There is no denying the truth that years of smoking will make a person a very poor runner. The lungs sizzle after only a few feet as if the air has turned to acid. One's heart begins to blast beat the message either you stop or I will. Yet, despite such painful impediments even the most chain crazy smoker is able to run a four minute mile when being pursued by a wall of fire.
One of the bound running before me tripped up. I jumped over the prone figure, and a second later heard the man scream as the fire consumed him. Flames licked the back of my neck like a serpent's tongue. Thoughts of blackened skin cracking apart letting boiling blood bubble out the splits as fire chased my screeching down into the my lungs to burn me from the inside out -- I suddenly found a second gear that propelled me to somewhere in the neighborhood of Mach 2. Or more realistically 27 mph.
I saw Nigel abandon two legs in favor of four. Easily out pacing us bipeds he disappeared into the brush ahead. For a moment I considered running at a diagonal. The fire could only have spread so far. Running in a straight line seemed like giving it more of a chance to get me. The only problem stemmed from the fact I didn't know this jungle. For now the path seemed relatively clear, but going in any other direction could lead smack into something impassable. Then I felt the heat lessen.
Risking a glance back, I saw the fire falling behind. At which point I promptly tripped over the remains of a dead pig. On the plus side the fall sent me tumbling down a steep incline. Though I ricocheted off a few trees, and possibly one or two rocks, at least I kept escaping the flames.
After hitting t the bottom of the slope I looked up to see the fire coming to rest at the top of the rise. There it grumbled, crackling at defeat, contenting itself by burning the jungle. I started to smile. Something hard and round pressed against the top of my head. I stopped smiling.
"Drop the shotgun," a voice growled.
I let go of the gun. A brown leathery, oddly childlike hand pulled it away.
"Get up," the growler ordered.
I turned slowly. Behind me stood a tawny dwarf. He held a hunting rifle aimed at my stomach, and wore a black shirt with some kind of hand painted image on it.
Out of the brush came a lumber giant. He wore a similar black shirt. The logo, more easy to see on seven feet of death, turned out to be a grinning skull wearing an eye patch with a pair of crossed cutlasses in the background.
The dwarf barked, "Tie this one up."
The giant did as commanded. Meanwhile I did my best to help, even offering advice on a more solid knot than the one being employed. For this I got backhanded across the mouth. Some people just can't take constructive criticism.
The dwarf gestured with his rifle. Taking the hint I marched forward. It didn't take long before we emerged onto a dirt road. Off to one side an olive colored truck stood idling, while other men in black shirts herded the radio collared runners into the back. A man carrying what appeared to be a metal shoebox came over.
The dwarf said, "What's the score Taps?"
Taps replied, "Not good Lenny. We lost four runners, all top odds to win. Somehow the dregs came out on top."
Lenny growled, "Meaning we got some fat payouts to deliver."
Taps nodded, "Looks that way."
Lenny sighed, "That's the Game."
Taps reiterated the resignation then asked, "Who's this fucking asshole?"
Jabbing me in the kidney with his rifle Lenny said, "Stray."
I've been called worse.
Taps said, "Guess it ain't a total loss then. We got a monkey too. Talking kind."
Lenny whistled, "All righty. Finish loading then we get the fuck outta here. This shit always attracts attention."
"Wrong kind," Taps said. As Lenny went to the front of the truck Taps ordered the giant behind me, "Lagos, toss this guy in the back."
Meaty hands grabbed me by the shoulders. My feet left the ground. Lagos carried me to the truck then physically threw me in the back. I flew so far I almost hit the back of the cab.
A radio collared runner helped me to my feet. He said, "Lagos can get a little literal with the orders."
I thanked the man, introduced myself. He did the same, saying he went by George. I took a seat across from him. Looking around I didn't see Nigel.
"You see a talking monkey anywhere?" I asked.
The woman next to George said, "They're probably tying him to the front of the truck. Want to hear him scream and beg while they drive back to camp."
George said, "Joyce is right. The Raiders do it with all the anthros."
"Anthros?" I said, unaware of the term.
Joyce explained, "Short for anthropomorphized. Some experiment to create new hazards for the Game turned a bunch of different animals into something... more."
George snorted, "You haven't been fucked till you're being chased by a bipedal cheetah with an axe."
He held up the remains of a hand for emphasis, only the ring and pinkie fingers remaining.
I said, "This place keeps getting more and more magical."
George chuckled, "How long you been in the Game?"
"About a half hour. Max."
Joyce nodded, "Not bad. A lot of people are usually dead by now."
"I'll try keeping that in mind."
The truck rumbled to life. As the trek back to the Raiders' camp began we could hear Nigel swearing. Well, his kind of swearing:
"You vile blackguards. This is just every kind of unacceptable. UNACCEPTABLE! " -- The truck lurched to the side of the road, plowing through the jungle at the edge of the road -- "Oh you cunts. You devilish cunts!"
Despite my efforts, none of the other runners wanted to chat. George and Joyce did me the kindness of filling me in. Seems this particular group of jungle pirates dubbed themselves the Oakland Raiders, after their leader's favorite team. The leader of these cutthroats went by Black Mix Hendricks. He arrived in the Game a year ago, and quickly set himself up as a bloody purveyor of human cattle.
"So they sell people," I said.
Joyce nodded, "That about sums it up."
We splashed across a shallow river into a compound. Glancing out the back I saw a circus bus being driven back in place to act as the gate. The large clown face painted on the side had been stripped away by years of exposure leaving jagged parts of the grin, pieces of a makeup covered face, and bulging eyes.
"Home again, home again," George sighed.
Without being told the runners piled out of the truck. I followed suit. The Raiders' compound looked like a trailer park ringed by tree trunks crudely stripped of all their branches. A makeshift causeway of wood planks and metal plating allowed armed guards to patrol the wall. Somewhere in the camp a stereo blasted out something akin to 80s music. The constant static cackling from the speakers made it hard to tell which band exactly.
Taps and Lagos came around from the front of the truck.
George leaned over to whisper, "Good luck."
Joyce added to the sentiment with a tight smile. While Taps led the runners over to a small shack made of corrugated metal, Lagos took me by the arm. I tried to walk, but ended up being dragged. Accepting the situation I did my best to simply enjoy the ride.
As Lagos dragged me passed the front of the truck I glanced at Nigel. His body covered from head to toe in hundreds of thin cuts, some bleeding, his eyes burned. Catching his eye caused him to nod at me. I nodded back, though I'm not sure what we were saying to one another.
Lagos deposited me at the door to a double wide. Lenny held the door open.
Sneering, the dwarf said, "Time to see what you're worth."
COMING SOON! PART 4: I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'VE HEARD, BUT THERE'S NO GOOD TIME TO BECOME A SEX SLAVE