Sloppy Joes again. Sloppy seconds, Tayrin thought, as a heaped spoonful of the stuff pattered into her tray. She’d been younger the first time she’d heard it called that, hadn’t spent as much time around the locker-room drawl of her fellow soldiers. These days she eyed the greasy-white film that pooled around the heap that was her lunch with greater suspicion. It would still be there when her tray went back on the rack.
‘Look alive, Instruments! Fifteen minutes until broadcast!’
The speaker above her head was broken. It shrieked unpleasantly as its transmissions began and ended, and Tayrin’s head was already aching thanks to a run-in with a concussion round barely a few hours before. The cast steel of the bulkhead she had been sheltering behind had rung like a bell, shaking her in her boots and damn near leaving her standing in cover when the next advance came. She did not know who saved her. There had been only a blurred glimpse of a face, further warped out of proportion by their helmet visor, and they were gone. The burst of gunfire that had killed them obliterated the embroidered ID patch they all wore on one side of their chests. There was little sense in asking around, looking for their friends so she could offer her condolences.
Block D wasn’t the sort of place where lasting relationships were forged, because Block D wasn’t the sort of place where people lasted.
‘Meat blobs in goop,’ came a voice by her elbow. ‘Mmm-mmm, just like my nan used to make.’
‘That so?’ Tayrin said, examining her own meal as it oozed slug-like across her. ‘Didn’t she like you?’
Her fellow Instrument grinned and reached out with his foot, pushing a free chair over so she could sit down. He was typical of the block. Male, mid-twenties, biceps like coconuts and a skull to match. His cockiness said that he hadn’t been there long. That meant they thought they knew what it was all about, just as the briefing they all received on the way in told them. A shot at redemption, huge risks for great rewards, and a future that did not involve rotting away in a prison cell on some God-forsaken asteroid. The truth was different, Tayrin knew. He would soon find that out, or he would soon die. He would more than likely do both.
Still, so far Tayrin’s week had been long on pain and short on conversation, so she took the seat. After all, someone needed to tell him that swagger was going to get him killed. Might as well be her.
‘You misunderstand,’ he went on, pushing his food into something resembling a sweaty, greyish sandcastle with his fork. ‘My nana used to make this stuff for her cats. Us kids we got to raid the packet cupboard for crisps and chocolate, juice boxes, all that good stuff, but those damn cats got three square meals a day, all home cooked with love, and us? We got-‘
‘Cavities,’ Tayrin finished, shaking her head mournfully. ‘What a world.’
He smiled. The badge on the left-hand side of his tan T-shirt identified him as A. Zolan. ‘Anthony,’ he said, catching the flick of her eyes as she read his name tag. ‘And you are…’
Tayrin sighed and dropped her fork. ‘Not hungry enough for this shit. Tayrin Yost. Third-year.’
There was a look of wide-eyed surprise, followed by a long blink as though he was resetting his brain. ‘Whoa, OK… I’ve heard of you guys, just didn’t think I’d meet one so soon.’
‘Not something we advertise,’ she said. ‘Tend to get a lot of firsties hanging off you like ticks, hoping you’ll keep their dumb asses alive.’
‘Hey,’ he said, holding his hands open defensively. ‘Not me, just a little honoured is all. You hear stories about the ones that last into years but you don’t expect to walk in and meet one on your first day.’
Tayrin nodded firmly, but she also smiled. ‘Oh no, not you,’ she said. ‘No you’re the go-it-alone, keep on smiling type, right? You’d never go after a third year like a lost puppy, or, say… Start a convo with a girl over lunch, pump up the biceps and switch on the charm.’
‘Now wait a minute-‘
‘Please,’ she went on, silencing him with a wave. ‘Three years isn’t that long, I remember the type. Dark days, lonely nights, let’s help each other through this trying time with a snuggle, a smile, and a ride on Tony’s magic knob. Sound about right?’
He shook his head firmly, but blushed in every shade of yes.
‘Confident is good,’ she said. ‘Cocky is bad, and arrogance will kill you so quick they’ll have to weigh down your coffin to stop it spinning. Don’t be embarrassed. We all think we’re hot shit when we first get here, but I sat down to talk because you were cocky. Not because I want your cock.’
‘Damn it,’ he said, managing to smile through his embarrassment. ‘Just one letter out.’
