‘Song of Your Life’, Nicole Lungerhausen

Illustrations © 2022 Fluffgar

 [ Gladiator, © 2022 Fluffgar ] You make two attempts to sing the song of your life as the keepers herd you and the other recruits from the holding cell to the arena. Unfortunately, neither attempt results in your death.

The first time, the keepers apply their pain prods to your sore and bruised torso and plaster your mouth with tape. The second time you make a mighty hum in your nose and throat until another recruit, a lanky Tralkall with a missing tail, shoves you against the passageway wall. Her speed and strength surprise you. The wait in the cramped confines of the holding cell has been long, the availability of food and water meager and unreliable.

The recruit thrusts her face into yours. Dust clings to the hair lining her pointy ears and coats the wide wedge of her nose. Even her thick eyelashes are coated with dust. Homesickness wraps itself around you and you long for sand. Sand that rises and falls in soft, undulating waves as far as the eye can see. There are many uses for sand. Layer it in a filter for hydroponics. Add liquid and use sand to build a house. Introduce vibration and sand removes flesh from bone.

There is no sand here, wherever it is the Dominion transport brought you. Here it is all tall smooth walls and narrow passageways and keepers with pain prods and dead eyes. And dust. Dust that crusts your ears, lodges under your fingernails, coats your mouth. You hate dust.

No one wants to hear you, the Tralkall says in fast and choppy Dominion speak. Her scent, a mix of foul breath, dried sweat and dirty fur, makes your eyes water. Besides, it won’t work, she continues. Her golden-yellow eyes flick to the keeper watching you both. The keeper’s expression is filled to the brim with boredom, but their grip on the prod hanging at their side is tight. There are no easy deaths to be had here, the Tralkall says. Broken or whole, they’ll make sure you stay alive long enough to enter the arena. She leans in and drops her voice to a confidential tone. My advice? Keep your mouth shut and turn into pain.

Your shaky grasp of Dominion speak makes it hard to parse the Tralkall’s meaning. Is she telling you to prepare yourself to inflict pain, or gird yourself to endure more? Either way, what bravery you mustered to sing your life song is overwritten by a different feeling. The recruit draws away from you.

Pathetic. She sneers at your tears, the snot dripping from your nose. Your family would be ashamed, she hisses, shoves you back into the marching line of recruits.

Your family, you think as you reach the passageway’s end and trudge up a flight of metal stairs, would take you in their arms, carry you to the communal bathing pool. All experience matters, is what your fathers would say as they bathed and cleaned your body with tender, patient care. Another verse for your life song.

You will never see your fathers again. The thought leaves you feeling as cold as the short length of pipe a keeper thrusts into your hands and as hollow as the helmet they shove onto your head. Never mind. Focus on what matters. Your fathers’ voices start up in a calm, steady tempo. Sing your life song.

A metallic rattle, followed by a loud whump, makes you jump. A keeper rips the tape from your mouth while overhead, on catwalks skirting either side of the narrow passageway, keepers prod you and the other recruits forward into a vast arena. White-bright lights make you wince, but that’s nothing compared to the sound of the crowd. Its savage roar slams into you with the strength of a sudden sandstorm.

When your eyes adjust you see the champion in the center of the arena. Nine feet tall and wrapped in a thick layer of muscle, she is the largest person you’ve ever seen. Her skin is a darker ocher than your own, closer to the rich red-brown of the arena ground. She is at once a part of and separate from her surroundings, the way a rugged mesa juts up from a flat desert plain. Spying you and your fellow recruits huddled together, the champion swings a spiked mace in wide arcs. Upper arm muscles lengthen and ripple, and even at this distance the weight of her footfalls make the arena ground shiver under your feet. Tattoos cover her bald scalp in a dense, inky cap of indecipherable symbols. They march across her wide clavicle, disappear under the neckline of her tunic, then reappear to encircle the bronzed skin of her bare arms and legs.

This is Steks, the Creator of Cadavers, the Master of the Melee, the Slinger of Skulls. Steks is the reason you, a short, slight sand shaper from a planet recently fallen under Dominion control, are here. You are no eager volunteer recruit, no vanquished warrior ready to demonstrate fealty to your new masters, no matter what propaganda the Dominion has spewed forth in the lead-up to this event, Steks Versus the 100.

Steks ate her way out of the womb. Steks is the Dominion’s longest-surviving, most favored champion. Steks’s kills are written on her body. Rumors the other recruits whispered to each other in the holding cell where all there was to do was wait. Steks raises the mace over her head and bellows at the crowd. The crowd roars back and you wonder what placement your tattooed name will warrant on the champion’s body.

The gate you and the other recruits were herded through closes with a rattling clang. Behind you, someone retches and there’s a grim satisfaction in knowing you aren’t the only coward in the bunch. You squeeze the pipe in your hand. You couldn’t goad the keepers into taking your life, but you can run heedless into the fray and die before you know what hits you.

