The Cosmic Bluff

by Mack Reynolds





[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy October 1952 Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]




As Earth's Champion, Jak had challenged the Invaders to a duel in the Arena. It was a grand bluff, but they called it—with one of their own!




To everyone in the Solar System I was a big shot, understand? Everyone but two⁠—the two that counted most. One of the two was Suzi, and the other was me. The difference was that Suzi made no bones about telling me I was a fake; in my own mind the knowledge was there but more or less subconscious.

On this particular occasion Suzi was standing in the center of the half acre living room of my new penthouse on top the two hundred story Spacenter Building in Neuve Los Angeles. She had her hands on her hips and was glaring around at the furniture, the pictures, the statuary.

She said bitingly, “Jak, you’re a phony.”

“A what?” I complained. “Listen, Suzi, don’t start calling me those prehistoric names again.”

“A phony,” she said, “a humbug, a four flusher, a quack, a faker.⁠ ⁠…”

She’d finally got to a word I knew. “Hey,” I protested, “what’s this all about?”

She indicated the portraits of me hanging on the wall. She pointed out the statuettes. She picked up a magazine and showed me the ad on the back page⁠—me, endorsing a boomerang. I’d got a thousand credits for that.

She went over to the bookcase and pulled out a copy of How I Became Champ and the first volume of Gladiator Technique. Both by me. That is, ghost written for me; but my name was on the cover. She indicated two or three other books I was cashing in on.

“You’re a phony, Jak,” she repeated. “You used to be a nice quiet fellow, actually more shy and retiring than was good for you. Now your head is swollen beyond bearing.”

I was getting a little hot about this. For the past few months I’d been acquiring the habit of having people look up to me, admiring me, asking for my autograph, that sort of thing.

“Look here,” I said. “Just because you’ve known me for years and just because for most of that time I’ve been chasing you, doesn’t mean that the Gladiator Champion of the Solar System is a nobody.” I finished with what I thought would be the clincher. “Let me tell you, there isn’t one girl in a billion who wouldn’t be glad to be in your shoes⁠—engaged to Jak Dempsi.”

* * * * *

It was the clincher all right. She took her hands from her hips and folded them over her breasts and glared. “Oh yes there is,” she told me. “There’s exactly one girl who isn’t interested in being engaged to you Gladiator Jak Dempsi. Me,” she snapped.

I glared back at her. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “We’re going to be married the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” she snapped again. “I became engaged to a nice, quiet, thoughtful, second-rate gladiator. A mistake happened and he wound up Solar System Champion⁠—and a stuffed shirt. The engagement is off.”

“Second-rate gladiator.⁠ ⁠…” I blurted indignantly, but she was already on her way, stamping across the Venusian Chameleon rug to the door.

I was so surprised I stood there, letting her go. It took me a full minute to understand that Suzi had just run out on me. Me! The victor at the Interplanetary Meet. The sole survivor of the scores of gladiators who fought it out once every ten years to see which planet of the System would dominate interplanetary affairs.

I went over to the bookcase and wrenched out one of the many books on prehistoric times that Suzi was always insisting I read. That’s Suzi’s bug, if you didn’t know. Prehistoric times, customs, history, language, legends⁠—all of a period that most people don’t even know ever existed, and don’t care.

The book was Glossary of Ancient Terminology. I thumbed through it and finally found my words.

“Stuffed shirt!” I yelped indignantly. “A stuffed shirt! Me?”

* * * * *

Ten minutes later I was in the Gladiator Room of the Spacenter Building and already had three or four slugs of woji under my belt.

“A stuffed shirt, yet. Me! Solar System Champ.” I grunted sarcastically and made with a curt flip of my hand to the bartender. He was a Venusian spiderman, who of course, make the best barkeeps in the System.

“Another woji,” I ordered.

A guy drifted down to me from the other end of the bar. “Hanging one on, Champ?” he asked. “You must be out of training.”

I looked him up and down. I’d never seen him before. However, in my position you have to be nice to the fans.

I said, “Woji doesn’t bother me. I train on it.” Suzi’s words were still burning. I added, out of the side of my mouth, “If you really got it, you got it, and if you haven’t you haven’t and all the training in the world won’t give it to you.”

I flexed my muscles. “Woji isn’t going to hurt a man like me.”

He blinked in admiration. “Guess you’re right at that, Champ,” he said. “It’s the second-raters that have to be watching everything they eat, everything they drink, everything they do.”

“Right,” I told him, condescendingly.

He climbed up on the stool next to me.

“Have a woji?” I asked him. I was glad to have his company; at least it’d keep my mind off Suzi.