In his brown eyes there was a hint he hadn’t accepted defeat. The tiniest, twinkling ember of hope. With a gentle sigh and a winning smile, she crushed it beneath her heel.
‘One letter, and a hundred miles, so unless you’ve got a magic lamp for a cock, I’m not going to rub it for you. Now eat up. You’re going to be needing your strength.’
‘Hey gang, how about those delicious Joes? Today’s meals are sponsored by Big Beefy’s House of Mince! Bulk beef direct to your door! Chow down, Instruments! Ten minutes until broadcast!’
‘That get any less irritating?’ Tony said, waving in the general direction of the ceiling with his fork as the speakers howled and fell silent.
Tayrin sat back and closed her eyes, relishing a break from the harsh white of the strip lighting. ‘What do you think?’
The room rattled as those who had not started eating got on with it, some finding the meal all the more palatable for the knowledge it could be their last. Others less so. As Anthony tucked into his with almost childish enthusiasm Tayrin took a couple of mouthfuls of meat and left the rest, careful to make sure she got as little of the semi-congealed fat as possible. In ten minutes she could be on her way back out of the block and into the next fight, and there were few things that could slow you down like a stomach full of grease.
Block D could well kill her in the end. If it did, she was determined not to be shitting her pants in a corner at the time.
After what little of her meal she was willing to entertain there was nothing much to do but wait for the PA system to read them their fortunes. Fortunes which, it had to be said, had been dwindling of late. Take the last broadcast, for instance. For all appearances it had been nothing out of the ordinary. The government of some small planetoid had opened a contract to supply air recycling units to tender, and rival corporations had entered their bids. Five remained after the initial round of rejections and in time-honoured fashion they began hacking away at their margins until only two remained, no doubt offsetting the drop in profits against employee pay and safe working conditions. Good old fashioned capitalism – efficient, brutal, and completely legal. God bless the colonies, etc. Eventually one outbid the other by close to three percent, but for reasons that were not immediately apparent, the other won the tender anyway.
That was where the blocks came in.
In case of such a dispute, companies were required to allow for a combat margin as a part of their bid, and to the victor’s employer went the spoils. When the various teams of lawyers and negotiators could not reach a settlement they turned to the second oldest profession, and so two or more factions of “Instruments” prepared for war by proxy. Tayrin had found herself hired by the smaller of the two companies and served in a brutal five-hour close-combat scenario charging through an abandoned petrochemical factory, her allies marked by the glowing red light on their left wrist, the enemy conspicuous by their blue.
The objective, chosen at random by the agency computer, was to capture the flag from the enemy base and return to your own with it. Once placed into its corresponding socket the scenario ended and the winner was pronounced. Though injured and head-spun, it had been Tayrin who drove the damned thing home and earned herself another reprieve and another plate of hot, steaming swill. By her count that was her forty-somethingth such mission, the eleventh where she had been the one to carry her team over the finish line, but in terms of human cost it was among the winners. Teams were typically ten strong, but there had been eighteen red lights at her side when the klaxons sounded, and at least as many blues across the field. That meant around forty armed Instruments crammed into a warspace built for twenty. That meant every foxhole, every corner, every piece of cover was contested and left people who were on the same team clambering over each other to keep out of the firing line. Such a run into occupied cover was precisely how Tayrin had ended up caught in the open, and why she had almost been killed.
She was long past counting her kills with each battle or keeping an overall total, but a conservative estimate put her into the double figures in that battle alone, allowing for those taken out of sight by grenades and long-distance suppression fire. When she dragged her exhausted self from the field and into the triage allocated to her team, there were only three others present. That made at least twenty-five dead in a game designed for two teams of ten.
Somebody somewhere had paid to see a meat grinder and it had almost cost Tayrin her life, and she liked living. In the blocks you couldn’t hold on to your life for very long if you didn’t feel significantly attached to it, and as it turned out few of those thrown into the machine clung to theirs as ardently as Tayrin did to hers.
On a lighter note, it made for a change of scenery. Everywhere she looked there were new faces, new voices, a few heavily scarred and tattooed bodies who were either transfers from other blocks or looked to have seen action elsewhere. Many were Anthony’s equal for cockiness, but here and there she saw the quieter confidence of experience. The lions prowling in the long grass.
