The Loupe
by Mark Brand
forum: The Loupe
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

 
 
......... ....... ..... ..  

The Loupe

           

            He would have to fight something this afternoon. It was inevitable. He only had two more fights to win before he was retired to the breeding colony for humans. If he could survive two more fights with whatever they found for him to battle, he was free forever. He was not worried. He was the champion.

          "Fifty"

          Dark hands shot up after the opening bid. Whispery gravel voices shouted.

          "Fifty five!"

          "Seventy."

          "Seventy two."

          A pause. 

          The red light flashed and the cage dissolved into nothingness. The bewildered creature blinked in the odd light, and then cringed at the sight of the dark figures. One approached the new slave and clapped it in chains. The new arrival wasn't a human. Humans were more expensive and traded only on the limited market. The Kelsh Cluster had uncovered a variety of sentient and semi-sentient species. Among these, humans were slightly higher on the evolutionary timeline than most. None of them had mastered telekinesis or molecular manipulation, but humans had shown promise in both areas. Had it not been for the intervention of the Dark Ones, they might have taken to the stars in significant number.

          The human slave-fighter was the only one awake when they brought the new arrival in. It was humanoid, small, nude, and rather helpless looking. It had been caught on one of the furthest denominations no doubt, where the local stars were older than those of the inner core. The tiny furnaces in the sky made for worlds of hot, wet, darkness. The new slave's skin was partially translucent, its glands quivering soundlessly beneath the slug-like opacity of his flesh.

          It did not speak, but let out a short whimper when the Dark One behind it jabbed forward viciously with an edge. The new slave, naked, but with no obvious sexual orientation, flew forward sharply into the holding pen with the human and all the others. The silent human fighter in the corner watched through slit eyelids. All around the floor of the holding area lay many of the other sentient competitors. The non-sentients and particularly brutal killers were confined to separate cells. The new slave shook with pain on the floor, and curled into a grotesque reverse-fetal position.

          The human slipped back to sleep.

          Verner woke the next cycle with something cold and soft lying by his side. It was the new slave. He pulled back his cloth-booted shoe and drove it into what looked like the creature's digestive tract. It buckled bonelessly and let out a yelp. It was on its feet in an instant, looking around wildly with huge eyes.

          "Gonk." It said, gutturally, looking up at him with doleful sadness and fear.

          Verner stared it down. It muttered "Gonk." again softly and rolled away toward the front of the cage. Verner hated the new ones. He never bothered talking to them anymore or even trying to be friendly to them. Whatever pisshole little denomination they had come from had evidently not put up much of a fight. There were tons of them. Fifty or sixty had come through already just on this platform. They were probably cheap throwaways. They seldom won matches, and were often the butt of cruel tricks on the part of the Dark Ones. 

          Verner had never fought one in single combat. Generally they didn't last long enough in team fighting to come under his edge. Humans were relatively rare, and Verner prided himself on the fact that only very highbrow entertainment was made of their death. Humans were too expensive to slaughter wholesale. The Gonks, however, usually were dead within only a few cycles. Not exactly the kind of creature to make friends with. Besides, it wasn't as if he could even mate with them. 

          He thought briefly of the intelligent and ferocious cat-warriors that were, as far as he could tell, all female. They were sexually voracious, especially right after a kill, and their anatomies permitted copulation. Sometimes Verner had come loose with the blood of the recently-slain matted to his flesh. As a little joke, and to commemorate his thirty-third fight (the halfway point to retirement for the subjugated races), the Dark Ones had pitted one of them, one of his partners, against him. He had found it necessary to remove her brain on the arena floor because the ravaged thorax and abdomen, though having lost all four limbs and its tail, continued to attempt to snap at him with elongated meat-eating teeth.

          Verner hated the Gonks. The only spectacles that the slaves were allowed to observe were the occasional punishment/humiliation that the Dark Ones imposed on the sentient races, and the arena killings. He found it hard to call them "gladiatorial bouts" because in essence they were generally little more than one slightly superior species trying to kill another creature of a lesser species. The Dark Ones were inventive at times, but to anyone who knew the fury of the killings, the match-ups were seldom equal. Thankfully, short of fighting some of the non-sentient beasts or killing machines, humans were generally at the top of the food chain. 

          The new Gonk hadnít been there for as much as four cycles before its bracelet chirped tonelessly. This was an indicator to prepare for combat. Verner and the other sentients immediately left the new Gonk and crowded along the transparent wall to see what it would be that the Gonk would fight. His stomach turned. 

          It was a machine.

