Gladiator – Chapter 1

(12 years ago)

***A-3

A-3 woke up in his hard bed in the Thompson Training School at the Candidate Player Academy. He was the average size for a candidate his age, appearing to be fourteen even though he was only nine. He had dark coffee-brown hair, trimmed short like all the male candidates in the School, and his eyes were green flecked with gold to give them a dappled-leaf look. His features were fine and sharp, his nose narrow and clearly defined. His eyebrows were thin and angular, and there was no blemish on his skin. Although at this age he was still lean and catlike, anyone who knew how to read a Player’s build could tell that A-3 would grow to be a tall and well-built Player. If he were a common, he would be considered handsome. As it were though, A-3 was anything but common.

The young Candidate Player saw that the clock imbedded in the wall to his left read 0627. Three minutes until the designated waking time.

He averted his gaze from the clock, knowing that time would seem to slow if he watched it too intently. Instead he stared at the ceiling, his eyes drinking in every detail. A hairline fracture. A tiny speck of rot. The slits that provided air conditioning and heat. His enhanced vision scanned it all in a matter of seconds.

Not as though he had never seen it all before; he viewed it every morning. The young Player never slept until waking time, but he was forbidden from leaving his bed.

So he waited, still as a rock, listening for breathing outside his dorm.

Nothing.

This was the best time to practice his mask of steely cold disinterest, with no distractions and no one to bother him. It was the wall he hid behind, his old crutch, his fortress, his Plan-A. Ever since that…incident so long ago, he had not spoken nor expressed emotion in any way, choosing to wear his mask every hour of every day.

Show your emotions and they make you weak, he thought, No one can use them against you if they don’t know you have them.

He knew that it was a fairly pessimistic view, but he didn’t care. The mask he wore had served him well, and that was all that mattered.

After what seemed like hours, the lights flicked on, and the speakers blasted the young Candidate Players with the morning greetings and the mantra of the school that was drilled into their heads every day.

Good morning, candidates. We hope that today you will find contentment in obedience to the rules so that you may grow stronger through today’s trials and tribulations. You are the future of the Game, honored in society for what you will do. You have been created for this purpose: to take the mantle of the great Players who fight for the pride of their people…”

A-3 hated that voice so much. Such a flat, colorless, utterly lifeless sound. So much like the rest of A-3’s life.

A-3 mechanically got out of bed, slipping into his grey uniform with ease. It fit him snuggly, as it should, but he noticed that the arms and legs were getting too short again. It would do for now, but it wouldn’t be long now until he needed to be resized again.

Accelerated growth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, he mused. All the candidates went through it for the first five years of their life, and afterwards they still grew slightly faster than the common teen. And as any parent of a teen can attest to, even common teens outgrow their clothes faster than should be possible.

When the clock read 0635, he opened the door and stepped out into the hall simultaneously with the other Thompson Recruits.  The walls of the hall, and the rest of the school for that matter, matched his dormitory. Dull, drab, a colorless grey that was reminiscent of a winter sky. The only relief from the monotony were the speakers that adorned the ceiling every five feet.

It’s a wonder we aren’t grey too, A-3 grumbled to himself as he and the other young Players fell into column file and marched to the dining hall, still listening to the mantra of the school as they went in order of age past the serving booth.

“…Technology has allowed us to shape each of you into the best Players you can be, products of accelerated evolution to further the prowess of the human species…”

A-3 was the oldest of the 3’s, so he came after Z-2 and before B-3. As Z-2 took his plate and left for the 2 table, A-3 grabbed his own trey and set it on the serving counter. The server plopped the breakfast loaf on his plate, a mound of eggs, sausage, vegetables, potatoes, and cheese that resembled a small rainbow-colored loaf of bread. It did not look appetizing to A-3, who wasn’t very hungry anyways. Nevertheless, A-3 saluted smartly and took his food away. He knew better than to refuse his meal.

…You will provide stability to society, paving the way for a stronger generation…”

At the 3 table, A-3 sat down at the edge, where he always chose to sit. A shorter 3, P-3, came and sat next to him. P-3 was A-3’ s best friend, and just about everyone’s favorite person. To be honest, he was probably the only source of amusement and interest in the entire school. He was a joker, and because of that the candidate was immensely popular…but for the same reason, the candidate was constantly in trouble.

Beneath the sound of treys and utensils clattering against the table as the last of the 3’s filed through the serving line, A-3 heard the mantra coming to an end. The final words, the motto of the Academy, resonated through the cafeteria loud enough for everyone to hear.

You are strong. You are elite. You are Candidate Players, the next generation.”

The last words of the mantra echoed through the hall, and every candidate in the room stood to clap five times. Just like they did every morning.

As A-3 sat back down to return to his meal, P-3 turned to him. A-3 braced himself for what he knew was coming. P-3, he knew, was debating behind that pudgy face not if he should say something, but rather what he would say.

“Whatcha doing, A-man?” asked the small candidate, apparently deciding for the usual approach around a mouthful of Breakfast Loaf.

