Jessica woke as she was hauled up by the scruff of her coat, wrenched from her vivid dreams only to wake up in a nightmare. She was forced face to face with the lidless eyes of an Immortalite – one of the Immortal’s private servants. He also used them in the games, when he wants to pit the competitors against intelligent foes rather than brutish ones. But they also maintained the arena, and unfortunately in her case, acted as its security force. And they were creepy as hell, as far as Jessica was concerned. So waking up like this was in no way a pleasant experience.
Jessica screamed, lashing out with her fists and catching the Immortalite holding her straight in the face. The white mask it wore – featureless apart from a large smile carved into it with a gap so they could it, just like all of them wore – cracked, but didn’t drop off. She had never seen one without a mask. She didn’t think anyone had, but that wasn’t the issue to concentrate on at that moment. The thing reeled back, dropping her and crashing to the floor in a heap. Jess landed on her feet and ran, not stopping to look back. But she didn’t look forward either, so she wasn’t prepared when she collided with another, blocking her exit. They both flew back, hitting the door and going through it as it cracked then splintered. She felt the sharp sting of a splinter sliding into the palm of her left hand as she used it to stop herself falling – the Immortalite wasn’t so lucky. He landed on his back, with half the door beneath him, the edges sharp like stakes – a pool of blood was already forming under his – its – twitching body as Jessica sprinted down the hallway.
Jessica ran blindly through the corridors with a speed only those who face terror can match. She ignored all of her signs – looking back, she knew she could have been out of there in a minute; she would never have been caught. Like she always said, back then she was just a homeless girl, another face in the crowd. But no, she ran. And everything changed.
She slowed to a halt, bending over and drawing in raspy breaths, hands on knees for support. Her feet were sore from hitting the concrete floor so much – she wasn’t used to sprinting. She was used to hiding. Except there was nowhere to hide down here. She couldn’t work this to her advantage. Hearing the fast fall of footsteps coming up behind her, she drew in one long breath and started running again. Running for her life.
Jess ran round a corner into a crossroads – five different paths intersected. She had no idea where she was, as she hadn’t been here before. There were no familiar sights; none of her markings, nothing that could help her find her way. She was lost.
Jessica turned to backtrack, but at the end of the corridor she could see a group of Immortalites coming for her. She couldn’t go back. One path closed to her.
She turned to the right, and found the same thing. Two paths blocked.
Spinning right around, she started to run but pulled herself up short. Another group, and these ones were closer. Three paths blocked.
And from where she stood, she could see a final group of Immortalites advancing towards her, their gangly arms reaching out menacingly towards her. Four paths blocked. That left her with only one option, the far left tunnel from where she had entered the junction.
They were getting closer. No time to think. Jessica ran.
What seemed like hours later, Jessica was tired of running. The same white halls, the same junctions, the endless groups of Immortalites stationed to cut her off at every exit. She was starting to loose hope that she was ever going to get out of that endless maze. But she kept going, because whatever the Immortalites had planned for her was probably infinitely worse than being lost in here right now.
No, not lost. Hunted. Herded. That was the right word for this – if they had been out to kill her they would have by now. They had numbers, weapons, technology, they actually knew where they were – they could have had her at any point. Which means she was being driven into a –
White masks and bloodshot eyes clouded her vision as Immortalites fell onto her from the ceiling. She felt hands grab her wrists and ankles and she was hoisted off the ground, while another hand drove itself brutally into her stomach. Her breath left her in a rush, followed by hacking coughs as she tried to inhale through clammy fingers clamped over her mouth. She tried to curl up to protect herself but her arms and legs were pulled straight, so tightly that she cried out in fear of them being broken or dislocated. She squirmed and she struggled, kicking out with all her strength – of which there wasn’t much left. She felt her ankle go free after her heel collided with something soft and squishy – and also came rewarded with a high-pitched grunt of pain – before even more hands grabbed her from all directions and pinned her down roughly.
Jessica couldn’t move as much as she tried. She couldn’t even turn her head to see her attackers, though she know that if she did the image would haunt her memories forever. The Immortalites creeped her out when they traveled around in pairs – they were never alone – so she knew seeing them crouching around her in a group would do her no good.
But not seeing them meant she was surprised when the needle slipped into her arm and she faded out of consciousness – her last thought being that at least it didn’t hurt as much as the tazer…
Of all the things that surprised Jessica when she awoke, still drowsy from the injection – which included the fact that she wasn’t in prison, or a suspension pod, or in a casket buried alive – the fact that she was tied to a chair wasn’t one of them.
Of course, ‘tied’ wasn’t exactly the best word that could be used to describe the high-tech electronic bindings that held her down around her wrists, ankles, waist and neck. But it will do for now.
The thing that shocked her the most was certainly her surroundings. She was positioned in front of a desk in a luxury office, with a wall covered in decorations to her left, and a giant glass window to her right. She turned her head towards the sunset – the view outside the window was magnificent. Jessica could see out beyond the city, over the walls and into the countryside. She could actually see green from up here, something that very few outside the government or the wealthy could lay claim too. Looking down from the office’s high perch, she could see straight down into the Immortal’s arena, which was covered over in preparation for the next day’s events.