“No thanks,” he said, shuddering. “But I wouldn’t mind a bloor.”

So I ordered him a bloor and another double woji for me.

My new friend said hesitantly, “Champ, what’d ’ya think of these visitors, explorers, or whatever you want to call them, from Centaurus?”

How is it that when you become a celebrity⁠—no matter in what field⁠—your opinions on every subject seem noteworthy to everybody else? I’d read a little about the Centaurians, seen an item or two on the viziscreen, but I didn’t know anything about them worth mentioning. I was too busy with my own rapidly developing affairs to spend much time keeping up with Solar System news.

“What about them?” I asked, noticing that my tongue was at last beginning to get a bit thick. I ordered another drink. The bartender started to protest, but then shrugged six of his shoulders and began mixing it.

“Didn’t you hear the latest?” the guy asked. “They’re looking for room for colonization and the Solar System attracts them.”

It was shortly after this that the fog rolled in, and it didn’t roll out again until the following morning when my manager gave me a dealcoholizer.

* * * * *

He was hopping mad. And when I say hopping mad I mean just that since Mari Nown, my manager, is a chicken-headed Mercurian Bouncer. A nationalized citizen of Terra, of course, but a Mercurian with all their characteristic excitability.

When my head cleared, he was jumping up and down in front of me and waving a sheet of newspaper he’d torn off the recorder on the viziscreen.

“Simmer down,” I told him. “My head still aches, and besides, I can’t understand what you’re yelling about.” I added nastily, “In fact, I can’t understand how anything could happen that you’d yell about. All you do is sit around and let ten percent of everything I make roll into your pockets. You’re probably the richest gladiator manager in the system and⁠—”

He stopped hopping long enough to fix me with a beady eye. Finally he became coherent. “And that’s exactly what I want to remain!” he shrilled. “You stupid makron, what’re you trying to do, get yourself killed?” He waved the news sheet again.

I began to catch on to the fact that I must have done something the day before while under the influence of⁠—ugh, I couldn’t even think of the word without my stomach churning.

“All right,” I said. “What is it? I don’t remember.”

He was prancing again. “You don’t remember! I’ll say you don’t remember! If you did, you’d be hiding under the bed.”

That got to me. I raised up indignantly. “Hiding under the bed? Me? I don’t have to hide from anything. I’m champ!”

“That’s pronounced chump,” he whistled nastily. He tossed me the news sheet.

The headline read: Interplanetary Champ says issues between Solar System and Centaurus should be settled in the arena.

“Did I say that?” I said interestedly. “When?”

He was almost hopping again. “To that cub reporter in the Gladiator Room, you stupid makron!”

“Don’t swear at me,” I growled. “I didn’t know he was a reporter. Besides, what’re you so excited about? Maybe it’d be a good idea.”

“Look at that next head,” he shrilled.

It read: Centaurians accept challenge of Jak Dempsi.

“Hey,” I said, “that ought to be quite a fight. Who do you think we’ll have representing the Solar System? A Slaber from Jupiter would be a good bet. He⁠—”

There he went again. He screamed, “Of course! Of course, a Slaber would be best, but you’re the champion! A stupid idiot⁠—but champion!

* * * * *

I gaped at that, then let my eyes go down to the news account. He was right. As champion, I was scheduled to meet the Centaurian gladiator. On the outcome would depend the fate of the System.

“Well,” I said slowly. “Guess it makes sense at that. I am the best gladiator in the System.”

He closed his little bird eyes in anguish.

I added, “As a matter of fact, I could use the exercise. I haven’t had a meet in months.” I eyed him accusingly. “What kind of a manager are you? Here I am, Solar System Champ and you haven’t got me a fight since I won the Interplanetary Meet. The biggest drawing card in⁠—”

He’d got to the point where he was so mad he wasn’t hopping any more. Just breathing real deep.

He said, “The reason you haven’t had any meets since you became champ is because I’d rather have a live champ making a good living endorsing Callipso Snak-goat Cheese⁠—and me getting ten percent⁠—than I would have a dead champ.”

“What’d’ya mean?” I scoffed. “Nobody gets killed in an exhibition match.” I flexed my muscles. “Besides, I can take care of myself up against any earth-side gladiator after⁠—”

He glowered at me. “Anybody who killed the champ, by accident or otherwise, in an exhibition match, would have a nice reputation for himself. You might go into the arena with the idea of not killing your opponent, but would he?”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “I can take care of myself⁠—”

“Look,” he shrilled, “let’s go back over a little recent arena history. Less than a year ago you were a second-rater fighting at the state fairs. You went to Mars to watch the Interplanetary Meet which is held once every decade to decide interplanetary affairs. The ship carrying Terra’s gladiators was lost in space and you were tossed in as an emergency replacement.”

