Mary Gold and her team stood at the gladiator’s entrance to the arena. Here, underneath the stadium, the roar of the crowd was reduced to a dull drone.
“Four left on the second team that entered,” Mary announced to her teammates, using the device on her wrist to check the captains’ scoreboards. “Check your weapons, safeties off everyone. Keep your heads and don’t get shot. Let’s make this quick.”
The remainder of the six man team assented via shouts and cheers. One of them shouted, “Take it off!” Either Ricard or Johnny, but revenge wasn’t worth the attention. They all moved, back and forth. Janet jumped up and down, unable to contain her energy. Mary thought of a writhing snake that reared its head before the attack.
“We go in through the hallways first,” Mary said. The judges of the match had provided her with a map of the arena’s setup for this battle a few minutes prior. She now displayed the map to her team in a holographic model that the device on her wrist projected. “The staircase is to the north, five hundred meters. We make it there in five minutes, got it?” Her team nodded their assent. “From there, we’ll have a time of it getting to the hold. They have a random set up on top, meaning we’ll have to search for it. Keep an eye out for—”
The arena doors opened. The noise of the crowd was louder, and light flooded the tunnels.
“Move in, let’s go,” Mary commanded. “Don’t wait!”
Enemy fire began the moment that they crossed into the arena. Mary and her team found cover behind short concrete barriers. Bullets struck the walls, and their impacts created bits of concrete shards and dust.
The next few moments were a hellfire of bullets, as Mary’s team returned fire against the enemy. “Bastards were waiting for us,” Jamaal said, raising his voice over the din of the battle.
“Cut the chatter,” Mary ordered. “Ricard, go. Everyone else, cover him!” She sighted an enemy and fired.
Ricard dashed out from his position. The enemy fired on him at once. Mary and the rest of her team took advantage of this diversion to take better aim.
A bullet struck one of the enemy gladiators in the shoulder and he fell back onto the floor. Mary saw on the scoreboards that he was auto-disqualified for dropping his weapon. “Five left,” she called out.
Ricard sprinted toward the enemy position. He unpinned his sole grenade and threw it toward his target with expert aim before rolling behind a pile of concrete blocks. The explosive detonated just as Ricard ducked behind cover.
“One incapacitated, one dead,” Mary said. Each gladiator’s vital stats were displayed on the scoreboards and were updated automatically via the biometric monitor that was a part of their armor. “That’s three. Let’s move out before the next team enters.”
“Nice one, Ric,” Jamaal called out. He rushed to his teammate. Ric accepted Jamaal’s hand and stood, somewhat shaky on his feet. “Whoa, now.”
“You get to have all the fun,” Johnny said, punching Ric in the chest as he passed him.
“I can’t feel my legs,” Ric said. He walked a few steps, but lost his balance and fell down.
“They’re just asleep,” Mary said. She nodded at Jamaal and they each placed one of Ricard’s arms over their shoulders. “Keep flexing them.”
To everyone, Mary said, “Ninety seconds until the new team enters. Let’s move fast here, you lazy, inaccurate bastards.” Before Mary could move, a hand grabbed her ankle. She aimed down with a ready weapon. The arm belonged to a man whose face she recognized. He lay wounded under his fallen comrade.
“Gold, listen to me,” Andre Strong said, as the blood seeped from the left corner of his mouth. His voice was strong. “I tried to help. Listen to me, I wouldn’t harm you, not Mary Gold, with an unfair tactic such as this. I was after your teammates. Listen, you don’t know what you are up against, for the other team, it is the King Dragon’s.”
“Don’t try to protect me,” Mary said. Her trigger finger twitched.
“I wasn’t trying to protect you,” Andre said. “I was trying to protect the king.”
“Andre, let go or I will stomp you,” Mary said, her breath coming fast through her nostrils. Andre let go. Mary continued the jog toward the stairs with Jamaal, hauling Ric along with them.
“The fire in those eyes!” Andre exclaimed. “I can feel it burning within me as well now, giving me the strength I need.”
Mary turned her head and saw Andre push the corpse off his body, revealing the large wound that made his chest look like a charred slice of steak. He said, “That’s better, I can breathe much better now.”
Her face twisted, Mary shouted, “You jumped the grenade? You throw a newbie down for that! Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Mary, come on,” Janet said. She was the only one brave enough to give Mary orders. “Let’s go.”
