As the sun set over the shattered Port Sel skyline, I stepped off the boat onto a rickety wooden dock. The boatman wordlessly accepted the cans of food I gave him in payment and began to row back across the oily lake.
I put my raincoat’s hood up and made my way down the dock towards the houseboats. I’d seen my face on “Wanted” posters, issued by both the Gladiators and the Northwest Territories Prison Corporation, proliferating along the main roads in the week since I fled Adamax. To avoid anyone hoping to collect on my bounty – a rather significant amount for a 17-year-old girl – I’d been traveling by night.
That meant I’d had to visit the commune secretly in order to pay my debt to my dead cousin. I couldn’t even reveal myself to my aunt, who would have been the first family I’d seen – knowingly, anyway – in nine years.
I hadn’t known places like Northridge Commune still existed: green, healthy, cool, temperate, where the wind wasn’t laden with radioactive dust and food came fresh from the ground, not out of cans or freeze-dried pouches exported from the White Zone. It took nearly four days of hitchhiking and stowing away to get from the arid plateau where Adamax stood to this little oasis.
I hated to leave it, but I hated being there, poisoning this idyll with my terrible news, even more.
While I was there, I dismantled the recognizable spear that had saved my life twelve times, keeping my father’s knife and leaving the pole in a farmer’s woodpile. As I said goodbye to it, I thought of Mel. She had helped me construct that spear, incorporating the only thing I had left of my family, and taught me to use it. Her training had kept me alive through twelve Duels. What would she think of me now? I hadn’t known he was my cousin, after all. I’d only ever met him once, when we were four or five. And when a prisoner qualifies for the Duel, I have to fight him and try to kill him, regardless of his crime or who he is.
I thought I was a tough as Mel. I thought I could be as hardened and bloodthirsty a Gladiator as her. But when I found out the wiry boy called Getter, who died after six months in Adamax when my spear tip unseamed his abdomen, was actually Rylan Okuda, my cousin from Northridge, everything I thought I was dissipated.
I was pulling myself back together now – or at least building a framework on which to build a new Lin. I didn’t know who she would be yet, but she had to be better than the Lin who murdered her own cousin.
When I finished my business at the commune, I stowed away on a caravan of trailer-hauling jeeps headed west. I approached Iron Bay on foot from the south, avoiding both the bandit-infested freeways, the busy crossroads with their traders’ shacks, and the exposed shore of Lake Causta. Finally, I hired a boat under the crumbling highway bridge to take me to the houseboats huddled under shadow of the broken city. Ugly as the collapsing, bombed-out buildings were, they felt like home, because they reminded me of Adamax.
But that meant they also reminded me of death.
So I kept my gaze low, on the houseboats, shacks, floating platforms, stolen docks, and small boats that had been lashed together to form a neighborhood that was part residence, part marketplace. It stuck out two hundred yards into the bay, lengthening the city’s shadow across the rust-orange gleam of the sunset’s reflection.
This was the neighborhood that Tree had called home.
While the rest of Adamax cheered for my victory, the prisoner wagering his life for his freedom stood across the ring from me, silent and still: Ivan Balagula, alias Tree. Even with his face concealed by a roughly welded helmet, I recognized him thanks to the three shiv scars on his tattooed stomach. The nickname had two meanings: it was short for “trio” and also an accurate description of his size.
I had hacked into the prisoner files as soon as I learned that Tree was going to go for the Duel. Within seconds, I knew everything I needed to know about him: he came from Port Sel, his only previous offense was dreamsalt smuggling, and the double murder he was imprisoned for had been committed by someone else, a gang leader called Spider. The court records didn’t even bother to hide it. The judge had been paid off, the real killer went free, and Tree was sentenced to life.
So it went in the world outside the White Zone. So it had gone for my cousin. Everyone knew that fewer than half of the eight thousand inmates in Adamax had actually committed the crimes they were imprisoned for. Getter – Rylan – had been one of them, a dumb kid tricked into taking the fall for a smuggled arms shipment. But Rylan was dead. There was no changing the past.
Tree was exactly the opponent I’d prayed for.