          This unsettled Verner because it was a completely off-kilter match. This had the reek of the Dark Ones and their bitter sense of humor. The Gonk was led away, not fighting, oblivious to its impending fate, and given a heavy cudgel with which to attempt to hit the squat, refuse-bucket shaped killing machine. The fighting apparatus looked relatively harmless and seamless, like a short, blunt, metallic bullet. No visible appendages adorned it, but Verner knew of the horror within, indeed had felt the wrath of one on occasion, and grimaced. 

          His evolutionarily-advanced brain painted a vivid picture of what was likely to come, and reality did not disappoint him. He turned away and began a series of fighting motions to warm up his muscles. He would fight today as well, then. This bloodbath was humor to whet the appetites of the crowd for the real contest. He let his mind wander into the fighting paradigm of immovability. It helped, a little. He rarely got nervous anymore.

          The Gonk entered the arena timidly, not understanding the purpose of the crowd of darkly-robed observers. There was no cheering. The room was chilly because they liked it chilly, and the Gonk's sharp anxious breath hissed just an instant after the puff of steam appeared. The fighting machine suddenly leapt to life and hovered silently, inches over the floor. Around its left side appeared a halo of light that shone like a blue placenta. Its right side emitted a sharp angled slice of coherent blue light. 

          The Gonk, oblivious to its intent and curious, walked up to the malicious machination. It then looked quizzically at the cudgel and extended it at arm's length to the machine, as though offering a gift. It smiled in a pitifully stupid fashion.

          "Gonk." It said happily.

          The machine swiveled almost faster than the eye could see, and sliced off the Gonks outstretched arm at the elbow. The ridiculous smile on the Gonk's face faded slightly. It stared in disbelief. The machine hacked and sliced the Gonk to pieces, starting with the lower half to maximize the time it would scream and wail before it passed out. The killing apparatus devoured him like the blade of a food-processing machine digests a carrot. 

          The crowd, which had until the last moment been completely silent, took their feet and cheered wildly at the mangled skull of the hapless new slave. The Gonk's remains were brought back to the holding area in a plastic bag. Some of the non-sentients would make a satisfying meal out of it later. 

          Verner turned his face away when saw the Gonk walk right up to the killing machine. He knew exactly what was happening, and though his eyes fought to avoid seeing the horror, his ears painted a sufficiently vivid picture as each hiss, grind, and scream penetrated the silence. He hated the voices of the Dark Ones, but he wished sometimes that they were more enthusiastic. The sounds of terror and destruction that they revered so much would be drowned out. He heard several wet sounds and saw the arena porters return with a maniacally small bag that looked like it contained a thin soup. 

          The green light at his wrist indicated to Verner (as was custom) that he should prepare for battle. He was next. His bracelet chirped. The crowd cheered like thousands of shattering glass goblets. Verner selected his weapon, a simple edge of the same type that was used by the killing machines. It was a good weapon, light and fast. It had no mass, but could slice easily through almost anything. He tried to crane his neck and peer through the mesh to see what he was supposed to fight. As always, the walls of the holding area opaqued, and he was left in a room of whiteness with no doors or windows, awaiting the light that would begin the match.

          In the instant before the battle was met, Verner played over the handful of 65th matches that he had witnessed. They were often brutal, rarely fair, and ended most predictably in the death of the veteran because he or she was unprepared. Verner had planned well ahead. There was no money to be had in this place, but he could and did garner favor from other slaves by many means. He had been told by one of the veteran fighters that his opponent today was likely to be a beast that was brought on board recently. No one had ever seen its equal. He steeled himself.

          At the light, he rolled to the left to avoid being cornered if the Dark Ones decided that it was amusing to let his opponent into the arena first. No preemptive blow came. It looked as though nothing was in the arena with him. Then he saw it.

          A human.

          It was tall, and looked female. Female humans rarely fought because they were too valuable in breeding colonies and their birthing process killed many of them offhand. Verner had only ever seen one other female human in his life, and was transfixed by them. The one he had seen before was short and soft-looking, and had short cropped hair. The fighter before him had breasts like the female cat fighters and distinct musculature. Long flowing hair came out from behind a strange mask. 

          He stood up, self-conscious. He had never fought a human before. Indeed, he had never even heard of two fighting each other. For the price of a human, a Dark One could easily buy two fighting beasts, a half dozen killing machines, or an entire stable of Gonks or lesser meat. This was going to be an expensive fight. He eyed the woman warrior, she had not moved. He saluted with the lifeless hilt of his edge, and the weapon glowed silently to life. The other fighter nodded back, and both her hands flickered with the white glimmer of short force edges. 

