by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
part 1; part 2
appear in this issue.
part 3 of 4
Huddling next to her mother, Junior chimed in, “Yes, your Lord and Ladyship. It’s like you two beautiful people, Mr. and Ms. X, met at a Gold spa while working out and sweated your way into a wonderful relationship.”
“They know that, Junior,” Michelle hissed.
“Cool it, Mom, I was only trying to be helpful.”
Wiping a fleck of Michelle’s spittle from his mask, Ludwig interjected, “Aurelia and I know what’s expected of us; let’s just get on with it.”
“Oh, right, Excellency,” Michelle sputtered. Gesticulating like a demented puppet, she added, “Follow me over there, to your mark.”
Michelle and Junior escorted Ludwig and Aurelia to a red-carpet area, with the premium box section of the Coliseum in the holographic background. Standing on their marks, smiling beneath their masks, they heard the director cue the Michelles.
Michelle Sr.: Greetings to all you fight fans throughout the galaxy and beyond. I’m Michelle Sr., here with my daughter, Michelle Jr., reporting live from the Capital City Coliseum, welcoming you to another “Intergalactic Gladiator Superstars” exclusive, the Masked Challenger interview.
Michelle Jr.: You know, Mom, in the last hundred years only one masked pair survived the Challenge.
Michelle Sr.: That’s right, Junior, and today we have a very special pair: a gorgeous young couple from the Gold Class, Mr. and Ms. X.
Ludwig: Hi... nice to meet you.
Aurelia: Yes, we’re both thrilled to be here.
Michelle Sr.: Tell, me, Ms. X, where did you meet the incredibly hunky Mr. X?
Aurelia: At an Intergalactic Aureus Gold Gym. I took one look at those muscles and just knew I had to start working out with this guy.
Michelle Jr.: For sure, I can’t take my eyes off him. Mr. X, what attracted you to Ms. X... her super-hot body?
Ludwig: Well, Junior, I agree she’s “super-hot,” but what I really noticed were her emerald eyes. I don’t think there’s another pair like them, in the galaxy.
Michelle Jr.: How sweet... so romantic. Speaking of romance, Ms. X, what do you think of your Alexandra Dax original? That outfit’s so hot it could melt ice.
Aurelia: Yes, Junior. Alexandra Dax is my favorite Republic Boulevard designer; I just adore her whole line.
Michelle Sr.: I’m sure Ms. Dax is thrilled to hear you say that, Ms. X. Now, could you tell me if you two have any special plans for the future, assuming you win the challenge?
Aurelia: Well, yes, Michelle. If Mr. X and I survive, we plan to get married; and I’d just love to go down the aisle in an Alexandra Dax original.
Michelle Jr.: You hear that, Alexandra? Say, Mr. X, do you have any ideas for your honeymoon?
Ludwig: You mean, beside the usual. (Pause for laughs) Actually, Ms. X and I would like to take some of our winnings and spend it at an Intergalactic Aureus Gold Resort.
Michelle Jr.: What a marvelous idea, Mr. X. The Intergalactic Aureus Gold Resorts are the most fabulous places for fun and sun in the entire galaxy.
Michelle Sr.: That’s right, Junior. Well, I guess it’s time to thank our marvelous masked challengers and wish them good luck. Is there anything you’d like to say to our viewers, before you go to meet your opponents in the arena?
Ludwig: I’d just like to say hi to all those wonderful fans out there and thank them for watching the Masked Challenge on Intergalactic Gladiator Superstars.
Aurelia: Likewise; and I also want to thank the Master of Ceremonies, the producers and sponsors, and, of course, you Michelle, and Michelle Jr., for having us as guests on your show.
Following the interview, Michelle Sr. skittered up to Ludwig and Aurelia, gushing, “Oh, your Excellencies that was such a fabulous interview. Assuming, as we of course all do, that you win, will you grant us an exclusive on the wedding and coronation?”
“You’ll need to talk to our press secretary about that, Michelle,” Aurelia replied.
“Right,” Ludwig added. “Where’s Cecilia? She’s keeping us on schedule.”
“I see her over there, by the producer,” said Junior. Gesturing, Junior caught Cecilia’s attention. As the android approached, Junior added, “Like Mom, I’m one of your Lord and Ladyship’s biggest fans; I’ll be cheering for you every minute you’re in the arena.”
“That’s really swell of you, Junior,” Ludwig replied.
Cecilia bowed and said, “We’re on time. If your Excellencies will follow me, I’ll take you to the Gladiators’ waiting room.”
Ludwig and Aurelia said good-bye to the two Michelles, the producer, director and crew and then followed Cecilia to an elevator where they descended to the arena ground level. After exiting the elevator, they passed down a brightly lit, gray concrete hallway, stopping at a steel door. Cecilia swiped a plastic key card, the electronic lock clicked open, and they entered and walked a few paces to a guard station where a cyborg sergeant greeted them.
“I’m leaving your Excellencies, now,” Cecilia said. “The sergeant will escort you from here and cue you when it’s time to enter the arena. Please remember, he’s the only one in this area who knows your true identity.” Bowing, Cecilia added, “Good luck to you both, and heaven protect you.”
