Trajan heads to the gym for the gladiator team tryouts. His worries about his father’s helping him only grow as the hours pass. Did Clavius really have so little faith in Trajan’s ability to stand on his own two feet, or was it simply a parent protecting his child from danger? Trajan can’t be sure. It was like a slap in the face. All he had done in his life, all his accomplishments, however good, could not compare to what lay ahead. Trajan hated entitlement and nepotism above most everything but true evil. History was wrought by leaders who often did not deserve the positions which they inherited and were ill-prepared to govern as true patriots. His own friend, Marcus, was a prime example, a selfish, undisciplined, reckless mess of a prince. Thank the gods that the Caesars no longer rule autonomously. If Marcus was Caesar, the Empire would collapse into chaos in less than a month.
That was not him, though, and his Clavius knew it, so why this strange and exalted appointment to a seat next to the Proconsul? There had to be another explanation. The relentless worry fueled Trajan’s anger and confusion. He pitied the first opponent that met him in the ring for tryouts.
The Imperial Academy, more than most of Romanus’s universities, prides itself on its athletic program. Funding is a big part of education and is reliant on outside patronages. The Imperial Academy’s undefeatable teams provided that, with sponsorships coming from professional organizations and endorsements from celebrities. The brain depends on brawn in about every facet of life, not vice versa. To intellectuals, the gladiator or other sports programs where affectations of the ego and not to be put on the same level as physics, medicine, and chemistry classes, but it is the athletic program’s income that pays the professors’ salaries. It was a worthless debate to Trajan. In his eyes, sport was as much a continuation of tradition as academe. The games had been around for 4,000 years and, aside from the outlawing of blood contests, had remained unchanged in all that time. There were improvements in gear, but the rules were still the same. One man against another, wits, guts, cunning, technique, and judgment.
The games are as basic as winning and losing, no right or wrong. The collegiate version of the sport was more in line with the traditional games, but on the professional level, there was more of a reliance on technology-driven enhancements. The gear was heavier and allowed the participants to stay in the match longer, giving spectators more bang for the buck. Some athletes had severed their own limbs and replaced them with bionic ones. Arms and legs that react faster, thrust, run and jump farther, all in the name of creating a greater spectacle. Only a few champions, like the great Rufio, had not given into these trends and were revered as true gladiators. Even with all their enhancements, those other monstrosities could not defeat Rufio. It was amazing to watch. These cyborgs were supposedly five times stronger and more agile, but Rufio bested them all. It proved that nothing beats experience and that training wins the day.
He vaults up the steps into the gym, through the sliding glass doors and down to the locker room. Holographic statues of gladiator greats of the past and present are on pedestals, displaying their winning moves over and over again in a continuous loop. Recorded moments from their glorious bouts are on view for young male and female trainees to admire and study. Young women took part in the games in their own league, but the most elite female warriors fought against the boys and earned great honor. Trajan had gotten his ass handed to him by a woman once for underestimating her. It was not a mistake he would make again. He paused at a large hologram showing Rufio in his most triumphant battle against three cyborg gladiators. They were no match for his skill, and he wore them down quickly, scoring four touches. Trajan watches the looping hologram over a few times. Magnificent! The roaring crowds behind Rufio stood to their feet chanting, “Rufio! Rufio! Rufio!” Trajan is mesmerized by the spectacle and imagines his name repeated by the adoring crowd. “Trajan! Trajan! Trajan!”
As Trajan stands dreaming, a fellow classmate and close friend, Gaius, taps him on the shoulder, startling him.
“Rome to Trajan, do you copy?” Gaius says.
“Lost in a moment,” replies Trajan
“Rufio is something. I heard rumors he may return for another tour.”
“Rufio out of retirement? Why?”
“He’s pissed off about the World Federation of Gladiators wanting to replace regular fighters with battlebot drones. They say it would be cheaper to have robots fight than to pay the high salaries and medical costs of the prima donna human fighters,” says Gaius.
