Duel

In the dim light of the canvas tent, Valda finished the last of his prayers. He rose from kneeling beside his cot, tucking a small metal talisman of a hammer into his breastplate. He clenched his gauntleted fist as the talisman left his hands to settle on his chest, the cool metal biting into his bare skin. The leather of his gauntlets creaked.

He checked and rechecked the straps of his armour, fingers feeling across the seams in the steel plate. He clenched, opened and clenched his fist again.  He tested the joints of the armour, and nodded, satisfied. Outside, through the thin fabric of the tent, the clamour of the crowd made for a cacophonous chorus of jeers, shouts and curses. Distantly, he could hear the ringing of steel on steel, and the pained screams of the defeated.

He pulled a black fur cloak over his shoulders, the final touch in this costume he put on for himself. A black wolf snarled on his breastplate, the stylised image taking up the whole of the front of the breastplate. He wrapped a leather cord around his forehead and tied his hair back. The hilt of his great two-hander, a sword large enough to seem unwieldy to most men, jutted out over his shoulder. Another snarling wolf capped the top of his hilt.

It was a costume. It was all for show, this image he had crafted for himself. He did not want to be be seen for who he used to be. The weight of the shame, the dishonour, would break his back.

He could hear the announcer, a fat and greasy bastard with a voice as slick as a weasel, cry out the names of the next contenders, “Our newest contender hails from the Blistered South, a blasted land of death and heat. Captured as a boy and taken into the Royal Guard of Brevalin, he is a ruthless killer!” That garnered a sizeable reaction from the crowd, “Without mercy, without pity! Introducing Tjorn of Tarda, the Razor!”

Valda wanted to laugh. He remembered the last time someone had been named Razor. 

He pondered. Tarda. He thought he had seen someone with the looks of those people in the training yard, but he hadn’t thought much of it. He tried to recall what he had seen but found his memory to be a hazy blank. He strained to bring up the memory–any information on his opponent could mean the difference between life and death.

“But, you may be asking yourself, ‘who could possibly be facing such a formidable opponent?'” The announcer paused theatrically, even though he had as much presence as a rat, “Born in the Frozen North, raised by the beasts of the Endless Plains, our contender goes by many names. The Fallen Knight! The Northern Bear! The Black Wolf!” 

The crowd erupted in cheer. Valda had no trouble hearing the cries of bettors looking to change their bets, or of new bettors ready to make fresh wagers.

That was his cue.

He stepped through the flaps of the tent into the blinding sunlight and entered into a swirling maelstrom of people, a mass of shoving and shouting. The crowd grew silent in a strange act of reverence. They cleared a path wide enough for five men abreast. Valda half-sauntered, half-stalked towards the arena. He walked so that all could see the black wolf on his breastplate.

It was all part of the image, all part of the costume.

He descended the ramp of compacted dirt into the arena, nothing more than a glorified pit. Several paces deep and large enough to fit a hundred men, the arena had seen more blood than any man would ever be able see in a lifetime, or even three. The walls of the arena were made of stone as slick as ice, and the top of the arena was covered in heavy rope. A heavy gate of steel would be lowered across the ramps leading into the arena as soon the battle began. There was no escaping. Two men entered and they would leave either a victor, or a corpse.

A man waited at the bottom of the ramp. He was a skinny, rat-looking fellow, but Valda knew him well. The fellow took Valda’s cloak, and would place it safely back in Valda’s tent until he returned–if he returned. The fellow nodded and stepped aside, leaving the path ahead clear.

Valda paused before the open gates for a long moment. His hands twitched and almost reached to feel the talisman in his breastplate. This was no time for that. 

Valda stepped into the arena, and the heavy steel gate slammed shut behind him.

Tjorn of Tarda, or the Razor, as the announcer had called him stood twenty paces away, on the other side of the arena. He looked as arrogant as the announcer had made him out to be. ‘Without mercy, without pity, a ruthless killer’ he had said. He was a lean, hard man, the type of man Valda had seen a hundred times before. He had an angry, puckered scar across his face, one that made him look even uglier, if that were possible. His skin was pale and wind-blasted, and his hair was black as pitch, typical of his region.

Tjorn wore armour but Valda could tell that it was cheap, and poorly made. It would not be able to withstand as much abuse as Valda’s own armour. That would make things easier. There were rules that both combatants had to wear armour, but there was nothing in the rules that said they had to wear the same type.

