Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Trusting What I Smell
by Kenneth Schneyer

Taking Flight
by Peter Wood

Dumpster Dive
by Clint Spivey

To Die a Great Death
by Stephen L. Antczak

A Taste of Oranges
by Jacey Bedford

Athena’s Children
by Travis Heermann

Sinking Holes
by D. Thomas Minton

Free Range
by Kathleen Molyneaux

Shorter Stories

by Douglas J. Ogurek

Out of Her Head
by Amy Power Jansen

Icarus and Daedalus
by Sean Mulroy


Hearts on Demand
by Anthony J. Melchiorri

Internet Undercover
by John McCormick



Comic Strips




To Die a Great Death

By Stephen L. Antczak

ARCH BACKED AWAY FROM THE rapid-fire blows of Slammer’s sledgehammer hands as they rained down on his carbon-fiber shield. Just one well-placed blow would end the fight. His shield arm was numb from all the pounding.

Arch performed a blocking move that redirected the downward hammer swing to the side and into the platform, and then slammed the shield into Slammer’s shoulder. Slammer staggered away from Arch and into the middle of the platform.

Now, with Slammer momentarily off balance, Arch scuttled to where he had dropped his plasma sword earlier while evading Slammer’s flailing attack.

Arch would be able to activate the plasma sword only once before being forced to drop it as it burned itself up. He scooped up the sword and ran full-tilt towards Slammer. Arch closed in as Slammer raised his hammer hands for a counterattack rather than to block; Slammer never played defense, always offense.

Slammer attempted to backhand Arch into oblivion, like swatting an insect. Slammer out-massed Arch by more than double. Even so, the plasma sword connected with Slammer’s hammer, slicing it off of his arm, but the impact yanked the plasma sword from Arch’s grasp.

Slammer fell back in agony; his nervous system had been connected to the hammer, allowing him to feel the force of the blows he rained down upon his opponents, giving him better control. It also allowed him to feel the pain of it being severed. Arch’s momentum carried him forward and he tumbled onto the concrete surface.

He scrambled to his feet and turned to face Slammer, who had a reserve of “hype” ready to flood his system. “Hype” was an instantaneous performance enhancer that temporarily elevated adrenalin to dangerous levels and dampened pain sensors for thirty seconds.

Slammer suddenly tilted back his head and roared, a typical response from someone who’d just flooded his system with “hype.”

Arch braced himself for the attack. Slammer came at him like a crazed maniac. Arch barely had time to roll away from Slammer’s remaining hammer, and then the bigger man was on him again before Arch had time to regain his footing. But Arch still had a few tricks of his own. He held up a palm as if trying to yield—there was no yielding in this fight, though; it was a death match with no time limit—hoping the posture would distract Slammer for half a second.

It did.

Slammer bellowed gleefully, thinking he’d broken Arch’s spirit with his relentless assault. But Arch used that brief, precious moment to flex his forearm muscles and fire a titanium needle-like projectile from a spring-loaded gun mounted in his wrist, just beneath the skin. A single-shot was all he had. The projectile entered Slammer’s skull through his left eye and pierced his brain, the tip of the needle jutting out the back of his head.

Slammer stepped backwards once, stopped, and then the briefest smile flickered across his lips before he fell.

The crowd went silent. They had not seen the killing blow. But the huge video monitors around the Arena zoomed in for the replay. It was not a spectacular victory, not soaked in blood and torn flesh the way the crowd usually liked it.

But Arch had defeated Slammer, and Slammer had finally gotten what he wanted, what all the Gladiators wanted, hence the little flicker of a smile as he died. Instead of the long, drawn out, ignominious end promised by the confluence of terminal illness and technology, the Games had given Slammer a good death.


Archibald Farmer sat in the waiting room and looked down at his hands.

“If you’re lucky, you have six months, maybe a year,” Doctor Martin had said.

All Arch could do was stare at his hands. All he could think was that his hands would soon be the hands of a corpse.

Later that day, Arch and his wife, Chloe, sat across from each other at the dinner table.

“Archie, what’s going on?” Chloe asked. She could always tell when something was wrong.

He told her what Doctor Martin had told him.

“What now?” Chloe asked, when Arch finished.

“I don’t know,” Arch said. “I wish we’d signed up for life insurance when we had the chance.”

“I don’t care about that,” Chloe said.

“You don’t now, but you will eventually.”

“We should get a second opinion.” Chloe said.

Arch nodded. “Okay. We’ll do that.”