The sun had nearly set behind Port Sel’s crumbling skyscrapers, but the market was still open, so I took a seat at a tiny food shack selling noodles and mentioned that I was looking for the Balagulas. I savored the noodles – my first hot meal in days – and waited.
I sensed movement in the corner of my vision and turned, half drawing my knife. A woman stood a few feet away, watching me. She wore a patched canvas jacket over meticulously maintained leather armor. Half of her head had been shaved bare, while the other boasted a chin-length fall of shining black hair. A tattoo of blackberries unfurled under one glittering dark eye; inked barbed wire ringed her ear on her bare scalp. She was holding a spear casually at her side, as if it were an ordinary walking stick, but I knew she could kill me in an instant if she wanted to. She was the one who had trained me to use my own.
The woman nodded. “Wasn’t sure you’d recognize me. It’s been, what, a year and a half?”
“Something like that.” I lowered my knife. Mel had accumulated several more tattoos since the Gladiators reassigned her – not to mention another couple of scars, raised red against her golden-dark skin – but her sleek hair, sculpted face, and elegant yet intimidating tattoos were still instantly recognizable, and still breathtakingly beautiful. “They sent you to get me?”
“They sent me to kill you, Lin. Desertion, breach of Gladiatorial contract, and theft of two thousand credits plus sundry supplies from Adamax Detention Facility. We may not live in the White Zone, but there’s still law to uphold.” Mel raised one perfect eyebrow, distorting the thorns that encircled her eye. Even by Gladiator standards her appearance was modified to the extreme. She used tattoos and haircuts to disguise her beauty because she was afraid of being “pretty” and all that went with it; she took the risks that gave her the intimidating scars because she was the toughest woman in the Territories and she wanted everyone to know it.
What Mel didn’t seem to realize was that her beauty gave her an advantage few other Gladiators had: the ability to make someone trust her. Faced with those gentle, familiar eyes, I nearly trusted her with everything.
The Warden’s lieutenant, acting as referee, joined Tree and I on the arena floor. He stretched out his hand to me and I felt the familiar twinge of panic as I dropped my dog tags into his palm. The day Mel left, my tags became my most treasured possession, even above my spear. Without a White Zone-issued birth certificate, and with no legal family anyway outside the Gladiators, they were the only form of legal identification I had and the only proof that I even existed. Before every Duel, the lieutenant confiscated them – until I’d won, at which point he returned them and I became a person again.
From the day the Gladiators bought me as a seven-year-old, I had been trained to kill. I was no longer able to imagine being anything else – but I had to try. For Rylan. Even though the Gladiators legally owned me and I would not likely see any of my family again, he was still kin. I had carried my shame with me like a sickness, day and night, for too long.
Releasing Tree would not cure it, nor did I want it to. I only wanted to do something good, for once. I did not expect to feel whole ever again. I didn’t deserve to.
“If you’re here to kill me, why don’t you get it over with?” My knife lay waiting in my lap.
“Honey, I taught you just about everything you know,” Mel said, smirking. “Adamax broke one of the key rules of contractors: never send people who know each other to kill each other.”
I laughed once, harshly, to hide my fear. “You’re only saying that because you know I can take you.”
“Only in your dreams, kid.” Mel left her spear propped up against the shack’s wall and sat down across from me. The gesture relaxed me a little – the spear was just far enough away that I could get to Mel before she could reach it. It was a deliberate move on her part to ease my worries. She rested her chin on her tattooed palms and studied me.
“Lin, what exactly are you doing? I trailed you all the way out to that commune – I mean, what, did you owe someone money?”
I hesitated. “I killed a boy in a Duel around three months ago.”
“So? Was he cute or something?”
“He was my cousin. Rylan Okuda.”
Mel leaned back. “Damn. Don’t think I know anyone who’s had to Duel family. Threw you for a loop, huh?”
“I found out after.”
“So what would you have done if you’d found out beforehand?”
“I… I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I killed him, and he hadn’t even done anything wrong – not really. And so many of the others I fought were like that –”
Mel held up a hand. “No. Don’t let yourself go down that path. It’s not for us to decide who lives and who dies, or who should be jailed or free – we just win the Duels.”
