Chapter 11 - Flavian Dynasty
The full sim change room is at the far end of the Simatorium. I don’t have time to worry about the fact it has both boys and girls in it before Madison takes a suit from a locker and tosses it at me.
“That should fit you,” she says. “Hurry up and get dressed.”
The one-piece suit is white with a metallic lining and has built-in slippers and gloves like the ones I wore to play Journey to Thisavros. Mimicking what Madison and Charlotte do, I step behind a small curtain, strip down to my underwear, and slip into the suit. Every lump and curve on my body shows through the skin-tight fabric.
“Are you ready?” Madison asks, yanking open the curtain.
“It’s a little tight,” I say, which is the understatement of the year. The suit is about two sizes too small and I feel like I’m going to burst out of it in all the wrong places. I pick at the material in a futile attempt to loosen it and Madison smirks.
“They’re all like that,” she says. “Don’t worry. No one is going to waste their time looking at you.”
I follow her and Charlotte across the change room and take a helmet from a rack on the wall like they do. The helmet is virtually identical to the one I wore yesterday except for a small silver button on the back. Unsure what the button does, I resist the temptation to press it.
“Let’s go play,” Madison says and opens the door to the full-sim chamber. The room is empty and about the size of a volleyball court. There’s a crowd gathered outside the glass window watching us.
“What are they doing?” I ask Madison.
“Getting ready for the show,” she answers. “This room has a viewing wall. They’ll see everything we see during the sim.”
Just great…an audience to watch me humiliate myself.
Madison walks to a small closet and removes three scabbards with black swords in them. She straps a scabbard around her waist and tosses the other two on the floor. Charlotte picks one up, and I do the same. The sword is nothing more than a cheap plastic toy, like something you’d get at the dollar store. A prop, I think.
“What’s the objective of the game,” I ask Madison.
“To not die,” she says in a voice that makes me think dying is exactly what is going to happen to me.
Madison and Charlotte walk to different corners of the chamber. They put on their helmets and press the small silver button. When I do the same, the glass wall turns opaque and our audience disappears.
“Ready to play?” Madison shouts.
I nod, and she says, “Game on.”
My helmet darkens, and a voice begins to speak as the sun rises over a city I recognize as ancient Rome.
“Welcome to Flavian Dynasty by Creator Delta. It is the year A.D. 69, the beginning of a period of great unrest in the Roman empire. Nero has committed suicide, and a succession of men, first Galbam, then Ortho, Vitellius, and finally Vespasian, declare themselves emperor.
“Only Vespasian survives the year. To placate the citizens of Rome, he orders construction of a massive new amphitheater large enough to hold fifty thousand spectators and known as the Colosseum. To celebrate its completion, Vespasian’s son, Titus, orders the first inaugural Gladiator games be held.
“You, Hermes, the greatest gladiator in all of Rome and renowned throughout the empire for your fighting skills, will battle in the arena today.”
Suddenly, everything goes pitch-black, then the scene changes. I’m in a dark corridor lit by a pair of flaming oil lamps that cast a smokey light. There are arched stone pillars on either side of me and a trough of water along one wall. I do a double take when I see my reflection in the water. I’m me, but like a body-builder version of me. I have huge rippling biceps and thick muscular legs. The brown leather tunic I’m wearing is covered in scuff marks and cuts, probably from all the gladiator battles I’ve fought in. A sword hangs from my waist, but it isn’t the plastic toy I strapped on minutes earlier. It’s made of steel and has the name Hermes stamped on the blade.
There’s the clank of metal on metal as an iron gate at one end of the tunnel is raised. Through the opening, I can see the main floor of the Colosseum. I glimpse a man riding a chariot pulled by four identical white horses. He’s holding a pole with a banner that has the name Hermes written in Latin script. The cry of fifty thousand people comes at me in a wave. I can feel the crowd in my chest like a beating drum. They’re chanting my name.When I step out of the tunnel, the sand covering the arena floor shifts beneath my leather sandals. It’s like walking on a beach. I adjust my stride and take another step forward.
