Chapter 3 NOTHING VENTURED
Session 3.3 Tartarus
The Southern Karpates looked majestic from the air. The crescent-shaped mountain range didn’t reach high enough to be capped with snow, but it soared from the earth in scattered groups of undulating peaks nevertheless, breaking the monotony of the unremarkable plain. The layers of tors and crags were particularly captivating from above.
And yet, every time Slobo Nilos flew over these mountains, he wished they were higher. If only they were more imposing, more treacherous, then perhaps Gafia’s destiny, and his own, would have turned out differently.
The mountains drew a geological border between Omanga and Gafia. A defense line granted by the heavens to the Gafians perhaps, however, reality always disappointed. Unlike the impassable Adria Alps between Agurts and Omanga, there were plenty of routes between the taller Karpates peaks.
In other words, there was nothing to stop their menacing neighbor from inviting himself over the top.
The Southern Karpates had been the site of many battles between Gafia and Omanga over the years. Though these confrontations might seem like child’s play when compared to the Omanga-Estancia War, blood had stained these rocks and countless bodies were buried in these hills.
To this day, landmines lay in wait, ready to detonate with one unlucky misstep.
Slobo normally wouldn’t choose to fly, but he didn’t have time to choose another method of transportation. He needed to be back the next morning – early – to host a cabinet meeting.
The landmines couldn’t hurt him up here among the clouds, but still, he was uneasy. There could be missiles.
Who would wish to shoot down the Gafian president’s aircraft? Well, the country’s rebels, for a start.
What about Omanga? Not likely, if the state of their current diplomatic relationship was anything to go by. But who could say for sure? Maybe the invitation from Oleksandr III was a ploy to get him in the air so that the young Emperor could turn him into a firework display . . .
I’m becoming paranoid. Slobo pinched himself between the eyebrows. He could have laughed at himself. But those who called him a coward had no idea the pressures he had to face every day.
He felt like an old clown who had run out of jokes, fretting in the dressing room as he waited backstage.
As soon as the plane crossed into Omanga airspace, it was swallowed by a swathe of dark clouds. And yet, somehow, countless little dots of light glittered like stars from the ground below, piercing through the pouring rain and the shroud of gloom.
Slobo was heading for the most intense cluster of light – Stefan, the capital city. The buildings of this highly mechanized city were clad in layers of metal, glass and pipework, and the lights were on twenty-four hours a day. Refracted and diffused by the rain and mist, each glowing building was a luminous silver orb planted in the tarry ground.
Dazzling everyone with their infinite energy supply. Dazzling alright. Slobo snorted. Maybe I should come with my sunglasses next time.
The country’s wealth was concentrated on a bright spot known as the Capital Core District. Lifted high on a manmade plateau and embraced by towering city walls, it was all skyscrapers and imposing structures as far as the eye could see.
Of all the grandeur, the jewel in their crown, without a doubt, was the Olympus Tower. The rectangular monolith jabbed the clouds above. The tallest structure in Stefan, it was the scepter of the Oleksandr dynasty.
The plane began to descend and Stefan Palace, which sat at the foot of Olympus Tower, came into sight. Extending horizontally northwest, it completed the royal complex in the shape of an enormous metal boot.
Slobo had always thought it the perfect manifestation of the Oleksandrs’ inflated conceit. “This land under our feet.” They could never have built it had the family possessed even a smidgen of humility.
Seen from above, the Palace’s sprawling gardens glowed like a perfect step-cut emerald. A mighty greenhouse, full of the rarest flora, a paradise accessible only to the country’s nobles. Slobo still remembered the first time he set foot inside that green and pleasant land at the invitation of the Emperor.
He had seen much of the world by that point, but even he could only gape at the verdant glory.
Nobles. The thought of them made his head hurt.
Before long, the airplane broke through the torrential downpour and touched down at Royal Stefan Airport, before taxiing into a hangar.
A red carpet flanked on both sides by Abaddon Puppets – Omanga’s robotic soldiers. A diplomat welcomed him with a stretch limousine . . . Slobo stepped off the plane looking every inch the statesman and smiling graciously as he shook hands with the official.
Even he was impressed by his own act.