“Sure,” I said. “The first time a Terran ever won an Interplanetary Meet.”

He whistled disgustedly, “The first time a Terran ever lasted more than five minutes.”

“Well?” I said proudly.

He pointed a few fingers at me. “By a fluke! By using a lot of ideas you got from that quotation spouting girl friend of yours, you won by a fluke! Among other things, you played possum, as you called it, under a heap of corpses until all the others were either killed or wounded and then got up and finished them off. The fans throughout the system are still screaming about that.”

“Well, I’m still champ,” I said truculently. “I licked them once, and.⁠ ⁠…”

“Aw, shut up,” he shrilled. He whirled about and started for the door. “I’ll see what I can do.”

* * * * *

I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I shrugged and rang for my breakfast. The twinge of conscience I felt inside, I manfully suppressed. I suppose that I really knew he was right, but I’d been getting a good deal of ego-boo the past months and it was hard⁠—almost impossible, in fact⁠—not to listen to it.

By noon the dealcoholizer had completed its work and I felt more or less normal. I suppose I should have been worrying about the bout with the Centaurian, but I wasn’t. Not particularly. I was worrying about Suzi.

Suzi worked for a chain of publications as a female sports reporter covering the gladiator meets from the woman’s angle. What she wanted to do was write books about primitive culture, and for years that had been the barrier between us. She couldn’t stand the fact that I wasn’t particularly interested in the ancients and spent half the time we had together in trying to fill me with the lore she thought the big interest in life. She’d even given me my professional name, explaining that the original Jak Dempsi was one of the outstanding gladiators in ancient times.

At any rate, I knew where she usually had her lunch and made my way there, hoping to be able to patch things up. She’d promised to marry me, after I’d won the championship for Earth, and if there was anything I could do about it, I was going to see her hold to the engagement.

The Interplanetary Viziscreen Service, the I.V.S., occupies a building in Neuve Los Angeles nearly as large as Spacenter. Almost all of the I.V.S. people eat in the Auto Café, and it was there I made my way.

Soft music was playing as I entered and looked over the three acre expanse of tables. Of course, I didn’t have to check them all⁠—Suzi always sat in the sport section with perhaps a few hundred others.

The soft pleasant dining music cut off abruptly and the autorch started blaring out an earsplitting tune that brought back enough of my headache to make me grimace.

Several thousand heads came up and looked toward the entrance where I stood. A movement started somewhere or other and before you knew it, everybody in the place was standing on his feet and slapping his hands like crazy.

Everybody but two.

I could spot them now. Suzi and Alger Wilde were sitting at a table in the sport section. I made my way toward them.

* * * * *

Alger Wilde, I might as well explain here, is a makron from the word glorm, if you’ll pardon my language. He’s been trying, in his smirking way, to get in with Suzi for almost as many years as I have, and until I won the championship was doing at least as well as I. His strong point was the fact that he was even further around the corner in regard to the ancients than was Suzi. They could sit and talk for hours about the primitive comic books and other cultural matters that the average person had no interest in whatsoever.

I still didn’t know what all the clapping was about, and I still didn’t like the raucous music, but I ignored it all and made my way toward their table, rehearsing to myself what I was going to say to Suzi.

When I got nearer, the two of them, self-consciously, also came to their feet and both made with feeble applause to the extent of clapping their hands together once or twice.

I said, “What goes on here?”

We all sat down⁠—with me congratulating myself that Suzi didn’t object⁠—and Suzi, her eyes shining, gushed, “Oh Jak, isn’t it wonderful?”

I said, “I guess so. What?” I looked around the room in irritation. “What’s all the noise about? I can hardly hear ourselves talk.”

Alger Wilde said stiffly, “It’s the new anthem, ‘The Solar System Forever.’ Very patriotic. It was just completed by a staff of more than three hundred of the System’s outstanding musicians. I understand that it’s being played on every viziscreen on nine planets and twenty satellites. On order of the governments of all Solar System League members, the musicians rushed it through.”

“It sounds like it,” I growled. At least everybody had sat down again and were eating their lunch.

The stars were still in Suzi’s eyes. She said softly, “It’s dedicated to you, Jak.”

“Huh?”

Alger Wilde bit out, “Why’d you think everybody was clapping? You’re the hero of the System.” He added, barely audibly, “They know not what they do.”

It was beginning to dawn on me. My mind had been so full of Suzi that I’d almost forgotten about the Centaurian fight.

