The Beast That Almost Ate L.A.

Please enjoy this sample from The Beast That Almost Ate Los Angeles. Please go to our store for more information on ordering the full book – Click Here! 

OPTION RIGHT – Rick Branson and the starting offense for the Los Angeles Spartans must escape a parallel Roman world playing a rough game of football!

© 2007 G.N. Jacobs

The crowd held its breath as it always did when a player went down hard. This time a receiver had met the combined business end of a cornerback, free safety and the down marker. The crowd loved the catch and the hit roaring approval, but fell deathly silent as the man stayed on the grass.

Many fans used their web-capable cell phones to double check the treatment rendered by both team doctors. And still they waited. Members of both teams knelt in prayer for the health of a brave football player known for good spirits and team-leading determination.

In the broadcast booth, the Emmy-winning team of Rick Branson and George Crandall held binoculars to their eyes. Rick had trouble keeping the tears from his hazel eyes.

“Please God, not Jimmy,” Rick whispered into an open mike.

On the field, the doctors splinted up a leg and used the smelling salts liberally. Finally, James Walker’s chest heaved as if living through a second birth. Two raised hands holding a football brought cheers as the ambulance cart wheeled the man to the locker room.

“Well, as you can see, James ‘Spartacus’ Walker is OK,” George reported. “The doctors report a broken left tibia and a serious concussion, both things with which sports medicine has much experience.”

“I am continuously amazed by Jimmy’s toughness and courage,” Rick said.

“Rick, I’ve always wondered at the depth of your affection for Walker,” George probed. “From what I know about your respective careers, you’ve never played a down together in your lives.”

Rick held his breath trying to compose a lie. His son, Demetrius, saved the situation with an outburst.

“Listen, to that crowd, Daddy, they’re hypocrites just like Romans out for blood!” Demetrius blurted also into an open mike.

George shrugged having approved of the ten-year-old boy visiting the booth on Take-Your-Child-To-Work-Day precisely because of the entertainment value. He knew good TV when he saw it and silently contacted the director’s van so they would raise the volume on Rick’s mike.

***

Rick grasped the bars of his cell window. It came to him in a flash, the bricks and mortar that glowed peach in the setting sun reminded him of Paris. The river flowed northwest and a sand bar bifurcated the river, exactly like the Isle de France.

But, he wasn’t in Paris, at least not the Paris that he’d once explored with the Danish fashion model that had graced both the Rose Bowl and his Heisman acceptance dinner. Yes, there was a monstrosity of public art at a slight bend in the river, but the Eiffel Tower had been replaced by the Colossus of the West: a three hundred foot statue of Julius Caesar. South along the river, the Temple of Jupiter on the Isle de France sort of looked like the Notre Dame in which Rick had hoped to steal a kiss.

Actually, the temple was a strange mix of Gothic and Classical styles, where the exterior flying buttresses had been replaced with a gleaming white colonnade in the Ionian style. The most striking similarity was the blue rose window perfectly placed to sparkle in the setting sun. But, a delivery van flew through the sightline.

A gentle hand landed on Rick’s forearm. “Outlander, it does no good to look out the window. Many have gone…what is the word in your idiom?” Demetrius asked twirling a finger around his ear.

“Nuts, Demetrius.”

“Yes, that’s it. Many have gone nuts looking at the view.”

Rick nodded and surveyed the ground beneath the window. The obelisk dominating the Place de Concord in the real Paris had been replaced with a concrete rebar tower surrounded by animal pens. A lion growled in the deepening twilight and Rick couldn’t help but fell kinship with the big cat that was a long way from Africa.

Demetrius led Rick back to his cot and handed over a book with the anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. There was something odd about teaching a grown man to read with a dog-eared copy of Steven King’s Christine.

“You know, Demetrius, this is a scary book from my world. We don’t use it to teach people to read,” Rick said.

Demetrius put a genuine smile behind his blue eyes and raised his bare calf to the mattress. A shark or something as vicious had gotten at the leg. It had healed almost completely except for the ugly purple scar.

“I got this wound for getting caught with my first master’s daughter before a proper Roman gentleman could pluck her flower,” Demetrius said brightly. “He threw me to the sharks in the Imperial Aquarium just across the square. I think a tragic love story about a boy and his demon car is tame by comparison.”

A metallic tapping reverberated along the pipes leading up to the porcelain sink. Rick smiled that he’d been able to teach his guys the Hanoi Hilton Tap Code.

“That is your man ‘Hacksaw’ reporting on the doings of your new man, Jimmy,” Demetrius said smugly. “Jimmy has been bought for the evening by Valeria Decius, wife of Senator Decius. Condoms are off the table.”

“How does an illiterate gladiator learn to read our code?” Rick asked.

“I haven’t, Rick, because I hear in the tapping more information that I guess is your proto-escape plan,” Demetrius said laughing. “But, I recognize Hacksaw’s hand and our own grapevine has known about Valeria Decius and Jimmy Walker since lunch.”

“You’re talking about the statuesque blonde that giggled as she fondled the merchandise?” Rick asked. “If so how is she going to explain Jimmy’s bastard to her husband?”

“Senator Decius is almost as dark as Jimmy; so it will be an easy sale.”

“I should kick his ass over this,” Rick said. “He is a free man and gets a say in who he shags.”

Demetrius laughed again. “I like your principles, my friend. But in addition to the Romans believing they have enslaved your friend at gunpoint, he is a man with a penis. It probably voted affirmative the minute the lady disrobed.”

“Personal experience, Demetrius?”

“While Valeria Decius has a reputation for skill in the Arts of Venus and does occasionally go for white meat, I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” Demetrius explained. “My first love, Claudia Aurelia Julius, still sees me and she has a very intense rivalry with Valeria for reasons not related to me.”

“Does being put out to stud in between your matched pairs offend you?”

“Do you mean, would I like to have the money my female fans pay for me? Yes, absolutely. But, it is natural for women to want a successful warrior in between the poets, painters and financiers that fill up much of their time. So unless she is horrible with bad teeth, I drop my sword belt and go to work.”

“But…”

“But nothing, Rick, it’s the same in your parallel world,” Demetrius said. “Did you not tell me an outrageous story about you and the head Vestal Virgin of your school at a dance after a big match?”

Rick laughed and patted his friend’s shoulder. “I think we have our cultural archetypes crossed, because I’d never use the phrase Vestal Virgin to describe Cindy Hanen.”

“But, you see my point about everything?”

“I don’t like seeing how not very advanced my world is, but I do see your point.”

Demetrius grabbed Rick’s arms. “I am your friend though we gladiators don’t make many friends. If we are to be matched in the arena, I shall cry if I win.”

“I will scream at the gods, if I should win,” Rick answered. “But one way to avoid that is to help us escape.”

Demetrius shook his head. “Slave revolts are such a low percentage business, because ratting out your former brothers is a first condition of freedom.”

***

The meeting ended with the chant of FREEDOM NOW! The chant usually restored Lisbia’s faith in her contrary and unpopular positions at least for the few minutes it took for the echoes to fade into the night air. She could see quite a few crosses tucked under the cloaks of her fellow abolitionists, but even if they were Christians they were right about slavery.

She held her hood close around her face as she had even more reason to remain anonymous. She watched a police vehicle fly over the dense tree canopy of the park the residents of another Paris might have called the Bois de Bologne. She snorted with derision remembering her history and how it was hindered by slavery.

“We have slaves for that, why invest in anything made to save labor?” had been common refrain whenever someone proposed new technology. Fourteen centuries had passed between the first scientific paper on steam and the first engine. Lisbia guessed that only four decades of actual experimentation had taken place in all that time.