On the other side of the arena, muscular versions of Madison and Charlotte step out from their respective tunnels. They separate like a pair of jackals and approach me from two sides with their swords out.
Madison taunts me with a smirk. “Let’s see what you’re made of, Few-Me-Whack-A-Mural.” She feigns a lunge and laughs when I jump back. While I’m distracted by Madison, Charlotte attacks. She swings her sword. I jump out of the way and lose my balance in the sand.
“Get up and fight,” a man sitting in the first row of seats shouts. He throws a piece of fruit at me. I feel a breeze and duck as the fruit whizzes past my head. Madison sees her chance. She charges forward and chops down with her sword, grazing me as I roll to the side. I cry out in pain. It’s like the worst paper-cut ever, a burning sensation that runs from my shoulder to my elbow.
“Don’t be a baby. It’s just a little flesh wound,” Madison says. “I only got three points for it.”
I run my finger over the skin near the wound. The burning sensation doesn’t go away, but for a fraction of a second the simulation glitches, and I see the white fabric of my full-sim suit. I take a deep breath. Remember, no matter what happens, it’s just a sim.
“Get up or die like a dog,” Madison snarls. She and Charlotte step back, giving me a chance to climb to my feet.
I pull my sword from its sheath. It looks and feels real but only weighs a fraction of what a steel sword should. Gripping it with both hands, I stand with my feet apart and knees bent as Madison and Charlotte advance.
I take a step backward, and then another. I’m so busy watching them I don’t realize how far we’ve moved until I feel the arena wall against my back. I’m trapped in a corner. There’s no where to go but forward—straight into the two of them.
Sensing the end is near, the crowd roars its approval. Madison and Charlotte smile. They move in for the kill. I’m not going down without a fight. Screaming like a crazed maniac, I charge forward swinging my sword from side to side. Somehow, I manage to miss them both.
“Looks like we finally found something you’re not good at,” Madison jeers at me.
I swing again. She easily dodges my pathetic attempt, then she jabs me hard in the side with the point of her sword. The pain is unbearable. Once, in grade six, I went on a field trip to a local farm. The farmer warned everyone in the class not to touch the electric fence around the cow field, but me and my friend Julie took that as a dare and did anyway. The pain I feel from Madison’s blow is one hundred times worse than the electric fence.
She swings her sword again and strikes me hard in the chest. I drop to my knees and watch, horrified, as blood spurts from the wound, soaking the arena sand and turning it dark red. I know it isn’t real, but it looks real, and it feels real, very real.
“Stop!” I scream in agony. “You’re hurting me.”
There’s a cold malevolence in Madison’s voice when she says, “I’m making sure you understand there’s a price to pay for trying to steal my boyfriend.”
“I didn’t try to steal him.”
“I’m not lying.”
“You are so,” Madison hisses. “I left my charging blanket in Noah’s room but caught Kamila putting it back in mine. When I confronted her, she said you and Noah had used it.”
“We were only studying.”
Madison’s face twists with anger. She and Charlotte take turns raining blows down upon me.
They don’t. Madison swings her sword and hits me on the side of the head. There’s a dull thud from the impact, but it doesn’t hurt.
It dawns on me the helmet might not just be protecting my head; it might also control the sim. Using my fingers, I search for the silver button and push it.
The sim ends abruptly, but Madison continues to hit me with her plastic sword. It stings, but the level of pain is nothing compared to what I felt moments earlier.
“This was just a warning,” she snarls at me. “If I see you with Noah again, you’ll wish you were dead by the time I’m done.” She pokes me in the stomach with the sword. “Do you understand?” When I don’t reply, she jabs me one last time and turns and walks away with Charlotte following her.
Wincing in agony, I roll over onto my side. Every muscle in my body aches and my skin burns like the time I had chickenpox. I take off the helmet and drop it on the floor. The room window has turned from opaque back to transparent. The kids on the other side know something happened, but from the look of confusion on their faces, I don’t think they know what. I see Rachel push her way through the crowd. She has Noah beside her. He presses up against the glass window and mouths, “Are you all right?”
I have just enough energy to shake my head before I pass out.