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.
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.