A sharp pain in his chest and numbness through his limbs woke Rex up from his forceful slumber. As his eyes slowly grew accustomed to the blinding white light, the young boy realized that his current location was already far away from the scene of the crime. The therapeutic shine already gave it away enough, but the signature chloride smell was the true deal breaker of revealing the exact location.
“Is this… argh!” Rex tried to speak, but even the slightest movement of air into his lungs was enough for his entire ribcage to feel pain.
“Easy there, buddy,” a digitized voice sounded from above him. When Rex turned his attention to the ceiling, all he saw was a small monitor with beeping signals of vibrating sound.
The monitor, meanwhile, continued without noticing the youth’s look towards it. “You broke five ribs and had a ruptured lung. To be honest, I can’t believe you managed to stay in this good of a state.”
“Is that so?” Rex asked sarcastically. He would have let out a grin as well, had it not been for his injuries acting up.
“Well, you’ve still made some remarkable recovery,” continued the voice. “In only three days, your lung is practically healed, while your bones are only at the point of fractures. It still hurts since it’s not a complete revival, but you should be safe now.”
“Well, thanks, uh…”
“AIDE, or Artificial Intelligence in Dealing with External wounds,” the digitized voice sounded. “But no need. First of all, I’m a virtual aide, this is literally my job. And secondly, I didn’t even do anything; you healed all of your wounds by yourself.”
“Whoa, you’re an AI?” Rex gasped in surprise but immediately regretted his decision as his face contorted to an anguished frown. “First time I’ve seen one like you!”
“First time?” the mechanical lifeform called AIDE raised its voice with a puzzled expression. “Kid, what time are you from? I’m not even the latest model.”
“Hehe… I wasn’t really what you would call a normal kid…”
“Well, figures. You’re in here after all,” AIDE responded. The AI had no ill will in its words, but for Rex, it was like rubbing salt into the wound.
“Did you suffer emotional damage?” Even if the young boy lowered his voice and let out a sigh, it didn’t stop AIDE from adding more fuel to the fire. Luckily for Rex, however, as he was about to be done in by a robot, another voice had sounded to save him just in time:
“Give da kid a rest, AIDE. He’s got a lot on his plate already.”
The voice was muffled and distorted, making it unknown to Rex, but the foul-mouthed AI’s words suggested otherwise:
“Wasn’t he in here because of you in the first place, Mitch?”
“Well, yeah, kinda… okay mostly. But it’s not like I didn’t feel bad about it!”
“And how much was that because you got beaten up by Zain?” If AIDE was a regular human being, Rex could practically see a smug grin coming out of its mouth.
“Hey, I don’t get beaten by him all the time.”
“That’s because he’s sleeping most of the time, Mitch. And it’s better for me that way too. We certainly wouldn’t want that stuff to happen again.”
“Anyway, I’ll shut off for now. You guys be on your best behavior, got it?” The AI sounded one final warning before the monitor on the ceiling finally turned off. In the infirmary at the moment, only Rex and Mitch remained.
The lad turned around to face his bully, only to be shocked by a giant steel mask almost glued on his face. So that explains the muffled voice, Rex thought to himself. Had it not been for his conversation with AIDE, Rex was sure he wouldn’t recognize Mitch at all. However, precisely because he had recognized his adversary now, the air between them soon fell into an awkward silence.
“So… your name’s Mitch, eh?” In the end, Rex was the one to break the ice first. He didn’t put much thought into it, but rather just wanted to say something to kill the time. Not being able to move around was hard for a growing boy, after all.
“Yup,” from inside the mask, a voice sounded.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
“Ya know, dat guy.”
“That guy? You mean the one that knocked me out after you punched me through the wall?”
“Da one and only.”
“What’s his deal?”
“Guy beats up everyone. Ya got lucky if ya ask me.”
“And what about you? Why aren’t you messing with me again? Was it also because of him?”
“Nope… Well, a bit. But wardens also came afta he left. Said ta stop all da fightin, or we get it.”
“O…kay, then,” Rex had no choice but to nod in agreement, even though the conversation was about as clear as a misty night. “Well, it’s good for me, I guess.”
“Oh, and, uh, kid…”
“You’re saying something?”
“… Sorry. About da things I did.” It was through a mask, but Rex could still feel the sincerity in Mitch’s words – the kind of sincerity that he didn’t expect to hear from anyone in this prison, let alone the ones that made him suffer just a few days ago.
Before he could question further, however, Mitch had already continued:
“I… heard yer story. Bout how ya got here.”
“Heard? I never told it to anyone.” Rex, on the other hand, was surprised at the news. He was certain he didn’t have anyone he could call an acquaintance, let alone a friend, in this concrete cage. For someone to know his predicament so well, they must have been very well-versed with the prison’s intel.
“Yer not exactly keepin it low, kid,” a light chuckle could be heard from beneath the mask as if to immediately disprove Rex’s assumption. “Each day yer thrown in anotha section, and each day ya keep bangin on da door like dat… no wonda people knew all about ya.”
