by Michael Kingswood
“I really don’t want to do this.”
Billy looked across the drop ship to where the kid sat, strapped to his crash couch by a four-point sling of webbing, and could identify completely.
The kid was young, maybe twenty years old. Brown-haired, with yellow-green eyes. In shape, but not bulky, and wearing the same drab blue-grey coveralls Billy wore. Despite his strong physique, he had fear in his eyes.
Billy had felt that fear a dozen of times over the last fifteen years. He’d been doing drops like this since before Steven was in grade school. But still, no matter how many times he’d done them, he never wanted to do the next one.
His body pressed down into his seat as the g-forces began to build up, and he put on a grin—the same grin he’d seen the oldies make on his first drop, or at least his best approximation of it—and forced out a laugh that did a pretty damn good job of being genuine.
“What’s the matter, kid? You want to live forever?”
The kid looked at him and scowled, then said, “Yeah, actually.”
Billy really did laugh then.
Around them, the drop ship gave a lurch. It was five meters on a side, and cubic. The interior was all grey metallic plating, pipes, and data displays on cracked LED screens, except for the crew couches. They were arranged around the four sides of the room, four on a side except for the bulkhead to Billy’s right, where only two of their fellow chattel sat, on either side of the red and grey painted hatch that would open after they made planetfall so they, poor doomed souls that they were, could rush out to meet their fate.
The place stank of sweat and fear, and beneath that of ozone from electrical wiring that was too old so that it was just on this side of bursting into flames, because who cares if a boatload of nobody convicts burned up from the inside before they reached their doom.
And piss. There was always piss, from some poor schmuck who couldn’t control his fear, or his bladder, on the way down.
Most guys didn’t last past their first drop. Fewer still lasted past their second. Billy had only met one other guy who’d survived as long as he had in this game. But he had died on the last drop.
So Billy figured this was it for him.
There was a peace that came from that. A peace that he had never known, in all his time since his sentencing.
He still hadn’t wanted to make the drop.
Oh well, here he was. And there the kid was, all young and scared and with no idea what to do or how to handle himself, and if possible to all appearances even more certain than Billy was that this would be his last ride to, well, anywhere.
“Stick with me, kid,” Billy said, not knowing why he said it. “You’ll be alright.”
To either side, and on all the other walls of the drop ship, his fellow convicts looked at him with expressions that at first said he must be insane. But after a second, as the others took in his demeanor and then his obvious age and experience, first one, then the others, turned to expressions of bitterness, then anger.
Only Steven didn’t look like he wanted to kill Billy.
Steven nodded, didn’t say anything. His expression said everything.
The g-forces built up, and Billy had to suppress a groan. He clenched his thighs and worked his shoulders, blowing out through pursed lips to keep the blood flowing and force himself to breathe.
Then there was a giant lurch and a hollow BANG. All around him, the other men in the drop ship surged forward against their restraints as the g-forces suddenly relented.
All was silent for a few moments, except for the strained breathing from thirteen other men, the soft groans that some could not restrain from leaving their mouths. Then a hiss and a pop, and the hatch dropped open, falling outward to land on the ground of their slaughter field outside.
Warm humidity flooded into the drop ship, and with it the smell of vegetation and the taste of water on the air. Chirping, whether from local bird equivalents or some other species, carried into the chamber with the warm air, and for a second, everyone just stared at the glare of sunlight streaming through the hatch.
Then a hulking dark-skinned man, dressed in the same jumpsuit and boots as the rest of the drop ship’s occupants, threw off his harness with a grunt that was almost a roar, and rushed forward toward the open hatch.
That was all the others needed. The drop ship became a stampede of man racing to remove their restraints and shoving each other aside in their haste to head toward the exit, and the fight to survive.
Across the drop ship, Billy saw the kid move to undo his harness, and Billy raised a hand toward him, open and palm out, and shook his head. Wait, Billy mouthed, and the kid looked askance at him for a second.
Then the press of men became severe, and understanding rushed across the kid’s face as he took in the press.
Small as it was, the weight of the crowd was still immense. Off to the left of the door, on the kid’s side of the ship, Billy saw one man, slender as though not one who worked out much, crushed between two larger men and then shoved aside by a third. He stumbled into the hatchway and his forehead rebounded off the hatch’s seating surface. Billy saw blood as his scalp split, and then he disappeared from view as the press of men flowed overtop him.
Billy looked back at the kid and nodded grimly. Best to wait; there would be plenty of time to debark and get settled after the initial rush died down.
The kid returned the nod. He understood.
