Glory and gore.
Nothing else matters in the arena. At least this is what he always says.
I remember the first time I saw him fight. I hadn’t even known he was the best fighter in our pit, since he never basks in the glory his countless victories bestow upon him. He would shed the blood of his enemy, and with as much dignity his wounds permit him, he would walk away. There is a certain kind of grace in his moves, something that makes me feel like I’m watching him dancing. Dancing the dance of death.
There is one thing in the arena that you must avoid by all means, and that is death. No matter how deep your wounds are, how much blood you’ve lost, the healers would patch you up. After a victory you get a few days off to heal properly and enjoy the glory part. If you die, however… Not even blood magic can help you. You’re gone for good. Game over.
I haven’t been here long when he caught my attention. I used to count the nights whenever I started over in someplace new, but I’ve stopped that. I’m prone to spoil my own joy, but I made a vow: immerse myself in what I do, enjoy it to the last moment of it. Only the gods knows how long he’s been here. I never asked, he never mentioned.
It took some time for him to acknowledge my existence. It took a very bloody fight, to be precise. I dragged myself out of the arena, and into the austere hall of the gladiators. He was standing there, almost in the shadows, his arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t say a word, but the scrutiny with which he studied me said more than any word could have. I was surrounded by our cheerful peers, but my eyes were locked on his, and finally, he nodded. It felt like he gave me his consent. I shouldn’t have cared, but for some reason I did.
I pushed my way through the crowd and headed for the healing chambers. It is one of the most important rules: if you cannot get there on your own, you’re not worthy of their gifts. I accepted this condition, even if it is obvious that they are taking advantage of their status. At least they waste no time when you finally manage to step over the threshold.
I could have had him that night. He wouldn’t have said no. But I didn’t want him to do me a favor. It’s all a game, you see, and it turned out we both play it very well. When I returned from the healing chambers, he was looking at me with a stoic expression on his face, but I caught glimpse of the faint smile tracing his lips when I chose to lay with the victor from two nights ago.
The next evening he defeated his opponent – a criminal, since this was part of the job sometimes – with ease, and I was sure the only reason the fight took ten minutes was him being smart enough to give the audience their much desired entertainment. Panem et circenses. When he emerged from the healing chambers, the shallow wounds and scrapes gone, he chose one of her regulars.
It was only weeks later that the stars aligned for us to make the next logical step. I didn’t have to get out there, since there were many newcomers eager to prove themselves at that time. Needless to say, they didn’t last long. Usually I would have been upset by that, but now I didn’t care. I had a much better game to play.
“I hope you don’t expect love,” he said after he suddenly stopped kissing my neck.
“This is neither the time, nor the place to fall in love,” I replied.
The first occasion was followed by another and then another, and after a while I lost counting. I did, in fact, start to develop certain feelings for him, but I was well aware that they were by no means real. I couldn’t have been more honest when I said that was neither the time, nor the place to go searching for affection. Not in a dog-eat-dog world, a ruthless and cruel environment – and we all knew about that when we chose to come here.
“Surely, you can tell us your secret.”
This was one of the guys, one of the pit’s several rising stars, asking him. He just shrugged and drank his wine. But the guy was insistent, so much so, that I feared there will be a fight, which was not forbidden, but killing someone outside the arena was. I didn’t want to get caught up in the middle of something like this. I’ve already spent too much time in here to let it all go just like that. It was my home, the place where my heart resided. Temporarily, I reminded myself immediately, only temporarily.
“Why do you fight?” he asked eventually, apparently having grown tired of the other gladiator’s nagging.
The man seemed a little taken aback, but after a few moments of thinking, he answered, “Glory.”
“What about you?” he turned to another, and then another.
With a solemn expression he looked at the faces around himself, and then he said, “I fight to fight. That’s my secret.”
“What do you mean?” one of the few successful female gladiators asked.
“I mean” he answered carefully, “that I don’t care about the glory, the women or the money. I’m here to fight.”
“You’re not like the rest of them,” I said later, lying in his bed.
“Really?” he replied, clearly deep in his thoughts, not paying attention to my words. He must have heard this a thousand times already. But that was not what I meant.
“There is something different about you. You’re not like them.”
“Yeah, the…” I had to bite my tongue not to say the word that was on my mind. “The other gladiators,” I said finally.
“Well,” he replied with his focus entirely on me now “do let me know if you figure out what that difference is.”
It seemed like the idea entertained him. I didn’t understand, but I didn’t give it much consideration, either. I thought it was just a peculiarity, something deliberate. Surely nothing to worry about. But from time to time it crossed my mind, making me sink into my thoughts during the day when I had other things to attend to.
“You’re drinking like the world is gonna end,” I told him one evening when he refused to celebrate with the others, and insisted we go back to his room with as much wine as we could carry with us. He already drank a considerable amount by then.
“It already has.”
His laugh was dark, and there was something familiar in his tone.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked with my brows furrowed.
He shrugged, and wanted to drink from one of the wineskins but it proved to be empty. He threw it onto the floor, and got up to pour some from the pitcher standing on the small wooden table. I caught his hand in the air.
“Look at me.”
“Let me go, woman!” he said, shrugging me off.
“Look. At. Me,” I hissed angrily.
He glanced at me in astonishment. I had never spoken like this to him before. It was only a matter of moments to see the realization in his eyes.
“You’re one of us,” I said, my voice trembling.
“Us?” he asked after a moment of consideration.
