I’m not quite sure how “Gladius” wound up where it ended – the original story was to have something to do with virtual reality and infectious ideas, but then the virtual coliseum shifted to being the actual reality, a place where various races had been taken as slaves by a master alien culture and forced to fight each other. I like to think that the human thirst for freedom has a truly UNIVERSAL appeal, and that fellow slaves would ultimately choose to join against a common oppressor.
Here’s the blurb:
Gladius has served his Betelgeusean owners faithfully since he was first abducted from Taurus, but he’s about to find out that loyalty isn’t a two-way street, and not all slaves are willing to settle for their lot. Don’t you settle – read “Gladius.”
And here’s the excerpt:
“Welcome to The House of Aegina’s Fortieth Annual Chattel Games!”
Gladius the Tauron shook his head. Ajax’s announcement to the toga-clad cream of Betelgeusean society – five thousand of the privileged by the sound of them – grated in Gladius’ headset and set his teeth on edge. Ajax didn’t have the sonorous tones of his father Telamon, who had run the games during Gladius’ first ten with the House of Aegina. Gladius had hoped that Ajax’s delivery would improve over these last four games since Telamon’s passing, but even Gladius’ loyalty to his owners could not ignore that the patriarch’s voice had become more strident. It would not do to be distracted from his charges; he reached to where his headset hung behind his horns and adjusted the volume.
“Our first batch of volunteers,” Ajax paused in his delivery to allow his audience to chuckle in appreciation of the misnomer, “has been acquired from the furthest corners of the galaxy, to be submitted this day for your approval.”
That was more tolerable. As Pit Warden for Block-C, he needed to monitor the proceedings above to know when his lot’s time approached. He heard the gates above open, the trudge of Block-A abductees being marched into the arena for inspection, the murmuring of the bidders in the stands as they sized up their selections.
Gladius paced down the aisle between the pens to inspect his two teams, the smells of oiled metal and sweat filling his nostrils. The members of Block-C were dressed in their numbered tunics, each with their restraining collars clearly visible. Gladius laid a hand on his own; it was an effective tool that could easily render an unruly slave unconscious, thus regaining control without causing permanent damage to the Master’s property. It could only be removed with a controller if you knew the code. Gladius had seen Telamon enter it once over a decade ago, but it was of no matter; no slave would ever get his hands on a controller.
The bull-headed Taurons – Gladius’ own people – were on the left, some still polishing their battleaxes. They were watched over by Portus, a Tauron who’d been with the House of Aegina almost as long as Gladius. It was preferable that the Whips be of the same race as the prospects they supervised – the transition to usefulness went more smoothly. Their Terran opponents were on the right, readying their preferred swords under the eyes of their own Whip Ming, a rather nasty fighter even for a Terran, who had distinguished himself by taking the head off the Tauron leader in the thirty-eighth games. Gladius held no animus against Ming for killing a fellow Tauron – the Terran was only doing what the Masters demanded. Loyalty was rewarded in the House of Aegina.
In their months of training, the two teams had been housed with and practiced against other races as the Masters searched for the most entertaining pairings, hoping to generate the highest revenue both before and after each battle. Somehow, each edition of the games settled the Terrans in Gladius’ charge against the Taurons.
Both species could have done well paired against any of the others. The massive Taurons were an obvious favorite physically, although admittedly slow of foot, stubborn, and hard to teach. The Terrans were no slouches – they listened and learned quickly. Gladius was certain that they could hold their own against any of the other subjugated alien species, but they were never truly tested. The more time that the Terrans spent in practice with another team, the less honest an effort their opponents would put into fighting them. Inevitably, that would drive down the prices of both teams.
“Let the battle begin!” Ajax’s voice strained through Gladius’ headset, and he heard the horn sound. Gladius anticipated a rise in volume in the arena, but first heard instead the crowd’s murmurs grow into a groundswell of booing. He guessed that Block-A was hesitating to perform. This would happen at times, and not surprising with Satyrs and Gorgons, but would be easily remedied by a few well-placed arrows from the game’s enforcers. Gladius heard three individual Thwok!s before the crowd’s disapproval gave way to the usual cacophony of swords and spears and shouts and groans.