Anyone who signed up to become a Gladiator gave up all the rights of the living. Their sole purpose now was to fight and die in the Arena. In exchange, their heirs were paid large sums of money, and the Gladiators themselves were afforded lifestyles commensurate with their performance in the Arena. But they could never be free, could never retire to any happily ever after.

One could forgive their excesses, given that.

The wealthy paid handsomely to party with victorious Gladiators, apparently in the fine tradition of ancient Rome. The goal of some was carnal knowledge of their favorite Gladiator.

At his victory party for defeating Slammer, Arch found himself confronted by two sisters, heiresses to a hotel fortune. They were tall and perfect pixies, brown hair cut short and parted to the side—one to the left, the other to the right—with reddish blonde highlights. They both had deep, bluish-purple eyes and wore translucent floor-length gowns with nothing underneath, giving their bodies a shimmering, elusive nudity. Arch wore his usual ankle-length black robe; he had not yet acquired the ostentatious fashion sense of other Gladiators with their peacock feathers and amazing technicolor dreamcoats.

“You’re Arch,” one of them said. He knew their names were Miley and Kiley, but didn’t know which was which.

“Yes,” he acknowledged.

“We’re horny,” the other sister said.

“Both of you?” Arch asked.

The sisters nodded in unison.

“Right now?”

“Right,” said the first sister.

“Now,” said the second.

“Here?” Arched asked. “Right in the middle of the room, with everyone watching?”

The same slightly devilish smile played across each beautiful face. The effect worked its magic on Arch. He didn’t care if people watched. After a few seconds they would fall to one another and turn the party into an orgy, as usual.

The twins took turns, though, and each seemed to enjoy watching the other suffer the thrusts of his sword, as it were, more so than being the one thrust into.

It didn’t last, though. Arch lost interest before the twins were finished with him. They were young and beautiful and willing, but they weren’t Chloe.

“I think I’ll go to bed early tonight,” Arch told no one in particular.

He left the party and walked across the hamster tube that connected the Gladiator Dorm with the Public Hall and the Arena. It was all part of a massive complex built up on an artificial island, a floating nation owned by the Gladiator Games Corporation. The Gladiators had private access to a state-of-the-art gym and cutting-edge medical practice where much of what was available to them—pharmaceuticals, body modifications, implants, surgical techniques—was largely unknown and mostly illegal in the rest of the world.

Gladiators were the proving ground for new drugs, new surgical techniques, new technologies. Like most of the other Gladiators, Arch spent a lot of his time in surgery, recovering from surgery, testing new drugs, recovering from testing new drugs, training, eating, watching matches to research upcoming opponents, or sleeping.

He took the elevator up to his apartment on the seventy-fifth floor and went straight to the bed, slipped in, and closed his eyes.


The visit to the fair had been a spur-of-the-moment decision as they cruised by it one day, seeing the tall Ferris wheel off in the distance. They were newlyweds and everything seemed like an adventure. Chloe told the car to exit as they approached the off-ramp for the fair, and thirty minutes later Arch found himself eating a corndog and giving serious consideration to a deep-fried chocolate bar.

“Let’s go see this,” Chloe said, showing Arch a leaflet for a Gladiator Games demo that was about to start.

“Really?” he asked. She grinned and nodded. Gladiator Games had become a pay-per-view phenomenon in which Arch had no real interest, but Chloe seemed excited.

The arena was essentially a circus tent with bleachers surrounding an oval of sand. The same space had just been used for a horse show. Much of the crowd for the horses exited while a new, mostly young and drunk crowd piled in to watch the Gladiators fight.

Arch and Chloe found themselves carried along to the second row.

“Isn’t it exciting?” Chloe asked, grinning widely.

The Gladiators came out to the sound of pre-recorded trumpets and the rowdy crowd cheered and jeered. The two Gladiators were decked out in armor and each carried a short sword and a shield. The handbill stated, “Webb vs. Drake in a FIGHT TO THE DEATH!”

Arch did not believe it would really be a fight to the death. This was the county fair, after all, not some exclusive pay-per-view event. A beer vendor came around and he bought a plastic cup of pilsner to share with Chloe, who wasn’t much of a beer drinker. To his surprise she downed half in one long gulp.

Webb entered the oval first, with one arm severed at the elbow, apparently putting him at a disadvantage, and then Drake came in. This was his first bout. The two bowed to each section of the audience before a whistle announced the fight should begin.

