When we last left the Arena of the Trials, Nycati, the psionic secret elf prince, and Prysen, the scholar representative of the hypochondriac Kai, were asked a simple question: why are you here? They are now trying to answer it. Grab a coffee and get comfy. It might take them awhile.
“… however, applied meaning runs in tandem with applied ethics, therefore, the meaning and definition of a concept, perceived through the lens of that view set must be considered in situational context.”
Prysen shook his head slightly. “Your mistake is in seeking to apply multiple definitions to a singular concept. Should we not be concerned instead with focusing our search on a single, albeit broad, principle that captures varied iterations of a concept in an effort to distil its essential meaning?”
They had been at this for half an hour. Not only did they not agree on what ‘here’ meant, they hadn’t even figured out by what parameters to define it. Most of the audience had zoned out. The otrokars were playing bone dice. The Dushegubs’ branches had drooped together, braiding into a canopy. Unessa had curled up under it and was taking a fine nap. The Kai had formed a shield wall with their bodies, which normally happened when they were traveling through the wilderness and had to rest while guarding against predators. Resven had anchored his elbow on his arm rest, leaned his chin on his hand, and nodded off. Kosandion had given up and was reviewing some complicated looking documents on his personal screen.
“Help…” Tony whispered into my ear. “Eyes closing… Can’t resist…”
I pulled up a small screen. Tony was up in the hidden tower above the stands, getting the bird’s-eye view of the arena. He looked like he was halfway into a coma.
“You’re an ad-hal. Use your badass training.”
“There are limits to my power.”
I switched the screen to the kitchen. Droplet popped up on it, her cute squirrel tail raised behind her. “How can I assist you?”
“Could I please have coffee in travel mugs?”
Kosandion glanced at me. The Umas I knew were fond of caffeinated drinks and Dominion citizens frequently drank tea.
“Make it five,” I said.
Resven’s chin slipped. He jerked awake, blinking his eyes.
“Six. Cream and a little sugar in all.” We needed the calories.
“Coming right up.”
Nycati pondered the sky. “Agreed. Let us, for the purpose of this discussion, narrow our view set to a specific circumstance governed by a general principle. How shall we define this circumstance?”
“I suggest we begin at the most fundamental baseline. Let us define ‘here’ as a set point within the space time continuum.”
“It may seem tempting, however, time is subjective and immeasurable. It’s passing slower or faster, depending on one’s perception…”
“It seems to be passing pretty damn slow right now!” the head of House Meer announced, his deep voice booming like an alarm gong.
“We’ve been here forever!” someone shouted from the otrokar section.
Gertrude Hunt chimed in my head, announcing Orata coming out of the gate. I pulled up a small screen showing the arrival chamber. She stepped out of the gate and made the universal motion for ‘wrap it up.’ Unlike the opening ceremony, the debate was being broadcast almost live with only a minute or two delay. The ratings had to be dropping.
A small table emerged from the floor, bearing six coffees in metal insulated tumblers of various colors. I took one and offered it to Kosandion.
“Thank you.” He opened the tumbler and sipped. “Delicious.”
It was interesting how Kosandion never simply accepted a gift or a favor. He always thanked you and then made sure to indicate that the gift was valued.
I handed the blue tumbler to Resven. He gave it a suspicious look, unscrewed the top, and took a drink. His eyes widened.
I kept one tumbler for myself and sent the rest through the floor to Sean, Gaston, and Tony.
“You are a saint,” Tony said.
Sean saluted me with his tumbler.
“Nectar of the gods,” Gaston murmured.
“…so how can we define ‘here’ if time is constantly flowing, since a single instant in which we anchor our definition will end in that moment?” Nycati wondered.
Prysen smiled. “That concept is predicated on the belief that time actually passes, that it moves and further, that said movement is measurable. I will concede no such thing. In fact, I reject entirely the notion that time can be reduced to infinite numbers. Rather, it is best expressed through finite numbers. There is a limit to their precision, for nature is inherently random, chaotic, and imprecise.”
First Scholar Thek clapped his hands.
Orata held her hands in front of her, palms up, fingers spread, as if trying to bring an invisible melon to her face. She was begging me to end it.
I accessed the First Scholar’s earpiece. “We have to cut this short.”