Suzi cast her eyes down to the table and said softly, “I’m sorry about yesterday, Jak. When I heard about your heroic challenge I realized how wrong I was.”

I scowled and said, “I didn’t exactly challenge them, just suggested that the whole thing ought to be settled in the arena. Maybe a Slaber or a Saturnian gladiator, or⁠—”

Alger said, satisfaction oozing, “But you’re the Champ, Jak.”

And Suzi gushed, “So you’ll certainly have the honor. Oh, Jak, our engagement will have to be postponed until after the fight.”

* * * * *

There was a gleam in Wilde’s eye. He said, “And after the fight the marriage can take place. Only the brave deserve the fair, and; to the victor belongs the spoils, as the ancients used to say.”

I knew what he was thinking. If I was killed in the arena, he’d be back in the running for Suzi. I growled, “What the kert do you mean by that, Wilde?”

Suzi placed her hands over her ears. “Please, Jak, your language.”

Alger Wilde said indignantly, “Yes, what the hell is the idea talking that way before Suzi?”

I said disgustedly, “I’ll be a makron”⁠—she covered her ears there, too⁠—“if I understand how you two figure. I say kert and you’re shocked. Five seconds later Wilde says hell, an ancient word meaning practically the same thing, and it’s all right.”

Wilde said indignantly, “It’s an entirely different matter. Hell is now a scholarly word, and quite acceptable. Of course, in ancient times it wasn’t and when a cultivated person wished to use a strong expletive he said Hades, which was still a more ancient word meaning the same thing. Using the scholarly expression made it all right.”

“I give up,” I said and turned to Suzi. “Let’s get out of here. I want to talk to you.”

She said demurely, “Yes, dear.”

I grunted a goodbye to Wilde and arose. There was applause again and the autorch started blaring “The Solar System Forever” as we left.

“You could get awfully tired of music like that,” I said.

Suzi said, “Not me, Jak.”

The usually crowded street outside the I.V.S. Building was curiously empty, but I didn’t pay much attention. I was trying to figure out some way of talking Suzi into marrying me before the fight, so it was several minutes before I noticed what was out of whack.

A hundred yards before us, a hundred yards behind us, and across the street, were several scores of white uniformed officers, Solar League police, clearing the pedestrians, and even vehicular traffic from our way.

I started to say, “What goes on here any⁠—”

But Suzi looked at me soulfully and said, “Your guard of honor, Jak. There’s been some talk that the Centaurians might try to get at you before the meet.”

To quote one of Suzi’s favorite primitive exclamations, Oh, Brother.

“Look,” I said. “I can’t talk to you in front of all this. I feel like a parade. Let’s go into a theatre, take a box and have this out.”

Suzi wasn’t disagreeing with anything today.

* * * * *

We entered the theatre and made our way as quietly as possible toward a soundproof box where we could be alone.

Suddenly, the three dimensional figures on the stage faded, the lights went on and the autorch started blaring that confounded tune again. Everyone in the theatre turned, spotted us and arose and began whistling and clapping.

I winced, but Suzi seemed to be in her glory. I hurried her along and we entered the enclosed box where at least we couldn’t hear them after I’d turned off the sound device.

Finally, the lights went out again. Instead of resuming the play, however, we had a flash of the face of the President of Terra. He spoke very seriously, very earnestly⁠—and I had to sit through it after Suzi had switched on the sound again. He pointed out at some length that we all must maintain faith and calm and hold in our hearts the image of the champion of the Solar System, our own Terran Gladiator, Jak Dempsi.

The President’s face faded and was replaced with a still of mine.

The audience rose to a man, faced our box and applauded like crazy. I had a sneaking suspicion that the show wasn’t going to go on as long as Suzi and I were there.

I said, “Let’s get out of here before that autorch⁠—” but I was too late. It started blaring “The Solar System Forever” before we reached the door. Everybody was singing too, which made it worse. I hadn’t known before that it had words.

Otherwise, it was a successful evening. Particularly after I convinced the Solar System League officers that there was no need for around a dozen of them to be stationed in my apartment. I told them that they could patrol the corridors, my roof, and the street outside to their hearts’ content, but my apartment was out. The officer in charge took another look at Suzi and evidently decided I was probably right⁠—there are things more important than personal safety.

The rest of the evening was spent by Suzi proving that she still loved me. She offered some excellent evidence. Anyway, it satisfied me.⁠ ⁠…

* * * * *

I was awakened again the next morning by Mari Nown who, as he had the morning before, was waving a sheet of newspaper before my eyes. This could grow into a very unpleasant habit.

But at least he wasn’t hopping this time. In fact, he seemed quite pleased with himself.