It started off slowly as the two Gladiators closed and circled around each other, looking for an opening to strike. Catcalls, whistles and boos rained down on them. But then, as if spring-loaded, Webb attacked. A moment later, Drake fell to his knees, blood spraying from a gash in his neck. Arch couldn’t be sure he’d even seen the hit that caused the gash, it had happened so quickly.

The crowd was stunned into silence. No one had expected to see a real death. Chloe had gasped and slapped her hands over her mouth, but did not look away, her eyes wide and focused on the Gladiators, her expression one of rapturous shock while Arch looked at her.

Amazingly, Drake did not fall, but clamped a hand over his bloody neck and got unsteadily to his feet. He faced Webb, pointed his sword at him, and attacked. But it was a lame attempt. Webb easily parried and replied with a thrust into Drake’s chest, ramming it home and then withdrawing it, all in one fluid motion.

Then, the victor, Webb, turned to address the crowd.

Arch remembered every word as if they’d been seared into his mind.

What you just witnessed was the death of a man who chose to die as a man should: on his feet, eyes wide open, with honor. He chose this death over the long, slow wasting away of his body and mind from disease. He could not be cured. Death was sure to come sooner rather than later. But he had a choice: how to die, how to face death. There may come a day when you, too, are presented with such a choice. When that day comes, what will you do? Will you choose a good death?

At the time, Arch appreciated the sentiment behind those words as one does upon hearing financial advice from a billionaire. It made sense, of course, and probably worked, but did not seem applicable to his particular set of circumstances. After all, he was young, healthy, and married, with his entire life ahead of him.

“Coming to bed?”

It took a second for Arch to realize that Chloe had asked him a question.

“Huh? Oh, no, I’ll sit up for a while.”

Chloe paused in the hallway, the glow of the kitchen light illuminating her from the left side, and Arch decided she had never looked more beautiful. She deserved a lifetime of happiness. Maybe, after he was gone, she’d find true happiness with someone who could be with her “ever after.”

“Okay, well, I took a sleeping pill,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep otherwise.”

Arch just smiled at her.

“Good night,” Chloe said, and disappeared down the hallway.

Arch reached over and turned off the light by his chair. The light from the kitchen kept the room from becoming completely dark, but it was dark enough.

Arch tried to imagine what it would be like, death. He was not a religious man, but the idea of death, the fact of dying, did not disturb him. It was inevitable, the way things worked, the way things were supposed to be.

What disturbed him was the reality of his life now, to be followed by the unspectacular wasting away from his imminent demise.

Aside from his romance with Chloe, marrying her, what else had he done of note?

He remembered the time, at the age of maybe ten or eleven years old, when he and his best friend, Alan, had discovered a group of three older kids with ducklings they’d captured and put into a kiddie pool. The older kids were throwing broken up chunks of concrete into the pool while the ducklings squeaked in terror trying to escape. Without a plan, Arch and Alan attacked—a nearby construction site provided them with the same ammunition that it provided the bullies—and the two younger boys unleashed a hail of stones at the older boys, who briefly tried to return fire but were overwhelmed by the fury of the assault and ultimately fled.

The bullies had managed to kill two ducklings. Arch and Alan were able to save the rest and find another family of ducks, with a clutch of older ducklings, and somehow managed to get the mother duck to adopt the survivors.

Arch had taken a few hits in the exchange of missiles, and went home that evening sporting a bloody nose and split lip, a massive bruise on his right thigh, and a gash in his right shoulder that required stitches. He hadn’t felt a single one of these wounds during the heat of battle, and only later on did he feel anything like pain. Mostly, though, he’d felt proud of himself for standing and fighting for something good.

Remembering that incident made Arch smile. He and Alan had really been something, that day.

His phone buzzed. He’d set it on the end table by his chair, upon which also sat a now cold mug of black coffee from that morning. The phone buzzed again.

He answered.

“Archibald Farmer?” asked a man’s voice that sounded like it could have belonged to a talk show host.

“Yes,” Arch replied.

“My name is Mr. Simmons, and boy do I have a proposition for you.”


“Blow,” the Medicus told Arch, who blew onto a pen-sized chemical analyzer with which the Medicus would be able to deduce the state of Arch’s health to a remarkable degree of accuracy.

“Hmm,” the Medicus said, looking at the real-time chart on his pad. “Notice any soreness anywhere?”

“My left arm started to ache in the middle of the night,” Arch told him. “I took a painkiller and went back to sleep.”

“Give me that arm.”

