Something was amiss. I’d been to enough bouts, and given enough performances to know something wasn’t right. Throw twelve of any kind of creature into a ring together and tell them only one can leave alive, tensions will arise. Palatable tensions. Gut-wrenching tensions.
We, the ‘altered’, were no exception. If anything, having survived years of abuse, our desire to live was that much stronger. But I did not feel that tension here. Not fully.
The Centaur’s floor show made no sense. Did he think the little brat upon his throne would show him mercy if he lost? Not a hope. But it was more than that.
I looked over at the lion man. He was pacing along the edge of the arena, his fist raised, pumping the air as he drummed up cheers from the crowd. Near the centre the bull was performing a similar display. The twin-headed Aldron was close to the front where the emperor sat, flexing his torso, first one side, then the other. The ram was thumping the ground, bucking his head into the air, then thumping the ground again.
But the rest were standing idle. They were…waiting? I couldn’t figure it out. I decided I didn’t care. Maybe they were hiding their fear well. Maybe they were just idiots. I was neither afraid nor enthusiastic about this fight. It was a job. And with a purse this large – my final job.
Ardashir raised a hand to help shield his eyes from the icy desert wind. The sleeves of his linen robe swathed his hand, offering it a little warmth against the nocturnal chill.
“I told you we should’ve gone north,” he said, words muffled by his headscarf. “The valley’s more sheltered than the open desert.”
Sithil-Horak squinted a glare at him. “Everyone runs north,” she hissed. “The Koreshadur send a bird to warn of the escape, and the valley gets sealed at both ends. Heading east has bought us hours, and if we can reach the Temple of Mahin we’ll be safe.”
Ardashir glanced back, grateful to get his eyes out of the oncoming sandy wind. The fires of Ralakkai were hidden behind the soaring dunes, and there was no sign of pursuit. Yet. The Koreshadur were skilled hunters, and once they realised the escaped prisoners had gone east it would be a race to the temple. Assuming Sithil-Horak was right.
He looked back east, and his companion waved a hand to her back. She was taller and more brawny than most women, and he was glad to use her as a windbreak.
“What crime did you commit?” Ardashir asked her. In prison, it was a question you didn’t ask. But on the run, he was curious. He had been accused of treason because his fool cousin had become involved in a plot to topple the emir. To be consigned to the same prison as traitors, she must have done something terrible.
The lion man bounced ahead of us, his mane dancing behind him. A part of me could not but admire him. To play at life – no complexities, no grey areas, no doubts. Right or wrong, win or lose. He was completely ignorant of our cause, as were five of the others. A part of my envied their ignorance.
My torso reflected off the silver-plated shields of the Galacian sentries who lined the arena walls. I flexed my hind legs and pranced like a young colt as my tail splayed and sliced the air with confidence. I was thankful my years of practice in subterfuge hid my trepidation so well. I glanced over at Soldan – Pisces for this particular bout. His blue green scales flashed in the morning sun. His face was sombre, his movements fluid and composed. I took courage from his strength.
We moved slovenly towards the centre of the arena. The lion man was right about one thing. The roar of the crowd was deafening. A swell of faces full of wild glee, their lust for blood spilled down towards us and washed across the hard dirt beneath our feet. We felt it pool around us, clawing at our ankles, hungry to feed upon our suffering…and our inevitable demise.
On the evening it began, the Internet was acting strangely. Backgrounds were darker. Icons jittered nervously. Response was slow, like a plodding zombie. Judy could barely read the latest inspirational and politically charged memes from her Facebook “friends.” Feeling out of touch with the world, she reluctantly reached for the shutdown button. That’s when she received the first tweet.
It was a simple message from her old friend Molly: “I’m coming to see you, Judy.”
Normally this would delight her. Molly was one of her dearest and oldest friends. The problem was Molly had passed away over three months ago. She had actually seen Molly in the casket.
Admittedly Judy was a Twitter novice. She did not fully understand all the ins and outs of the ‘Twitterverse’. So when she received this tweet, she was not initially concerned.
At first she was confused. Could old tweets hang around and get recycled from time to time? Maybe it was a Twitter glitch. Then she grew gradually more disturbed and kicked herself for not shutting down her laptop sooner. Now she would have to go to bed with that chilling message haunting her thoughts. How was she going to sleep?
When a hundred thousand souls are screaming for your death, begging for your dismemberment, baying for your blood, most folk would feel intimidated. But we weren’t most folk. I glanced around the holding chamber. The flyer had mentioned a zodiac theme this year, and I wondered if they’d thought up that selling point before or after they’d gathered up these freaks.
The two-headed Aldron representing Gemini was obvious enough, likewise the Minotaur for Taurus, and the hoofed and horned Durvan, all the way from the Iliad Nebula, for the ram of Aries. The rest, were a stretch of the imagination. Some of them I knew of from previous bouts, usually off-track planets that mixed arena touts with some bizarro element to amaze and amuse the little ones.
