No matter how often she told herself she was prepared, Aurora’s mind refused to believe it. Today was the day she proved herself to society - to her mother. She would be the thorn in the chancellor’s side no more. After a year of nothing but hushed tones and downcast eyes, Aurora would show everyone aboard the Vindicator just how capable she undoubtedly was. Her initial failure would serve as nothing but motivation. Aurora was ready.
“You’re not ready,” Laurent blurted, breaking her focus entirely.
“Really? Now?” Aurora grumbled. Could he not have brought this up before she was staring directly at the unforgiving steel of the arena door?
“Your heart’s not in it. But you already knew that.”
“Of course it is. Do you know how hard it’s been to be referred to as ‘the chancellor’s single failure’ for a year? To be mocked by everyone besides the unlinked?” Laurent went silent as a steeliness settled in his slate-gray eyes. He took a step back before he could even think about taking it. Aurora would have liked to take back her words the moment they escaped her lips. Her best and only friend was two years her senior and still held no connection to an Abinesh.
Aurora was at the tender age of six when her mother led the raid on the immortals’ homeworld. It had been the chancellor’s ultimate triumph, considering how the inhabitants of the Vindicator were the only humans staving off absolute extinction. Since then, every twenty-four-year-old has been responsible for taking the life of an immortal for themselves, and it was no simple feat. All failures required an additional year of training before a final attempt could be made, as the Abinesh population was also limited. Aurora was twenty-five. One year older than her twin. If she messed this up, she would spend the rest of her life growing old while she watched her sister never age a day. Laurent was already there.
“You don’t have to do this,” he whispered, his eyes pleading as his hands encased her trembling shoulders.
“I have to do my part. What if we find a habitable planet one day, and there’s no one left to see it?”
“I won’t be there.”
“You don’t know that.”
A deafening tone rang throughout the arena and was followed by the boom of Barend Voidcrag’s resounding voice. His opening line was always the same: “Ladies and gentlemen: today we celebrate yet another step forward in ensuring a beautiful, age-free future!” Aurora’s stomach was in knots, and her eyes couldn’t seem to focus on anything. “Please give a warm welcome to Aurora Castenne: the chancellor’s girl! Now, remember, folks, this is Castenne’s second shot, so if this fight doesn’t go her way, we’ll all be calling her ‘Nana’ pretty soon!” Thunderous laughter shook Aurora to her core as the giant steel door rose into its cavity. Someone nudged her from behind, and she stumbled into the heart of the arena. She couldn’t help but gaze upwards into the sea of laughing faces. She wondered how many of them had placed bets against her. Aurora’s thoughts drifted to the blade she clutched in her hand as she waited for the arrival of her opponent. Whichever Abinesh had been chosen would be armed in the same way. They had to be. Otherwise, Aurora would never be able to make a connection, no matter how brutally she murdered them.
“And here comes the opponent - immortal number three sev-” Voidcrag paused mid-sentence. The crowd went deathly silent as if someone had flipped a switch. The Abinesh was a girl. A small girl. Everything about her was innocent - her nightgown, her perfectly curled hair, she even had the air of having just woken from a nap. The only out-of-place feature was the knife that barely fit in her tiny hand. She didn’t look to be more than five years old, although Aurora knew looks could be deceiving when it came to the immortals. For all she knew, this creature could have already lived five hundred years. The thought, unfortunately, did nothing to curb the nausea rising inside her. Aurora’s eyes found the viewing box where Voidcrag, a few senators, her sister, and her mother stood. The chancellor was smiling, and as soon as she met her daughter’s gaze, she winked. Aurora began to feel dizzy. Did her mother assign this Abinesh to her? (a very illegal move for anyone but the chancellor) Did she consider it a kindness?
