The Second, or Games Attendant, knocked lightly on the cubicle door, only as a matter of courtesy, then entered. He was carrying a stack of towels and other toiletry items and he joined a small group of other attendants who were preparing the contestant for the coming battle.
The little man who was being attended so lovingly was billed as Barnabus The Wolf Slayer. He was all of five feet six and might have weighed a hundred twenty pounds. He had the muscle tone of one who could scarcely feed himself, let alone fight, yet he was world renowned for his fierceness in battle. His power and ruthlessness came from the scope of his imagination and the depth of his intellect.
The attendants were rubbing him down on a padded table, part of his relaxation therapy. Aromatic oils were applied to his skin, paying special attention to his feet. His feet were known to give him pain at times, and the team could not afford the distraction. Neither could the sponsors.
Today's match was brought to the public view by two soft drink manufacturers, three car companies, a life insurance company and an interplanetary cruise line.
The actual amount of money that would change hands in wages, bonuses, bets (both legal and illegal) and fees from this one match would stagger the imagination. And this match wasn't even being played to settle a dispute or a war, as was sometimes the case.
The attendants finished the rubdown and moved Barnabus to the dressing area, where an incontinence diaper was applied, then he was dressed in a maroon silk robe. Contestants were sometimes known to soil themselves while competing, and while no points were docked for loss of control of bowels or bladder, it was considered bad form if anything showed through clothing or ran down the contestant's leg.
An absorbent bib was also tied around his neck, as he might have a tendency to drool while deep in the trance state of combat and again, it was bad form to wet one's clothing with spittle.
Barnabus was thirty-five and he had been in this business for eleven years. He had been apprenticed to Homer the Horrible and The Great Waldo. They were both part of a stable of mind fighters owned and maintained by a consortium of businessmen incorporated under the name of Trans Earth Entertainment.
He knew that, over at the other end of the vast arena, similar preparations would be in progress for his opponent, Jack The Mindbender. This was not a grudge match, far from it. In fact, he and Jack had gone out to dinner with some of the sponsor's people just the night before. That was the way it was in the World Mind Fighting Federation. It was just business, the entertainment business, and no matter how bloody it got in the arena, they were all friends when it was over.
The attendants placed him gently in the deeply padded fighting chair, which was bolted to the concrete floor and strapped him in. They didn't want him physically injured and they knew he might thrash around and even convulse powerfully as the battle continued, perhaps hurling himself out of the chair. He obediently opened his mouth for the molded mouthpiece that would keep him from biting his tongue, then he felt the cold saline solution dabbed on his temples and the headset was attached.
An attendant leaned close. "Ready, Barny?"
"Yo. Let's do it." He breathed around the mouthpiece.
The attendant reached to a console of switches and instruments nearby and flicked a switch. Barnabus' mind was immediately flooded with the image of the arena outside. Its quarter mile expanse of flat, green grass was perfectly clipped and manicured. A slight breeze riffled his robe and the sounds of the vast crowd came to him, whistles and cheers rolling in the evening air. The beam-downs from the huge satellite mirrors thousands of miles above in space made it bright as day and would keep it that way throughout the match.
At the opposite end of the stadium, he saw his opponent, Jack the Mindbender. They faced and bowed in the tradition of their sport, even though, at this point, the spectators could not see either of them. In moments, though, the huge holographic projectors would come on, and show the crowd, in breathtaking three dimension, every move of the two mentally gifted players. For now, they withdrew.
Then, from the sidelines, came the announcer. He was dressed in the traditional attire of a circus ringmaster, the red fox hunting coat, the white riding breeches, black boots and black silk top hat. A white cravat with a diamond stickpin and white gloves completed his ensemble. He carried in his hands a common remote cordless microphone, and in his ear was a button receiver. He walked briskly to the exact center of the stadium and raised the mike to his mouth. The crowd hushed expectantly.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" he called, his voice booming and echoing from the huge sound system, "Good evening, and welcome to the World Mind Fighting Federation's Monday night Cerebral Combat. Tonight, from beautiful Garden of the Gods Stadium in Colorado Springs, The World Mind Fighting Federation presents, in the North position, Barnabus The Wolf Slayer, three time world champion and current holder of the title, "World's Most Devious Mind"...