Arch held out his left arm. The Medicus slid a plastic sleeve-like device over it, pressed a button and looked at his chart again.

Arch looked at his reflection in the wall-sized mirror in the repair shop. No one called it the doctor’s office or hospital; the idea was not to make the Gladiators well, but to make them combat ready, even if that meant being able to stand just long enough for an opponent to cut them down.

Head shaved bald like most of the other Gladiators, Arch’s original body was still mostly intact. That was about to change.

“Multiple micro-fractures in your left arm,” the Medicus told him. “Basic scan didn’t pick it up. Too many hammer blows on that shield. Even reinforced, it’ll probably shatter in the next fight. No telling for sure. I’m recommending total replacement from the shoulder down.”

Arch sighed at the news. So it was to begin. The slow dismantling of his physical being, piece by piece.

A Gladiator could only replace a limb or anything else that had reached the point of failure; it did not actually have to fail catastrophically in the Arena, if detected it could be replaced beforehand.

After enough of a Gladiator’s body was replaced, to where he or she was more mechanical than human, there was a new category: Beast of the Arena.

Spider was the most famous Beast. One of the earliest modern Gladiators, he’d won his first fight only after having his right arm severed at the elbow. Back then, he’d been known by his last name: Webb.

Arch had not yet met Spider in the Arena, but in all likelihood that would change now that he’d killed Slammer, who’d been slated for a match with Spider. No one had yet survived in the Arena against Spider.


“At least this way I can die on my own terms,” Arch said.

“Maybe that’s what bothers me,” Chloe replied. “Are these really your terms? Is this really what you want?”

“No,” Arch replied. “What I want is to be able to live a long and happy life with you, well into my old age, with a house full of kids and then someday grandkids during the holidays when we’re not busy traveling the world. But that’s not going to happen. At least this way ... one of us gets to do that.”

“I don’t want to, not without you.”

“You say that now, but you’ll meet someone.”

“Don’t,” Chloe said.

“I’m sorry, Chloe, but I’m doing this,” Arch said, his voice firm. “If I’m to die young, I want it to be what the ancients thought a good death, in battle. I know you think it’s ridiculous, but I don’t.”

He signed the contract and slid it over to Chloe. For her to finalize the divorce and at the same time make herself the recipient of all moneys that Arch would earn in the Arena and through sponsorships, she had to sign. After a few tense moments, she took the pen from Arch and signed. She tossed the pen across the table at Arch’s attorney, then got up and walked out without saying a word.

“Don’t worry,” said Arch’s agent, Mr. Simmons, “that’s how it usually goes with these things.”


When Arch awoke in Recovery his left arm felt oddly heavy, and he couldn’t move. It was now a metallic appendage that ended where his wrist stopped, without a hand or anything else there, yet.

“You should get more feeling and control as your nervous system becomes more accustomed to the interface with the arm,” said the Medicus.

There came a knock on the door, which then opened, and in walked Mr. Simmons.

“I was down the hall visiting another client,” Simmons explained. “Figured I’d pop over and give you the good news. You’ve got two fights next week. If you win those, the next one is Spider.”

Arch took a moment to absorb this. Two more fights, then Spider and, in all likelihood, death.

“Anyway, you got a few days to learn how to use your new arm and whatever attachments you decide on,” Simmons said. “I’ve got the sponsors lined up.”

Sponsors paid for armament and defense upgrades for Gladiators. The more popular a Gladiator with the general public, the more money poured in for upgrades. Beasts like Spider were as well-known as any celebrity or politician could be. Aside from Spider there were five Beasts of the Arena still active: Diablo, Monster, T. Rex, Viper, and Goddess.


Once a week, the Medicus gave Arch his dose of meds. Usually, he had to take the day off from training, as the meds tended to sap his energy. Arch had no idea what the ingredients of the concoction were, and didn’t care. They kept him alive and well enough to fight.

He spent the downtime watching the previous bouts of his next opponent, Grizzly. As his name connoted, Grizzly was a man of substantial girth and heft. Grizzly wore special gloves that gave his hands razor-sharp claws of a vibrating alloy that could cut through any armor. He attacked like a rabid wild animal, a fabled berserker, which had its weaknesses and strengths. Its main strength was that it gave him an advantage early in the match by catching his opponents off guard with the intensity of the attack. But it was unsustainable. If Grizzly couldn’t end the fight in the first three rounds, his chance of winning dropped considerably.

He had never had a fight go more than three rounds.