To the left, on the wall opposite the exit hatch, a third man still waited in his harness. Older than Steven, maybe twenty three or twenty four, with skin the color of chocolate and a shaved head, he clearly had been through this before as well. He sat, thumbs hooked beneath the chest straps of his harness, and waited with them, his eyes watching the press of newbs with disdain. More like disgust.
The dark man must have felt Billy’s gaze on him, because he looked away from the rushing crowd and met Billy’s eyes. A rush of adrenalin went up Billy’s spine; his eyes were stone cold. The eyes of a killer. But he nodded with evident respect, and flashed a little grin Billy’s way.
So. Billy had found his team for this drop. You always needed a team; that was the only way to even have a chance to survive. But some guys made the mistake of picking a team that was too large, and that always bit them in the ass.
Only three could pass through the gauntlet. Three survivors from each drop, of forty-two men sent down. Four times in his career as a convict, Billy had only made it because some fools had chosen teams of four or five. In the end, the in-fighting killed them, and let Billy go on living.
Living as a prisoner, and a toy. Never seeing anything except the walls of a cell except for an hour a day and even then just stars through a viewport in the side of the prison’s exercise compartment.
And only certain to go on living until the next drop.
But it was still living, and it beat the alternative.
So Billy returned the grin, and the nod.
The press of men ended as abruptly as it began, and then it was just the three of them sitting in their chairs in the drop ship’s prisoner compartment. Across the compartment from him, Billy saw the kids eyes moving from him to the dark man and back. He licked his lips.
Billy rolled his shoulders in a shrug and unlatched his harness. Then he stood, moving slowly to get a good stretch, and turned toward the hatch.
The skinny guy who had gotten jounced around earlier was lying there, just inside the hatch sill. He was limp, unmoving, and his head was wrenched around in an unnatural angle. His neck was almost certainly broken, and he had the starts of several bruises just starting on several places in his exposed skin.
He was a goner. But you had to make sure. So Billy walked over, crouched down, and checked his pulse.
Nodding with grim satisfaction, he turned and looked back at the kid and the dark guy.
“Well. One down, thirty-eight more to go,” Billy said. He raised his eyebrows and swept his arm toward the open hatch. “Shall we?”
The kid looked at him with more of that uncomprehending fear. The darker guy just grinned. It was a smile of hunger.
* * * * *
Four hours in, and near as Billy could tell twenty competitors down.
Competitors. It was a euphemism, but it was the euphemism that warden and guards always used. The first two or three times Billy had dropped, he had rebelled against it. But eventually he had found himself using the term.
After all, it was a competition. Survival of the fittest, to see who got to keep on living. Just broadcast on galaxy-wide vidcasts.
Rumor was the vid networks made a fortune off it, and Billy could believe it. He’d watched them when he was a kid, when his parents were out partying and didn’t know what he was doing. He got a vicarious thrill watching the convicts duke it out, scratching and clawing when they didn’t have weapons to see who got to live and who didn’t.
He’d seen the broadcasts of the proud few convicts who’d lived out their terms and emerged, victorious and supposedly wealthy from donations sent by their various fans, to live out the rest of their lives, their debt to society paid, on a beach on some tropical paradise on a sun-drenched world somewhere away from the major shipping lanes.
Now that he’d been in the system for almost as long as he’d been alive before he got arrested, he highly doubted any of that was true. Far as he knew, he was the oldest surviving convict in the system, and he still had another seven years left on his sentence.
No way some other guys had made it out. He’d have heard about it.
No, it was all a sham, to give the public some entertainment while lining the pockets of the broadcasters and their commentator staff.
But that wasn’t Billy’s problem. Right now, his problem was getting through the remaining nineteen without getting killed himself.
He crouched behind a tall thin-trunked tree with swaying limbs that almost but not quite resembled a palm tree he’d seen in a picture once, clutching the hatchet he’d picked off a dead convict an hour earlier. He was sweating up a storm; his coveralls were wet, clinging to his torso, and he had to breath in heavily to get enough air from the humidity of the place. And, he suspected, from its lower than standard atmospheric density.
Steven was leaning against another tree fifteen feet to Billy’s right, a cudgel made of smooth, dark wood in his hands. He glanced aside to meet Billy’s eyes and raised a questioning eyebrow.
Billy raised his free hand, telling him to hold fast, and looked back toward their prey.