Suddenly, behind the announcer, a fifty-foot tall blonde woman appeared, dressed in a red thong bikini, holding above her head a huge sign that read, simply, "Bullshit!" She pranced around the field, flashing a six foot white smile, her impossibly giant breasts bobbling, showing the sign to one and all, then she faded from sight. The crowd, especially the men, shouted, cheered and stomped.
The announcer continued. "In the South position, ladies and gentlemen, Jack, the Mindbender, the scourge of three continents and holder of the title, World's Most Ruthless Mindfighter."
To the announcer's left a huge rat flashed into being, thirty-five feet long, not including the tail. If it were real it would have grossed sixty tons. It was corpulent, hideous, and wore a sappy expression on its face. It lowered its head, raised its ass, showing the crowd on that side a most disturbing set of hairy gonads, then it waved its tail in the air and farted.
The sound was thunderously amplified and rattled the teeth of the paying folks. They ate it up. There was a collective gasp, then laughter and applause. The rat bowed, and faded.
The announcer once again raised his mike. "Ladies and gentlemen, the judges have now advised me that Jack The Mindbender has been penalized fifty points for the obscene comment on the sign and for sexual exploitation of women." There were both boos and cheers.
"Barnabus The Wolf Slayer has likewise been penalized fifty points for using flatulence in a performance and unnecessary display of genitalia." More cheers and boos.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the coin toss. Barnabus, being the senior member of the Federation has been given the call and he has chosen heads." The announcer produced a silver dollar and flipped it, allowing it to land in the turf. Then he stepped forward and bent to examine it, as a tiny TV camera in his lapel showed the crowd that it was, indeed, heads.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Barnabus has won the toss. Let the game begin." The announcer withdrew from the field and a hush descended on the crowd as they waited for the opening gambit. The television network went to a thirty second commercial for Ford Aircars. (Have you flown in a Ford lately?) The British-American manufacturer was now building the premier self-controlled aircar in the world, surpassing Damlier Benz-Chrysler and Rolls-Bentley in both performance and luxury.
In his booth, Barnabus waited out the commercial break. He was used to working with television and it gave him time to gather his thoughts.
When the red light came on, he closed his eyes and came out.
From the North end of the stadium, from the ground up, a huge horse slowly formed. It was a Belgian draft horse of heroic proportions, finely muscled and stamping impatiently, nodding its great shaggy head and blowing. Sitting atop the horse was the figure of a knight, fully armored and carrying a lance. His armor was dull black and a silver heraldic eagle was spread on his chest. A green scarf was tied around his left arm. The eye holes in his helmet were glittering slits and a pink streamer flew from a spike on top. There was a collective sigh from the crowd. Barnabus had chosen a traditional opening, but nobody did it better. Or so they thought.
The crowd turned as one to see the response at the south end of the stadium. The horse that Jack built was a Clydesdale. Its shining coat gleamed in the downbeams and its white, shaggy leg locks fluffed and flashed in the breeze. It, too, was impatient, its rider barely keeping the champing, stomping animal in control. The south knight wore amazing gold plated armor and a black shako atop his helmet. The handle of his lance was inset with mother of pearl and a black scarf adorned his arm.
Across the length of the stadium they faced each other, the tips of their upraised lances more than seventy feet in the air. They must, of necessity, be larger than life, so that the crowd could see their every move. They must also conform to the rules, which stated that response must be given in kind. If Barnabus had made a knight twice the size, Jack could have done so, too, but then, this was merely the opener.
From the north end, the black knight lowered his lance and spurred the Belgian and a split second later the golden knight spurred the Clydesdale. The match was on. The crowd rose to their feet as the chargers closed, the speaker system causing the ground to actually shake with the hoofbeats and clanging of armor, drawn directly from the brainwaves of the competitors.
At the middle of the stadium there was the clash of lances on armor and in the exact center of the stadium, invisible to the spectators, there was the clash of two wills. The lance of the black knight struck the gold knight's helmet a glancing, jarring blow and the lance of the gold knight skimmed ineffectually across the shoulder of the black. Both rode on to the ends of the stadium, then wheeled their mounts and stood, gathering their wits.
The crowd sat back down, munching popcorn and sipping Cokes. This time the golden knight spurred first, as was expected and they again rushed toward the center of the arena.
As they met, it first appeared that the black knight would cleanly run a lance through the gold, but at the last possible instant, the golden warrior flicked away the black shaft with his own and they passed unharmed. The horses were getting warmed up now, and at both ends of the arena, there was barely a pause before they both spurred again.
