"Look at that, Rak! LOOK AT THAT! The crowd is ON THEIR FEET!!"
"It's the beginning of the end for our champion, Zev! With a wound in his femoral artery he won't last long – BUT LOOK AT HIM GO! Even dying, he managed to take out four of the Riders he faces in what is turning out to be the last fight for our champion. What strength! What sportsmanship! What an inspiration to all of his fans, even as he falls - "
"Speaking of falls, Rak, we can't let this moment go by without a word from our sponsor, the Royal Aerial Theme Park and Entertainment Extravaganza - "
Tedha turned off the recording and dropped his head into his hands with a groan. In the cycle since the game was broadcast, the news had not gotten any better. His carefully nurtured and trained champion, handpicked and rigorously groomed for maximum public appeal, was dead. It was an appalling reversal of fortune – the champion had only just become popular enough to justify the outlay of cash required for proper merchandising. With his death, though, the souvenirs and themed merchandise that had arrived in the warehouse just that morning were useless. No one would buy cups and banners with the image of a dead fighter!
"What am I going to do now?" he grumbled.
"First thing you do is straighten up and sit like a real warrior," someone snapped from the doorway.
Tedha dropped his hands and slumped backwards in his chair. "Hello, mother," he said, in a tone that verged on insolent. It was dangerous to show anything other than perfect respect to the head of the household, but he knew how far he could push the boundaries.
She glided into the room, perfectly graceful and composed as always, and sat in the chair opposite his. Even seated, she loomed over him.
Tedha often wondered what it would be like to watch a female Triceraton like his mother in the Arena. It would be blasphemy to speculate about it out loud, of course – females were rare and powerful, always in control of the lives of their smaller male offspring. But it was diverting to imagine his mother facing, say, a platoon of Riders from Zeta-Prime. He had no doubt she would win. She might even live through it.
She regarded him in silence. He wanted to squirm away from her level gaze, and controlled the impulse with an effort. Several of his own clutch-mates had been sent away, given to the army or even directly to the Arena, because she felt they lacked the nerve to be members of her household; Tedha did not want to follow them. He enjoyed his life as the dominant son and namesake of his mother.
Her eyes narrowed in approval of his control, and she settled back more comfortably into her chair. "The body?"
"Disposed of," he sighed. "Fed to the others."
"And are any of them ready? Can they take the lead?"
"No…we have several younglings who look promising, but none old enough to appeal to the adult fans," he keyed up a holographic display on his desk and pointed at the graphs that showed the breakdown, in age and economic strength, of the fans who attended games in the Arena. "Since it's the older fans who spend the most money on souvenirs – "
" – those are the fans we want to attract; yes, I know," she grimaced. "How long will we have to wait for one of the younger ones to mature?"
They fell into a discussion of the relative strengths of the unnamed youngsters who were being trained in the family's facility. It lasted for some time – she sent one of the youngest males to bring them a meal – and at the end they were forced to conclude that it would be at least a year before they could present a new warrior to the Arena.
"We can't afford to wait that long," she stated grimly. "Even if we could enter a new warrior, we have no way to know for sure that he will be a champion. The fans only buy the souvenirs of the champions. We need a sure thing. We need a guaranteed money-maker."
She lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Tedha leaned his head on his hand and keyed up images of the champions he and his predecessors had trained for the Arena, the warriors whose popularity brought money and prestige to his family. He expanded his search and added on images of all the champions for the last generation, even those belonging to other families. After a time, he expanded his search even further, and brought up images of the champions presented by other civilizations – even the most barbarous of cultures could be counted on to have fighters – and then the champions presented by the military…
She sat up so abruptly that he was startled. "Wait, go back to that!"
Tedha moved backward through the images to the one that caught her attention. She studied it raptly. Tedha was uneasy at the fascination in her eyes. "Mother, what –?"
The image was an action shot, taken during a battle in the Arena. Four Triceraton warriors faced off against four smaller foes – it wasn't meant to be a serious battle, but one that made the crowd appreciate the superiority and strength of the Triceraton Empire. The warriors were meant to easily destroy their foes, four small creatures from some barbarous outworld that held no interest even for the bookish Utroms.
