The lion man pulled away from me. “Why? Why are you helping me?
“Because—” I faltered. I looked around me, at the carnage. Two innocents dead, one about to die. The ones they had christened Aries, Scorpion and Taurus. Others knew them as brother, father…friend.
I had to tell the lionman, and the other players who did not know of our plot against the emperor. They had a right to know. “Warrior, there’s something—”
“I don’t form alliances,” the lion snapped. “I play a straight game. Yeah, I know that sounds hard to believe, Water Bearer, but I do, after my own fashion. You want partners, you’d best look elsewhere.”
A cry sounded near us. It was the bull. The crab man stood over him, a bloodied claw raised high, ready to strike. The wound in the bull’s side was wide enough to fit a human head. He lay on his side, his eyes turned upwards to the sky. His face looked – no…
He could not be serene. He was about to die.
The crab man’s claw came down with force. The clack of a shattered skull echoed around the arena.
“You ready?” asks Miller, Alec, owner-prime and enhancer of my system. He wants to tap my back, but when he sees his grease coated hands, he relents, not wanting to stain my exterior plating.
“I am prepared,” I reply.
“You remember what we talked about? Dodge at all times. All you gotta do is dodge. Then, when you get an open, you hit ’em with…what?”
“What?” I ask.
“No, that’s when you…never mind. It’s when you swing your arm. That’s under sub-router 12. Just remember your programming, and you might just stay in one piece until the first round, got it?”
“Affirmative sir. You will be pleased with your coat of paint,” I reply, as per my programming.
Blood bubbled up to my throat. I spat it out. It wasn’t blood. It was bile mixed with mucus. I thanked the gods. No internal injury. But the pain – the pain still pumped through my body.
I took a breath and tried to keep the hurt at bay. My heartbeat played in tandem to the crowd’s chants.
Anger began to take over from my pain. I despised this. These people. This bout. This life.
I despised my life. Everything about it.
My workday was unusually frustrating: more robo-carers needed urgent repairs; human carers asked for more help for clients whose condition had worsened; and the turnover of contract carers had gone into a spin with so many colds and flu bugs about. But I was managing, just.
And I had to develop that app to help wheelchair users have a bath on their own. This required real peace and quiet to get the ‘alter a bit here and tweak a control level there to bring it together’ right. Something I planned for the evening.
My auto-aide announced a surprise visitor.
He walked into my office in the full dress uniform of a civil servant: black bowler hat, navy pinstripe suit, white shirt, walking-stick umbrella and battered leather briefcase. The handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket warned me he was a high ranker. This was turning into an awful day.
I forced my number three smile normally reserved for my most awkward customers, stood up and offered to shake his hand. ‘How may I help, Mr … ?’
The cheer from the crowd was deafening. Emeran’s body was curled in upon itself, though his head still faced back into the arena. His eyelids were locked open. I followed the line of his lifeless stare. It was aimed at Maheras, the centaur. His assassin.
The crowd cheered out the centaur’s game title.
Maheras walked off, his back turned away from the crowd. And from me. I called out his name. “Maheras!” But he did not hear me. Or pretended not to. Well, he would hear me.
I closed my eyes, allowed his image to come to me. I would call him, and he would answer. He stopped dead in his tracks. I felt his fear. His fear weakened his aura. I readied myself.
Hello aliens. Thought I’d better let you know what’d happened here on Earth, what with it being kinda my fault an’ all. See, it all started with my period being late. I’m never late. I had several thoughts running through my head at the time – I had polyps, or was starting early menopause or something like that. Or it was the second coming of Jesus Christ.
I couldn’t be pregnant, you see. I don’t really do sex. Never really my thing – the sweaty nakedness and the grunting and the bodily fluids. Nah.
I done lots of Googling – that’s a thing what we had here on Earth – Google. You ask it stuff and it gives you answers. Google suggested I took a pregnancy test even though, as I say, I hadn’t had any of the sex. Well, I took the test and yeah, I was pregnant. I had lots of horrible thoughts then, like, something had happened without me knowing.
Turns out, it was the second coming. I had a dream that explained everything – sounds batty, I know, and if I dared mention it to anyone they all gave me the same look and suggested I seek professional help from a mental doctor. Wait, that’s a doctor who does head stuff, not one who’s mental.
The crab man’s severed claw splashed back down into the water. The bull gave another triumphant roar. I glanced at Soldan, he looked away. We had let the crab live. There was little else we could do – our greater purpose took precedence. I wondered if crabs were able grow their claws back. I’m sure their genetic ancestors could have…
The arena panels curved right up into the seating area. Soldan gestured towards a panel which had a sizeable dent running along the top. “You think you can hang on there? The waters will be drained soon.”
I wasn’t certain, but I nodded a yes. “What props you suppose are next?”
The fish man shrugged. “Well if they stay with the astrology theme, probably Earth, Wind and Fire. Whatever it’s going to be, it wont be straight forward. I have to organise a couple of the others. We need to strike as soon as we can.”
He hoisted me up onto the panel. I lowered my stomach into the panel’s rough crevice, and pushed against the sides with my tail and claws to gain some traction. It didn’t feel too slippery – might just hold until the waters died away. “I thought we were going to wait until we neutralised the straight players?”
The reflection in the mirror isn’t me: the long blonde wig, the pose, the weapon. It’s all an act. Just like the discarded clothes on the bed. The neat, simple, “little black dress”. The plain but expensive jewellery. Both are parts I had to play, not me, never me.
I don’t let people know me. It’s too dangerous, and it would get in the way. I have to do things. Things that don’t make sense, not to you, not to any sane human being.
When you are presented with the facts – what could be, what mustn’t be – you can’t afford the luxury of getting involved on an emotional level. If you do, the world goes to hell in a handbasket very quickly.
I flick the chamber of the gun open and check the rounds. Five not six. Five shots were fired, have to be fired. If I loaded six I would be, could be, tempted to lose another round. Timing and placement are everything. One slip and the world fades away.
Damn this wig; the hair is heavy. Bad enough I had to grow my own for the first part of this, worse now I have to wear this damned wig. He liked to run his hands through my hair. It made me shiver, so unnatural, but then much here is to me. I have to accept it, live with it. It makes the path smoother. It’s my job.
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.