Authors: Charlee Allden
Tags: #Manuscript Template
An Arena Dogs Novel
RomaRex Arena, Roma
Earth Alliance Beta Sector
Mercury clenched his fists. The blood on his hands had started to dry, making his skin feel tight and brittle. He stood in the center of the arena, shoulder to shoulder with Lo. He breathed through his mouth to avoid the stench of the frenzied crowds, but the taste coated his throat and turned his stomach.
The patrons wouldn’t want to see any hint of softness, so he kept his face carefully blank. He fought the urge to drop to his knees alongside his three other pack brothers where they lay, chests heaving for air, their life’s blood soaking into the dirt.
The crowds were on their feet.
In the cheap seats, boots stomped rhythmically on the metal stadium decks—an unnatural boom-boom-boom echoing to the city dome over their heads. On the other side of the dusty field the crowd had long ago abandoned their plush cushioned seats to bounce and weave for a better view. In the luxury boxes the patrons leaned forward, some pressing pale, skeletal hands against the transparent security barrier.
Voices swelled in a mix of cheers and boos as the Game Master stepped onto the platform that jutted out six meters above the arena floor. The crowds would try to influence his decision.
Life or death for the losers.
Mercury ignored the chants and watched as the crimson robed man extended an arm, fingers clenched tight, thumb pointed to the side. The outcome had been promised—make a good show and his pack brothers would live.
Three on two, brother against brother.
They’d made a good show.
Maybe too good.
He wanted the verdict declared, the match finished, so the three in the dirt could be tended before they bled out. Bled out from injuries he and Lo had inflicted.
The Game Master’s thumb dipped suddenly down.
Mercury’s lungs seized. Shock tightened around his chest like a ruthless leather cinch. Animal rage pulsed dizzyingly through his oxygen-deprived brain. Beside him Lo howled.
Mercury glanced down to Carn, lying at his feet. His pack brother. His friend. Eyes glassy, Carn met his gaze with acceptance. Carn knew Mercury’s pain. Knew he’d look after Carn’s mate. Knew he had no choice.
Air rushed back into his lungs. His chest expanded. His muscles twitched and jumped. Had the owners forgotten the power of the bodies their genetic engineering had created?
The crowds had picked up the verdict. They chanted it like a heartbeat. “Death. Death. Death.”
Yes. He would give them death.
He flicked a glance to Lo, coated in the blood of their brothers. Lo’s eyes glowed with rage. His body quivered with aggression.
Mercury sucked in air then loosed three short barks. He flicked his gaze to the patrons’ box, then to a point below the Game Master’s platform, and back to Lo. His pack brother nodded, leapt over their fallen, then sprinted to the point Mercury had indicated.
Adrenaline flooded through Mercury’s bloodstream. His animal nature strained against the reigns of his control. The muscles of his thighs burned as he surged over Carn’s prone body and pumped arms and legs to build momentum. In his peripheral vision he saw the guards run forward and aim weapons, but he trusted his speed.
His muscles were on fire as he planted one foot in Lo’s cupped hands. He sprang into the air, muscles working with the momentum of Lo’s throw, and flew. His body stretched and twisted. Pain snapped from knee to groin as something tore. His fingers closed around the Game Master’s ankle and he ripped the man off his perch, tossing him to the arena floor as he flung his own body onto the platform. The Master’s scream choked off suddenly, but Mercury focused on his target.
The patrons’ box and the Owner inside.
The Game Master was his puppet. The startled face behind the polycarbonate wall was to blame for this latest betrayal. Mercury raced up the platform then launched into the air, arms and legs extending to clear the impossible distance.
His body slammed hard into the transparent barrier. A wave of black flashed through his vision, but he managed to tighten his grip around the corner and dig the toes of his flex-boots into the ledge. He struck the glassy surface with all of his strength. Beneath his fist, it splintered but didn’t shatter. He pulled back for another blow.
The surface gave under the force of his fist. A man stepped into the path of his reach, putting himself in front of the Owner. Mercury twisted his fist in the man’s garment and jerked him through the shattered barrier and out of his way. He reached—
Tentacles of pain crackled along his spine—the familiar agony of a shock whip. He fell back, muscles no longer in his control. His back smacked against the platform. Lightning zinged along his nerves again. His body bowed tight.
The lightning faded, slowly, leaving him unable to move.
The blue of the city dome overhead mocked him.
You surrendered to rage. You’ve only made things worse for your brothers. You’ve condemned them with your arrogance
The mocking voice was right. Their blood was already on his hands.
Roma Spaceport, Roma
Earth Alliance Beta Sector
Samantha adjusted the pack on her shoulder as she waited in the shuttle for the hatch to open. The familiar hiss and pop as it gave way only wound her nerves tighter.
“Good luck, Sam!” The pilot’s voice over the intercom reminded her that she’d chosen to leave relative safety behind in favor of a shortcut that was both risky and profitable. This one job would triple what she’d made in the last year.
Wishing the pilot a smooth journey, she hopped out and strode through the docking tunnel. The gate closed behind her, eliminating any possibility of retreat.
Sevti Allandson waited inside the hangar, looking very corporate in his slim-fitting, gray uniform. The man beside him was a surprise. Samantha recognized Grande Owens, principal partner of The Roma Company. The silver haired man with a crooked nose and ruddy cheeks had been on every news feed she’d scanned since Sevti messaged her with the job offer. Behind them the hangar stretched out, cavernous and nearly empty. The
, a stellar class courier ship, stood at the far end, cargo doors open for loading.
