"It's a game of life and death, and he'll play. For a price."
"I'm gonna take my fuckin' chance," grunted Lupus.
"What chance? The Games ain't no chance, man!"
"The Games are better than this shit."
Reed glanced around himself, examining the tiny, dirty cell they shared together as closely as he dared. "What? This? This ain't so bad." He crushed a fat, black cockroach beneath his bare foot, and kicked it under his sagging cot. "This is the Ritz. Think about it. Three meals a day. Free board. No hassles. No worries."
Lupus leaned over the top bunk to look long and hard at his friend-slash-cellmate. "You don't believe that crap. Do you, Reed?"
"I believe it. Least ways when it's this or the Games. You got to be crazy, Lupus, wantin' to go for the sport. All it's gonna get you is dead." Reed leaned back against the wall behind his cot, reaching into his shirt pocket. "Naw, you just stay right here, where your ass is warm and safe. All you gotta worry about is gettin' into the showers before the hot water's gone and the faggots start playin' slippery ass. Maybe you get shivved, maybe not, but that's the worst of it, here." Reed stopped talking momentarily to make a chattering noise with his lips. In his right hand, drawn from his pocket, was a squirming bit of furry life. Chubby, Reed's 'pet' mouse, chattered back. "But the Games, now . . . they's altogether somethin' else. You'd be goin' up against warriors, man. Trained warriors. They got weapons and armor you won't have. They got discipline. They got a madness in their souls that lets 'em kill and kill and kill without thinkin' about it."
"I got a madness, too," interjected Lupus.
Reed grunted derisively, as though amused at a child's prank. "What you in here for, Lupus? Assault?"
"ARMED assault," corrected Lupus defensively.
"Yeah, you was armed." Reed chuckled louder. "With a crowbar. You wasn't even carryin' no gun, or nothin', man."
"So? I've used guns before. I know all about 'em." Lupus at last pulled his head back from the edge of the bunk, rolled over to stare at the ceiling, his hands laced behind his head. "And I got training, too. I was in the Brigades, don't forget."
"The Brigades," scoffed Reed, stroking Chubby's soft head. "They ain't nothin'. One warrior could take out a dozen Brigadiers." Reaching into another pocket, Reed drew out a hunk of bread he had saved from afternoon mess, and fed this to his tiny companion. "You ought to know that. You watch the Games every Sunday, just like the rest of us. How many of them poor bastards make it all the way through to the Island?" With heavy sarcasm, he added, "'Penal volunteers', they calls 'em. What's voluntary about it? The man offers a slow death in one hand, and a quick death in the other. Why? 'Cause he knows there's always some young punk like you around to take one or the other and call it a 'choice'. Then the man can stand up before the people, before all those screaming maniacs they call fans, and tell 'em you're all 'penal volunteers'. That way, they feel better when the warriors blast your guts out into the street in holographic vision. You volunteered for it. Shit."
Lupus didn't say anything for awhile. What could he say? He and Reed had discussed this topic often. They had nothing better to do. Both were lifers. Both had been incarcerated together in the same cell for four years running, and no time outside except to shower and eat. The Games, and the slim chance of freedom they offered, occupied most conversations among the prisoners of Penal City 14.
In fact, by Lupus' way of thinking, there were two kinds of people living within the Penal Cities of the Northern Alliance. There were those who chose the Games, and those who chose to rot quietly away in the belly of the beast. Reed would never choose the Games. Lupus wasn't so sure about himself.
In the one hand he weighed his life, while in the other he weighed the remote chance for absolute freedom that would be his should he win at the sport. He could always waste away. The prison wasn't going anywhere, and, in more ways than one, Reed was right about this being the Ritz compared to the ordeal of the Games. In some ways, life in the labyrinth was even superior to the miserable life of poverty and hunger he had known growing up. Here, at least, he could eat regularly. He had a small space to call his own. He was safe from the ravages of the streets. In some ways, the prison and its people were more of a family and home than anything else he had ever known before. And they might as well be, because he wasn't ever getting out.
Lupus slammed his fist down against the stiff mattress of his cot, an almost involuntary display of frustration. His teeth ground against each other so loudly, his own thoughts disappeared in the din.
Reed rolled his eyes and sighed. "You thinkin' about it again, man? Don't. I told you before, it don't do no good, beatin' yourself over the head with all your should've-dones and could've-dones. You're here, Lupus. Here is where you belong. Here is where we all belong."
"No. This ain't where I belong. It's where you belong. It's where all these other assholes belong. I don't belong here." Lupus choked back the frustration and rage that had crept into his voice, rendering it almost unintelligible. "All I wanted was something to eat. I was starving. And I never meant to rob nobody! That rich bastard made the whole thing up! There I was, a scared, hungry kid, begging in the street. I never even had a crowbar, like he said I did. I didn't, Reed, I really didn't. You believe me, don't you? Why would I lie about it to you, now, after all this time?"
"I believe you, son."
"And so this rich bastard comes along, and I ask him for a few credits, you know. For a meal and maybe a place to get out of the cold for the night. That's all I wanted. Only he wasn't given nothin' away. His ass was so tight, it made his face pucker the instant he saw me. I knew right away he wasn't going to help. But . . . awww, shit . . . but I asked anyway. I should have known better. And you know what done it? You know what turned him against me?"