As the diplomat recited the welcome speech, the President of Gafia deciphered the message behind the reception. The Puppets were simply robots and she was obviously a low-ranking official, however courteous and elegant. He knew he hadn’t come as part of an official state visit, but as a head of a state, he should have been given a welcome befitting his status. This paltry set-up? To any foreign government official it would have been seen as a slight.
With the Abaddon Puppets leading the way the limousine drove out of the airport, but not in the direction of Stefan Palace.
Noticing Slobo’s fleeting surprise, the diplomat explained, “There is an important gladiator fight at Tartarus today. His Majesty has invited you to join him. He thinks you will be most happy with the little surprise he has prepared for you.”
A head of state cannot accept such a change of schedule without proper notice, surely? Slobo masked his displeasure with feigned excitement, “A gladiator fight? Of course, how wonderful. May I ask when we will have the talks . . .”
“His Majesty didn’t mention such talks to me, but rest assured, His Majesty will have made plans. I trust you will enjoy the entertainment, it is unique to our nation.”
Her reply signaled that no further explanation would be forthcoming.
Great, I have no more status than a servile courtier. Slobo turned his attention to the view outside, hoping to buy a moment to wipe the feelings from his face.
The streets of the Core District were sealed from outside pollution by a shell of tempered glass. People walked around in the latest fashions without the need to wear respirators. The women even wore revealing outfits, secure in the relatively clean surroundings.
The precipitation beat down on the glass ceiling above. The glowing skyscrapers blurred into a metallic mist. At street level, it was not only dry, but the air was clean.
A network of electric rails had been constructed over the glass-shielded streets, allowing trains to shoot by between buildings. This unique feature of Stefan was the reason why Slobo had come to Omanga. He was in negotiations to bring a similar rail system to his own capital city.
To the left of the limousine, a long strip of glass appeared. The sheltered walkway ran all the way around the Core District’s circular wall. A perfect place to see the view beyond the citadel.
Outside the walls of the Core District lay Greater Stefan. Though no glass shelter protected the streets here and the people lived in traditional low-rise houses rather than glitzy skyscrapers, it was still highly developed compared to the rest of Omanga.
The Gafian capital Raki was not unlike Greater Stefan in look and feel – real, gritty and teeming with life. The opposite of the dazzling, fantastical tableaux of the Capital Core District.
The limousine drove into an unremarkable building. Then the diplomat led Slobo down a glass walkway, with the Puppet Troopers escorting them from behind. This was for VIPs only, he quickly realized, and wherever he was going was far grander than anything he had seen yet.
The glass was being beaten by waves of loud thudding – the rainstorm must have intensified.
Soon, they arrived at an ornate double door. Slobo felt like a prisoner being brought to the Emperor to be sentenced. Except that he would be required to smile. As the Private Guards opened the doors, he took a deep breath, pulled the corners of his mouth upwards and stepped inside.
A roar crashed against his eardrums. What he had taken for thunder was in fact a bellowing crowd. From inside the ginormous glass box, the vista opened out before his eyes, knocking the wind out of him.
Tartarus. The gladiatorial arena.
Tartarus was rumored to be larger than even the Colosseum in Rome, which had been obliterated by bombs many years ago. One side of the oval structure was embedded into the Core District Wall, which reached five or six stories high.
The VIP glass box had been placed at one end of the amphitheater, right at the top, giving them an uninterrupted view of the whole arena. The stage sat just below ground level, it was essentially a muddy pit enclosed by high walls designed to protect the tiered seating from bits of flying shrapnel.
True to the name of an amphitheater, it was open air. Where the pit was uncovered, the seating – bursting with people – had been covered by a patchwork of tarpaulin sheets.
Right now, they fluttered like insect wings, letting shafts of light pour into the space. The rain had finally stopped.
A loud crash jolted Slobo back to reality.
In the pit, two dark brown creatures smashed into each other. One of them shot into the wall like a cannonball. The floor of the glass box shook with the impact.
The creature struggled to its feet like a wounded animal. At that moment, its spine exploded and it collapsed back into the mud. A voice boomed in the loudspeakers, cutting through the cacophony of cheers and shouting. The winner was named.
So this is their famed gladiator fights . . . Slobo could see little from his position by the doors. If he were three or four decades younger, he would probably be craning his neck for a better look.
“Your Majesty, President Nilos of Gafia,” the diplomat announced.
Slobo hastily shifted his gaze to the elaborate sofa just a few meters in front of him. A tall seat-back obscured the Emperor of Omanga from view.