Though the din was too great for her to hear clearly what anyone was saying she could see in their manner that so many legends of the block were in the making that day. Men with arms as thick as legs were arm-wrestling each other, the raconteurs among them had their feet up and their hands folded behind their heads as they bragged about the deeds and misdeeds that had brought them to D Block, and what they were going to do once they got out. She had seen their type before, and once she might have even been one of those who sat in rapt concentration listening to the glories to come and hoping they’d be there to see them. Tayrin had followed men like that, but not many, and never for long. Only an idiot would see the same kind of man torn apart over and over again and keep trying to ride their coattails into oblivion. There were always men like that, and they were always men.
Well, more or less, she thought, as there had been plenty of women cut from the same arrogant cloth. They just found it a lot harder to gather a following.
Still, people like that were good for the system, and on the rare occasion one of them lived up to even half of their bravado they could become superstars. That kept their lucky followers alive a little longer and made sure the right pockets would be filled to the brim. Which was, of course, the point.
‘Are you going to sit down?’ she said, still staring into the middle distance as she addressed the small crowd standing behind her. ‘You’re making the place look untidy.’
There was a brief murmur of discussion, then the empty seats at Tayrin’s table filled with wide-eyed recruits who put their trays down carefully and seemed to be watching Tayrin and avoiding looking at her at the time. There were four of them, all but one of them young, and at a glance she thought if she put them in the correct order she could take a picture and call it “the four stages of an untrustworthy fart.” If Tony was one side of a coin, these four were the other. In place of his muscles and self-confidence they were slim, poorly nourished, muscles like knots in worn out string, with eyes darting here and there as though hoping there had been a mistake and someone was going to come and let them out. It was possible that some sort of martial prowess lurked within them, some spark of useful violence waiting for the right fuel to become an inferno, but more than likely they had been sent here to make up the numbers. It was suspected, though had not yet ever been confirmed, that the block wardens bid on who their next intake would be. If that were true, it would seem unlikely that anyone would have bet the farm on this sorry lot.
They were, in short, fucked.
‘Well well well, would you look at the time?! It does fly when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? Time to quit your jerkin’ and get ready for workin’, just five of God’s own minutes stand between you and show time! Get those smiles ready, campers. We go live in five.’
The faces at the end of the table turned downwards as the speakers wailed, and with good reason. At the other end sat a third year and a newcomer who looked like he could easily kill the four of them on his own and still have time to finish his dinner, and if they were any kind of gauge for what they could expect, those who heard their names in five minutes time would be hearing their death sentences. Tayrin gave them time to get the conversation started but coming to her table seemed to have exhausted what courage they had left. The four stared with hungerless eyes at their congealing heaps of dinner and said nothing, not even to each other. If any hope remained, it would not last for very long.
’I was scared too,’ Tayrin said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the table. ‘Back at the beginning.’
That had them. They gave their direct attention only sparingly at first, like frightened dogs not knowing whether the hand above had come to feed or to strike, but as she went on they warmed to their cause. It wasn’t long before they were hanging on every word she said.
‘Twelve of us shipped in from Eurothaan in the early hours of the morning, nine of us ended up in D Block by the time we got through decontamination.’
Tony grunted a laugh as he wiped waxy fat from the stubble at the corner of his mouth. ‘Shit, three down just from the showers? Probably for the best, right? Wouldn’t have lasted until the end of lunch in here.’
‘They had thorns,’ she replied, and gave herself a moment to enjoy the look of disgust that flashed across his arrogant face.
‘What are thorns?’
The speaker looked to be the youngest of them, but as Tayrin examined her she wondered if that was true. There was a lilt to her voice, a softly musical flair that reminded her of a gentle Irish back on mainworld, but more than likely placed her origins far out beyond the solar region to the orbit of Luyten b. Most of the people there lived aboard orbital stations or carved out a semi-nomadic life travelling to and fro on starships, rarely if ever setting foot on solid ground, but those whose families settled on the rocky terrain had diverged from the ancient bloodlines. Rumour had it they had found something there, and that something had changed them. The woman in front of her looked about fifteen standard, but she could have been forty. There was an elven quality to the Luytena that made them hard to place, and lent strength to the bizarre things people claimed about them.
On any other day Tayrin would have taken the time to sit with her and talk, try to separate truth from the whispers, but by her reckoning they were into their second minute since the last call.