“I can’t do it anymore,” I said simply. “I won’t. I’ve done things that were wrong and terrible and I want to atone for them.”
She looked skeptical. I must have sounded crazy to her, talking about wanting to atone for just doing my job. “So why are you here?”
“Ivan has family here.”
“And who’s Ivan? Your uncle? Brother?”
“It’s not funny.”
Mel still looked like she found it somewhat funny, but she sat back and let me finish. “He was my last victim. I looked him up. He was betrayed. He’s not a murderer –”
I broke off. A ruddy-faced man in his late forties built like a barrel with limbs had just entered the café. He leaned over the bar to speak to the shopkeeper. The woman nodded and pointed at me.
“Just let me talk to him,” I pleaded. “I swear, I won’t go anywhere. Just let me do this last thing and then you can do whatever you think best.”
Mel studied me for a long time, her obsidian eyes unreadable. I only had the courage to stay seated because her spear remained out of reach. Finally, she nodded.
“I’ll be watching you.”
Mel had tracked her kills by painting X’s on her spear. I never needed to track mine – all eleven of them haunted me.
I tugged the spear point free from Tree’s chest, but forced myself to watch as his life poured out onto the metal floor. His ice-blue eyes stared straight ahead in shock. Even though I wanted to close my eyes, to look away, I owed him this, and I knew that if I closed my eyes I would see my cousin, bleeding out on that same rust-patched floor three months earlier.
The cheering prisoners sounded distant. Tree finally fell forward and didn’t move again. I kept my grip on the spear tight so no one could see how badly my hands were shaking. Now that I couldn’t see Tree’s face anymore, it was even easier to envision him as Rylan.
The lift creaked into place. The Warden’s lieutenant was waiting for me. I knelt next to Tree and picked up his knife. He’d broken the Duel rules and brought in second weapon, concealed under the metal spaulder on his shoulder. My reflexes, honed over nine years of brutal training, wouldn’t let me go through with my original plan. Tree made a bad move which gave me a window to disarm him, and I couldn’t stop myself from taking it. His ax flew across the arena, where it lay still, waiting for the cleanup crew.
And then the knife –
“Hey! Are you coming or not?”
I tucked the knife into my boot and joined the lieutenant on the lift. He was still studying me. “What happened at the end there? You get tired?”
He suspected, which meant the Warden would suspect, too. I wanted to ask if he remembered my last Duel, or the one before that, or the one before that. I wanted to ask if he’d known Rylan was my cousin. I wanted to ask if he knew how many of the men I’d killed were innocent of their crimes.
Instead, I just shrugged. “He’s a big guy. It wore me out.”
“Uh-huh.” As if it were an afterthought, he reached into his breast pocket and held out my dog tags. I snatched them from his grasp and draped the chain back over my head. I rubbed the stamped lettering between my fingers for a few moments before letting them clink reassuringly against my chest. The lieutenant didn’t seem to notice or care about my relief – typical for someone whose identity was never in question. My fingers traced the long bar stamped when I became a Gladiator, the single short crosshatch Mel added for arriving at Adamax, and the arrow point on its end for becoming Duelist when Mel left. These tags were me, had been me, since I was seven years old. Without them, I did not exist.
I wasn’t sure I wanted them anymore.
The barrel-chested man waited until Mel left the table, then took a seat across from me. His familiar blue eyes unnerved me.
“You’re the one looking for the Balagulas?” he said.
“I need to tell them that their son Ivan is dead.”
The man’s brilliant eyes narrowed. “Ivan’s in prison.”
“He was. He’s been killed.”
The man folded his huge arms and leaned back in his chair. “You have proof?”
I hesitated. “I have his knife. I can show it to you if you want.”
The man held up both of his hands to show that he wasn’t going to go for a weapon, and I reached slowly into my pocket for the small knife with which Tree had tried to kill me. I held it out for the man to inspect.
“They called him Tree,” I said while he studied the blade. “It was short for ‘trio,’ because he’d survived three attempts on his life.”