Aurora returned her focus to the girl. The sight of the smiling chancellor was not one she could bear for more than a few seconds. She didn’t even want eternal life - especially when she would be surrounded by these people. A year ago, she would have done anything to belong. A year ago, she would have sliced the creature’s throat without a second thought. But the tides had shifted. Laurent was right. Aurora was about to start backing away when the doors surrounding the arena floor slammed simultaneously shut. The terrifying bang almost brought Aurora to her knees. This had never happened before. No one had ever been forced to fight, but her mother could not face another public embarrassment - and she was not smiling anymore. Aurora was no longer a respected warrior fighting for the continuation of her race; she was a spectacle.
The tiny Abinesh did not advance. Instead, she spun in circles, gazing up at the lights and sounds of the grand arena. Aurora almost tried to tell her to be careful - to put the knife down. That would have gotten some laughs from the audience. Instead, she closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and found her mother’s gaze once more.
“How old is it?” Aurora asked, her voice echoing throughout the space. She was surprised at how confident she had managed to sound.
“That is of no importance, my dear,” her mother responded, her agitation detected by no one but her daughters. It was worth a shot. Aurora plopped down on the cool, concrete floor, lobbing her knife to the opposite side of the arena. A gasp echoed throughout the audience. Her mother stiffened.
“You are a fool,” she said in a low tone. No sooner had the sentence reached Aurora’s ears did the girl stop spinning. Her eyes bore into Aurora’s. She smiled, revealing her characteristically pointed Abinesh teeth. She was not remotely human. Aurora had been fooling herself. Her eyes were far too deep to belong to a five-year-old. There was pain there. Hate. Aurora looked towards her blade resting against the arena wall, over forty feet away. That had been a mistake. The Abinesh hurled herself into the air, twisting demonically now. A hellish scream escaped the monster’s throat.
Before Aurora could so much as blink, she was on the ground, the Abinesh knife carving its way from her ear to her throat. The fall had knocked every bit of air from her lungs, forbidding Aurora from making even the slightest sound. She would not die like this. Not amidst the people who already viewed her as a failure. Not at the hands of a creature that looked like it needed to be tucked into bed. Even if she survived and failed to make a connection, there was a chance her twin sister would be taking care of her in her old age. No. The only option was to go all the way. Aurora flung the Abinesh to the ground with ease. Its size helped with agility but hindered its strength. As the creature became more enraged, it started to resemble more of a gargoyle than a girl. Its skin took on a sickeningly gray color, and its pupils enlarged enough so that all Aurora could see was black. It looked scarred - more haggard than any living thing she had seen. It had disguised itself. Aurora had no idea the Abinesh could do such a thing. The crowd didn’t either - judging by yet another wave of gasps. These monsters had been integrated into every one of the audience members, and the more the creature morphed into its proper form, the more frightened they became. The chancellor alone remained unshaken.
“So how long does it take to perfect your disguise, huh? Three, four hundred years? I guess you need more practice.” Aurora asked the Abinesh breathlessly. She had managed to capture its throat between her elbow and the floor.
The creature sneered, and in a voice so deep it was difficult to register, said, “Who wants to be eternally damned? You couldn’t see it for what it is, so I’m showing you. Consider this a courtesy my predecessors were unwilling to give.”
“They were freeing themselves?” Aurora asked, her pressure on the creature’s throat giving way to shock.
The Abinesh smiled humorlessly. “All the while condemning you. My people were always morphlings, and we knew we had to look pretty if you were ever going to take on our eternity. Sadly, your people will just have to live with the scars they acquire over millennia.”
The entire arena was deathly quiet. For the first time, the inhabitants of the Vindicator, the first immortal humans, considered what eternity really meant.
Aurora looked to her mother, her face full of expectation. She didn’t care how she lived as long as she survived. Death was the chancellor’s sole fear. Like mother, like daughter, Aurora thought as she dug her elbow further into the throat of the monstrosity pinned beneath her. The crowd erupted in applause at its last breath, and her mother was smiling once more. Any long-term concerns had died with the Abinesh. Aurora tried not to let their short-sightedness bother her. She didn’t think about Laurent or the endless void of time in front of her. She was accepted, and she would be accepted forever.