Of course, war technologies got funding she thought, fuming. The Roman Empire that still had the nerve to call itself a republic had only taken a mere century to go from black powder matchlocks to metallic cartridges fired through reciprocating gas and recoil actions. Lisbia thought back to her recent conversations with the leader of the new batch of gladiators becoming the talk of Heraclenaum; his world took seven centuries to make the same journey.

Richard Branson and his ten men had told a tale of a world where Rome fell, Christians were acceptable company if they promised not to preach at dinner, women in civilized lands had full rights and slavery as a legal institution had vanished a century and a half before. Lisbia shivered as the meeting broke up thinking of the terrible price Rick’s parallel Earth had paid for its progress. She still tried to sort out the confusing number of wars.

But, her own world had waged one long cold war against the Western Alliance that occupied the continents to the west. She shrugged considering the moral comparison to be a push. Lisbia smiled knowing she’d used slang learned from Rick. As a scientist and historian, she was dying to explore how push could also mean a tied contest. The wicked twinkle in his eyes had sold her on the adventure.

Said sparkle had also sold her on Rick as a man. Until he’d smiled he’d just been another slave and gladiator, admittedly a well-educated one. Now in the week since, she heard the other matrons of Roman society discuss the new gladiators and fumed at every eyelash batted at her quarterback. The new meat garnered attention even before their first matches.

Unfortunately, the warm glow that came from contemplating the end of slavery and a kiss from Rick couldn’t last forever. She’d absently ignored the dragonfly that lighted on her shoulder. Lisbia smelled the peach blossom and indulgently watched the cloaks of the other abolitionists as they faded into the park. The SWAT team came for her first dropping out of the trees. They threw a bag over her head just as every light and siren converged on the park.

***

“How could you do this to me?” Emperor Titus Vespasian shouted. “A gods-damned abolition meeting run by Christians no less! Don’t you know I’ll be eaten alive in the Senate?”

Lisbia Vespasian stood tall as her father, still in his purple robes of state, paced before his throne. The SPQR chiseled into the headrest glowed in the dim light from the hall. She felt the revulsion that had lurked behind the shadows of her family relationships all her life. She remained mute though what she wanted was to spit on the R.

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“Live free or die, Father!” Lisbia said venomously. “Rome or rather your temporary court in Heraclenaum is seventy-percent slaves. You and your magistrates crucify five hundred people a year and still I can’t walk the streets without my needle gun. What is so difficult about freeing men to enjoy the fruits of their labor?”

The Emperor’s face turned purple as he pulled out his belt from his gabardine slacks. Lisbia screamed as the first blow landed across her shoulder blades.

***

Rick and Demetrius leaned on their wooden swords by the river. They made an odd pair as if some evil film producer had spliced together reels from Knute Rockne All-American and Spartacus. Rick absently flicked his sword and studied his moves in the reflection from his friend’s bronze helmet. He had a long way to go before he could survive on his blade work.

The sharp clang on Rick’s blue football helmet brought his attention back to the moment. It was amazing how similar a bullwhip to the helmet sounded to a chinstrap swipe to the same location.

“Outlander, if you don’t appreciate my glorious conditioning exercises, perhaps you might employ yours,” Brutus, the Master of Gladiators, said. “You and your men are out of shape. I should feed you to the sharks, you’re so pathetic.”

“We’d only just reported to our training camp when the Multiverse in all of its wisdom invited us here,” Rick said. “SPARTANS, FRONT AND CENTER!”

Rick joined his men as they lined up facing the wrought-iron fence that separated the training field from the Imperial Plaza.

“The gladiators are laughing at your conditioning!” Rick shouted. “Welcome to the world of four-a-days starting with Up-Downs!”

And so the starting offense for the Los Angeles Spartans ran in place and did push ups. They dove into monkey rolls and other conditioning and agility drills common to every football team since the beginning of the game. After half an hour, Brutus still laughed. A crowd of slaves, matrons and other citizens gathered at the fence waiting for the brewing fight. Instead, Rick stepped to a young boy holding a soccer ball.

“Son, may I borrow your ball?”

The boy tossed his ball over the fence and played up the attention from this season’s hot new gladiator. Rick put his foot on the ball. His boys closed ranks and linked arms.

“This game is called Rugby. Take the ball away from us.”

Demetrius and ten other gladiators linked arms and closed up the scrum. Twenty-two men fought to move forward and/or kick the ball loose. The game seesawed back and forth. Four hours passed and the crowd cheered both sides as they collapsed briefly in exhaustion. Already, boys in the street imitated the rugby scrum.

A horn fanfare ended the match. The crowd parted. Whispers spread like wildfire. Rick saw Lisbia at the fence. The dark sunglasses and black fire lurking below the surface made Rick want to reach through the fence.

Brutus blindsided Rick against the fence to enforce security rules. He had enough time to consider Brutus had perfect tackling form before fading into unconsciousness. Despite looking green around the gills, Lisbia blew a kiss.

“Richard, I have checked the math. Be ready in three days,” Lisbia said.

***

It is good to be princess, Lisbia thought as she crept along the marble floor in her stockings. Even the servants had gone to bed preferring sleep to the smell of night blooming jasmine or the music of nightingales and crickets. The Praetorian Guard were more concerned with unauthorized entry than people who lived there but hated their relatives. Some of the younger men had smiled and held doors open assuming at long last the Princess had taken a lover.

Lisbia had worn her best dress to encourage such assistance, but now she crept into the parts of the palace where a smile and/or carefully orchestrated tears would do no good: the Imperial Office. Dame Fortune walked with her daughter causing no incidents to make the inner circle of Praetorians deviate from the memorized security plan. And so Lisbia faced the glowing screen of the Emperor’s desktop computer breathing heavily and hearing her heartbeat in her ears.

A couple keystrokes gave her the keys to the kingdom, which she dutifully downloaded into a flash drive. Then she glided back to her chambers for phase two, though she had to fight to keep from sliding along the slick floor as she had in her youth. Lisbia beamed with joy to see Ingrid, her Viking nurse and confidant, standing next to a sewing machine.

“Your Highness, imagine my surprise that you would wish to sew something,” Ingrid said remembering to keep her voice down. “You were always reading a book.”

Lisbia kissed Ingrid on the cheek. “Chalk it up to strange times, Ingrid. And from this night forward, I am Lisbia, your surrogate daughter and very good friend.”

Ingrid touched Lisbia’s face as if to heal a cut. “Your High…, Lizzie, sorry. The foundation I gave you has covered the shiner. Your father occasionally is a pig, but this an extreme method for getting even.”

The women hugged.

“Ingrid, beating women for having opinions can never be acceptable,” Lisbia said. “And someday you will have to explain the undercurrent in your voice when call Father a pig.”

“A girl should love her father,” Ingrid said.

“That galley has sailed, now please pass me the leather,” Lisbia said.

And so Lisbia cut and sewed an almost regulation NFL football only the laces were black. Ingrid pretended not to see Lisbia sew the flash drive into the interior of the ball. Ingrid held the ball up mystified by the shape.

“The gladiator that caught your heart has funny notions,” Ingrid said. “Balls are round and are kicked. This is for throwing.”

“Rick comes from an alternate place called America,” Lisbia explained. “He assures me that throwing this ball is his primary job.”

“Did he say if America was very much like the lands of the Western Alliance?”

“Rick didn’t, but my calculations suggest that America and the Western Alliance share the same geographical features,” Lisbia said.

