Trial By Fire: Young Blood Chronicles
Audition Round: Hey Freak
Oh, the ring. How he hated the ring.
Samsa squinted through the bars at the arena, his eyes starting to adjust to the bright lights out there. He hated the way those stadium lights reflected off his carapace. Or, more often, how much they didn't reflect. It seemed like his carapace absorbed everything sometimes, and light was often no different.
They brought out the Plains arena today, which was especially bright, with no real cover to provide shade. Samsa hated the Plains arena; it was his worst one, and not just because of the brightness, although it was definitely the one he could least camouflage himself in. He hated more the lack of cover or obstacles to exploit. They had to get right to the fighting.
He couldn't see his opponent, just the similar darkened entrance room across the arena where his opponent would be, but he hated him. He didn't know the man, but he knew he'd opted to fight Samsa earlier than he had to. That was reason enough to hate him. It would ruin Samsa's day, and get the other guy killed.
He especially hated the woman next to him, the Planet Jacker standing a full foot and a half taller even when he stood up straight. She was a slaver working for the Filter, here, bringing in new gladiators, but she was also most often the “handler” for Samsa and the other class champions. She'd been champion herself, once. Samsa could only see Gobi's golden eyes and a strip of lavender skin between the cowboy hat and the gas mask, but he could tell she was smiling. He hated everything about the Filter, and she loved it all. She'd won a thousand battles and stayed on working here because she loved it so much. She terrified him.
“That's yer cue,” she said, turning to look at him. “Git on out there.”
Samsa's black-armored hands clenched on the bars of the window. “I don't wanna. I hate this.” His voice came out quavering, swallowing up the “I”s.
Gobi made a dismissive noise. “The Filter's great stuff. Ya just hate yerself.”
She was half right, Samsa admitted, feeling another pang of, despite everything, hunger. He hated what he did to the people out on that ring most of all. He didn't remember much from the orphanage, but he remembered learning that killing people was wrong. But the people in charge of the Filter made him kill. When he wouldn't, they withheld food. And when Samsa was hungry, he couldn't control himself. Other Smeets his age could control their hunger. Why wouldn't he hate that about himself? “M'not going out there,” he murmured finally.
“Oh yeah you are,” Gobi replied smugly. A shining steel hand flashed out from under her duster, clamping firmly against the carapace on his right upper arm. Samsa had almost no time to squirm before Gobi's other, purple-fleshed hand flicked out, a syringe prepped to go. She knew I wouldn't go, he realized, as her practiced hand slid the metal point between the plates of his carapace, piercing the skin of his inner elbow. The syringe was all ready. She knew. “This'll just make ya remember what ya love,” Gobi said, still smug. She was always smug around Samsa.
He hated the needle.
* * *
Rin Kan shaded his eyes against the stadium lighting as he stepped into the arena. The young Vortian's blue skin and the brown leather of his vest shone in the light, catching the eye of every one of the arena's patrons. Good. He was sick of being disrespected, ignored, left behind. That kind of treatment had left him struggling with debt until eventually he wound up bought like cattle.
Rin's arms dropped to his sides. Well, if he was going to be cattle, he would be a bull. His arms bulged as he tightened the grips on his weapons – a pair of wicked knives, curved almost to the point that they were sickles. For the first time, his squat stature had worked in his favor, landing him in the Medium class rather than the more difficult Large class of gladiator fights, and the first two battles had been pretty easy. The champion was supposed to be tougher... but he was just a child. A child!
Speak of the little devil, he was coming out of his respective entranceway now. What people had said was true – covered in black armor, head to toe. Well, people also said you could break through the armor with a good blow. Rin settled into a fighting stance – arms extended, legs wide, one blade diagonally in front and one behind - as the announcer called finished his spiel and signaled the start of the fight. He'd given up listening to Moze's “color commentary;” it was generally of an insultingly crude disposition, and besides that didn't generally include any useful strategic information on his foes.
For a moment, Samsa didn't do anything after Moze called for the start of the fight. He just stood there, arms limp, looking around the arena. As he finally locked eyes with Rin Kan, Rin's eyes narrowed, but Samsa's purple orbs were wide and unfocused. What's wrong with him? He seemsconcussed or something... Rin started to relax his stance, but snapped back into discipline when Samsa suddenly charged him at a dead run. “Hey freak!” Rin shouted, goading him forward. “Taste steel!”
Samsa pounced, his clawed bare hands poised to rip into Rin. Amateur, Rin sneered. He hopped to the side, and brought his rear blade up to intercept Samsa's throat in midair. He saw, heard, and felt Samsa's carapace breaking apart under the force of his blow – glossy black splinters fell around the edges of the knife, and the vibrations of the break travelled up the blade and into his arm. Rin could taste victory, for an instant – but then Samsa tumbled in the air, grabbed Rin's forearm, and dug in with his talons, dragging them both to the ground.
Rin screamed in pain as the Irken's armor-backed claws ripped into the tendons of his arm. His hand unclenched uselessly and the knife bounced away. He hit the ground hard on the shoulder of his wounded arm and his bulky horn bounced against the grassy dirt. He tried to scramble up and get his other knife into play, but Samsa was back up on all fours first, and he pulled himself onto Rin, knocking him flat on his back and pinning his good arm. Rin tried to follow up his scream with a roar of anger, but Samsa's mouth flashed open, and suddenly Rin's voice fell silent – as the armored Irken reared back up with a mouthful of flesh and windpipe.
