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It's been a while since the last contest, so Ax isn't surprised when the filters suddenly click in and the barracks are washed in a bloody light. Obediently, they step away from their workstations or the exercise area, and move quickly into military order on the concrete gather area in front of the monumental hangar doors. They swing open silently for a small squad of Ref guards, armed to the teeth as usual but bored and secure enough that most of them have their rifles slung from their backs rather than locked and loaded.

'Ing, Ax, Ang,' the Captain reads from a clipboard as his subordinates remain at parade rest behind him, watching for any sign of resistance. They'll be waiting a long time; for most of the Ref Interfaces, the barracks is all they've ever known. They wouldn't even know how to get through the labyrinthine base to the surface. 'You are to present yourselves for reconciliation, contest having been declared between The Golden Horde, the Asps of Jerusalem and Lord Cooper Vermilion.'

The Captain doesn't tell them what the terms of the contest are; they don't ask. What does it matter down here in the steep chasms and vast cathedrals of concrete and camera surveillance? In any case, they're not affiliated with the surface, with the tribes and their internecine struggles. The Referee Board of Bonneville, which declares itself neutral often and loudly, maintain this particular 'social control' branch and its Interfaces under the authority of the Wandering Judges of the Western Territories. As 'Faces, Ax and the rest of his cohort go where they're told and plug into whatever they're told to plug into. Once their work is done, the contest is done: the result is incontestable. Absolute.

The Captain's all business today; no gossip to be had. 'Named Interfaces to report to Dr Jacques for preliminary checks and dissociation before proceeding to the play area. Everyone not named, fall out.'

The barracks fire up with their usual hustle and bustle again but there's an edge of relief and anticipation to the noise. No one enjoys interfacing; the dissociation helps but the after effects are brutal: emotional bleed, psychic destabilisation, withdrawal, among others. What most of them hate most though is what some wit has dubbed Cartesian Flu. It's all good when you're hooked in but once you're out it's difficult to remember what your body can do or how it responds; nearly all of them have broken bones or sustained soft tissue damage by misjudging how fast or how strong they were, or forgetting that their skeleton doesn't move like a cat's or a horse's or a giant's.

Ax edges closer to the guard in front of him, but not close enough to be a threat, and says casually, 'What is it this time?' He really fucking hopes it's not people. Sometimes what they're feeling seeps through. Even if it doesn't, he still doesn't like it. He feels grimy afterwards.

'Dogs, I heard,' says the guard and scratches at his chin. 'Hounds of some sort?'

'Parallel neural net robotic hounds,' Dr Jacques says from the door of the exam room. 'Deep neural imprints.'

Ahead of him, Ing cracks his neck but says nothing; there's no point. Deep neurals are a motherfucker of a comedown. While they're in the zone- man, there's nothing like it, the euphoric connection, the bad faith buzz- Hell, maybe it's just the possibility of running forever, being out there, but they're never actually out there. They're proxy gladiators, puppets making puppets dance. And it could be worse; it could be kids again. That was a bad trip.

Dr Jacques lays out his tools on a surgical cart and snaps his fingers. 'Alphabetical order. Assuming you know the alphabet.'

They know better than to talk back but Ang steps forward and sits in the chair opposite the doctor. 'Good dog,' Jacques says and picks up a scalpel and a coaxial. 'We'll start with the ports and move onto the chakra and dermal sensors, and then joints.'

Ax and Ing wait as Ang stoically sits through his examination. It's not too bloody; Jacques might be cavalier in his attitude but he's a careful physical engineer, methodical and proud of his work. Some of the other doctors aren't as meticulous.

'Okay, you're good to go,' says Jacques eventually and wipes off his safety goggles. 'Report to the nurse in the dispensary: she'll give you a contest uniform and the drugs. Take all of them; we don't give them to you for fun.' Ang nods silently. 'Okay, go.'

Ang is nearly to the door before Ax says, 'He needs an assignment.'

'What?'

'An assignment. You need to give us our colours; we're not allowed to choose for ourselves.'

'Oh, very well,' huffs Jacques. 'You're- Vermilion's contestant. Go, shoo. Loom silently elsewhere.'

Ax moves to the seat without being asked, his teeth gritted. Jacques might be a decent doctor but he's a shit human being.

'Okay,' says the asshole, 'Ports, points and joints: you know the drill.'

It all proceeds as standard until Jacques raises his eyebrows. 'Interesting modification. Your own work?'

'Yeah,' says Ax, cautiously proud, 'I had some time and the manipura interface hasn't really been working for me. Thought I'd split it into digital manipulation and see if I could improve the functionality.'

'Manipura's standard though,' Jacques says, eyes narrow with speculation. 'Every other puppet in this place has a stomacher.'

