The space would dwarf any of the UEE’s biggest hangars, perhaps except for the largest ship yards and they were usually hollowed out asteroids and could not by any means be counted as ships. It was eerily similar to many of the sport domes back on Earth. It was oval in shape, and except for a small wall that ran along the sides, the sides were packed with Vanduuls. It was the simplest of arenas. The simplest, biggest arena that probably cost more than all human arenas together.
With a small gesture the Chief silenced the crowds.
“Welcome to our home.”
Her voice was amplified, giving the impression that she was close to everyone. Emma could easily hear both her voice and the translation.
“I am the Lady of the Ship. You may call me Lady Bavr,” she said and gave the tiniest of nods towards the ambassador.
“Thank you, Lady Bavr. I am ambassador Rijeken. On behalf of the Ark and all of our people, let me express our gratitude for this great honour you are bestowing on us. It inspires all of us and gives us further confidence that our goals can be shared with everyone in the universe.”
“Our thanks to you and your people, Ambassador Rijeken. We very much look forward to our union.”
It was an odd choice of words. She hoped the translations were ok. The Lady took a step sideways and the knifemaster came to her side. He gave a small bow to the ambassador. The ambassador returned the bow.
“It is our customs that you are here to know, and it is our customs we will show,” the Lady said.
Emma felt as if gravity had been lifted and returned too fast, and took a step to steady herself. Those words were the first half of the agent’s contact protocol. She looked at the Lady, but she didn’t even glance in her direction.
“For a meeting such as this, it is tradition that one of your people meet with one of our people, here, in this arena, for everyone to see and acknowledge the strength of our allies. I hope you will honour us with this small request.”
Oh, hell no.
The ambassador shifted the weight on his feet. What in the name of all things divine and angry was the Advocacy thinking?
“We are very, honoured, by your request. However, I am not familiar with this tradition. Could you please enlighten us as to how this tradition takes place?”
The Lady did that smile thing again, if it really were a smile.
“A volunteer from your party engages in a ritual/battle against one of us, to the great pleasure of my people. Your volunteer can choose unarmed or armed.”
She did not like that the translation weren’t precise.
“A volunteer, you say. And what exactly does this mean?” the ambassador asked and repeated the word the Lady had said with terrible pronunciation.
“It means that no killing is allowed. It would be considered a terrible debt for our people.”
“I am not sure we have any volunteers. And who would be your candidate for this ritual?”
The knifemaster did something akin to a salute.
“I am prepared to guide you,” he said and for just a half of a second his eyes met hers.
Emma shook her head and had to stifle a laugh. She was going to kill her brother. No, not kill him, that was too good for him. She was going to tie him to the back of an Elakian in heat, then kill him.
The ambassador was quiet for an eternity.
He turned around and looked at them, his face seemed to lose more colour every second.
“I guess the question has to be asked, before anything else happens. Do any of you volunteer?”
To their credit, everyone kept their position, even though they had turned around.
“Is she serious?” Pablo asked.
“I believe so,” the ambassador said.
“What happened to the agreed steps?” Aish asked.
“I don’t know. But I can’t ask you to go. I will volunteer myself.”
“You can’t! None of us can. It’s pointless,” Pablo said.
“You heard what she said. A death will incur a debt on all of them,” the ambassador said and tried to smile.
“That’s not funny!” Aish said.
For once even Aish was losing her grounds. Emma wondered if she found the ambassador brave or stupid. At least he had character.
“I’ll go,” she said, took a step towards the ambassador and put a hand on his shoulder, and before he could answer, she looked at the knifemaster and said loud and clear, “I am lucky in my guide.” Then she gave him exactly the same nod as the Lady had given the ambassador first.
His eyes flared up in a language that any prey would know.
She didn’t care. If she had to supress anger, then so should he.
“May you be lent strength and may it make you quick”, the Lady said and very lightly touched her Knifemaster on the arm while giving Emma a quick blink.
The bitch knew.
She was beginning to suspect that her brother was fooled as well. This reeked of her touch. She wanted her back, and when Madame Tussaud wanted something, it usually happened. You didn’t become head of the Advocacy Intelligence Section by being a quitter. But this was too far. None of the other knew of her implants. Not that they would help her against Kri. Most likely they would keep her from dying, but that was it. That was probably the Madame’s plan. She would look less of a loser than anyone else, and at the same time there would be a hell of lot of questions waiting for her from the others. They would not be happy. It could even cost her the job, forcing her back to the Advocacy. An ungracious suicide, throwing herself into Kri’s attack, that was what she should do. Fuck both bitches, and leave the Vanduuls with a huge debt. Perfect. Except for her death of course. God damn that bitch!
“What kind of battle do you choose?” Kri asked.
“It’s a battle for fuck sake,” she said not caring if the Vanduuls were insensitive to swearing, “give us some weapons.”
The Knifemaster seemed only amused by her words.
A selection of arms was presented to them. They all looked ancient, except for their edges that gleamed with oil. The Knifemaster picked a sword-like weapon, ignoring a pair of viciously looking knifes. She wanted to pick them, if only to make a bad joke, but that might be pushing it. She chose a staff in the end. If he had any intention to toy with her first, she would show him what implants, long reach and a seriously pissed-off girl could do.
They cleared an area for them, but there was no box, no limits as to where the fight could go. The ambassador and the team were ushered away, leaving her with only the Lady and the Knifemaster. The Lady did something on her suit.
