The Hornet’s Sting
by Zach Shephard
The black cube hovered silently before him. He brushed it with his fingertips and watched it spin, streaks of yellow light blurring before his eyes like shooting stars sucked into a tornado. Silver and gold figures protruded from the cube in a variety of shapes and sizes, little towers and disks and polyhedrons stuck to each surface via magnetic charge.
Ruben stopped the cube’s spin with a touch. The yellow streaks settled, separating into glowing grid lines that formed small squares all across the metal box. Inside the squares were the pieces of the game, the gold ones backing the silver into positions that couldn’t be defended much longer.
Ruben leaned forward. The yellow glow lit his face in the dim arena. He reached for a piece, hesitated, pulled his hand back. He picked up a towel and wiped the sweat from his neck.
“Is that a problem?”
“It makes no difference to me. Either you move your pieces toward their inevitable demise or allow your clock to waste away. Regardless of which path you choose, the result will be the same: victory for my people.”
Ruben checked his side of the chess clock. He figured he could probably last until the grappling round, though he wasn’t sure he’d fare any better in that half of the competition.
“You were nearly submitted when last you were in my grasp,” the Flinx said, orange eyes staring like shiny pennies from the other side of the cube. “I must commend you on your will to persevere through the choke. Another three seconds and you’d have been asleep in my arms.”
“I guess I’m just lucky the round wasn’t three seconds longer.” Ruben picked up a piece and moved it to another square on the cube. He pressed his button on the clock.
The Flinx moved forward in its seat, penny-eyes fixed on the change to the game’s state. It reached out and rotated the cube with three long, black, knobby fingers. It slid one of its gold playing pieces to a new position and tapped the clock.
The Flinx leaned back and showed its teeth, straight and flat and painfully white against the dark leather of its flesh. Its mouth turned neither up nor down, but Ruben recognized the expression as a Flinxen smile: the Flinx had capitalized on his mistake, and was not above gloating.
Ruben looked up at the match timer, floating high above them in the circular pit. The red numbers indicated there were less than three minutes left before the grappling would resume.
Ruben had eighty seconds left on his chess clock. He’d have to keep the Flinx’s clock running if he planned on surviving to the physical component of the competition.
Ruben slid one of his pieces across the yellow gridlines and brought it to a stop. He then slapped the corner of the cube so that it went into a whirlwind spin and tapped his clock.
The Flinxen side of the crowd looked down into the pit and hissed. The human side celebrated quietly, even though Ruben’s delaying tactic wasn’t much of a victory.
The Flinx reached out and stopped the cube’s spin.
“A cowardly maneuver,” it said. “These few seconds you have taken off my clock will not save you. Even if we do reach the grappling round, nothing will change. I am your physical superior as well as your intellectual. You cannot win.”
The Flinx made its move and tapped the clock.
“Humans will be the last slave race of the Vorock,” it said.
“And what will that make the Flinxen?”
“Esteemed members of the Vorock Civilization.”
“ ‘Esteemed’? There’s no esteem in this for either of us. Whichever side wins here will be treated as a race of peasants. Face it—Flinxen and humans are the bottom of the intelligent-life barrel. Sure, the Vorock may turn the losers of this match into slaves, but the winners won’t be much better off.”
“I would gladly call myself a peasant if slavery were the only other option. And I know you feel the same way. You simply fear admitting it because you don’t wish to recognize this future as your reality.”
Ruben stopped in the middle of toweling his face. His eyes met the Flinx’s.
“Just play the game,” he said, and tossed the towel aside.
They made moves in rapid succession. The gold pieces continued to push back the silver, and Ruben made a critical mistake that lost him control of an entire face of the cube.
“How were you elected the champion of your race?” the Flinx asked. “Your game is severely lacking.”
“I was the best grappler we had. Three-time judo champion.”
“Your accolades mean nothing here. Flinxen are physically superior to humans—you stand no chance of winning in that aspect of the competition. Your race should have selected their champion based solely on intellectual merit and hoped to play a strong game while merely surviving the physical rounds. That would be your only chance of winning.”
Ruben looked up at the match timer. “We could also win if I break your neck in about thirty seconds.”
“Life-threatening maneuvers are illegal in the grappling component of the competition. If they weren’t, I’d have killed you several rounds ago.”
Ruben spun the cube, stopping it when his spire flashed by. It was the tallest piece on the board, a plain, ten-inch silver spike that stuck out from the yellow-and-black cube like a hornet’s stinger. He picked the spire off its square.
“You have committed to playing that piece,” the Flinx said, showing its strange Flinxen smile.
The human side of the crowd leaned forward, hands on the safety rail, eyes drawn into the pit. There was only one legal move of the spire that wouldn’t result in Ruben’s immediate defeat. Everyone’s future rested in his hands.
Seconds ticked off both the match timer and Ruben’s chess clock. He moved the spire from one hand to the other.
He placed it.
The human crowd wailed as if they’d been struck by arrows. The spire was protruding from the left side of the cube, in the grid’s middle square, where it could easily be captured by an opposing piece.
Ruben tapped his clock.
“You have sealed your fate,” the Flinx said. “Your race is doomed to—”
Ruben stood. “Grappling round,” he said.
The Flinx’s mouth twisted into something that looked like a snarl.
“No matter,” it said. “You manage only to delay the inevitable. Even if you should survive the grappling round, our game will end the moment it is resumed.”
Ruben stepped away from the table and moved into the grappling circle. “Ready when you are.”
The buzzer sounded and the Flinx sprung.
The Flinx was strong, but Ruben knew how to use his attacker’s momentum against him. He pushed, he pulled, he tried to get the Flinx off balance. At one point, Ruben was thrown to his back, but he quickly went for an ankle lock and forced the Flinx to pull away. Ruben used the separation to get back to his feet, then maneuvered to the edge of the grappling circle.
When they met again, Ruben spun the Flinx around so its back was to the cube. He then pulled with all his might and, as expected, the Flinx resisted. Ruben switched his direction and pushed. The Flinx felt the shift in momentum and fell backwards in an attempt to throw Ruben over the top.
Ruben did not resist.
He allowed himself to be thrown through the air, much farther than the Flinx had intended. His back hit the floating cube and he fell onto the table below.
The Flinx flipped to its feet and spun to face Ruben. Its orange eyes went wide when it saw the bloody tip of the spire protruding from the human’s chest.
Ruben coughed, blood spilling over his lips.
“No!” the Flinx said, backing away. “It was a mistake! An accident!”
The representative of the Vorock descended into the arena, hands clasped together inside the baggy sleeves of a silken robe.
“Frivolous bloodshed has no place in the Vorock Civilization,” it said. “Champion of the Flinxen, I hereby disqualify you from this competition. The fate of your race has been decided.”
The Flinx pleaded but its words went unheard. The humans cheered, while the Flinxen rushed for the exits.
Ruben, the life escaping his body, curled his lips up at the corners and showed his reddened teeth. As the Flinx was escorted out, it glanced back and saw what a human smile looks like.
Zach Shephard‘s fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Flash Fiction Online, and Alex Shvartsman’s Unidentified Funny Objects. He’s also recently sold stories to Daily Science Fiction and Chaosium’s Once Upon an Apocalypse.