The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.
It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass, and beyond there is a different country.
– J. Robert Oppenheimer
It always goes quiet during a fight.
They tell you everything slows down. Your heart rate speeds up. Your muscles tense, and your vision zeros in on the threat. That’s all true.
What they don’t tell you is how the fight makes you nothing and everything all at once.
They hang a bright florescent light over the ring so you can’t forget you’re under a microscope. You can’t see them, but they’re watching you.
If you get greedy or try to take something for yourself, they’ll send you out to remind you that you’re only alive because they allow you to be. They own you, but ultimately, you’re expendable.
The crowd sees none of this. To them, you’re fascinating, powerful: the man who beat the machine, the fastest race horse.
That’s enough to make anyone drunk on their own ego, except you don’t see the crowd. You don’t even hear them shouting.
Tonight, it’s just you and him.
He’s six feet, four inches of pure muscle hulking in the corner, his dark skin glistening with sweat. I’m only a couple inches shorter but much leaner. This is an illegal fight — he’s not even in my weight class.
I don’t know how he got so big. He must be stealing rations again. In Recon, they give you just enough to stay strong, but not strong enough to run very far.
He’s tatted up from hip to shoulder. I’m probably the only one who notices the solid “B” stamped over his heart in the stormy haze of ink.
This isn’t just a fight. Miles is my only friend. He fights as a big “fuck you” to the board, which is funny considering it’s only at their whim that these fights take place. There’s even a controller in the corner to break up any brawls and take a cut of the bets.
They profit even when you defy them. You can’t win.
Miles fights in the hope that he’ll be injured badly enough to be excused from duty for a month. One month isn’t a lot, but it can mean a lifetime in Recon. A month off duty means one less deployment.
It’s round three, which means I have to make it count to get him roughed up bad enough.
I regulate my breathing, waiting for the bell. When it rings, I don’t have to pretend to be grateful or functional. I don’t have to think; I can just do. I don’t have to be the good soldier. Down here I can be ruthless, angry, off the leash.
That’s why you’re everything in a fight.
But when the fight starts, I become the man they made me — the one whose only purpose is to kill.
That’s how they make you nothing.
The bells rings, and Miles starts at me. He’s all offense, and for good reason: He’s the killer whale in the ring, whereas I fight with patience.
He’s not as slow as the other sluggers, but all I have to do is dodge Miles’ brick-wall punches and wait for him to tire himself out. I can’t lose focus for even a second, because one well-placed hit from him, and it’s lights out — see you tomorrow.
As we circle, I try to forget his laundry list of weaknesses. When you train together every day and fight at night, it’s just good manners not to take that cheap shot to his bruised rib or target his weak left knee. He knows I won’t hurt him. I don’t fight dirty against other Recon.
Miles lunges, I dodge. He delivers a cross. I block it and aim a jab. He’s undefended, but he barely feels it.
I throw a round kick. His knee buckles, but he recovers. He swipes. I duck and deliver two punches to his side.
He’s had enough. He’s just fast enough to aim an uppercut that I can’t avoid completely. It glances off my chin, but I’m back against the ropes.
Miles punches again, but this time I block it and strike my elbow across his face, meeting him halfway with a punch to the gut. I grab his shoulders, pushing him down so I can jab the back of his neck with my elbow. He falls to one knee, and I get him with a right hook.
A slightly better friend would give him a second to recover, but I want this to end. I bring my elbow down on his spine again, and he crumples onto the mat. He taps out, and the crowd goes wild.
It all floods in at once: the cheers, the boos, the drunken insults from the ExCon guys. My arm is yanked into the air, and I try to keep my expression neutral so no one can read the shame and self-loathing.
“Aww. Fuck you, man,” Miles groans.
“You wanted me to drag it out?” I murmur, not making eye contact with the expired slab of meat on the mat.
“You could at least . . . let me get one good hit in . . . so I don’t look like . . . a pussy.”
I grin despite my best efforts and reach down to pull Miles to his feet. He spits out his mouthguard, and one of our guys in the corner yanks off his gloves.
As if anyone could mistake Miles for a pussy. He’s the scariest guy here.
“One good hit is too many,” I say.
He rolls his eyes, and a line of blood dribbles from his nose. “Is Brooke here?”
“Why would she be?”
He nods once and looks at the mat. Brooke is tier two. They shouldn’t even be seeing each other anymore, and Miles knows it.
I climb down, and people are slapping my shoulders and pumping my arm. I resist the urge to swat them like flies. It’s mostly burnout chicks with vacant eyes and tier-three workers looking for a little distraction to forget they’re serving a life sentence.
I know I should be grateful. The compound saved me from a slow, hard death on the Fringe. Recon gave me a purpose. But the horrible irony is being tasked with defending the compound and killing the same thugs I used to run with. They don’t recognize me now.