After Cecilia left, the sergeant said, “Please follow me, your Excellencies, and whatever you see beyond the next door, try to act like an ordinary pair of challengers... at least, until you enter the arena.”
Ludwig and Aurelia nodded. They followed the sergeant through a second steel door and then through a dimly lit, gray corridor. About halfway down the passage, they encountered the bodies of the executed criminals from that morning, hanging like slaughtered cattle, suspended by wires from hooks fastened to steel ceiling beams. Ludwig paused a moment, next to the naked, mutilated corpse of General Artabazus.
“Please sir,” the sergeant whispered, “I’m sorry you had to see that, but we must keep moving.”
“That’s quite alright, sergeant.
We are dead, let no soul revile us,
But pray God would us all absolve.
“François Villon, a fifteenth century Old Earth poet.” Ludwig glanced at Aurelia, but her mask hid her expression.
Continuing down the corridor, they halted beside a door. “This is the waiting room,” the sergeant said. Opening the door with his keycard, the Sergeant led them into a small, empty, glaringly lit chamber with bare walls painted institutional green, a few metal chairs, a table with old magazines, and a noisily percolating electric coffee pot with white styrofoam cups stacked by its side.
Pointing to a light above the door, the sergeant said, “We’re just about at the end of the lunch-time intermission. When that light flashes green, come out into the hall, and I’ll escort you to the arena door.”
“Where are our opponents, sergeant?” Ludwig asked.
“They’re being kept separate, for security reasons. You won’t see them, until you’re ready for combat.” The grim-faced cyborg bowed stiffly, adding, “Good luck to you,” and then turned and exited the room.
Ludwig and Aurelia sat next to each other on hard, cold metal chairs. Ludwig clasped Aurelia’s hand, brought his lips close to her ear and whispered, “We’re being watched.”
Aurelia turned her head, smiled and nodded in response.
They sat silently until the green light flashed. Then they got up, took their weapons, left the room, and joined the sergeant in the corridor. The cyborg led them to the gladiators’ entrance to the arena.
Upon entering his box, Finn smiled and raised his hand, waving to the crowd while the pseudo-Ludwig and Aurelia stood by his side. The crowd acknowledged their presence with cheers and applause.
Still smiling, Finn muttered, “Cheer on, you bastards; most of you would gladly slit my throat.”
Finn’s box was the most prominent and luxurious among the first level patrician tier. The Capital City architects had modeled the Coliseum after the ancient Old Earth stadiums: a bit larger than a football field, the Coliseum incorporated many modern New Earth improvements. While the stadium remained open to the sky, a force field screened out the sun’s harmful rays and in winter, protected the audience against rain, sleet and snow. Regardless of the temperature outside, the Coliseum remained a comfortable seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit.
The sand-covered floor of the arena could transform into a concrete basin, flooded for mock naval battles. The basement and sub-basements contained machinery and elevators that moved cyber-beasts into position to pop into the arena through invisible trap doors.
The patrician boxes had Gold amenities, such as individual climate control, ergonomic chairs, concierge bar and food service, and an invisible polymer shield protecting the occupants from splattered blood and gore and the occasional, unruly leaping cyber-beast or gladiator.
The Republican Guard and I.S.P. officers sat in box seats on the same level as the patricians; the non-commissioned officers and enlisted personnel occupied the Silver section, one level above. The next tier up contained the Bronze seating, and above that, the Iron class sat, or stood in the bleachers, along with the “C” and “D” class android servants; “B” ’droids stayed with their patrician owners and employers.
Entryways and exits permitted rapid, easy and efficient access and egress, and concession stands and toilets provided conveniences without any mixing of classes.
The sound system combined perfect acoustics with a P.A. system; an announcer led cheers accompanied by computer-generated electronic music. Entertaining robot clowns managed the cyber-beasts and assisted the mini-bot cleaning crew clearing the dead and dying from the arena floor. A massive scoreboard announced the events, tallied the living and the dead, proclaimed the winners, flashed messages, including taunting jokes and insults aimed at sub-par performers and provided graphic close-ups of the most spectacular kills.
Consul Finn viewed the one hundred thousand spectators as he reclined in his large, ergonomic leather chair. “Look at them,” he observed, “humanity and our modern, New Earth simulacra. The same, Old Earth lust for carnage; nothing changes.” Turning to pseudo-Aurelia, he said, “There’s some Chateau Deneb champagne in the refrigerator, my dear. Please pour us each a glass.” Turning to Macro and Sejanus, standing at the door, he added, “Gentlemen, please join us.”
“Thank you, Excellency,” Macro replied, “but we’re on duty and must refuse your kind offer.”
“Nonsense, gentlemen, today is a special day, and you’ll drink with me.” Pointing to the crowd, with a sweeping gesture, Finn added, “When we entered the box, they cheered Ludwig, not me. We’ll see how they react when my spear pierces their hero’s heart.”
Cato’s hover limousine arrived at the red-carpeted V.I.P circle to the cheers of citizens lining either side of the velvet-rope. The Consul and Artemisia exited the vehicle and walked about ten paces until accosted by the Michelles and their camera crew.
