A living torso rests in the middle of a gray circular room. Its bald head and sinewy arms hang limp. From its waist sprouts a mess of cables, wires, and pipe that exchange an intimidating amount of heat, electricity, and data.
In front of the figure, Pix enters the room. He stands strong in a high-contrast black-and-white toga.
Welcome, Pix! Do you know what you are?
I’m… a program… a storage unit.
Nice, quick on the uptake! I’m Publica’s algorithm, Al for short.
Pix’s eyes sit in deep black circles surrounded by bright white skin. He carefully studies Al. Al is nude and ashen, their skin flakes at the joints with every slow gesture.
You’re here to be sorted.
Al glows and processes for a moment.
They look amused.
Oh, this will be a great cycle.
A tournament cycle. You are equal parts peaceful and hostile, my friend.
You have two options. Work or fight.
Pix thinks for a moment.
How do I encounter the most programs?
Al glows with excitement. Their skin falls away like chalk dust.
Excellent! Here’s the rundown – all fighters are given room, food, health care, and recreational space to make their last days easier to stomach.
I see. What do I get if I work?
Standard answer: “resources are scarce”.
Pix is skeptical, but presses on.
Alright, I suppose I’m a fighter.
Al surges with electricity and glows from their base upward.
A silent flash of white light.
Pix now stands in an institutional queue among other programs thin, wide, tall, and small proceeding toward a row of officers in enclosed cubicles. Gates separate the officers like a border crossing. The quiet horde of programs are sorted left and right.
Pix follows the queue and hears questions a few paces ahead.
What are you?
Line of work?
To the right.
The gate lifts, and the program skitters down a hall labeled “peaceful” in cool blue letters.
They process a few more programs until Pix approaches an officer of his own.
What are you?
Peaceful and hostile.
The officer is not amused. He sighs and pulls up an alignment-detector.
Oh yeah, there’s a note here – go to the left. NEXT!
Pix smiles slightly at the officer’s shout. It took him so much effort to look imposing. Pix wonders if the official was sorted in a line just like this, months, maybe years ago.
Pix turns down a hall marked “HOSTILE” with a glowing red sign. He notices other imposing, freakish programs, like a spider, one with multiple heads and spindly body, and another that’s more blob than humanoid.
He bumps the shoulder of a stressed businesswoman with long bowl-cut hair.
Hi, could you help me find a ride?
She turns toward him but looks at the floor.
Just follow the arrows, thank you.
Could we share a vehicle?
She snaps up to look at him.
The motion around them stops for a moment – is a fight about to break out?
Uh – No. It’s not allowed.
The surrounding programs resume walking to their halls. The busy murmur of interviews and sorting continues.
There’s a complication. I’m peaceful, but want to fight in the tournament.
I could really use some help.
Sophia’s had a long goddamn day. She weighs her decision.
Fine. Come with me.
Sophia steps up to a thumbprint scanner on a wall beside them. She presses it and a nearly hidden door slides open.
They step into blistering daylight. On their left, a fenced enclosure guides Hostiles to a long bus. Pix and Sophia instead head toward a line of taxis, well-separated from the commotion. They get into a car.
To the Arena.
Within seconds the two doors lock and the cab merges into traffic.
You will arrive at the Arena in three minutes.
Pix and Sophia sit uncomfortably.
I’m not going to hurt you.
Let’s just get to the Arena.
Sirens blare from Authority cars speeding past them.
Why do peaceful and hostile programs hate each other so much?
It’s not hate. I’m terrified and they’re indifferent. Most hostiles wouldn’t hesitate to delete me if they got the chance.
Most… but not all?
Anyone in the tournament must kill or be killed. We’ve experimented with Hostiles joining the workforce, but it never works out.
Her coldness fills the car as it deftly moves through
I know you’re meant to do more than your current job. You’re designed to recycle and purge cache files right?
Sophia looks at him.
How did you –
I know you don’t trust me, but I want programs to find true peace and utility, they obviously don’t have that here.
Car horns blare a little ways ahead.
Jada and Cyrus are corned by four Authorities off the side of a highway. They sit on top of a taxi roof as the cops move closer, guns drawn.
Alright, boys, I warned you!
Jada grabs Cyrus’s arm.
She tosses him a few lanes away into oncoming traffic. She stares a challenging look at the four cops.
Who’s more important?!
Cyrus tumbles onto the road, winded. A car whips by next to him, trapping him in place – headlights come into his view and he closes his eyes to accept his fate.
A long, tentacle-like arm shoots through the air from an oncoming car. The long arm pulls him upward as an oncoming car slams his knees.
To protect from whiplash, tendrils from the arm brace his spine and neck. He helplessly misses the flow of traffic swinging like a wrecking ball. In moments, Cyrus sees into his savior’s car, and makes eye contact with Pix.
Pix gently pulls Cyrus into the vehicle, situated between him and Sophia.
Oh, that’s the Arena.
Pix removes the bracing tendrils and Cyrus suddenly doubles forward, wheezing with shock at the pain in his shattered knees. He hyperventilates and black oil starts showing through his trousers.
As Cyrus faints, he catches a glimpse of genuine concern from Pix and Cyrus.
Inside the Arena’s gigantic reception centre, a long desk of employees check new programs into their quarters. Pix and Sophia burst through the entrance, carrying the unconscious Cyrus straight to reception.
Pix calls something out urgently to the desk ahead.
A few employees stir into motion to receive Cyrus and lay him onto a stretcher. A nurse fixes a tube to his arm. Pix says something else to reception. Sophia watches Cyrus disappear through double doors.
Cyrus is yanked away from the near collision. Jada gasps and the Authorities aim their guns to keep her from leaving the roof of her car.
The authority who already tried arresting Jada pipes up.
You’ve played terrorist long enough! Get off the fucking car!
I’m not playing.
Whether you like it or not, you’re going to that Arena and getting exactly what you deserve. And then some.
And what exactly is it that I deserve? Did I deserve that shitty job? Did I deserve to be injured by a crumbling building?! Did I deserve to be criminalized when I lost my temper-
Jada’s knees buckle and she falls forward, covering her heavy crying. The last few minutes have sunk in: she’s Hostile. She’s going to fight in the Arena where she will likely die. She will be pitted against stronger, angrier, deadlier programs and she will likely suffer until the bitter end.
The three cops lift her down from the cab’s roof and neutralize her power with specialized handcuffs. They load her into their car and the remaining vehicles merge back into the jetstream of traffic.
Jada keeps her head down as they pass under the colossal Arena entry arches.