Ingrid smiled and continued to ponder the ball. “Didn’t you tell me that these Americans call this game football?”

Lisbia laughed. “I see where you’re going. I asked Rick about the contradiction of a game called football where the ball is advanced by either throwing or running.”

“And?” Ingrid prompted.

“He said there were some residual kicking rules and promised to explain fully later.”

“He’s playing hard to get,” Ingrid said. “He’ll explain only after he has you naked.”

“So? It would be a reason to keep him awake afterwards.”

Ingrid smiled as she wagged her finger. “You know, if that was all this is about, five thousand cisterces to the leinister would scratch that itch.”

Lisbia flopped in her chair and breathed out explosively. “I hate slavery to be sure, but with Rick I feel like he’d be more fun if the shackles came off and he chased me.”

They hugged again.

“Only youth can believe that a gladiator and a Princess of Rome can live openly together; cherish your delusions while they last. By the way, have you finished the device to send him home?” Ingrid asked.

Lisbia pulled a flat wafer of electronics from her purse. The card had a red square marked INTERDIMENSIONAL TRANSPORT, DO NOT PUSH UNTIL DESPERATE. She then produced a sheet of paper, a document drawn on the Imperial Stationary, and handed it to Ingrid. The older woman cried to see the text and the wax seal of the Emperor. Lisbia held her nurse.

“I had to forge his signature, but I couldn’t blather on as an abolitionist and not free my nurse,” Lisbia said. “This will allow you to get free in the coming confusion and seek your family in the Western Alliance.”

“You do me a great honor, Lizzie, but I have no family who would remember that I live,” Ingrid said. “I would follow you to this America and take my chances in that brave new world. Besides, I want to play nana to your children.”

“Ingrid, you’re still of childbearing age…”

“And I would use those years searching for a man with no concept of slavery and give him a child,” Ingrid declared. “In the meantime, you and your family will need looking after. Now, where do we hide the inter-dimensional thing?”

Lisbia smiled and reached for the leather again. Her learning curve for footballs improved and the card was sewn into the interior. These laces were white.

***

“Branson, front and center!” Brutus shouted. “You have a fan!”

Gladiators and football players alike broke in hoots and whistles. Demetrius made a female shape with his hands. Rick shook his head and walked like a sulking five-year-old over to Brutus.

“Oh, don’t be that way,” Brutus teased. “She’s pretty…and rich.”

Ten minutes later, a guard led a handcuffed Rick into a velvet-lined cage. The dominance tools would make a mistress blush. His heart brightened to see Lisbia waiting on an easy chair. The guard hooked the handcuffs to a chain on the wall and left.

Lisbia crossed the room putting extra sway into her hips. Rick heard jungle drums in his ears, even though he considered smacking her as a statement of freedom. She settled the issue by standing next to him and blowing in his ear. The Smack Her- Kiss Her debate ended with a big movie kiss, facilitated by a chain with a lot of give.

“I’m ready,” Lisbia breathed.

“You sure are,” Rick said.

“Well, for you, of course I’m ready,” Lisbia whispered toying with a dress strap. “But, I was asking about the other thing. Are you ready? Do you need help?”

Lisbia kissed him causing a shiver and produced a handcuff key from between her fingers. Rick smiled and spat out his own handcuff key from his mouth. He popped the cuffs open and carried her to the chair putting a hand on her knee.

“I had an uncle that did magic tricks,” Rick explained.

Lisbia nibbled an ear. Rick weakened before her fragrance that smelled mostly of hydrangeas and apricots. He made one last show of resistance turning his head away like an opera diva. She went for the kill with a soft kiss.

“Would you do this if you were free to chase me?”

“Yes, but…”

“No buts, Richard, pretend I have teased you with another suitor and…”

Rick grabbed her and expertly disrobed her as she yelped at his ferocity. He recovered his good senses just in time and softened his approach. She couldn’t hide that she’d been saving herself, evident from her scream. He kissed it to make it better. Rounds Two and Three went better. Rick doomed himself to a good marriage for life when he threw an arm over and held her as she cried.

“I forgot, I made something for you,” Lisbia said as she slipped into her dress.

“I like presents.”

Lisbia reached into her overstuffed purse and pulled out the football with the black laces. Rick grabbed the football and his girl in one sweeping motion, reverting to his five-year-old self when he got his first ball for Christmas. She left lipstick on his face.

But, Lisbia still had to leave. “I pray that Athena smiles on you with favor.”

“Then where is the invisibility she gave Odysseus?” Rick joked.

Lisbia touched his hands and left.

***

Eleven men silently put up their hands as too many pulse rifles surrounded them. Dawn broke over the river, revealing a football team standing between the feet of Julius Caesar. Rick much preferred his Paris where you could picnic with a girl on an impressive field of grass, but…

Emperor Titus Vespasian floated above them on a repulsor-lift platform with two guards and Lisbia. Father and daughter weren’t having a positive moment.

“Outlander, I must thank you for one thing, at least I know my daughter likes men,” Titus said gloating. “At twenty-seven and all manner of delays for study, I began to worry.”

Rick had nothing to say.

“Oh and give me that ball in your hands,” Titus ordered.

Rick felt proud of his boys as they closed ranks around their quarterback: a realSpartacus moment. Whatever else happened he had a team. Jimmy Walker stepped forward and spoke first.

“Thank you, Your Highness, for the hot mamas that need a little something extra, but we, the Los Angeles Spartans, must decline any further hospitality. Oh, and we don’t drop the rock for nobody.”

Tom ‘Hacksaw’ Santorro, the left guard, stepped forward to protect his star wide receiver. “Your Highness, I guess I speak for the line when I say – kiss my juicy black ass!”

Cecil Robertson, the center, stepped forward and smiled with brilliant teeth inside a dark face. “Hacksaw, you’s white, boy! Almost black isn’t quite the same, but Homey Titus the sentiment stands Kiss our Ass!”

The centurions raised their rifles. Everyone waited for the next shoe to drop. Lisbia took her opportunity, smashing her father in the gut with the white-laced football. The emperor doubled over and puked onto a soldier’s head before falling off the platform.

Both Praetorians used their lifting belts to save Titus from a broken leg. Lisbia blew a kiss and raced the platform down the long thoroughfare that corresponded to the Champs Elysse between the Colossus and the Triumphal Arch. Titus drew his sword of state and stalked Rick.

“You did this, Outlander!” Titus spat. “You turned my daughter against me!”

“No, Pops, you did that yourself when you whipped and punched her,” Rick said with an even calm. “And how many of your predecessors were killed by family?”

Titus didn’t answer knowing how high the number really was, but simply put his sword point to Rick’s throat.

“How dare you call me, Pops?”

“Because except for the ceremony, I am your daughter’s husband, Dad.”

The football team all slapped their helmets. “No Boss, you’re our Prince, don’t do it!” they all cried in unison.

“But you’re a slave from the Western Alliance,” Titus said feebly.

“My boys and I are free men from America, who should’ve been granted shelter under your own rules of hiketea,” Rick said pulling the sword point away from his throat. “But, that’s not why you’re going to let us live, for the moment at least.”

“What is in it for me with such generosity?”

Rick pointed down the Imperial Procession. As the morning brightened, the sides of the white cobble-stoned parade ground filled with Roman citizens of all types. Rick couldn’t help but square up his shoulders seeing the kids in the crowd. Emperor Titus shrugged.

“My citizens are used to bloodshed; they won’t save you,” Titus promised.