          They leapt upon each other and closed the distance. She struck forward with both hands in a double-pronged stab at his body. He saw the strike a second earlier and dodged just far enough out of the way to whip his edge around in a pinwheel strike at her legs. He was sure that his blow would land, and immediately felt guilty about it, but the strike felt oddly soft and resilient. She was in the air, clearing the edge, and had landed and spun away before he realized that she was still upright and uninjured. His astonishment gave way to suspicion. 

          Before he had time to ponder this further, she crouched and advanced once more. Instead of trying for the quick deathblow this time, he parried her attacks with all the speed he could manage. He began to immediately lose ground. The woman backed him off and attacked, backed him off and attacked. Though he had a slight range advantage, she knew that his strength and speed would finish her in a close fight. They circled.

          In a protracted fight, his single edge would not be able to defend him indefinitely against her lightening-fast double attacks. The first thrust would slow him down and the rest would be easy for her. He needed to get this fight over with in a hurry. He feigned a misstep by actually letting his cloth boots slip uncomfortably over the arena floor and falling ingloriously in a heap. She took the bait. As she drove forward, Verner swept the edge up through her midsection with blinding speed. Somehow, she had seen this coming as well and had reversed her grip on the edges. She stabbed downward viciously with both tips pointed at his throat. 

          Then, something strange happened. The instant before the blows would have connected, the air around them crackled weirdly. Verner's view of the woman was oddly bent as though she was on the other side of a surface of water. He could feel her weight upon him, and could feel the changes in pressure as her powerful muscles tried to drive the twin daggers into him. He twisted his own edge, trying to find a chink in the armor that surrounded them. He had an instant of clarity in the barrier when he thought he could see her eyes. Then, the world exploded and all was dark.

          The curtain of shadow surrounding his mind cleared for a moment as he was being dragged by unseen hands from the arena. His body was numb, and he was certain that he was dead. He tried looking around, and his eye responded. His muscles jerked uncontrollably. He was sure it hurt, but the pain as removed from him. He tried to see what was dragging him, but before he could focus, something struck his head sharply and he felt himself descending again into darkness. He thought for a moment with indignity that humans should be treated better, even dead ones. 

          Verner woke to a strange and pleasant noise. He had heard other sentients and even a few of the beasts singing before, but he had never heard the same tone or timbre. Used to feigning sleep, he kept his breathing level and tried not to stir or give away his alertness. He took those stolen moments to take inventory of his body. He had not tried to move or speak since the fight, so there was no way of knowing how badly he had been injured. He suspected that he must have killed the skillful warrior woman and a small voice in the back of his head said a guilty apology to her soul.

          He dared not open his eyes, even though the sweet sound from above him was maddeningly familiar and as far as he could tell, very near. He felt no pain, and did not appear to be injured. He opened his eyes just enough to make out a silhouette in the light above his face. As soon as he did, the sound abruptly ceased.

          "Morning." The voice spoke firmly. It was human, and undeniably female. He opened his mouth to reply, but when he lifted his head, a fist rammed it painfully to the floor. He blacked out again. 

          The second time he woke, he stayed silent and kept his face unmoved. He heard her movements almost immediately, and tracked them till he was sure she moved away from him. He then sat up as quickly as possible and crouched into a defensive position. To her credit, she looked at him mildly as if he was not a threat at all. He relaxed, feeling upstaged.

          "Verner." He said, as evenly as he could manage. Her brow furrowed in disgust. Verner was impressed by the range of facial expression she could muster. He had known very few humans in his life, and the ones he knew were inevitably scarred and malformed. Vernerís master wasnít a cheapskate, but still could not afford fine humans. Verner had been won in a wager, and was until recently the ruler of the slave roost on this platform.

          "Sorry, I donít speak Hemiotaen, or whatever gibberish that is." Her eyes dismissed him.

          "NoÖ" She looked back sharply. "My nameÖ."

          "Verner, I got it." 

          He was unaccustomed to her bluntness. Generally, the fighters he held conversations with were very slow and deliberate in their speech. After all, what was there to do but talk during the hours and hours of down time between fights? This one spoke quickly and befuddlingly. Before he could say anything more, she rattled off another question.

          "Any idea why youíre not dead?" 

          He tried to remember. 

          Whiteness-light-rolling-woman-fighting-blue-dark

          Blue.

          "Some kind of shield?" It was half a statement, half a question. "I didnít even know it was there." He added, trying to be helpful. He was unaccustomed to human company, but that didn't mean he had to be rude. 

