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Chapter Eighteen

Guards led Barrent from the office of the Awards Committee. He was brought past a row of dungeons under the Arena, and locked into a cell. The guards told him to be patient; the Games had already begun, and his turn would come soon.

There were nine men crammed into a cell which had been built to hold three. Most of them sat or sprawled in complete and silent apathy, already resigned to their deaths. But one of them was definitely not resigned. He pushed his way to the front of the cell as Barrent entered.

"Joe!"

The little credit thief grinned at him. "A sad place to meet, Will."

"What happened to you?"

"Politics," Joe said. "It's a dangerous business on Omega, especially during the time of the Games. I thought I was safe. But …" He shrugged his shoulders. "I was selected for the Games this morning."

"Is there any chance of getting out of it?"

"There's a chance," Joe said. "I told your girl about you, so perhaps her friends can do something. As for me, I'm expecting a reprieve."

"Is that possible?" Barrent asked.

"Anything is possible. It's better not to hope for it, though."

"What are the Games like?" Barrent asked.

"They're the sort of thing you'd expect," Joe said. "Man-to-man combats, battles against various types of Omegan flora and fauna, needlebeam and heatgun duels. It's all copied from an old Earth festival, I'm told."

"And if anyone survives," Barrent said, "they're beyond the law."

"That's right."

"But what does it mean to be beyond the law?"

"I don't know," Joe said. "Nobody seems to know much about that. All I could find out is, survivors of the Games are taken by The Black One. It's not supposed to be pleasant."

"I can understand that. Very little on Omega is pleasant."

"It isn't a bad place," Joe said. "You just haven't the proper spirit of —"

He was interrupted by the arrival of a detachment of guards. It was time for the occupants of Barrent's cell to enter the Arena.

"No reprieve," Barrent said.

"Well, that's how it goes," Joe said.

They were marched out under heavy guard and lined up at the iron door that separated the cell block from the main Arena. Just before the captain of the guards opened the door, a fat, well-dressed man came hurrying down a side corridor waving a paper.

"What's this?" the captain of the guards asked.

"A writ of recognizance," the fat man said, handing his paper to the captain. "On the other side, you'll find a cease-and-desist order." He pulled more papers out of his pockets. "And here is a bankruptcy-transferral notice, a chattel mortgage, a writ of habeas corpus, and a salary attachment."

The captain pushed back his helmet and scratched his narrow forehead. "I can never understand what you lawyers are talking about. What does it mean?"

"It releases him," the fat man said, pointing to Joe.

The captain took the papers, gave them a single puzzled glance, and handed them to an aide. "All right," he said, "take him with you. But it wasn't like this in the old days. Nothing stopped the orderly progression of the Games."

Grinning triumphantly, Joe stepped through the ranks of guards and joined the fat lawyer. He asked him, "Do you have any papers for Will Barrent?"

"None," the lawyer said. "His case is in different hands. I'm afraid it might not be completely processed until after the Games are over."

"But I'll probably be dead then," Barrent said.

"That, I can assure you, won't stop the papers from being properly served," the fat lawyer said proudly. "Dead or alive, you will retain all your rights."

The captain of the guards said, "All right, let's go."

"Luck," Joe called out. And then the line of prisoners had passed through the iron door into the glaring light of the Arena.

Barrent lived through the hand-to-hand duels in which a quarter of the prisoners were killed. After that, men armed with swords were matched against the deadlier Omegan fauna. The beasts they fought included the hintolyte and the hintosced — big-jawed, heavily armored monsters whose natural habitat was the desert region far to the south of Tetrahyde. Fifteen men later, these beasts were dead. Barrent was matched with a Saunus, a flying black reptile from the western mountains. For a while he was hard-pressed by this ugly, poison-toothed creature. But in time he figured out a solution. He stopped trying to jab the Saunus's leathery hide and concentrated on severing its broad fan of tailfeathers. When he had succeeded, the Saunus's flying balance was thrown badly off. The reptile crashed into the high wall that separated the combatants from the spectators, and it was relatively easy to administer the final stroke through the Saunus's single huge eye. The vast and enthusiastic crowd in the stadium gave Barrent a lengthy round of applause.