A-3 said nothing. He always said nothing. It was the best way to survive in the school; A-3 should know. Even though he did not remember anything about the exact scenario, he did recall the pain and the emotion that had nearly drowned him. All he knew was that whatever had happened, he was determined not to let it happen again. Logic told him that there was nothing he could have done about the pain, but the emotion…that was something else. To this day, two years since that mysterious incident that had left him bloody and bruised in the hall, he had not spoken to anybody. It was better, he had realized, not to get close to anyone.

Letting people in gives them power over you, A-3 told himself, That’s why you hold your walls, you bar your gates closed so no one can hurt you.

But P-3 had made it his personal mission to change that. The short 3 could have been anyone’s friend, but he had chosen A-3. Nobody knew why, especially when P-3 talked so much and A-3 talked so little. Sure, the two of them had been friends before the…accident. But that was a long time ago, and things had changed.

Yes, they had changed. A-3 had awoken in that hospital room, memory gone and body mangled. He remembered feeling scared, terrified, really. When he finally recovered, he didn’t even remember P-3.

As he thought about it, A-3 felt a fuzzy memory surface. Something about the dark, and huge hands holding him. Someone was screaming. He tried to bring the image into clarity, but it slipped away before he could grasp it further. With an inward shrug, A-3 continued eating. It was against the rules to talk at the table, and even if he had wanted to make a comment about it, nobody talked about such things. Surely everyone knew about it, but nobody had ever mentioned the incident. Why should A-3 be the one to bring it up if nobody else deemed it worthy of discussion?

P-3, on the other hands, could’ve given a rat’s tail for the rules. “Well, ain’t you gonna say something?” The other Players cringed as his voice carried across the room. But P-3 ignored them. “Come on, A-3. Talk to me!”

A-3 didn’t.

Please stop, you fool, he begged his friend silently. It was a daily struggle. P-3 would probe, A-3 would not respond. An endless circle.

Usually, P-3 was smart enough to stop. But today did not look like it would be one of those lucky days. A-3 knew that if P-3 kept talking he would be punished. If he stopped now, the Headmaster might let him off the hook. But still, A-3 hid behind his mask of indifference, hoping to deter P-3.

But P-3 refused. “Whatever. I talk enough for both of us. Hello A-3. Why, hello P-3! Long time no see! What are you talking about, you idiot? You saw me at dinner last night. Oh yeah, that’s right. Some twelve hours ago. Like I said, long time no see, eh P-3?”

He glanced at A-3, looking for a reaction. He was disappointed.

But the pudgy little fool continued, “Say, have you seen the scores lately, A-3? Can’t say I have, P-3. What are they? I don’t know. That’s why I asked you, you stupid son of a goat. Anyways, I – “

The speakers interrupted before P-3 could continue. “P-3! Please report to the Head Office immediately. The Headmaster would like a word with you.”

A loud gasp echoed through the room. All the Thompson Recruits gaped at P-3. Even though it was by no means P-3’s first run-in with the staff, it never ceased to be a source of shock. No one disobeyed the staff.

No one that is, except P-3.

P-3 snickered, leaning back as though he were planning to ignore the summons. But thankfully he got up and left, waddling towards the exit. At the door, he turned and bowed low. All the candidates there felt the strange urge to explode in applause, but strict discipline and cold fear stopped them. P-3 left, and the door closed with a dreadful thud.

A-3 hated it when P-3 got punished. But he had to admit, the little fool had asked for it. Quietly talking at the table was common practice; the teachers did not have the time or the resources to eradicate the matter entirely. But disruptive behavior, such as the kind that P-3 had demonstrated? It was enough to merit any number of punishments.

Nonetheless, A-3 hated it completely.

He ate his loaf in silence.

As A-3 mourned his friend’s inevitable fate from behind his blank expression, the Game started playing on the screens. Everyone in the room, with the exception of A-3 himself, turned their eyes to the screens that adorned the walls of the cafeteria.

The Game was the most popular international sport in history, featuring the greatest Players in the world from twenty different Leagues. It’s inner workings, how it was run, what strategies were used, and who had the highest scores in the League dominated the candidates’ everyday life in a way that nothing else did. It was, after all, what they were created to do.

Play in the Game.

It was that time of the year when the Game was at its height, the Prime Season. It was the season during which the highest level of the Game, involving the Prime Teams, the most elite of their Leagues faced off to fight for dominance in the Alliance. Only the best Players could participate in these matches, and everything depended on it. The winning League of the Prime Season would hold the Dominant Position for the next year, and if there was ever a position to grant political and economic sway it was the Dominant Position.

Even at the age of nine, although his accelerated growth and special training helped him to reason like the teenager he resembled, A-3 knew that being a Prime Player for one of the International Leagues was the highest rung on the career ladder of a Player.

And he also knew that it was by far the most deadly rung as well.

A-3 could tell that Assassin, the Prime Gladiator for the Eagle Team, was fighting even though he wasn’t watching. The legendary Player’s presence in the Game always created an air of excitement among the young Players. They were bred to play in the Game, so watching it was almost like catching a glimpse into their futures. For most of the young Players, it was the highest honor to fight other Players to the death in the most elite setting of International League fighting.

The Game.

