Even without a thick atmosphere covering the moon’s surface, Mick always sensed when the crowd was getting anxious. There was a relaxed calm to the lunar arena as the colonists started arriving. Their settlements were spread far and wide across the system, so it wasn’t exactly a short space flight to get here. The spectators lumbered in blurry eyed and fatigued, but once they found their seats and inhaled a couple servings of vaporized alcohol a rowdy commotion of bloodlust wafted through the air.

 

Mick couldn’t recall the last time the stadium had filled all five million of its seats, but there didn’t seem to be an empty one in sight. He stood at the edge of the gladiator balcony and looked out over the fighting pit. For a moment he imagined how much blood over the centuries had been spilt across its craggy surface. He contributed to a lot of it himself, both from his own veins and what he’d taken from others.

 

Not tonight, though. There was only one fight on the card, and it wasn’t his. It was his best friend’s, a fellow gladiator by the name of Luis.

 

Even though Mick wasn’t fighting, he still had on his armor. He never wore anything else. Like all indentured gladiators, Mick’s fighting gear consisted of an obsidian chest plate carved with neon engravings and spiky pads covering his shoulders, elbows, and knees. He occasionally took the ensemble off to bathe, but Mick never put on the tunic his masters supplied for the gladiators when they weren’t scheduled to fight. “Slave rags” he called them, and Mick figured if his sole purpose in life was to kill then he saw no reason to wear anything other than the clothes he would be killing in.

 

With that grim thought in mind, Mick left his fellow spectating gladiators on the balcony to enter the waiting chamber, which was little more than a rocky room of four barren walls. Luis sat alone on the floor with his head buried in his gloved hands. He wore armor similar to Mick’s except fuller and bulkier to accompany his fighting style, which consisted of swinging a big axe and cutting down everything in his path. It was crude, but Mick couldn’t fault him for it. That type of brutality was what got Luis here in the first place. Not that he seemed the least bit pleased by his shot at the Champion. Luis couldn’t even look up when his friend entered the room.

 

“You look nervous,” Mick stated, pointing out the obvious.

 

“Cause’ I am,” Luis replied, his words muffled by the leather on his gloves.

 

The thought of placing a compassionate hand on his friend’s shoulder entered Mick’s mind, but he ended up just slapping it instead. “You shouldn’t be. This is what you’ve been fighting for.”

 

“I know but…” Luis looked up, revealing a face long with fatigue and worn from stress. “It’s not like we had much of a choice in the matter. What does being Champion get me? A chanting crowd? A fancier cell? Nothing changes, Mick. I’ll still have to fight. I’ll still have to kill.”

 

The irony of Luis’s conscience was not lost on Mick. He’d seen his friend swing an axe with reckless abandon, murdering all that stood in his path without a second thought. Yet the man only had kindness in his heart. Some might see a paradox in their situation, but Mick couldn’t afford to question their role in the system. It was just their reality. Kill or be killed. Which was why it was so important for Luis, the most compassionate gladiator Mick had ever known, to be sitting on top.

 

“You don’t know that things won’t change,” Mick said, making sure to exude confidence in his voice.

 

Luis grimaced and shook his head. “Neither do you.”

 

“Exactly!” Mick grabbed ahold of Luis’s armor and pulled him up to his feet. “How many slaves just like us have you put in the ground for this chance? You telling me they all died for nothing? Things can get better with the right Champion on top. You might not believe it, but I know you could bring this whole gladiator league down if you wanted. All you gotta do is get out there and dethrone that bitch.”

 

Mick squeezed Luis’s arms while staring into his eyes. He watched as the softened pout on Luis’s face hardened into a chiseled scowl of inspired rage. In a matter of moments the troubled man had morphed into a living weapon, like a blade that had just been sharpened and now craved its first drop of blood.

 

An official beckoned Luis’s name from the doorway. Neither man acknowledged the call. Mick simply nodded while keeping his stone cold glare locked into Luis’s gaze. “You ready?”

 

Luis chuckled, knowing full well it was a rhetorical question. “Does it matter?”

 

He gave Mick a playful tap on the chest and began walking towards the official.

 

“Just remember,” Mick called out to him, “she’s quick, but she can’t hit through a block. Strike fast and get those defenses back up.”

‚Äč

Luis disappeared through the doorway without acknowledging the advice.

 

“You got this!” Mick shouted before the stone door dropped from the ceiling, securing him in the room.