A group a four convicts, clad in grey and red coveralls—so coming from a different prison than theirs—were clustered around a wood-sided box in the center of a clearing about thirty feet away. On all sides of their little group, more tall trees swayed in a breeze that didn’t seem to carry any coolness, and smaller shrubs and underbrush somehow managed not to wilt in the heat. Overhead, whitish-grey clouds moved on that same breeze. One momentarily passed before the yellow-white sun that was almost directly overhead now, and the temperature dropped noticeably.
Billy had to restrain a sigh of relief at the sudden coolness. No time to dwell on that now, either.
Three of the quartet were in a discussion, speaking in low voices that didn’t quite carry to Billy’s location, while the fourth stood apart, keeping a lookout, his head turning left and right often enough that it would be hard to creep up on him unseen. The other three appeared to be trying to figure out how to get the box open.
The wardens often placed boxes in the killing grounds, to lure the competitors into a place and force a fight through promises of supplies or weapons. In Billy’s experience, those promises were almost always empty. It was all just a game to force the action.
And it worked. After all, there he was, about ready to leap on the poor sods, to the viewing public’s amusement.
Only difference was he didn’t plan to stick around afterwords, for the next team to ambush.
The lookout turned to look in Steven’s direction, his long knife clutched in his hand.
The three talking were in disagreement. The one farthest away from Billy was shaking his head and making a chopping gesture with his right hand. His lips, thin and blood-red beneath his blond mop were drawn into a scowl. He was just opening his mouth to speak when something large, dark, and muscled rose out of the underbrush behind him.
Large arms wrapped themselves around the blond man, twisting beneath and around his shoulders before getting around his neck and twisting. Hard.
Before any of the blond man’s companions could move, he slumped, dead from a broken neck in the arms of the big dark man—Gamal—from the drop ship.
They all froze, stunned.
In that second of opportunity, Billy rounded his tree and charged, straight for the sentry.
He had turned with his fellows, his eyes drawn by the sudden noise and violence. He only registered Billy’s approach a second before his arrival. He had only just begun to turn to meet him when Billy’s hatchet took him in the temple.
He fell, and Billy turned toward the others. Only two now.
One, unarmed, turned to flee. The other had a claw hammer, and charged toward Gamal, crying out in something that was probably supposed to be powerful rage but just came across as desperate.
The big man let the blond fall to the ground and stepped forward, into the man’s swing. The hammer struck his raised forearm, but only with the shaft, not with the head. It evoked a grunt from the big man, but that didn’t stop him from jabbing his attacker in the throat with half-closed knuckles.
The convict went down, thrashing as he clutched at his shattered voice box, and Billy turned away to find the last man.
Steven stood over his body, his cudgel dripping blood from where the kid had bashed the guy’s brain in.
Steven’s eyes were wide. He had a look on his face that was part exhilaration, part shock, and part disgust. It was hist first time killing a man. Even if he hadn’t said it earlier, and he hadn’t taken anyone down yet so far in this competition until now, Billy would have known it just from the look on his face.
Billy met Steven’s eyes and nodded. “Good job,” he said. Then he turned to Gamal.
The big man grinned at him, only the joy of killing in his face.
“Let’s gather their weapons and get out of here,” Billy said.
Twenty-four down. Fifteen to go.
* * * * *
Six hours in, and Billy was pretty sure another six of their competitors were gone. Or at least, he and his team had taken out two more and come across four other bodies he didn’t recognize.
Assuming he wasn’t being optimistic, that left nine to go.
Nine more. Just nine.
“You know,” Steven said, “we could just find a place to hold up. Wait for the others to pick each other off.” He sounded like he was getting tired. He certainly had grown up some in the last couple hours.
He’d scored another kill, and he was taking the second one far better than he had the first. He’d firmed up, become more stoic.
In another life, Billy would feel sorry for him. But not this one. In this one, it was kill or die, and strange as it seemed, Billy found he didn’t want the kid to die. Not yet.
Gamal shook his head. “That’s a good way to lull yourself.”
They were standing amidst a collection of boulders that rested alongside a swiftly flowing stream that ran from north to south through the pseudo-palm forest. Or at least, Billy presumed it was north to south, from the location of the sun and the way it had moved across the sky since they’d departed the drop ship anyway.
They’d been going for a good long time now, and dehydration was fast becoming an issue. They’d stopped to get a drink.
Billy nodded in agreement with Gamal. “I’ve seen other guys try to evade, keep out of the way. Never seems to work out. Something always drives them out. Either someone finds them, or a wild animal. Or the wardens just send a drone to shoot them out into the open. No, better to take the initiative.”