“But, you promised them a new spectacle, Dad,” Rick teased. “As word about us and our novel little game called football spread, you’ve hyped us something fierce. They may not save us from dying on the cross, but they’ll be pissed they didn’t get their show.”

Titus saw Rick’s point and whistled. Eleven gladiators in bronze helmets, arm shields and an assortment of swords, tridents and nets took the field. Brutus and Demetrius led the defense. A second whistle brought a replacement repulsor-lift platform that Titus and his guards boarded.

“I see you came prepared, Dad.”

“That is why I am Emperor, my soon to be dead son-in-law. The object is to march the two kilometers from the Colossus to the arch with that ball. Lose the ball, you all die. The gladiators may employ any means to get the ball. No four downs and out, no time outs, no kicking the ball away for any reason, or you all die.”

“Deal, Dad!”

Jimmy Walker tightened up his chinstrap. “Uh Boss, you are aware that no team in history has gained a thousand yards offense let alone two.”

“Jimmy, before you say such things we should both check the total offense of the infamous Georgia Tech – Cumberland Gap game from the Stone Age of football,” Rick said smiling.

“Doesn’t matter, Boss, I’m not sure Cumberland Gap was even a football team,” Jimmy said. “No one else has gone the Big K in our living memory.”

Rick patted the rookie’s shoulder pads. “Jimmy, we either make history or eat lead.”

“Yeah, Boss, I see your point.”

 ***

Lisbia raced her platform along the thoroughfare. Halfway to the Arch she spotted Ingrid in the crowd. Lisbia reached and pulled her surrogate mother up to the platform. Ingrid grabbed the football from the dashboard.

“Lizzie, don’t leave such things lying about,” Ingrid warned. “Was it your plan to arrange a football game?”

Lisbia shook her head. “No, but I’ll take it.”

***

The team bounced bleeding off nervous energy. Jimmy Walker soon had the guys hopping to the same rhythm. Electricity filled the morning air. Brutus and Demetrius took their positions naturally falling into a 3-4 defense.

“Let’s go Option Right on three, Break!” Rick told his huddle.

Hut OneHut TwoHut Three!

The line blocked left slapping and grabbing at sword hands. Jimmy kicked in his afterburner and flew past the gladiator playing cornerback. Rick pulled out right with his backfield. Demetrius closed in feeling his way through his job as left outside linebacker. Rick stopped just long enough to sucker Demetrius in close before pitching out to the tailback.

Rick lowered his shoulder on Demetrius. Sweat flew and the gladiator’s helmet clanged on the pavement. Charlie Watts flashed up field with the ball until Brutus disengaged from a block and smashed Charlie into the lap of a priestess of Venus. Eight yards gained.

Rick held out his hand for Demetrius who clapped his hands to his ears. Finally, the ringing cleared and Demetrius could take his friend’s hand. The crowd roared except for the Emperor.

“We’re friends, Demi; do you believe me when I tell you that my world doesn’t kill the athletes that play in our spectacles? Change sides and be free,” Rick urged.

“We’ll be free if we take the ball away,” Demetrius said. “We were promised.”

“Think about this, the guy that made the promise beat the crap out of his daughter that she’s still got a black eye. Do you trust that promise?”

Demetrius shrugged and didn’t answer. Charlie Watts walked over to the center of the street and spotted the ball.

“Rick, will you devise new plays without the huddle?” Demetrius asked. “We will steal the ball the minute you put it on the ground and I don’t think I heard an audible code in all of your tapping on the pipes.”

The small boy that had lent his soccer ball to the impromptu rugby game stepped out of the crowd and sat on the football. The Emperor seemed on the verge of ordering his Praetorians to shoot the boy. The crowd grumbled; Timotheus Romulus was from a popular patrician family. A family bodyguard took aim with a pulse rifle at the guard. Titus flicked a hand diffidently calling off the Mexican Standoff. The crowd roared.

“Send out troops to deal with Senator Romulus’s family tonight,” Titus ordered in a whisper. “Crucify the men, pimp out the women, sell the slaves, but feed that insolent boy to the lions at the next games.”

Rick shook hands with Demetrius. “Apparently, Jesus, Athena or whoever provides solutions with a little faith. Change sides.”

Demetrius shrugged and went back to the defense.

 ***

Lisbia and Ingrid stood under the Triumphal Arch holding the white-laced football and a portable vidscreen. Lisbia cringed to see a close up of the hit Rick had laid on Demetrius. She laughed at the sexy antics of Charlie Watts and the priestess he’d landed upon.

The cameras caught her father fuming at the priestess’ kiss. The Emperor slept with a Venusian priestess chosen by lot at the turn of every season, but apparently he played with this one on a more regular basis. Lisbia enjoyed her father’s discomfort.

She felt on the ball for the reassurance of the inter-dimensional button. Ingrid found herself getting into the game.

“Your man is tricky as well as handsome,” Ingrid said clapping. “He suckered the defense into thinking he would keep the ball and tossed it to another runner. Ten cisterces says they run the same play only Rick throws a forward pass.”

“And how do you know, Ingrid?” Lisbia asked. “Rick has told us none of the small details of the game.”

“Lizzie, I just know.”

***

“Same play on four, first pass target is Bobby on the left post,” Rick called.

BREAK!

They lined up. The morning air warmed up slightly. The crowd murmured in middle C-sharp at about forty decibels. Signs for both sides appeared among the crowd. A brave Christian donned a frizzy rainbow wig and held up a sign reading John 3:16.

Shots rang out killing the Christian with a bullet between the eyes. Emperor Titus may have been constrained by the crowd from killing the Romulus boy or the outlander slaves, but he drew the line at putting up with Christians in broad daylight.

On four, the play went off. Rick and Demetrius locked eyes as they stretched out into the flat. Demetrius waited an extra moment smiling at the temerity of his opponent to run the same play. Rick faked the pitch to Charlie Watts and…

Shouts of same play rose up from the defense. Bobby Rodgers, Rick’s other receiver, head faked the gladiator at right cornerback into defending the run. Everyone closed in on the ball. Demetrius screamed to see Rick throw at the last second.

Bobby blew past the cornerback and cut towards an imaginary goal post in the center of the road. He looked up to see Rick’s pass floating into his hands in the subjective slow motion of a highlight film. Bobby made a note to bust Rick for the slightly ugly wobble on the ball. Bobby caught the ball, which triggered the memory that this was the first real pass of the season.

Bobby tucked the ball under his arm and stepped towards the Asian gladiator, called Chopsticks, playing free safety. Ordinarily, in a leisurely game of Sunday football, he would have turned up field for the touchdown. But, Bobby and Chopsticks had previously thrown down over of bowl of porridge that had degenerated into a nasty series of Yo Mamas!

Bobby heard the clack of his shoes on paving stones as the target grew larger in his sight picture. He might have been the only black man in America that didn’t enjoy playing the Dozens and treated every Yo Mama like a deadly insult. Chopsticks grinned maliciously as he pulled out a dagger typically used with net and trident for the coup de grace.

Chopsticks missed with the dagger. A sharp CLANG rose up to heaven as the gladiator swept his armored arm across Bobby’s helmet. Chopsticks’ head snapped back as Bobby steamrollered over his enemy.

The crowd ate the hit up with a spoon. Football was a complete novelty to them, but they also uniformly hated the Asian. He’d opened his big mouth during the divorce proceedings of one of his female fans. He’d been on a winning streak fueled by the life or death need to win back the crowd, but judging from the roar that goal had some ways to go.