The man chuckled humorlessly. “Thought it would be because he was big as a tree. He was the tallest one in the family when he was only twelve.”
My stomach plummeted. Tree’s father expertly flipped open the blade, then closed it again. “I gave this to him when he was ten. Next day he got in a fight with the kid who was messing with his big sister. Cut him up pretty good. But that kid never bothered Katrina again, so I guess it’s okay.”
“I’m sorry.” My mouth had gone dry.
Mr. Balagula finally pocketed the knife and slumped forward onto the table, burying his face in his wide hands. “Should’ve known. If it was anywhere else, I might’ve seen him again, but Adamax…of the five guys I’ve known who wound up there, only one ever came back. Should’ve known my boy wouldn’t be one of them.”
I sat still, waiting for him to ask the inevitable question. At last, Mr. Balagula lifted his head and gazed out at the darkening lake. His bright blue eyes swam with tears.
“So who are you? Why come out here to tell me this?”
I took a deep breath. “I’m a Gladiator, the Duelist at Adamax. I saw Ivan’s file – I know that he was framed by Spider.”
Mr. Balagula chuckled harshly. “Spider got what was coming to him about eight months ago. Saw the body myself when it washed up on shore. Can’t say I was too sorry.” He studied me and I resisted the urge to look away. “You seem awful young to be a Gladiator. First posting?”
I nodded and reached into my jacket for my dog tags. “They bought me when I was seven. I was posted at Adamax when I was thirteen and made Duelist when I was sixteen.”
“And you’re good enough to have killed my son.”
I finally had to look away. “I’m sorry. I was going to spare him. I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t believe me, but…I wanted a way out. If I had shown Tree – Ivan – mercy, they would have executed me.”
I wondered what Mel’s expression looked like at that moment. It happened rarely, but every once in a while there was a Gladiator who fell in love with a prisoner, or a Gladiator who, like me, just wanted a way out. Duel rules said that if a Gladiator tried to spare his or her opponent, their own lives would be forfeited.
That was the rule that would have been my salvation the day I fought Tree, except my training overwhelmed my resolve and destroyed my chance at redemption.
“I was…ready to do it, but I disarmed him. He panicked and attacked – he had a second weapon, that knife, hidden in his armor. I just…” My words fled and I forced myself to meet his eyes again. “My reflexes took over. I am sorry.”
I reached into my pack and took out the remaining bills I had taken from the prison. “This is the first time I’ve actually met the family of someone from a Duel. I would have just left this outside your door or something, but since you’re here…”
He unrolled the bills and his jaw tightened. I tensed. “I know it doesn’t make up for –”
“Just go.” Mr. Balagula closed his huge fist around the money. “I appreciate it, and my wife will appreciate it, but the fact is you killed my oldest boy. And now I have to go tell his mother what happened to him.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, as if there was any number of times I could repeat it which would make what I’d done okay.
“Go.” His blue eyes were closed. I could see his tears finally beginning to spill out. I shouldered my pack and hurried away.
I made my way along the dark, crooked walkways. Lamplight glowed through colored scraps of fabric that served as curtains. Vendors were beginning to close up their shops, fastening tables over doorways in lieu of actual doors and stacking up the barrels they used as chairs. Parents called their children’s names, summoning them for dinner, and they came running, clutching sticks and balls and whatever else they had found for toys. I could almost picture myself living there – running a shop, maybe, selling groceries – but I dismissed the vision quickly. I could never live so near the Balagulas, for the same reason I hadn’t stayed in the commune where my aunt lived. I had atoned for my crimes as best I knew how, but if I was ever going to fully cleanse my conscience, I’d have to go far away, someplace where I wouldn’t be reminded of the grief I’d caused.
Maybe I’d never really be free of the guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t be free. If the Balagulas and my family were going to perpetually mourn their lost, why should I not bear a similar weight?
I stopped to wait when I reached the docks. With the sun beyond the crumbling skyscrapers’ horizon, the temperature was falling rapidly. I zipped up my jacket as high as it would go and pulled the hood over my head.