When he felt up to it, Arch decided to head down to the Parts department to try out his new plasma sword attachment and get an upgraded shield if he had the bank for it.

Anna was the woman in charge of the Parts department, located in the lowest level of the Arena complex, on the same level as body disposal. She was a tall, statuesque Russian redhead, her body covered in tattoos, logos of the Gladiators who’d died since the beginning of the Gladiator Games. Arch wondered where on her body his logo would find a home.

“I want to use whatever bank I have left to boost defenses,” Arch told her.

Anna nodded knowingly. She didn’t say another word, but got right to work. Arch felt like a piece of machinery being retrofitted with the latest and greatest tech.

Arch didn’t have much bank left after the plasma sword arm attachment, so the best Anna could do was give him more body armor. He still had the needle shooter, but he’d revealed that against Slammer.

Maybe, instead of armor, another secret weapon was the way to go. It would have to be something as cheap as the needle shooter, but unexpected, simple yet effective, deadly. He explained what he was thinking to Anna.

“Perhaps this?” Anna asked. She pointed to a boot on a nearby shelf. It looked like a normal black boot, nothing special.

“I assume this is more than a boot,” Arch said.

“Yes, it’s a boom,” Anna said.

“A boom?”

Anna made the sound of an explosion and demonstrated it with her hands. “Like so.”

“The boot is a bomb?” Arch asked.

“Yes, yes, use boom, you need new foot, but ... you win, so ...” she shrugged.

Arch nodded. No one would expect him to blow off his own foot with a bomb to win a match. It hadn’t been done before. And it was a perfectly legal move in the Arena.

There weren’t many rules for the Arena. Aside from the ban on explosive projectiles, a Gladiator couldn’t arbitrarily replace body parts with tech, save for when they were damaged in the Arena and repairing them would take too long—a Gladiator had to be ready for the next match, no matter what. Each Gladiator was given the same basic equipment to start with: a sword, a shield, and basic armor to protect their arms, legs, head. Gladiators could only spend on upgrades and mods what they earned from winning matches and sponsorships. It was a process that favored the veterans over the beginners, but the idea was that the veterans had earned their advantages and so must the beginners.

Arch knew that the only way to stay in the Games for any length of time was to gradually replace fragile body parts with tech, and ultimately to become a Beast of the Arena. There were Gladiators who would rather die than become a Beast, to retain as much of their humanity as possible at the end. Arch hadn’t allowed himself to think too much about it. But now it was staring him in the face with a new tech arm and soon, if he survived his next match, a new tech leg or foot. He had to decide now: To Beast, or not to Beast? That was the question.

And the answer was: Which foot was he willing to sacrifice first?

That gave him another idea. Maybe armor wasn’t the way to go. If he was going to lose his foot anyway ...


The night before he was to leave, Arch tried to make love to Chloe. “Tried” because it didn’t work out the way he’d intended. Things got hot and sweaty, but Chloe couldn’t even approach anything close to feeling pleasure and Arch was never able to reach climax. After a while he collapsed and lay beside his wife, out of breath, exhausted, embarrassed.

“Not exactly our finest moment in the sack, was it?” Chloe said after a few long seconds of awkward silence.

“I’m sorry. I thought it would be different,” he said.

Chloe said nothing. After a while Arch climbed out of bed, put his pajamas on, went into the kitchen and poured a double of bourbon, which he took with him into the dark living room.


Grizzly roared as he charged at Arch again, having just missed with a double swipe of his massive claws—a heavy left backhand followed by a downward raking of the right claw. Arch leaped up and over Grizzly, vaulting over him by placing his hands on Grizzly’s head after launching himself into the air.

He’d had Anna inject him with a localized steroid that would muscle up his legs, giving him the power to leap tall opponents in a single bound. The catch was that it would shred his muscles after a while, eventually rendering his legs useless if he kept it up for too long. He just needed to stay clear of those claws long enough for Grizzly to tire out. Three rounds.

It was going to be a long three rounds. Grizzly attacked relentlessly, keeping Arch on the move. There was no break between the rounds as in a sport like boxing; the rounds were simply time measurements used in marketing the Games to audiences. A muted tone signaled the passing of each round, and each round lasted one minute, which didn’t seem like much until the match started. A minute was a long time against an opponent like Grizzly.

Arch landed hard and fell on his back after vaulting over him.

The tone sounded. One minute gone.