Miles drags himself over to the ropes, and I help him down and loop an arm under his shoulders. If it were me, I’d just go home and ice my face, but you don’t get exempt from deployment without recommendation from the medical ward.
The clean, smart doctors up there will patch him up, shake their heads, and go home to their families feeling oh so lucky and fulfilled. They escaped this life.
The crowd clears away, and I sink down on the rickety bench outside the ring to mop the sweat off my face. The referee appears with a battered credit transfer device. He’s probably pissed he has to work late. EnComm workers have lives and families — not just a job.
Numbers flash on the screen as he adds fifty credits to my account. When he walks away, I put on my interface and automatically transfer twenty-five to Miles’ account.
We always split the winnings, no matter who ends up a drooling pile of garbage on the mat. Not that the ref would care. All he wants is a good fight. That’s what everybody wants.
Now that it’s almost midnight, the pounding of the bass from Neverland has reached a teeth-rattling decibel. It shakes the grimy walls down below and climbs up the foundation to meld with the beats emanating from the glass-encased levels above.
Everyone’s partying tonight because tomorrow is Bid Day, a sick tradition that makes my stomach clench with dread. All the higher-ed kids are living it up in anticipation of their bright futures in tier one. Right now, they’re still friends — equals. That’s all about to change.
Tomorrow I get a new class of recruits: Seven shiny new twenty-one-year-olds who have no clue that their lives are about to end. It’s the third class I’ll be tasked with training, but it’s futile, really. Most of the kids from my first year as a lieutenant are already dead.
I made a mistake with that first class: I let myself get attached. I told myself I would train them better so they could live longer, but the numbers don’t lie. Early death is a statistical certainty in Recon.
We go out onto the Fringe so the rest of the compound can sleep soundly at night. We tell them the outside will be inhabitable soon, even though things out there have only gotten worse since the compound was founded.
We don’t tell them who we’re chasing away — what they should really be afraid of.
I hate the vacant looks the tier-two people give us on the megalift. Every time the lift stops on the way to the upper tunnels, the people who get on are cleaner and more domesticated.
They take one look at me, at Miles — bloody and broken and covered in a permanent grime — and avert their eyes. They know who we are. They know what we’re there for, but they don’t like to think about it. They don’t want to have to look at the people whose job it is to die slowly of radiation poisoning so that they can be safe.
The megalift stops on one of the dorm levels, and the loud, upbeat music rattles the lift shaft. The doors open, and two girls stumble in giggling. They’re covered in glitter and wearing short red nurses’ dresses. Their laughter stops when they see Miles hanging off my shoulder, and the blond one hiccups loudly.
I see it in their eyes; they can’t wait until tomorrow. They think their future is set. They think they’ll never have to do what we do because they’ll receive big bids from Health and Rehab.
I was that certain once. I’d gone to my Bid Day Eve party wearing blue. But nothing ever shakes out the way you think it will.
When we reach the medical ward, I’m relieved to see there are still some real nurses on duty. They rush out when they hear the lift, but the urgency leaves their eyes the second they realize we’re just Recon. We’re always in the medical ward for something.
A woman in red scrubs comes over with an automatic wheelchair trailing behind her. She helps me lower Miles into it, and he zooms off behind her to an exam room.
He doesn’t expect me to wait for him, but I’m always wound up after a fight — too drunk on adrenaline to stop moving.
It’s late, and the ward is mostly deserted. It’s clean and bright, just like all the upper levels. I can see blurred outlines of people in red moving behind the frosted glass walls like colorful ghosts. This is their life: bright and clean and organized.
The automatic lights flicker on as I walk down the empty tunnel. I’ve been here too many times to count, and I know where every door goes. My body is tired, and my feet carry me to my usual destination without consulting my brain.
I pass the post-exposure chamber and an entire tunnel of closed doors leading nowhere. I keep walking past the intensive care unit to the only part of the medical ward where people are living instead of dying.
I rest my head against the glass and feel the smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. Sometimes I like to come here when I’m admitted post-exposure just to remind myself that there’s still goodness in the world.
Three perfect bundles are lying in identical white boxes. They don’t know they’re already marked by their section instead of their name. They don’t understand that hours after their birth, they already have their place in the world. It may change slightly when they age out, but not significantly.
They’re Fourth Gen. They won’t remember Death Storm or the years the compound was on the verge of collapse.
Two of them have their little eyes squeezed shut, but one is staring up at me. Just out of the womb, he knows I don’t belong here. There are no Recon babies — no tier-three babies at all. That’s no accident.
There’s a second room with a window like this one, but I’ve never seen it occupied.
It’s separated from the main nursery by six inches of glass, and the incubator is covered in a big plastic bubble. It’s where Fringe babies are monitored before they’re sent to the institute to integrate with the others, but we haven’t had a Fringe baby in two decades.
I was hardly a baby when they brought me in. I’d already killed my fair share of people by then. Harper Riley was probably the last one, but she’s not a baby anymore.
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