“You’re not a soulless,” I specified, merely whispering the last word. It didn’t matter anymore, but I did so by habit.
“Us,” he said in a low voice, with a peculiar emphasis on that one word he uttered.
I’m sitting in a café – one of the few remaining ones –, thinking about everything that has happened so far. The sky outside is dark, even more so than it usually is. He was right. The world did end. At least partially. We ended it. And now we’re facing the consequences.
This is a nice enough place to live, though. Not like it used to be before the war, but still. It lays far from the epicenter, and with the help of the experts the radioactive dust was also tolerable. Not that there is an antidote for such a thing, but we’re alive, aren’t we?
A man enters, and the few moments he spends visibly in the decontamination chamber allows me to inspect him. Well-built with brown hair, but there is a lump on his face. He would be very handsome if it wasn’t for the lump. Still, I saw much worse, he got off easily.
A rush of adrenaline pours through my veins when he steps into the café, but it turns out to be someone waiting for a girl who arrives a few minutes later. Not him, then. He was too young anyway. He was what? Ten when it happened? They tend not to use VRGs that excessively, young people I mean.
A myriad of questions arise and fade away inside my mind. How will I know it’s him? How will he know it’s me? What if he’s thoroughly deformed? But surely he wouldn’t want to meet in person then, not in a place so public like this. I didn’t ask, of course, it is considered impolite, like asking a lady about her used to be. I need to stifle a laugh. Nobody cares if you ask their age now. There is not a single person left who would care. As a matter of fact, people find pride in their age, like every new wrinkle is another decoration they can carry with themselves.
The old and the very young were almost exclusively wiped out. Their immune system, we were informed, was not strong enough. Even with the medication they were too weak to resist the fallout. Maybe there are some of them untouched by the dust up North, I don’t know, but based on the news we’re getting lately, it’s unlikely. Most of us live in the coastal areas, these proved to be the most endurable.
I’m watching a small storm gathering – we get a lot of these lately, sandstorms of a kind –, and I ask myself the ultimate question: What if he doesn’t like me? No, he should. I have spent a considerable amount of money to be a walking reminder of my old self. I am pretty enough, even if I’m not his type. What if I don’t like him? No, maybe these are not the most pressing issues at hand.
How do you talk to someone you’ve let into your bed, into yourself more times than you can count, yet never once met?
Someone has entered the decon chamber while I was staring out of the huge window. I have to wait for the white, smoke-like material to clear to take a closer look at him. With his rusty brown hair and green eyes he seems nothing like the barbarian character he’s been spending his nights as in the game. He is marred by scars, not as a prominent feature of his skin but still very much visible. Surgical scars? Reminders of the war? Was he a soldier? Is he a soldier? What does he do?
He seems alright, whole enough. His eyes lock on mine. I wonder what he thinks about me. I wonder if I’ll ever learn the answer to that question.
He asks my name and when I nod he seats himself at the other side of the table.
The waitress appears out of nowhere and takes our order, and we do not speak until she returns with our drinks. In the meantime we eye each other suspiciously. Minutes pass by, and I suddenly notice the way he’s furrowing his brow, which makes me laugh.
“What is it?” he asks astonished.
“It’s so hyperreal,” I say still giggling.
A smile creeps onto his face, and he turns his head a away little to shake it in disbelief, as if saying, Silly woman, what to do with you now?
There is a certain kind of familiarity in his presence. We did share our lives, our innermost thoughts with each other, after all, certain we’re only talking to some elaborate program code. But we weren’t. What happened – finding another player in your virtual reality – is not unimaginable, but the odds are so low nobody ever considers it seriously. They’re all just NPCs to us, some of them more interesting or appealing than the others, but that’s it. They would all pass a superficial Turing test, yet, upon very close examination you realize they’re all kind of soulless – hence the name. You could, if you really wanted to, determine whether you’re talking to a real person or an AI, but what’s the point? You’re there to play, to become someone else, not to conduct experiments. And if there’s a glitch, if there’s a slip up, we all tend to look the other way, willing ourselves to forget about it as fast as we can.
“So a gladiator, huh?” he says, and I can still hear the aftermath of the smile in his voice.
“Should I have chosen to become a princess instead?” I shoot back.
“Have you?” he asks, referring to my previous virtual experiences.
I shake my head.
“What about you?” I ask.
“Have I ever been a princess?” he arches his brow, and when I laugh, he adds, “Nothing interesting, I guess. I’ve been doing this for quite some time.”
“How long exactly?”
I try to keep my curiosity at bay, but fail miserably. It is not exactly polite to ask such questions, especially from strangers, but after all we are well-acquainted, are we not?
“I’ve lost track,” he shrugs.
I know he tells the truth. I’ve lost track myself, as well.
“So what now?” I ask, suddenly deciding there’s been enough chitchat.
He repeats my question, but I know this is a diversion technique. I’ve known him long enough to learn that. That and much more. So much more. This is the point when I realize just how hyperreal this whole thing is, but this time I do not find it amusing. It scares the hell out of me.
“I guess there’s only one logical decision.”
“Glory or gore.”
This is not how this saying usually goes. But we’re not in the arena anymore. Yet, it’s not so much different. We might fail. But then again, we might win. And we’re definitely not the kind of people who are short on courage and will.
“It’s not in my habit to lose,” I reply after giving it some serious thought.
I hear the dust drumming on the window panes as if we were caught in a hail-storm, but the only thing I see is the same glint in his eyes that he always has before entering the arena.