He bent over and cupped his hands into the flowing water, then lifted the fluid to his lips. It would have been warm elsewhere, but compared with the heat in the air it felt blessedly cool. And tasted sweet, somehow.
It was good.
“Ok,” Steven said. “Then maybe we set another ambush? Other teams will be looking for water as well.”
Billy nodded and dropped his hands, exhaling with satisfaction. “Ya, now that’s a better idea.” He looked around, pondering. “Where do you think?”
Steven gestured with his chin toward the other side of the stream and up about a hundred paces. There, a tree had fallen at some point in the past, coming to rest at an angle atop another boulder. In the time since its collapse, undergrowth had sprung up around the fallen trunk.
Billy considered for a moment then nodded. Kid was right; that would be a good place to lie in wait.
A few moments later, he cursed himself for a fool when, as they were approaching that place, three men that he recognized from their prison, and their drop shop, charged from the trees to their right and another two emerged from the same place they were just thinking to set their own trap.
Then he ran out of time to upbraid himself, as their attackers were on them.
* * * * *
Gamal was gone, his head bashed in by another hammer, and Billy was limping from an injured leg. But Steven was somehow untouched and another hour had passed.
They hadn’t seen anyone since the fight at the fallen tree. But there should be five more competitors out there.
One they could spare. The others…
His foot came down wrong, making him twist his injured leg unexpectedly and making Billy grit his teeth in pain.
Spare one. Who was he kidding? Gimpy as he was, he wouldn’t be in position to offer anyone mercy. He’d be the one begging in a straight-up fight, more than likely.
Steven grabbed onto Billy’s arm and helped him get back fully upright and into a more comfortable position. Though comfort was a relative term lately.
“Come on, old timer,” Steven said. “Not much farther.”
Billy looked sidelong at him and snorted. “You got someplace in mind to go I don’t know about?”
The kid shrugged and managed a grin at him. “Away from here.”
Fair point. Although… “Wouldn’t mind staying here, actually.”
Steven looked at him askance.
“What? Warm air, nice scenery. Lots of food, from the look of things.” He shrugged. “Beats that prison satellite.”
“Yeah, well, make it past this and we’ll be out of there soon enough.”
Billy snorted again. “You’re dreaming, kid. No one gets out.”
“Of course they do. If – “
Billy held up short, and Steven took a pace before he noticed. He turned back around to look at Billy, that questioning eyebrow raising again.
“You don’t actually believe that shit about making it through, paying your debt, and going on to the beach somewhere do you?”
Steven shrugged slightly, eyeing Billy with sudden uncertainty. “Not a beach. But after I’ve done my five years, I – “
Billy rolled his eyes. “Kid, you ain’t going to make it five years. Most guys don’t even last one.” He gestured toward the forest around them. “Haven’t you been paying attention today?”
“But – ” Steven stopped himself mid-sentence. His eyes turned to follow Billy’s hand, toward where it had ended up pointing deeper into the forest. “All I did was steal a cab.” He stopped, his voice catching in his throat. “That doesn’t deserve – “
The true enormity of his situation, the utter lack of hope, seemed to strike him, and Steven’s shoulders slumped. His eyes dropped and he hung his head.
Christ. This was all Billy needed. Was the kid – Was he crying??
He was going to get them both killed if he didn’t pull himself together. Damn him.
Damn yourself, said that little voice in Billy’s head that he hated listening to. You could have waited to educate him until after you guys made it out. If you made it out.
Cussed voice was right, of course. That’s why Billy hated listening to it.
He reached out to lay a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Look, kid. Don’t take me – “
Right at that moment was when a group of three charged them from off to the left.
* * * * *
Billy should be dead. He had no idea how he wasn’t.
It was effectively three on one, and though Steven had proved to be tougher than Billy had given him credit for in the drop ship, those were long odds, even armed. And their attackers were armed as well.
But Billy had somehow managed to brain the guy who came for him, and Steven took down the other two.
So there was only one more competitor to take out, and they were safe. Only problem was Billy’s attacker had slipped his knife into Billy’s side. And Steven…
The kid was rough. Left arm hanging limp at an unnatural angle, obviously broken. And cuts above his right eye and deep into the meat of his left thigh. He wasn’t in any condition to fight, either.
If either of their two remaining competitors came on them now, they were done.
Or one of them was, anyway.
Billy sat slumped against the trunk of one of those pseudo-palms, and racked his brain for some tactic, some trick, to get them out of this.
Steven was going through their attackers’ pockets. He straightened with a wince, and shook his head. “Nothing better than what we had already. And – ” He gestured at himself, then at Billy, and half-barked a bitter laugh.