          "I guess we were too expensive to kill." She said. "At least I am." Apparently she was not interested in courtesy. 

          "It would have been my 65th kill, too. One more and Iím finished."

          Her 65th fight, he thought. No wonder.

          "What platform is this, anyway?"

          Rather than immediately satisfy this inquisitive and rude new arrival, he just said nothing and settled back into his corner of the main holding area. She glared at him a while, but her focus was broken eventually by the other sentients in the cage around her, who were watchful but non-conversational. Eventually, she sat and relaxed in very much the same way he was. Verner wondered idly how long it would take before they came to blows again. A cell with two champions was unheard of. One of them would not survive to see the breeding colony, the question was simply if the fight would happen in the arena or right here. 

          When the lights in the main holding area dimmed to represent the natural sleep and darkness cycles of the Dark Ones, Verner took the opportunity to appraise the female fighter once more. His night vision was excellent, and even from across the room he could make out her features clearly. She was attired in the same short white robes that were given to all humanoid competitors. 

          She sat against the far corner of the room with her legs curled up beneath her. What he could see of her physique was finely muscled, and with very few scars. The mark of a lash curled up one of her bare legs like a spiral staircase around an alabaster pillar. He thought briefly of the stupidity of blemishing so flawless a human, but the throb at the base of his skull reminded him of her obstinance. Perhaps her conditioning for the arena had been a difficult one. 

          Verner had slept alongside each of the other fighters for the duration of their stay, and was intimately familiar with their breathing patterns. He could have described their positions in the room simply by the depth and breadth of their respiration. The new fighter's breathing threw a discordant note into his sensory map. She was not sleeping. Her breath slid in and out through what Verner was sure were clenched jaws. After a few awkward moments, he spoke to her in a tone that would not wake the others.

          "This is the Dorian Loupe."

          At this, her eyes snapped open. He watched as she calmly let her pupils adjust to the low light. They appeared to swallow her bright irises. Eventually, they focused on him. He waited a polite amount of time before pressing her further.

          "Any idea why you're here?"

          Her face crinkled slightly. 

          "Why are any of us here?" She answered, sarcastically.

          Verner decided to get right to the point. Small talk was pointless in this situation. She obviously was unused to the intricacies of barrack conversation. He wondered idly where she might have come from that wouldn't have indoctrinated her into the environment that he had always known on the Platforms. 

          "I was considering the possibility that you were here for me to kill in my final fight before I get retired."

          "How nice for you." She replied. "Did you forget that I would have killed you today if not for the shields?"

          "Not likely." Verner said immediately, tasting the lie immediately. She did not respond. He got the impression that she was weeping silently. Not understanding completely why, he tried to be more constructive.

          "Well, we know that they didn't want us to kill each other. Otherwise, why would they bother with the shields? And they rarely put fighters in the main area if they're going to be pitted against each other later." 

          Except, he thought, when they're trying to be creative. He remembered vividly the sound of the cat-female's skull as he bashed it against the arena floor.

          "I think we're meant to fight together."

          This seemed to have an effect on her. She stopped shaking and her breathing normalized. 

          "Do they have tag-team fights on this Platform?" She asked, her voice betraying now only a hint of curiosity. 

          "Not really tag-team," he replied "They match you with another fighter and you fight at the same time against another pair. It's a teamwork competition." He tried to make it sound positive, but he distinctly remembered the two times in the past when he had been forced to fight team matches. He had, on both occasions, left the corpse of his partner in the arena. 

          "Oh." She said. "I've never fought like that. Maybe we should practice sometime, to get the feel. If it's the 66th fight for both of us, they're going to throw something tough at us."

          Verner thought about this for a moment. It seemed rational, but somehow too simple.

          "What makes you think I want to practice with you, or that I even need practice?"

          She grinned in the soft light and relaxed against the cool smooth metal walls and said nothing more. Troubled by the eerie feeling that she was reading his thoughts, Verner slipped into an uneasy sleep. 

          He woke the next cycle to the sound of the match bell. The combatant took his place in the elevator and the others crowded along the viewing wall. Verner did not see the female human among them. He was instantly alert. His eyes swept the main holding area. She was crouching in a corner by herself, doing strange exercises, seemingly oblivious to the deathmatch going on below. Verner took quick stock of the fighters at the wall. One of the newer ones was gone. He ignored the fight as well, and joined the female.