It was then that realization started to dawn on Jessica. She turned her head quickly to the left, taking in the pictures on the wall. Among various certificates and memorabilia from the games, there were pictures. Pictures of the same man in a white mask – a more stylish, slightly less frightening, but still quite menacing in its own right, version of those the Immortalites wore. He was shaking hands with old presidents, famous athletes and move stars – every single person was either world famous or stinking rich. Only one man would dare have photographs of that man. And that would be the man himself.
With a cold sweat breaking out on her brow, Jessica slowly turned to look straight forward, to look at the man sitting casually in his high backed leather chair, staring back at her intently. She was staring at the Immortal.
“Hello, Jessica. I doubt that I need to introduce myself – I doubt you are ignorant enough to not know who I am.’ The Immortal spoke with a voice coated with authority and arrogance, and he did so without any reason not to. He was the most powerful man in the city, and she was tied up, captured in the heart of his domain. There wasn’t a thing he could do right now that he couldn’t get away with.
‘But then again, it is obvious to me that you must know who I am – you were caught sneaking into my games, finding access to my arena, fleeing from my guards. Something only a fool would do, by the way. Did you really think you could escape them?’
Jessica’s heart was beating at a thousand beats per minute. Fear was the only emotion she felt – the only one she could feel.
‘I must ask you this – what could possibly inspire a girl like you to defy me? Is it that you have nothing to loose? Do you have a death wish?’
‘I didn’t like the view from the standing area.’
Jessica had spat the words from her mouth before she had time to realize what she was doing. The Immortal casually turned away from her to a side cabinet, pouring himself a drink from a crystal bottle as he waved at someone behind her. She heard a faint ‘blip’, and electricity coursed through her from her bonds, sending blue arcs, like lightning, jumping all over her body. The experience lasted seconds, but the pain was excruciating. The flow of current stopped, and smoke rose from her clothes where they had been singed, or in places where the electricity had burnt straight through to her skin, leaving it red and raw.
‘I’m afraid, if you want a better view you have to pay for it. That is how my system works – no ifs, ands or buts. And if you think differently, well then, I am afraid that we have a problem.’
He took a sip from the amber liquid in his glass, then walked back to the chair behind his desk and sat down, slowly.
‘Now obviously you are in no fit state to pay me for the obvious privilege of viewing my games from where you did – I doubt you could pay me back with all the money you would ever earn in your life. So I’m afraid you will have to pay me back by another means.’
Jessica felt anger flare in her chest and blood rush to her head.
‘If you think I’m so much as touching you below the waste they you’ve got another thing coming, you sick perverted son of a-‘
The electric shackles shocked her once again, and Jessica gritted her teeth and bore it – she wouldn’t give the Immortal the satisfaction of hearing her scream. These shocks went on for much longer than the first – Jess couldn’t see the Immortal because she had her eyes tight shut, but behind his mask she was sure he was smiling.
The shocks stopped, and Jessica gasped in air – she hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath. She could feel the places where she was burned – and there were a lot of them. She tried to hold back her tears as much as she could, afraid that adding moisture to the mix could send any remaining charge straight back into her eyes. Though being blind might be a mercy considering the punishments the Immortal might have lined up for her.
‘Keep your mouth quite from now on if you know what is in your best interests, you insolent brat’ the Immortal said without raising his voice, yet his words were lined with malice. ‘Your dirty mind has you thinking in the wrong direction. There is a much more simple answer here.’ He gestured for her to look out of the window, down rather than out across the city walls. Jessica looked, and her heart plummeted as the altitude of her gaze did. She was so stupid – how could she have expected anything else?
‘Take her away and clean her up – she’ll need to be in the best shape she can be’ the Immortal spoke to the Immortalites flanking her, who reached down and picked her up by her underarms, before turning and walking out of the room. The last Jessica saw of the Immortal he had risen from his seat and was staring out of the window as he spoke his final words to her.
‘I suggest that you train, and you train hard. Because as you are, you won’t last a minute in my games.’
Jessica didn’t resist when they threw her – literally threw her – out of the building and onto the streets. They had fixed all her burns, grounded her to get rid of any excess electricity, and even repaired her clothes with some fancy machine. They felt better to her now than they ever had, like they were brand new. They had even left her stuff in her pockets – she could tell because when she landed after being thrown, it dug into her side.
Jessica rolled onto her front, then pushed up with her hands so she was kneeling, then stood up. They had thrown her out on the opposite side of the arena that she had entered from, which was good for her – she knew where she was going, and they had just saved her a lot of walking. The sun had now set, and darkness had claimed the alleys and backstreets she would usually travel on. But at night, the bad things came out of the woodwork – things that she would rather not have to deal with when she knew what she would face in a week. Despite the risk of being caught breaking curfew without a permit, she would have to walk the main roads, which were lit.