Bobby stepped on his foe’s face as he sprinted down the center of the parade ground. Brutus took off running after Bobby. The subjective slow motion ended and he felt every nerve firing at speed waltz tempo. Brutus closed the distance slowly with a raised gladius still in its sheath.

Bobby heard the crowd as if he were underwater and chugged away. The rhythm of footsteps changed, someone chased him. And then that someone whacked him across the calves with a stick or something.

Bobby tucked his head in properly and rolled on the pavement. He kicked the sword away and kept running. Brutus closed the distance and smashed into the receiver. He kicked the outlander in the facemask as he got up to play to the crowd.

Tim Romulus and all the players ran forward to mark the new line of scrimmage. The boy blew an air horn borrowed from the crowd. The play gained fifty-five yards.

***

Lisbia watched on her vidscreen and soured as the first commercial aired as the players ran up to the ball. Six centurions in the war zone of Heimdale City used great tasting Spartacus Beer to lure local women away from their husbands. Ingrid reached for her surrogate daughter as the second commercial played. The famous singer and fan dancer, Olivia Claudia, did a bikini strip around Rick to sell Jupiter condoms. Even though logic said the image was created in a computer, Lisbia gripped the twelve-inch screen and smashed it against the red limestone of the arch.

Lisbia continued smashing the vidscreen even after the self-appointed announcers returned and began to comment endlessly over replays of the two hits on the play. Unfortunately for her anger, the makers of the vidscreen had made millions of dinaria selling a virtually unbreakable product. She cursed, kicked and spat upon the thing and still it refused to break. A privately owned insect camera caught her antics and later the owner sold the footage to the manufacturer for their next commercial.

Ingrid finally restrained Lisbia with a hug. “You lost Claudius Decius Scientia to that hussy because you weren’t ready for sex. A young man needs a couple years of living before he even has a chance of resisting a girl like that. Rick has had that experience and only has eyes for you.”

“Really, you think so?” Lisbia asked in a little girl voice that Ingrid hadn’t heard in a long time.

Ingrid handed the vidscreen to Lisbia. “He burns for you of that I’m sure. Now, let’s watch the game, I find it intriguing.”

Lisbia smiled and watched as the starting offense of the Los Angeles Spartans broke their huddle and lined up over the ball.

“Oh, Rick will hand the ball to Charlie Watts who will run between the guard and tackle on the right side.”

 ***

At an hour elapsed and three hundred and fifty three yards gained, Rick could see the toll of the game in his boys’ eyes. Bruises and road rash covered all exposed skin; a sharp trainer would find employment for life with this bunch. But, the real problem, they were gassing out. The advantage to the free substitution and kickoff rules jettisoned today was that they allowed an offense to rest.

Rick watched his guys breathe hard and fight to remain on their feet. Sweat dribbled into eyes. The crowd roared and whistled. Clearly, the team paid for the ill luck of being plucked from home before their first practice at training camp.

“Quarterback off tackle right on three,” Rick called.

BREAK!

Rick called the cadence looking directly at Demetrius. The gladiator shuffle stepped to sell the possibility of a blitz. Rick chuckled knowing that the play was going to that side anyway.

On three, Cecil snapped the ball. Hacksaw saw Brutus blitzing from the left inside linebacker position and broke the play with a pull to the right. The improvisation worked almost perfectly. The right guard kicked down on the nose tackle. The tight end flattened the defensive end and the left tackle followed Hacksaw bearing down on the strong safety.

Hacksaw picked up Brutus and laid him out with a hit for the highlight reels. Rick wrapped up the ball and lowered his shoulder heading into Demetrius’ domain. They closed on each other seeing and hearing nothing but the other man.

WHAM! The friends met shoulder to shoulder. The football came loose floating almost straight up. Rick had just enough time to register that he’d just killed the team. The metallic sound of pulse rifle charging handles being cocked carried over the crowd noise even before the ball had reached the apex of its trajectory.

Jimmy Walker’s football instincts saved the day. He’d been sent downfield to clear out a cornerback and make a block if necessary. He looked back over his shoulder just before Demetrius hit Rick. He punched his defender in the gut and ran back to the ball.

Jimmy dove to catch the ball before it hit pavement. A few more square inches of flesh scraped off his knee as four gladiators dog-piled onto the wide receiver. Timotheus Romulus ran forward blowing his air horn.

“Kill them!” Emperor Titus ordered. “They dropped the ball!”

A Romulus household guard and a Praetorian cooked up another Mexican Standoff. The boy bowed to the Emperor with barely contained defiance.

“Perhaps, I should unstick the pile first, Your Majesty?” Timotheus Claudius Romulus suggested feeling very brave indeed.

Timotheus pulled gladiators off the top of the pile. The crowd hushed waiting for the shoe to drop. Finally, Jimmy stood up holding the football aloft for all to see. The crowed roared spiking at ninety decibels.

Rick breathed easy as he helped Demetrius up. The friends shook hands in a display of sportsmanship. But, the Emperor rained on that parade.

“Kill them!” Titus repeated.

In a flash, Demetrius had a dagger to Rick’s throat. There was a long pause.

“I guess I wasn’t listening when you said a slave would sell his brother on the mere hope of freedom,” Rick said. “But, my friend, you’re too good at your job. If you think your owner will give up the income your blood and sweat provides, then you should strike now.”

Friendship and conscience struck Demetrius and he lowered his blade. Rick hugged his friend. The crowd cheered in part because the drama was free.

“Kill that slave for treason!” Emperor Titus screeched.

Demetrius stood tall like the free man he’d never been. He opened his mouth to speak, but a strange event happened that diverted attention. Later, the Christians would build it up into an Honest-to-God-According-to-Hoyle-Miracle. Skeptics would scoff as they always do.

***

Lisbia’s hands shook as she held the vidscreen. A cameraman got white-knuckle close-ups of fingers tightening on triggers. And then the image quick-panned into the crowd, another frizzy rainbow wig and John 3:16 sign appeared.

Lisbia shouted as the close-up of the Christian’s face revealed an identical face to the first dead Christian. The hushed whisper among the crowd told her that they had seen it as well. The cameras picked up her father’ face as it turned almost as purple as his robes of state.

BANG!

Praetorian Guards killed the Christian with a shot under the ear. Chaos erupted among the crowd. Praetorians and local police popped off plenty of teargas and rubber baton rounds regaining order. Lisbia dropped her vidscreen.

When the dust cleared, Rick and his Spartans still held the football six yards downfield. Then the broadcast cut to another commercial; Olivia Claudia and her backup singers did letter perfect close-order drill in bikinis as a recruiting spot for the 18th Legion.

“Ingrid, I thought the 18th Legion disbanded after a terrible defeat in Germania two millennia ago,” Lisbia said as she picked up the vidscreen.

“General Autolycus is experimenting with disgraced units as a special operations force with much to prove,” Ingrid said. “Obviously, it has been some time since you’ve read a memo from the Army.”

Paramedics cleared away the Christian’s body.

“I tell you it’s the same man,” Ingrid said thoughtfully. “I must at least read their Bible.”

“To hear Rick tell it, you may steal one from any hotel room in his world,” Lisbia said.

“An enlightened universe in some respects,” Ingrid observed. “By the way, Rick will run a sweep to the left.”

Lisbia raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t look at me that way, Lizzie,” Ingrid said. “I think I just understand the psychology and strategy of this game. Are there many women associated with football?”

“No, Rick says that football is one of the few sexist activities left in his world,” Lisbia said. “Girls play round-ball football with kicks.”

“I think I will change that when I get there,” Ingrid promised.