Oleksandr III didn’t stand up to welcome his guest, but merely twisted and peered round from the edge of his seat. The great ruler of Omanga tilted his head toward a chair beside him, his body language uncharacteristically casual, as if beckoning a friend.
“Mr President, here at last! You’re just in time for the big showdown today! Come, take your seat.”
Slobo had remained standing until he received verbal permission to approach. He noted that the Emperor wasn’t dressed in his usual regalia. He had often thought that this young man with his short, red hair would look just like any of his son’s friends at college if he chose to wear ordinary clothes.
“Your Majesty, the honor is mine.”
“Relax, no need for formalities. This is not an official event. Get the President some wine.”
Relax? Slobo knew full well the consequences if he was stupid enough to ignore the very thing the Omangans held most dear – their elaborate code of social etiquette. This was a country where its people could be sentenced for treason if they forgot to bow in the presence of the royal crest. The idea alone made him feel sick.
Still, the Emperor seemed to be in a good mood today.
A good sign?
Slobo sat down with a great show of politeness. The moment he took the wine glass, the whole stadium flew up.
After a split second, reason stepped in: Our glass box is descending.
The President of Gafia gripped onto his drink so that he wouldn’t spill it. He would never be able to live down such an embarrassment. In reality, the ride was so smooth he wouldn’t have known it was moving without the visual cue.
“Now that the boring opening act is over, we must take the best seats in the house. The real fight is about to begin.”
The Emperor was greatly amused by Slobo’s attempt to seem unflustered. Meanwhile, the elder statesman was furious that this young upstart had seen through him – a man who had spent decades honing his powers of concealment.
“Who cares about two lumps of old metal rolling in a pit? Just let them blast each other to smithereens already.”
A young man spoke without first being addressed by the Emperor. He sat at the other end of the room with three other youths, limbs draped over their seats and laughing in hysterics. They were dressed in the latest Omangan fashion, covered in large quantities of metal accessories.
Like some third-rate Cyborgs, Slobo observed to himself. If his son even thought about dressing like that, he’d slap him right across the face.
Who are these young people? Their behavior is breaking every social rule, but the Emperor clearly doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe they have his permission? No official would dream of acting like that. Are they courtesans? Noblemen?
But Slobo couldn’t discern anything familiar in their faces. He would have recognized them if they had been descended from Omangan aristocracy. After all, he had spent months studying the social milieu around the Emperor in his bid to establish diplomatic relations.
Now Slobo had a new problem to deal with. Do these youngsters exert some kind of influence over the Emperor? He is himself young and relatively new to the throne, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had his ear. Perhaps I can use this somehow . . .
“Who do you think’s going to win?”
The Emperor’s question broke through his thoughts and Slobo answered hastily: “I don’t know many of the fighters . . . Lady Polyxena’s champion is recently unbeaten, no?”
Luckily, his adviser had fed him some names and facts on the way.
“She has quite the fighter, brave and disciplined.” The Emperor sounded satisfied. “But her opponent today is no pushover. Marquis Leonnat’s fighter is second to none. He won his last three fights within ten minutes.”
“In that case, we are in for quite a spectacle.”
“Who’s your money on?”
Slobo knew this meant he had to place a bet. He had foreseen this, luckily, and had his adviser make preparations. Bet too little and he would disappoint the Emperor, too much and he risked stirring up more opposition at home. So he went for a symbolic figure.
“They both look strong, perhaps you might give me some pointers?”
“Polyxena’s man has exquisite horsemanship, he knows how to push his machine to its limits. She recently spent large sums upgrading the nuclear reactor core to the absolute latest, which might boost her performance by 20%. As for Leonnat’s man, he’s still using a second generation core. But he always picks the best riders, very classical in fighting style.”
Damn it. Slobo thought of their last meeting at Stefan Palace. The Emperor had barely spoken, but now he was excited in the extreme. Slobo couldn’t tell if this was a good thing, or very, very bad.
“In that case, I think my money is on Lady Polyxena’s man.”
“It’s starting!” The first chords of music echoed around the arena and the Emperor pointed excitedly through the glass, just like any other young person his age might.
The broken pieces of robot from the warm-up match had already been cleared and a blanket of fresh gravel had been spread over the mud. It may not have been perfectly flat, but the arena looked neat and ready.