Trajan shakes his head.
“Maybe it would be cheaper, but people won’t go for it.”
“Sure they will! They’ve already done a test game and the public response was
overwhelming. Looks like you and me and any other aspiring gladiators are on
their way out,” Gaius says.
“So what does Rufio have to do with all this?”
“He is the only undefeated Champion in over a hundred years. You know as well as I do he’s won over a thousand matches. He’s bet his entire fortune he can not only beat but destroy any Battlebots they send against him. Not in a single match, of course, but a whole tour of twenty games. If he does win though, the idea of men being replaced by drones could be out. I heard there’s a real danger some unscrupulous designer might program a bot to kill. If that happens not only will we lose a great gladiator but it may whet the appetite for a return to blood duels. This is a dangerous gamble. I wonder if Rufio’s thought out all the consequences?” says Gaius.
“Part of being a great gladiator is thinking, it’s not all brute strength,” says Trajan.
“The Great Rufio! You’re right, Trajan. He wouldn’t do anything without a plan. If any gladiator can pull it off, it’s him. We shouldn’t question his judgement, that’s how he got to be where he is: guts. By Pluto, that is what the games are all about!”
“Instincts and training will always win the day,” says Trajan.
Confident in their great hero, the two young men head to the locker room.
In keeping with tradition, the area is co-gender: male and female dress, shower, and work out together, breaking sexual tension. When trainees see the other sex nude, they see only another athlete. It is an effective system that has worked well for thousands of years in defusing any eroticism. Very rarely does anything mischievous happen. The young athletes are aware that being unable to control themselves would spoil the mix and cause unwanted policy changes from the heads of the athletics department. As things are, the athletes remain equal and literally have nothing to hide.
Trajan and Gaius have adjoining lockers. There are no locks in the changing room to encourage honesty. Gaius opens his locker and removes his gear bag then stows everything in his pockets. He opens his changing bag and takes out a small blue ampoule.
“What is that?” Trajan asks.
“Eye drops. I’m not focusing well today. Had a little too much to drink last night, you know? Not all of us are blessed with your abilities my friend, and I need a position on the team. It’ll go a long way for my family.”
“Don’t let the coaches see. You may get you kicked out of the university.”
“Stop worrying. It’s called Crystal Blue. All natural, helps clear the cobwebs and increases vision and perception. Besides, the friend who gave it to me is important. He wouldn’t give anything that would hurt me.”
“Sounds like a drug to me,” Trajan says.
Gaius bends his head back and pops the top off the tiny ampoule, opens his eyes wide and with one hand pulls his eyelid up. In the other hand, the tip of the ampoule hovers over the iris. The liquid swirls and shines as if alive. Gaius releases a drop into his eyeball. For a quick moment, his eye is engulfed in glistening blue. The pupil dilates and returns to normal. He shivers with an instant rush.
“Wow, that feels great!” He then repeats the process in the other eye.
Gaius’s demeanor changes fast. It would be imperceptible to anyone besides Trajan. Gaius is imbued with overconfidence and becomes aggressive. He breathes deep, primed and ready to fight. Quickly donning his gladiator gear, he jumps back and forth over the locker room bench and runs to grab a practice sword. Trajan is stunned by his friend’s speed and agility.
“Hurry up, Trajan! Glory awaits!” Gaius calls.
Trajan quickly suits up and rushes to join Gaius and the others. Sid is fast on Trajan’s heels as he runs out onto the floor.
“Careful not to overexert yourself, sir!” Sid calls.
Teams are pairing up in the arena. The floor is covered in a fine, synthetic sand engineered so that it stays flat and cannot fly into the air, preventing damage to monitoring equipment or video devices. It took decades of malfunctioning and repairs before promoters and sponsors gave up on using organic material and invested in something a little more eco and techno-friendly. Synth-sand is used in everything from sporting arenas to engineered beaches.