Meanwhile, Rick ran a left sweep out in the street.

***

At three hours elapsed and six hundred fourteen yards gained, Rick could see the tug of war between body and spirit in the huddle. The recovered fumble had kicked the team up a notch, but the Zen groove that all teams strive for still required a body that could go the distance. All they really needed was a sugar-spiked protein bar each.

At least, the crowd had bravely crossed the pavement to provide the local equivalent of Gatorade to both sides. The water, electrolytes and sugar had kept them on their feet, but they still needed solid food. A rainbow of food coloring mixed with the blood and gravel on their practice jerseys. Oh, for a camera, Rick thought.

“Bobby, line up in the right slot and square in at twenty. Jimmy, same side, I want your rockets on the fly. Charlie line up left and go for the corner. John, left slot and go for the post. Everyone else blocks and we go on first sound.”

They lined up. Demetrius and Brutus read the formation and dropped back into a Cover 2 Dime Defense. John Corcoran, Rick’s tight end, pointed at the strong safety who’d moved over to cover him. A few Yo Mamas were exchanged and the play started.

The line formed a pocket. The fullback found a blitzing linebacker. Everyone ran their routes as if their lives depended on it, which they did.

Jimmy locked eyes with his defender and looked towards the center of the street. The man bit and broke inside to protect against the post and square in Jimmy flew right on by straight up field.

The line punched and threw elbows to discourage any knife work. The pocket collapsed as designed. Rick stepped up and threw the ball. Demetrius flattened Rick.

Bobby cut inside though his defender stayed with him. One look at the trajectory and he knew he wasn’t the target. He briefly marveled at the perfect spiral before dropping a shoulder to hit a gladiator. It is against the rules of Sunday football for a downfield receiver to hit someone while the ball is in the air, but this was no-rules pavement ball.

Bobby leveled his defender and felt a twinge in his shoulder. Jimmy was running alone and caught the ball making it look easy. A quirk of fate brought John and Jimmy’s routes together. The strong safety broke off to make the tackle. John ducked behind Jimmy who expertly pitched the ball to John.

Jimmy laid the strong safety out to the thunderous approval of the crowd. John took off running, his head bobbing as if he were Jesse Owens about to thumb Hitler in the eye. He was alone. The home team got a little Twelfth Man action when a Praetorian Guard stepped onto the pavement and smashed John onto his back.

The guard tried to grab the ball creating a basketball jump ball. Elbows and fists flew as John held onto the ball. Jimmy ended the scuffle by taking off his helmet and clocking all comers with it. Brutus knocked Jimmy to the ground opening a cut over the left eye.

Jimmy put his helmet back on and smiled grimly at Brutus. “Brutus, baby, the gloves come off!”

Demetrius helped Rick to his feet.

“So, D, are these the people you’ll support?” Rick asked.

“They are my team for better or for worse,” Demetrius said. “I would think you, of all people, would understand.”

Rick’s problem was that he did understand.

And so the game slowed to a crawl at eight hundred yards gained. Jimmy’s helmet swinging had spiked up the whole team to temporarily set aside their weariness. But, Rick still saw the flowing sweat and heavy breathing in the huddle.

Their play execution became erratic. One play would come off as if run by an all-time all-star team that included Red Grange and Jim Thorpe. The next play would be a little sloppy with an ever-increasing spin around the toilet drain. So far the team hadn’t slipped to the level of Cumberland Gap, the all-time victim team. There was still hope.

***

Emperor Titus Vespasian imagined investing in a league of football teams. The crowd enjoyed themselves immensely, which was the point. Someone would have to be sent to the outlanders’ world, if it existed, for the rulebook. Actually, the game was more fun without rules.

He rubbed his hands knowing full well he acted like a video villain. These outlanders were tiring, practically dead on their feet so they would die soon. But, they had a lot of fight in them, so the masses were happy. Possibly, it was time to tell the Senate of the beating handed out to the 15th Legion’s recon unit in Heimdale City.

He could faintly hear the chatter between the teams as they lined up. Some was refreshingly hostile; especially if Brutus or the slave called Chopsticks were involved. They made enemies the way others breathed. A small but growing number of conversations were friendly. He turned on the parabolic mikes.

“Hey Linus, did you hear the one about the one-eyed whore?” Cecil joked across the ball to the nose tackle.

“No, but I know one about a three-legged dog.”

When Cecil snapped the ball, they still hit at full speed. Cecil won the battle squatting lower, so Charlie Watts could gain six yards. Titus really became concerned by the growing friendship between Rick and Demetrius. The Emperor was just paranoid enough to read dire consequences into every handshake and display of sportsmanship from the two slaves. He couldn’t see that Rick and Demetrius hit hardest of any two men on the street, even those with personal grudges. Of course, sportsmanship among slaves was discouraged as being for the upper classes.

Titus had cause to worry beyond seeing slaves cozy up to the dangerous outlanders. He owned Demetrius through a shell corporation that skirted the public accountability laws that bound even the Emperor. Owning the reigning champion was both a shot to the ego and a cash cow of epic proportions, so freedom of any kind would never happen.

***

Rick connected with Jimmy on a left corner. Chopsticks used his brass helmet to pop the ball loose. The crowd held its breath as the pigskin floated to the ground. Jimmy fell to his knee and smiled like the wolf about to pounce on Red Riding Hood.

“Chopsticks, ordinarily I’d be sorry for what I’m gonna do,” Jimmy said cocking his fist. “But, you’s an asshole, homey.”

Jimmy landed a heavy fist in Chopsticks’ groin. The gladiator crumpled to the pavement and whined three octaves higher than normal. The ball dropped to the ground. Jimmy covered it not sure if the play was a fumble or incomplete pass. Timotheus ran forward blowing Shave and a Haircut on his air horn. The boy waved his arms.

“Ball remains with the outlanders and the line of scrimmage starts here!” Timotheus yelled playing to the crowd.

“Tim, since you’re playing referee, did I catch the ball and drop it or was it incomplete?” Jimmy asked.

“You caught the ball and dropped it,” Timotheus answered. “But, why does it matter, Jimmy? In this game as long as you fall on the ball it counts as a completed pass.”

“Pride, young man, is everything,” Jimmy said. “You have to know that you’re causing problems for your family.”

“Papa has his own plans afoot, Mr. Walker,” Timotheus said. “We’ll be fine, or we’ll be dead, a common fate for patricians.”

Rick fought back tears at seven hours elapsed and a thousand twenty yards gained. The guys looked like the walking dead in the huddle. Shoulders drooped and more colored sport fluids ended up on their jerseys than in their bellies.

He remembered his Shakespeare from his year at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. For some reason a line from the Scottish Play rang in his ears. Strong drink giveth the desire but taketh the ability. You can substitute vigorous exercise, Rick thought.

The boys showed a strange emotional state, as the camaraderie and spirit that came from surviving the game so far struggled with the depression of being dog-tired and well beyond any sensible reserves. Rick had never seen both emotions at the same time. Clearly, it was time for an inspirational speech.

So far he’d kept his encouragements simple, Atta-boys and pats on the ass, because in his five years as a pro football player, he’d never stooped to the big speech. A professional’s motivation is his paycheck and desire to give his best for the ticket holder. But, now he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Rick opened his mouth to speak, but Jimmy stopped him with a wink. He stood tall in the huddle banging shoulder pads and banging helmets.

“Are you going to let these Roman pussies push us around?” Jimmy banged helmets with John.

“YOU’RE PATHETIC WITH YOUR SAGGING EYES AND DRAGGING FEET!” Jimmy shouted pounding Cecil’s enormous shoulder pads.

