A/N: This one has no official title, so though I don't like to ask for one I'll take any brilliant ideas anybody else may come up with. Dedicated to Koraty, because of the memorable coining of the term 'Goop-steppers' for Ishi's species, and because she must deserve a dedication for something.
This chapter has been edited. It's a bit sad and irritating; I've gotta go back and read my old works, and my style has changed so much, in places I'm not sure whether whole scenes should not be different, but it's hard for me to fix something that's been 'set in stone', in the Plot. Ah well. I still think this is a unique SF story and it will be worthwhile to see where it goes. For both of us. 10/14/07
He was dreaming again; he could tell by the fuzziness at the edge of his vision. It felt real, otherwise. It had been real once.
Claws clicked behind him as his legs pushed against the impossibly smooth floor of the corridor, running but not getting anywhere. The monster's joints creaked as armor shifted over its fur-covered muscles-chitinous was the word that came to mind at that sound, along with a visual of himself and a pretty female bending over the dissected body of one of these hellish invaders. Chitinous and thick and dull red-black exoskeleton over manes and locks of fur, hooked mouths, some kind of weaponry that looked like claws but whipped and shot and stung against the small of his back. But it didn't matter what it was, it was chasing him with grasping hands and hulking long strides through a white impartial landscape--
Dai Railegh woke in darkness, hearing only the soft noises he was accustomed to. Fear lingered just a little, but it was at the edge of his mind and overhung by other things. The fear was easily traced to not the dream but the impending day. And now he had woken up too early, and could not sleep again.
He raised himself on an elbow against the rough mat he slept on and looked out over the barracks, any emotion or wondering about the dream forgotten. Thinking things over and over produced no new results; of this he was strongly convinced. Dai pushed long black hair the same dirty consistency as that on his face out of his eyes and looked around at the room. Tiers of beds no more than black slabs cut into the walls and furnished with mats held still or sleepily moving forms of various shapes. None there was human, but each was alien to each other. There were about twenty in all, and that many empty beds.
Dai was disappointed. Usually there was someone or something awake to converse with, or to fight with. Even if they couldn't think or see or comprehend existence the same, they could all fight. That is always the basis for civilization; those that fight to survive, survive…so said his strongest conviction.
He did sleep for a short time, after a long time, and woke with a foot on his chest. Dai glared at the three splayed brown talons, then heaved himself out from under them and dropped to the floor. Most other people were out to the arena now, Dai and the few who had waited for him or overslept themselves would soon be called to come out or face punishment.
Dai pulled his rumples day clothes from their corner of his bed and put the simple garments on while Ishi walked down from the ceiling. Ishi, the foremost of Dai's friends, had been born in the null-gravity of an asteroid belt. His sticky, padded feet clung to the walls, while his head swiveled to look right-side up from any angle and was topped with thin metallic spikes so that he could speak in a water-filled environment. Here and now, loops and braces of metal had to support the thin joints and angles of his dinosaurian body and flat gliding wings that were now useless under such a heavy atmosphere. A metal band encircled his cranial spines and translated their movements into an understandable tongue.
Dai began to walk outside when Ishi drew level with him, and on the same plane. His friend's head bobbed beside him as they crossed the courtyard outside. The barracks room behind them was built into the black-brown rock of the bare planet. Two yellow suns made long shadows over the canyon landscape. Holes pocked the round and plain courtyard that might have been a crater if it had been natural. Only one person besides the two was within it, angling for the same exit tunnel as Ishi and Dai.
He was built basically like Dai was, two arms, two legs, a head of mostly oval shape on top of the rest. He wore a similar pair of pants though no cape like Dai's had--Ishi traditionally wore nothing. The difference were in green skin and pointed ears, two feelers which curled above his shoulders from just below and behind them. His proportions emphasized short arms and wide, thickly shoulders. He called himself 'the edja', Dai named him ''Edja' to make it make sense.
"Hello," Dai said. The residents of the arenas spoke a common tongue given to them by the Dla; here it is translated into English.
"Returned greetings." Edja said. What Dai could tell of the emotions in his black eyes said he was distracted.
"Do you hope to fight today?" Ishi asked. He was always the one focused on life. Hard muscles flexed beneath his fine-scaled skin.
"Never hope to." Dai said. "But I haven't in ages. Today or tomorrow I'll probably have to."
Edja said nothing, and increased the distance between them. Ishi's long head swiveled toward him. "It's one of your days too, isn't it?"
The edja nodded, his discomfort explained. Everyone knew him as a scholarly type; he hated the fights. Apparently he had survived a few despite that, for he had been around longer than Dai had, though many of his challenges were at other, foreign arenas.