The Head Coach of the Spartans, Servius, blows a whistle at Trajan. “Turn that drone off or tell it to hover elsewhere!” he shouts.
Trajan turns to Sid. “Keep off the training ground. Go into a diagnostic mode and remain in the stands.”
“Sir, my programming won’t allow me to be out of visual and protective contact.”
“Be quiet and watch from over there,” Trajan says, pointing into the stands. “That is a direct order!”
Sid zooms off to the stands but remains in visible range.
A concrete wall juts up ten feet high from the surface of the floor, encircling the entire field. Rows of seating tower above the field. The arena is open to the sky but has a retractable dome. Gaius is jumping around like a nervous rabbit. Trajan watches him sideways. Gaius has always been nervous and energetic, but this is different. What were those eye drops? Gaius has never lied to me before. Trajan shakes his head. If there is anyone I can trust, it’s Gaius.
Trajan takes a few practices swings with his sword and does some stretching before walking over to Gaius, his partner in the tryout match. The rest of the players are interspersed in a semicircle around the arena. Servius marches into the middle of them. He is a robust man in his late fifties, his blond hair only now picking up gray. It is combed in the traditional Roman style with the distinctive forked locks on the forehead and shaved up over the ears. Servius was very traditional. A former gladiator and champion himself, he led the Spartans on a ten-year winning streak. Some say it is because he is blessed by the Gods, but more than likely it is because he has a keen eye for untapped talent that he can hone and discipline into a promising gladiator. If a trainee is going with the flow and not trying their best Servius will cut them in an instant. Since a position on the team almost guarantees the rich rewards of a professional contract, nobody dares not try their utmost.
Servius begins with his usual pep talk.
“Gather round,” he calls.
All the teams stop their practice drills and form up around him.
“You are here because you want to be part of something greater than yourselves. A living tradition that goes back millenia. The arena is the heartbeat of the Empire! The centuries of bloodsport may be ended, but that doesn’t make it any less important to the lives of every citizen. We are needed by the people as symbols of Roman strength and virtue. Physical prowess and cunning are important to the game, as are individual courage and determination. You would do well to remember, however, that it is also a team effort. If one is injured, another must take his or her place immediately. For those of you who have what it takes, I will teach you all I know. Many of our graduates have had successful careers at the professional level. Others have distinguished themselves in the military, and a select few have made it to the Proconsul chair. Being a gladiator is more than a title. It is a way of life and an abiding mindset that will serve you for the rest of your days. So good luck, and let the games begin!” Servius roars this last line out. Everyone throws up their hands and recites the ancient gladiator creed.
“Hail Caesar! We who are about to battle salute you!”
The teams pair off into ten, two-person fighting units. Trajan and Gaius run to their respective corners to face each other. They put on their Galea helmets. The grated, iron faceplate of ancient times had long ago been replaced with plastic. The modern iteration features a heads-up display built-in. Using it, fighters can gauge their opponents’ performance, track possible next moves, and receive instructions from their coach on a particular strategy. It also allows them to see how their teammates are faring. In modern games, the team with the most players still standing wins. If a fighter finishes his or her fight, they may aid their troubled teammates. It wasn’t viewed as double teaming, just sound gamesmanship. gladiatorial combat mirrored that of war outside the arena: you always think of the team first.
The fighters have shoulder and sword arm grieves, made not of plated brass as in ancient times, but heavy padded leather stuffed with electronics that indicate the slightest pressure. The men are barechested, the women are not. The rest of their uniforms have knee-length tunics and ankle and shin grieves along with sandals, all bearing the image of a trident, an italicized N and a lightning bolt, the logo of the leading sports equipment manufacturer, Neptune.
All the gear has sensing devices to detect hits, tallying up the score. A light touch counts for a quarter, four makes a full point, and two full points mean the fighter is injured but able to fight. Two full points and a half, and the fighter is considered crippled and pulled from the game. Three touches indicated death. The practice blades have enough sensors in them to record what is needed for an evaluation. The professional swords were much more sophisticated and could withstand more punishment.