‘It’s an infection,’ she said. ‘Some kind of bone cancer. You break out in these sharp little calcium growths that look like thorns. Some people lose their minds and turn feral, mostly people just die when the infection reaches their lungs. Kinda hard to breathe when your alveoli start growing teeth, but the point is I wasn’t so very different from any of you when I sat down in here for the first time.’
‘Three years ago.’
‘A little over,’ she said. This one appeared to be the eldest, and allowing for her uncertainty about the Luytena there had to have been at least twenty years between him and the next youngest. ‘But you knew that. I’m guessing that’s why the four of you came over?’
‘Two minutes to midnight my lucky ones, make sure you’re hydrated and you’ve drained the main vein! There are no bathroom breaks between here and eternal glory.’
‘And he’s not kidding,’ Tayrin said as she pushed her plate away and stood up. The newcomers looked horrified, but there was no time for anything more, no time for a rundown of the little tips and tricks she knew that might keep them alive.
‘Is there anything you can tell us?’ the Luytena said, clearly far more panicked by the situation than the fluidity of her voice suggested.
Tayrin sighed. ‘In the time we have? Don’t waste ammunition or energy, and use the cover. Whatever the objective is, let someone with more experience worry about it while you keep yourselves breathing. It won’t win you any notoriety and you can forget shaving any time off your sentencing, but it’ll give you a chance to learn. Other than that, don’t trust anybody. The person you share lunch with one day might be the one with their knife in your back the next if that’s what the bigwigs are paying for. Keep your heads down, keep your mouths shut, and let your instincts do the rest. Either they’re strong, or they’re not. You fight hard enough to live, or… It’s as simple as that.’
The hustle and bustle of the room died down as the speakers let out a series of clicks. There would be no more words or warnings between now and the end. The noise transmitted over the intercom came from someone in a distant room checking connections and testing frequencies, ensuring that when they flipped the switched the sound and vision from D Block and whatever other poor sods were to be involved would be beamed to the trillions watching across the galaxy and beyond.
Wouldn’t want to let the punters down now, Tayrin thought. Would you?
At the far end of the austere hall was a huge pair of steel sliding doors which led out of the block and to where the troop transports waited. Above it, now coming to life with a bristling of grey-white static, was a screen. The residents of the block gravitated towards it and watched as the interference cleared and slowly became a pair of grinning, plastic-looking faces.
‘Maxie and Maud,’ Tony remarked as the presenters waved and blew kisses to their legions of adoring fans. ‘I remember watching these fuckers when I was a kid. Don’t age, do they?’
‘They pay a lot to avoid it,’ Tayrin said. ‘Bet you never thought you’d be watching them from the sharp end.’
‘Hello, and welcome to broadcaaaaaaaaast!’ Maud howled, leaning back as though her beehive hairdo was pulling her over.
‘That’s right Maud,’ Maxie squeaked. ‘And it’s a very, super-special broadcast tonight isn’t it, going out live across the cosmos to a select group of super-special subscribers!’
Shit, Tayrin thought, doing her best to hide the look that was threatening to creep its way onto her face. Nobody else reacted as she did, but then why would they? It would be the first time that any of them had been involved in a subscriber-only event so the significance would be lost on them, if anything a welcome deviation from the hum-drum of the same-old same-old. The fools. The poor, ignorant fools.
‘Oh Maxie you took the words right out of my mouth! That’s right my lucky viewers and my even luckier Instruments, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Big Beefy’s House Of Mince, we are handing over our broadcast and the skills of our wonderful Instruments to the will of the people! That’s right, that’s right all of you! Tonight we are changing the format! We’re breaking the paradigm! Tonight…’
They cried the last two words in shrill harmony before falling about the studio clapping and laughing, high-fiving each other like over-caffeinated children. The little group that surrounded Tayrin were looking to each other and to her for support, but there was none to give. What precious little she had been able to tell them was generic, transferable to most battlefields, and absolutely no use when she had no idea what they were to face. That little nugget of context was what none of them knew, not even the third years. They hadn’t been there the last time such an event took place.
On Big Beefy’s fortieth anniversary.
‘Now what you can’t see in the blocks but you can at home are the options at the bottom of your screen, each symbol matching one of the ones in the welcome packs you received in the mail a month ago when subscriptions went live. When you’ve had a good look through the Instrument profiles enter one of those codes AND WE DO MEAN ONE into the keypad provided along with your favoured Instrument code and maximum bid.’
