Author: Chana Kohl

When my ship touched down on the small moon of E’lyrvst III, nothing struck me particularly outside the ordinary. Host to the largest salvage yard in the sector, V’hara, the proprietor, was known across the explored galaxy for her business acumen and political influence. Visitors could anticipate technological expertise, unrivaled hospitality, and lively entertainment, all while buffered from the palpable heat of an unending desert landscape.

And I needed spare parts.

Her establishment looked much like the caravanserai of Old Earth. An oasis by day, courtyards and alleyways hummed with the bustle of traders and merchants. But as the sun dipped lower, I felt the atmosphere change: hand drummers thumped ancient rhythms as patrons placed their bets. Tellers behind impenetrable windows took wagers from over thirty worlds. Something of importance was taking place and the entire sector was invested.

“Captain Roiz,” V’hara greeted me graciously, “I’m glad you agreed to spend the night planet side while your order is prepared. You’ll find the waiting less terribly dull.” Her eyes glinted like almandine jewels.

After a round of drinks and a light repast, the open courtyard dimmed. A circle of torches kindled, and a ring announcer’s voice boomed, “Distinguished guests, spectators from across this system and beyond, welcome to the match you’ve all been waiting for!”

The stomping of feet by viewers in the stands reverberated like a herd of wildebeests.

“To my right, the emperor of Talsya IV, the tenth-generation successor to the throne,” raising his hand towards the balding, heavy-set man next to him. “Perhaps after tonight, the Talsyans will need to crown the eleventh!”

“And on my left, President Ulrysus Aixt. After 72 consecutive years in elected office, he has served planet Lexuros with distinction. Unfortunately, tonight might be his permanent retirement!”

“Is this for real?” I glanced at my hostess in disbelief. She simply popped an hors d’oeuvre and smiled, “Did you place your bet?”

A brass gong resounded, and the Emperor made the opening move, lunging for the President. The older man, more spry than I first gave him credit for, dodged in time. Both fists came down hard between his opponent’s shoulder blades. The emperor fell to his knees.

“I’m sorry,” my concerns finally found their voice. “What exactly am I watching right now??”

“In our sector, whenever two worlds cannot resolve their disagreements through civil negotiation, the leaders of those worlds must resolve it here, in a fight to the death. It’s the law,” she added, “by popular vote.”

“And you condone this, this…” I reached for the right word. “Brutality?”

“Condone it? I lobbied for it myself! More than half of this sector’s population are of fighting age, likely to be drafted at the whim of any given autocrat. ‘Why can’t everyone get the chance to grow old and fat?’ I asked myself.

“Getting the legislation passed was a piece of cake,” she continued. “The maternal demographic is what did it, actually. Once mothers realized they no longer had to send their daughters and sons to war anymore, the corpus politicus didn’t stand a chance.”

The President had the Emperor in a camel clutch, gnawing at his ear. “C’mon!’ I shot her serious side-eye. “That’s legal??”

A sudden, awful crunch of cartilage and bone echoed through the arena. The Emperor was face down, arms spread defenseless, one leg akimbo. An eerie hush fell, then the crowd roared approval.

“This is barbaric!” I told her. “There’s absolutely no place for something like this in civilized society.”

“Maybe,” she answered, taking a long draw from a gold-plated hookah, “But the ratings are through the roof!”