Mary nodded and ran after her team. They had taken two turns through the maze of hallways and had made it about a third of the way to the stairs when the new team entered the arena. “They’re fresh,” Mary prompted her team. “Let’s keep moving.”
Ricard was now in condition enough to keep his balance and ran along with everyone else. Mary hoped they could outrun their competitors to the stairs. She knew that the first team to enter must have almost cleared the automatic defenses that initially guarded the hold.
The King Dragon’s team, she thought. He owns five buildings in Friendship City, each one housing millions of people. The wealth is incredible. Why the hell is he fighting in this match? May be best not to think about it.
“Team Wes Lively has captured the hold,” the arena’s speakers announced. Above the basement level, the crowd cheered with enthusiasm and excitement. “The countdown has started at fifteen minutes.” Only one person from each team was allowed in the hold at a time. The timer would continue until it reached zero, or it would freeze when an opposing gladiator contested the hold.
“Damn” Argus said. “We’ve got to get up there.” The rest of the team looked at him with malicious intent. Argus was the prospective retailer who had paid Mary and her team to represent him in the arena. The prospect whose team that won this match would own the right to lease a small storefront on one of the middle levels of the building.
Mary had needed a sixth gladiator for the match. While it wasn’t unheard of for prospects to fight in the arena, the practice was rare. Many of the fighters frowned upon it, because they had worked hard to earn their spot. Mary had decided that Argus’ experience in the military meant that he was able to follow orders. That ability was all that she needed from him, and for him to stay alive.
“After fifteen minutes,” Mary said. “We lose. Sprint, let’s go!”
Jamaal felt the tripwire before he saw it, and tumbled onto the ground.
Johnny shouted, “Trap!”
Ricard helped Jamaal stand just as the ceiling began to crumble and fall apart. Bits and blocks of concrete and iron mesh crashed down onto the floor. A cavity formed above them, and concrete dust billowed out from the structural wound.
Mary felt the vibrations and heard the whirr of a death bot. A ball of steel that rolled, found its targets by their heat, and attacked its prey with various blades. Two of them, and the dust made vision unreliable.
A gun fired on her right. The death bot made a correction, its engines letting off for a moment. Time enough for Mary to take aim, into the fog to her right and a little south. She fired, tap-tap-tap, gently and with little movement.
The death bot slid into her vision, and she fired a few more rounds into its core. It managed to extract a blade, aiming for Mary’s right arm. She emptied the contents of her magazine into the machine, refusing to give ground.
Another weapon joined in chorus with Mary’s to drive the death bot back. The force of the bullets pushed the machine, interrupting its charge and damaging it beyond repair.
“Good job,” Mary said to Argus. “Keep it up.”
“Right,” Argus said. “Thanks.” The dust cleared, and Ric and Jamaal dispatched the second death bot.
“Two, up ahead,” Janet called back. Small and easily concealed, she was consistently the perfect candidate to scout. “They’re guarding the stairs around the corner. These aren’t our typical mercs, boss. They fired at me.”
“It’s the King Dragon’s team,” Mary said. “They’re trained well, but we have an advantage in that they’re not used to facing an honest fight.”
“I like the way you think, boss,” Janet said. Her grin was almost too large for her face to contain.
“Are we just gonna stand here?” Johnny said. He was a five foot six brick of muscle, almost as wide as he was tall. His fearlessness intimated the calmest fighters, and his ugly, twisted face only added to the effect.“I’m gettin twitchy.”
“Your turn, Johnny,” Mary said.
“I’m gonna enjoy this.” The rest of the team sprinted after him. They all dashed around the corner and came under immediate fire.
Johnny forged his way ahead. The rest of the team provided cover from behind the obstacles in the hallway. With six guns against two, the enemy fighters found themselves in a difficult position. Mary wondered if their plan was not to defeat her team at this moment, but to delay them until the third team caught up.
Mary gave the signal to push ahead after Johnny, who picked his way forward with speed. The team followed, forcing the two enemy fighters into a slow retreat.
Not once did the enemies turn their backs as they slowly backed up toward the bottom of the stairs. This was something that Mary took note of. They timed their reloads well, so that one would continue to fire while the other exchanged magazines. After a few moments, two of their comrades appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Down,” Mary ordered. She ducked, but the rocket was a miss, passing her team and landing further down the hallway. The shock wave of the explosion ripped past her and knocked the wind from her lungs. What are they doing? she thought as she recovered. The third team can’t be that close, not yet.
