Champion (Flash Fiction Contest)
I sit in the dark and wish for the sun to scorch my skin.
Once, it hung high on days like today, beating down with a merciless heat. Now all that falls from the sky is rain, and the withered remnant of our broken star fails to pierce the inky veil draped heavy across the atmosphere.
I sigh, drawing a rough hand over my face. Suddenly the murmur of voices reaches me from beyond the walls of my cave. I’ve run out of time. Pushing through the languor of stillness, I stand and I exit into the murky half-light of midday. At sixteen, I already tower over the people crowding the door of my cave. Most are starved and sick, their woebegone faces streaked with dirt and shrunken from hunger. They whisper my name in reverent tones.
“It’s the Champion,” they say. “Bridge is here.”
I smile, knowing they need that reassurance, and trudge forward, dragging my feet through the perpetual mud. With rain falling almost continually, and no sun to dry the earth, the ground remains saturated. Tepid air clings to my bare torso, humidity drawing beads of sweat to run down my chest and back.
Then Miles saunters up, sporting his Cheshire grin. He’s pale—and far too thin.
“Why they gotta look at me that way?” I ask him.
“All hopeful and shit.”
“‘Cause they are hopeful, B,” Miles tells me.
He punches my bare shoulder and the mud from his hand blends with my dark skin.
“You give them hope,” he says. “They’ve seen you go through some shit. But you always come out on top.”
My eyes drop to the sword in my belt. I reach for the handle, drawing the weapon to examine the jagged end of its shattered blade. The sword, in its erstwhile glory, has helped me to keep my people fed for three long years. Cross hilted and double edged, it has ridden my hip as a symbol of strength, offering me an identity. Now it’s only a fragment of itself.
“Not this time,” I tell Miles, continuing my slow trek toward the Trench.
“Why the hell not?” he asks. “It’s just another match, B.”
“Man, you saw how the last match ended.”
“Yeah. I saw you win.”
“The sword, Miles,” I say, displaying the ruined weapon. “Look at the damn sword.”
“Man, it ain’t about the sword,” he says. “It’s about you. Always has been.”
I lift the sword again, but Miles stops me with a hand on my bicep and turns to face me.
“You are the Champion of this clan, Bridge. Not the sword.” His sunken eyes drill into me with a confidence that shouldn’t be possible in our fallen world. “Now get your ass out there and win. Like you done a hundred times.”
I want to share his confidence, but I can’t find it in myself to believe. Still, I grip my friend’s shoulder and nod.
“Alright man,” I say. “Let’s get this done.”
“Yeah!” Miles grins, somehow adding a skip to his step despite the sucking mud at our feet. “Get it done!”
My eyes wander up to the sickly yellow stain in the clouds where the sun shivers as it dies. Most of us stopped looking up long ago, but I’m still drawn to examine the sky and wonder at our arrogance. We’d thought we understood the threats we faced, but in the end, all our theories and projections amounted to precisely jack shit.
The phenomenon that finally halted our thriving culture was something no one even knew existed. It flew into our solar system like a great golden tsunami from the stars, a massive pulse of some kind of energy that our physicists had never seen. It killed our life-giving star before continuing its inexorable journey through the cosmos. Now, the “greenhouse effect” we once feared would destroy our planet is all that keeps us alive, as heat from the earth’s core leaks into our shrouded atmosphere.
Miles and I reach the Trench amid a riot of hungry voices railing for spilled blood to win them their next meal. The Trench, a stagnant remnant of a river once known as the Susquehanna, snakes its way through nearly a mile of river valley, with high hills rising to frame both sides in their dead hands.
All the clans have come. The barren banks of the riverbed are overrun with teaming bodies: the gathered panoply of humankind. Ragged survivors, who cling stubbornly to lives barely worth living, follow their respective Champions to the Trench and watch to see who will win the day’s match. They wait to learn who will eat, and who will die. The sight causes me to wonder again why we continue this struggle.
I shake my head to clear it of the thought. None of my questions matter. This will be my final day on the rotting corpse of Earth. Without the sword, I cannot win, and in the Trench, defeat is death.
“We got Silo, today.” Miles leans in, speaking low. “He’s had a good run, but I think he’s due.”
Miles acts as our clan Voice, arranging Champion matches and speaking on our behalf.
“He’s big,” I say, shaking my head. “Without the sword…”
Miles stops again. He punches me harder this time, lashing out with a bony fist.
“Man, you can’t think like that.” He motions with his head, nodding behind us. “And keep it to your damn self if you do.”
I look back and watch as my people struggle through the muck. Like all the tribes, mine is a motley mixture of every size, shape, color, and age. They trail in my wake, an impossible hope cracking through the dirt on each face.
How can they still believe that I will save them?
For three endless years I’ve been their provider. Unlike some Champions, who revel in their power, I’ve made my clan a family. How could I not? I was only a boy when I became their Champion. Just a starving clansman begging for scraps like the rest of them.
Until I found the sword.
Our last Champion had won his recent match, but died from his injuries a week later. We had no one left to fight. I wish I’d volunteered to stand as Champion out of courage and concern for the welfare of my people, but the truth is, I saw the end coming and figured a bloody death in the Trench would be preferable to agonizing starvation.
I almost died that day.
I was big for my age, but inexperienced, and the champion I fought was a born killer. I survived the first minute by running away, but I couldn’t run far. The match was held inside a tight ring of human bodies. Everywhere I ran, the withered figures of clansmen turned me back, until at last I fell to my hands and knees in the muck. Beaten, I waited for death to find me, but instead, I found something else. Deep beneath the mud, my hand closed around something cold and solid. On instinct I dragged it from the blood-soaked bog and thrust it at my opponent. The rusted length of metal sank into his chest and pierced his heart.