Betelgeusean science had proven that the Terran’s similarities to their superior overlords had no genetic basis. The resemblance did give their opponents pause, but Gladius was sure that the real problem was the Terrans’ incessant talking; mostly complaints. Things like “Why should we do what our captors demand?” and “What right do they have to own us?” could become infectious, and even the most subservient races would eventually lose heart to the gnawing doubts engendered by “What use is a perfect performance except to become a perfect slave?”
The Terrans were of course punished for their complaining, but that never completely stopped their talking or its effects. Fortunately for the games, the Taurons didn’t listen to the Terrans, any more than they did to anyone else. The pairing of the two races almost always presented a satisfying spectacle.
“Why are you here, Gladius?” asked John Doe.
He would have ignored the man leaning over the wall of pen, but Doe was more persistent than his previous Terrans, and Gladius had learned long ago that if he allowed Doe’s comments to go unchallenged they would morph into something more cancerous. In the pens opposite, Tarsus, the leader of the Tauron fighters, raised his shaggy, horned head and looked sideways at Gladius, as if in askance as well. Although he doubted this meant anything, Gladius could not have the effectiveness of his block reduced now – not with their final assessment imminent.
“It is Game Day,” Gladius answered. “I must see to it that all are prepared to give optimal performance. For the Master’s…”
“For the Master’s greater profit and glory,” John Doe said, and shook his head.
Gladius heard the auction begin for the survivors of Block-A’s battle. He had labored through conversation often enough with this Terran to know what was next, but knowing it didn’t change anything.
“But never for Gladius’ glory,” the Terran said.
“All glories of the House of Aegina reflect on me, their humble servant.”
“A servant has the right to choose,” John Doe said. “You mean slave.”
The sounds of Block-B’s Centaurans and Lernaeans entering the arena distracted Gladius from Doe’s point, until he noticed Tarsus was chewing on the Terran’s words, his horns bobbing slowly up and down.
“This is no concern of yours,” Gladius said to his fellow Tauron. “Prepare your team for battle against these Terrans.”
Tarsus nodded to Gladius, then to John Doe, and gathered the other Taurons against the far wall of their pen.
“Servant or slave, it is a difference that doesn’t matter,” Gladius said.
“It matters to us,” John Doe said. “Freedom matters.”
“Your harping about freedom will not make it happen,” Gladius said.
“Perhaps, but it is a choice,” John Doe said. He glanced at the Taurons huddled together around Tarsus. “You should join them.”
The Terran walked away from the aisle and summoned his own team to gather about him. Gladius briefly envied his Taurons the freedom of battle, of having nothing to lose but one’s own life; making choices, acting on them and dealing with the consequences. Then he remembered that his place was not that, but to prepare others to fight. He was too valuable an asset for his owners to risk him in battle.
The first order bidding had ceased above the pit, and Ajax had announced the beginning of Block-B’s battle, but once again the Betelgeusian spectators were disappointed. There was no metallic sound of weapons beating against each other; instead, a steady, drum-like cadence of Thwok!s began that eventually quieted the crowd.
The crowd had become so silent that the impact of each arrow could be heard without a headset.
Both Taurons and Terrans stopped talking, theirs eyes drifting to the ceiling.
At last, the sound of weapons clashing could be heard from above, and the members of Gladius’ block went back to preparing themselves. Judging by the number of arrows used to enforce the battle, he knew it wouldn’t be long before Block-C’s turn.
An odd sound brought Gladius attention back to the pit; a couple of the Terrans were laughing freely. This wasn’t normal; Gladius had spent enough years around them to know this was contrary to the pre-fight chest-pounding that the species normally engaged in. He frowned at John Doe, who smiled back unconcerned. The Terran would have hell to pay if his team didn’t put up a good fight. If he lived through it, that is.
What is John Doe smiling about? Will he manage to draw Gladius into his plans? “Gladius” is a fantasy short story, and is available at several online retailers, including, but not limited to:
“Gladius” is also included in the collection More, And Yet Still Even More Things I Could Get OUT OF MY MIND (If you purchase the collection on Smashwords with coupon code BT87H you will receive a 67% discount – that’s only 99-cents for SIX stories – such a deal!):
Which is itself included in the mega-collection The Last Three ‘Things I Could Get OUT OF MY MIND’ :
William Mangieri’s writing – including his most recent release “Truth in Advertising” – can be found at several online retailers, including, but not limited to:
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