I turned over on my other side and growled, “Go away, I was having a beautiful dream about Suzi.”

He whistled happily, “I’ve done it for you, Jak. Everything’ll be fine now.”

“That’s good,” I began sleepily, but then I sat upright in bed, with quick suspicion. “You’ve done what?” I grabbed the newspaper from his hand. It read, “Champ’s Manager reveals he has Venusian Elephantiasis.”

I stared at it and then at him. “What in kert is Venusian Elephantiasis, and where’d you get the idea I have it?”

He shrilled proudly, “I had to do a lot of research. It’s one of the few diseases left in the system that’s incurable. So rare, for one thing.”

I was still half asleep. I shook my head.

He said, “Don’t you get it? You won’t have to fight now. You can retire from the arena, as undefeated champ, and make a top notch living for the rest of your life endorsing⁠—”

I jumped out of the bed and dashed to the telo, but even before I could reach it it glowed on and Suzi’s face, cold as a winter day on Pluto, was there.

Her eyes seemed to focus about three feet beyond my head and she said, “Jak Dempsi, you’re a phony. A cheap, petty, cowardly phony. Venusian Elephantiasis, indeed!” Her voice dripped scorn. “I never want to hear from you again.”

“Suzi, wait a minute. I can explain,” I yelled. “My manager⁠—” But the screen had died.

I spun on him, but he wasn’t at the side of the bed where I’d seen him last. Instead he was over at the Viziscreen, the glee gone from his chicken-like face, and anxiety beginning to become evident.

He shrilled, “They can’t do this to me. We’re being robbed!”

* * * * *

I started for him, my fingers stretched out like claws. Here was one Mercurian Bouncer who was going to have his neck wrung, like the fowl he resembled.

Something in his attitude stopped me. I came up beside him and growled, “What now, you makron?”

He pointed at the news sheet which had recorded the item.

“Forty-three thousand Solar System scientists working on cure for Venusian Elephantiasis.”

He shrilled despairingly, “They’ll have you cured in days.”

I snorted, “Especially since I haven’t got it in the first place. Listen, what gave you the idea I wanted to get out of this fight, anyway? I’m not afraid⁠—”

He started hopping at that. “You’re not afraid! You’re too stupid, too conceited to be afraid. I’m afraid, understand? I’m your manager; I know how good a gladiator you are, and I’m afraid. I’m afraid first that you’ll get killed and I’ll lose the best thing I’ve ever had, but even more than that I’m afraid that this Solar System isn’t going to be fit to live in after you lose this fight and the Centaurians take over.”

I growled truculently, “I can whip anybody in the Solar System and I can whip⁠—”

He flung two of his wing-arms up in despair. “We have Slabers, we have fast moving Spidermen, we have four armed Martians; but who do we get to represent us in the most important gladiatorial fight in history? A second-rate, inflated, balloon headed⁠—”

“Hey.⁠ ⁠…” I protested indignantly.

But he’d stopped of his own accord and clicked his heels in the Mercurian version of snapping of fingers in sudden inspiration.

“Look,” he whistled. “If they can put forty-three thousand scientists to work figuring out a way to cure a disease they think you have, why can’t they put ten times that number⁠—a thousand times⁠—to work on some new weapons you can use against this Centaurian makron?”

I scowled at him, not getting it. “You know better than that. In the arena the only weapons allowed are primitive ones, swords, spears, battle axes, boomerangs⁠—”

“Yes, yes,” he shrilled excitedly, beginning to hop again. “But this is different. They⁠—the Centaurians⁠—don’t know that.” He clicked his heels together again. “It’s the solution! We’ll devise, in the next month, some sure thing weapon. You can’t lose!”

But I was worried more about Suzi than about the fight. I growled at him, “I don’t need anything but my short sword. All I want to be sure about is that I’m in that fight, see? If I’m not I’ll never see⁠—”

But he was already darting for the door.

* * * * *

Well, within the week the scientists had “cured” me of the disease that Mari Nown had dreamed up. I was scheduled for the fight again.

But no word from Suzi. And no way of getting in touch with her. I tried everything, but Suzi just wasn’t having any of me.

We started my training, and it became more or less of an Earth-wide secret that the scientists were fixing me up with some secret weapons which would guarantee the victory. Most of the sportswriters who came to the training camp were tight lipped and disapproving about it⁠—not quite playing the game, you know⁠—but the governmental big shots who were trembling in their boots over the Centaurian threat, made it clear that anything was going to go to insure Solar System victory. So the reporters didn’t print the stories they might have.

Except for Suzi.