Now the time for the tryout has come. Trajan stands ready to battle with Gaius in front of him. Friend or not, Trajan is determined to win, if only to prove it to himself. If Trajan is picked by Servius but unable to continue for familial reasons, the team’s guidelines would allow him to pass his place on to Gaius. Trajan knew Gaius would make the team, but the appointment Aviates, or his father, secured for him to the Proconsul could prevent his continuing. Gaius is bouncing around, itching for the fight. Servius blows the whistle and the games begin.
Gaius flies into Trajan with a flurry of thrusts and parries, but Trajan fends them off. Gaius’s fighting is wild, reckless. The fury of his attacks unnerves Trajan. This is not like him at all. Gaius presses the attack harder, hurling himself into the air to the concrete wall and with his feet pushes off, coming down on Trajan. In his rabid momentum, Gaius slips and Trajan catches him with a touch on the shoulder. An alarm rings, showing Trajan has one point against him. Gaius has a fit and throws his blade to the ground, screaming. He rips the helmet off, clutching his skull between his hands and cries out in agony.
“Get out of my head!” He drops to his knees and the other teams stop what they are doing. Trajan watches, nervous, as Gaius digs into the synth-sand. From under the flat surface, Gaius somehow pulls out a true sword, gleaming, sharp, and deadly.
Servius blows the whistle and jaunts out onto the field, demanding an explanation.
“Put that down!” he commands Gaius.
Gaius has no intentions of doing so and glares at the coach, dashing towards him with murder in his eyes. Trajan intervenes and knocks Gaius down. Servius retreat to his coach’s stand and retrieves another true sword. He throws it to Trajan. Sid is alerted and speeds from the stands towards Trajan. Sid readies a stun grenade and spits it out. Gaius dives for the dirt and the charge misses him and explodes. He is unharmed. Desperate, he grabs his discarded helmet then hurls it at Sid, causing him to spin out of control and fall to the ground. Damaged, Sid spins around, his alarms ringing, until he is buried in a mound of sand. As the noise stops, Sid’s red eye goes dim and he is down.
Gaius slams into Trajan knocking him down. It’s now each man for himself. Gaius hacks and thrusts, a madman on a bloodlust binge. Trajan tries reasoning with him, screaming.
“Gaius, get ahold of yourself!”
“Shut up and fight! Mommy and Daddy aren’t here now, you mongrel!”
Trajan’s training kicks in and he parries to fend off the attack. The other teams have gathered round to watch out of morbid curiosity. Servius is on the phone alerting security while yelling instructions to Trajan on how to handle Gaius. Servius has seen this look before; sometimes, the sight of blood brings out a demon in young, inexperienced gladiators. There is only one option left if the guards don’t get here fast. Servius makes the call.
“Trajan!” Servius shouts. “Kill him!”
Trajan, in full defense mode, cannot believe his ears. Kill him? He has known Gaius his entire life. By Pluto, there has to be another way. “There are always options,” he remembers Master Hiroshomo saying. No, Gaius will fumble. I can take him without bloodshed. Trajan paces himself, dodging Gaius’s attacks and taking in everything he can process at such harried speeds. The solution is literally right at his feet.
Gaius’s helmet lies in the synth-sand, dented from the impact with Sid’s rugged hull. He has no head covering. Trajan swings, but a dangerous thrust from Gaius catches him off guard. Trajan recovers and goes on the offensive, hacking and wearing down his already overexerted opponent. It was time to make his move. With a quick swipe of his sandal, he lifts a load of sand and tosses it into Gaius’s eyes. The unstoppable reaction of protecting his eyes causes Gaius to drop his weapon. Trajan lunges, tackling Gaius and wrestling him to the ground. With several blows from his powerful fists, he knocks him out.