A warlike drumbeat intensified and the crowd fell silent.
“His Majesty, ladies and gentlemen . . . Marquis Leonnat’s champion ‘Ironfist’ Billy and his SA, Buffalo!” echoed around the arena.
A four, perhaps five foot tall Synchro exoArmor entered from the lower left side of the glass VIP box.
The crowd thundered in applause.
Tartarus arena had been built especially to host Synchro exoArmor battles. The nobles would modify and customize their own Cerberus SA and make them fight. Betting on these gruesome death matches was a favored pastime in Omanga.
The Cerberus SA is Omanga’s iconic bipedal war machine. While most Cerberus SAs were manufactured for war, these “gladiator SAs” had their cannons replaced by robotic arms designed for melee combat. The driver sat in a semi-open cockpit in the chest cavity. The large torso and thin limbs made it look like an oversized gorilla.
Unlike the muddy state-owned SAs of the last fight, this modified Cerberus SA gleamed. The body of the suit was sapphire blue, the arms a bright red. The entire suit was covered in adverts. Marquis Leonnat had attracted a lot of sponsorship. Cerberus fighting was big business.
“And next into the arena, on behalf of her Ladyship Polyxena, Icarus and SA Ultraviolet!”
From the right emerged a purple Cerberus with green and orange designs, but no signs of sponsorship. Lady Polyxena was rich and didn’t want to sully her beautiful machine with corporate logos. Typical of a woman of her class.
The Ultraviolet was a little taller in stature and its limbs a little longer and thinner, to the point that the spectators wondered if they could really carry the weight of its heavy frame. It had been fitted with beastly metallic claws.
It was a cruel and childish sport. Slobo watched the robots enter the center of the arena. From his perspective behind the glass, they looked like toys. I’d rather watch horses, he thought.
A bell sounded.
The two robots started pacing in a circle around each other. Then, as if by secret order, they ran away from each other in opposite directions.
That was when Slobo noticed the four metallic racks, each in one “corner” of the arena. Weapons of different shapes and sizes hung from them. The Buffalo charged at the one closest to the left, grabbed a giant ax, turned and thundered back.
He wants the first blow, Slobo thought. But just as suddenly, the Buffalo stopped and with his ax, swung at a black shadow that was sailing through the air towards him. It spun and jabbed into the mud. Before he could catch his breath, another followed. The Buffalo tried to turn but its movements were clumsy, and the second projectile punched his left shoulder with a clang and an explosion of sparks, sending him stumbling backwards.
The weapon fell to the ground. A mace.
Slobo glanced across at the first weapon in the mud. A halberd.
The crowd gasped and some rose to their feet. Ultraviolet was standing in its corner, clutching a long sword.
“Ladies and gentleman, Icarus threw a mace with the ease of a spear! All the way to the other side! Wow!” The MC was genuinely impressed.
The Buffalo rubbed his shoulder with a rain of sparks, but otherwise seemed unhurt.
At that moment Icarus threw the sword, drawing a graceful arc through the air.
Ironfist Billy was ready this time and he launched the Buffalo straight at it. But the sword was followed by a shower of weapons and Billy was forced on the defensive, until he boiled over with frustration and charged.
Icarus had run out of weapons.
The Buffalo’s paw-like feet churned through the mud, his ax raised.
The head of the ax was as tall as the driver himself, and despite having taken some damage it was still deathly sharp.
Ultraviolet and its driver Icarus were about to be sliced in half . . . Slobo gripped the side of his chair to stop himself from losing all sense of decorum and jumping up from his seat.
Ultraviolet’s claws had pincered the ax.
Slobo could feel the nerves in his cheeks twitch. The entire crowd was on its feet by now and even the young people in the VIP box gasped in delight.
“I love this guy, he’s such a show-off!” the Emperor cried in delight.
The Buffalo released a large blast of smoke from his back, roared in anger, and pounced. Within moments, Ultraviolet was beneath the Buffalo, their feet gouging through the mud.
Unbelievable. He won’t give up . . . Of course Slobo knew in theory that these matches were to the death, but the reality of it. . .
Nutters, these Omangans are nutters.
And yet, Slobo couldn’t help but admit that it was exciting to watch.
The ax cracked between Ultraviolet’s claws as he shunted back against the arena wall. The blade then slipped between his fingers, toward Icarus’ cabin.
