"Munch! Munch! Munch!"
The shouts from what seemed like hundreds of throats, and probably was, started with only a few voices as the guards dragged Rhea through the blast doors that were the only entrance to the vast cavern room. By the time they'd reached the center of the arena the chant had been taken up by most of the prisoners and become a deafening roar.
Fear had given way to shock since she was detained and, up until she'd been dragged into the arena, Rhea thought she was numb to everything going on around her. The roar of the crowd pierced her cocoon of protection, however, and fear once again clawed its way upward from her belly and into her throat, tightening until she could scarcely breathe or swallow.
She didn't know what they meant by the chant. She was pretty sure she didn't want to know. She tried her best to wrap herself up in shock again, to simply block the sounds from her mind, to block her mind from any thoughts at all.
She knew she'd been sent here to die, though. And today was probably the day, in the most horrible way imaginable.
The image flickered through her mind in spite of all she could do of the horde bursting through the thin wire fence that was all that separated the arena from the spectator stands, descending upon her, and tearing to her to shreds as they fought over her, but she swallowed sickly and quashed the image as quickly as she could.
They were animals. Whatever humanity they'd had before they'd found themselves in Phobos Prison had been beaten or tortured or simply worked from them long since through hard labor. They weren't just the dregs of society. They were the strongest dregs, because the life expectancy of prisoners shipped to Phobos was six months. The few that survived a year were the most dangerous predators in the solar system.
Despite the fear that was surging through her, draining her of strength so that she shook from head to foot as if she had the ague, she lifted her head when they halted in the center of the cavernous room, surveying the crowd. Her heart seemed to stop in her chest when she saw a woman among the spectators. A spurt of hope followed it, sending her heart galloping in overdrive.
Ignoring the men tugging at her now and those in the stands, she searched a little desperately for more feminine faces among the crowd, so focused on her frantic search for a sign that there was hope of life that it was several moments before her mind deciphered the tugging. Even then, it was the reaction of the crowd, not her own decimated senses that clued her to the objective of the guards. She screamed when she realized they were tearing her clothing off, biting and clawing at them as it sank in that they were stripping her naked to push the prisoners into even more of a frenzy. One of the men backhanded her across the face, momentarily stunning her. She was too dazed to feel any pain, but the blow made it impossible to fight them enough to even slow them and by the time she'd recovered she was naked.
As she'd feared, the prisoners grew even more rowdy, jumping up in the stands. Expecting any moment that the guards would completely lose control and the prisoners storm the arena, she tensed all over when she saw one man plow through the prisoners in front of him, heading for the thin wire fence. Surprise flickered through her when a dozen more didn't instantly join him, but she saw why in the next instant. As the man slammed against the fence electricity arched in blue and white lights. The stench of burning meat wafted past her nostrils and into her mouth. The sight was even worse than the smell. She couldn't seem to tear her gaze from the horrific spectacle. She gagged and lost the battle with her stomach.
Enraged when they were spattered with the regurgitated last meal of their prisoner, the man who'd cuffed her before gave her a shove that sent her sprawling flat of her back. She skidded before she came to a halt and felt the uneven rock floor peeling the flesh from her back and buttocks and the back side of her arms in deep grooves.
The blow and the burning, stinging pain from the fall effectively distracted her--either that or she'd simply run out of anything to throw up. The painful gagging stopped.
Groaning, she rolled onto her side, gathered spit into her mouth and spat on the ground, trying to expel the horrible taste in her mouth. The guards grabbed her again, half dragging and half carrying her to a post and then manacling her wrists to the thick chain dangling from the post above her head.
Her legs felt like cooked noodles. They wobbled when the guards stepped away. Her knees buckled. Pain exploded through her shoulders, elbows, and wrists as the weight of her body pulled at her joints. She uttered a cry of pain and struggled to get her feet under her again, locking her knees and leaning back against the post.
By the time she'd situated herself to ease the pain to a dull throbbing and looked around, the frying remains of the prisoner had fallen from the wire. After staring at the darkened blob below the fence for several moments, she dragged her gaze away and saw that the guards were standing at a gate at one end of the pen, ushering prisoners into the arena.
Instantly, fear reclaimed her, but she'd had too many shocks too closely together. Her mind refused to shut her away from the new threat as it had before. Images filled her mind of the men racing across the space that separated them and raping her, one after another. It took her many moments to realize that the men were moving into the arena in a relatively orderly manner and pairing off.
A voice, sounding like the voice of god, cut through the cacophony of sound of hundreds of voices muttering, jeering, and yelling.
"Fresh meat pie, men! And this delectable piece of munch can be all yours if you're man enough to take it. Ten rounds. Last man standing gets the prize!"
Before Rhea's brain could translate that announcement into comprehensible thought, the sound of meaty thuds distracted her. Her head swiveled toward the sound of its own volition.
She stared at the now struggling mass of men in the arena uncomprehendingly, completely unable to take it all in as they battered at each other with their fists. Within moments, they drew blood and bright red droplets flew in every direction.
Time seemed to stand still. The fighters almost appeared to be moving in slow motion, performing a macabre sort of dance, swinging huge, muscular arms and fists like sledge hammers. Some flew back, slid along the rough floor, and lumbered to their feet again. Others seemed suspended by the artificial gravity, remaining on their feet as their faces and chests were pummeled and they flopped around like rag dolls held up by a rope--or like punching bags.
A siren sounded, jolting through Rhea like an electric current. Almost simultaneously, water cannons blasted jet streams of water through the arena, bowling the men over and then tumbling them across the stone floor. A wayward blast of water caught her in its crosshairs, sweeping her feet out from under her. Anchored by the manacle and chain, she dangled, unable to take a breath for the hard pounding of the icy water.
By the time it stopped, she felt as if the skin had been scoured from her. Pain pelted her brain from every direction. Gasping for breath, she struggled to get her feet under her again to lift her weight off of her arms. When she'd recovered enough to turn her attention to the others, she saw that many of the men had already gotten to their feet. Guards had appeared and were dragging others off the field and through the doors where she'd entered.
The full meaning of the announcement finally clicked in her mind and she understood at last what was going on. She was the prize served up for the entertainment of the prison--guards and prisoners. These gladiator games were what the entire prison took part in to break the boredom and monotony of life in Phobos Prison.
And, like the handful of other women she'd seen in the spectator stands, she was a rare treat for them.
The last man standing--the meanest brute among them--was going to have her all to himself as his plaything.