As they charged, clods of earth were seen to be thrown by their hooves, though not a mark was made to the immaculate turf of the field. At the center, the gold knight's lance struck a badly aimed thrust at the breastplate of the black and the black was nearly unseated, but managed, just barely, to remain atop the Belgian. The golden knight's lance shattered, and he dropped it to the turf, its usefulness gone. At the other end, the black knight also dropped his lance. Rules were rules. Both dismounted, drew broadswords and moved to center arena.
In a small but tidy home under the dome of New Pittsburg, Mars Colony, a boy of nine asked his mother, "Hey, Mom! Can I watch the Mindgames?"
"Joey, you know I don't approve of that trash," his mother answered, "besides, it's already past your bedtime."
"Aw, Mom! Just thirty minutes, okay?"
"No, Joey! I said "No" and that means "No." Now go brush your teeth and I'll be in to tuck you in."
"Don't need no tuckin' in." Joey mumbled under his breath as he reluctantly got up and started for the bathroom, his slippered feet stomping.
"What did you say, young man?" his mother called.
"Nothin'!" he hollered.
"Don't you sass me, Joey, or your dad'll hear about it when he gets home from the mine!"
She listened and soon heard Joey brushing his teeth and water running. He was a good kid, she reflected, her hands in soapy dishwater, but anymore the damn TV was so trashy, it was no wonder kids got weird ideas and had lousy manners.
Fifteen minutes later, Joey lay in his dark bedroom staring at the blank ceiling. In his mind's eye, he imagined himself walking outside and rising through the transparent dome, then crossing space to Earth, a place he'd never been. He imagined Colorado, just west of the center of the United States, then Garden of the Gods Stadium as he'd seen it from the skycam many times on the TV. Now, what was going on? Ah, yes. Barnabus The Wolf Slayer vs. Jack The Mindbender. Now he could see horses, and golden armor flashing in the downbeams...
Barnabus was the first of the two competitors to notice the third presence. It was an immediate distraction and it pissed him off, as he was already thirty points behind. His black knight had lost his sword arm when the battle finally moved to the ground and that had ended that portion of the contest. The network had gone to commercial and that gave both he and Jack a minute to breathe normally and relax and unclench.
Then the minute was up and it was Jack's turn to lead. He had come out with a dragon. Barnabus didn't like dragons all that well and he didn't do them as well as his opponent, which was exactly, he reflected, why Jack had gone with a mythical animal that could be made to look almost any way one cared to make it.
Jack did dragons very well, indeed, and his was the most frightening of any ever produced in a modern mind fighting arena. No decorative, oriental silk-painted piece of artwork, here. This dragon was the stuff nightmares are made of and, in the crowd, more than a few children hid against their mommies as it materialized.
It was long and snakelike, but possessed of four pairs of sturdy lizard-like legs tipped with wicked, curving claws. It had a single head (Jack didn't do multiple heads) that had both a curving beak, similar to a bird of prey and an impressive array of teeth and fangs. Its tongue was blue and split like a snake's and its wings were large and functional, allowing it to fly if need be. It shot fire from its nostrils and light beams from its eyes. Its overall color was not flashy, but almost a military olive drab, except that the scales covering its body were slick and shiny.
Barnabus knew that he, too, could make a dragon and they'd have one hell of a fight, but he also was well aware of the rule that stated that if one competitor produced an animal which never really existed, the other could do the same. Barnabus was better with birds.
From the north end of the stadium Barnabus produced one of his most famed apparitions. The Roc was sixty feet tall and ninety feet from wingtip to wingtip. Its talons could have scooped up a truck and its beak could have torn out the engine block. It spread its wings and screeched the attack call of a raptor and the dragon hissed and snorted fire. Then the crowd came to its feet again and the battle was joined.
As the dragon and the Roc flew at each other and slashed and tore, Barnabus contacted Jack with another, completely separate part of his mind. While not against the rules, talking between contestants was generally felt to be a distraction and was discouraged by trainers. They could shoot the breeze on their own time. But Barnabus felt this was important enough to breach protocol and besides, he knew Jack was a good enough competitor and a sound enough mind that a little conversation wouldn't distract him or cost either of them points.
"Yeah, Barny, whattaya want?"
"Do you feel it?"
"Another presence. Someone's crashing the program."