Michelle Sr.: Here’s Consul Cato, looking very august in his designer toga, accompanied by a ravishing companion. Can you say a few words to our Intergalactic Gladiator Superstars audience, Excellency?
Cato: Of course, Michelle, I’m pleased to be present at my opponent’s pre-election games, accompanied by an emissary of peace, Queen Artemisia of Algol.
Michelle Jr.: Oh my god, does this mean an end to the Algolian wars?
Cato: Yes, Junior, I believe it is peace for our time. (Pause for cheers and applause)
Michelle Sr.: Of course, we all pray for intergalactic peace. Your majesty, that’s a lovely stola.
Artemisia: Thank you, Michelle, it’s an Alexandra Dax original.
Michelle Sr.: Thank your Excellencies for sharing your thoughts with our audience, and have a wonderful day at the games.
Consul Finn watched as Cato and Artemisia occupied the box next to his, to the cheers of the crowd. Rising from his chair, the Consul smiled and waved at the distinguished couple next door, who courteously responded to his greeting.
Returning to his seat, Finn observed wryly, “So Cato’s here with the Queen of Algol; how amusing.” Turning to pseudo-Aurelia, he asked, “Will you please call the concierge for more champagne?”
Ludwig and Aurelia stood at the entrance to the arena, peering through the Plexiglas windows in the steel door. Standing behind them, the laconic cyborg sergeant announced, “He’s coming for your Excellencies. Good luck.”
Ludwig took Aurelia’s hand and said, “Whatever happens, I...”
Aurelia interrupted, putting her fingers to his lips and whispering, “I know, darling.”
A grim robot wearing a ritual mask approached the door, stopped and knocked loudly. The heavy electric door slid open slowly, squeaking on its runners, and Ludwig and Aurelia entered the arena, to the sound of trumpets and the wild cheers of the audience. Striding to the center of the arena floor, they raised their swords in salute to the crowd.
After a moment, a door opened to their right, and four males in bearskin costumes slunk into the stadium, to catcalls, comic music and insults crawling across the scoreboard message screen.
Ludwig immediately recognized the bear quartet; they were the “Insane Pimps” gang members he fought at the Augustan Towers. Observing the Pimps’ weapons, he noticed gleaming titanium steel claws. Turning to Aurelia, Ludwig said, “You take the two on the left; I’ll take the others. Let’s make this quick.”
Ludwig and Aurelia charged their opponents. One of Aurelia’s men tried defensively swiping at her with his claws; dodging his blows, she knocked him to the ground with a well-aimed kick and then drove her sword deep into his abdomen. The other, at first paralyzed with fear, began running. The crowd howled with laughter as Aurelia chased him around the arena.
Catching her quarry with little effort, she tackled the man from behind, taking him to the ground. Sitting on his back, she ripped off the bear mask, lifted his head by the hair and put her dirk to his throat. Looking at the crowd for a sign, she saw the death gesture. She turned to Consul Finn for final appeal, as the sobbing boy pleaded for his life.
Finn stood and made the familiar, thumbs-up stabbing movement. Aurelia slit the boy’s carotid artery, the mob shouting gleefully as a bright red spray of arterial blood stained the white sand.
In the meantime, Ludwig faced Ursa Major and his little brother, Ursa Minor. As Ludwig advanced to engage his opponents, a cyber-panther sprang from a trap door.
The growling beast attacked the little bear, who tried to defend himself with his claws. While the cyber-panther kept Ursa Minor busy, Ludwig danced around the big bear. Ludwig avoided his opponent’s lumbering blows and soon found an opening, driving his sword deep into Ursa’s groin. The bear screamed; grabbing his crotch, he dropped to his knees to the amusement of the jeering crowd.
Displaying his skills, Ludwig beheaded the falling Ursa with a swipe of the sword and then whirled about, plunging the gladius into the distracted cyber-beast’s neck, all executed in one swift, fluid continuous movement.
The crowd roared as Ludwig stood triumphant over the badly mauled, prostrate little bear and the dying beast. Waiting for the inevitable sign, Ludwig turned toward Finn and then dropped to one knee and slit Ursa Minor’s throat.
Ludwig joined Aurelia in the center of the arena; they lifted their bloody weapons in salute. Receiving a standing ovation, they awaited the next group of fighters while robot clowns diverted the audience and the cleaning crew removed the dead bodies.
Watching from his box, Finn sipped champagne and munched appetizers, commenting, “Those masked challengers are too good.”
Macro asked, “Do you think they’re Ludwig and Aurelia, sir?”
“Of course, it’s them,” Finn replied. “They did well taking out the trash. Now, let’s see how they handle my combat ’droids.”
A trumpet fanfare, up-beat music, and flashing multi-colored lights on the scoreboard announced the first of two pairs of android champions. The crowd roared as the male and female ’droid fighters entered the arena. The gladiators wore outfits identical to Ludwig’s and Aurelia’s and carried the same weapons.
The cosmetologists had coated the male’s skin with iron powder, and the woman with bronze, representing the lower classes. As they smiled and waved to the audience, each received orchestrated cheers from the Iron and Bronze tiers.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder