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SWC A18 - The Arena

Arisia'18 Student Writing Contest - 3rd Place Winner

The Arena

By Alexis Romeros

People thought I lived in the arena. People noticed that I had the confidence of someone who had memorized the halls they walked. People noticed that they never saw me anywhere else, but they knew all about the boy in the arena.

They heard the stories. That I live below the arena, and slept with weapons within arm's reach. That I stole a blaster from the arena Monitors. That I kept a set of Monitor armor in my underground room that I'm not allowed to have. That I was the exemplar of all genetic engineering, the one that went horribly right. I like that one.

I smirked as I turned down the stairs towards the training room. There were always some people there training for their lives; and they'd better, with me around and everything. Some were near the far wall for weight training. Some sparred in the spacious center with fake weapons, cut off from the rest by a shoulder-high barrier, snapping passive-aggressive insults at each other. Targets in the shape of people lined the chamber wherever there was space to throw a knife, or shoot a bow. Anywhere else, there was a holographic combat simulation in case you didn't have a partner.

Faces turned from focus to fear when they saw mine show up in the training chamber.

Immediately I just got annoyed, but I put on my most confident smile anyway.

"Hey, don't worry about it!" I spun the knife from my belt around my fingers. "Only one of you will have to meet me in the arena!" Almost every fearful face changed to contempt. I knew it. Everyone here was either raised to kill or made to kill.

Laughing to myself, I strode my way over to a hologram system, the best way to practice close-combat knife skills alone; the holographic enemy would strike at you, which can't be blocked, then its hit detection would let you know when either side was struck.

The hologram had already been stabbed four times when I heard a quiet voice from a yard or two away: "So this wouldn't be your first kill, then?"

I stopped and strolled over. "What, are you scared of me?" The girl wore the same thing as me and everyone else -- simple black clothes and lightweight shoes meant for fighting.

"No, just curious." She flicked her head to the side to get some dark, wavy hair out of her face. Not scared of me...interesting. I leaned against the wall next to her. She crossed her arms and stood up straight, with a face like stone looking forward instead of at me.

I threw the knife at a wall quite a distance away, startling another trainee. "You seem pretty calm. Were you raised to be like this...or were you made to?"

"Just a decision I made," she said curtly. I paused. What kind of answer was that? I chuckled a little, struggling to keep my cool for the first time in a while. She spoke before I could say anything. "It's kind of odd that we willingly train to kill our own kind here. Although I guess that would depend on who you call 'our own kind.' Speaking of which, what about you? Made or raised?"

"Well, you should know the answer to that." This was my answer every time, even though it was impossible for most people to really know. But...odd? What did she think she was saying? Those people of "our own kind" were dangerous, and we were the only ones who could put them down. Whoever got killed along the way, by me or otherwise, it was necessary.

She shook her head a bit, a short ponytail swaying, and didn't look me in the eye. "I haven't really heard much about you."

"Seriously? What's the matter with..." I looked up just as I heard honesty creep into my voice. Whoever it was, she was gone. Grumbling and muttering things even I couldn't discern, I pulled the knife from the wall and stalked back to the hologram. I missed. It hit me, and made a loud beeping noise that attracted the attention of at least five people.

In the weeks to come, it seemed like every few days, she was there. This wasn't just me seeing familiar faces, either; that was to be expected when I lived on the arena grounds. She would be there in the training room or in the hallways and talk to me, just like she did that first day. She challenged me to a spar in the center, everybody watching to see who in their right mind had the guts to challenge me. Time and again, I was an outburst away from telling her to get lost when she started talking about things like the others of "our own kind," and about family. But that was the weirdest part. I never did. I told myself that she was suspicious, and I was somehow the only one close to finding out why, and it came to the point that it was almost like I didn't mind talking to her, despite the suspicions I kept in mind, and I didn't know why.

This, and not my upcoming fight, was what I was thinking about on the day of the official battles, where all contenders would be assessed for how capable they were by fighting each other. I stalked the outermost hallway on the third floor, along with others who were anxiously waiting for their chance to prove themselves once again. Their footsteps tapped coldly against the floor, stopped at a window every once in a while, then continued on their way. Threatening voices hissed to each other occasionally.

"Who are you to think you can hide from me?"

"Someone deadlier than you."

I stopped short at the second voice. It had gotten to the point where she sounded like she fit right in with us. If I wasn't the only one who suspected her, there had to be a problem. I heard footsteps recede into a side hallway. Making sure no one thought anything suspicious of me, I turned and stepped around the corner, quiet as I could. There that girl was, carefully analyzing the people who passed by and didn't notice, or didn't care enough.

With no doubt in my mind that she was a threat, I thought it best to be prepared to apprehend her. As soon as I was back around the corner, I was running, turning at the nearest staircase, climbing down a flight. Down another flight, then another, until the white walls disappeared into the faded red bricks of the basement living spaces. But I was the only one who lived there besides the Monitors, and they would all be on the main floors, so I was alone.

Down the circular corridor a little ways was an iron door no different from the others. But I still recognized it as my room. I dashed inside, stopping at a small dresser on the side wall. I pulled it away with ease, revealing a box hidden by the dresser. In the box was a case. In the case was a Monitor's blaster in its holster. Making sure it was loaded with its energy cell, I started walking as fast as I could, until I was running.

Around a corner, and another corner. Was it really a good idea to kill her on the spot? Maybe I would interrogate her first, at least. She had to have information. Through a hallway, then another corner, and she was there. For whatever reason, she had separated herself from the others. Afraid of them? If she was really afraid, she probably wasn't even one of us, meaning she really didn't belong here, not as a contender. I took a step towards her without her noticing.

I shoved her into the wall, bringing the tip of the knife almost to piercing her throat. The girl didn't say anything.

"Who are you, really?" I demanded.

"My name is Darah." There was no indication of panic in her voice. "I'm here to help you."

I squinted my eyes and glared. "Help me with what?"

"Getting out while you still can."

Out of the arena? While I still can? I snarled, "What are you planning to do to with arena?! With the contenders?!"

"I'm not talking about the arena." For the first time, she looked determined, almost angry.

I was about to push the knife through the skin. Through her throat. But she took my wrist and twisted it away with unexpected iron strength. The second I noticed that my knife hand was being resisted, I was sprawling across the empty hall from a forceful kick. But my bearings weren't lost for long. The knife was still in my hand as I sat against the wall. In a split second, I turned it and held it by its blade, and flicked my wrist. I watched it fly for a second until --

The blade stopped in midair, and for a few seconds I couldn't see it through the churning mass of -- water? I pulled out my blaster, ready to retaliate if she threw the knife back. (Only if she threw the knife back?) After a few seconds, the mass settled, revealing my knife suspended serenely in a bubble of water in the air. Darah had a hand outstretched towards the bubble.

Controlling it. Easily able to send the blade flying back to me.

I laughed quietly and stood. "If it's that kind of fight you want --"

Inside the bubble, currents began to spin around the knife, until a splash burst from the side, and I saw my knife land far away from both of us.

"I'm not looking for any fight," she said matter-of-factly.

I stared at the knife, which launched in a direction nowhere near me. It didn't make sense. I was obviously a threat. Maybe competition. Maybe an enemy. Why spare me? Why not try to establish any semblance of strength? I thought of myself for a second. Why not take the opportunity now to shoot?

"They know you're here by now," I said while I stood up, voice much steadier than my thoughts. She's a threat. This is my job. This is my universal role. I forced myself to smirk.

"They'll trigger my genetically engineered mind to answer to them, then command me to kill you."

"Or, they'll send a signal to rally every genetically engineered contender in the area to their command, then send a command to kill me, right?" Darah crossed her arms.

"I won't be able to hesitate when they do." I curled my right hand into a fist, and clutched the blaster. Don't hesitate, don't hesitate. They wouldn't send an arena-wide signal if they could just get me to do it...would they? I shook my head.

"We'll see." She looked up, like she knew the exact second that the signal would supposedly go off. My finger was on the trigger already, all I had to do once they signaled my mind was pull it. For a split second, the only sound was the tapping of shoes. Then a sound ran screaming down the hallways, an odd frequency that could only be one device. The tapping outside stopped. Everyone in the hallways would line the walls to allow others to pass, the ones being commanded.

I tried to force myself to pull the trigger, pointing the blaster straight between her eyes, just like I trained myself to do. But there was a problem. I was forcing myself. Nothing forced me. It was all on me. Why couldn't I do it?

"You're not engineered. You weren't made." For the first time, I saw something change about Darah's face. What was that look? Had I ever seen it before? Why was the blaster shaking?

When did my breath start hissing through grinding teeth?

"I won't... I'm not..." I couldn't get anything coherent out of my mouth. I couldn't get anything coherent through my head.