“Thought you were trying to give me the slip.”
I turned. Mel had caught up with me, just as I had expected. I shrugged.
“Figured I should put some distance between me and the man whose son I murdered.”
“It wasn’t murder. It was your job.” But her voice had lost its harshness. Her spear hung low at her side.
“Is that how you’re able to sleep at night?”
Mel said nothing. Finally, she shook her head, her eyes pleading. “Lin, honey, they would’ve executed you.”
“I know,” I whispered.
“And you really wanted that?”
I shook my head. “I’m done killing innocents. I want to find out if I can be done with killing, period.” I hesitated. “I asked you after my first Duel if it ever got easier. Does it?”
“Would you come back to the Gladiators with me if I said it did?”
“I just wanted to know why I…why I was the only one who seemed to feel like this. Tell me the truth. Please.”
For a moment, Mel looked years older. “My trainer told me it would, and I wanted it to get easier so badly. I couldn’t sleep after my Duels. I was doing what I was supposed to do, right? It was always so hard…but I lied to you, Lin. It never gets easier. That’s the truth.”
She held out a hand, palm up, just like the lieutenant before every Duel.
My hand went to my chest. I could feel my dog tags, my self, under my jacket.
“What will you tell them?”
“That you resisted and I had to kill you. We’ll inform your parents and they’ll be compensated.”
I took my tags off and placed them in Mel’s waiting hand. Next, I reached into my pack and drew out the remaining money. She handed me back a hundred-credit bill, then folded the rest around my dog tags. I watched as she tucked everything into her jacket pocket.
“That’s it,” she said with forced breeziness. “The Gladiators will stop looking for you and Adamax will receive a new Duelist. The bounty is officially off your head.”
My heart pounded. Lin Bai had just died.
“Where will you go now?” Mel asked.
“I don’t know.” My voice came out barely above a whisper. “Maybe the White Zone needs security guards.”
“Pretty sure they don’t take former Gladiators.”
“It’s a tough world out there. Maybe they’ll take whatever they can get.”
Mel grinned, then softened. “The Gladiators have me on caravan work now – if you want, I can try to track down your family, tell them what really happened –”
“No. Thank you.” I thought of my aunt, writing to my mother to tell her of her mysterious good fortune. It would bring her happiness, even if she could never know it was me, even if it could never replace her son. I thought of my mother, finally able to empathize with her sister over the loss of a child. “They knew when they sold me that they wouldn’t see me again. And I don’t want this to put them in any danger.”
“I wish they could know…they should know that their little girl was trying to do some good in the world, in spite of…”
I had never seen Mel cry, not once. I looked down so I wouldn’t have to. My own tears closed my throat and I swallowed hard. “I know.”
Mel fiddled with her belt, paying me the same courtesy of pretending. “You got a place to stay tonight?”
“I’ll figure something out.”
She smiled wearily. Her tears had dried already. “You always do. For what it’s worth, even though it makes no goddamn sense to me – I’m proud of you, Lin.”
I didn’t realize until after she disappeared that she had said my old name for the last time. I would need a new one.
In a busier part of the docks, lit by a pair of generator-powered floodlights, a handful of boats were preparing to depart. I signaled one of the captains.
“Are you going to the crossroads?” I asked him.
“I can get you close enough.”
The caravans that crisscrossed the Northwest Territories would stop there for fuel, food, and fresh drivers. If they didn’t need a new guard there, sooner or later, they would get me to a place that did. Maybe – the dream materialized suddenly, beautiful and impossibly fragile – they’d even take me to a place like Northridge where I could see green again, where I could plant a little farm and bring some life into the world, rather than take it out.
“You live over there?” he asked. I realized, in the twilight, I probably looked like an ordinary teenage girl, late for dinner.
“Yeah,” I said, looking out across the purple lake. “I’m on my way home.”
Laura Duerr is a writer and outreach coordinator living in Vancouver, WA with her husband, a rescue dog, a cat, and some hops which will take over the house if left unsupervised. Her fiction and other writing can be found on her blog, https://rubybastille.wordpress.com. This is her first published story.