A pair of the enemy fighters reloaded the rocket launcher, while the other two fired on Mary and her team. They aimed the weapon again down the hallway. Mary’s team was scattered about; their distance from one another was enough to prevent any single explosive from affecting more than one of them. A second rocket streaked by, striking a spot closer to the stairs than the first.
“They’re trying to collapse the hallway,” Mary shouted to her team. “Charge them now, get up there!”
Mary led the attack, sprinting from the rear and passing the rest of her team. She forced her eyes to adjust for the dizziness and shaking from the shock of the second blast. The weapon in her hands became an extension of her existence, a form of her being. She fired remarkably consistent, for one who moved while shooting.
The enemy could do nothing against such an onslaught, and retreated up the stairs. They managed to pack the rocket launcher before they turned tail back toward the hold. Mary urged her team forward.
“Ten minutes until end of countdown and team Wes Lively victory,” a voice said over the loudspeakers. The announcement was difficult to hear over the roaring crowds, who now leaned over their railings, screaming in an ecstasy of gore. They waved their banners and jostled each other with cups full of beer and grease.
Thousands of people watched from the stands. Millions more watched from home, on their holovision sets that were fed by the cameras that hovered all over the arena and streamed the action live. Everyone was eager to see if Mary Gold would be the first to defeat the King Dragon’s team.
“Injuries?” Mary said to her team when they were all caught up. They gathered a short distance beyond the opening of the stairs, behind a concrete wall. The first floor contained a series of the walls were placed at short distances from one another and at random angles. The ceiling here was the ceiling for the entire arena.
“Jamaal,” Janet said, “you’re shot.”
“Oh shit, my arm,” Jamaal said. He examined the wound. A small rivulet of blood leaked out from his armor and toward his hand. “Didn’t feel it.”
“Fix him up,” Mary told Ricard, who was the most qualified medic on the team. “Johnny, you stay by the stairs and keep an eye out for that third team. Delay them as long as possible.”
The sound of bullets hitting concrete struck Mary’s ears and whipped her head around. She pulled Argus down, who had been peaking over the wall. “Check your head,” she said. “They’re on us now.”
Argus said, “The hold is to the northeast.”
Mary said, “Fine. Ric, Janet, Jamaal, you three are going east. Argus and I north. Johnny, you retreat to the northeast and figure it out when you get there.”
“This is my favorite part,” Johnny said. “Time to light ’em up.”
“Go,” Mary commanded. She led Argus north. Mary gripped the edge of the wall and launched herself across the opening to the next wall. She motioned to Argus to do the same once she had crossed.
They pushed north in this fashion. Progress was slow, as the enemy now knew their position. Each time they broke their cover, bullets sprayed down on them. Mary was careful to watch for enemy fighters before each dodge from wall to wall; she had yet seen none.
Mary and Argus perched in a spot about fifty meters from the hold, behind a wall. Gunfire sounded to the east, where the other part of her team was located. Mary heard footsteps on the other side of the wall.
Finger on her lips, she gestured Argus to remain still and silent. She crept around the wall and aimed her weapon, ready to fire. Nothing.
“Behind,” Argus whispered. Mary heard the footsteps again and turned toward them.
Around the corner came, “Johnny,” Mary whispered. He aimed his weapon at the friendly pair. She turned again, too late.
Johnny fired, dropping the enemy gladiator whom Mary had missed. The slain fighter’s eyes rolled into his skull, and blood seeped from the wounds in his body.
“Nice shot,” Argus said. “Thanks for that.”
“Chief woulda had him,” Johnny said, lowering his weapon. “I just like to take initiative.”
“That’s why I hired you,” Mary said with a smile. “Status on the third team?”
“Got two with a grenade. I coulda gotten a third, but I decided to let ’em play for a bit.”
“Good job.” The third team was now in a weakened position, but would still be on the first level to provide extra targets for the King Dragon’s team. “Let’s finish this up. Five left.”
They headed in the direction of the hold. Each push forward brought more enemy fire, and the attackers remained hidden.
Mary wondered if the King Dragon was among them. Andre Strong had seemed convinced that he was. Still, Mary had known Strong to be more than a little eccentric in the past, and found it difficult to believe that the owner of five buildings would risk his life in such a manner. She decided that Andre must have been mistaken, and then she saw him.