"Don't screw with me, okay? I'm kinda busy here."
"You don't feel him?"
"Naw. Not really."
"Well, trust me, there's someone else in here..."
"Yeah, okay, whatever. Damn!"
Barnabus' Roc had scored a very damaging blow to the dragon, ripping its neck almost in two and spontaneous healing was not allowed by the rulebook. Gouts of hot, steaming blood shot out of severed arteries and Jack redoubled his efforts to pin the bird to the ground before his dragon bled out. It was not to be. The bird was much too strong and agile and soon scored another slashing blow that finished taking the dragon's head completely off. It collapsed to the turf and began to fade, as the giant Roc flapped massive wings and lifted skyward, its scream nearly shattering the sound system. Automatic overload sensors cut in, saving the speakers and the hearing of the crowd as the Roc flew higher and was soon lost to sight. Commercial time again.
Joey lay safely tucked into his warm bed, millions of miles across space and watched the Mind Fight, not from the viewpoint of a paying customer or a TV watcher, but from right out on the turf of the arena. He could see all the action up close and he could smell the blood, it was that real to him. When the TV network went to commercial, he was on the field alone, looking at the crowd, hearing their laughter and chattering. He was not visible to any of them, he was sure. He had no headset to amplify his brainwaves and send them to the machines, so the ordinary observer had no idea he was present.
He walked around a little, then sat down and made himself comfortable. Barnabus and Jack would be back out in a minute and he wondered what forms they would choose for round three. Then, suddenly, he felt a presence in his mind and the voice of Barnabus asked, "Who the hell are you?"
Realizing he'd been detected, Joey quickly pulled back, while at the same time masking his escape by occupying his mind with trivia.
Into Barnabus' mind, there was a sudden influx of rhyming, sing-song nonsense, the thoughts, fears and ideas of a child. Little pig, little pig, let me in! Not a chance wolfy, you're livin' in sin! High is the tractor, low is the plow! Finish up the field, get down and take a bow! Little Miss Willow, sittin' on a pillow, eatin' on a pizza an' drinkin' up a coke! Long came a miner, dined her and wined her, popped her in the backseat an' offered her a smoke!
Then, like smoke itself, the presence was gone and the red light came on. Back to the battle.
Joey lay in his bed, shaken by his experience. He'd known for a long time of his gift and he had used it before in this same manner, finding it much more entertaining to be in the arena than to merely watch it on their old, antiquated, color-cube 3-D virtual viewer.
Back on Earth, virtual viewing had progressed to the point where the entire room was the viewer, with walls, ceilings and even floors showing separate but connected aspects of the picture, and holographic features and figures connected to that.
If they'd had something similar on Mars, Joey might never have used the gift to go to Earth for the match. But such equipment was too expensive and cost too much to ship to Mars. Joey just hoped he hadn't gotten himself in trouble.
Barnabus came out for the third round as a hundred Cossack Cavalry riders, complete in every detail. They wore the correct garb for their era, which was the late 19th century, and carried the correct weapons. Jack countered with a hundred Samurai warriors from the same period in Japan. The battle was soon joined, and it was bloody, indeed. As heads flew and limbs tumbled to the turf, and blood soaked the virtual ground, the spectators were thrilled. But Barnabus' heart was not in it, and he lost the match by sixty points, thirty for presentation and thirty for accuracy. It seemed he had slipped up and put a flintlock pistol in the belt of one Cossack that was incorrect for the period. As the loser of the match, he only earned a million credits for his evening's work and the right to challenge Jack The Mindbender to a future "grudge" match.
"So, you think there might have been someone else in the arena? Another player?"
Barnabus, his trainer and the sponsors were in a meeting on the eighty-sixth floor of the Games Building in New York City. His trainer had asked the question, and as much as it pissed him off, Barnabus had to admit it was a legitimate question.
"No, I know someone was there. I felt him so strongly I could almost see him."
The representative from Super-Cola spoke up. "You realize we had all the game tapes run back and there was no sign of an interference signal?"
"Yeah, I know that."
"Not even a carrier."
"With the protection grid, that's what one would expect. It's specifically designed to keep out stray signals and isolate the arena from interference."
"Then, how would you explain this?"
"I can't. Unless."
"What?" his trainer asked.
"Unless it was done without benefit of an amp."
"What do you mean?"
"By mind power alone. No headset, no amplifier."