Grizzly lurched forward with both claws as Arch frantically scrambled away, crab-crawling on his back. One talon on the left claw dug into Arch’s right leg, ripping into the muscle of his quad. Arch grimaced against the pain. That was going to make jumping a lot more difficult.

Arch whipped the plasma sword around—it was his first chance to use it effectively.

The blade hit the claw as Grizzly yanked it away.

Sparks and shards of metal flew.

Grizzly growled in pain. Tit for tat. But Arch had gotten the worst of it.

Arch feinted left and then rolled right, getting to his feet before Grizzly could react. Arch darted around and behind Grizzly, but this time it was Grizzly who had the surprise move. Instead of turning to face him, Grizzly suddenly plowed backwards and slammed into Arch, catching him completely off guard.

Grizzly then spun right and an armored spike popped out of his elbow, catching Arch in the shoulder of his plasma sword hand, ripping into muscle and shattering the bone. The impact sent Arch flying, and he landed sprawling across the concrete platform.

Plasma sword rendered useless, there was really only one thing left for Arch to do.

The second tone sounded to indicate they had entered the third round.

Arch knew he had only one move left to win the match. It would mean putting himself right where Grizzly wanted him. If Arch missed, he was dead.

Grizzly came at him full bore, claws ready to cut Arch into ribbons. No time to dodge left or right. Instead, Arch launched himself directly at Grizzly with as much power as he could muster from his legs, feeling the muscles rip as he did. The pain was intense, as if somebody had taken a chainsaw to each leg.

Despite the agony, Arch kicked out with his left leg and aimed the exploding boot right at Grizzly’s face.

One swipe of a massive claw would cut him down, short of his goal, and that would be it.

But Grizzly hadn’t expected a head on attack—that was sure death, after all.

The thick sole of the boot connected with Grizzly’s chin, and exploded.


Arch awoke a few days later in the familiar setting of the Gladiator Games repair shop. He felt no pain, just the dull throb at the end of his left leg, at the knee.

An attendant asked if he wanted to see the fight, all two-and-a-half minutes of it. Arch opted to watch just the finale. He saw himself launch a kick at Grizzly’s chin, then the explosion. The video focused on Grizzly’s head separating from his body, tumbling end over end through the air.

There was one more fight to win before he could face Spider, against the Gladiator who’d most recently become a Beast of the Arena: Viper.


With his bank fattened up, the array of offensive and defensive upgrades available to him was much wider now, as was the availability of experimental drugs to maximize performance and speed recovery.

Arch upgraded his defenses, opting for another secret weapon built into a new shield: when struck, Arch could send a high-voltage jolt of electrical current into his opponent.


“I have some rather interesting news for you,” the Medicus told Arch when he walked into the examining room. The Medicus had called him in for an unscheduled examination.

Arch waited for the rather interesting news.

“Your latest diagnostics came back with an unexpected result,” the Medicus said. “You are cured, sir. The cancer in your body is gone. You are one hundred percent cancer free. It means you can quit the Games. You can ask your agent about it, but every Gladiator has a clause in their contract that says they can simply walk away from the Games if they are cured of whatever it is that’s supposed to be killing them. You don’t have to worry about wasting away. You don’t have to die a good death in the Arena anymore; you can die a great death of old age, at home, in your own bed, many years from now.”

The Medicus seemed truly happy for Arch.

“How?” Arch asked.

The Medicus shrugged. “Probably some combination of the drugs we’ve given you to recover after each match, plus the stuff to boost your adrenalin. And your own body; being a Gladiator puts your body through a lot, the training, the injuries, the drugs, the mods ... it’s a lot. Maybe your body’s defense mechanisms went into overdrive to cope and in the process just wiped out the cancer.”

“Can I get a second opinion?” Arch asked.


What would that mean outside the Arena, away from the Gladiator Games, in normal society? He would be a double amputee, handicapped or crippled in the eyes of most, someone requiring assistance even though the mechanical prostheses available to the average person made him or her just as able as anyone else to function normally in normal society. But that presumed one could afford the best, the latest and greatest. Insurance would cover the most basic models.

In the Arena, no matter how many of his limbs were his own or prosthetic, he was always looked upon as one hundred percent a warrior. In fact, tech used to replace his natural body parts made him seem more than human to some, a greater being than the mostly human warriors that the Gladiators were until they became Beasts, if they lived that long.

There was the catch, though. If he quit he might live a long life and die peacefully in his bed. That was a great death, wasn’t it? A death anyone might wish for, certainly the death that made the most sense for a healthy individual.

