The voice of the Announcer flooded the arena through static loudspeakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, inmate number 672 Killian Calhan, better known as The Reaper, has entered the Cage.”
Thunderous applause punctuated by banging against dull brass railings erupted at the mere mention of Killian’s name. Bound by shackles, his hunched figure exited the shadows of the western portcullis. Warm lights assaulted his vision as he pried his eyes from the beige sand that had soaked the blood of the exchange victims, – 152 of which his hands had taken. Killian’s stormy eyes looked back at the crowd before turning towards the armory where glistening swords, war hammers, and spears hung from a tarnished metal trellis. The muscle under his already glistening rich skin flexed as his chains fell to the floor with a resonant jingle, freeing his neck, wrists, and ankles.
From the ledges above, scientists seated with data and clipboards announced the arrival of Killian’s opponent. “Subject 928 approaching eastern portcullis.” A short figure stalked up to the gate, his absent eyes grazing over Killian’s scarred body. If he was intimidated by the fact that Killian was nearly three times his size, he didn’t show it.
“The inmate may make his selection of defense.” Killian regarded the armory, eyed his opponent, and reached for a steel gladius. The trellis receded as guards dressed in black hoisted it up by its chains.
The portcullis opened as the gong sounded above.
“May the best man win.”
The boy lowered himself to all fours and charged toward Killian with unnatural speed. Killian quickly dodged left, attempting to use the boy’s momentum against him. He pivoted, tackling Killian to the ground. His blade fell from his hands. The boy’s fist came down, throwing sand as Killian turned his head to the right and bared his forearm against the boy’s neck. He rolled from beneath him and reached for the gladius. The boy’s eyes widened as he released a guttural whine when the blade met his left lung. He dropped to the floor, clutching his side before Killian’s knees pinned his arms down. He looked into the icy eyes of the boy and drove the gladius that was slick with blood through his chest. Applause erupted; the Reaper had gained yet another kill.
Killian exited the arena through the northern gate; his wrists were bound by manacles as the guards guided him through the tunnels to his cell where a week worth of rations awaited him. Basic necessities were the reward for fighting in the Cage; the alternative was contaminated meals that lead to fatal infections regardless. Most prisoners took their chances in battle, often considering it to be the preferable death despite the fact that it benefitted the system that was against them. The corpses from the arena were sent to the morgue to be burned for fuel and other valued resources. The regime is what ensured the survival of the bunker.
The guards detoured with Killian through the right tunnel. They freed his wrists and discarded the chains by a pile of olive jumpsuits.
“Dawson and Taylor should’ve slashed the throats of the Researchers while I was out there if everything went according to plan,” Killian said as they passed the bodies of stripped guards.
“They’re two of our best,” said Malachi, the guard on the right.
“I’m sure they’ve got them bleeding out in the lab,” Rowan snickered. The dull pound of their boots and Killian’s bare feet echoed as they continued down the corridor toward the Blue Room. The trio turned left and made their way to the frosted glass doors at the end of the hall.
Rowan jumped as a subject in a cell labeled 937 banged against the bars.
“Seriously? You have a gun,” taunted Malachi.
Killian cast them disapproving glances. “Get it together.”
As they reached the entrance, Malachi pulled a card from the pocket of his suit. The doors receded as the reader flashed green after beeping three times. Rowan and Malachi were first to enter the Blue Room. Guards bearing the gold star seal stepped out from either side. Rowan punched the guard in the face, but he was unfazed, his head mechanically turning back toward him as he raised his rifle: they’re enhanced. Malachi struggled with the other guard. Blood poured down his face as Killian seized the guard’s rifle, turning it against him and aiming for his chest. Gunfire cracked through the air. Rowan and Malachi choked as they crumpled with the thud of deadweight. Their macabre bodies were strewn on the floor scratched with crimson.
Killian heard the rattle of rifles when the guards adjusted their aim as Taylor regarded him with a pistol in hand. “That’s enough, boys.” They lowered their weapons and stepped back.
Killian scowled at the Pries that stood before him. “What the hell, Taylor?”
“Killian, Jeanine’s my mother,” she pleaded.
“You said you had no loyalties.”
“I didn’t, but she said I won’t have to fight again.”
His voice rose. “Are you that impressionable? What about me? And the hundreds of other prisoners that rot in their cells, unable to eat or even sleep because of her? You knew what you were getting into when you joined us. I should’ve known you were a weak link.”
She seemed to shrink into herself. “I had no other choice.”
“You’re no better than your bitch of a mother,” he spat.
Tears welled in her eyes, “I’m sorry.”
Killian suddenly felt a sharp pain in his thigh. He braced his palms in front of him as his knees fell to the floor.
His wide eyes looked up at her. His vision distorted as her mother sauntered up behind her, placing her arm on Taylor’s back. “Great job, honey.”
Jeanine leaned over him with a grin, her voice distant as she said, “Mr. Calhan, you’ve been selected.”
Operating lights blinded Killian. His lungs were burning, and his skin was slick with cool sweat. Claustrophobia consumed him as he realized he was bound by rope soaked in hydrofluoric acid; the more he struggled, the deeper his skin corroded.
“Injecting five milligrams of lead into subject’s bloodstream. Monitor response.”
He tried to speak, to beg them to stop. Instead, he raised a silent plea into the eyes of the woman above him before everything went dark again.
Distant memories painted his subconscious. His mother’s kind eyes, the fear that consumed them when guards dragged her away from him. Stories of who his father once was, the movement he started, the legacy he had to continue. What he became, what he too was to become. The crack of a guard’s skull against the bunker wall, gold guards that beat Jordie in front of him before hauling him to the Blue Room. The rot of the cell he screamed for his mother day and night.
His consciousness switched between a grasp to reality and slipping from the rope for weeks as they continued dosing him with lead.
His scattered mind attempted to piece together the hushed words exchanged within the Blue Room in the slight moments of clarity. “Ric, we have no control over the alteration of their DNA. They’re able to withstand radiation but at what cost?”
The man flashed bright light in his eyes. “Hannah, they are killing machines. We cannot send them out to Earth-42. They won’t reproduce.”
The woman pulled her mask down, “What’s stopping us from artificial reproduction?” Her voice grew fainter as she paced across the room. “We could create a new generation every twenty-five years, replicate, and further enhance their genomes to harbor intentional evolution.”
His mother sang lullabies to him again, masked voices overlapped her song. “Injecting fifteen milligrams of lead. Blood pressure is 60/40 and dropping.”
A moment passed. “Subject is coding. Pushing one milligram of epinephrine. Monitor and push another dose after three minutes.”
An unrecognizable man treaded through the dank corridors of the shelter. His hands dragged the hair of white-coated bodies that left cardinal trails in their paths. Guards’ motionless forms littered the cobblestone floor. The man was programmed toward his target, following the beating pulse of the arena he once knew so well. He shattered the iron barrier of the pit with a resounding crash and hurled the Scientists into the sand as he stepped into the light.
Feedback encompassed the arena. “L-ladies and gentlemen, subject 938 has entered the cage.”
Mannat Jamarai is a high school student in British Columbia, Canada. She enjoys the outdoors, boxing, listening to music, and spending time with her friends.