"It's your choice. You're not a slave to who you think you are." Concern? Hope? Regret?

No, that was stupid. "So... who are you?"

Desperation? Her face may have been more difficult to read than when it showed no emotion. If I fired the blaster, I can't guarantee that I would have made my target. There was something else, though: I kept avoiding the question in my thoughts. Darah picked up on this.

"Where are you from?"

I began to growl. I didn't know. I only remembered flames.

"Who is your family?"

Somehow, it didn't sound like an interrogation. It sounded like...pleading?

"What is your name?"

"STOP!" My finger was off the trigger of the blaster. I shut my eyes tightly. "I DON'T KNOW!" It was that long ago. Did someone wipe my memories? Was I just so young that I couldn't remember anything beyond the vaguest things, not even my name?!

Her voice was quiet, and right next to me. "What if I told you there are people who want to see you redeem yourself?" But I barely registered what she said.

A shuffling in the surrounding hallways dragged me out of my screaming thoughts. I holstered my blaster as quick as I could and opened my eyes. Contenders were coming in from both sides, at least ten of them.

"Move along," one girl said.

I vaguely saw that Darah fought for a bit, then I walked towards my knife, looking as casual as I could manage. I picked it up, then kept walking, the grunts and yells of fighting behind me.

I had to return the blaster to its place behind the dresser, then get to my fight. Maybe I could "redeem myself" for this misstep.

Some of my confidence somehow returned when I paced into the very center of the arena battleground and heard the excited murmuring of the small crowd. Yes. This is who I am. The most feared killer in the arena. I could do this. At the edge of the battleground, sitting in a boxed-off area just above the packed dust ground, I could see a man in a lazy position watching the side opposite from me. There my opponent walked out: a younger boy with a bo staff. A knife against a staff...I was going to have to be quick and keep my wit.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the man as he looked on the battlefield with seeming indifference until he spoke:


My opponent waited for the quick SHING of my knife, but I kept it concealed within its sheath. Evasion first, then counter. The boy ran forward, bo staff pointed forward with steady tenacity. I stepped to the side. Ducked. Watched the staff swing above me. Rolled. Kicked it away from where my head was a second ago. He used the dust on the ground to blind me while he pounced. Smart, but I'd seen it before.

I shut my eyes and listened to his pounding footsteps. Thump, thump, thump thump. I rolled out of the cloud and opened my eyes. To my surprise, he had feigned the attack to get me up, and he skidded backwards to a stop, and ran at me again. The crowd noise was still just a murmur.

The boy ran up, then ducked and skidded by to trip me, and failed again. He jumped to standing position and released a flurry of attacks. Swing, thrust, spin. I let myself be pushed back for a time, carefully eyeing his facial expression. He was frustrated. Furious. He shouted and raised the bo staff for a heavy strike and swung down. I fell, catching myself on my hand. He looked confused, bewildered. There was a collective hush over the crowd.

I waited. The man on the side did nothing, confusing the boy even more. I smirked and let go of my shoulder. By the time he realized, it was too late.

I spun, relying fully on my arms, and pushed myself up until I could thrust both feet into his exposed stomach, sending him sprawling. A note of cheering was held out, counted by my pounding footsteps. It only stopped when I faced the boy, who was using his staff to bring himself nimbly to his feet. It wasn't quick enough. I dragged the end to the ground before he could put up a fight for it, and placed my foot firmly on top of it. Balancing on the bo staff. With the other foot, I kicked his chest so he was flat on the ground, then I kicked the bo staff away. All aggression left his face.


I pinned him to the ground and raised the knife over him. There was a second of waiting to see if the man in the boxed-off area would stop the fight. He didn't. Figures. The boy couldn't even save face in the face of death. It was my job...It was...

It was my choice. Again. What was the matter with me? I had done it countless times before, but...who was I again? The most feared killer in the arena? A new word wandered in my head, one I hadn't thought about seriously before.

Who was I again? The most feared...puppet? But I wasn't made. At some point, I wasn't a killer. Darah's words creeped into my mind. There were people who wanted to see me redeem myself. But why did that matter? Could I really... change?

I brought the blade of the knife down.

Into the dust. The boy looked up at me in shock.

As discreetly as I could, I took the knife to my own hand instead, and let the blood run down the knife, and onto his chest and throat. He nodded, then lay still, breathing shallowly.

I stood over the supposed victory, facing the crowd, and raised my knife. They cheered over his death. I felt sick to my stomach.