The Triceratons, seasoned favorites in the Arena, had accompanying still shots and the proper holographic cards for their fans. The smaller creatures had none – no one expected them to survive the Arena, so no one had picked up the merchandising options on them. But against all odds, and to the amazement of the entire sports community, the Triceratons fell at the hands of their ridiculously small opponents, who then capped off the extraordinary event by escaping from the Arena.
It was a scandal and a mystery. Promoters like Tedha still spoke ruefully of the missed opportunity to make a fortune – a single promotional shot of any one of the creatures would have guaranteed a family's financial security for a year. Every promoter had been wild to sign them up, but they were nowhere to be found. There was talk that they had escaped via secret military machinery, but no one had ever proved it.
The sporting event had overflowed into the world of the political, too, Tedha remembered. "Didn't King Zanramon IV get killed when these creatures escaped?"
She shrugged it off. "Yes, but his mother had many other sons. Zanramon V does just as good a job at ribbon cuttings and Arena events as his clutch-mate ever did." She was absorbed in some internal calculation, and Tedha was very much afraid that he knew what she was thinking.
"Mother," he began uneasily, "you aren't considering – "
"We'll bring them back," she interrupted. "They were undefeated in the Arena – they fought the championship team and won! The crowd will be fascinated."
"The crowd will be hysterical," Tedha said firmly. "These creatures, Mother, they're a gimmick act! We have given champions to the Arena for generations! These, these things – it's a joke. The fans will laugh."
"They'll laugh, but they'll spend their money while they do it. After generations of champions, we can afford to present one gimmick act. And the money they make will keep us all fed, until we can present a new champion." She nodded decisively and stood up. "Get those creatures for us. Talk to your clutch-mate in the military – he is a general, and will be able to tell you how they got away…and how to get them back."
Tedha knew when it was no use to argue with her, and this was one of those times. If he pushed the boundaries once her mind was made up, it could be fatal. "Yes, Mother," he sighed.
In the end, it took far longer than Tedha had hoped to get the assistance of his military clutch-mate. He had almost given up hope, in fact, when he finally got the message that the general wanted to meet with him.
"Did you get them?" Tedha asked eagerly as he stepped into the room.
The general looked uncomfortable. "It was…a partial success. Mother should still be happy." His tone was defensive.
Tedha's heart sank. "How 'partial' was it?"
"We only got one – don't look at me like that! The range on our ship is too short, and the window of opportunity is fairly small. If we are on that miserable planet for more than a few hours, we can't get away for nearly three years. The rotation of that planet and the rotation of the Empire – even allowing for the mobility of the Tri-bases, we can't get close enough to get onto that mudball in anyplace remotely close to where those creatures live…."
"Why didn't you just grab the first ones you saw?"
"Idiot!" the general slammed his fist down on the table. "Didn't you listen to anything I told you while we were setting this up? There are only the four of them on that entire planet! If the whole planet were full of them, we'd send our troops there in a heartbeat, for training and for combat. But there's only the four!"
"Only four?" Tedha had not, in fact, listened to anything his clutch-mate told him, beyond the difficulty and the need for bribes. The idea that the little fighters were so very rare, that there were only the four, set off a glimmer of an idea for a marketing campaign. "A shame that you couldn't get all of them…"
The general grumbled, "If he hadn't been alone, we wouldn't have him. It took four of my troops to capture him. Two of them are dead, and one of them is so wounded that he might as well be. You'd better make some money off the little bastard."
"Oh, I don't think that will be a problem," Tedha breathed.
The little fighter, fitted with a breather and confined to a small cage in the family's training facility, glared murderously at Tedha. Bruises and scrapes from his capture marred the already scarred skin of his arms and legs. The Triceraton grimaced – those tiny injuries would have to be healed before the creature could make his solo debut in the Arena. Appearances were so very important, if he was truly to become a moneymaker for the family.
The shell, too, was nicked. Tedha circled the cage and considered it, and finally decided that all but the worst of the marks could be hidden under a sheen of oil. It was not unheard of, and it would make him harder to hold in a fight.
The fight had to be carefully considered. The opponent had to be formidable, but not so much so that it would make the victory difficult. The more difficult fights could come later, when the crowd was in love with him.