We taught you better than that. Your fathers’ voices swell up in your thoughts again, their tone urgent, marked by strong accents of disappointment and dismay. Who will do this but you? You push their voices away. It’s too late. You recall your exchange with the Tralkall recruit. What’s the point of singing your life song if no one wants to hear it?

Three long, loud horn-like sounds make you jump, interrupt the internal bickering with your fathers. The crowd howls like a great hungry animal and Steks Versus the 100 begins.

You’re not the only recruit hoping for a quick death in the arena. Most of the recruits cry out and rush forward at once; in the desperate panic of the herd, you lose your footing and tumble to the ground. Someone steps on your back, your head. Your skull strikes against the inside of your helmet, and darkness sweeps over you.

When you come to, a pair of familiar golden-yellow eyes stare back at you. The eyes, frozen forever in annoyed surprise, belong to the Tralkall recruit’s head, a head no longer attached to her body. A mewling noise escapes your lips and you scramble back until your shoulders hit something cold and hard. One of the arena gates. You pull and yank on the gate, but the keepers on the opposite side smack your hands with pain prods. The arena crowd jeers, as you whimper and stumble away from the gate, cradling your stinging hands to your chest. Your knees give way and you sink to the ground and watch Steks.

You watch Steks wrap a recruit in a tight embrace and squeeze until their chest wall collapses. You watch the champion caress another recruit’s cheek before grasping their chin and using her mace to crack open their skull. You watch as Steks, with two lazy motions, tears the legs from another unfortunate recruit’s torso.

What a horrific life song this giant woman must have. What a blessing you will never have to hear it.

You watch Steks even though you know you should look away. You watch Steks, fascinated by the ferocious joy that seems to power her towering frame and get stronger with each death she creates. You watch Steks because there is nowhere else to go, nothing else to do.

Not true, your fathers’ voices rush back into your head, loud and quick and lively now. Sing your life song. Sing as much as you can, dearest son

You shake your head. Stop it, you say aloud as Steks, with messy, bloody gusto, takes the life of another recruit. Leave me alone! The Dominion keepers lounging against the nearby arena gate laugh at you with the pitiless ease of those who believe they will never be in your place.

It takes forever and no time at all for the hacking and slashing to cease and the last dying scream to escape the last dying someone’s lips and the fighting to be over. Well, it’s over for everyone but you and Steks. The crowd goes quiet with anticipation. The champion’s chest heaves and blood drips from the hem of her tunic and falls on someone who used to be alive but is now a pulpy, disordered heap of blood, flesh, and bone. Titters of laughter ripple through the crowd. 99 recruits down, one to go. And who is left but the weakest and smallest one of all. What a joke! What a treat!

The crowd cheers and Steks wipes her forehead with the back of her hand and locks eyes with you. A thought slips through the confines of your fear: right now, there are not one but two captives in this too big, too bright arena of blood and nightmares and noise.

A captive audience at last! Your fathers’ voices crescendo to a sustained note of joyful relief. It makes you want to laugh, cry, and scream all at once, so it makes sense when you open your mouth what comes out is a song.

As Steks stands motionless on the other side of the arena, you stand up and sing your life song. The way your fathers taught you. Start at the beginning, they would say every anniversary of your birth, after they gifted you new bars of music to which you would add the lyrics of your life, and there’s no need to rush. When the end of life is near, sing as much as you can, for as long as you can.

You sing your name and parentage and commune family. The crowd caterwauls. It chants the champion’s name over and over, in clashing counterpoint to your song. Steks shakes her head, rolls her shoulders. Mace gripped in both hands, she breaks into a jog.

You sing, though you can only manage a single, sickly tone, about the day you emerged, thin-skinned and helpless, from an artificial womb. You sing about the thrill of sledding down whistling sand dunes, though your heart syncopates at the dust clouds billowing behind Steks as she lopes toward you. Though you strain to hear your voice over the sound of the crowd, you sing about your first love and the day he broke your heart.

When you get to the verse in your life song about your induction into the sand shaper guild, Steks’s shadow falls across you.

Breathing deep into your belly, you sing about the guild member chorus, how they wrapped you in a cocoon of polyphonic sound, how right and good and easy it felt to be infused with the wisdom and knowledge of ancestors who harnessed their voices to shape the structures of your world. As you sing, the ferocity drains away from Steks’s face and is refilled by an expression so bleak and twisted, you have to shut your eyes. Just because the death you’ve longed for is here, doesn’t mean you have to look it in the eye.

You sing. The death blows still do not come. The crowd’s howling falters. It stumbles into syncopated gasps and shouts before petering out into confused silence. You stop mid-note, open your eyes. There stands Steks the champion, slumped into one hip. Her meaty hand loosely grips the handle of the gore-coated mace. She stares at the ground like a lost, bewildered child.

