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A short story by

Michael O'Reilly and Robert Brooks

Kejora was far from idle. Every day he watched his charges, arranged their rotations, managed their nutrient batches. They didn't realize that they had eaten eighteen different meals so far, each one an individual concoction of steroids, neutralizers, hormone retardants, and what boiled down to poison. The batches were something of a guessing game, and as good as the success rate was, there were always one or two failures in the early stages of the training cycle.

He looked over the recording of prisoner Henisall's autopsy. As he watched the dissection, he spoke to the doctor standing to his left. "So you've no idea what killed him?"

"I suspect it was batch seventeen, though still not sure how."

"Okay, put them back on sixteen, and we won't use seventeen until a full analysis has been completed."

The doctor nodded and left the Hub. Kejora returned to the screens. Inmates queued for their tasteless porridge.

Minutes later came a moment he'd seen over and over these past weeks, when an inmate by the name of Polek snatched Feltz's food. Feltz had let it happen every time. Not now.

Kejora almost laughed as Feltz rose from his seat and clouted Polek in the back of the head. Food and inmates scattered as the two men crashed into each other. Screams of encouragement shook the mess hall. Even the technicians in the Hub stopped their work to watch.

Kejora carefully observed Feltz. The recruit's fighting skill had improved, but he was playing catch-up. Polek had probably brawled twice a week during his formative years. Feltz might have never been in a real fight at all.

Polek smashed Feltz in the face with his opening blow, staggering the smaller man. Three swift punches later, and Feltz was down. Polek pinned him to the ground. Feltz didn't have much of a chance after that. His heavier opponent batted his arms away and proceeded to pummel him like a piece of dough. The inmates egged it on. It was a massacre.

Kejora couldn't keep a frown off his face. Policy dictated that he not interfere. Regard every calm moment as a battlefield, and every battlefield a calm moment. If Feltz couldn't hack it, he wasn't cut out to be a reaper.

Your enemy is your greatest teacher. Learn well.
—Icehouse Precept #5

On the other hand, Kejora had authored those rules. He decided he could forgive himself.

He punched a button, and sirens went up through the mess hall. The yellow light in front of the microphone lit up. "Meal time is over. Return to training." Slowly the inmates complied, Polek rising with some reluctance. They filed out of the canteen, leaving Feltz by himself, unmoving.

Kejora turned to one of the techs. "I want a med team to pick him up and treat him. I want him talking."

"Sir?"

"Korhal hasn't responded yet, and I'm tired of waiting for answers. That man does not belong here. I want to know who thought he did."

* * *

A thousand bruises fought for Gabriel's attention the moment he woke up, but the pain was far away, a mere silhouette on the horizon. He felt nice, even though he couldn't move. Straps held him tightly to a bed that was too clean to be his cell bunk.

"Awake at last."

Gabriel turned his head toward the source of the voice. All he could see were pretty lights swimming around a vague shape. A vague, impossible shape that was changing with each heartbeat.

"Why are you an apple? It's rude for an apple to melt into ice cubes." Gabriel giggled.

The voice barked a quick laugh. "Enjoy the painkillers while they last, Feltz." Gabriel heard a machine hiss softly, and the feeling of peace evaporated in an instant. The sight of a thousand dancing ice cubes resolved into the view of a brightly lit medical room and Warden Kejora.

"Feel better?"

Gabriel's heart raced, and his mind spun around in circles. He felt alert, and the pain wasn't so distant anymore. "No. Very no."

"Get used to it. It's the same cocktail they put in stimpacks, only watered down by a factor of six or so. Helps you focus even under unpleasant conditions." The warden took a seat next to his bed. "Inmates usually have to earn medical treatment through exceptional performance, Feltz. You haven't been here long enough to qualify. I'm breaking the rules just for you."

"I'm flattered."

"I'm flattered, sir," Kejora said.

Gabriel briefly considered defiance. Very briefly. "Yes, sir."

"My people have a dozen different theories on who you are, Feltz." Kejora's eyes never left his. "The only thing we can agree on is that you're not Icehouse material. Intelligent, focused, empathetic people don't belong here."

Never allow your enemies to lull you with a false front. Look behind their deception, and the threat shall reveal itself to you.
—Icehouse Precept #6

Gabriel couldn't keep sarcasm out of his voice. "Sorry to disappoint you, sir."

"How did you end up here?"

"Sir?"

The warden leaned forward. "What crime did you commit? Why are you here?"

"You don't know?" Gabriel said, hurriedly adding, "Sir?"

"Pretend I don't."

"Yes, sir." Gabriel gathered his thoughts. If ever his story needed to sound solid…

"My brother and I were part of a new resettlement a year and a half ago. Turned out to be a bad decision."

"Resettlement is a hard life."

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