“But it’s so invigorating,” he whispered.
“My time is finite!” another knight yelled from House Meer. “Every moment that passes, or doesn’t, saps my will to live.”
“We concur,” Donkamins announced in a chorus.
“You know why you’re here?” Surkar jumped to his feet. “To win!”
Applause broke out through the arena. He raised his arms, accepting the ovation, and flexed his award-winning biceps.
“And the debate goes to the otrokar,” Kosandion murmured.
I turned the First Scholar’s egg white.
“Alas,” the First Scholar announced. “We are out of time. It has truly been a pleasure. Please return to your seats.”
“Who won?” someone from Team Smiles yelled.
“Who cares?” a female otrokar yelled back. “We all lost.”
Gaston stepped forward. “We shall resume the trial after a short recess. Please take advantage of the refreshments to regain your strength for the second half.”
Refreshment trays sprouted from the floor. I opened the backs of the sections to allow access to individual species-specific restrooms.
On my screen Orata crossed her hands, palms out, the Dominion’s equivalent of a thumbs up, and went back into the portal.
“What’s the schedule of the dates after the debate?” Kosandion asked.
“Oond of the Oomboles, followed by Amphie,” Resven said.
“Has it been announced?”
“No, Letero,” the chancellor said.
“Switch Oond with Ellenda,” Kosandion said.
Sean was still down in the arena. I whispered into the mike. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he said, his voice warm. “What’s up?”
I hesitated. This was kind of stupid. I could see him. He was right there. But we’ve been so busy these last few days. Normally we spent our time together. We weren’t glued at the hip, but we usually ate together. We did chores together. At night we settled into a comfortable room I made for us off our new joint bedroom, and we played video games or watched TV with Beast and Olasard.
We hadn’t been able to do any of that. I felt like I barely saw him, which was somehow worse than not having him here at all, like when he went on his excursions with Wilmos. I missed him but saying it out loud seemed too needy.
“Are you okay?”
“I miss you,” he said.
“I miss you, too.”
“Young love,” Gaston purred.
“Disgusting,” Tony said. “If it wasn’t for the mission, I would mute you both.”
A trumpet-like sound pulsed through the arena, announcing the end of the break.
Surkar of the otrokars stared at Oond in his fishbowl. This was clearly not the opponent he would’ve preferred. Too bad for him. The orbs had been set up at random. Even I didn’t know which was which.
“Am I supposed to debate a fish?” he demanded.
“Xenophobia has never led anyone to a path of enlightenment,” the First Scholar told him.
Surkar raised his eyes to the sky briefly, as if inviting the sun to witness his tribulations. He was about to debate a space fish and their discussion would be presided on by a space chicken. This was not a trial appropriate to his stature. His hero of the Horde image was taking a bit of a beating but throwing a fit about it would make him look like a fussy baby and he knew it.
“Ask your question,” he growled.
“What is best in life?” the First Scholar announced. “You have one hundred moments to consider.”
Oh, sweet Universe. “Sean, I know it was you,” I whispered.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sean said.
“We just rewatched that movie a month ago.”
“Let’s see what he says.”
Surkar straightened his shoulders, as if he was going into battle on familiar ground and just noticed a gap in the enemy’s line.
“To crush your enemies,” Sean mumbled in a horrible imitation of an Austrian accent. “See them driven…”
“He isn’t going to say it. There is no way.” There were few things that I was willing to bet my life on, but Surkar of the Hope Crushing Horde not having seen Conan the Barbarian was one of them.
The First Scholar’s egg turned white.
“Victory,” Surkar announced.
Oond spread all of his fins and let them float down gently like diaphanous veils thrown into a breeze. His translator flashed and a soft voice issued forth from the speakers in the base of his fishbowl. “Safety.”
“Victory is the only way to achieve safety,” the otrokar champion growled. “Crush your enemies.”
Sean made a strangled noise in my ear. Tony snorted.
“Slaughter their armies. Drive them back. Force them to submit. Fill their hearts with fear and dominate their minds, so they tremble at the mere mention of your name. That’s how you ensure safety.”
Oond’s fins wavered back and forth. “Untrue.”
Surkar glowered. “What does a fish know of battle or honor?”
