Wars have been fought for many reasons. The Trojan War was fought for love. The Crusades were fought for faith. The American Revolution was fought for freedom, and the World Wars for dominion. The Superhuman Wars were fought for fear.
When the first superhuman surfaced, the entire world lost their minds. No one knew what to make of us. My six year-old son, Evan, had read comic books that had called people like me superheroes. How nice that would have been. Outside of his comic books, we were called freaks, monsters, and aberrations. We were reviled.
I looked down at my hands. My ebony skin was heavily scarred, with burns running up my forearms, my palms hard and my muscles thick. Two years ago, they had been a chef’s hands: smooth, nimble, precise, and meticulously washed. Now, my knives cut other things than food.
I felt a boot in my back and stumbled forward, towards the high archway. The man who had kicked me stepped in front of me and handed me a belt of knives. “Go put on a show, you unnatural bastard,” he said.
It was all I could no not to plunge a knife into his mouth in an attempt to wipe the sadistic grin from his face. If his death wouldn’t have caused the entire room to be flooded with a thousand volts of electricity, I would have. But I wasn’t planning on dying in this god-forsaken hellhole. I will see my son again. It was what kept me sane. Survive one hundred fights, and I would be a free man.
“Don’t I always?” I pulled my belt tight around my waist and stepped through the arch.
I was immediately greeted with a roar of sound. A sandy field lay before me, ringed by thousands of men and women in stadium seating, screaming so raucously and eloquently for my blood. I didn’t plan on giving it to them. I’d survived thirty seven fights in the Coliseum, and I wasn’t ready to die just yet.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” An amplified voice rang through the stadium. “Our first fighter’s defect is unnatural dexterity. A thirty seven time survivor, please welcome the Cleaver!”
The arena erupted at the mention of my fighting name. It had been given to me by the same announcer that now used it to elicit cheers. It was, as he called it, my “alter-ego”.
Before the Superhuman Wars, Evan had given me another alter-ego. Superdad, he had called me, “Just like Superman.” He had been Spiderson, and we would save our living room from such evils as the Green Goblin.
Then the wars came, and we lost, badly. Those superhumans who survived were taken, tested on, and relegated to arenas just like this one. We were nothing but a show now. There were no more Supermen or Spidermen. There were only Green Goblins.
My opponent stepped onto the field to another round of cheers, albeit a smaller one. He wasn’t as popular as me, with only eleven survivals under his belt. Half of his face was covered in angry red scars, and he hovered above the sand. His defect was announced to be flight, and his alias Deathwing. What a stupid name.
A horn sounded loud and brazen, and we leaped into action. The other superhuman soared to the top of the massive domed roof and unslung a recurve bow from his shoulder.
As he began to fire arrows, I leapt for the iron bars that extended from floor to ceiling, separating the crowd from fighters, and began to pull myself up with my superhuman agility.
The fight was over quickly, too quickly for those in observance, who had come to see blood. With only eleven survivals, Deathwing was infantile as far as the arena went. As soon as I had climbed within range, I sent a barrage of knives flying at him as he hovered, and he, focused on his shooting, was too slow to move. Two heavy blades sunk into his chest and plummeted silently to the ground.
I climbed back down the bars, more slowly after my survival, and made my way back through the archway to the bowels of the Coliseum.
Thirty eight, I reminded myself as my knives were taken and I was escorted back to my cell. Every survival felt like a victory for me. They brought me closer to seeing my son again. Sixty two left.
I had been lying on my cold, hard pallet waiting for sleep when I heard a scratching at my cell door. I didn’t move. Most likely it was a guard that thought it amusing to keep the superhumans from sleep, and even if it wasn’t, nothing out there could be more dangerous than what I faced in the Coliseum. I closed my eyes and tried again for sleep.
Only seconds passed before I heard a muffled thud, and a woman stepped through my door. Once through, she pushed her hand back through the solid steel and seemed to motion towards whatever was on the other side.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked, my voice a low whisper.
“Hopefully escaping,” she replied.
The door opened behind her, and two men stepped through, one tall and heavily muscled, dark-skinned like me, and the other was pale as the moon, and thin as a twig.
“Is he coming with us, Dora?” the tall man asked. At a glance, he seemed to be in charge.
“I haven’t had the chance to tell him what’s happening yet.”
The small man, whose skin now seemed more translucent than pale, spoke up. “Tell him now, because with or without him, I’m getting the hell out of her before anyone finds that guard.”
I looked past the trio and saw a guard lying bloody on the floor.
“You killed a guard?” I hissed. “Are you trying to make sure none of us win our freedom?”
“They’ll never allow us to reach one hundred survivals now.”
The black skinned superhuman began to laugh, a deep chuckle that started in his belly but never reached his eyes. “The one hundred survivals tripe is complete shit,” he said. “I reached it a long time ago and look where I am.”
The news hit me like a truck. “It…it…” I was having trouble speaking. Was there no way for me to win my freedom and see my son?
“There’s a reason they’re called survivals,” the woman said, “and not wins. There is no victory to be had in the Coliseum.”
I found my breath. “But there is escape.”
“There is.” The woman moved to a patch of concrete next to my bed, indistinguishable from the rest of the floor, and pushed her hand through it. When she brought her hand back up, her arm had solidified, and the floor came with it, revealing a long tunnel.
“What is going on here?” I asked.
The tall man stepped forward. “My name is Jon,” he said. “This here is Dora, known as Phantom to the crowd, and the invisible boy over here is Craig.”
“I’m not invisible, Jon,” Craig said, slowly growing more opaque. “I’m transparent. I’ve told you this before.”
“And I’ve told you before, I’ll let you know the minute I start caring.”
I held up a hand to stop them. “Why is there a tunnel in my cell?”
“Your cell is the closest to the outer wall,” Dora said as she lowered herself into the tunnel, “and that means less digging for us.”
“We’ve been digging during your fights,” Jon explained.
“Then why didn’t you leave during one?”
Craig stepped into the tunnel after Dora, who had disappeared down the shaft. “I heard some guards talking today,” he said. “Jon was set to fight Ignus tomorrow. Over four hundred survivals—it was a death warrant. We had to get out before that.”
Jon moved past me, entering the tunnel. “We’re leaving,” he told me. “You’re welcome to join us.”
I thought about Evan. I hadn’t seen my son in over a year. He would be different—taller, more mature. “You can get me to safety?”
Jon nodded. “We can.”
“I’m in.” I followed him into the narrow dirt tunnel and began my crawl towards freedom.