The dark of the largest tunnel of the courtyard closed over them. Then the light was above them again, and they had emerged into the stadium.
The floor of the arena was white and sandy. Dla, the overlord species, stood in their black armor at each corner. Flags waved from the carved hands of the First Dla's image which was engraved into the rock on the right-hand wall. Many people of various body shapes filled the stands, sitting on the wide shelves or stretching for the first combat. Feet and tentacles and wing beats stirred the sand. The sky above the rim of the arena was pale blue and patched with two visible clouds, and the suns rose from low and to the right. Dai and his companions climbed to the highest of the circular steps and looked down over the tiers. Excitement murmured through them; Dai felt sweat on his hands and Edja's scales rustled with it. It was a well founded excitement--this was one of the last fights of the cycle, the last before a Champion was chosen, and that Champion would disappear from the regular arenas.
That was what the Champion did; disappeared.
Silence moved through as a Dla clamped onto the arena floor. Dai sharply recognized the silhouette with a pang of fear. This individual one of the leaders was the thing that had chased him through the silvery halls in the dream. That explained what the dream meant.
The Dla held a long horn to its mouthparts. Rigid silence descended--this, the first fight of the day, would be the best; probably the victor would move on to another circuit. "Brrrl'kiyaebrrvish'sli Mrr-klyvisk." The deep voice boomed strange names. "Mata ZanMarlz."
Ishi immediately bounded from the tier, his crippled wings flapping as he ran for the winding ramp leading down beside the arena floor. Dai felt glad for him.
The competitors descended into tunnels to either side of the arena. Dai looked around for the second fighter, but could not catch site of a specific movement in the crowd. Time passed, and then Ishi stepped out from the small tunnel at the right of the arena, now beneath the level of the tiers, and another being emered from the left. It was a feline or weasel-like beast, something on the borderline of intelligence whose bunkmates Dai felt sorry for. Its skin was red and bare except for ridges of blue hair over its tail and shoulders, and stretched tight over body joints in the four legs. The many-clawed feet did not disturb the sand, and four eyes, two yellow and slitted and two tiny and deep black, evenly stared. It halted before Ishi, nervous energy twitching its muscles and tail. Ishi stood absolutely still, his wings tipped foreword so the metal ribs stuck up like spikes in an instinctual ploy at making himself look larger. This would be a good fight of its kind, Dai surmised; both combatants were bestial by necessity or lack of evolution.
A guard shouted a wordless cry. The creature-person called ZanMarlz rushed forward to applause and shouts of violent advice from the attendant crowd, and Ishi stood before the charge on one thin leg.
It was almost too fast to see when Ishi kicked out twice against ZanMarlz's lowered skull and again when the cat beast swung a hand up to knock him away. Ishi just backed up a step and stood there, and there was a filmy white-golden substance around ZanMarlz's head.
The feline growled. Sand clotted its left paw where the goop off of Ishi's foot stuck to it. Anger physically manifested in shivering the black spines to its back. Then it sprang for Ishi, all animal fury and curving sand-choked claws, and metal-ridged limbs did not move so quickly this time. Ishi crumpled fluidly backward and grimaced as ZanMarlz's teeth snapped about his head. Claws dug in to the muscle of his shoulder, but then his powerful legs kicked up between them and the felinoid was thrown back into the sand. Ishi turned over and pushed himself up, and then kicked ZanMarlz again as it began to get up. It slumped back down, and he kicked it again, just behind the front legs.
In a violent motion it wriggled up and rose onto its back legs, and the claws flashed. Clash! Those claws hit the metal of Ishi's wings. ZanMarlz's wrists would be ringing. Ishi's long face showed eternal confidence. He kicked again, the same vulnerable-seeming place behind its front legs, and the feline fell and caught his foot in its claws. For a moment there was a balance, ZanMarlz standing humanly upright and showing long teeth, and Ishi dangerously ready to be thrown. Then Ishi swung his tail around, quick, and the total balance changed of the pose changed. The metal-studded tail slammed into ZanMarlz's head and it collapsed before Ishi. Its hands dropped slowly with Ishi's foot, slime-stuff stretching from them.
When it no longer moved Ishi accepted a sladepike from the waiting Dla, and the ornate blade swung down. A life ended. Ishi threw the pike to the ground.
The Dla gave its cry, and Ishi mounted the stairs to the statue of the First Dla, smiling in his way with bright blue-tinted black eyes. He poised heroically there for a moment, silver struts glinting beneath the suns, and then turned and darkness slipped over him from the cave between the reaching Dla arms. As the tip of his tail disappeared, Dai felt something like emotion pass over him. There was a word for it, though it was in another tongue, and he could no more remember it than wonder who the speakers of that tongue had been.