Oond’s fins unfurled, twisted, and snapped, and his translator followed. “I know of deep water. I have tasted the darkness so thick and cold, it blinds all senses, a place without a current, where no direction exists. I have witnessed the things who live within it. I have seen the jaws of monsters who spawn the length of the ocean. I know the value of safety. No matter how powerful you are, there are enemies one cannot crush.”
“Spoken like a coward.”
“You seek to belittle me. Have you swum in the deep water? Can you kill a leviathan?”
Surkar shrugged. “Fine. How do your people obtain safety? Enlighten me.”
“Within the ocean, there are vast corals. A coral grows slowly through the efforts of tiny creatures, and yet over the years it spreads and shelters other lives. Fish dart around it, playing and feeding; mollusks crawl under it, cleaning up the ocean floor; dozens of species feed, live, and reproduce within its growth, and should a predator appear, they will withdraw within the coral’s sturdy walls and most of them will survive. If you wish to secure safety, you must become a coral. Help others. Make yourself indispensable to them. Show them that apart you struggle but together you prosper.”
Surkar sneered. “That’s the way slaves are made. Make yourself indispensable, and those who are stronger will chain you. Why should they respect you or care about your wellbeing, if they can simply force you to do their bidding? Without the power of retaliation, none of your talents matter. You will become the lowest of the low, doomed to a wretched existence. No. My people will not live like this. I cherish my freedom. I will not set it aside. I will not cower.”
“I don’t lie, fish. I have no need. I’m strong enough to force others to suffer through the discomfort of my true words.”
“Kill your enemies,” Oond’s translator said, its voice soft and sad. “Murder parents. Slaughter offspring. You cannot grow safety this way. You grow memories. They sprout deep in the bellies of the survivors, like sea urchins covered in spikes. They hurt and hurt until those you have crushed return to crush you and rip the source of their pain out.”
Surkar bared his teeth. “They will regret it.”
“And then the eggs of pain will be sown again. In turn your people will grow their own anguish and will seek revenge. And so it will go, a cycle of pain never ending.”
“The crucible of revenge makes us strong,” Surkar said. “I had six siblings. The war took four. Only my brother and I remain. We are the strongest of our clan. By achieving victory, we proved our right to live.”
Tiny sparks of light ignited along the oombole’s fins and body. Oond turned within his fishbowl, drawing a complete circle. It was a breathtaking sight, yellow and red lights sliding through his layered fins, graceful and beautiful. He raised his fins, lowered them, and turned again, like a living flame.
The arena watched in hushed silence.
The mesmerizing fins flowed. The light pulsed, soft and beautiful.
“What is he doing?” Surkar asked.
“He is dancing for you,” Sean told him.
“You are a child of pain,” Oond’s translator said. “You have suffered. This is a small gift. A moment free of anguish.”
Surkar stared at him for a long moment. “A pretty dance. A pity that dances don’t win wars. I’ll give you a piece of advice: when the enemy comes for the lives of your children, gather them and run away to your coral. Don’t waste time on dancing.”
He turned to the First Scholar. “This farce is over.”
“Very well,” the First Scholar said.
“Do the oomboles have professions in the traditional sense of the word?” Kosandion asked.
“Yes,” I told him. “Oond is an ookarish, an exceptionally beautiful being whose job it is to dance for those who are aggrieved.”
Cyanide was next. The beautiful sleek Higgra padded into the arena on her delicate fluffy paws, looking very much like a mythical cousin of a terrestrial snow leopard.
Most species evolved appendages that allowed them to manipulate tools. The Higgra did not. They still walked on all fours, sitting on their haunches or lying down in specialized tool chairs when they had to do something intricate. Their fingers were dexterous, but it was their claws that truly made their tool use possible. Long and curved, they allowed for extreme precision. A Higgra could pluck a yolk out of an egg and carry it across a mile of rough terrain without breaking it. It was theorized that the Higgra didn’t evolve at all but had been enhanced by some advanced civilization lost to time. Their origins were one of the mysteries of the Galaxy.
Cyanide sliced one of the remaining three orbs with her claws, as her own orb dropped out of view. The insects tagged the Donkamin representative. He came to stand next to her on the arena floor.
“Are you bound by Fate?” The First Scholar inquired. “This is your question. You have a hundred moments to contemplate.”