“What is it going to take for you to find the warriors that live inside your rib cages?” Jimmy asked chest bumping with Hacksaw and paying for it slightly.

“I see the best Goddamn offense that ever took to the field!”

BUMP!

“You’re heroes as far as regular old boring Sunday football goes! A thousand yards! To be a part of the team that achieved this much is an honor I will whisper about when I draw my last breath!”

BUMP! WHACK! BUMP!

“Hacksaw, you and your off season rock band will write songs of this day!”

BUMP! WHACK! BUMP!

“We will gather every year to remember every scar and cut! We will honor Tim and Lizzie for aid and comfort, freely given! We will drink to Demetrius, a good man who should live and die as a free man!”

BUMP! BUMP! BUMP!

“But here’s the catch, there will be no songs, no outrageous stories to tell if we don’t make this last kilometer! Sure Lizzie will remember us as she pushes the button on her machine, but it’s really our story to tell! We must make this kilometer! We will make this kilometer! We are free men! We are Spartans, who of old held a pass for two days against superior forces! AND WE’RE HEADING DOWNHILL!”

Jimmy in that moment showed he was more than just a pretty black football player commonly assumed to have skated through school. He nodded to Rick as if to say take over Boss. The team linked arms and hopped in unison. Bobby started a chant that soon everyone picked up.

SPARTANS! DOWNHILL!

Meanwhile, the crowd sang and clapped like European soccer fans. Somehow, the music of the situation was complementary.

SPARTANS! DOWNHILL!

“OK, men, we’re going to play sandlot ball on the two-minute drill for the next seven plays,” Rick declared. “Option right, option right, flea flicker, double reverse left, Statue of Liberty Right, Student Body Left and Statue of Liberty Right with a halfback pass to the quarterback. First sound on all plays!”

“Boss, I haven’t been near these plays since Pop Warner ball,” Jimmy whispered.

“We may be Spartans going downhill, but we can have a little fun,” Rick said.

SPARTANS! DOWNHILL!

BREAK!

***

The Praetorian Guards finally figured out what Lisbia and Ingrid were up to waiting so serenely under the Triumphal Arch. Hordes of them approached on air platforms and on foot from the crowd. Lisbia smiled sweetly having worn her tiniest skirt and cutest French cut blouse for just this moment.

Judging from the dilated pupils and extra swallows Lisbia could see her efforts weren’t wasted. Unfortunately, these Praetorians were having an attack of duty. C’est la guerre.

“Milady, you are suspected of illegally assisting a slave revolt or escape,” the sergeant said.

Lisbia smiled and used her cleavage to encourage his carnal fantasies and nodded to Ingrid, who handed over her emancipation letter. Then Lisbia produced twenty-two more, which the man examined. The sergeant knew the Imperial Signature and seal but still handed the documents to his corporal for confirmation. The other guard nodded and the sergeant handed the letters back and cleared his throat.

“Very well, milady,” he said. “You see our concerns. You did strike your father, earlier. And there is the matter of a pirated flash drive with important defense information.”

The man had an idea, an impressive feat in the face of Lisbia’s body language.

“Milady, may I examine your football?”

Lisbia handed over the ball in which the interdimensional transport had been hidden. The corporal scanned the ball and shook his head. The sergeant gave the ball back and bowed, a look of regret on his face. At a wave, two guards stayed to protect the women.

“Sergeant, are you enjoying the game?” Lisbia asked before the man left for other duties.

“Yes, Milady.”

When the guards were out of earshot, Ingrid made a low whistle. “I saw you sew your machine into the leather, how does a scanner miss something the size of a credit card?”

“Because, I’m smart enough to think ahead, Ingrid.”

“Rick will run seven or eight trick plays,” Ingrid predicted.

***

Rick locked eyes with Demetrius while sprinting with Charlie. The gladiator saw the play develop and dropped back into the flat pumping his legs until Rick committed. He had to give his friend credit for learning on the fly, but not committing makes another variation of the option play possible. Rick pulled the ball under his arm and took off running.

Demetrius closed the distance thinking Rick would go for the hit. Instead, the outlander planted his feet and cut up field. Demetrius took the wrong angle and missed the tackle, but did get a hand on a shoulder pad.

The hard yank slowed Rick giving Demetrius a chance in the footrace that followed. Rick heard footsteps belonging to a second gladiator. Bobby and John broke their routes to sandwich this defender. The crowd spiked up well past a hundred decibels roaring approval.

Rick and Demetrius ran like Olympic sprinters chased by cheetahs. Their heads bobbed and sweat flew off seemingly in slow motion. Cobblestones clacked and Demetrius kept the distance close.

Brutus picked up the chase, which attracted the attention of Jimmy. The angle went wrong to block Demetrius, but Brutus was easy meat. WHAM! Jimmy went right at Brutus’ knees, a move neither legal nor nice in Sunday football. Brutus fell forward and rolled off his metal shoulder plate. Jimmy ran up and kicked the man’s helmet.

“Brutus, my homey, this is your shitty karma comin’ back at you,” Jimmy gloated. “I might take a bullet for your boy Demetrius, but not you.”

***

At twenty yards, the footrace became legendary. At thirty, the new Roman religion of Football had its core myth. At forty, everyone came back to Earth as Demetrius made the tackle.

Rick fell into the cheap seats filled by various household slaves. He landed on an old man who’d been trained as a tailor by his master. Rick considered himself lucky to have missed the shears sticking out of the tailor’s pocket as he landed on his ribs. The ball came loose. A hush fell over the crowd as everyone waited for the other shoe to drop.

Rick couldn’t help but hear spaghetti western music as he, Demetrius and the tailor eyed the ball spinning on the pavement. The tailor picked up the ball and gave it back to Rick.

“Live free or die, outlander,” the tailor whispered.

The Praetorian sniper on the Imperial platform shot the old man in the head. The slaves in the crowd hissed and even some free men grumbled. Rick patted the tailor on the shoulder as he bled onto the street. A stranger with a surprisingly similar face appeared at Rick’s side.

“Go, Mr. Branson, you have a game to finish,” the stranger said. “Old Phaetonius is my problem now.”

Even though the stranger commanded authority Rick couldn’t explain, he still had to be led away by Demetrius and Jimmy. The bulges in the man’s overcoat drew Rick’s eyes, hints of a rainbow wig peeked out. The players all had their backs turned for what happened next.

***

Lisbia’s hands shook watching her vidscreen. The cameras caught a close up of the old tailor standing up and waving to the crowd. She would have to be told about the stranger later, for the cameras never saw him. The crowd roared and then the broadcast cut to a commercial.

Footage of earlier plays had been cut into spots selling footballs, shoes and protective gear. Lisbia marveled that it only took seven hours for corporate managers to turn the footage around for commercial use. But, she was more struck by the beauty in how the men on both sides played the game.

***

Rick walked off the hit, which didn’t feel like a case of broken ribs. Brutus walked off the wicked chop block that surprisingly didn’t cause serious injury. Jimmy stepped between the gladiator and quarterback daring Brutus to Bring It. The master of gladiators deferred battle for now.

Excitement in the crowd grew as word of mouth spread. Demetrius saw Phaetonius the Tailor first. His jaw dropped and he tugged at Rick’s sleeve, who did a spit-take from a sport drink tossed in from the crowd. The old man took a bow for the stunned crowd.

But, then Rick remembered the stranger’s eyes. He smacked his friend and ran to the center of the street.