“That famous, huh…” Rex could only laugh at his own immaturity.
“But ey’, is all dat true? How you don’t rememba nothin'?”
“… Yeah, it is,” with a heavy sigh, Rex nodded his head. “I have no recollection of how I got in this prison in the first place. Heck, I don’t even remember when I was thrown here.”
“What was the last thing ya rememba, then?”
“I’m… not sure. Everything is all blurry.”
“Hah…” Mitch let out another sigh in response. Never in his mind would he imagine the young fellow next to him having such a complicated past. “It is what it is, then. I can only hope you’ll convince em’.”
“Yeah, me too,” Rex answered without much enthusiasm. However, a timely intervention from none other than the medical AI stopped the mood from going any further:
“I can’t help but overhear, but aren’t you forgetting something, Mitch?”
“AIDE? Whatcha mean?”
“You know very well what I mean, Mitch. That.”
“What… wait, you don’t mean…”
“It’s about that time already.”
“… Are ya crazy ya damn AI?” A brief pause before Mitch lost it completely. “Dat stuff is way too dangerous! And not ta mention rigged!”
“It depends on how badly the boy wants it,” AIDE answered, before redirecting its attention to the still clueless individual. “Well, what says you, kid?”
“What… are you guys talking about?”
“Your best shot at freedom, of course,” replied the AI. “A series of games taking place on this prison’s virtual space every year, where the winner will be exempted from all of their crimes.”
“Games, eh? What kind of games?” Just the notion of freedom had already provided the kick needed for Rex as he licked his lips in excitement, but the sound of the word “game” made him even more confident in his chances. While he himself didn’t know the reason for this sudden faith, deep within his heart, he knew that when it came to games, he wouldn’t lose to anyone.
“We don’t know,” AIDE, meanwhile, continued to provide the information. “It’s different every year. The rules are inconsistent as well. But if there’s one thing for certain…”
“It’s that every game requires you to stake your life.” Mitch finished the sentence, and along with his words came a chilling dread running through Rex’s bones.
“What… do you mean by that? If we lose the game, we die?”
“In general, yes,” nodded Mitch. “But it’s not just a simple bet-and-die situation. The games themselves are dangerous to the players already.”
“Is that so…”
Rex only answered with three words before shutting himself off in his own world, pondering long and hard about the matter at hand. A series of games that one would stake their lives to play, and the reward was the sweetest one could imagine. The risks and rewards were obviously present, but to compare the two… Anyone else would have been stuck, let alone a teenager like him.
“Ya know, it’s only my opinion,” Mitch interrupted Rex’s train of thoughts, “but I don’t think dis whole prison life is bad. I mean, we get to eat three meals a day, we don’t hafta do anythin’, and there’s nothin to threaten us in here.”
“Prison life…” Rex unconsciously repeated the words fed to him.
As hard to believe as it sounded, everything that Mitch said was true. Menial labor aside, the Infinite Prison didn’t force its inmates to do anything. Meals were indeed timely provided, and none of them had to worry about their lives being in danger thanks to the state-of-the-art medical assistance. Even if Rex didn’t remember most of his past, he sure remembered his recent time spent in this place. And not counting the scuffles he indirectly caused, everything in here was… strangely fine.
However, it was exactly that fact that made Rex realize the difference between him and the rest.
“Mitch, don’t you wish to see the outside world again?” He asked the masked brute next to him.
“Why would I? I’m a criminal. People resented me.”
“Well, I want to see it,” answered the young boy, his eyes starting to sparkle in return. “The clear blue sky, the smell of fresh air, the gentle warmth of the sun. I should be able to do so just fine, but I’m stuck in this place. That’s why I want to go out.”
“It might not be safe.”
“Who cares if it’s not safe? If I needed safety, I wouldn’t have had a fight with you in the first place!”
“Hehe, dat’s true,” Mitch let out a light chuckle. “So, I guess yer in?”
“Yeah. Sign me up.” With a firm nod, Rex answered. All of his doubt had been cleared, and only a fiery conviction remained.
“Then I’d suggest you start forming a team,” AIDE interrupted a conversation with a piece of valuable intel, something that even Mitch hadn’t heard about, as he widened his eyes in astonishment:
“Teams? There was none o’ that previously.”
“It’s a new rule added this year it seems. And cooperation is key to success… for you humans, at least.”
“A team, huh…” Rex, meanwhile, showed a mix of relief and worry. Forming teams would certainly be the best way to tackle this kind of problem, but then there was the elephant in the room: he had no one he knew to form a team. Well, no one except…
“Mitch, can you join the games with me?”
“Me? No way! Nuh-uh!” To Rex’s expectation, the masked prisoner immediately answered with a shake of the head and a wave of the hands. “I don’t wanna die, mate!”
“Well… who do you suggest? The joining part, not the dying.”
“… Look, there is only one guy crazy enough to go through dat hell every single year. I’m talkin’ bout da guy dat beat both you and me up. Get Zain on yer team, and it’s smooth sailin’.”
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