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art by Jeffrey Redmond

The Colors

John M. Shade is a fantasy and science fiction writer living in Texas. His work has appeared in Everyday Weirdness and other places, and he is a recent graduate of the Viable Paradise writer's workshop. He is currently at work on his first novel. You can follow him online at twitter.com/dystopiandream.

The trucks roll into town like a fog, muted colors and brands dotting their sides like worn heraldry. Soon the spikes are down and Sluggoth is pouring the sand. Rime lifts the tents with cool, arctic winds from his fingertips. Panoply's clones hammer nails and put up boards. And everything starts to look familiar again.
In the main tent, around the sand and dirt floor of the arena, a wooden wall is erected eight-feet tall. The worn, angled seating rises from there. A makeshift gate sits on the side where the opponents emerge, and another across from it from where I emerge. Real boulders dot the floor for cover or weapons, or both. Everything is wood or stone, nothing metal.
"I've had plenty enough experience with magnetic controllers to know that a little fire ain't so bad," Mother Circus would say.
I sit waiting in a covered trailer during the day, far removed from the rest. It has benches and a dirty mirror and is filled to the ankle with stale, pallid water, a necessity when Red Octopus had been here. Once, the trailer had been filled with all different kinds of costumes, each of us boasting our colors to the other: Kid Shambler, Falcon Low, Halcyon, Mimetic Lad, Jack Lantern, Red Octopus.
Tiara, too.
I remember them all, but I could always see her the clearest.
In the children's games, we would always play in our costumes, capes fluttering at our backs, parents keeping a safe distance on the lawns, watching close. Tiara would always volunteer to be the damsel. No one knew why. Tied up and hanging over vats of plastic lava or acid, she would whisper to me, "You can save me this time. You really can."
I never could.
"I've got another hero for you," Mother Circus says as they are making the last preparations for the show. She looms over me in the trailer, having to stoop for the low ceiling. The stitching across her face has come undone again. The frayed edges at the corners of her mouth crinkle loudly when she grins. "You'll be wearing these tonight."
She throws me a costume and I turn it over in my hands. Cowl, cape, red and gray. So common, I think.
She says, "Shape it however you want. I don't care."
"Where did you find him?" I ask.
"Her," Mother Circus corrects.
I raise an eyebrow.
"Rare," I say. The women in masks were the first to go.
"Yeah," she says.
"Is she trained?" I say.
"Put up quite a fight when we took her."
I wait.
"You'll be meeting her soon enough," Mother Circus says, and motions with her hands like she's wiping muck from her shirt. "Hasn't been cleaned yet, though."
I try not to imagine all the methods used to get her to say yes. No one agrees to this without convincing. No one except me, it seemed.
I hear the stitches crinkle again as Mother Circus strolls away, back down the steps, the wood protesting her girth as she goes.
I meet the new hero in the waiting area, behind the large arena gate. Sluggoth comes and fetches me when the preliminaries are done and leads me through a series of tented corridors--all white and gray and stained with dried blood--connected to the waiting area.
Small and lithe, she has egg-white hair and an absent gaze. More a dancer than a hero, I think.
Sand from the arena trickles lazily in to mix with the mud around our feet. We stand listening to the crowd call for combat. Above our heads they stomp and pound, some with masks and some without. They come to watch something precious and rare, just before it's gone again.
It's never as fun watching the villains fight.
The woman superhero turns, looking me over, her sidekick. Her mask is red like mine but with faded gray edges, and sparkling blue eyes underneath. She says, "My name is Jessie. My real name, you know."
There is fear in her eyes, a forced smile.
"You're not going to last," I tell her.
"They're going to come for me," she says.
I shake my head.
"I know," she says. She gives a smile and for a moment it makes me think of Tiara.
"I know," she says again to herself.
The crowd's chant grows louder, louder, and louder still. The gates open and everything is blood and light again.
We travel away on cracked roads and dirt paths out of the towns, avoiding the crumbling cities. When a truck blows a tire or the engine starts to smoke, Sluggoth carries it the rest of the way, hunched over, grunting with each step. Sometimes Rime helps, or Killjoy or Panoply when they're bored, but not usually. Teamwork doesn't happen often here.
When we stop each night, the doors are unlatched and I'm allowed to roam free. The hero is left to heal in her trailer. I sleep under the stars on grassy hillocks, amongst ruined headquarters, or the rooftops of abandoned robot factories, and try my best not to dream of Tiara.
Some nights I dream of other things. Plots foiled, the feeling of being surrounded and still confident (it has been so long), but mostly it is the same dream, over and over. The seconds before Tiara leaves are etched into me. An index finger pressed to dry, cut lips. Her eyes wide with... what was it? Possibility? Weakness? Danger? I am never sure. She turns to go, and I am sitting up in my bunk, frozen; I can do nothing. I sit there as she walks out and away, hesitating forever.
The months turn cold, one by one, and the hero's--Jessie's--wounds grow in increments. They are always hardest on the heroes. An old habit, I think.
We train in the morning, breath trailing against the cool light. She begins to learn the tricks: Rime's blind spots, Sluggoth's stomp, Panoply's clones. She makes few mistakes, but they cost her. One wrong step could be the end of you here. It is only a matter of time. But she wins the majority of her bouts. She even managed to knock Sluggoth out in one punch. The crowd had fallen silent at that, and then the cheer that went up afterwards gave us both the energy to last.
Sometimes they'd want the heroes to win, too, if only for a moment.
You could lose yourself in it if you weren't careful.
I start to see the posters up along the border-posts and the town halls. Jessie's picture is in front, poorly drawn, with me off-center from her and the rest of the crew looming behind us. The crew takes a copy, laughing at their poses over the dinner slop. There are other posters on the walls, some with colors I recognize, some without.