My clan took me as their Champion, and I made myself great on the blade of that sword. I spent months restoring it, scrubbing the rust from its length and sharpening its edges to a deadly sheen. No other Champion possessed such a weapon. The advantage it gave me in battle made up for my inexperience, and as I gathered victories and honed my skill in combat, I became unstoppable.
Then, in my most recent match, a wild swing, a sharp stone hidden just beneath the mud, and the sword was undone. Its shattered pieces scattered to the dregs of the riverbed, and along with them, my identity was lost in the muddy earth.
Now, I grip the broken sword tighter in my tired hand and sigh inwardly at my coming defeat, even as my clansmen cheer my name.
Miles and I skid our way down to the floor of the Trench. The rest of our clan follows and forms up on one side, creating their half of the match ring in which I will fight. The opposing clan is already in place, pressing in with shifting feet and eager eyes. Across the Trench, their numbers part … and Silo steps into the ring.
He’s a giant of a man, with wide, fleshy scars crisscrossing the tufts of grey stubble on his scalp and grisly face. Slabs of thick muscle layer his bare torso, and he holds a massive club made from a single tree branch.
He tosses an ugly grin in my direction.
“It’s a good day to die, Bridge,” he taunts, muscles twitching at random as though eager for violence. His voice is low, and it grates from his mountainous chest like crushed gravel.
I scowl, but refuse to respond.
“Don’t listen to that pile of shit, B,” Miles says, winking at me with a pasty smirk on his gaunt face. “You got this.”
“Yeah,” I say. Somehow my friend’s encouragement draws a smile from my own face. I’m glad to have him by my side. If there were something I could do to save him, to save any of them, I would do it. But I’ve done all I can, and my struggle has reached its end.
I’m struck by the futility of our actions. We claw and scrape our way through a damaged world, trying to squeeze every ounce of life we can from the ruins of Earth, but in the end, all we manage to do is delay the inevitable. Our race is breathing borrowed air, and soon, our lungs will empty and humanity will cease. Then all the hardship and pain we’ve endured will be scrubbed from the earth like rotting flesh from bleached bones.
With thoughts of dark finality spiraling in my head, I face my opponent and step into the match ring. The sword feels strange in my grip. Its handle is as familiar as my skin, but with three-quarters of the blade missing, the balance is off. Then Silo is rushing in, thinking to end it quickly. He swings his club at my head and I slip to the side, easily dodging the blow. But my footsteps stutter in the deep mud, lacking their usual confidence, and I go down.
This could be the end. I’ve seen it happen before: one fighter slips in the mud and falls, and the other finishes him off. Most of the fallen try to avoid the killing blow rather than taking advantage of the same conditions that caused them to fall. I don’t make that mistake. Lashing out with my foot, I thrust a stomping kick at Silo’s ankle. It doesn’t break, but his foot slides through the mud as easily as mine did. It’s not enough to bring him to the ground, but it sends his strike wide, saving my life.
I roll to my feet as Silo drags his club from the mud. He swings from overhead, trying to drive me into the ground like a railroad spike, but I step inside his swing, meeting his wrists with my broken blade, and then pivot to the side, leaving twin red lines across the giant Champion’s wrists.
Silo growls like a caged beast. His massive lungs force heaving breaths through gritted teeth, and hatred burns red in his eyes. He doesn’t bother raising the club this time, but swings from the ground in an upward arc. The move catches me at an odd angle and I jump, diving headfirst over the swinging club and banking on my speed to save me. I’m faster than any other Champion in the Trench, but this time it’s not enough. Silo’s massive club clips my leg, and I feel the bones in my knee shatter like my broken blade.
I crawl to my feet again, but my right leg will hold no weight. I limp to the side, circling my opponent. Silo’s grin returns, splitting his face like the jagged edges of an open grave. He sees his victory looming now. We both know the fight is over; I’m only stalling, and he’s happy to let me wallow in my coming failure.
In a final effort, I flip the sword, catching it by the broken blade, raise it, and throw it in a single motion. My aim is true. The sword rotates end-over-end, crossing the space between us, and the uneven tip of its broken blade strikes Silo in the chest. The blow staggers the giant Champion, but the wound is shallow and serves only to enrage him.
He bellows, raising his club and preparing to charge. I close my eyes, knowing I’m beaten, and listen for the sound of Silo’s club caving in my skull. Instead, a slap resounds through the Trench, and I open my eyes just as Silo is struck on the side of the head by a clump of mud. He snarls, turning to one side. Another glob of mud smacks the center of his broad back.
I stagger in the muck, struggling to remain on my feet and glancing around in confusion. Suddenly, the wall of bodies ringing my half of the battleground is moving. A moment later, I’m surrounded by my clansmen as they place themselves between me and my opponent.
Silo roars again, throwing his head back like an enraged grizzly bear.
A few of my clansmen go down beneath the club, but soon their numbers overwhelm him, and Silo disappears beneath a surging swell of angry feet and fists. One or two of Silo’s clansmen try a half-hearted intervention, but they have no real affection for their cruel Champion, and they’re quickly turned away by the roiling passion of my people. The muffled thunder of Silo’s death cries lasts only a moment … and then silence falls over the Trench.
Shock runs through me as I stare at my clan, and they return my gaze with calm conviction. Fervent devotion. Love.
And then I see it.
This is the reason we continue to fight. Our purpose is found in each other. In the love of a family, in the brotherhood of a clan. I stand tall in that moment, my injuries forgotten, and my people are all that I see.
I don’t know how long humankind will go on, but I do know this: For as long as our race continues to crawl the craggy surface of this doomed world, my clan and I will never cease to fight for each other. We will live just one more day for the love of one another, and that will be a life worth the living.
My name is Bridge. I am the Champion of my clan.
And my people are my sword.