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A short story by

Michael O'Reilly and Robert Brooks

Everybody was looking at the victim the brute had picked—the scarred kid. The larger man still had the reptilian smile on his face; he was dying to swing a punch, but he wanted to play first.

"Where you from, runt?"

"I dunno." No fear. No emotion at all.

"I dunno," the big guy mimicked, evoking nasty laughter around him. "How about your name? You too dumb to know your own name?"

"The Lisk."

Gabriel felt his arms prickle.

Inmates must pay the price for their own survival.
—Icehouse Precept #3

"Oh yeah? You're a mutalisk? Look at 'im. I think he needs a new name. Maybe Runtalisk. Little rat... What the—?"

Gabriel couldn't see what the big guy saw, but others could, and they weren't laughing. It was then the kid made his move. He punched the lug in the stomach, hard, doubling him over. A rapid series of vicious kicks to the side toppled the larger man, who fell and lay there, mewling softly.

The kid looked about him, smiling. It was a ghastly smile, all filed teeth and scabbed gums, a monster's smile.

"It's just the Lisk."

* * *

Their sleep cycle didn't last long. An alarm battered their ears until all occupants exited their cells.

They were herded to the canteen, where a machine dispensed their first meal, an unwholesome goop of nutrients and god knew what else. It tasted of nothing; it did not satisfy, but it was all that was given. A larger inmate snatched away Gabriel's bowl after only a couple bites. He decided not to make an issue of it.

Nobody went near the Lisk as he ate, the paste leaking out of gaps in his teeth.

The adjutant invited them back to the hall, which had been converted to a sadist's idea of a track-and-field course. The inmates were ordered to run, jump, bend, stretch, dash, catch, again and again. A set of sentry guns kept them moving.

The first day ended, leaving every man an exhausted, battered mess yearning for rest.

It was going to get worse.

The days bled together. There was no consistent cycle. The time for sleep was at the adjutant's whim. The food never changed, but the training did.

It wasn't enough to say that machines ran the Icehouse. The Icehouse was a machine. Every room contained a robot of some sort, many devoted to but one aspect of training. The robots took on the forms of moving targets, sparring partners for combat techniques, obstacles. There was no leniency, no slacking, no way for the inmates to take it easy.

The worst days were in the sim-cages. Each inmate was led to a coffin-shaped array of bulbs, wires, and straps, and the adjutant invited him to lie within it. Refusal wasn't an option.

What followed was nothing short of a nightmare. Lights and sounds were fed directly into the brain, chosen to inspire an emotion. Gabriel would lie strapped in one of the devices, his feelings plucked like strings. He would feel ecstatic joy and numbing despair, terror that made him want to destroy himself rather than endure.

Each session ended the same for every inmate: crawling out and falling to the ground, weeping and shaking. Even the Lisk responded to this treatment, though his eyes were more avid than wretched.

After three weeks, one man did not wake up. The adjutant ordered the inmates to vacate the cells. Gabriel caught a glimpse of a quivering wreck on a bunk, blood caking his mouth. When they returned, he was gone.

* * *

"There's something about you."

Gabriel looked up from the bench. The Lisk was talking to him. The nut hadn't talked to anyone since they'd first arrived. "What do you mean?"

"Ain't as scared as you should be." The Lisk grinned. His sharpened teeth made him look anything but happy. "The others take your food. Take your bunk. Make you wait for the latrine. You down at the bottom. You should be more afraid."

"Thanks, I think," Gabriel said, and ate another spoonful of his bland gruel. Nobody else had approached the table since the Lisk had sat down. Maybe Gabriel would get to eat the entire bowl today.

Inmates must protect themselves at all times. Regard every calm moment as a battlefield, and every battlefield a calm moment.
—Icehouse Precept #4

"Wasn't complimenting you," the Lisk said. There was no malice in his words, just unnerving curiosity. "You act weak. You look weak. But you ain't scared. So you ain't actually weak. You hiding."

Gabriel suspected the Lisk wouldn't accept a denial. "I figure things'll get worse here before they get better," he said. "Maybe I'll have an advantage if they underestimate me."

The Lisk didn't seem to hear him. He stared at the bright purple bruise on Gabriel's arm. "You didn't need to get that."

That was true enough. The course had been covered with robots firing rubber bullets. The machines were slow moving, couldn't duck or dodge, and they could barely track a running target. It should have been the easiest thing to evade.

Then a robot had projected a hologram of a child, not solid, not even well rendered, but it had startled him, making him hesitate. The robot shot him in the arm as punishment.

"Couldn't help myself," he said, but the Lisk made that awful smile of his.

"Yes, you can. I see it. I don't think they do." He pointed at the ceiling.

Gabriel laughed. "Lisk, anyone ever tell you you're a little weird?"

The Lisk shrugged. "Just am."

* * *

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