Otherwise, as a Gladiator, he knew his time would be cut short. But his death would be glorious, a death in battle harkening back over two thousand years to the days of ancient Rome. There was something raw and barbaric about it, something that made the blood rush, the heart pound, and the adrenalin surge.

Arch liked the way it made him feel about himself when he thought about what he’d become, what he might yet become.

He didn’t want to give that up. Not for anything. Not even for a life extended out to its natural limit, free of disease. It was too late, anyway. He’d gone too far, and he didn’t want to go back.


Viper: his only human parts were the upper half of a torso and head fused to the serpentine, mechanical body of a gigantic, alloy-plated snake, with two tentacles in place of his arms, each ending in a snake-head that struck out at Arch in rapid-fire succession, jaws snapping together with large fangs that dripped venom. Arch sliced one of the snake-heads off and it was immediately replaced by two, slightly smaller, but just as deadly. The snake-head arms prevented Arch from getting in close enough to do any damage to the human portion of Viper.

One of the snake-arms detached itself from Viper’s body, attached to the shoulder by a thin tether, and came after Arch like a hyped-up python, forcing him to divide his attention.

It was a crafty way around one of the Gladiator Games’ few rules, which
banned drones. Because the detached python arm wasn’t technically a drone,
because it was still attached via tether, it was allowed.

Arch quickly decided the only way for him to win would be with a massive electrical shock to Viper through his long tail, the tip of which was barbed and used as a defensive weapon. But Viper was too quick for Arch to get behind. Unless ... the idea struck him suddenly, and he knew without a doubt it would work.

Arch launched himself at Viper’s head, the foot of his mechanical leg outstretched as if he were attempting to kick his adversary in the face, using the same tactic he’d used against Grizzly. As expected, Viper had anticipated the possibility that Arch would attempt the same against him, and he ducked to avoid Grizzly’s fate.

Arch flew over Viper and landed behind him. He spun with his shield ready, and was not disappointed. Viper’s tail whipped towards him. Arch sent a mental command through his arm to the shield to unleash its electrical bite upon contact with the tail.

The shield delivered its lethal dose of electricity.


His win gave him the bank to afford better attachments for his forthcoming battle against Spider.

Spider had killed more Gladiators and Beasts than anyone else, by a wide margin. His only visible human components were his head, except for the lower half of his jaw, and his neck through which his throat deposited specially designed comestibles into an artificial stomach. An internal engine combusted what he ate to power his body and keep his heart—his only other human component—pumping.

A true Beast of the Arena.

Arch wondered, if the man had become mostly Beast, had the terminal illness that was killing him been permanently eradicated? He didn’t know what Spider had been dying of before becoming a Gladiator. Spider had so little of his vulnerable human body left, could he have made the same choice as Arch, to remain a Gladiator and forsake a long life?

It made sense, Arch decided. What place was there in society for one such as Spider?


The celebration was even bigger and wilder than the others. Arch had killed a Beast, after all. And he would face Spider next. Nobody expected him to win. But then nobody had expected him to defeat Viper so quickly.

“The bidding was through the roof this time,” Simmons told him, having sidled up to Arch near a fountain in which half a dozen naked young men and women undulated. Arch admired their perfect, and perfectly whole, bodies rippling with muscles and smooth skin.

Most of the Gladiators were there and most of the Beasts, as well. Arch had heard a rumor that Spider himself intended to make an appearance.

It suddenly registered what Simmons had just said.

“Bidding?” Arch asked.

“Don’t tell me you weren’t expecting it,” Simmons said.

Something created a stir at the other end of the rooftop, by the elevators, as the hubbub of voices rose to a crescendo, and suddenly hushed.

“Other things on my mind,” Arch said. He headed that way.

The crowd parted for him as he walked, and he came face to face with Spider.

But it wasn’t the Spider who anyone could recognize from the Arena; he was in his “civilian” body: a rather short, realistically human-like frame, two arms and two legs, and a roundish torso upon which his bald head and thick neck sat, and within which his heart beat its life-giving rhythm. He stood less than two meters, and looked up with a genuinely pleased smile when Arch approached.

“Hello, Arch, I’m Spider,” he said, holding out a very human-looking hand. Arch took it and was surprised by the warmth it emitted. It didn’t feel quite human, but it was close.

“I’m glad you came,” Arch said.

“I normally avoid these things,” Spider said. “But in your case, I felt you deserved the respect.”

“Thank you for that.”

“If anyone can put an end to my miserable life, you can,” Spider said.