She passed relatively few people on her journey – those who had passes could usually afford to be chauffeured, and they certainly would on a night like tonight when the cold chills carried by the wind bit deep. But she knew her destination would be warm – that kind of establishment wouldn’t do very well if its workers were too cold to spin around the pole.
Flashing blue lights appeared in the distance, and Jessica ducked into a doorway out of sight until it passed. It used to be that the homeless would willingly get caught out after hours. They would get a warm bed, a hot meal and safety, but nowadays all you got was a quick but brutal beating to warn you to not do it again. But Jessica was too clever for that. It happened to her once, but it would never happen to her again.
When she reached the neon-covered building covered in posters of semi-naked girls doing things that made Jessica sick in her throat, she barged through the front door without a single glance at the queue outside. The bouncer rose from his seat – a seven-foot mountain of muscle and bad haircut – but it was only to take her coat and hang it from a rack. He waved her through to the back – this guy was different from the bouncer from her last visit, but had obviously been told to watch out for her. She wondered if she would have to take on anyone of his size in the arena, and she gulped nervously at her chances. Slim to none, she told herself – unless she had help.
She squinted slightly as she stepped from the well-lit bar to the dark and shady room with podiums and poles dotted around, most with a scantily clad female attached. A few gave her brief nods of acknowledgement or smiles, but she didn’t return their gestures. The determined look on her face told them everything they needed to know – she was looking for Andrew.
Uncle Andrew was the only family that Jessica had left, but he wasn’t really her uncle – he had been her mother and father’s best friend. Best man at their wedding, and her godfather. She couldn’t rely on him solely – more of a personal thing than lack of him offering – but when she needed favors he was more than willing to comply. And boy did she need a hell of a favour now.
She found him behind the bar, washing out shot glasses with a dirty cloth. She smiled when he turned and noticed her, but it faded immediately when he saw the look on her face.
‘Hey, Jess, what’s wrong? You know I don’t like that look. That look means trouble.’
Jessica sighed, half from Andrew’s attitude and half from what she was about to say. ‘I need to speak to Cira.’
‘Sorry hun, but you know Cira. He ‘aint gonna give you the time of day – or night, for that matter.’
Then she explained everything – all that had happened in the last twelve hours, leaving nothing out, filling in every detail. By the time she had finished, everyone around her was listening. Andrew sighed, and then pointed to the corner of the club furthest away from the speakers and the noise. ‘He’s in his spot – best of luck, girl.’
The listeners murmured their agreement and consent, and then watched her as she strode across the club, weaving between tables and chairs until she reached the spot.
The old man poured himself a double from the bottle of vodka – already half gone – and lifted it to his lips, downing it with a single swig. He put the shot glass down none too gently, and turned his attention to her. ‘Get lost.’
Jessica stood firm, hands on hips. ‘No.’
‘Get lost’ he repeated.
‘Not ‘till you help me.’
‘I got nothing to give.’
‘Yes you do.’
‘Experience. I want you to teach me.’
‘Teach you what?’ There was apprehension in his voice now.
‘Teach me to survive the games.’
He paused, another shot half way to his mouth. Any onlookers nearby froze, turning to see who had spoken.
Cira downed the shot. ‘You, little missy, have nothing to give in exchange.’
‘I’ll do anything.’
‘Anything?’ Cira leaned forward into the light, his white hair shining under the UV rays. His face was shriveled and wrinkled – Jessica couldn’t help but compare him to a raisin. She had found a pack in the rubbish once, and had never forgotten their look or their sweet taste.
‘Could you kill? Could you tie bandages around yourself when you’re bleeding out and your strength is fading? Could you handle being alone, facing the unknown, facing almost certain death – facing the Immortal? I highly doubt it missy. I barely could.’
He turned his head, and Jessica saw four parallel scars running across his neck, ending just before they reached his windpipe. Jess was sure that if whatever had caused those scars had struck slightly to the left, she wouldn’t have been having this conversation with Cira. She wouldn’t even have a chance.
‘But you’ Jessica whispered, then found her voice for sure. ‘You, Cira, are the only hope I have of getting through this alive. You’re the only one from around here who has been able to get out of the games alive – to have the sense not to get greedy after beating one arena. Because every one is different, so you can’t get cocky. I know that. But I’m sure there’s a lot more to it that that – am I right?’
Cira paused again, then a smile slowly spread across his face. ‘You’re right, there is more, but you seem to be in the right place to start. But like I said, you have nothing to offer me.’
‘I’ll give you a free drink and a lap dance every day this week if you help her’ Andrew shouted from across the room, which had gone silent to listen to their conversation. Everyone was hanging on every word that passed between them.
‘A lap dance from you?’ Cira exclaimed. ‘No offence, but I’d rather gargle nails than see you in a thong, Andrew.’
Jessica laughed, momentarily forgetting the predicament she had found herself in. Then she caught Cira looking at her, and the sound slowly died in her throat.
He smiled at her for the first time, and she noted that without the scowl he looked younger than she had thought. But that was what this city did to you.
‘Remember that laugh – it will be the last one that you’ll probably get in a long time. Now, since we have a whole lot of learning to do in one week, lets see how fit you are.’