Evidently the word got back to her about the weapons I was learning to use, and she let loose at me in her column. Nothing that the Centaurians would understand, of course, but the digs were there. She made it pretty clear that Jak Dempsi was a phony and that only with the use of unsportsmanlike weapons would he consent to go into the arena at all.

She had some nasty comebacks, because sentiment was running pretty high throughout the League planets, and anybody saying a word against the Champ was apt to find himself mobbed. They were frightened, understand? The whole Solar System was frightened, and they couldn’t bear the thought that I was less than their saviour.

But Suzi kept it up. She was the only sports reporter in the system who dared point out what they were all probably feeling.

The great trouble in the training was that we hadn’t the vaguest idea of what the Centaurians looked like. Their tremendous ship, several times the size of the greatest of ours, hovered motionlessly over Krishna-Krishna, the Venusian capitol city, but thus far not one of them had been spotted. They communicated with us, blank-screened, and we had nothing to go on to decide whether or not they were humanoid, or even if they were air breathers, although the latter would seem likely if they wished to colonize the Solar System since all our life forms are based on oxygen.

The only thing was to provide me with several weapons, one each for the various different types of creature our Centaurians might be. In fact, it was only by dint of argument that I was allowed to take my short sword with me into the arena when the day finally arrived. The managers who’d had my training in hand wanted to use the space and weight the sword would take up to carry another half dozen atomic grenades.

I growled at them. “Listen, if these grenades are going to work⁠—and how the kert they could possibly fail to work, I don’t know⁠—one of them will do the job. I’ll take my sword along if only for a good luck charm; I’ve never been in an arena without it yet.”

And I added sarcastically, “This is going to be some fight, this is. I feel like a murderer.”

I kept the sword.

* * * * *

Needless to say, the amphitheatre was packed. Tens of thousands must have pauperized themselves for fare to Venus and for the highly priced seats. But whatever the cost, the stands were packed beyond belief. And, of course, throughout the system every man, woman and child, every brim, mador and loet, every⁠—but you get the idea. Every intelligent living thing in the Solar System was glued to his viziscreen.

And above the arena floated the Centaurian ship, silent, sinister.

There were no preliminaries. That would have been too much.

Instead, when the moment of conflict arrived, I came out into the arena⁠—staggered, might have been the better word. I had a burden of weapons that was just about all I could carry.

When the stands first saw me enter, they came to their feet and began a cheer that should have echoed and reechoed⁠—but didn’t. It died almost before it began. When they saw my equipment, the cheer faltered, then died in shame.

They realized, those citizens from all over the Solar System, what was happening. The stakes were too high. The Solar System was trading honor for security. Instead of being armed with the traditional sword or spear, battleaxe or boomerang, I was laden with the most deadly devices our scientists could develop.

As I said, the cheers died almost before they began.

Maybe I flushed a little. I don’t know. But I tightened my jaw. At least they didn’t boo. Everyone in the stands knew the issue; however he writhed in shame there must be no indication to the Centaurians that we weren’t playing the game, that we weren’t living up to our own rules.

I stood, my back to the judge’s stand, and waited. To the left was the sports box, and I could make out Suzi, even at that distance. Her face was expressionless.

A great helicopter suddenly and deftly detached itself from the Centaurian ship and gracefully swooped down. It was beautifully handled, settling to the opposite side of the arena as gently as a butterfly.

A large door in its side opened, the Centaurian emerged, and a gasp from the stands went up; a gasp louder than the cheer that had originally greeted me.

Of all Solar System intelligent life forms, Jupiter’s Slaber is by far the largest, and, for that reason, that and its natural armor shell, Jupiter had been winning the Interplanetary Meets two out of three times for centuries.

But this hulking brute made the Slaber seem a babe in arms. It resembled somewhat a six legged turtle, roughly twice the size of a Terran elephant. It had two lobster-like claws and four other limbs.

* * * * *

Evidently, it had decided to end the battle as quickly as possible, because without either salute or warning it headed for me, the dust churning up behind it as it came. Its legs were short but fantastically fast. They seemed a blur of speed and before I had got over the surprise of its appearance it was half way across the arena toward me.

A shout, almost a moan, of warning went up from the stands, and suddenly those citizens of the Solar System were no longer ashamed of the weapons I carried, no longer contemptuous of my honor.

I grasped my atomic grenade from its hook on my belt, dropped the projectile thrower to the ground to give my arm free play, and threw.

Half the total acreage of the arena went up in a gust of dirt, dust, gravel and colored smoke. Seconds later I had been thrown prostrate by the blast. Probably half the amphitheatre’s occupants had been similarly treated, and how many blast casualties might have been among them, I couldn’t know.

