Sunday, 9 March 2008

Archery Contest

I am Clan Ion Monkey. My name is Dao Zhou Tong.

The clansmen behind me are silent but I can feel their focus. Their energy is urging and protecting me as I face the straw target ahead. The air in the courtyard is still, untouched by gentle curls of currents stirring over the ruined brick edges of the walls that enclose us. The bow in my hands is taut, the arrow fixed against my thumb. The lacquered wood, curved reflexively in a pattern recalling compound bows reaching back three thousand years, creaks slightly under the pressure. I draw my focus to the target, although it is not so important as the lasers that mark the width of range with a ghost trail of reddened dust at regular intervals.

The sun is weak overhead. A pale touch through thin wisps of cloud. Overhead I hear the gods as them squabble, jostling for the best position to watch my dare to them. When I am ready I draw them bow back just an extra few milimetres and flick my fingers forwards to release the string with an outrush of breath mixed with prayer.

"Ho!" The judge shouts. The speed comes back almost immediately and I know I am the first to see it appear on the board. Everyone else keeps their eyes upwards a little longer, scared of the reaction, but the speed is the only thing of interest to me. "198.5" The judge announces. My clan shouts with joy. I can feel the smile across my face. So close to the limit. So close to meeting the gods' wrath. And yet I escaped. I turn, raising my arms, holding the bow aloft. I sneer at my opponent, at his choice. He had come in at only 175 before. A coward's speed. His clan is silent. We have won. I have won.

An arrow can fly from the bow in excess of 200 kilometres per hour. To do so is to bring the attention of the gods alive in the clouds that extend beyond the edge of the atmosphere and to bring death. That is the challenge. To remain in their eye, to bask in their attention, but to remain alive.

My clan shout and jeer at our silent opponents. They have been shamed. A scuffle breaks out at the corner of my vision but it soon dissipates. Everyone knows the rules. I walk towards the target to pull out the arrow that is firmly embedded through the flag of their clan, Polar Waste. I tuck the arrow away and tear the flag from the pins that held it on to tie it around my head.

"Wait." My opponent has gotten up and walked to the edge of the range, his bow in his hand and an arrow ready. I can see him shaking from where I am. I can only will him not to be so stupid as to try to beat my speed. Not today.

He raises the bow, pointing it towards me. The crowd of clansmen on both sides is silent, whispers of discontent but also appreciation of a show. I cannot show fear but I do not trust myself to speak. I just know that when I meet this guy in hell I am going to give him a bloody good kicking for killing me like this.

He strains at the bow. The point shifts with his fear and anger. I suddenly doubt he would even hit me. I don't see it launch. My eyes are closed. There is a flash of light, a crack of thunder more powerful than any I've heard from nature. I feel myself thrown back against the dummy and we both tumble to the floor. The gods are angry. I roll and try to piece together any evidence of injury. None. I look back through blackening smoke and ugly smells. It is rare for a contest to end in a death.

Then a shadow falls. The flicker of a kite overhead. The fear leaps through all of us and everyone leaps up to run, to flee before the police, or worse, get here to punish us. I laugh. I run too.

As soon as I can I get under cover. I crash through the cracked wooden boards protecting the entrance of an abandoned office. Inside is littered with debris of broken desks and faded pipe. Wong has tracked me, loyal and accurate, amongst the crowd while carrying the case for the bow and its arrows. No matter how fast we are there is no way we can go unnoticed while carrying the bow. He is shorter than I am, and fatter, a perfect guard with the bright badge of our monkey spinning around its atomic system emblazoned on his chest and the short, broad dagger tucked with a sly glint of ready action in his belt. My laughter has cut to a smile which I see reflected in his face.

"We showed them, eh?" He says.

I nod. He continues.

"198.5. That's incredible."

"I cannot believe that Polar Waste idiot decided to try it."

Wong shrugs. Despite his slightly piggish looks I have learnt that Wong is incredibly intelligent. That's why I trust him. You don't want somebody stupid looking after you. I wonder, sometimes, why someone as intelligent as him would choose to run with us. I guess he does it for the same reasons: What else is there except that moment of random choice every moment of our lives. We both know that yesterday 198.5 could have killed us, that the god flying over on his cloud at that time might have had a different margin of error, or a different expectation of what makes a threat.

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