"From where? From in the crowd?"
"How the hell should I know?"
"Do you know anyone who could do that?"
"No. No, I don't." Barnabus said, shaking his head.
"I don't either, and I don't think it can be done."
It was almost two weeks before Joey got brave enough to again check out the mindgames first-hand. He knew he should have just contented himself with watching the Sunday afternoon match on the Vid. His dad was on overtime at the mine and his mother was busy with her own job. She was in charge of taking care of one of the greenhouses, not a job that would seem important to someone from off-planet, but in truth very essential because of air content and purification concerns. The more growing plants there were, the less bottled oxygen was used.
Joey was alone in the house and he had the Vid turned on. He really intended to watch the match there, in the living room, but when it was almost time, he found his mind drifting almost effortlessly away. It found its own way down now-familiar paths, and in a split second he was on Earth, then speeding across the terrain as though in a hypersonic flier, until at last the mountains came into sight, then the stadium.
There was the finely manicured grass, the boundary lines, the packed stadium seating, with the skyboxes for the dignitaries. He decided to avoid detection and he took over an empty seat until the match would start.
Back on Mars, in the living room, his body sat on the floor, rocking slightly, its automatic and reflexive systems keeping him breathing and alive while the conscious part of his mind was millions of miles away.
"He's here!" Waltman said. The country's only known commercial telepath was in one of the skyboxes, usually reserved for the president of the Skippy Snack Food Cartel. He was a cadaverously thin, older gentleman who smoked Camels incessantly. His fingers were yellow-stained and his teeth were crooked and brown. His old, threadbare sweater and slacks stank of cigarette smoke and stale urine. To the others in the room, he looked like just another old fart with constipation and prostate trouble. He had been lured out of the care home where he lived with the promise of enough money to keep him in Fig Newtons and Playboys for the rest of his life.
He had grown tired of the entertainment circuit years before and he steadfastly refused to work for the military. In his forehead was a well-defined dent, the result of an explosion in a defense plant, the same accident that had left him with a titanium plate in his skull and the sometime ability to read thoughts. Today, he was receiving five by five with the help of a couple of jolts of Absolut vodka. The bottle and a carton of smokes were within easy reach.
His hand shook slightly as he lit another cancer off the last one. This 'path was so strong! He had read others with the skill, but never one like this! While most people unconsciously transmitted some of their thoughts, reading them was like trying to read a newspaper from across the room. The headlines might be made out, but little else. Then there were people with some ability, such as himself. That was more like listening to a badly-tuned radio-lots of static, but enough music coming through to recognize the tune. This person, my God! It was like a symphony orchestra, heard from the front row, center. The incredible sharpness of the images was like looking through his own eyes, only clearer, if that was possible.
"Are you sure he's here in the stadium?" asked one of the executives.
"Does a bear shit in the woods?" Waltman asked, then poured himself another drink. "He's sitting out there in the stands, waiting for the match to start."
One of the Cartel's hired thugs, a loutish type with big pectorals and an equally large gun, stepped to the glass. "Where?"
Waltman exploded into laughter, then a fit of coughing that was finally quelled by several deep drags on his cigarette. When his lungs had arranged themselves back in their normal places he said, "As if you could friggin' see him! He's not here physically, dummy. He's projecting his mind in here remotely, from God knows where."
"So, whatta we do?"
"We wait. I'll learn everything I can about him as things progress and we'll nail his ass."
"Then you pay me."
Joey started feeling kind of lousy right after the match started. At first, he seemed to be sort of short of breath. Then he kept having to cough. Soon, he was tasting something vile, like smoke and old, dirty ashtrays, mixed with strong cough medicine. He really was trying to enjoy the spectacular battle before him, as the contestants fought back and forth across the turf. These were amateurs tonight, and they were doing prehistoric monsters. The quality of their creations was not up to the standards of a Barnabus or a Jack The Mindbender, but they were enthusiastic enough.
Finally, about midway through the evening, Joey at last realized what was going on. He finally stopped paying so much attention to the match and started letting himself feel his surroundings. Then, it was suddenly as if he were sitting in the lap of a gnarly, nasty old man with cigarette breath, who was half drunk and too clingy and lovey. Joey recoiled from the presence and then pulled back from the stadium, arriving back in his own living room seconds later. The vile taste was gone from his mouth, but somehow he felt soiled. He couldn't wait to get in the shower.