket. The world suddenly turned a purple hue as the figure slowed down and stopped. The smoke was frozen in place, looking like dirty candy floss starched into twisting, lunatic shapes. The world had stopped turning and I felt the increasing power that emanated from the old man Iying next to me. I looked at him closely, trying to remember what he had really looked like.

He had changed, become bigger somehow, even though his frail old body was the same. It was as if he had moved further away from me, while still being fixed to the same spot. WHO ARE YOU?!

He gazed squarely at me, his eyes hazed over with a red tint. "I am death - your death. I am the final hardship, the guardian of your doubts. fears. anxieties. vanities and pleasures, the holder of despair. I am your judge and jury, your counsel and defender. I am the bringer of hope and relief, the rider of despair and hopelessness and your ultimate destroyer. I am the hourglass you all bear inside your hearts. You have reached the end of your allotted time - it is not your destiny to win the Game and it never could have been. You won't feel the spiderbot crawling up to you, injecting just enough synthmorphine to make you sleep forever as they do with all the other players here. You are but the waste of mankind, ejected and deleted from a degenerate society.

"But rest assured that you might be chosen for the most dramatic death of the month by all the viewers on the colonies, free worlds and the home planet Venus that are watching now. At least your pains are over...

"Don't feel bad about losing in the Game. After all, so does everybody else..."

He was a mile away as the world speeded up again, letting the smoke continue its random motion, letting the man finally emerge to the cheers of the audience. He was tall and handsome with wavy black hair, shining teeth and sparkling blue eyes. His bulging muscular arms were glistening with sweat as they relaxed from the adrenaline high. He had a cut on his cheek, forming a fight angle with his cleft chin. His fatigues had been torn open, exposing powerful legs that shone with blood - probably somebody else's. He started to mount the stairs leading up to where the ViceRoy stood ready to present the prize, when it suddenly struck me. As I heard the tiny scrabbling of the 'bot behind me, I realised that the shoes he was wearing were made from leather.

There hadn't been a cow around for forty-seven years.

I looked around for the old man. He was gone, leaving behind nothing but an indentation in the ground, and hardly even that. As the lights started to fade and the sound was reduced to a mere whisper, I sensed the spiderbot slowly crawling over to the next victim. One down...

The victor's eyes haunted me as the pain went away, replaced by a drowsiness and a need for sleep. As everything else turned black, his eyes remained floating in front of me, his two bright blue eyes burning into my soul The old man was right. The 'hero' that had won the Game was nothing but an actor.

Nobody here has less than three eyes.