Jenna’s breathing was so ragged it drowned out the roar of the crowd. Her opponent was being merciful, giving her a moment to recover after a brutal blow. She had known Cal for years but it was their first time facing each other in the arena. She had often wondered how she would fare against her insectoid friend. Not well, apparently.
Her reprieve was up: Cal came speeding along on his three dozen legs, circling her.
“You really should switch to ki-tou style,” Cal said casually, as if they were chatting in the challengers’ lounge rather than in the middle of a match. “The stances are better. It means your joints won’t be shot when you’re eighty.”
Jenna tasted the air with her reptilian tongue. “Who wants to make eighty?”
The way their fight was going, Jenna wasn’t going to make the next hour let alone old age.
Cal might not kill her. The crowd liked the occasional kill, but on the whole the Collusium discouraged it. They liked a good show to go with their proxy war. They liked their celebrities, their returning characters who represented a thousand worlds, all coming together for the tournament on Resal. One tournament instead of a hundred wars.
Jenna rushed at Cal. Before she could strike he hit her ribs, snapping out his legs to hammer the same spot. Jenna cried out as the bone cracked. She dropped to a knee.
“Sorry,” Cal said, rearing back for the killing blow.
No. It couldn’t end here. She had decided upon her course.
Her hand dropped to the mat and Jenna herself followed, hitting the ground on her uninjured side. Cal tried to jump away but her feet entangled him, bringing him down hard. A second later Jenna was upon him, her hands around his head and strength flowing through her arms for one quick snap.
* * *
Jenna walked down the arena steps towards the market place. A throng of reporters surrounded her, her winter-blooded pace a contrast to their frantic scrambling.
“Jenna! You don’t usually kill your opponents. What brought on this bloodlust?” Several mini-drones buzzed in Jenna’s face as the reporters waited for a reply.
“I’m not holding back this tournament. That’s all,” she said. The throng shouted a few more questions but were soon diverted when another challenger emerged from the arena. The crowd deserted her and she was left with only two hangers-on: a spry old Resal man and a lithe Mazz woman.
“Well fought today, champion,” the woman said.
“Not champion yet,” Jenna replied. She didn’t feel like celebrating: Cal had been a friend. “Just challenger.”
“For now,” the woman agreed.
“Well fought, indeed!” the Resal man chirped. “That match will be watched for eons to come!”
“Do you think we could talk? Alone?” the woman said. She was young, with downy fur and sparkling eyes which she blinked slowly in Jenna’s direction. Cute, but Jenna was tired of it. When you became a challenger, you grew used to pretty creatures of all descriptions throwing themselves in your path. Some only wanted to be close to a challenger, to have a story to tell their friends, while others were government agents, looking to bribe fighters or assassinate them in their sleep. It always ended in either tears or death, and neither was worth the hassle.
“No.” Jenna pushed past the Mazz girl. Before she could go any further the Resal man stepped in her way. From a pouch he pulled out an embroidered crest. “This is my store’s emblem. If a challenger of your stature wore it during your next fight, business would be assured for generations! What do you say?”
Jenna was about to say no once more when the Mazz woman turned, her fangs barred.
“Float off, old man. Jenna might die in tomorrow’s fight, and you’d have her sell her body as a billboard? You’re as bad as every other miserable opportunist on this horrible planet. Get out of here before I throw you down the stairs.”
The Resal man took a few steps back before turning tail and heading downward.
Jenna looked at the Mazz woman with new interest. Her ears were flattened back, but in embarrassment rather than anger. She looked at Jenna and cringed.
“Sorry.” She didn’t sound coquettish anymore. “I just...”
“I get it.” Even standing on the steps of the arena Jenna could feel the power source deep in Resal’s core. The planet was actually a construct, an ancient weapon wrapped in topsoil. It had the capacity to reach across the universe and snuff out worlds on command. After its discovery by the Collusium, it became the agreed upon way to settle conflict. Instead of armies, worlds sent their best fighters. The winning world got to destroy a planet.
“They feed off our misery,” the Mazz girl said as they watched the Resal man hop down the stairs. “The rest of the universe lives in fear, while here on Resal they get to sell sticky-cake and pennants.”
“What’s your name?”
The Mazz girl looked at Jenna, clearly surprised to still have the fighter’s attention. “Niri.”
“Come on.” Jenna started to walk away. When she looked back the Mazz girl was still standing there. “You wanted to talk?”
Niri hurried down the steps.
* * *
They entered Jenna’s quarters. “Shame about your fighter,” she said. Mazz’s champion had been knocked out in an early round.
“Yes,” Niri said. “That’s why I’m here. If you throw your next fight, the world government of Mazz is willing to—“
“I’m not holding back,” Jenna said firmly. Niri growled.
“Why are you fighting so hard for Ellium? You aren’t even from there!”
“I’m not from Mazz either.”
“So you don’t care if they destroy us?!”
“You’d have some other planet die instead?”
Tears spilled out of Niri’s luminescent eyes. Jenna sighed. She’d give Mazz Planetary Intelligence credit for one thing, they definitely knew her type: stupid girls from doomed worlds.
“If you want my advice, take the first shuttle back home.”
“So I can die with the rest of my people?” Niri spat.
“It’s more than I’ll ever get,” Jenna said. “I was off-world when my planet was destroyed. That was... a long time ago.”
Niri gave a shaky smile. “Then you understand why I’ll do anything—”
“I’ve decided upon my course,” Jenna said. “When I was a child I swore that someday I would win the tournament. I’ve been floating around for too long, too weak to honor my own promise. But this year it comes true.”
Niri’s smile dropped and tears formed anew. Jenna stepped forward.
“Most shuttles don’t leave for a couple hours,” she said. “If you want, you can spend the time here.”
Niri looked at her incredulously. “We both could die tomorrow.”
Jenna hand gently brushed Niri’s furry cheek. “Exactly.”
* * *
At the closing ceremonies of the tournament Jenna stood on the winner’s dais. Instead of looking at the cheering crowd she looked skyward and imagined all the thousands of inhabited planets just beyond that veil of blue. She wondered if the Mazz girl had taken her advice. Maybe Niri was watching the ceremonies in her clan’s quarters, waiting for death alongside her loved ones.
Below her feet, deep through the layers of Resal, Jenna could feel the pulse of the long-range laser. The judge handed Jenna the voice controls. She looked out at the crowd. A speech was expected before the execution.
“I have been working towards this day for most of my life,” she said. “Thank you.” The crowd roared their approval. Jenna leaned in towards the voice control. The crowd quieted, waiting to hear the doomed planet’s name. Her employers, the rulers of Ellium, were clear that Mazz was the target.
Jenna spoke, “Resal.”
There was a shocked silence, and then one scream from deep in the crowd. Chaos erupted.
The judge turned to Jenna.
“What have you done?”
“Made sure this is the last planet that gets destroyed.”
“But how will we fight our wars?!”
“Maybe you could try not fighting?” Jenna suggested. She smiled as the ground beneath her heated up.
Shannon Fay is a writer living in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, Canada. She attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2014 and has a day job editing manga. She lives with her biggest critic (a very vocal, very fluffy white cat) and her biggest supporter (a very kind human). When not writing novels and short stories, she likes to go ice-skating (in the winter) and play board games (year-round). Her first novel, Innate Magic, was released in 2021 by 47North. She can be found online at @shannonlfay. “Fight for the Stars” originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.