Suspended two miles above The Arena I was waiting to be dropped from a hovercraft. If the fall didn’t kill me, someone at the bottom certainly would. Anyone in the competition could melt me with a plasma bolt, incinerate me with their heat vision, or simply pummel me to death with their bare hands. But if I managed to survive all of that, and those chances were slim, the time bomb ticking away inside my head would eventually do me in. Either way I was toast ... it was just a matter of time.
Staring down at the sharp translucent spires that adorned the top of each megatower, all I could think about was the possibility of being impaled on one as I parachuted in. That would look pretty ridiculous, especially during the slow-motion replays. When people discussed the biggest tournament in history, it’s not exactly how I wanted to be remembered: as the guy who lasted fifteen seconds because he fell chest-first onto a pointy building, getting skewered like a human shish kebab.
As soon as the producer shouted, “Three minutes until show time!” and clapped her hands like an over-caffeinated cheerleader, I looked back at my life. Nothing epic or mind-blowing, just random stuff. Like stepping up to bat at my first little league game. My shopping trips to the retro comic book store. And things old people told me that I wished I’d paid more attention to.
My grandfather used to bore the shit out of me with stories about monumental events from his generation – things that happened fifty years before I was born. “I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated,” he would say, or, “I know what kind of sandwich I was eating when I saw the moon landing,” or, “I crapped my pants and passed out the first time I heard The Beatles.” Okay, I don’t exactly remember him saying the last one, but he certainly could have. I tended to space out when he was spinning his longer yarns.
I shouldn’t be so hard on the old guy. If by some miracle I survived all of this, that’s exactly what I wanted – to be able to bore the shit out of my grandkids one day with grandiose tales from my youth.
And I had a few good ones.
“I remember where I was,” I would say, sitting in an oversized leather chair in my book-lined study, surrounded by the awestruck faces of the children gathered at my feet. “I remember who I was with, and what I was doing when the President of the United States made the speech that changed everything. It was the day he announced that superhumans were real.”
At first I didn’t know how to react. No one did. But we sure as hell didn’t expect any of the newly-discovered super-powered beings to put on a cape and try to save the world. Just the fact that they existed was an implied threat as far as the government was concerned, and most of them hid their abilities for fear of persecution. If one of them was crazy enough to try and fight for truth, justice, and the long forgotten ideals of yesteryear, it would be too little, too late. For most of us, there wasn’t much of a world left to save.
In 2041 when wars raged, disease spread, and the deepening recession crippled all but the elite, there wasn’t a lot to look forward to. Except for The Tournaments. Internationally viewed sporting events where citizens volunteered to participate in dangerous competitions for huge cash prizes, all with the hope of clawing their way out of abject poverty. If you wanted to move from a one-bedroom roach motel into a shimmering megatower, you needed a small fortune, and for most of us, the only way to get that was to compete. And to survive.
The world was always watching when media magnate Cameron Frost unveiled the rules of an upcoming tournament, and this time the stakes were higher than ever. This season’s rules, or lack thereof, were brutally simple: thirteen people test their skills inside a secured urban battlefield, fighting each other ‘arena mode’. It sounded tasteful, but anyone familiar with video games knew that ‘arena mode’ was just a clever euphemism for ‘death match’. This was all or nothing – no reset button, and no extra lives. Twelve die in no-holds-barred combat, and one walks away with enough money to not just move into a megatower, but to buy one of their own.
Despite the inherent dangers of participating in one of the increasingly violent events, it was an attractive opportunity for millions who faced an otherwise inescapable lifetime of misery. For the largest cash prize ever awarded, there would no doubt be a record number of volunteers, but this particular tournament had one little caveat: If you wanted to take a crack at surviving The Arena, you had to be a superhuman.
When Frost said the words you could almost hear the entire planet’s jaw hit the floor.
We’d get to see an actual comic book battle unfold on a live simulcast. I know it sounds morbid, but this was a dream come true. Ever since I could remember, forums, video lounges and holo-sessions were aflame with arguments about who would win in a fight; Could Iron Man take out Batman? What if Thor battled Superman to the death? And how much ass could Wonder Woman really kick while wearing those ridiculous eight-inch stilettos? These were the questions that occupied my thoughts and dominated way too many of my daily conversations (primarily online, where I did the majority of my socializing.)
And soon these questions were going to be answered; what the greatest superpowers were, and how they stacked up against each other in combat – not just across the panels of a digital comic or in a CGI-enhanced action sequence, but in real life.
This was it. The flame wars were about to end.
I never aspired to live among the privileged. I was content to live out the rest of my lower-class existence consumed with my collection of vintage graphic novels and tabletop RPGs. Like everyone else I occasionally watched the tournaments, and was especially excited about this one, but I was always a casual observer. I’d never even considered entering one as a competitor, regardless of the potential for riches. But life is funny like that ... it has a way of turning you upside down and dropping you on your head right when you least expect it.
I craned my neck and saw the producer smiling, holding up a single digit.
One minute left.
Sixty seconds until I was about to skydive for the very first time, hoping I didn’t collide with a building on the way down. And that was the easiest task I had on my morning agenda.
I took comfort in the fact that the other competitors likely had the same reservations – the same panic attacks, sweat drenched palms and nervous ticks as the clock wound down towards show time. Although I had a feeling my anxieties were a little more pronounced than theirs.
Because unlike them, I couldn’t fly. I couldn’t shoot lasers from my hands or rip lamp posts from the ground.In a life-or-death battle to determine the ultimate superhuman, I was the only competitor without a super power.