The Dragon stood behind a wall that was perpendicular to the one that Mary, Johnny, and Argus used for cover. He was taller than Mary had thought, and what skin she could see of his was dark and beautiful. “That’s him,” she said. What is it like to live under the sun?
“Are you sure?” Johnny said.
Mary looked at him. “You need to pay attention.”
“So you’re sure, okay.”
“Five minutes until end of countdown and team Wes Lively victory,” the announcer said.
Two of the Dragon’s teammates stood on either side of him. That left one in the hold and one unaccounted for. These three were preoccupied with the arrival of the third team, who took cover about twenty meters away.
The crowd watched the exchange of bullets with apparent relish, and their screams reached new decibels when Mary’s team arrived on the stage. They booed when Mary rolled out of the way of a grenade. They cheered when Johnny physically clubbed one of the Dragon’s teammates with his weapon. They cringed when their king retreated, taking a bullet to the calf on his way toward the hold.
Mary took cover behind the same wall that had protected the Dragon a few moments before. The third team launched a volley of bullets, but Argus and Johnny moved too fast for them to hit. “They’re timid,” Mary said, observing her opponents’ inaccuracy.
Johnny said, “They know it’s the Dragon.”
The third team pushed forward. The moment that they left their cover was the same moment that Jamaal, Janet, and Ricard fired their weapons. One went down, lowering their number to three, and that was it. The team had served their purpose well, as far as Mary was concerned.
“We saw you coming,” Janet said to Mary.
“It didn’t look like you needed any help,” Ricard said.
“Surprise is pretty key in these matters,” Jamaal said.
Mary said, “Enough talk.” A grenade interrupted her next orders. Everyone dove for cover. Its explosion stunned Mary, and perhaps a half minute, an eternity in the arena, passed before she regained her bearings.
“File through, one at a time,” Mary ordered. She led the charge through the open-roofed corridor that led to the hold.
The crowd became a savage beast that demanded a frenzy of gore and death. The stands shook under the mad stomping of the animal that occupied them. The roar carried the fighters through, inspiring their momentum for this final battle.
Mary charged out from the corridor, passed the enemy gladiators, and entered the hold, moving too fast to provide a solid target. She left her gun at the entrance and drew her sword upon crossing into the interior, for the hold was only won through melee combat.
“Team Mary Gold has entered the hold,” the announcer said. The crowd was wild. “The timer has frozen at twenty eight seconds for Wes Lively victory.” If Mary managed to capture the hold, then the timer would reset to fifteen minutes in favor of her team.
Two levels existed in the hold. The top level was a series of walkways that crossed above the ground floor. The ground floor itself was wide and open. Each corner contained a covered staircase, providing four places to stage an ambush. Mary stood near the center of the ground floor and scanned the area for Dragon’s holder.
“You can’t hide all day,” Mary said, calling out to whomever might have been waiting. “You have to come out eventually. Or are we waiting until the new third team arrives?”
Something moved behind her. The dirt that covered the floor was disturbed there. Mary stared for another sign of movement, something, anything that gave an indication of the enemy. She refused to go searching through the hold, as a dog hunts for its bone.
“Team Mary Gold has captured the hold,” the announcer said. Mary looked up at the crowd in surprise. All of the thousands of spectators chanted her name, so ecstatic were they to see this challenge against a king. She doubted if any of them had known it a few moments before. “The countdown has started at fifteen minutes.”
Mary stood in the center with her sword drawn. The third team would arrive soon. She checked the scoreboards and saw that there were still five of the Dragon’s team left, and six of hers. The sounds of a battle raging outside reached her ears in a diminished and quieter form. Her breath slowed and her mind was calm.
Some time passed. The announcer said, “Team Wes Lively has entered the hold. The timer is frozen at eight minutes and twenty five seconds in favor of team Mary Gold, and at twenty eight seconds in favor of team Wes Lively.”
Mary faced the King Dragon, who was not Wes Lively but had no name for the commons. They stood apart twenty meters apart. He was so dark and so beautiful. Mary was pale and waxy. They were about the same age, but it was difficult to judge that fact on looks alone, for Mary appeared at least ten years his senior.