But at least, I thought, the fight was over and I’d done the Solar League’s dirty work for it. I’d never be able to hold up my head again in a circle of gladiators, but the System was safe.

I came to my feet and turned to go.

A shout, incredulous, unbelieving, arose from the stands, drowning out the cries of those wounded by the blast of my grenade.

I spun and stared.

Crawling laboriously over the lip of the crater my grenade had caused was the Centaurian. One of his many limbs seemed limp and useless, and his shell was battered and begrimed, but he was still alive, and not too much the worse for wear.

When it got to level ground again it seemed to pause momentarily, seeking me out.

I grabbed up the heavy submachine gat⁠—as Suzi tells me they called them in the old days⁠—and threw it to my shoulder. The projectiles it threw were only half an inch in diameter but each of them packed a charge of atomic explosive.

* * * * *

I trained it and held the trigger down. The two hundred round drum was exhausted in less than a half minute, and the sound of the projectiles exploding against the shell of my foe was ear shocking in intensity. Once again, a cloud of smoke and dust enveloped the Centaurian. And only after the last cartridge had been expended and the submachine gat now useless, was the sigh of relief that went up over the stands audible.

But through the smoke, of a sudden, charged the six legged Centaurian and my eyes almost bugged out of their sockets. He was seemingly not further injured.

I dodged quickly to one side, stumbling over the gat I’d thrown away, thinking the fight over, and it uselessly empty. It was only the stumbling that saved me. I rolled to the side and it was past me and spinning about for another attack.

The Centaurian growled in a thunderous voice, “And now the fight begins, Terran makron.” Its bulk evidently was no indication of a lack of intelligence. It had already not only learned to speak Amer-English, but could swear in our language.

I had one more major weapon in my deadly arsenal. I whipped the blunderbuss-nosed, pistol-like device from my belt and trained it. Even though shielded with my especially designed ear plugs, the subsonic sounds flowed over me, enveloped me, terrified me. What it was doing to the enemy I could only guess.

Shaking my head in an attempt to clear it of the desperate, soul shaking fears brought on by the subsonic vibrator, I stared in the direction of the Centaurian.

He seemed to be watching me, questioningly. And suddenly I understood that he was waiting for the weapon to work! He wanted to see what it was going to do.

It wasn’t doing anything!

A quarter of a mile away, on the other side of the amphitheatre, and supposedly out of range, spectators were fainting in droves, literally thousands of them screaming or keeling over. But a few yards before me he stood unimpressed.

I swore and threw the thing down, ripped off the rest of the belts and equipment they’d foisted upon me and reached for my sword.

It dashed forward, extending a tentacle from its body that formerly I’d been unaware of. I swung desperately and the sword clanged against the limb. I darted backward, noticing a large dent in the cutting edge.

Like a flash one of the lobster claws snapped out at me, nipping a cut in my left side, just below the ribs. Had it been another six inches over, I would have been cut in half.

* * * * *

I dashed to one side and it rushed past, stirring up a breeze as it went. How such a large creature could get up momentum so rapidly was a mystery to me.

I grated out one of Suzi’s slogans to give myself courage. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And then it came to me that the trouble was that if they’re big enough perhaps they don’t get around to falling at all.

It was about and after me again.

I stood in its path, sword in hand, waiting. A massive groan went up from the stands.

Just before it reached me, I darted forward, crouched low, and dashed under its belly. Here, if anywhere, was the soft spot. As I ran, I thrust desperately upward with all my strength, then I was suddenly completely under and beyond it.

I spun around and stood there panting and staring at the end of my broken pointed sword.

It turned too, as though looking to find my trampled body, and surprised that I’d survived. It was about thirty feet away, and seemingly resting.

Suddenly from its mouth gushed forth a stream of flame, reaching out for me.

It was only by the merest chance that my grenade-made crater was immediately behind me. I tripped again and fell backward, and the sheet of flame passed over me.

A sigh went up from the stands.

Suddenly, over the ridge it came tearing. Hoping, evidently, to catch me before I recovered from my fall.

It had miscalculated and passed a good six feet to my right. I sprung to my feet and dashed over in time to deal its tail a smashing blow⁠—and to accumulate another dent in my blade.

At this pace, my strength was rapidly giving out, and his seemed as great as ever⁠—but I was still quicker in that my size and build enabled me to turn, spin, dodge, more effectively.

He tried twice more to get me with his flaming breath, and both times I was able to avoid it by inches. Or nearly so, at least. I kept my life, though hair and clothes were singed.

* * * * *

I had worked my way, involuntarily toward the press boxes, and took time to shoot up a desperate glance in Suzi’s direction. Her face had lost its coldness now; her lips were parted in fear.