‘And don’t worry if your favourite isn’t the winner!’ Maxie interrupted. ‘The bottom line rules the world but no matter your bid, you get to watch the outcome from the best seats in the cosmos. That’s the value we’re bringing you tonight, you lucky lucky things! And wow, Maud! Look at the numbers rolling in!’
The room watched in confused and horrified fascination, but Tayrin had seen enough. While the masses edged closer to the screen she quietly slid toward the back of the room, tuning out the squeaky voices of the presenters and going over her mental checklist. Early on in her cell block career she had learned that preparation was the key to survival. That was what her little crew of followers had gotten wrong. Not the technique, but the timing. Finding someone stronger to help them was the right idea but it was no good starting to prepare once the countdown had already begun. That was a luxury only the experienced could afford, and Tayrin had experience. She hadn’t been lying when she told people she was a third year, though that depended on your perspective. She had never claimed that it was her first sentence.
A full five minutes of cackling bullshit played out on the screen as she made sure her laces were tied and her belt fastened, her muscles warmed and her ligaments stretched. Every now and then she looked up to make sure she would not be caught unawares, but she need not have bothered. When the clock ran out and the final bids were in Maxie and Maud made a sound like a banshee with her tit caught in a zip and the final amount flashed across the screen in glowing red figures.
Nice to know what our lives are worth.
‘Oh my Instruments,’ Maud said, as Maxie fanned her with a leaflet advertising mince by the ton. ‘What a way to celebrate fifty years of Big Beefy! One-hundred percent of tonight’s proceeds will be donated to the children’s hospital on Trappist-1h, minus all applicable sales taxes, lottery fees, salaries, tariffs, reimbursement for damages, shareholders dividends and contributions to the Big Beefy Inc. employee pension fund.’
Fuck all then.
‘And we’re donating in style,’ said Maxie. ‘My goodness my Maudie… Would you look at that?’
Maud looked, and so did Tayrin. She had no way of knowing how many symbols there had been to choose from, but as luck or judgement would have it the one that appeared on the screen and began slowly rotating was the same one she had seen all those years before, only this time the three-dimensional rendering of a heavy antique padlock was red in instead of blue. There was no way that could be a good thing.
‘It’s a lock-in,’ Maud whispered.
As she said it the lights faded behind the two women and their smiles became grins, wicked and sharp at the edges, while dirty red light lit them from below on the otherwise black screen. ‘And that’s a lucky sign for my Instruments. Well… For five of them. Blocks A to E, you have been chosen. We have been Maud and Maxie, but it’s time for us to take our seats and enjoy the show. From both of us and most of all from Big Beefy’s House Of Mince, we bid you good night… Good luck.’
They faded to nothing, and in cruelly slow script the block’s instructions began to appear on the screen, letter by letter as though someone somewhere was typing them live. But the four did not stay to watch. Their eyes wide with fear they turned to the one person who might know, who might be able to help them survive.
Not one of them had heard her move. Least of all Tony.
Her arm was around his neck, her hand on his jaw with practiced speed. The four turned just in time to catch the look of surprise on his face and the loud crack of cervical fracture.
‘Lucky for five of us,’ she said as he fell heavily, not yet dead but fading fast. ‘I make that one per block.’
Terror took hold as she prowled forward, an apex predator bearing down on a petrified flock. They banded together as they pleaded, begging her for mercy or to work with them, to help them escape, but she knew they were wasting their time. Not one meal would enter the room until all but one of them was dead and it would not be her. Last time all she had to do was kill ten. If the padlock had been blue that was what she would have done. Ten hearts stilled to keep hers beating. Maybe she would have helped… Maybe not. Now she would never know.
She didn’t know which of them she took first. They put up so little fight it was the work of a moment to haul one free by their lapels, spin them around and flex until she felt the slithering pop of their larynx as it collapsed.
The first of the fights were breaking out as those closest to the screen cottoned on to what was happening. It wouldn’t be long before it didn’t matter if some of them hadn’t read their instructions. War would have taken hold and the trillions watching live across the network started to get their money’s worth, hoping whichever poor bastard they had put their wager on emerged the victor.
Don’t worry, you bastards, Tayrin thought as she dropped her victim and reached for the next. I’m going to make you rich.