 

He returned to the balcony, where his fellow gladiators, relaxing in their casual tunics, asked how Luis was holding up. Mick provided just enough details to avoid a full conversation. He didn’t feel like talking.

 

The doors on the fighting floor opened less than a minute later, and the raucous crowd erupted in cheers. Luis emerged first, walking slow and steady while dragging his massive double-bladed axe behind him. The blade dug into the rocky surface, leaving a thin trail of moon dust that seemed to hover in the low gravity.

 

He stopped in the center of the arena and waited for the Champion to join him. A full minute went by with no opponent in sight, but the crowd never let up. Quite the opposite. They became even louder and organized their chaotic screams into a synchronized chant of the Champion’s name, calling for her to reveal herself. Their voices boomed into the void of space above them and continued to do so until the Champion finally entered the arena in an all-out sprint.

 

Luis didn’t move. He waited for her to reach him. When she did, the champion dug her boots into the ground, skidding to a stop and kicking up a cloud of moon dust that hung around her like a cloud.

 

“Hey, Luis,” she said cheerfully.

 

Her voice came in clear through the device in Mick’s ear. He was glad he slipped that transmitter on Luis’s shoulder pad. The suspense of not knowing what they were talking about would’ve killed him.

 

“Hello, Sam,” Luis said back to her.

 

Even from the balcony, Mick could see Sam’s relaxed stance, as if she were just chatting with an old buddy. Although it was all the same design, the Champion’s armor was significantly leaner than Luis’s to accommodate her swift and fluid fighting style.

 

“I have to admit,” Sam lamented, her voice heavy with an unexpected hint of regret. “I’m torn seeing you under these circumstances. On the one hand, I’m pleased you’re alive and have made it this far in your journey. From our time growing up in fighting craters together, I’ve always considered you a friend. Your success fills me with pride.”

 

Mick could see Luis give her a subtle nod. “Thank you.”

 

“Unfortunately…” Sam drew out the word as she detached the daggers adhered to the sides of her armor. “It also means I have to kill you.”

 

Luis swung his axe around to grip the heavy weapon with both hands. “It won’t be easy.”

 

“Easy? Maybe not. But inevitable?” Sam smirked as she took up a weak fighting stance. “Without question.”

 

Luis unleashed a bloodthirsty scream while lifting the axe above his head. Sam didn’t move until the last second, when the blade narrowly missed cleaving into her scalp. The axe slammed hard into the ground, leaving Luis’s arms exposed for two quick jabs from Sam’s daggers.

 

Luis cringed but recoiled quickly, bringing his weapon close to protect his chest from the Champion’s follow-up attack. Sam ran in nearly a complete circle around her opponent while Luis spun on his heels to keep her in front of him. He occasionally jabbed the edge of his blade in her direction, testing her feeble defenses, but Sam made no attempt to block. She didn’t need to, being able to easily dip and dodge the flimsy strikes with ease.

 

Eventually, Luis saw an opening he thought worth taking and swung the axe further from his body. Sensing the incoming attack, Sam launched herself mid-stride, flipping over the blade. She landed behind him and twirled her body into position. Her daggers moved so fast Mick could barely see them as they entered and exited Luis’s ribcage, sending squirts of blood flying through the air.

 

Luis was still standing. In fact, it would take a lot more than a couple pricks to bring him down. But that didn’t necessarily matter. Mick could already see how the rest of the fight would play out and knew it was over.

 

Trying to overcompensate for his failed attack, Mick swung his axe hard the other way and never stopped. He continued spinning round and round like a top, letting the axe fly wildly as an offshoot of his body.

 

Sam backed away from the desperate attack but only for a moment. She sprinted forward, sliding under the whirling axe at the last second. Her body continued to skid across the moon’s surface all the way to Luis, where she easily sliced along his legs as she passed.

 

Luis would’ve grunted through the pain, but his body had other plans and collapsed to a knee. Now it was only a matter of how long Sam wished to prolong the battle.

 

She kicked Luis in the back of the head, causing him to eat a face full of moon dust. Luis quickly rolled onto his back and held up his axe as a pitiful shield. Sam cut her daggers across his weapon like scissors, severing the double blade from its handle and sending both flying across the arena.

 

All that was left was to wait for Sam to deliver the killing blow, which could come now or hours later depending on how long she wanted to toy with him first.

 

Mick wasn’t about to find out.