Sevti clasped her hand in two of his. “Good to see you again.”
She forced a smile that would have come naturally if anxiety wasn’t eating a hole in her gut. “Been too long, Port Chief.”
He nodded and released her. “Back at Midway Station, right? I remember you were always fending off that skinny letch. What was his name?”
Samantha had never been any good at deception. She wanted to beg him not to drag out the chatter that had to be for Owens’ benefit. “That was Knock. Dad hired him in the end. Turned out to be a good communications man.” And a total failure as a friend.
Sevti must have heard her silent pleading to hurry things along or maybe he’d seen her nerves fraying. Whichever, she was grateful when he got back to business. He introduced her to Mr. Owens with no sign of duplicity or guilt in his easy smile. Only eight hours earlier he’d calmly explained how he needed her to help him steal from the man.
No, he didn’t actually want her help with the deed. He just wanted her to let the stealing happen. To let the cargo go without a fight when Sevti’s friends boarded the ship she was being hired to pilot.
No one would expect a pilot flying alone to be able to fend off a band of determined thieves. Sevti would see to it she got paid for her trouble and she’d finally have enough to put down a deposit on her own ship. What could go wrong? Her stomach tightened again. Apparently,
Owens studied her as if he could read her guilty conscience in her face. “Allandson speaks highly of you, Ms. Devlin. He’s explained the job?”
She nodded. “Said you had a problem with your flight crew and needed a last-minute replacement.”
“Every flight officer in my employ is in medical with the Diztigo virus and this shipment can’t wait. Lucky for us you were traveling on the
“Luckier for me, sir, but I hope your crews will be all right.” She couldn’t stop the flick of her gaze to Sevti. Her father’s old friend was taking a huge risk and she didn’t understand why. He couldn’t need the funds. Roma Port was a dream post. Roma might only be a stage one terraformed rock, but The Roma Company owned it outright. The city with its cluster of habitation domes had been built to be a playground to the wealthy. The port sprawled along the edge of the primary dome like a happy parasite, swollen with the bounty offered up by its host.
“The flight crews will recover,” said Owens. “But we’d like you to get underway as soon as possible. We don’t want you to…” He grimaced. “To catch what seems to be going around.”
The hesitation in his voice told her clearly that he knew his crews had been intentionally infected with the debilitating virus and he wasn’t going to tell her. Wasn’t going to tell her he suspected someone was out to stop this shipment. He might be putting her life in jeopardy and he wasn’t even going to warn her. It eased her conscious just a little.
“I do have one question before we finalize your contract.” Owens pressed his lips together as he looked her up and down in her plain brown trousers and pullover top. She’d have liked to dress up for the meeting, but she hadn’t needed dress clothes since she signed on to the
as a tool slinger. She’d at least gotten the engine grease out from under her fingernails. “We verified your credentials,” he said. “Why were you working as a mechanic when you have your pilot’s certification?”
Her face heated as she met his gaze levelly. “Most corporate lines prefer to hire pilots with academy training.” He had to know she’d been an indie pilot with no corporate backing, no academy connections. He couldn’t know the rest. Her father had bullied the best hacker in the business to forge her birth records. “I got my training on the job. Mostly, I piloted my father’s freighter until last year.”
“You left his ship for a job with Reliable?”
“My father is dead.” No need to mention the rest of his crew had left her behind, stranded her on a backwater planet.
“Ah.” He punctuated the singular sound with a quick lift and dip of his chin.
She could feel more questions coming, but she couldn’t let him get to the questions she couldn’t answer. “I took the same tests as the academy grads and I have more flight hours than any academy pilot my age.”
“Samantha’s logged hours on dozens of ships, Mr. Owens.” Sevti patted the man’s shoulder, smile gone impossibly wide. “I can assure you I’ve seen her pilot ships similar to your stellar-class courier.”
It had been part of upgrading her license to avoid paying local port pilots to maneuver their ship in and out of the Class Two ports. She’d logged the hours through her father’s connections…and not one of them had lifted a finger to help her after his death. Not until Sevti.
Samantha held Owens’ gaze. “Your ship will be safe with me.” She carefully avoided any mention of the cargo.
, she would not be keeping safe. But her assurance seemed to satisfy Grande Owens.
He threw his chin and chest out like a bird strutting to impress. “Roma isn’t corporate. We’re a privately held company and most of us started out without the proverbial silver spoon, so your background is no concern here. I’ll leave Mr. Allandson to show you to the ship. I—”
At first Samantha’s mind couldn’t process the sound that drowned out his voice. Her brain told her it had to be an animal howling, but as the sound swelled into something haunting and mournful she knew it wasn’t an animal at all.
Her confusion must’ve shown on her face because Grande Owens laughed. “That’s our Dogs.”
“Dogs?” Her voice came out weak and horrified, because she knew, knew in her bones, they weren’t talking about the kind of dogs that ran around on four legs.
Another howl echoed in the hollow space of the hangar. At the far end, a loading crew in red Roma jumpsuits maneuvered three large cages across the dull gray floor plating and into position alongside the courier ship. The hangar lighting glinted off the crude metal prisons that looked more like low-tech jail cells than animal containment crates.
That’s what the news vids had called them. But her scan of the news feeds hadn’t prepared her. They hadn’t actually included vid of the gladiators known as the fighting Dogs of the RomaRex Arena.
She couldn’t see them well from across the hangar, but she could clearly see they were men. Men locked in cages and shipped as freight.