He moved back to the reserve pen and watched other men struggle against the trichomotreds, incredibly fast little creatures the size of rats, with the dispositions of rabid wolverines. It took five teams of prisoners. After a brief interlude of hand-to-hand duelling, the Arena was cleared again.

Now the hard-shelled criatin amphibians lumbered in. Although sluggish in disposition, the criatins were completely protected beneath several inches of shell. Their narrow whiplash tails, which also served them as antennae, were invariably fatal to any man who approached them. Barrent had to fight one of these after it had dispatched four of his fellow prisoners.

He had watched the earlier combats carefully, and had detected the one place where the criatin antennae could not reach. Barrent waited for his chance and jumped for the center of the criatin's broad back.

When the shell split into a gigantic mouth — for this was the criatin method of feeding — Barrent jammed his sword into the opening. The criatin expired with gratifying promptness, and the crowd signified its approval by showering the Arena with cushions.

The victory left Barrent standing alone on the blood-stained sand. The rest of the prisoners were either dead or too badly maimed to fight. Barrent waited, wondering what beast the Games Committee had chosen next.

A single tendril shot up through the sand, and then another. Within seconds, a short, thick tree was growing in the Arena, sending out more roots and tendrils, and pulling all flesh, living or dead, into five small feeding-mouths which circled the base of the trunk. This was the carrion tree, indigenous to the northeastern swamps and imported with great difficulty. It was said to be highly vulnerable to fire; but Barrent had no fire available.

Using his sword two-handed, Barrent lopped off vines; others grew in their place. He worked with frantic speed to keep the vines from surrounding him. His arms were becoming tired, and the tree regenerated faster than he could cut it down. There seemed no way of destroying it.

His only hope lay in the tree's slow movements. These were fast enough, but nothing compared with human musculature. Barrent ducked out of a corner in which the creeping vines were trapping him. Another sword was lying twenty yards away, half-buried in the sand. Barrent reached it, and heard warning shouts from the crowd. He felt a vine close around his ankles.

He hacked at it, and other vines coiled around his waist. He dug his heels into the sand and clashed the swords together, trying to produce a spark.

On his first try, the sword in his right hand broke in half.

Barrent picked up the halves and kept on trying as the vines dragged him closer to the feeding mouths. A shower of sparks flew from the clanging steel. One of them touched a vine.

With incredible suddenness the vine burst into flame. The flame spurted down the length of the vine to the main tree system. The five mouths moaned as the fire leaped toward them.

If matters had been left to continue, Barrent would have been burned to death, for the Arena was nearly filled with the highly combustible vines. But the flames were endangering the wooden walls of the Arena. The Tetrahyde guard detachment put the fire out in time to save both Barrent and the spectators.

Swaying with exhaustion, Barrent stood in the center of the Arena, wondering what would be used next against him. But nothing happened. After a moment, a signal was made from the President's box, and the crowd roared in applause.

The Games were over. Barrent had survived.

Still no one left his seat. The audience was waiting to see the final disposition of Barrent, who had passed beyond the law.

He heard a low, reverent gasp from the crowd. Turning quickly, Barrent saw a fiery dot of light appear in mid-air. It swelled, threw out streamers of light, and gathered them in again. It grew rapidly, too brilliant to look upon. And Barrent remembered Uncle Ingemar saying to him, "Sometimes, The Black One rewards us by appearing in the awful beauty of his fiery flesh. Yes, Nephew, I have actually been privileged to see him. Two years ago he appeared at the Games, and he also appeared the year before that…."

The dot became a red and yellow globe about twenty feet in diameter, its lowest curve not quite touching the ground. It grew again. The center of the globe became thinner; a waist appeared, and above the waist the globe turned an impenetrable black. It was two globes now, one brilliant, one dark, joined by a narrow waist. As Barrent watched, the dark globe lengthened and changed into the unforgettable horn-headed shape of The Dark One.

Barrent tried to run, but the huge black-headed figure swept forward and engulfed him. He was trapped in a blinding swirl of radiance, with darkness above it. The light bored into his head, and he tried to scream. Then he passed out.


Chapter Seventeen | The Status Civilization | Chapter Nineteen







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