PROLOGUE: THE PIT
Dw, it hurt. It all hurt. His knees hurt, his butt ached, his lower back was sore. His eyebrows prickled. His fingers itched. So unfair, they tear off two fingers and the fingers start itching. And the dew claws on both feet, well on their way to becoming spurs, they itched too, a sharp persistent itch driving deep into what flesh remained. The hurt began as discomfort, those first weeks alternating between bouts of irritant and hours, days, weeks of unconsciousness. Those first weeks were boring and bearable, and he’d borne them uncomplaining. He deserved them, had brought them on himself, the bitter fruits of justice. He’d committed fratricide— fratricide, that’s the word they were using.
As if his brother were already emperor, not just a crown prince, and he’d killed him. (And, yes, he had killed him, or guessed he had, but his brother— his stepbrother— wasn’t a king. Not yet. Not ever.) Brina leaked him a phan-pro one time and he had spent a secret hour lost in the media where he was reviled and adored simultaneously.
He had no one to blame but himself.
And now came pain, dull, bone-deep, maddening pain. He carried the pain with him into the regeneration tanks and it was still there when they brought him back to waking from wet, dreamless sleep. Pain he could bear. He’d been engineered to handle pain and to inflict it. His fame depended on it. He’d borne a thousand minor wounds and given as well as he got. Stomp, skewer, heft, and hurl. Offer and receive in kind. More would come. Worse would come. He breathed in, breathed out. The rabbits didn’t complain (most never got the chance, although Spartacus was still making a name for himself). Neither would he. And today’s real discomfiture wasn’t physical. It was the presence of vermin in lab coats with their morbid curiosity, their cold, dispassionate detachment— and their coffee. The smell of coffee was overwhelming the chamber. It was maddening. Today’s cohort of medical voyeurs (the faces changed, the attitudes remained self-important) clustered outside the containment area in hospital garb of various hues and shades of cleanliness, swilling Peak Irania, intent on visuals flowing across the verti-plane, visuals of collar bone and scapula, his bones, his scapulae, glowing in iridescent turquoise and cerulean, contrasting sharply with the darkened room. The lab coats were visible through the glow, enthusiastic murmurs audible as the facility’s lead biogengineer, a thick little medician devoid of expression, brushed a finger across the scan. His minions were focused on evolving bone structure.
And their coffee. The smell of coffee was making Bron giddy.
“The virus spreads rapidly,” noted the little medician to murmurs of satisfaction. “Carpometacarpus nearly fused. Thumb reduced to alula. Transplanting bone marrow sped the process along.” His laser thread spanned the gap between arm bones. “Radius and ulna separating as expected. Forty-two millimeters.”
Bron struggled to hold the flask between compromised fingers. One week, and the thumbs had shrunk and his wrists, or what had been his wrists, were awkward and stiff. He tried again for the flask and again failed. The metal container clattered on the ceramic countertop. He caught it between muscled forearms before it spilled, wetting the puerile feathers, and reflections off the droplets shimmered, tossing rainbow fractals across the screen. In the vaulted ceiling hollow echoes reverberated.
“Dw,” he growled, “this thing needs handles. I can’t get it to my mouth.”
“I can’t, I can’t,” muttered D’m Rowl, a thumb-flick of dismissal. The medician’s backward glance punctuated his contempt. “The hero of The Games defeated by a mug. Tragic.” A sniff of disapproval. He took a sip of coffee from his own.
From high behind the penetration field, Bron scowled down on the little medician, down on the three genomedical technicians at his side, the two female interns getting their first look at The Pit’s celebrity morph, and the four orderlies who hung back in shadow, subtle as lab rats that, upon reaching the end of some inscrutable maze, await the cheese.