We hang lights on a tree for winter. They flash green and yellow and purple. We countdown the seconds until a new year on a wind-worn clock. There is a bonfire in the center, the trucks coiling around it defensively like snakes. Jessie finds me amidst the cheering and the clapping and kisses me, and for a small moment, the crowd around me does not matter anymore.
I remember the heroes that went before Tiara, before she was called up. An endless streak trailing back behind us. I can recall Tiara's face when Mother Circus handed her the new costume, too. Joy and horror combined. It was what she had always dreamed. Flared gloves and boots, a gold half mask and a new, crisp symbol across the chest. I remember it new, and then the cuts and tears, the colors worn and raw, stitched to the side of the trucks now amongst the rest.
Jessie lays beside me in my trailer, her form outlined beneath the covers in the spare moonlight. "I'm going to run," she says.
"Are you sure?" I say.
She has cuts on her arms where Rime's ice javelins had glanced by. Bruises on her neck at Sluggoth's grapple. She hides them well, but I can see them now.
She is sure.
"Are you going to come--?" she says. "No, you won't."
"It'll be worse than here. You don't know what's out there."
"There are better places. We can fight."
I motion outside the window. "Look what happens when we fight."
She turns on her side, away from me. "I'm not going to last," she whispers.
"Just wait another day," I say. "You'll feel better tomorrow."
I don't even notice as she begins collecting her things.
They find her a week later in a small winter town near the city and drag her back, the headhunters sneering as they drop her at Mother Circus's feet.
She pulls her up by the hair, exposing the bloodied face and says, "You've got a lot of nerve, the hospitality I've put up for you."
Mother Circus laughs, the stitches across her body a cacophony as she shakes.
"Take her away," she says.
The trucks roll into town, the colors of the dead across their sides. The sun goes down and the stage is set, the sand poured. The crowd files in, shoulder to shoulder, handing away their bartered goods for the small, printed tickets.
They chant softly at first, then growing into crescendos like breaking waves. I stand behind the arena gate, waiting. I can see her, tied up and hanging, through the bars. The spotlights have swung down to me, and the familiar white light floods in. I bring my arm up to shield my eyes.
"Ladies and gentleman!" Mother Circus booms. She stands on a small parapet above the opposite gate, motioning to the full seats. "Are you prepared for a night to remember?! Very few get a chance to witness a death so rare!"
She points to Jessie and the full vat below her. Tendrils of smoke rise up around her like fingers. The weapons on the racks behind me shake and titter from the booming replies of the crowd. The entire arena trembles under the weight.
Mother Circus looks directly at me, and only me. "It is time for the main contest!" She throws her arms wide. "Welcome!"
The gates open and I am running forward again. The goons come first, always first. Five, seven of them, two or three at a time. Chains and pipes and knives in their hands. I slide between two, crashing their heads together. I crack one's ribs and another's cheek against my fist. They know I mean business.
But I keep running.
The others come now. Rime, his uneven grin. Sluggoth making sure not to hurt me. Panoply's raucous laughter. I dodge an ice javelin and roll into a run again. I plant a hand on Sluggoth's shoulder and use him for cover, for the instant it takes to get him angry. Projectiles hit him in the chest by the dozen, bouncing off, and he charges the others, bodies diving out of the way of his line.
Teamwork doesn't happen often here.
The stage comes on fast and I feel a second wind breathe into me. The crowd's cheers are mixed with hate and joy, anticipation and rejection, all around me. Months upon months of running for my life, training days, and obstacle courses under heavy suns; countless in number. I can remember the faces of the teams I led, the towers and the gadgets and the enemies. The big-screen TVs, the communicators, the friendships, and the romances, so innocent and new.
I hurdle the fence around the stage and step up. Jessie's eyes follow me. The crowd chants louder, the growling voices hitting like tribal drums. Shadows dance behind me, the others trying to close the distance now. Too late, though. The infighting bought all the time I needed. Acid thrums through the blood in my legs and arms. I taste the sweat on my mask and the stale air across my tongue.
I jump.
Mother Circus is already turning to run. I land on her, hearing the bones crunch down. The crowd climbs overtop one another trying to get away, villains of all colors running scared.
The others come upon me soon, but far too late. My work is already done. Mother Circus's blood has already begun to stain my costume. I look past the others and see that Jessie has already freed herself. I watch them pass her by. They don't even care, and she never looks back.
They are arrayed before me on the landing--Sluggoth, Panoply, Rime, and the others--and the games are over. Both sides settle in, the way it was meant to be. Old habits die hard. It is like breathing for us. The odds are stacked impossible and the villains have murder in their eyes, and everything starts to look familiar again.
I remember Tiara's face in the crowd that one night so long ago. No mask. No costume. Her real face. The show was nearing its end--the lights burning down--and it was a warm, starless night. I told myself that it wasn't her a thousand times since then, but I think I knew. She was dressed in a dusty jacket and had a baby in her arms, standing next to a cheering man in a spiked costume three rows up, looking down on me. She never took her eyes off me.
I suppose I understand now. I work the day shift at the security hut, defending the village from remnant killbots and other dangers. Jessie cooks communal dinners once a week for the other families. But in our home, amidst the long, secret nights, we hang the colors of the dead above our children's cribs and tell stories by candlelight of an age gone by, sure that it will come again.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 17th, 2012

Author Comments

Superhero stories, by their very nature, are a finicky beast. Too light and you risk comic book antics; too dark and you risk alienation. This story began from a simple germ (or spider bite?) of an image of costumes displayed in the wind like flags of heraldry, and a broken world grew up around it for me.

- John M Shade
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