          "Eza!" She shouted, as she shot a fist forward into the air, and spun her shoulders. He back arched, bringing her other hand, mimicking a second weapon, down on the same spot. She sat backward into almost a seated position and stabbed upward with both hands. Using her momentum to rock back even further, she pin-wheeled over a single outstretched arm while the other slashed out in a vertical buzz-saw attack. The finale of the sequence was a cross-body strike with both hands that would have sliced even a sturdy opponent into thirds. She let her form dissolve when she noticed him approaching. 

          "Care for some company?" He said.

          She simply saluted and took up her stance once again. Verner compacted his upper body into the squared stance that his Warmaster had taught him. They circled, taking a few measuring strikes at each other. They locked, thrashing each other. 

          She shouted "Eza!" at him repeatedly. Eventually, he realized that she was using it as a warning for when she was about to execute a particularly brutal or complicated move. When they fell apart, Verner's head was ringing and the female was nursing a cut on her shoulder. He looked at her, as if expecting a second attack. Instead, she just smiled and sat down. She was breathing heavily. He was not.

          "What does 'Eza' mean?"

          Her grin grew wider. 

          "It's my name, imbecile."

          He was momentarily furious, but she smiled at him sweetly as if the insult had no real weight. This woman's etiquette was utterly unfathomable. In the same breath, she complimented him. 

          "I like that underhand strike." She said absently, while she undid the belt of her robe. Verner was transfixed, she seemed not to notice his gaze. He was aware that he might be being rude, but he had never seen an unclothed woman before. She dropped the robe from her shoulder and tended to it. She was naked to the waist. He stumbled for a reply.

          "It was the move that won my first match." In saying that, he realized how long ago he had learned it, and how fundamental it was. He decided to inquire further. 

          "What kind of fighting were you taught? I've never seen those kinds of moves before."

          She looked up at him with a quizzical lopsided grin. Her eyebrows furrowed when she noticed him staring at her. She covered herself reflexively. 

          "I was a Commissar agent before I was sent to the Giri Platform. They teach that kind of fighting there for human pacification duty."

          Human pacification? 

          "How many humans have you seen?" He asked, cautiously. To this, she again gave a confused stare. For the second time, he was impressed by the latitude of her facial expression. 

          "My unit consisted of twenty males and twenty females. We lived in a colony of eighteen hundred..."

          "Eighteen hundred! That's preposterous. Who could afford to support that many humans? You lie!"

          She looked injured, but unfettered.

          "My unit was designed to limit the activity of the uncontrolled indigenous groups on denomination fourteen." 

          "Impossible." Verner insisted. "Humans are too rare to waste like that. I am the only human on this Platform, and the rest are in the breeding colonies. You must be mistaken."

          "Humans are not rare on the outer denominations." She replied firmly. "The reason there are so few of them on the Platform networks is because they're so difficult to capture alive. Most will fight to the death to avoid captivity. In fact, my whole unit was wiped out by the indigenous population of denomination fourteen. I was the only surviving member of eighteen hundred Lotus-controlled humans."

          "Lotus?" Verner asked.

          She simply pointed toward the view slats of the arena, indicating the panel of Dark Ones.

          "They are Lotus. They sent me to the Platform circuit to dispose of me. No doubt to make room for the newest generation of pacification troops."

          Verner tried to let this sink in. No one on his Platform had ever referred to them as anything but "the Dark Ones".

          "Pacification? You mean to say that humans are resisting the Dar... the Lotus?"

          "Not the Lotus, " She corrected. "They are resisting Lotus. Lotus is one mind with many bodies. Those shadows that you see out there are just puppets. Lotus moves through them like a wind. Sometimes...."

          She trailed off in mid-sentence. She made no indication that she would continue.

          "Sometimes?" He prompted gently.

          She shivered, suddenly serious.

          "Sometimes Lotus moved through me." 

          Later that cycle, they attempted a practice match with two other fighters. He felt another heady wash of hormonal interruption when they undid their robes and used the belts as mock weapons, but it passed as soon as they were locked in combat. Keeping up with her acrobatics was difficult enough, not to mention trying to keep in mind that she would be armed and attempting to use both hands in attack. 

          He tried to imagine what the fight would be like, taking into account the length and use of the edges, but it became tiresome quickly. He settled eventually on getting accustomed to her movements and body rhythms. By the end of the cycle, they were fighting together as one person. He was satisfied with her proficiency, though her tactics were wildly different than his own. 