Tedha was finally sure that the crowd would, against all expectations, adore this little creature. In the long stretch of time between arranging the capture and finally having him, Tedha and his mother had reviewed the footage of that one battle many times, and talked to many people about the event. In the end, they came to a startling conclusion – every single Triceraton they knew claimed to have been in the Arena the day the four little warriors from a backwater planet had defeated the current champions. The Arena would have to be twice as big as it was, in order to hold all of the people who claimed to have been there.
What the crowd adored, they would spend money on…or at least, they would spend money on anything that had the right image emblazoned on it.
"He's going to be hard to control," his mother said as she came through the door. It almost sounded like she approved. "Does he have a translator on?"
"No, not yet. I need to think – how will we keep him from doing harm to himself? I've heard that some of these gimmick acts have trouble because the warriors don't want to fight," Tedha couldn't keep the disbelief out of his voice, "and we've been through too much just to have him cut his own throat the first time he's handed an edged weapon."
"Or worse – throw himself on his opponent's weapon. We'll look like fools, if he actually goes into the Arena and then lays down and dies. We'll be lucky to be able to present even gimmick acts for the next ten years!"
Tedha shuddered. If that happened, he had no doubt that he would be the first to feel his mother's wrath. He'd find himself in the Arena with a dull sword in his hand, easy prey for the warm-up acts – his death wouldn't even be heroic or honorable.
"What would control him?" he wondered out loud. "Drugging him is out of the question for now, when he's still new to the Arena; the crowds always sense drug-induced aggression right away, and it won't keep him docile when we handle him…"
"Well, what would control any of our warriors?" his mother asked reasonably. "I know that, eager as they all are to fight, sometimes you have to coax them – what do you tell them?"
"I tell them…oh, that's brilliant!" Tedha could not, of course, think less than highly of his mother's ideas, but this one inspired him. "I tell them that their failures bring shame upon their houses and their females, that their mothers and their female clutch-mates will despise them…surely he has females somewhere!"
"I don't think 'shame' is exactly what we want to convey to him," his mother put in, eyeing the little creature. "I don't want him afraid of shame, I want him afraid of failure and death."
"Exactly! If he dies – by his own hand or by anyone else's – his family's females will be brought to the Arena."
She gasped, and then narrowed her eyes in approval of his strategy. "He doesn't know we can't get back to his planet for years, does he?"
"No," Tedha rumbled in satisfaction. "No one he will come in contact with knows it, except for you and me." It was foolproof. Every male had females somewhere whose lives he valued. It was also simple and easy for a creature, a warrior, to remember in the prelude to battle, when the fear of death was strongest. And best of all, it was a vague threat with a precise outcome – it could be used to ensure his compliance at any number of events when they would want him to appear docile.
"Give him the translator," she commanded. "I want to see his face when you tell him, so we can see if that will be enough to hold him."
The warrior was intelligent enough to remember how to use a translator from that previous capture, and looped the thin wire around his head without argument or instruction. He was also so much more expressive Tedha had realized – the fear and anger when Tedha threatened the unseen females was wonderful to behold.
"The crowds will love him," his mother murmured in approval. "He will be able to hide nothing from them."
Tedha rumbled again in deep satisfaction. The fight was visibly draining out of the warrior. "You understand? If you die before I tell you to, your females will die soon after."
"I understand," he said, his voice much lower than Tedha would have believed from such a small creature.
"Good," Tedha moved the cage back against the wall. "Tomorrow, we begin to prepare you for the Arena. There is much to be done – marketing materials to be assembled, press releases to compose…"
The creature's face twisted. "How can you market me," he shuddered at the idea, "when you don't even know my name?"
Tedha was actually surprised. He widened his eyes at the cage. "Your name? In your world, you have a name?" He waved a hand dismissively, a gesture that owed much to his mother. "No matter – in this world, you don't have a name. Why give names to warriors in the Arena? They die so quickly that the crowds can barely learn them." It was half-true; the crowds typically chose their own nicknames for their favorites. But the warriors who died in the Arena before they could reach that status did so without any names to be remembered.
The creature stared wordlessly after Tedha and his mother as they left him alone.