A shimmering red bubble surrounded The Junkyard King, a foot-tall midget in a diaper. He stood on a tower of smashed cars and space cruisers. Black hair covered his chest. A small flask lay at his feet and he clutched a fat cigar and blew clouds of smoke. In the other hand he held a bright red wand. His head snapped toward the timer two minutes away from zero.
I squeezed the cell’s metal bars, trying to stop my naked body from shaking. I glared at the announcers—two small figures enclosed in protective glass high above the battlefield. I hated them for how lightly they took this.
“Looks like the King is getting impatient,” Paul Dice, one of the announcers, said. His voice boomed through loudspeakers set up around the arena.
“He is ready for the Battle to begin,” the other announcer, a woldrak named Dobarh, said in a deep and guttural voice.
The metal cells obscured everything except our faces. A vinzer stared at me from her cell across the arena, purple reptilian eyes flashing in amusement. My gaze darted between her and the big red countdown clock above the crowd. I held back tears, hoping that I could find a good weapon. She stuck her tongue out at me and wiggled it like a long, black snake. I shuddered.
“In twenty seconds the 60,123rd Junkyard Battle will begin!” Paul said.
“I cannot wait,” said Dobarh.
The Junkyard King pointed his wand at the timer and grinned. It dropped to ten and the crowd, over three hundred thousand separated from us by an electrified fence, chanted, “Ten…nine…eight…”
I took a deep breath. A lead ball formed in my stomach. I, an accountant who trained in martial arts as a hobby, had never killed anyone. I stared at the Junkyard King and thought about stabbing him in the heart, wishing that I had to kill him instead of the others. If he died, his son, Prince Weedhan, would take over. Weedhan had a gentle hand and a kind heart and his hatred of the Battle was well-known.
I had to outlast four others and I’d win. If I won, the King would spare my family, but kill everyone else’s. I ran a finger along my wedding ring—would I ever see Amanda and my daughters again?
A giant scoreboard hovered above the battlefield. How many numbers would be next to my name? If I won, my family and I would be rich. I thought of taking Amanda and the girls back to Earth or to Mars. Jessica and Kelsey had always wanted to visit the red planet’s glass towers.
Would my family still love me if I won? Could they love a killer? Even though trillions across the universe viewed the Battle, it was still murder. I trembled and remembered the King materializing inside my office. He’d told me I was one of the Battle Lottery winners, a random drawing of everyone in the universe. He’d waved his wand and teleported us to the arena on his home planet and I was forced to strip before being locked in a cell.
I took a deep breath and willed my fear to go away. It didn’t work. My heart punched my chest as hard as I wanted to punch the idiot on the metal tower.
My cell popped open and I charged toward the naked vinzer. She darted past me on four legs, heavy breasts swinging on her scaly chest. She swiped a claw at me but I stepped back and almost tripped on a tire. A shiny object lay next to me but she knocked it away with her tail.
“Looks like Dave missed a knife. Amarra’s about to gut him. What a buffoon!” Paul said. The crowd laughed and my face reddened.
“The human is afraid,” Dobarh said. “Look at him. Fear rules him. He will not last long.”
Amarra ran towards me and I scrambled behind a rusted car. She followed and hissed, sticking out her tongue and curling it around green, razor-sharp teeth. She jumped next to me and slashed her claw which I barely dodged.
I needed a quick kill. There had to be a death within the first hour or the King would spin his wand and obliterate us all.
Amarra swung at me again and I sidestepped toward the knife. I picked it up and swiped it at her. She scuttled backward and hissed. Spit flew from her mouth.
A burst of gunfire filled the arena and the crowd cheered.
“Watharg’s strong shell has been hit. Pordo is the first to find a gun,” Paul said.
Dobarh grunted. “Woldraks’ shells can take many bullets. Watharg will survive.”
I glanced toward the gunfire. “We should work together. We’ll be gunned down if we don’t.”
“How do I know you aren’t going to betray me?” Her voice was raspy.
“Let’s call it a temporary partnership then.”
She pointed a claw at my feet. “There is a Turchovian blaster next to your foot. If we are to be partners, pay attention, human.”
I looked down and picked up the red pistol-sized tube. My shaking hands almost dropped it. I discarded the knife and she nodded.
The gunfire grew closer and a white man-shaped robot stepped from behind a dented space pod. He pointed an assault rifle at me and Amarra and we ducked behind a truck. Bullets pinged against it.