          They stopped when the match bell rang again. They both looked reflexively at their lights to see if it was either of them that had been called. It wasn't. A fighter separated himself from the pack and proceeded to the white elevator. Verner and Eza sat down and stretched themselves. Sweat stood prettily on her body, and this time Verner thought for certain that he caught her staring at him as well. This time there was no awkwardness. 

          The others had gathered against the viewing slats to watch. 

          "Why do you not watch the combat?" Verner asked, after a moment.

          Eza tied her robe back up, and stared at the ground.

          "I have seen enough death to satisfy even the thirstiest Warmaster."

          She looked up at him.

          "We all die eventually. It's silly to watch others go to theirs. I think life is most important. I do not like death to intrude upon my moments of peace when it can be avoided."

          This was the most she had spoken since the last cycle. He wanted to keep her talking, so he pressed the issue.

          "But what about the breeding colony? You're only one fight away from it..."

          He trailed off by the disgusted look in her eye.

          "You're making fun of me." She said, looking suddenly fierce.

          "No, no. Not at all." Verner replied, his hands up in a placating gesture. She would not be placated. 

          "I bet you think it sounds fantastic to be in a Fleshpit don't you? Sit around all day and eat and copulate? Great deal, huh? Except they don't tell you how it is for females. Lotus cares about us because we're the engines of breeding, but they don't know how to keep us from dying when the babies go bad. If the baby is a male, a fighter, and giving birth to it would threaten it, they kill us to harvest it. That's all there is to it. Even the indigenes have a higher success rate for live births.

          "And I absolutely love the idea of copulating with a horde of fat inconsiderate ex-fighters. As if they aren't difficult enough to deal with in the arena. If the females in the colonies fight back, they are pacified with drugs."

          Verner was stunned. He had never known anything about the colonies. He had been born in one, and immediately given to a Warmaster to be trained as a fighter. He had never known his mother or father. He had only vague notions of what life would be like after his 66th fight. He knew only that it would be an end to the mortal danger. He has assumed the same was true for the females. Eza's eyes pierced him like the tips of small pointed edges. Her gaze was a firestorm.

          "Even if I survive this next fight, I won't be any more alive than I am right now. The space between fights is the only real peace I will ever have. When the fights are gone, my life is over."

          Verner said nothing. He had the feeling that silence was an acceptable substitute for his inadequate words. She seemed to relax at his complacency.

          "In a way, I was hoping that you might kill me. At least that way I wouldn't have to go the Fleshpits when it's all over. I've seen the women that are there. I'd rather be dead."

          Verner pondered this. He finally hit upon a suitable reply. He explained to her how he was raised by the Warmaster and how he had never set foot outside of the Platform or seen any other denominations. He explained how he had only once before seen another human female, and that he had never mated with one. He neglected to tell her of his congress with the other races, suddenly ashamed of himself for being a sexual creature at all. When he was finished, he just sat back and tried to appear resigned. 

          He was startled when she stood and came to him. She sat at his side and placed her head on his chest. Instinctively, he was unsettled by such closeness. His body tensed for attack, but her hand on his chest instantly removed any temerity. She stayed close to him that cycle of darkness.

          He woke disorientated the next morning. He had slept little, the feel of Eza's hands on his flesh still coursed in primitive nerve-memory over him. She lay still beside him, her light scent coming to his nostrils in uneven measures. He was tired. He wondered what had woken him. 

          It was his green light. 

          He was instantly fully alert. Eza stirred at his elbow.

          "Eza. Wake up." He said urgently, but in a tone not to arouse the others. 

          "Whaa..." she muttered. 

          "It's our turn. They will be coming for us soon." She jolted up beside him.

          "How much time?"

          "Moments only. I am entitled a warning because I am the champion, but it will not be long."

          Something was in her eyes. Temerity? He wondered.

          The back panel of the holding area opened and two tenders entered. They would tether them together. A moment later, Eza's bracelet toned.

          She looked up at him.

          "Verner..." She hissed. He noted absently that it was only the second time she had used his name. 

          "Don't ask me to kill you." He hissed back, trying to anticipate her.

          "No!" She whispered, urgently. "This isn't my 66th fight!"

          He was completely unprepared for this. He tried not to show it. The tenders approached. He spoke to her through clenched teeth.

          "How many have you fought?" He ordered.

          "Counting this one?" She shot back, her voice quaking.

          "Yes." Suddenly it all fit. Her unfamiliarity with his fundamental moves, her lack of etiquette, her rapid speech. She was new meat.

          "Two." She replied, her voice suddenly weak. 

          Reality crashed upon Verner like a wave. Suddenly he understood the humor and irony of the situation. The Dark Ones, Lotus, whatever, had managed to outmaneuver him.