But this was the big time. Twelve thousand gold pieces to the winner. A grave for the losers – after their bodies were poked, piked and paraded around the Colosseum for a while of course. All good clean fun. For the Galacians at least.
Not my favourite clients, the Galacians. Loud, slobbering and rather unhinged. But they paid well, and on time. Twelve thousand Galacian gold coins. Enough to never have to play again.
Commander Nazca knew he would be considered a hero if he completed the mission successfully. Maybe they would name the planet after him. Or at least one of their main habitations once they had settled. But first he had to ensure a secure landing of their aircraft. Thankfully he had been assigned the best possible crew.
Nazca looked at his colleagues seated around the table in the main command room. They were buzzing with excitement, and he understood why. He felt exhilarated himself.
“Right, everybody,” he began and cleared his throat. “We have a lot to discuss before we can initiate the implementation phase of our mission.”
The room became quiet and Commander Nazca switched on the screen at the centre of the table so everyone could follow. He turned on his personal screen, too. In that way, he could take notes – his memory was not what it once was. And doodling helped clear his thoughts while following the conversation.
July 15, 2149, Hawking
From the air Karen could see the cliff walls opening up to reveal a large weapon. Even a mile away she could hear the noise of the rock grating and hoped the sound wouldn’t impede the incoming transmission.
“Breena, did you send the message?” she asked through the comm.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s currently looping as requested. I’ll patch it through to you.”
Soon the alien voice was relaying over her comm and the text from the translator scrolled across the screen. Orders have changed. The newcomers must not be attacked. We have a treaty between us. They will be living along-side you from now on. May their presence last for an eternity on your walls. Thank you for your service. You are now free.
Captain Dunstan heard the footsteps approaching his cell. He eased himself off his prison cot and rubbed his forehead. A prison guard stopped outside and opened the cell door. A priest entered, followed by a tall man in black robes who carried a thick scroll in his hands. Captain Dunstan almost laughed, but decided he hadn’t the energy to do so. “My sins?” he asked, nodding towards the scroll. “You sure it’s thick enough?”
The tall man didn’t answer. The priest held out his hand towards the captain. A bracelet of prayer beads dangled from the priest’s fingers. Dunstan shook his head.
The priest spoke softly. “Take them my son. They shall be a comfort to you.”
Dunstan glanced at the priest’s face, then down at the beads. There was little point in offending a man of the cloth. He gave a shrug and took the beads. “Thank you,” he murmured.
The priest nodded, made a Sign of the Hand. “Use each bead, for each question,” he said. He gave a curt bow and exited the cell. Dunstan watched him leave. What questions? And where were his last rites? Was he to die without a blessing?
“Are you ready, prisoner?” The tall man asked, unfurling the scroll.
July 15, 2149, Hawking
“Penner, we’re going to drop you off at the lift landing site. O’Sullivan and Cash, you two go with Penner and make sure you secure it as instructed,” Karen said, passing Penner a tablet.
Soon they were lowering in a flat spot, previously decided upon. The massive elevator loomed above them; a dark monolith in the now night sky. Thousands of stars blared down at them from the distance and for a moment Karen forgot where she was. A voice shook her out of her daydream.
“Are you sure you won’t need help?” Penner asked, concern thick in his words.
“Grant is a pro with the lander, and if we are going to sneak into the cliff, the fewer the better. Use the tablet to direct Boone up top, and let’s get our people down to the surface.”
“So what is it?” I asked Steven, as he stood there with his arms wide and grinning like an idiot, like he was P. T. Barnum or something. Steven and I have worked at Oberon Tec. for almost five years. To be fair, I don’t really know they guy. We say hi from time to time and share what projects we’re up to. He caught me just as I was heading home and managed to drag me into his lab and literally unveiled his pet project to me by pulling a big tarp away.
In the middle of his lab stood a titanium body cage, with a full-grown Utahraptor strapped into it. It was just like the ones they make for WWC: Brawl on TV. You know the type: big purple feathers; large claws, with one giant one on its feet that could go through flesh as if it was paper; angry eyes with slit pupils darting around and looking all over the room for a fresh kill. It even has the Upstart Inc. logo imprinted into its colours, so you wouldn’t forget who made this deadly creature. This was a top-of-the-line revival clone. So earlier, when I asked what it was, I got that it was a genetically engineered dinosaur. But the part I didn’t understand was why there was all this gear bolted on to its back and head; the visor on its eye; something I assumed was a rocket launcher of some kind stuck on its back; submachine guns attached to its claws – all these knicknacks that seemed kind of redundant considering its reputation.
“Its my prototype,” Steve said. “The latest in military combat weaponry. The past and the present combined to become the soldier of the future. Introducing: Rocket Raptor!”