“Pordo’s got the upper hand with that rifle,” Paul said.
“The others will have a rough time penetrating his Venusian-steel body,” Dobarh said.
“Fire at him,” Amarra hissed. “I’ll distract him.” She picked up a rock and chucked it overhead at Pordo, hitting him in the forehead. He stumbled and stopped firing.
I pointed the blaster at Pordo and pulled the trigger. It vibrated and a bright beam of violet light shot out. Purple flames enveloped him and he dropped the gun. Flames blackened his steel frame. He collapsed and stopped moving. The crowd roared.
Amarra nodded and thumped her tail.
My stomach churned. I killed someone. I murdered another creature. He was a robot, but he was still alive. Robots had passed the Turing test and had been universally recognized as conscious entities. Pordo had been trying to kill me and I defended myself, but still—what would Amanda and the girls think as they watched?
“Wow, the human has the first kill. I’m shocked,” Paul said. Asshole.
The scoreboard lit up with the number “1” next to my name. Pordo’s name faded away. Amarra waved me forward and we climbed on top of a metal and rubber wall. A human-sized insect flew around, its wings buzzing and its black tail waving.
I pointed the blaster at it and Amarra grabbed my arm. “No. Don’t waste the blaster’s energy. It only has a few shots left. Only use it if you’re sure you’ll hit her.”
The Junkyard King yelled and pointed his wand at us. A powerful wind knocked us on to a stack of tires.
“The Junkyard King dislikes partnerships,” Dobarh’s voice boomed.
Amarra and I stood and I almost pointed the blaster at The King. He’d ruled the universe for thousands of years and the Battle was his greatest accomplishment. He puffed his cigar and a cloud of smoke surrounded him. He grinned and shook his head. I wanted to blast him but knew that would be an instant death for me. No one had ever tried to kill him before. Could anything penetrate that shimmering bubble?
The insect flew over the wall and spit on Amarra. Amarra’s skin smoked and she screamed and jumped through the air, tackling the insect to the ground. Amarra slashed a claw down on her foe, jamming it between her chest.
Paul chuckled. “Watharg is laughing while Amarra almost disembowels the insect, Zozz.”
“Watharg is cunning strategist.” Dobarh said.
Yellow blood poured out of Zozz’s wound and she let out a screeching howl. Her black tail whipped Amarra in the gut, sending her flying to the ground. I fired at Zozz but she burst into the air and the purple light missed and hit a bunch of tires, setting them on fire.
Amarra stood and glared at me. “I told you not to waste the blaster. Wisps of smoke rose from her skin and she grit her teeth. Zozz flew away over the rubber wall, dripping blood.
“I was trying to help,” I said.
“Be better than helpful—be smart.”
We climbed over the rubber wall. Zozz hovered in a corner, her tail over her head and split open at the end. Blue liquid sprayed and covered her.
“Zozz is healing herself. Incredible ability,” Dobarh said.
The King picked up his flask and took a sip. He cackled and waved his wand toward an SUV. The vehicle exploded with a fiery bang and the King howled and twirled his hips. He screamed something and took another sip. The crowd laughed and clapped, amused by the ludicrous display.
“They gotta be careful and pay attention to the King.“ Paul chuckled. “That wand can do anything, Dobarh.”
Watharg—a round brown creature like an armadillo—ran toward Zozz and tackled her into the fence. Sparks flew and the insect let out a high-pitched scream. She dropped to the ground and convulsed. Watharg picked her up and threw her through a truck’s windshield. Zozz twitched and groaned and the crowd hollered.
Watharg moved toward Zozz, about to finish her off, but I aimed the blaster at him. My hand shook as I pulled the trigger and the purple light missed him by a foot.
“Bad aim, human!” Amarra said.
Zozz crawled out of the car and jumped behind it.
“The insect is healing herself again,” Paul said.
I willed my hand to stop shaking and fired again at Watharg. He jumped above the purple light and it sizzled against the fence. He stomped and growled at me.
Zozz rose into the air, now completely healed. She flew toward Amarra and the two fought away from me.
I was on my own.
I aimed at Watharg and pulled the trigger again but there was a loud click. I dropped the blaster.
I ran away.
Watharg’s footsteps were as loud as thunder in my ears. He growled again and the announcers said something about his claws. My heart banged in my chest and I looked around for a weapon. Something shiny caught my eye and I picked it up and turned around.