The Razor drew his sword and settled into the ready stance, the tip of his sword level with Valda’s throat. Valda did nothing, and instead stood passively. He watched the Razor from across the arena with eyes that could put a hawk to shame. The crowd watched on with baited breath, waiting for the battle to begin.

In stories, duels were an elegant, and graceful affair.

A storied duel had two men facing off, armed with but their swords and their wits. They would bow and exchange quips. They would flow from one form to another, moving with all the poise and finesse of ballroom dancers.

But this was not like the stories.

The Razor surged forward, cutting the distance between the two of them in half before anyone could blink. He attacked once, a downward slash strong enough to punch through steel and split a skull in two.

Steel met thin air.

The distance between the blade and its intended target was well over a full pace. The Black Wolf stood passively, examining its prey with eyes to put a hawk to shame.

Infuriated, Tjorn launched into another attack. A ferocious, blindingly fast barrage of slashes. His blade sang as it sliced through the air.

Valda retreated, eyes examining his opponent’s movements, simply stepping away as Tjorn continued to futilely swing at nothing. He was looking for something, his eyes studying every movement intensely. The crowd began to cheer, for who, Valda did not notice. Their shouts became a monotonous ringing in his ears.

Tjorn, enraged, ceased his attack and roared at Valda, baring his teeth as if he were an animal himself, “Stand and fight!” He glared pure murder at him–a fire burned in his eyes.

Valda said nothing. Instead, he settled into ready stance, no sword in hand. His legs tensed, ready to surge forward.

Tjorn circled him, eyes fixed on his opponent. Valda seemed to scrutinise Tjorn’s movements with cool, impassiveness. His eyes were cold enough to freeze over the sea. 

The crowd held their breath, rows of men and women leaning forward to watch, eyes transfixed on the two duellists. The silence in the air was prime, for breaking.

Roaring, Tjorn surged forward. Valda saw that he was on the offensive, and he attacked with all his might and fury. Steel sang against steel. Valda gave up ground easily, letting himself be driven back. There was space in the arena yet. He could see his opponent’s eyes light up with the false hope of victory. He could sense tiredness sinking into Tjorn’s bones, and he knew that Tjorn would have to try to end this soon.

Valda sensed the closing proximity with the walls of the arena behind him. He would not be able to retreat for much longer. But still his eyes examined Tjorn with all the intensity of a predator watching its prey. He watched, waited. 

Sensing his triumph close at hand as he continued to drive Valda back, Tjorn aimed a devastating downward slash across Valda’s skull. This would be it, there was no space for Valda to retreat any more.

There.

In one moment, Valda had stood pressed nearly to the wall of the arena, the sword of Tjorn whistling towards his head–poised to split his skull. 

And in the next, Valda stood a pace away from Tjorn, two-hander slick with blood. Tjorn staggered, sword clattering to the ground. He clutched at his stomach and convulsed when he saw he pulled his fingers away crimson. He dropped to his knees and collapsed in the dirt.

The crowd erupted in cheer. Their cries became a chorus of noise and in that noise, there was one name they bellowed, “Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!”

This was not like the stories.

In stories, duels were an elegant, and graceful affair.

A storied duel had two men facing off, armed with but their swords and their wits. They would bow and exchange quips. They would flow from one form to another, moving with all the poise and finesse of ballroom dancers.

Valda had not danced.

Sandman

Good morning. You are on rotation 10. You have three outstanding tasks.

You wake up. It’s your turn again. The pod door opens, just as it has every time before.

Micro-cracks in Sections C12, C13 and C14. Priority high. Low-oxygen in Section C22. Priority medium. Opened pods in Section D00 and E00.

Groggily, you sit up and swing your legs over the sides of the cryopod. You shiver and wipe the beads of condensation off your forehead. You barely register the simulated, artificial voice. You’re still recovering from the effects of cryostasis. Your vision is still a little blurry. Your chest heaves, your lungs unused to breathing on their own after thirty years.

You do not notice this. You know it will pass in time.

You are naked, just like when you went into the pod. Your clothes are where you left them, in the notch in the wall just beside your pod. Your name is there too, displayed on a slightly staticky screen.

You have one message.

You frown at the computer screen.

You have one message.

Play message?

You tap on the screen. A man’s face appears on the screen. He is you, and he is not you. He has the same hair as you, the same eyes, the same nose, but you know he is not you. You know he is not you because that cannot possibly be you. You were asleep for thirty years. You did not leave this message.

