My Circle of Champions–my name for the winners of my monthly flash-fiction writing contest–banded together to create a special holiday treat this December. Each Friday, I posted a new segment of this flash-fiction story. The next champion in line write the next segment in 250 words or less. The final segment was unwrapped on December 25th, 2020.
Learn more details on the challenge I posed to my Circle of Champions and read more about the photo artists. Or just enjoy the completed story.
Circle of Champions
Introduction by Matthew Cross
“Welcome to the Circle of Champions!”
The emcee’s booming voice filled the comms of the ten champions, who floated in the cold vacuum and Zero-G. The sound and their images streamed planetside, of course. Bookies slavered and took notes.
Salem shivered in spite of her red thermal suit. She would have a month to train in the Zero-G of the Thunderdome, a grotesque contraption in high orbit designed to look like the Death Star. The producers were such Sci Fi nerds! Inside, VIP boxes surrounded the vast void.
Death was not required, of course, and not inevitable. The twenty-foot mech suits were protected by the defense industry’s most advanced force shielding. But the suits were also loaded with the most advanced weapons. So deaths occurred.
Back home, Salem had survived countless battles. In her sixteen years, she had progressed from video games to waldo jockey to mech fighter due to her speed and flawless instincts. But the armor in her mech suit–modified for her small size–could withstand all the standard weaponry allowed in sanctioned ground battles.
Here, in the Thunderdome, she could die. And even if she won the Circle of Champions, that only assured her ten mandatory years of battle with the professionals each week here in the Thunderdome. She would have wealth beyond her wildest dreams for as long as she could stay alive. But few lived to retirement.
Spotlights rose and for a few breathless moments, she forgot it all when she saw her shiny, red mech.
Round One by Frasier Armitage
“Come to Mama,” she thought, as she clambered into her exo-suit, the mech responding to her whims as if it were natural as breathing.
A voice shook the Thunderdome. “Competing against our challengers tonight is an undisputed battle champion. Returning from retirement—give it up for the queen of carnage, the undefeated, the legendary Neon Tigress!”
Salem stiffened. Her thermals did nothing to stave the chill from her bones.
Neon Tigress—one of the founding fighters.
As a kid, Salem never missed her battles. She’d studied her every move. “Did you see that, Mom? You can’t stop a Flaming Fury attack. The only chance you’ve got is your thrusters.”
“It’s all rigged,” her Mom would say.
“No. It’s real!”
“Come now, darling. Why do you think the favorite wins week in, week out?”
“You’re lying!” She’d fought her Mom, and had kept fighting. All the way to the Thunderdome. To face off against Neon Tigress and her Flaming Fury.
“Are you ready?” The emcee interrupted a carnival of klaxons from the VIP boxes.
Systems test. Check thrusters.
Salem flicked switches and waited for the orange light to signal they were functioning. But nothing came.
“I said, are you ready?”
Neon Tigress’ custom banshee-mech flooded the stadium screens. The emcee’s roar faded into her Mom’s voice. “It’s all rigged,” she would’ve said.
Air fled from Salem’s lungs. Her heart pounded to the rhythm of chants.
“Forceshields, activate! Three . . . two . . . one . . . Let battle commence!”
Don’t Panic by Jim Hamilton
Salem knew that panic was her biggest enemy. She took a deep breath and slowed her breathing to calm herself. The Thunderdome was ten kilometers in diameter and, with the contestants spread evenly around its equatorial perimeter, she was in no immediate danger. Not even from Neon Tigress, who floated, patiently waiting, in the center of the giant sphere.
During the past month, she had deliberately lost one practice round after another while she studied the other contestants. How they moved. What weapons they favored. Whether they used or conserved their thruster juice. She had carefully developed her strategy and being a few moments late leaving the gate wouldn’t affect her plan, one way or the other.