I swung the sword at Watharg and the blade clattered against his shell. His head and limbs disappeared inside the shell and he shot toward me like a cannonball, hitting me in the chest. The sword slipped from my fingers as I gasped for air.
“Dave is no match for a Woldrak,” Dobarh said.
I picked up the sword and stood. I clutched the blade and sidestepped to stand in front of a space plane. Space planes were made with bekel—the hardest substance in the universe.
“Come on, you stupid armadillo-looking thing.” I pointed and laughed at him.
He grunted and spun, churning up dirt. Yeah, that’s right, come on.
Dobarh chuckled. “Goodbye, human. Watharg’s might will crush you.”
Watharg blasted toward me and I dove to the side. He crashed into the bekel-covered plane and bounced to the ground. His shell cracked and split in two.
“Wow, what a turn of events!” Paul said. “Dave is smarter than we thought, Dobarh.”
Watharg shook his head, twitched, and remained on the ground, dazed from the collision. Soon he would be up and I wouldn’t stand a chance. I looked around, needing something better than a sword. From watching previous Battles, I knew the King hid the best weapons in vehicles.
I ran to a Venusian unicopter on its side and looked in there, checking under the seats and compartments. Nothing. I looked back. Watharg struggled to stand. A row of buses stood to my right and I looked in the first two and found nothing.
In the third one, under the driver’s seat was a small silver cylinder with a switch on its side. ANDAR was written on it. I flicked the switch and blue and green light formed into a blade. I turned it off and covered it with my palm. The announcers said something about not knowing what I was doing. Good. I still had the element of surprise. I looked out the window and saw Watharg was standing.
I exited the bus, the metal sword still in my other hand. Time to play pretend. I tripped and fell flat on the ground, dropping the metal blade. The audience and the announcers laughed. Watharg stomped toward me and I pretended to struggle to stand.
He was a foot away when I jumped to my feet, flicked the switch, and cut him in half with the andar’s shimmering energy. Blood spurted from his two halves and the scoreboard lit up with “2” next to my name.
The crowd jumped to their feet and screamed and clapped. Dobarh shouted that I was nothing more than a lucky clown and should be ashamed.
“Dave!” the crowd chanted. “Dave! Dave! Dave!”
I grinned and bowed. Only two left. Murder? No. It was self-defense.
The King screamed and gave me a thumbs up. He picked up his flask and downed it in one gulp and tossed it to the side. He waved his wand and a six pack of beer appeared at his feet. Grinning, he grabbed two of the bottles, popped the tops off, and upended them down his throat.
Amarra and Zozz rolled around in the dirt. Zozz whipped Amarra in the face with her tail and Amarra jumped back and howled. I sat in the dirt, content watching from the sidelines. Let one kill the other and I’d finish the remaining one.
The Junkyard King pointed his wand at me and I rose into the air. Seconds later he dropped me between the lizard and the insect.
Shit. What an asshole.
“We still a team?” I said to Amarra.
She nodded and we faced Zozz. I swung the andar at her but missed and she flew into the air. Amarra climbed onto a garbage truck and leapt at Zozz. They hit the ground and Amarra had Zozz pinned to the ground. I rushed toward them and the andar was over my head when something tripped me and the blade tumbled from my hands.
Zozz’s tail wrapped around my ankle and she spit a glob of acid onto Amarra’s face, burning her cheek. Amarra screamed and I couldn’t move and Zozz was going to kill us both.
Amarra, her howls filling my ears, jumped next to me and sliced the tail with her claw.
“Shit, thanks,” I said.
A gust of wind knocked me and Amarra to the ground. The King chuckled and howled.
“The King has had enough of their partnership,” Paul said.
Dobarh grunted. “Friendship in the Battle should be illegal.”
I ran for the andar and picked it up. “No more partnerships.”
She chuckled. “Guess not. It was nice working with you, human. But it’ll be nicer to kill you.”
Zozz flew away and the lizard and I faced each other. I swung the andar at her and she ducked and I backed her against a space cruiser. She swiped her tail and knocked the andar out of my hand.
I backed away, my heart racing and my body shaking. She raised her claws.
She was going to kill me and there was nothing I could do about it.
I held up my hands, closed my eyes, screamed and heard gunfire and Amarra howling.
“Zozz has a laser rifle!” Paul said. “She’s flying above the arena and she just blasted Amarra’s arm off.”