'It's not mandatory,' Ax says defensively. 'Why give us workstations if we can't make changes?'

Jacques grunts. 'Point. And for being an overachiever, congratulations! You've won a special safety calibration.' He even does jazz hands, the callous bastard.

'Fuck,' says Ax, and regrets his impulse to self-improvement as Jacques requests a rhesus monkey, safety cables, and an armed guard through the intercom. Afterwards, he waits for the tremors to stop wrenching at his bones while Jacques sedates the monkey, winds up the cables, and says cheerfully, 'Good mods: no bullet in the head for you today. Now fuck off to the dispensary and get suited and tooted. And, uh, Asps of Jerusalem.'

Ax doesn't thank him; they're all just doing their jobs.

From the nurses' chatter, he gathers that they're using sonics for this one, which explains why the three of them were chosen. Some 'Faces specialise in haptic connections, some prefer neural transfer or plain old hardware, but he, Ing and Ang have always preferred to operate through noise; music, for preference. Ax likes it for the fine motor control it allows him, although sometimes he gets carries away by the beats and his puppets zig when they should zag. They've been trying to re-educate it out of him but so far it hasn't taken. Once he'd asked the other two why they'd liked sonic controls. Ing had muttered that music was the only thing he had left that the Ref Board couldn't strip out of him. Ang had said nothing. Big surprise.

He doesn't remember much once the dissociatives kick in; no one does.

When they come back, eyes blazing with glory for long minutes after the light show of the contest controls fades out, Jacques is checking them over with short, jerky movements and a pinched mouth.

His ministrations aren't painful until the buzz wears down enough that they can feel the weight and tides of their own bodies and then he hisses at them, 'What the fuck was that?'

'I don't--' says Ax, bewildered. 'What?' and winces as Jacques shoves a cable into Ax's sphenoid port without warning and the vision in his left eye is shot through with flashing darkness.

'You stupid fucks are trained and modified for years to do one job,' Jacques says furiously, paying no attention to their shared bewilderment, 'and you can't even do that right.'

Ax's anxiety and paranoia, always high after interfacing, ramps up exponentially when he realises that the guard captain is talking urgently to someone over the 'comms, someone on the surface by the sounds of things. The rest of the squad are no longer at ease but hard-faced and with rifles at the ready.

'Should have had the fucking monkey run this job,' Jacques mutters. 'Now there'll be all sorts of questions asked about my work and I'll have to stay late to run post-face diagnostics on all of you. Under supervision!' His voice cracks with rage. 'And I put money on this goddamn race as well. I should have known better; fucking useless Morlocks.'

'Don't-- understand,' says Ax. Normally, they'd be on their way to a post-op room by now to come down in the quiet and the dark, hooked up to glucose drips.

'No one won,' says Jacques flatly. 'Or you all did. Three of the most powerful, most viciously acquisitive of the tribes in this Godforsaken judicial area are claiming victory in today's contest.'

'We finished at the same time?' Is that even possible, he wonders hysterically, the photovoltaics are as finely calibrated as the hounds.

'Well, you're finished now,' says Jacques cruelly. 'A Ref Board won't have much use for three matched puppets; throws off the element of chance. But first there'll be an investigation: the Golden Horde and Lord Cooper are appealing to the Board and the Judge. You'll be up in front of them tomorrow.'

'Judge Kelly?' says Ax and swallows. The Ref guards say that Cal Kelly, the Gouging Judge, likes to open arbitration by explaining to the Court the Wandering Judges' motto which is Devil take the hindmost, and then, if they're not suitably cowed, he explains how he got his own name. None of the appellants put up much of a fight after that, even less if Old Gouger shows them his trophies which he keeps in old jars full of homebrew.

'Oh, don't worry,' Jacques says bitterly. 'You're enough of an investment with all your mods and integrations that they probably won't use you for parts.'

'Not much consolation,' Ax forces out, and wishes, for the first time, that he'd been put in General Pop. rather than the 'Faces.

Jacques shrugs and says, 'In any case, this is the last time we'll be seeing each other. I'd say it's been a pleasure knowing you but--'

'It wasn't a pleasure,' Ax says and takes a momentary delight at the look of shock on Jacques's face, like one of his monkeys had started talking back. 'And you don't know me. You're an adequate flesh tech who occasionally gets to see sunlight, but you spend most of your life down here in the bowels like the rest of us.'

He's pretty happy that the Ref guards fall in then to escort them to the post-op room, then the Court, because Jacques has the light of violence in his eyes and a scalpel. If anyone's going to kill him, it's not going to be Jacques down here in the dark. And if Gouger Kelly is going to take him apart as an example to the others, he'll be damned if doesn't see sunlight once before he goes.