When Rin realized his throat had been ripped out, he tried to swallow – but couldn't. That part of his body was gone. His vision started to fade. It had been over in only a few seconds. How? I got him right in the throat. Samsa reared his head back to swallow, exposing his throat again, and Rin saw the truth – a gaping plate of armor was gone, but Samsa's wintergreen flesh underneath was unmarked. Somehow the armor had absorbed all the force of his blow. Wish I'd had armor like that, Rin thought, lying his head back on the grass... he was suddenly very tired.
* * *
Samsa stared at the floor. It was lushly carpeted, not what he was used to. He wanted to hate it, but couldn't, even though it belonged to Partch and was part of his office. Partch ran the Filter. He was the Tallest Irken Samsa had ever seen in person, and he was terrifying.
Samsa was lined up with the three other Champions. On his left, Rith Zith sat with his tail coiled, his spade-shaped head bowed respectively. The Small champion was a weird hybrid of Meekrob and Vortian, and didn't look quite like anything else Samsa had ever seen, but he was nice. He cared about Samsa and wanted to best for him. On his right, Taboo picked at her nails with apparent disinterest, but her jaw was tense. The blue-scaled, tattooed Soltecian woman was the current Large class champion, and she usually ignored Samsa. Looming behind her was a monstrously large Planet Jacker with an Irken PAK incongrously sticking out of his forehead. Piledriver was actually the PAK's personality, not the Planet Jacker's, which explained why the slouching Planet Jacker wore the PAK legs like a massive set of Irken antennae. He was also nice enough to Samsa, but he really only cared about himself and took little effort to hide that.
Opposite the room stood, or sat, the top brass of the Filter. Partch himself sat at his desk, his spiderlike hands clasped. The old businessman was almost bleached of color, and looked thoroughly dead except for his slow blinking once in a while. Appearances were deceiving; Partch was, despite every effort from nature and, occasionally, his gladiators, quite alive. He was flanked by two tall Irken women in fur coats, one leaning against the wall of the office, and the other sitting cross-legged on the side of Partch's desk. They looked casual, but they scared Partch as well. They weren't there to amuse Partch; they were there to protect him. On one side of the desk stood Moze, the announcer and another ex-Champion. He was a grinning mass of pits and scars dressed in suspicious-looking leather, and his fingers were twitching at his side on his remaining non-transplanted hand. On the other side of the desk, Gobi leaned against the wall, arms folded calmly, and next to her stood Stepp” the arena's general manager and the only one in the room who couldn't defend himself in a pitched battle – which was probably part of why he was always so nervous. Stepp was speaking now, and had been for a few minutes, but most of it had gone over Samsa's head.
“And that's basically the gist of it.” The chubby Irken gestured to the small robot that had been floating next to him. It resembled nothing more than a football-sized Spittle Runner ship, with its maroon metal frame, propulsion systems along the rear and underside, and a pair of primary 'claws' on its lower front that could be used to grip or secure itself to a perch. The robot's similarity ended with the cockpit – instead the thing had an elaborate camera lens. “The Tallest want one of our best for Trial By Fire, but just one – they said they didn't want to encourage contestants to form any alliances.”
“And the winner gets a wish! AND A POSTER!” The droid was very enthusiastic, but his voice was like a cheese grater straight to the antennae. Stepp and Samsa both winced. “All you have to do is fight your way through several skilled foes without dying! On various planets! So, who wants it most? Don't all shout at once!” There was an uncomfortable silence that follwed.
“Look...” Rith spoke first. “That prize sounds fantastic, it really does, but... I can run the numbers. I'd probably die out there. Only one contestant will survive out there. Here, I'm a big fish in a small pond, and I'm content with that. I'm comfortable. Count me out.”
The Piledriver nodded in agreement, his “antennae” rattling across the metal life-support tank on his back. “With all due respect, sir, I've GOT my wishes already! I'm treated like a warrior-king here, and all I have to do is fuck up 3 meters of musclehead once or twice a week? The Filter is the best life I've ever known!”
“The chances of victory are remote,” Taboo added. “Many unknown variables to consider. The Filter is the devil I know.”
“I'm disappointed, but I understand.” Partch's voice was cold and biting as a winter gust, but without malice. He was being honest; there would be no punishment for this decision.
“That's a shame. What about you, blacky? All you gotta do is push the button.” To Illustrate the point, the droid created a hard-light hologram from its camera lens. Now, floating in front of it, translucent and glowing, there was an actual big red button for any gladiator to push.
“Samsa wouldn't want to...” Rith began, but then he saw that Samsa had, indeed, stepped forward. “...I stand corrected.”
Gobi chuckled. “Atta boy. You're better off here, but if'n you wanna show some backbone, you've picked the time to do it.” Piledriver clapped and whistled encouragingly as well. “Remember, though, you've got to fight for real this time. I won't be there to drug you and make you want to fight on this planet.”
“That's for the best,” Partch said. “The boy fights better without the drugs. Anybody else would've been killed in yesterday's fight, Gobi, and that Vortian could have been spared for another day. It's damned inefficient is what it is.”
“Boss-man's right,” Moze chimed in. “Ten seconds of fighting and two minutes of the freak eating a guy isn't good television, Gobi. Probably best we let the medium champ slot open up for a while.” Samsa sighed and walked towards the droid, approaching the hologram.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do, Samsa?” Rith asked plaintively.
“Mm-hmm,” Samsa said, scratching at his throat. The new carapace plate was still growing in, and it itched.
“You could die. I mean, you could die here, but there... Samsa, you're going to die.”
Samsa blinked back tears. “Mm-hmm.” He raised his hand, tried to stop thinking about the fact that somebody would be sad if he died after all, and pressed the button.