 

Without thinking, Mick leapt from the balcony and fell slowly to the fighting floor. He was sure the other gladiators were watching him in shock. They were never supposed to interfere in another match. The penalty was to eternally float adrift in open space, a fate they all considered worse than death. Mick didn’t care.

 

He took off running as soon as his boots hit the surface. The crowd was so loud he couldn’t tell if they gasped, cheered, or booed at his arrival. None of it would’ve stopped him from grabbing the bladeless axe handle from the ground and leaping towards Sam.

 

The Champion was taken by surprise and barely able to lift her daggers in time to block his attack. The blow pushed her back several feet, and she looked up with a sharpened sneer that cursed Mick with her eyes.

 

“You dare interrupt a championship bout?”

 

Mick shrugged. “I guess so.”

 

Sam’s face remained rigid as it curled into a devious grin. “They’ll jettison you for this, you know. Win or lose, you’re already doomed.”

 

“Then it’ll be really embarrassing when I beat you,” Mick replied while twirling the staff into a fighting stance.

 

Sam’s smirk faded as she charged at him in a blitz. Her daggers swiped and stabbed quicker than Mick could keep up. He stopped thinking and merely reacted, practically letting the staff block each attack on its own. There was never an opening. Never a chance to strike. Mick was in a constant state of defense, fighting for his life with every second that passed.

 

Sam continued backing him across the arena until Mick realized there was only one way he was getting out of this arena alive. He needed help.

 

When Sam’s relentless assault faltered, Mick took off running away from her. She was so surprised she didn’t even chase after him, which was exactly what Mick was counting on. The distance would buy him the time he needed to get ready.

 

Mick grabbed the severed axe blade and headed back to his friend.

 

“Luis!” he shouted. “Get up!”

 

Luis was halfway unconscious, but Mick didn’t have the time to help him up. Instead, Mick bent a knee and continually pounded the axe head against his armor until the blade snapped in two.

 

“Mick?” Luis said as his eyes slowly fluttered open. “What—What are you doing here?”

 

Mick bent over his friend and began outfitting the leather on his gloves to wield the broken axe blades as extensions of his arms. “Improvising. Just try not to die.”

 

Luis sat up and examined his newfound weapons with a satisfied nod. “I think I can do that.”

 

The two friends rose to their feet and turned to the Champion. If Sam was afraid of being outnumbered, she didn’t show it. Her lips curled into a thin smile as if she were actually excited by the prospect. She sauntered towards them without a care in the world.

 

Mick and Luis remained steadfast in their fighting stances, but Sam never stopped. She came within striking distance and launched into a barrage of attacks that alternated between her opponents.

 

Mick was shocked by how fast she engaged them, almost as if she were in two places at once. When he faced her one-on-one, he could’ve sworn she was moving at her top speed. That was mere child’s play to how she danced around them now.

 

But all the agility in the world couldn’t make up for splitting her concentration in two. Sam became distracted as she departed one gladiator to combat the other, which left her vulnerable to attack.

 

The three-way scuffle seemed orchestrated, a planned sequence of moves and countermoves. Sometimes the men exchanged blocks with their female combatant. Sometimes they exchanged blows. Sam’s daggers occasionally found their mark, stabbing and slicing at their flesh with deadly accuracy. And sometimes Mick and Luis managed a hit, as well.

 

A grimy mess of blood and sweat flung off their bodies until it was impossible to ascertain where it came from. The longer the battle went on the slower it became until the fighters struggled with every breath, but the crowd loved every minute of it, roaring and cheering louder with every landed attack.

 

In a final, all-out assault, Sam charged while flinging a dagger at Mick’s face. He was ready and deflected the projectile with his staff. It was only a distraction, though, and Sam quickly slashed her other dagger along Mick’s throat. Blood seeped from the wound, but Luis didn’t stop to help his friend. He attacked instead, driving his bladed hand straight into Sam’s neck. The gash went deep, and blood shot into the air like a fountain. Sam ignored it to plunge her dagger into the side of Luis’s ribs. He managed one agonizing breath before struggling to take another, and the three gladiators all collapsed to the ground in a tangled, bleeding clutter.

 

Mick could barely feel his own body yet still sensed the tingle of moon dust settling against his skin. He knew by no means would this be considered a victory, but it certainly wasn’t a defeat. The Champion didn’t triumph. Her reign had ended.

 

With that final, gratifying thought running through his head, Mick closed his eyes and everything went black.

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