Cyanide didn’t bother with waiting for 100 moments. “Yes. That which shall be, will come to pass.”
The Donkamin twisted his neck to the side, stretching it to two feet. My stomach tried to crawl out of my body.
“We are the architects of our future. Fate is an empty concept.”
Cyanide smiled, showing her blue gums and gleaming white fangs.
“If everything is predetermined, why should one try to do anything at all?” the Donkamin candidate demanded.
“Of course, one should try. The future is unknowable, and we are blind to what’s to come. Our life is a test by which we are measured. To earn one’s fate, one must prove one is worthy of it.”
“There is no evidence that fate exists.”
“There is no evidence that one has a soul, and yet here we are.”
“I have no soul,” the Donkamin candidate stated.
“Then I shall not speak with you any further, soulless one. Our dialogue would be pointless.”
Cyanide turned around and went back to her seat.
Okay. That was over quick.
The First Scholar waited until everyone was seated and spread his wings. “The final two candidates may come to the floor.”
Two sets of stairs unfurled from the Team Smiles and the Temple sections. Amphie was the first on her feet. She’d practically jumped up. A long purple gown accented with geometric white and black embroidery wrapped her figure. The color was beautiful and deep but desaturated rather than vibrant. The asymmetric neckline dipped under her left armpit, then climbed onto her right shoulder in a wide fold. It was less of a ball gown and more of a formal state dress befitting the spouse of a Sovereign. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head in an artful arrangement – not a hair out of place. Black sandals decorated her feet. It was all very tasteful and dignified.
Lady Wexyn also wore purple, but hers was an unrestrained celebration of amethyst. Her translucent gown flowed at the slightest breeze, iris-purple in the center, then transitioning to a fiery rose, and finally turning an exuberant yellow. Her hair was pulled back from her face into an elaborate hair rose secured with a spiky golden ornament that looked like stylized sun rays.
The long slit of the dress opened as she walked, giving everyone a glimpse of her tan round thigh. A dozen anklets tinkled with tiny bells as she moved, and when the breeze swept the hem of her gown aside, I saw that she was barefoot.
They stood side by side, an elegant, somber inhabitant of a palace and the woman of light and vivid color who would’ve been at home in a flowering meadow.
“The question before you is as follows: what is love?” The First Scholar asked. “You have 100 moments.”
Sean hummed a familiar tune into my ear. I picked it up. It was catchy and I was really tired.
“Don’t hurt me…” Tony joined in.
The egg turned white.
“Love is a complex concept,” Amphie said. “It is at once an abstract concept, yet it has the power to affect living beings. Its impact is irrevocable and those who experience it are forever changed and often scarred, and yet despite the pain they endured, some of them have no regrets. One can say that love is a process of elevation, a transformative journey from baser animalistic urge to a near spiritual purity of feeling, from the compulsion to possess to the enlightenment of self-sacrifice, a transcendence that no longer requires mutuality but exists independently of the object of desire. It can be a passionate longing, or appreciation rooted in respect, or it can be unilateral and impartial, as the love of a deity for its followers or a ruler for their subjects.
“Love raises questions. It is true that it is healing and yet it can also harm. One must love oneself but too much selflove causes one to compromise their ethics and become blind to their own flaws. One could say love is a quest to complete oneself, seeking virtue and beauty in others that we lack within ourselves. It is also true that love exists in opposition to reason for when we love someone, we ignore their faults, allowing their moods and wellbeing to affect our own. While it is the root of charity, it is also a kind of madness. In conclusion, love is a layered phenomenon that must be examined in a specific context for it is too broad for generalizations. Its power is immense, its impact is lifelong, and it warrants further contemplation.”
The First Scholar nodded and looked at Lady Wexyn.
She smiled back at him. A soft blush touched her cheeks. She glanced up at Kosandion. “Love is what I feel for His Majesty.”
Resven slapped his hand over his face. Amphie stared at Lady Wexyn with an open mouth.
“He is my favorite, and I will never love anyone else in the same way.”
Lady Wexyn gave Kosandion a little wave and smiled.
PS: The Book Devouring Horde will get to vote for their favorite intergalactic bachelor on Monday. Don’t miss your chance to be heard!