          Her second fight! It echoed in his head. She's barely trained! A machine would probably kill her, a cat-warrior certainly... She's just a beginner! His mind raced. Visions of him having to drag her body from the arena danced before his eyes, as did visions of him not walking out of the arena at all. He thought furiously as the tenders motioned with their prods. The prickling move-along made the hair on his arms stand on end. 

          He stole a glance at her. She was staring straight ahead, but her eyes were twitching wildly. He would have to calm her down, and he didn't have much time. He tried to remember his fight with her. Suddenly he realized that she was still an excellent fighter even if she was unaccustomed to the nervousness that came before each battle. She had nearly bested him in his 65th fight, even though it had been her first. A plan formulated. As soon as he had a kernel of hope to cling to, his fighter's instinct took over.

          "All right, listen carefully because we don't have time to say this twice. We won't be able to see what's on the floor till we're there too, so don't bother. Whatever happens to be on the other side of the elevator, make sure you clear the entrance quickly in case the other is there already. Be strong and be merciless, and above all, be fast."

          She looked up at him as they were marched to the elevator, suddenly looking small and weak. 

          "But..."

          "Don't interrupt me. You will survive this. You have the skill. Anxiety is normal, beat it and you've won already."

          She drew in a deep breath as the door closed behind them. The breath seemed to make her a measure taller. She selected her mask and edges. He picked up his edge. She put on the mask and took one last look at him. Here eyes were the firestorm again, and her hair waved like flames when she nodded to him. Verner felt anxious himself for the first time in a dozen fights. He felt the mechanisms that beat it back within his own psyche, and hoped that she could do the same. The hand that was closest to her squeezed her wrist, careful not to touch the edge. She nodded a second time, and they faced the door, both fighting down the urge to crane their necks and see what was waiting for them.

          The whiteness took them to the arena. 

          The first thing Verner noticed was that he could not move. He tried to immediately roll out of the way to anticipate any treachery. His feet were rooted to the ground, arms to his sides, and eyes directly front. Eza was there, but directly in front of him instead of slightly to the side as she should have been. She too was standing ramrod straight. 

          Move. 

          A voice in his head assaulted him like a thousand screams. His knees buckled. The voice held him up, battering his mind once more.

          Attack now.

          This time, he stumbled forward, as if the voice had shoved him. He barely managed to avoid falling on his own edge. At the same time, Eza came loose from whatever restraint they had both been under. She failed to keep her feet and threw her arms out to her sides to avoid accidentally stabbing herself. Her mask cracked and fell away as her face bounced painfully on the arena floor. Verner gritted his teeth, and darted forward to help her to her feet when he saw the alarming redness coming from between her broken front teeth. 

          As he moved forward, however, a strange momentum was given to him that he had not intended. His muscles, under someone else's control, betrayed him. The dart turned into a run, the run, to a sprint, the sprint to a lunge. At the last second, Eza rolled away and avoided the attack. She was on her feet in an instant, and began to fight the unseen influence once more. This time, as she staggered backward, her right hand put an edge to her throat and held it until the flesh began to sizzle. There were tears in her eyes, but her jaws were locked so tightly that the muscles of her cheek and temple stood out in definition and trembled. Verner could hear her teeth grinding in her mouth.

          She took a step toward him, and suddenly it was as if she had returned. Her balance returned and her mind took control of a disorientated body. This time she did manage to keep her balance. She opened her mouth slowly.

          "I think we're supposed to figh...." She spoke quickly and managed to get a few words out before Lotus took control of her again. Her teeth snapped shut on her tongue, and the first third of it fell to the arena floor. She screamed silently. Verner moved to help her again, but felt the acceleration in his muscles almost at once. He tried to resist, and was thrown to the ground. 

          His own edge began to hover near his throat. He fought his fear. The edge bit into his flesh, the pain was severe, but not unbearable. Verner willed himself to relax.

          The weapon withdrew. This time it pointed to his vitals, and the point began to descend. He closed his eyes and let it, beyond caring. But this time, too, it stopped short. Instead, his eyelids were forced open and he was compelled to watch as Eza put one of her edges through her own hand. He strained, hating Lotus with unequaled passion. He could not move backward, only forward, toward her. 

          Fear was in her eyes as he approached, but he stopped before hurling himself at her like last time. Her eyes looked at him, pleading. The arena floor was slick with her blood. She stood erect, a mess of crimson. Verner knew she couldn't cry because Lotus wouldn't let her, but that moment of dignity belonged to her alone. He hoped his was a equally courageous. He tried to tell her with his eyes that it was all right, and that they would have to fight. 