“Tragic yourself, Chunkhead,” he grunted, his height no shield against their insults, and wrestled the flask to his lips, felt it slip again. Clearly, the common genomes had him in their power. They could afford to humiliate, not that they seemed to care, and only the less attractive of the two interns, the one with the square jaw, registered his displeasure with a hard, quick glance. She caught his eye, he caught hers, and she looked coolly away, pretending to busy herself with a phan-pro. His own perfectly configured jaw tightened. He was not worth her regard. She did not warrant his displeasure. Everyone had his trials to bear and hers was the square jaw, about as feminine as Thor’s hammer— Could knock down a door with it! — and likely to spoil any chance of breeding— Who would breed with a doctor anyway? How dull is that? — but she had coffee and he did not, so maybe they were even. Coffee was compensation for any number of shortcomings. The Holy Grail— he remembered from his tutor’s phan-pros— had coffee in it.
With effort Bron pressed his narrowed palms to the container, squeezing what was left of withered fingers hard on metal. The feathers hampered his efforts, lack of thumbs moreso. Once again the flask slid from between them and clunked on the countertop. More echoes high in the dark, energy enough to loose a faint fall of rust flakes that drifted down between him and his examiners’ virtual electromagnetic display, setting off a cascade of sparks. How demeaning that technology thus advanced was conducted in laboratories barely maintained since the turn of the last century. These cavernous factories built for arms production during the Wars of Attrition now housed The Dominion’s genetic facilities, but little money had been spent in repairing infrastructure. The roof leaked. The clerestory windows squinted, so thick with dirt they barely let in light.
“Kieira, get a straw.”
The little medician D’m Rowl raised an eyebrow the color of the rust fall and Kieira, his diminutive genomedical aide, scampered through shadows to the faintly glowing console. A stained white lab coat billowed behind, too long for her tiny torso, a pale ghost of a ghost floating in the dim vault. Bron’s gaze followed her with size-appropriate affection. She was small, if not a dwarf, close. She kept her head down, adding to the effect. She made his friend Maggie from the huts look average height. She made the vermin look like giants. But for all her lack of stature, Kieira dared look him in the eyes when the vermin didn’t. She didn’t deny his humanity, even as his hands dissolved, calves shrank, feathers replaced fur, and butt— damn, his butt was no longer even recognizable, thrust out behind like some stunted faze torpedo sprouting weeds! He could feel the vermin’s cold scrutiny chafing his manhood. Keira never chafed. She sympathized. She was getting him a straw.
He didn’t want a straw.
He wanted an end. An end to all of it: the surgeries, the implants and injections, stem cells, viral RNA— the transgenics. Metamorphosis. The dull pain. The itch. He needed it done. He yearned for closure. He wanted to skip the middle where the prince faces insurmountable odds and cut straight to the curtain where everyone dies. Imperial justice had been served, the judge’s verdict final, guilt pronounced, and sentence (“…the body to be rendered up for public entertainment…”) heralded in the media. No chance for appeal, with only a much-anticipated entry into the arena to bring his penance to a quick and murderous finale. The world had crashed around him. All this effort now wreaked for his benefit in the laboratories of the law, all these ministrations in the name of science and sentencing, and for what? He’d be dead in weeks, a newly reconfigured carcass torn apart as soon as he entered the ring, a fledgling among killers. No chance of survival. Size wasn’t enough. History didn’t count. They wouldn’t give him opportunity to train. The process was being rushed. A quick demise to end the country’s chagrin at having cheered on the wrong prince, the Twon with ten-and-a-quarter points, the stepson who’d outlived expectations. As for that much-admired strength and agility his fans worshiped? Every week he emerged from the regeneration tank, cold, wet, distorted, to inspect the latest redistribution of mass and body parts, to mourn his diminishment. The substitution of talons and pinfeathers for hooves and hide was an irritant, poor compensation for a life dedicated to the people’s pleasure. He should have died in The Games. Thrown himself on Talin’s tines. Hurled himself beneath a mass of falling masonry. Blasted away in the frenzy that followed. Instead, he’d run. He’d panicked and fled the arena. Disgraced himself, disgraced his mother. He should save her the embarrassment, kill himself here, today. Somewhere in these rotting chambers, behind some rusting door, there must be means to an end. His skill with weapons made tabloid fodder. He could finish this humiliation out of view of the masses. He could end the pain and the itch, deprive them of their petty vengeance, die a legend and not a disgrace, and he might do it too—