Arch raised his eyebrows at that, and Spider laughed.

“Don’t think I’ll make it easy for you,” he added. “When we meet in the Arena I’ll probably kill you, but I’m hoping you surprise me and everyone else.”

“I’ll do my best,” Arch said.

“I’ll give you one piece of advice, and it may or may not help you when we face each other,” Spider said. “Don’t go in there wanting to win. Go in there wanting to live. The desire to live is much more powerful than the desire to win.”

“What about the desire to die?” Arch asked.

Spider allowed only a smile in response, then turned and headed back towards the elevators, ignoring everyone else there.

“That’ll drive the ratings sky high,” Simmons said, suddenly by Arch’s side again. “Could not have been more perfect.”

“More perfect? Isn’t that like calling something very unique?” asked a female voice from behind them, a voice that Arch recognized.

He turned around to find himself looking into the face of his wife.

Ex-wife, he reminded himself.

“Hi,” Chloe said.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I outbid everyone else,” Chloe said. “It took everything I had, but here I am.”

“All that money ...” Arch said. “You spent it on this? That was for you, your future.”

“I know that, but I had to see you one last time while—”

“While I’m still alive,” Arch finished for her.

“While you’re still you,” Chloe said. “Now, I want what I paid for.”

“You’re not serious about that.”

“I am.”

“I can’t ...”

“Actually,” Simmons chimed in, “if you want to face Spider in the Arena, you will.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Arch asked.

“Straight from the Board of Directors,” Simmons told him. “The ratings ... you and her? Are you kidding me? If you don’t give her what she wants you won’t fight Spider. You’ll never fight anyone again. They know about you, Arch.”

Arch didn’t have to wonder what Simmons meant by that. The Medicus must have told them about his cancer being completely gone. Arch had gone back over his contract, and knew that Simmons was right. They could use the fact of his being cured to drum him out of the Games if they wanted to. Chloe must have paid a staggering amount of money for them to even consider not letting the match happen.

“Why do you need this?” he asked her.


Arch didn’t know what else to say, so he held out his hand. She took it, and he led her back to the shallow pool of water, now vacated by the well-muscled young men and women. It wasn’t private, but somehow the partygoers knew this wasn’t something to watch. They looked away. Simmons went to the other side of the rooftop to watch fireworks lighting up the sky.

But the cameras, unseen and unnoticed, did not look away, and so the rest of the world watched.

Chloe let the little black dress she wore slip off her shoulders, and stood there naked by the pool. Arch undid his robe and let it drop. He wore nothing underneath. His civilian prosthetics were waterproof. He stepped into the shallow pool first. Chloe stepped in after him, and he took both her hands in his, and led her farther into the pool, which sloped until it was waist deep, the water soothingly warm.

“Give me what I paid for,” Chloe whispered.

He wanted it to be over and done with, but made himself go slowly, to take his time with her.

He gave her what she’d paid for, or at least he tried to; he didn’t know for sure if he succeeded. When it was over, she climbed out of the pool, slipped her dress back on, and left without saying another word. She didn’t even look back at him while he watched her walk away.


First, Arch walked out into the Arena. The crowd roared so loudly he could feel it in his gut. A moment later, Spider crawled out on eight silver, spindly legs at the opposite end. The roar of the crowd intensified.

The combatants faced each other. The roar diminished until the crowd was completely silent. Arch raised his plasma sword in salute to the undefeated Spider, who raised a foreleg to salute him back, his undefeated opponent.

The tone sounded. Spider crawled quickly towards him, while Arch stood there and waited until Spider crossed the center of the Arena. At that moment, Arch broke into a run directly towards Spider.

Arch leaped into the air, his new prosthetics propelling him high above Spider. He raised the plasma sword.

Spider rose up on his six hindmost legs and raised his two forelegs in a defensive posture to meet Arch’s attack. His gaze met Arch’s and Arch knew what Spider would see in his eyes.

Arch didn’t care about winning.

Arch didn’t want to live.

He also didn’t want to merely die.

What Spider saw in Arch’s eyes as Arch fell towards him, plasma sword ready, was that Arch wanted one thing, and one thing only: to kill Spider.

And, failing that, to die not merely a good death, but a great death. END

Stephen L. Antczak is the author of four small press books, the short story collections “Daydreams Undertaken” and “Edgewise,” the novels “God Drug” and “The Oracle Paradox,” and over fifty horror, fantasy, and science fiction short stories.






jamie noble