I’m going to die here, she says. Alone. Her voice is high and light, her Dominion speak touched by an accent you can’t place. I will never see my home again. It doesn’t matter how long I fight, how many I kill. Their promises are lies. They’ll never let me go. Her gaze slides up to meet yours. When I heard your song, I knew it, though I do not understand your language. I knew it like I know my true name. The champion releases a long, shuddering sigh. The mace handle falls away from her hand and clatters to the ground. Steks begins to weep.

It is an ugly, wrenching sound. It makes you want to cover your ears, run and hide. Focus on what matters. Your fathers’ voices are a gentle nudge to your heart.

You forget about your life song. You forget about the crowd, which is stirring from its confused silence. You forget about your own fear and suffering and watch this giant, sad woman cry her giant, sad tears. You reach up and touch Steks’s forearm.

Tell me your life, you say. Steks frowns and bends down so she is eye-level with you, as if it will help her better understand your halting Dominion speak. Her tears have cleared a trail through the blood mask on her face to reveal a graceful tattoo. It reminds you of the long, sidewinding path a snake makes as it slides across sand. Not alone, you say as the crowd begins to murmur darkly. Tell me your life. Much as you can, long as you can.

Steks stares at you. Your throat and chest tighten and you wonder if you’ve just made the last and possibly most horrific mistake of your life. Then the giant woman smiles and something that crumpled inside you the day the Dominion took you from your home world lifts its head and you know even if you had all the time left in the world, no music or lyrics could capture the way her smile makes you feel.

In a shaky voice, Steks tells you about the trade winds on her home world, and how they swish through the palm trees and lullaby people to sleep. She tells you about who she comes from, a race of dolphin riders who tame the waves. Her voice steadies and her expression lights up with pride as she speaks about her tattoos, which don’t commemorate deaths but rather are lines from the most beloved of her people’s 17-line poems. She takes your hand in hers, tells you her true name, the one the Dominion took away when they conquered her home world and forced her to fight in the arena many years ago.

 [ Shard Knife, © 2022 Fluffgar ] The crowd murmurs. Where is the slashing? Where is the ripping and tearing? The crowd does not like what is happening in the arena. Why is the last recruit standing instead of squealing and bleeding and begging for mercy? The crowd shifts restlessly, becomes louder. No, the crowd does not like this at all.

A screech, freakish and wild, explodes from behind an arena gate and pierces the air. Before the sound fades away, a second screech echoes from another gate, followed by another. Steks’s whole body stiffens and her words dry up. The crowd answers the screeches with a bloodlust cry that makes your whole body hurt. Steks turns her worried face to the crowd and the arena lights make her skin glow and that’s when you see hope.

Hope is mixed in with the blood and dirt smeared across the wide planes of her cheeks and broad forehead. You glance down at the ground and your breath catches in your throat. Hope is there, too. It winks up at you from congealing pools of blood like thousands of scattered secrets. Hope, hiding in plain sight ever since you stepped into the arena.

Your fathers shake their heads. If it was a glassmouth snake, you’d be dead by now. You laugh, squeeze Steks’s hand. She draws back, eyes wide with confusion and fear. You should be afraid, too, but you’re not. For the first time since the Dominion abducted you from your home world you’re as calm as a flat expanse of sand, unwritten by the wind.

Listen and watch, you say. You swallow and part your lips, sing two low notes at once. It’s an overtone, rich and glossy and vaguely unsettling in its close harmony. The sand particles in the arena’s packed dirt floor vibrate and rise into the air. They peel away from Stek’s face and chest and legs and hands. They lift up from pools of blood and gore. When thousands and thousands of sand grains have coalesced into a swirling mass in front of you, you change the overtone’s pitch and begin to shape the sand, using blood and brain and bone to bind the grains.

It doesn’t take much of your polyphonic singing to make a shard dagger. It is sharp but clumsy, thick in some places where it should be thin. Far from perfect, but that’s to be expected. You’re an architect, not a warrior.

The crowd is apoplectic now. You inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth on an overtone pitched so high it makes Steks wince. The shard dagger twitches in the air, then spins end over end and slashes through the crowd packed into the arena’s lower levels. The cries of surprise and fear that ripple through the crowd thrill you.

Steks picks up her mace, sweeps the blood and sand-caked spiked end up into the air with lusty yowl. She gestures at you with her chin, glances over her shoulder. The universal gesture for have my back and I’ll have yours. This time when she smiles, there is a fluttering in your chest that has nothing to do with fear.

The new, impromptu verse gives your life song a different mouth feel. Your singing is heavy and blunt and tastes like iron. When the crowd roars, you roar back, your voice as full of ferocious joy as Steks’s smile. Your shard dagger vibrates at the ready, even as the three chimes sound to signal the start of a new round, even as every gate in the arena rises and a horde of ravenous, sharp-toothed horrors leap from their cages.

© 2022 Nicole Lungerhausen

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News