This was it, the ending. Just then, sparks flew from the Buffalo’s shoulder. Ultraviolet had placed a kick at just the right moment.
The Buffalo stumbled back. Ultraviolet cast aside the twisted ax head and with a low spin of his leg, had sent Buffalo up into the air.
Making these heavy masses of metal able to walk on two feet was already a remarkable technological feat. Even a layman like Slobo knew that by rights a move like this should have made it topple. A foot sweep! That required agility and balance, not to mention a very brave man in the driver’s seat.
The crowd were in a frenzy. Buffalo landed with a splash in the mud ten metres away. An inexperienced driver might not have been able to get back up, but Ironfist Billy flipped the Buffalo back onto its feet within seconds.
Ultraviolet charged, having grabbed a previously discarded spear. He spun it as he ran. Were Cerberus capable of such a move? Slobo watched in amazement.
The tip stabbed into the Buffalo’s leg, fast and brutal. A black liquid spurted from his metallic flesh. All he could do was press against the armored plating to stem the tide. Still, Ironfist Billy wasn’t done. He defended a further series of jabs until the opportunity he had been waiting for presented itself, and he landed a heavy blow to Ultraviolet’s shoulder.
He had used a katar, a kind of blade attached to his claw. It nearly pierced through Ultraviolet’s armor. He followed this with a series of punches that were impossible to stave off. This was the Buffalo’s moment. He made a grab for the spear and snapped it like a twig.
“The Buffalo is out.” Slobo was surprised to hear the Emperor whisper to himself.
What happened next went so fast that Slobo barely had time to register what was going on.
Just as Buffalo grabbed the spear, Ultraviolet let go, shrunk together as if sitting down and passed into the space between the Buffalo’s arms. The movement wouldn’t be considered quick for a human, but for an SA robot, it was phenomenal.
Before Ironfist Billy could react, he watched Ultraviolet closing its claws over his cabin and rip off the protective casing.
The crowd roared as Ironfist Billy was exposed in Ultraviolet’s claws. Billy froze, as did his Cerberus. Billy’s uniform began to turn a dark red.
The arena was silent for a moment, before erupting in applause. The fight was over.
“And the winner is . . . Icarus! Fighting on behalf of Lady Polyxena!”
“You have quite the eye, Mr President.”
The Emperor’s words brought Slobo back to reality. That’s right, he had bet on Ultraviolet.
“What a fight! My heart is pumping!”
Slobo knew he had to say something, but he was also surprised to find he meant it. No, no he didn’t. He was only trying to get favor with the Emperor, surely?
“What a stellar performance! See that power and precision? That’s our latest reactor core. Much better than the previous generation.” The young Emperor took a sip of wine and continued, “The latest technology and overwhelming firepower, that’s what it’s all about. Mr President, I am very glad you chose the right side.”
Slobo froze. He understood now, the purpose of this demonstration. Before he could react, he was being handed a treaty. He flipped through the pages quickly, unable to believe what he was reading.
What was this?
A line of Abaddon Puppets marched into the arena, took apart the blue robot and removed the lifeless driver from inside. He was going to be remade into an Abaddon Reborn Trooper. Having lost the battle, he wouldn’t be allowed anesthesia during the surgery.
Slobo thought of his adviser’s words and felt a shiver across his skin. He glanced down at the Buffalo. This twisted piece of metal alone could have destroyed an army. He dreaded to think what Ultraviolet could do. And Omanga had a whole cavalry of SAs just like it.
He could picture them now, marching over the Southern Karpates Range. The rush of excitement he had just felt hardened like ice in his heart.
“Strength is everything, the winner takes all. This is an age of science and technology, and it belongs to Omanga!” The Emperor rose to his feet and placed his hand on his chest.
A few of the young people also jumped up and shouted, “Long Live Omanga!” The others quickly joined in.
The diplomat came with a pen for Slobo.
Whose strategy was this? Was it that old fox Rezi? Or had it all been thought up by the young Emperor himself?
Was Slobo trembling out of humiliation or fear? He was the President, he represented his country. It wasn’t about his dignity, but that of the whole of Gafia.
He represented a whole people.
Slobo closed his eyes, reached out his hand and took the pen.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Translator : Gigi Chang and Anna Holmwood