“We have a game to play. Tag! You’re it!”

The Spartans ran forward and lined up. Cecil snapped the ball and they ran option right again. The defense went flat-footed and so Jimmy caught the pass after beating Brutus, Chopsticks and the cornerback. The crowed roared, seventy yards gained.

Rick took the next snap and handed off to Charlie Watts who tossed the ball back before crossing the line of scrimmage. Rick threw the ball practically all the way to the Arch. Bobby watched the ball all the way into his hands. This track meet gained a hundred and ten yards after the catch until Bobby tripped on his loose shoelace. The entire defense, except for Demetrius, piled on.

The teams lined up quickly. The offense resumed the chant of SPARTANS! DOWNHILL! The defense ran to keep up, shedding most of their sharp steel objects as they went. The play started.

Bobby came right and took the handoff from Rick. The defense shifted left to deal with the reverse play, but then Bobby handed off to Jimmy going the other way. The defense tripped over their two left feet.

Jimmy screamed downfield. The broadcasters made Doppler sounds watching him run. Brutus and Demetrius caught up at two hundred yards gained. The crowd roared and took up the Spartans Downhill chant.

Brutus hit Jimmy in the back and performed a sack dance. Demetrius pulled Brutus away, apparently losing his enthusiasm. The Spartans ran to the new line of scrimmage and snapped the ball.

Statue of Liberty Right looks like a pass, but Charlie Watts took the ball from Rick as he cocked for the throw. Speed and deception wins every time, another hundred yards gained.

***

Emperor Titus couldn’t watch. The Games weren’t intended to allow men to grow strong. He’d even sacrificed some of his best gladiators to cheating to keep others in line. The outlanders could win. He waved for a Praetorian.

“Kill everyone, gladiators, too,” Titus ordered. “The crowd will have to be happy with a fifteen hundred meter game.”

Pulse rifles charged. The crowd hushed. Rick and his boys kept running to the ball. A third rainbow wig appeared in the crowd. The John 3:16 sign had only just snapped open. The crowd scattered knowing what comes next.

Every rifle opened fire a minimum of three times each perforating the man with the sign leaving no doubt nor much of a body on the pavement. Rick used the distraction to run Student Body Left where all eligible backs and receivers line up to the left. The defense shifted. Rick broke the play after the snap and placed the ball on the ground between Cecil’s legs. The center adroitly picked up the pigskin and put his head down. When the dust cleared, the Spartans gained thirty yards.

Cecil made the mistake of turning his back on Brutus who was the only defender with a knife left on the field. He jumped on Cecil’s back and stabbed three times at the thick ebony neck. Arterial spray joined the gravel, sport drinks and sweat on several jerseys.

A long moment passed where a pin drop could be heard along the entire two-kilometer stretch of the Imperial Procession. And then paving stones flew at Brutus and Chopsticks. They died quickly. The stoning and Cecil’s injuries broke the rhythm of the Spartans’ Two-Minute Drill even though they still ran to the ball.

The offense was briefly lost. Demetrius and Linus saved the day by crossing the line of scrimmage and lined up with the offense. The crowd cheered. Emperor Titus waved in enough new gladiators to make up for losses and defections. Demetrius took a four-point stance over the ball. Linus followed suit.

“Rick, you were right! LIVE FREE OR DIE!”

Pulse rifles raised: Praetorians, Romulus Guards and even a few private citizens all drew down into the Mother of All Mexican Standoffs. The John 3:16 guy made another appearance stepping onto the pavement with his wig. Choosing to be seen, the man knelt down to touch Cecil’s neck.

The ebony house also called Cecil sat up and stretched his arms. The masses gasped and the gladiators ran away while they still could. The stranger shrugged his shoulders as the lucky fifteen, including the Romulus boy, strolled the rest of the way to the Arch.

When the man passed, guards lowered their guns and most in the crowd kneeled. Silence reigned supreme. But, the stranger looked miffed as they walked. Rick turned to him.

“I’ve figured out who you are, why are you sad?” Rick asked.

“I wanted to see the end of the game, Rick,” the stranger admitted. “I may not be responsible for every touchdown even though I am praised as such, but on some Sundays football is more entertaining than many of the blowhards working for me.”

“I think my pastor would cry to hear that,” Rick said.

“No, he wouldn’t. I know your pastor; he is coaching a Pop Warner team as we speak. He might weep to hear that you didn’t get to run Statue of Liberty Right with the Halfback to QB pass. It was a beauty play,” the stranger said.

“Now what, Sir?”

“You kiss the girl and go home. I like romance, too.”

“No Meaning of Life stuff?”

The stranger shook his head. “What can I tell you in words that you haven’t already learned when you men risked all and gained all in the name of justice?”

At last under the Arch, Lisbia fell into Rick’s arms showering him with kisses. Two quick taps on the white-lace football opened the blue vortex back to America. And then Emperor Titus Vespasian floated by to ruin the moment.

“Kill them! Kill them all!” Titus hissed.

No guards raised their weapons. The stranger nonchalantly turned to Rick.

“I’d forgotten that I’d hardened his heart,” the stranger said. “He’s your problem, I’ve done my quota of dying today.”

The stranger disappeared. Titus reached for a pistol. The Spartans closest to the vortex stepped inside. Demetrius tore off his helmet and stepped between Rick and the pistol.

“This is my very good friend, Rick, Your Majesty,” Demetrius declared. “He is under my protection.”

“YOUR PROTECTION?” Titus bellowed. “YOU CAN’T EVEN PROTECT YOURSELF!”

Titus shot Demetrius three inches below the heart. The free man fell to the pavement and…

BANG!

…Lisbia stood shaking as she lowered a pistol borrowed from a nearby Praetorian. Emperor Titus fell head first to the ground with a dull thud. Rick rushed to his friend’s side. Lisbia spat on her father.

“We’ll carry you across, D, we have doctors for this,” Rick pleaded.

“No, I’m done, my friend,” Demetrius said gasping for air. “Thank you for your stories, your friendship and the book though I would have liked to hear you tell the end.”

Rick cried like a baby. Demetrius smacked him on the arm.

“No tears, Rick, not for me. All I ask is that when your son is old enough not to be afraid of a scary book, you will read Christine to him. I will smile.”

Demetrius drew his last breath with a smile on his face.

The remaining Spartans, Linus, Ingrid and Lisbia filed through the vortex one by one. Before she left, Lisbia tossed the game ball to Timotheus.

“Here son, your father will need this if he is to rule the Empire,” Lisbia said.

***

“And there we were on the same practice field we’d left and we had only been gone two hours by local clocks,” Rick told his son sitting on his lap and the army of football fans behind the mike. “Then someone from the Front Office ran up to tell us that Jimmy had been traded to Baltimore. The man didn’t even notice the blood on our jerseys. After kicking over some trashcans, we settled down and got busy with our season. We told ourselves a Super Bowl should be easy after that adventure. And it was, we won that year.”

Little Demetrius may have enjoyed sitting in Dad’s lap for story time, but the story was old hat to him. He hopped off and rooted around in a bag for a football. It was a little bit lumpy with white laces. Demetrius handed the ball to George Crandall.

“Hi, Uncle George, Mama and Nana Ingrid swear this is the ball Daddy brought home with him.”

“Come here, you rascal!” Rick playfully ordered. “Why didn’t you tell me your mother had told you the story?”

“Cause I wanted to hear you tell the story,” Demetrius said. “Her version is all about hand-wringing on the sidelines. Now, Uncle George, I dare you to push the button.”

Go to our store – Click Here!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s