I opened my eyes. Green blood flowed out of Amarra’s stump where her arm had been and she was on the ground. Zozz aimed the rifle at me and I sprinted away. A red beam of light soared past me and I tripped on something round and metallic.
Zozz’s buzzing wings filled my ears as she flew above me and I grabbed the baseball-sized object and turned toward her and pressed the button on its side and pointed it at her.
Black energy burst from the tiny hole like a wave and enveloped Zozz, consuming her like a black shadow. Instantly she vanished. The wave had hit part of the crowd and they’d disappeared.
“Oh my God,” Paul said. “Dave has a werchid and just disintegrated Zozz and part of the audience.”
“One of the most powerful weapons in the universe,” Dobarh said. “Unseen in previous Battles.”
The crowd screamed and panicked. Some fled but most stood and watched, ready to flee if I pointed the werchid in their direction.
I’d just killed hundreds, maybe even thousands and the only thing I cared about was killing Amarra. She was still on the ground, clutching her bleeding stump. She looked at me, her eyes begging for mercy, and I loved her terror.
The King screamed and I looked up at him. He nodded and licked his lips. He clapped, downed another beer, and jumped up and down, pointing at the werchid, nodding furiously.
Paul gasped. “The King wants Dave to use the werchid. Wow.”
I pointed it at her and she scuttled away. The crowd behind her moved and screamed, tripping over each other as they scrambled for safety. I chased her around an overturned bus and she threw an axe at me and it missed my head by an inch.
I hunted and she ran. She zigzagged and moved so fast that I couldn’t get a good shot. I didn’t know how much ammunition the werchid had left.
She turned behind a row of Jovian tanks and I lost her. My eyes flicked from place to place and there was no sign of her. I heard movement behind me and turned in time for something to smash my forehead. I fell but held onto the werchid.
Blood flowed from a cut on my head and into my eyes and she stalked toward me in a red haze. She held a wooden club and jumped at me and I pulled the trigger.
A black blast erupted out and missed, obliterating the audience behind her. She landed on top of me and smashed me repeatedly with the club. I clutched the werchid with an iron-hard grip as she assaulted me but it slipped from my grasp.
I crawled on all fours, reaching for the werchid inches away and every second another blow landed on me. She kicked it away and swung at me again. Somehow I ducked and the club smashed into a space cruiser behind me and broke in two.
Blood covered me and with all my energy I jumped forward and grabbed the werchid—did it have another shot left? I ran from her and looked back.
She tripped on a tire and I pointed the werchid at her.
“Please.” Amarra pointed at her bulging stomach. “I have a child on the way.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry. But my life is more important. I have a family.”
A black wave burst from the tiny weapon and disintegrated her along with the section of crowd behind her.
By pressing one button, I’d killed her along with thousands of others.
The King smiled and dusted his diaper off. With a wave of his wand another cigar formed in his hand. He puffed both and left them in his mouth as he descended toward me. My heart slammed in my chest and I felt dizzy.
He floated next to me and spun his wand. The shimmering bubble disappeared and he raised my hand. He pointed at me and nodded vigorously. The crowd screamed and applauded.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Paul said, “here is your winner…Dave Jenkins!”
I fought back a smile and looked at the ground. My fingers dug into the werchid. I swallowed and shook. The bubble, the King’s protection, was gone.
He twirled his wand and my family appeared in front of me. They ran toward me and the four of us met in a hug. Tears spilled down my cheeks.
One press of a button and the King would be done. I raised the werchid and held it in the air like a trophy. One press of a button and the Battles would end. Prince Weedhan would take over and no more needless deaths. No more brutality and carnage.
The crowd jumped to their feet and the sound of their approval hurt my ears but warmed my heart.
One press of a button and the King would die if I had a bullet left. Was it worth the risk? He looked at me and shook his head—a warning?
I aimed. Please, have one shot left. I pressed the button.
The King disintegrated in a black wave.
The crowd and the announcers fell silent.
No more Battles. Prince Weedhan would take power. My family was safe and we were rich.
A pale, small torso materialized in the air, followed by a grinning mouth. The rest of the King reformed and he bent over and giggled and slapped his knees, tears streaming down his bright red face. He waved his finger back and forth, winked, and twirled his wand.
Swords formed in Amanda, Jessica, and Kelsey’s hands and they huddled together, tears streaming down their faces.
The Junkyard King floated back to his tower and pointed to the timer. His laughter echoed in my skull.