“I’m so glad they sent a female,” the Lady said, her voice no longer heard everywhere.
“Did they know that you’re a female?” Emma asked.
“I suspect they suspected.”
“And why all this, why this fight?”
The Lady turned to her Knifemaster as if she was talking to him.
“It really is our tradition when others are allowed on our Home ship. It is also one of the few times I can be seen alone with you. It is easy to give you the data cube, but it will be encrypted. Kri will give you the passphrase throughout the fight, piece by piece, so no one will be able to know, even if they were to overhear this conversation.”
The obvious question was pointless to ask. She didn’t trust anyone except Kri, and that said enough.
“You really think I will be able to last that long?” Emma asked.
“It would be a real shame if you didn’t.”
“He’s not going to go easy on me, is he?”
The Lady made a sound that reminded Emma of a purr.
“My Knifemaster is a lot of things, but he has never been easy.”
“Can I keep him if I win?”
The Knifemaster’s muscles tensed ever so slightly. The Lady only smiled.
“If you win, I will give him to you.”
“Perfect, I always wanted a p… Knifemaster.”
She gave her most charming smile.
Need to stop talking. Now.
She gave the staff a twirl. It was a little shorter than what she had hoped, but it was well balanced and seemed strong and flexible enough to break rock.
“Can I keep my Glas on?” Emma asked.
Kri gave a shrug. The Lady raised both her arms in the air and the crowd drowned the space with sound again. Kri took steps away from them both, the sword in one hand. It seemed to flow in his hand, more of an extension of his own arm than anything else. Emma secured her Glas to her eyes.
“Glas, execute Forgotten Memories, execute Overload and execute PatternRecog.”
She couldn’t feel the changes in her body, but she would very soon. Tomorrow was not going to be a good day.
“People bear witness!”
The Lady’s voice was a storm to the crowd’s waves.
“People bear witness!” she said again.
The crowd went quiet. The Lady did a slow, full turnaround, gazing at her people. Emma had no doubt that she loved the attention. Then she spoke again, with a soft voice.
“People, bear witness.”
“We bear witness”, thousands of voices replied at once.
The Knifemaster jumped at her with a speed that would have killed her had she not already activated her implants. Instead his sword met with her staff with a force that made her feel as if every bone in her body rattled. She could hear the crowd’s reaction, and let it fade into the background. She took some steps back, trying to get some more space between them. The implants were now all active, and that familiar feeling soared through her body. She didn’t feel stronger, only lighter, like gravity had been reduced.
Kri lounged at her again, even faster than before, but this time she was ready. He did a feint left, and hit right, fell down into crouch and tried to sweep her feet away. She reacted instinctively and with the help of the Glas. Sure, it was cheating, but the same could be said about having an evolutionary trait honed by hundred thousands of years of killing.
Would the Lady really give him away if she won?
That was not what she should be thinking about. She had almost forgotten about the passphrases. Fucking lunatic race. Had he already said something? She wasn’t sure, but her Glas recorded everything, as to analyze his movements, but it would probably also get the passphrases.
Kri did a few easy-to-fend-off swings. Emma tried some of her own. They weren’t even testing each other. Had it only been twelve seconds?
The Glas tried to warn her, but it was too late.
She managed to block his sword, but that was his intention all the time. His hand hit her face with open palm, but it was hard enough to knock out any normal person. She felt herself sag to her knees, wide open. He just looked at her.
“So females aren’t stronger than this?” The translation came slow. “Bitssh.”
For a moment she thought she heard wrong. She got back on her feet.
Did he just call her bitch? In her own language?
He jumped at her so high that he landed on the other side of her, when she rolled away. Now he was toying with her. She sucked at the inside of the chin and spat out the blood. Then he was at her again, feinting left, right, low, high, raining down blows on her at an alarmingly increasing rate. She saw the sword cutting into her upper arm, but she couldn’t feel it, not even the blood flowing down.
She put a hand on reflex to her wound, and came away with a bloody, slippery hand. Bad idea. She wiped her hand on her suit, testing her grip. Focus girl, you‘re acting stupid.
“Glas, execute override,” she whispered.
The arm work as before, so he couldn’t have cut the muscle. The heat started in her stomach and spread outwards.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Kri said.
Too late for that.
“You better be ready for what’s coming, human.”
She could see him getting ready and that’s when she ran. He had a sword, she had a staff.
She had reach.
He should have backed away, that was what she was prepared for, but he didn’t. She didn’t care. The staff went low, searching for his knee, but he blocked it in the last moment. The implants were now running far beyond what her body could handle, but for a brief moment they would give her the advantage of surprise.
She spun around, going for the other knee. Doing so left her completely open, but she knew that Kri couldn’t attack her like that, as it most likely would kill her. He blocked again, and started to move away, but she had no intention of backing down now. She threw everything she had at him, but now he was blocking her with ease, having adapted to her new speed.
It was time to be stupid.
She went straight for him, putting all her power into a quick combo of flurries. His eyes were anything but calm anymore. She had reach, but now she went close. Finally she saw the opening she needed.
She swung at him from the side.
The blow was so hard that she felt muscles rip as Kri blocked it. But it worked. He had no power left in his arm, and no way to move it effectively. She went directly into his body, kicked with all her might and aimed for the groin.
She felt the kick connect as she saw his left hand smash into her temple.