Sweat covered Brion’s body, trickling into the tight loincloth that was the only garment he wore. The light fencing foil in his hand felt as heavy as a bar of lead to his exhausted muscles, worn out by a month of continual exercise. These things were of no importance. The cut on his chest, still dripping blood, the ache of his overstrained eyes – even the soaring arena around him with the thousands of spectators – were trivialities not worth thinking about. There was only one thing in his universe: the button-tipped length of shining steel that hovered before him, engaging his own weapon. He felt the quiver and scrape of its life, knew when it moved and moved himself to counteract it. And when he attacked, it was always there to beat him aside.
A sudden motion. He reacted – but his blade just met air. His instant of panic was followed by a small sharp blow high on his chest.
“Touch!” A world-shaking voice bellowed the word to a million
waiting loudspeakers, and the applause of the audience echoed back in a wave of sound.
“One minute,” a voice said, and the time buzzer sounded.
Brion had carefully conditioned the reflex in himself. A minute is not a very large measure of time and his body needed every fraction of it. The buzzer’s whirr triggered his muscles into complete relaxation. Only his heart and lungs worked on at a[Pg 7] strong, measured rate. His eyes closed and he was only distantly aware of his handlers catching him as he fell, carrying him to his bench. While they massaged his limp
Body and cleansed the wound, all of his attention was turned inward. He was in reverie, sliding along the borders of consciousness. The nagging memory of the previous night loomed up then, and he turned it over and over in his mind, examining it from all sides.
It was the very unexpectedness of the event that had been so unusual. The contestants in the Twenties needed undisturbed rest, therefore nights in the dormitories were as quiet as death. During the first few days, of course, the rule wasn’t observed too closely. The men themselves were too keyed up and excited to rest easily. But as soon as the scores began to mount and eliminations cut into their ranks, there was complete silence after dark. Particularly so on this last night, when only two of the little cubicles were occupied, the thousands of others standing with dark, empty doors.
Angry words had dragged Brion from a deep and exhausted sleep. The words were whispered but clear – two voices, just outside the thin metal of his door. Someone spoke his name.
“… Brion Brandd. Of course not. Whoever said you could was making a big mistake and there is going to be trouble – “
“Don’t talk like an idiot!” The other voice snapped with a harsh urgency, clearly used to command. “I’m here because the matter is of utmost importance, and Brandd is the one I must see. Now stand aside!”
“The Twenties – “
“I don’t give a damn about your games, hearty cheers and physical exercises. This is important, or I wouldn’t be here!”
The other didn’t speak – he was surely one of the officials – and Brion could sense his outraged anger. He must have drawn his gun, because the intruder said quickly, “Put that away. You’re being a fool!”
“Out!” was the single snarled word of the response.[Pg 8] There was silence then and, still wondering, Brion was once more asleep.
The voice chopped away Brion’s memories and he let awareness seep back into his body. He was unhappily conscious of his total exhaustion.