The man who is you but who is not you is wounded. He is clutching his stomach, red blood blossoming from underneath his hand and staining his pristine uniform. He tries to speak but he stops. His head swivels towards his left. His eyes widen, his mouth opens in a snarl, or is it a scream?

Message Ends. 

You do not know what to do. What just happened? You want to find out but the computer interrupts you.

Micro-cracks in Sections C12, C13 and C14. Priority high. Low-oxygen in Section C22. Priority medium. Opened pods in Section D00 and E00.

It is the last task that stands out to you. Another pod? Section D00. Section E00. You know that no other pods should be open by now. You swallow. A short trip away if you take the onboard rail system.

But you’re not allowed to go into the other sections. Not unless it was an emergency. There are other technicians in those sections. It’s their job to work on that.

However, there are other things that require your attention first. The micro-cracks in Sections C12 ,13 and 14 must be attended to immediately. Any weaknesses in the hull could turn out disastrous for the mission.

You think back about the man who is you, but is not you. You push that thought out of your mind. You have to work, you tell yourself. You cannot let this distract you.

You walk towards the living quarters, just a few minutes away from your pod. You don your white uniform, crisp and clean just the way you left them before the long dark of sleep.

You’ve always kept your quarters nice and clean, as neat and as tidy as can be. However, as you enter the quarter, you notice something is a bit off, a bit strange, a bit different. That cup should not be in the sink, it should be in the cupboard. A plate is still on the table, a chair had been pulled out. The bed in unmade. But you tell yourself, it is okay. This must be from the cryosleep, you’re just imagining things, you tell yourself. There cannot possibly be anyone else awake on the ship, cannot possibly be another you because you are you and no one else can be you.

You walk up to the food and drink dispenser. The familiar soft-blue glow of the screen comforts you. You tap out an order and the machine spits out two pills, and dispenses a small paper cup with cold water. You take the pills right away. You feel better immediately.

After eating, you check with the computer for your outstanding tasks.

Micro-cracks in Sections C12, C13 and C14. Priority High. Low-oxygen in Section C22. Priority medium. Opened pods in Section D00 and E00.

Maybe you should check again.

Micro-cracks in Sections C12, C13 and C14, priority high. Low-oxygen in Section C22. Priority medium. Opened pods in Section D00 and E00.

You check again.

Micro-cracks in Sections C12, C13 and C14, priority high. Low-oxygen in Section C22. Priority medium. Opened pods in Section D00 and E00.

No.

Opened pods in Section D00 and E00.

No.

You don your protective Hazards Environments Suit and grab a flashlight. You strap a toolkit to your waist. It must just be an error in the computers in that section, you tell yourself. A simple error. But there cannot be any errors on a ship designed to last for a thousand years.

You board the rail system, nothing more than a simple cart that hurtles through the gargantuan spine of the ship. Within minutes, you arrive at the great bulkhead at the entrance to Section D00. A door to a gargantuan vault, an imposing piece of metal and steel, it looms above you. You check the console at the door and run diagnostics on the systems. If this was an error, you’d be able to find it here.

Error. Unable to perform remote diagnostics.

You frown. You try again.

Error. Unable to perform remote diagnostics.

You look up at that great, hulk of metal and steel and feel a sense of dread build in your mind. You tell yourself it cannot be anything other than a mistake. Surely, it must be a error. Why would there be anyone else awake? You realise you must go in if you are to see if it truly is just an error. You hold a wrench in your hands like a club and desperately tell yourself that you will not need it.

The door opens with a great, metallic shriek that makes your heart start to beat faster. Anxiety builds. You enter the section and the door closes behind you.

You wander the halls, walls lined with the same hexagonal pods, again and again and again and again. You hear the gloves of your suit creak as you grip the wrench even tighter. You wander and wander. You suddenly feel as if you were lost, even though you know exactly the layout of every section in the ship. You could’ve sworn you’ve seen those names before. You backtrack and find yourself reading the same names over and over again. Your heart starts to beat even faster. You can feel sweat build on your brow.

You start to run, not caring about the noise you’re making, not caring that your clanging footsteps could be heard from anywhere in the section. You run back towards the door from whence you came. Then you stop. You have found the pod. It’s open. You look at the name. You shake your head, you cry, you scream.

It is your name.

You hear footsteps. You turn.

It is you.

His face is caked in blood. Flesh rots in his long, scraggly hair. Pieces of meat are caught in his teeth. He howls and launches himself at you.

You are not fast enough.

Good morning. You are on rotation 11. You have three outstanding tasks.