Billy returned the laugh with a snort of his own. Yeah. Lot of good better gear would do them now. Unless it was a gun. But the wardens would never leave a weapon like that out for the competition. Too much risk of losing control of the convicts during pickup or drop off.
Steven limped over to the same tree and leaned back against it, then slumped down to the ground to Billy’s right. “Guess we just have to hope the other two fight it out amongst themselves.”
“Guess so.” But that was a fool’s chance to take. There was no guarantee those two weren’t teamed up, or that they would meet up before finding the two of them.
For that matter, Billy’s count could be off. There was no telling for certain.
But he was pretty sure he was right. He’d had lots of years to practice counting down the competition. And lots more years of the same thing to look forward to, even if they managed to take out one of the other two.
More years than the kid had in his entire sentence.
Wasn’t much to look forward to.
“You said you’ve got five years total. How long you been in?”
Billy nodded. Rules were a guy got anywhere between a year to eighteen months between drops. To recuperate, and to enjoy to spoils of victory. Those spoils being prison food and prison walls.
Better than the alternative. Sometimes.
But that meant the kid might only have to go through the competition two more times before release. Assuming release really was a thing. He’d never seen it happen, but maybe it was possible.
Billy would have to go through at least three, maybe four more drops.
Inwardly, he shuddered at the idea.
“You said stole a cab?”
“Yeah. What did you do?”
“Shot a guy. Robbed a bank.” Billy shook his head. “Done plenty worse than that since then, though.”
There was a pause, then Steven nodded. “Yeah.”
From the tone of his voice, Billy could tell the kid was considering the future also. Maybe computing how many more times he might have to do this, just as Billy had. And he wasn’t liking what he’d come up with.
Billy couldn’t blame him. If he had his druthers he’d –
Rustling off to the left, and Billy turned his head. His spirits dropped.
The last two competitors were coming. Just walking straight toward them, out in the open. And why not? They wore grey and green coveralls and they looked completely untouched.
No way he and Steven would be able to fight them off.
Billy fingered the knife he’d taken from his dead attacker. The same knife he’d used to stab Billy with.
The two were moving quickly, but warily. Their eyes locked onto Billy, and he could see the confidence in their stare. And the balpeen hammer in the one guy’s hand and the length of rebar in the other’s. He could use that like a spear, and from the blood on the end of it, he had already, at least once.
Wouldn’t even have to get close to kill with that. Definitely outside of Billy’s swinging distance.
He looked to his right. Steven was staring out the other way. He hadn’t seen their attackers yet.
If it came down to a fight, there was a chance both of them might end up dead. It had happened before, and that would just suck. No sense both of them going out when one could make it. And if it came down to that, it just made sense…
“Sorry about this, kid,” Billy said.
Steven was just turning to look at him, that eyebrow raised in its question again, when Billy swung at his throat with the knife.
He told himself it was the fact that he was wounded, and moving slower than he otherwise would have. That was the reason why the kid was able to catch the hand holding the blade before it ever reached him.
And it was also on account of the wounds that he wasn’t able to move out of the way before the kid shuffled over and sunk his own blade into Billy’s stomach.
He heard the groan coming from his lips even before the pain registered. He felt wetness spreading across the front of his coveralls—spreading at a rate that should have been alarming—as the kid withdrew the weapon.
The kid kept his hold on Billy’s knife hand, but he didn’t even try to fight back. He just let go of the weapon, and it thumped into the ground at his side.
Steven narrowed his eyes and raised the knife to Billy’s throat. “Why?”
Billy shrugged, then gestured toward the oncoming competitors. Steven followed his gesture with his eyes, and they widened.
“Can’t both make it out,” Billy said. “And I’m sick of this shit.” And as he said it, he realized it was true. He also realized that –
“No chance I’ll get through enough of these to get released.” He drew a breath, and coughed as a new spasm of pain swept through him. “You might, though.”
Steven just stared at him. Then, slowly, he took the knife away from Billy’s neck. He pushed himself away then slowly, with obvious pain, forced himself to his feet.
It was getting cold. Strange, since the sun was not yet low enough in the sky to be setting yet. But the shadows were growing longer, all the same.
Steven dropped his knife to the ground and nodded, looking him in the eye. “Thank you,” he said.
Then he turned and limped toward the last two remaining competitors.
As the shadows expanded to completely fill his vision, Billy heard the siren that announced the competition was over. His last thought was a smidgeon of hope that maybe, just maybe, the kid might be the first one to make it all the way to release.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: