Authors: Kevin Kauffmann
Murder of Crows
By Kevin Kauffmann
Text Copyright © 2012 Kevin M Kauffmann
For Grandma E. Even if she wouldn’t have liked it,
she would have been proud.
Jenkins sat on the cold, metallic bench in the Crows’ locker room. It was a dingy place; cleaned just once a week and it showed. Rust was caked around the hinges of each door and dirt was mired in between each tile. The young man had taken off his utilitarian, almost-featureless helmet to reveal a short crop of brown hair and an innocent face below it. There were no scars or wrinkles; he was just a boy, really. All manners of grime covered his hands but Jenkins could only focus on the small splashes of blood decorating his gloves. Only some of it was his own.
Roberts sat a few meters away and watched Jenkins. This other soldier was younger still and had only brown fuzz gracing his head; it hadn’t had a chance to grow back yet. A weary frown stretched his thin face and gave the impression of a boy who’d fought for far too long. His contract would never be up, but Roberts would most certainly agree that he’d seen too much in his few years on Eris.
To Roberts it seemed like Jenkins wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. Nobody really was, but the kid had been sitting there for ten minutes. The rest of the Crows were long gone and Jenkins was still just staring at his hands, encased in his grey power armor plastered with corporate logos and a crimson crow emblazoned on his shoulder. Roberts could see the iconic image of McCoy’s crescent moon on Jenkins’ breastplate. It mirrored the one that was stamped on Roberts’ set of armor tucked away inside his locker. The logo hardly made Roberts want to enjoy one of their cheeseburgers. Not when it was covered in blood and grit.
Roberts sighed but some paternal instinct kicked in and he knew he had to help Jenkins snap out of it. He stood up, freshly dressed in off-duty fatigues which were standard-issue khaki, and walked over to the young soldier. He was careful enough not to get close. Sometimes the new kids would just snap and he didn’t want another recruit to break his nose because he got too familiar. That was a mistake Roberts would only make once.
“Jenkins, you ok?” Roberts would have used his first name but he didn’t know it. It wasn’t something the soldiers bothered to learn. It was much easier to yell last names over explosions and gun fire and there was no reason to break the habit outside of the battlefield.
Jenkins didn’t answer Roberts at first. Not verbally, at least. He looked up, away from his hands and slowly turned his head. He seemed to look past Roberts, which made the veteran quite uncomfortable. The newest addition to the Crows breathed out heavily and drew in breath deliberately. Breathing was no longer involuntary; as if he had to force himself to keep going.
Roberts had no idea which “he” Jenkins was referring to. There were a dozen likely suspects. The boy soldier had to narrow it down just a little.
“Um… who’s he?”
“Warner. He died right in front of me. He was yelling at me for something and… and…”
Roberts remembered now; he had been there to witness that particular act of stupidity. Warner had been standing above cover like an idiot and yelling at Jenkins when a soldier on the other team took a pot-shot. It promptly landed in Warner’s temple. Hopefully the convict would learn from his lapse in judgment, but Roberts would make sure Warner didn’t take any more chances like that when they next met.
“Hey, look. That wasn’t your fault. Warner’s an asshole a lot of the time. I’ve had my own fair share of stupid behavior; even before I landed myself on this rock. We all make mistakes we have to pay for,” Roberts said before falling back into his own memories. He wondered how he had been foolish enough to think that becoming a corporate-sponsored gladiator was better than prison. Roberts shook the thought from his head; he couldn’t change the past. The boy soldier looked back at the rookie to see that the soldier had shifted from his position and seemed a little more relaxed.
“I know, I know. It’s just the first time I’ve seen it up close. I’ve watched the games since I was a kid but it didn’t seem so … real before.” Jenkins even gave an exasperated smile at that. The new soldier would be salty and experienced soon enough; it would just take Jenkins a little more time. Roberts sighed at that; it was not an enviable position.
“Just wait until your first kill. That’ll be something,” Roberts said. The first death in the games was always a little traumatic; the first kill always depended on the person. Jenkins looked at him like he had been startled awake.
“Yeah, actually, that really wasn’t a problem. I got two or three guys today. Warner, though; I knew him. I’ve been eating meals with him for a month now. Then he just went and died in front of me. I guess it’s affecting me more because I knew the guy. The people on the other team could’ve been robots or aliens for all I care,” Jenkins said before shaking his head. He pinched the bridge of his nose as if he felt some sinus pressure. Before he’d come to War World he’d worn glasses and that was one habit he hadn’t shaken. It didn’t matter that they’d sliced and modified his eyes until he had perfect eyesight. The compulsion came less often, now, but every once in a while he forgot there was nothing there.
Roberts was taken aback by Jenkins’ statement. Usually the new guys would take a few matches until they could hold their own. Roberts himself hadn’t killed anybody until his third game.
Kids these days
, he thought, s
tarting way too young
. The modern gladiator ran his hand through the fuzz that was his hair and then propped it up against his chin. Jenkins looked back and chuckled a bit.
“It’s going to be so weird to see him tomorrow.”
Jenkins shuffled forward in the line. He was dressed in the standard issue fatigues, a far cry from his battle gear, but for some reason it still wasn’t comfortable. The material was scratchy and didn’t breathe right. Jenkins thought it was the Commission trying to keep them on edge. Comfortable gladiators weren’t very entertaining.
The young soldier grabbed a processed chicken sandwich and placed it on his metallic tray with all the other food. The constant training really built up his appetite, but it seemed he was the only one that seemed to have one. Every soldier there had a fair amount of food piled on their trays, but nothing like Jenkins. The soldier wondered why he was the only one with an appetite.
Jenkins finished loading up his tray and started walking over to the soldiers he recognized. There were about two dozen people sitting in the three rows of benches, mostly men, but Jenkins was still a rookie. He only knew a handful of the people in the brightly-lit room and the buzz of the fluorescents above him was enough to constantly keep Jenkins on edge. He trudged to the second row of benches and sat down next to Cortes and Feldman.
Cortes, a sorrowful man who only had a trace of Spanish lineage in his features, gave Jenkins a bit of a glare but Feldman didn’t even look over. He was a titan on the battlefield but most of the time he kept to himself. The giant was more than two meters tall and had a small amount of black hair on the top of his head, but after just five days without shaving the brute already had more hair on his face.
Jenkins knew better than to try to talk to either of them. The new recruit hadn’t earned the right to speak to them as equals. Jenkins glanced over at Roberts, who had just lifted his gaze to see the rookie. The boy soldier shrugged and gave him a half-smile as a courtesy. Jenkins knew that’s all it was but it was a comfort; to a degree one of his teammates accepted him.
One of the soldiers down towards the other end of the table snorted a bit and almost choked on a piece of synthesized meat before looking over at Cortes. Jenkins had seen the red-haired Englishman a few times before but had never learned his name; he had not yet been paired with the man on the battlefield. Eventually they would get around to knowing each other, but to Jenkins he was just another face with bad teeth.
“What, Norris?” the Spaniard asked, noticing the look but refusing to make eye contact. He didn’t think it would be worth his time. The red-haired soldier smiled at the reaction and picked at his green beans.
“Nothin, mate. Just remembering that chainsaw fellow from the Vipers game.” Cortes had to reach for the memory, but eventually looked back at his fellow slave soldier.
“The one you shot through the knee?”
“Yeah, bastard never saw it coming. Fell on his chainsaw. Just thought it was funny, that’s all. He just couldn’t get back off of it, no matter how hard he tried,” the Englishman said with a smile before turning back to his tray.
“You’re hopeless, you know that?” Cortes asked without expecting a remark. He didn’t get one. Norris went back to eating his mystery meat with a smile; Cortes went back to his rice with a sigh. Most of the meals were like that. There wasn’t much to say; the only things these men had in common were their debts or their crimes.
Jenkins was chewing on his bland sandwich when another soldier walked into the far-too-bright mess hall. The young soldier was oblivious for a moment, but as the silence fell over his teammates Jenkins glanced up to see Warner. The pale convict had stopped mid-step when the hush fell over his audience, but after a moment’s hesitation he continued to the lunch counter. The now-bald man looked gaunt and worn out as if he’d substituted caffeine for sleep for too long. Warner usually sported thin, sandy brown hair, but after every resurrection each soldier had to start with nothing. They would still age in the stasis cell, but the fresh clones would emerge without foot-long nails or manes of hair. It was one of the first problems that the Commission had solved when the games were introduced.
Jenkins could see the anger hiding behind Warner’s eyes and the perpetual scowl on his face, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. The convict had killed men even before he had come to this rotten asteroid; Jenkins didn’t want to provoke him. Warner progressed along the line of sub-standard food but by the end of it he’d only filled up a quarter of the tray. He hadn’t quite recovered his appetite.
Warner picked up the small amount of food and headed towards the table closest to him. Midway through his journey he stumbled and almost emptied the contents of his tray onto the floor. The convict recovered himself and promptly stood up to his full height before scanning the room for people starting to laugh. After scowling at his teammates for a moment Warner shuffled forward and sat down at the far end of the table. Warner didn’t seem like he wanted any special attention.
He was certainly getting it. Masked in sidelong glances and the stretching of necks nearly everyone had their eye on Warner. Resurrection, while commonplace, was not something to be taken lightly. Roberts, however, had his eye on Jenkins. He could see a yearning. A dumb, foolish,
desire to “make things right.” Roberts could feel the itch from two meters away.
Minutes passed at an unbearably slow pace. Roberts knew what was going to happen and it was only making him anxious. He almost breathed a sigh of relief when Jenkins stood from the bench and started towards Warner’s position. The boy soldier was about to speak up and try to talk Jenkins down but he didn’t get the chance.
“You shouldn’t.” No one recognized the voice at first; they didn’t hear it very often. Jenkins looked behind him to find Feldman looking at him through droopy eyelids. He held quite a few burdens from the look of it. Jenkins sighed and dropped his shoulders.