          Kill her.

          The voice brought tenseness to his muscles. Lotus took the opportunity to thrust his body at her. At the same time, her hands flew up in a defensive posture. They locked in combat. At first, Verner tried to resist the voice, but even as his mind sent messages that his muscles never received, the voice began to batter him relentlessly.

          Kill her and be free. Resist and be destroyed. Kill her. KILL HER. 

          The litany continued as he went through the motions. He struck, she counter struck, each time the voice burrowing deeper and deeper into his mind, trying to occupy him fully. The mind with no body was encompassing them, controlling them, invading them. 

          Kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her...

          He fought to maintain a bastion of sanity on the edge of the horrible voice, but it penetrated him further and further. As it did so, their hands began to speed up from a dancing pace to a killing velocity. The edges smashed against each other with enough force to make the massless blades rebound. So ferocious were the attacks that muscle and ligaments were torn from the bone. Through all this, the fight only accelerated. Their bodies were pushed beyond any limits they had known.

          He tried to focus on her eyes for some sign of what to do. Whatever was controlling them had neglected to retain the former tunnel vision that had been enforced. Her eyes were centered on his as well. In them was dignity, forgiveness, and understanding. He began fighting her without Lotus's help. His arms did not fly as fast, or as viciously, but his skill far surpassed that of Lotus. She began to move more smoothly as well, taking control of her body. 

          They fought for what felt to Verner like a lifetime. An idea was forming in the little refuge of his mind that was not controlled by Lotus. He tested his theory by attempting a brief resistance. As soon as he tried to back away, the voice redoubled its screaming and threw him forward again.

          Kill-her-kill-her-kill-her-kill-her... 

          He fought a while more, his body nearing the limits of exhaustion. His edge carved the air of the arena like a wayward lightening bolt. Parry and thrust, counterthrust and retreat. He looked into Eza's eyes a final time, and saw surrender. 

          He let his muscles relax, and his arms fall to his sides. As he did, Eza mirrored him. Her eyes spoke gratefulness. The instant he refused to fight, the voice returned. This time, it was not merely an encouragement. This time, it was an attack. The words of Lotus reverberated through the frames of their bodies. Verner's joints creaked and his flesh rippled. The muscles that were already torn and loose began to vibrate with the timbre and punctuation of the screaming inside his head.

          KILLHERKILLHERKILLHERKILLHERKILL....

          Verner made his move. He darted forward suddenly with blinding speed. All the tension that his muscles could manage was behind the thrust, and not even if Eza had been under Lotus control could she have avoided it. It was a killing blow, and his edge buried itself into her chest. He did not look at the wound, he focused on her eyes. Some part of him registered that her edges were inside of him as well. He could feel the strange wetness of his own blood on his cloth shoes. It did not trouble him. He could not speak, the non-mind that was Lotus was still inside his body. 

          No.

          It tried to retreat, but he would not let it. It tried to flee his dying body, but had gotten too deeply inside. He let himself slump to the ground, and Eza followed. The edges fell to the floor and extinguished. Their bodies were open to the air, and their blood flowed silently to the floor in a black pool. They did not notice. Their eyes were locked upon each other as their tiny sinking ships dragged Lotus down with them.

          NOOOOOOOOO!

          At almost the same moment, their bodies expired. As his breathing stopped, and his heart fell still, he listened for the roar of the Dark Ones. It never came. Only silence filled the cavernous arena, and nothing moved within the crowd of spectators. He tried to focus on Eza, but got only a glimpse of her triumphant eyes before his vision blurred forever. At the edge of the abyss, Verner somehow found the strength to smile. 

 

copyright 2001 Mark Brand.

Mark Brand is a massage therapist and medical assistant who lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago with his wife/editor Beth. He has been writing sci-fi and speculative sociological fiction for approximately thirteen years and was a co-founder of the literary website Dyingdays.com. His stories have been featured on Silverthought.com and in the science fiction anthology Alien Light. He has also published a number of pieces of non-science fiction including a young adult fantasy novel entitled The Prince and The Pitchman (POD published in 2002 through Booksurge), an essay in the 9/11 retrospective To Wound The Autumnal City, and an e-book by the now-defunct Flagstone Publishing entitled "Bunnygirl". His current projects include a portion of the Silverthought.com collaborative effort Night.Blind entitled "Human Resources", as well as finishing his second young adult fantasy novel, the upcoming The Journey of the Tallish Ten.