She glanced at the chrono in her HUD. She only had a few more seconds to enter the dome, or she would be disqualified. With a mighty heave of her legs against the rear wall of the gate, she propelled herself into the arena. She steadied her breathing as she told herself, “I got this.”
Still, her strategy needed the thrusters. Without them, she didn’t stand a chance.
In frustration, she balled up her fist and brought it down on the control panel as hard as she could. Relief poured over her as the thruster indicator flickered on and her suit began to come on-line. She eagerly flipped the other switches and grinned as they each came up orange and yellow in sequence.
She held her breath as she toggled the last one.
Shall We Dance? by Shanel Wilson
“Green!” Salem’s fist thrusted up, her mech fist following suit.
“Looks like our newest champion is showing some early enthusiasm,” the emcee chuckled as he began his commentary of the battle in the Thunderdome.
Salem felt her cheeks burn but she didn’t care. She had her thrusters. She was ready for anything, including Neon Tigress’s Flaming Fury. The emcee’s voice faded into the background as she took one last deep breath. She waited her entire life for this moment and impossible chance had chosen Neon Tigress as the reigning champion. It was an omen.
“This is my time.”
She took off toward the melee. Three champions had already fallen and were being pulled from the Thunderdome by repair drones.
Monstro, the lumbering graphite champion, was aiming straight for her. In the practice rounds, Salem knew he was a smash-and-bash kind of fighter. Her size and agility would be her strength against him. She engaged her Spinning Slash attack.
“Make that six.” She smirked to herself, looking for her next target.
Her focus was magnetically drawn to Neon Tigress. Seeing her fighting up close was better than she could have ever dreamed as a girl. It was like a violent ballet. Salem made quick work of another champion entranced by Neon Tigress’s deadly arabesque.
Suddenly, the Thunderdome rumbled. Cheers from the VIP boxes were deafening. The last mech carcass was dragged out. She had survived, so far. Neon Tigress’s thrusters revved, waiting for Salem’s next move.
Go for It! by Matthew Cross
Hands flicking over her switches, Salem turned to face Tigress. Then Salem did the unthinkable. She launched a head-on assault.
As expected, Tigress whirled into Flaming Fury. Salem’s mech spun, thrusters firing in all directions, performing a ballet she had dreamed endless nights.
Somehow, Salem came through the barrage intact and faced Tigress’s backside. “Yes!” she exclaimed, firing both charge cannons.
She could win! She would win!
But nothing happened.
Then blue flames climbed Salem’s mech. Why?! How?!
Suddenly, Salem was ejected from her mech. “No!” she cried. “NOOOO!” Floating in the void, Salem watched her mech burn. And with it, her hopes of claiming the seat.
. . . .
Salem woke, covered in bandages. Lab coats and paparazzi swirled. Clicks, whirrs, questions. Then blessed silence.
“You made it, girl!”
It was Neon Tigress, in the flesh, sitting on her bed.
“What happened?” Salem cried.
“Don’t worry, girl. The bandages, the doctors? Just for show.”
“What hurts, honey?”
“Nothing! I feel fine!” And she did. “You mean . . . Mom was right? It’s all rigged?”
“Not all rigged, girl. The fighting is real. Mostly. But we’re too valuable to kill. And the producers gave you a story line, Salem. A rookie with a story-line! You gonna be rich as me.”
It took a while to sink in.
“So . . . I get to fight in the pros? I can be rich, like you, but . . . I don’t have to die?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Can you handle it, girl?”
Slowly, Salem nodded.
“That’s what I been tellin’ ‘em.”
Well, we did it! My Circle of Champions and I completed this story by the deadline, Christmas Day, 2020. And we did it on budget. Each segment is 250 words or less. And we each worked our “challenge color” into our segments. (See challenge words in bold.)
Thanks to all my Champions!
- Frasier Armitage — September Contest Winner
- Jim Hamilton — October Contest Winner
- Shanel Wilson — November Contest Winner
Please visit them on Twitter or share some kind words below.