A-3’s eyes avoided the screen, avoided the grisly scene that was undoubtedly playing, filling nine-year-old kids’ heads with pictures of gore and bloodshed. Besides, he already knew the outcome.

Assassin was fighting.

Assassin would win.

“No one can fight like Assassin can,” whispered K-3, quiet enough that the teachers would not bother with correcting her.

F-3 nodded. “The Eagles haven’t lost a match since he joined their ranks. It’s been nearly a decade now.”

“It’s his last year. What’ll happen to the Eagles when he retires, you think?”

Before F-3 could reply, the speakers echoed through the School: “All candidates please report to the amphitheater for a short disciplinary display. Repeat, all candidates please report to the amphitheater for a short disciplinary display.”

As he heard the words, A-3’s stomach twisted itself into a knot. He knew exactly who the subject of the demonstration would be.

The young Players followed the teachers like their personal drill team, marching in column file out to the grey amphitheater. The room, if it could be called a room, was huge with towering bleachers of dull aluminum and a floor below of cement the same grey color as the sky. It was large enough to hold all the candidates from the four Candidate Player Training Schools, Thompson, Singleton, Morris, and Young, along with the staff members from the entire joint Training Center. Around the edge of the flat central platform stood twenty pillars, each representing one of the twenty International Leagues.

And sure enough, P-3 was tied by his wrists and ankles to the punishment post. He was tied with his back exposed, stripped to his waist and strung up like a criminal. He was positioned so that his face was towards A-3 and the other 3’s. The young Player stood motionless.

Although he did not agree with P-3’s actions, A-3 could not help but admire the fearlessly defiant look on the rebel’s face. Dark, looming shadows moved silently into the amphitheater like corporeal nightmares, their ugly black robes flowing behind them. They were the faithful dogs of the Patrons and the School alike. Neither common or Player, they belonged to a breed of creatures called Synthetics, the first of the man-made creatures. But still, even as they strode closer to P-3, the little candidate did not waver.

The Synthetics advancing on the helpless P-3 all wore the black of the Punishers. Not even the smallest of them loomed any shorter than eight feet. Each held a nine-tailed whip and wore a hideous black mask under the turbans on their heads to hide their faces, which were said to be horribly misshapen. Only their blazing red eyes shone through, like red-hot coals.

A-3 cringed inside at the sight of them. His head ached as a memory tried to surface. He felt the memory, and tried to snatch it. But it managed to slip away once again.

The first Punisher lashed his whip at P-3. It left bloody stripes across his back, but P-3 stood firm. The Punisher leaned back, watching curiously as the little nine-year-old candidate stood stoic, glaring defiantly at the Synthetics and not making a sound. He cracked his whip across P-3’s back again. And again. And again. Fifty times the Punisher reeled back and came crashing down again, and with each snap of the whip A-3 winced as if the lash were splitting his own skin.

At last, with tired, rasping breaths, the Punisher stepped back. Then with a horrible, rattling sigh of satisfaction the black scourge turned and strode back towards the dark hole it had come from. The others followed it, signaling that the punishment was over. Although many Punishers had come out to the punishment, only one was necessary for the actual whipping. Their appearance was a simple matter of intimidation.

P-3 was released as the Thompson Principal started talking about rules and regulations, and thankfully the little fool had the sense to act remorseful.

A-3 released the lungful of air he hadn’t realized he was holding in, grateful that it was over. The lashes on P-3’s back should disappear in a few hours, even though right now it looked like chewed goat meat. P-3’s healing system worked faster than most due to how often it had practice, but it was a painful process. The pudgy little rebel would be in his sick-bed for the day, hopefully learning his lesson.

A-3 almost laughed. The thought of P-3 learning anything from his mistake was indeed laughable. A-3 knew P-3 better than most, and although he was extremely fond of the little fellow he knew that one of these days P-3 was going to get himself into a lot of trouble.

“I hope you all have learned something today,” said the Principal, snatching his attention away from his contemplations. The Principal was a severe woman, thin and vulture-like, with her streaked grey hair tied up in a tight bun on the top of her head and her spectacles balanced precariously on the end of her beaklike nose. “The Academy is not here simply to train your body and your mind to be more than common. We are here to make you into Players. A Player is not just a body, not just a mind. It is an elite in every aspect. Obedience is central to a Player’s identity.

“You are here because of the sponsorship of the International Leagues and the tireless work of the Academy’s creators. If it were not for us, you would still be a strand of DNA in a test tube. We made you, and we know what is best for you. Once disobedience plants its roots in this Academy, Players will no longer be produced here. Life as you know it will end. Now and forevermore, remember this: Obedience makes you strong and builds up society. Rebellion destroys order and makes you weak.

“Thank you for your attendance,” she said, staring at them all with her bulging, dagger-sharp eyes, “You are strong. You are elite. You are Candidate Players, the next generation. Dismissed.”

A-3 and the other candidates clapped five times and stood at attention as the Principal swiveled on her heel to leave. A teacher took the Principal’s place at the front of the crowd and began to give the orders for the day. A-3 listened intently, raising his fist with the other 3’s as the teacher addressed them.

“3’s column file to Zone 7. Training begins at 0800; double time candidates!”

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