Rhea Hawke (Vali Gurgu)
I stood in the centre of the five hectare blood-stained arena, facing the semi-circular bleachers where Bondar and Barbariccia and an audience of several dozen aliens sat, packed like blood hounds smelling death.
I inhaled the rank smell of unwashed bodies, sweat and old blood and privately wondered what I was doing here. Bondar seemed to think I was capable enough; he’d gleefully accepted me as his candidate and now looked smug, seated not far from Barbariccia, who ignored him and studied me with a look of amusement on his calm face… Suddenly aware of my soiled clothes, I grew self-conscious and nervously fidgeted as I waited for Barbariccia’s candidate to enter the arena.
Bondar abruptly stood up and held up my original jacket in one hand and my slacks in the other.
“I’m still looking for a buyer for these!” he announced happily in a multi-timbral chorus. “Great clothes of impeccable quality. Original Enforcer clothes.”
Which they weren’t, I thought scathingly. They were just ordinary flight clothes. Damn that Bondar! The bastard was selling my clothes right in front of me, his own candidate. It showed me what kind of team we were…and what he thought of my chances.
“Are they intelligent?” someone in the audience asked.
Bondar brought both my jacket and pants up to his reptilian face and buried his snout in them with a deep inhale. All he smelled was me, I thought, wincing inside. I felt my face tighten to a grimace as I watched him smear my clothes over his face: it seemed that essence of Rhea was a perfume for him because his doleful eyes flickered dreamily shut and his many mouths smiled lecherously. Several inmates cackled.
“You can’t tell by smelling it, creon!” someone scoffed.
“They’re far too small!” said another. “She’s just a puny little pip.”
My gaze involuntarily flickered down my own torso. I wasn’t that small, I thought petulantly. I was almost six feet tall.
Bondar bent down and lifted up my boots. “What about these? Real gravity boots. They instantly adjust according to the weight of the wearer to the gravitational pull of any planet you travelled to—”
“No one’s going anywhere, you buffoon!”
They started booing him and shouted for him to sit down.
I dropped my gaze to the dirty blood-stained floor as the jeers and slanders spread to me. I heard several pointed insults aimed at the human race. What was I doing here besides inviting abuse?
Mayling had sagely waited until just before I entered the arena, when it was too late to back out, to fully explain the game to me: “It’s a simple contest: just find and take possession of the wakesh root, hidden in the obstacle course of the arena, before the opponent does—and keep it by immobilizing the other contestant. This is usually done by killing the opponent but you don’t have to…” I had repeated the part about usually killing the opponent and Mayling ignored me to continue: “Whatever you do, don’t let yourself fall into the pit.”
“Pit?” I had repeated with a hard swallow.
“No one ever gets out. Usually youz just hears a lot of splashing then a lots of silence. Sometimes a sobeks wanders in and manages to eludes the peat saws and turbines, then youz also hear thrashing and lots of awful cries of terrors and pains as the sobek bites off a limb and—”
“I get it,” I cut in.
“There are two ways to plays the games,” Mayling went on. “Defeats your opponent first then looks for the root ats your leisure, or finds the root first and use its to defeats your opponent. Which way youz goes depends on your personal strengths. Considering your present status and your humans abilities, I suggests youz first finds the root, then takes a bite of the root immediately to gives yourselfs a decided advantage over your opponent.”
That only worked if I got it first. And that was unlikely, given the wave-sensitive eyesight of the Xhix, who’d just entered the arena through an adjacent door. Wonderful, I thought with growing despair. Xhix could see through objects.
Holding a mining shovel in one hand, the Xhix waved to the cheering crowd with his other. I dismally recalled the crowd’s jeers and catcalls when I’d entered the arena. It was obvious who they thought would win.
I was contemplating the misnomer of Mayling’s use of the term obstacle course, when Barbariccia stood and shouted, “Let the contest begin!”
I kept a sharp eye on the Xhix, who stood poised several meters from me. Maybe I could outsmart him. I might be more swift, if I let him lead me to the root. The Xhix seemed to realize what I was thinking. He faced me with a smirk and turned black, tapping his shovel with his paw. He wasn’t about to give away the whereabouts of the root.
The floor rumbled and, just a meter from where I stood, it abruptly separated, giving off a strong waft of sulfur. The gap in the floor groaned into a long chasm that continued to widen. Both the Xhix and I stepped back. This must be the infamous pit Mayling had referred to. I carefully leaned over to catch a glimpse of what lay below. I made out murky bog and peat, moving slowly across the gaping opening as the penal facility rolled along, churning up peat and mire some ten meters below—
Something hard and painful struck my head, throwing me off balance into the gap with a startled grunt. I briefly registered the Xhix’s victorious laugh as I pitched forward and blacked out.
I jerked awake, inhaling water. I’d plunged into black cold churning water and broke the surface with gasping breaths.
Marsh on Sekmet