A moment passed while they stared, each assessing the stance and strength of the other. The Dragon charged. His sword drawn, he brought it against Mary, who had just enough time to gain momentum in her favor. They were locked into one for just a moment before breaking apart.
Mary came back, cutting from above her head. The Dragon raised his own weapon, and parried late enough for Mary’s edge to cut his hand between forefinger and thumb. A shock wave of blood frenzy tore through the crowd, and each of them screamed the air from their lungs.
She kicked him in the shin as he again raised his sword. He lost his balance, staggering backward and falling while retaining his grip on his weapon. He rolled out of the way before Mary could pin him or strike him with her sword, and stood before she could blink.
They crashed into one another, and their strikes turned into flails, and their attacks became swings of random might. Mary took a blow to the shoulder, and then hit the Dragon in his side. The Dragon struck Mary in the hip, and then barely dodged a cut to his head.
Minutes passed as they fought. The crowd almost became quiet, so absorbed was their collective attention in this battle. Mary’s team still fought the Dragon’s outside the hold. Both teams attempted elimination of the other by numbers, so that their holder would have an easier time of it.
The holders clashed in the hold. When one gained an advantage, the other rose up to the occasion and returned the playing field to an even setting. When one of them appeared to succumb to final defeat, the other made some mistake or misjudgment that allowed their opponent’s return to full strength. The battle was a question of endurance.
Mary stared her enemy down. They had arrived at yet another standstill. Each one lasted longer than the previous, as the holders grew tired.
Her attacks had all been met with equal or more powerful counterattacks. She could think of no new strategy that might quickly win the battle. Only two weapons remained in her arsenal of tricks, and those were her sword and her speed.
Come on, Mary Gold, she told herself. Almost done.
Mary charged, attacking left and right and up and down. The Dragon could only defend and wonder at this new energy that his opponent displayed. Mary struck down his sword when he tried to raise it, again and again, no matter the angle and no matter his strength. Mary pushed him back against the wall, and pinned him against it with her sword pressing his own against his face.
“You’ll do,” the Dragon said. He smiled and Mary frowned.
“Drop your weapon,” Mary said.
The King Dragon thrust forward, pushing Mary away. He spun around and raised his sword. Mary returned the threat with a ferocious strike of her own.
Their blades met for a brief moment, and Mary’s edge slid along the Dragon’s. Sheer force of will made Mary’s sword crush the Dragon’s. His weapon crashed onto the floor. Mary’s point aimed at his neck.
“I’ll let you live,” Mary said. Sweat greased her face, and her blonde hair was brown with dirt. “I’m a nice lady, after all.”
The King Dragon grunted. Once a holder was defeated in the hold, their team was automatically disqualified. Without saying a word or giving a hint of any emotion, the Dragon left the hold toward the arena exit.
“Eight minutes until end of countdown and team Mary Gold victory,” the announcer said. The ravings of the crowd soared to new heights, and not one person was left sitting in the stands.
Jamaal was waiting for Mary at the entrance to the hold, but did not himself enter. “Janet is out looking for the approaching teams,” he said.
“Good,” Mary said. Her lungs struggled to keep up. “Eight minutes and we’re golden.”
“You’re golden,” Jamaal said. “No more work for you today. We’ll keep ’em out of here.”
Mary nodded, and Jamaal returned to his other teammates. Although the match wasn’t officially over, it might as well have been. Her team was known for their refusal to give ground. Mary stood in the center of the hold with her sword raised high until the match ended.
The crowd settled down before the end, returning to their seats after receiving their fill of a good fight. A few, here and there, left for the shops or the bars or work or home. Gat was not one of these, and he was not one of those who was determined to get the full value from his ticket. He was in love Mary Gold, and he watched her.
Gat was subscribed to the Supreme Arena Bundle on his Omnibus account, which allowed him to view any arena match on any of his devices. He was able to sit in his room at home and watch Mary’s face in close up, three dimensional detail. The view was better here, although the physical distance was quite far. He felt that the ability to see her in person was of greater benefit to him than watching some transmitted picture.
He imagined that he could smell her.
Mary had rejected him many times. Gat was undeterred. He felt that Mary just needed more time, and would eventually accept his advances as a welcome gesture. Time heals all wounds, and Mary had a wound in her heart. A hole was inside her chest, and Gat knew that he would fill it. He loved her.
Eight minutes passed much too fast…