Trajan’s adrenalin is swirling as the other team members rush towards. Guards arrive to secure the situation. “Where were you?” Servius demands, but the guards ignore him. In the heat of the moment, Trajan did not of it, but the security is lacking. Where did Gaius’s sword come? Why did Servius have a real blade? The day has been eventful and strange. First an appointment to the Proconsul office, now this. What else could happen?
The guards cuff Gaius and an ambulance pod arrives. A medical drone and a pair of medical technicians disembark from the pod. The medical drone scans Gaius’s weakened body.
“He is unharmed, but further tests are required. He will have to go to hospital,” the medical drone says.
“I’ll go with him,” says Trajan.
“That was one of the best bouts I’ve seen in a long time. You have a position here on the Spartans,” says Servius.
The thing he wished for all his life has been laid before him, but it does not hold the sway and allure it once did. It all seems unimportant now that his friend is in trouble. He needs the advice of his father. A hovering gurney is lowered from the pod and the two technicians pick up Gaius’s motionless body to load it. The medical drone addresses Trajan in an emotionless, monotone.
“What is his designation?”
What a heartless way of asking who he is. Only a drone could be so impersonal. Cold or not, they are faster than humans and can react more quickly in a crisis. Many had fought against the use of medical droids, arguing that they had no bedside manner. Those who argued that emotions interfere when Pluto’s wrath is loosed were vindicated when the droids had proven themselves during the aftermath of a tsunami in Indonesia, being able to access hard-to-reach places where people could not and rendering aid to those trapped until rescuers arrived. Some went so far as to call them heroes when they stayed with the victims through the dangerous night. The medical droids may be machines, but they persist in usefulness. Saving human lives is all that matters, whether by a machine or by human medical personnel.
“His name is Gaius Regulanus Pompeii,” says Trajan.
“Senator Pompeii’s issue?” the droid asks.
“That is correct.”
They take Gaius into the ambulance pod, and Trajan steps in and sits alongside the gurney. The door closes and they whisk into the air. A trio of small medical drones go to work with utter efficiency. IVs are hooked into veins and the electrode pads of organ monitors are attached to Gaius’s head and chest. A double-sided hologram, projected from a unit on the roof of the ambulance pod, displays Gaius’s heart rate and blood pressure, and another shows the scrambled brainwave activity. The readout seems to confuse the small medical drones and they adjust their sensors. Trajan studies the bewildering readout. He has no medical training, but even he can see this does not look normal.
“What is going on there?” asks Trajan.
The medical drone from the field hovers so as to face him. It was designed not to answer until it is able to give a definitive prognosis.“Homeostasis is maintained,” it replies in a standard programmed response. For all their prowess, speed, and agility, they are only equipped to handle certain situations. Their job is only to keep the patient alive until they can get to a hospital for further stabilization.
The medical drones return to preparing the patient for the emergency room, but Gaius’s heart rate is still racing. The drones go into overdrive, administering shots and adding drugs to the IV, but nothing seems to help. A sudden flutter on the heart monitor and Gaius sits up, the oxygen mask fogs and he gasps for air, then rips it off, screaming in agony. A forcefield restraint is automatically applied to keep him from hurting himself. His pulse is speeding up, like he was running up a hill but more intense.
Gaius lets loose a ghastly scream and his eyes fix and dilate. The real work begins as one of the two medical technicians grabs the defibrillator paddles for a shock revival. They have only a matter of seconds. One of the small medical drones counts down, “Three, two, one-clear!” Boom! A surge of electricity surges through Gaius’s lifeless body. The life monitor flatlines. The second medical technician adjusts dials on the defibrillator, increasing the voltage. This time, there is a measured response, and Gaius’s back arches with another jolt pulsing through his limbs. A jagged line of the cardiogram re-appears on the hologram. The pulse is faint, but Gaius is alive. Trajan breathes a sigh of relief as he takes his friend’s hand, reassuring him he’s not alone. Gaius’s breathing is rattling, course. Charon, the Stygian ferryman, has come to claim what is his.