Almost, I was able to smile. Suzi knew the signs⁠—as did all the rest of the reporters⁠—she’d seen too many meets not to know when a gladiator was using his last iota of strength and was on the verge of collapse. She knew⁠—possibly even better than I⁠—how long I could keep up this pace. And then⁠—

Seeing her, recalled her way of finding a slogan, a quotation of the ancients, for almost every situation that arose.

And in the recalling one came to me!

Meet fire with fire.

The Centaurian was emerging from the crater where its most recent charge had taken it. I ran with what speed I could muster to the Judges’ stand and grasped one of the sacred Venusian torches that flanked the Judges’ bench. I turned then and sped toward the enemy in hopes of getting him as he climbed over the crater edge.

He saw me coming and tried ineffectively to scorch me with his flaming breath, but he was either growing weak, or had utilized all the fuel his body produced for the effort. The flame leaped out a mere six or eight feet.

Holding the torch in hand, I dashed straight at him. As I had hoped, one of the lobster claws darted at me. I leaped nimbly to one side, bounced up upon the claw and scampered up it toward the four glaring eyes. I thrust the torch out and into them, hearing as though from a great distance, the cheer of victory that went up from the stands.

Then sliding, falling, tumbling, I was on the ground again and hurrying as fast as possible from what I expected to be the painful, blinded throes of the thing.

I turned and stared. It stood there, watching me. Showing no signs of distress.

It rumbled, finally, angrily, “You can’t fool me all of the time, Terran. Soon you will tire, then I will get you⁠—”

Suzi’s books came back to me again. What was it I was trying to remember? I stood there panting, realizing the ridiculousness of standing exhausted in the middle of the arena and remembering odds and ends that Suzi had told me about the ancients.

And then, just as the Centaurian headed for me again, it clicked.

A silence had settled down over the crowd. Arena wise, through years of watching gladiatorial events, they knew my knees were sagging, my reflexes slowed, my muscles screaming protest.

I stood there, sword in hand, directly in its path⁠—waiting. It had said, “You can’t fool me all of the time, Terran.”

And that’s what had clicked.

You can fool some of the people some of the time.⁠ ⁠…

* * * * *

Praying that I had strength enough left for this, I waited until it was nearly upon me, its lobster claws out-thrust, its six heavy feet pounding. Then I jumped, to one side, back again. I bounded high to the knee joint of the second limb on the left, as the Centaurian skidded to a halt. A second scrambling leap and I was on its back. Half on my feet, half on my hands, I scampered forward toward its head, even as several tentacles made their way gropingly toward me.

No, I wasn’t looking for a soft spot for my now dull sword. I knew there wouldn’t be any.

The tentacles were reaching, almost touching me, but I ignored them. I found the tiny door right behind its massive head. I was right! I found the lock and sprung it.

The door swung open and inside the tiny, leaded shielded compartment the little creature occupying it looked up at me fearfully.

I grasped it by the scruff of the neck and hoisted it out of its seat. The “Centaurian Gladiator” had stopped completely now.

I dropped to the ground and tossed the thing before me. It was about the size of, and looked considerably like a small Terran pig. It was pink, fat, and, as Suzi said later, cute. Right now I didn’t appreciate its cuteness.

“Please,” it squealed, “don’t touch me. I can’t bear being hurt!”

I kicked it where its hams would have been had it really been a pig. It squealed again and started out, hampered in its speed by its fat, running across the arena with me after it, giving it kert with the toe of my boot.

It dashed for the helicopter and I gave it one last kick as it scampered for the craft’s door so that it flew the last four feet. In the background I could hear the crowd roaring like thunder.

In seconds, the helicopter had taken off and returned to the spaceship above. It was swallowed up and the Centaurian ship blasted off and away. Evidently, it wasn’t waiting to see what the Solar System fleet would do when the farce was made known.

I turned, and for a moment stared at the robot the Centaurian had occupied. Then my injuries and fatigue caught up with me. The fog rolled in and I slumped to the arena sands.

* * * * *

I explained later in the hospital room to the diplomats, the I.V.S. reporters, and the others. And I made the explanation as short as possible.

In the first place, how could a thing that big and awkward have handled the helicopter so gracefully? How could any organic creature survive the explosion of an atomic grenade? How could it breath fire? How could it stand a burning torch being thrust into its eyes?

But it was the quotation that had brought it all home to me. I suddenly realized I was being fooled⁠—and another of Suzi’s quotations came to mind. This is a horse of another color. Then it clicked in its entirety.

The Trojan Horse, I had thought, something is inside. It’s a robot, a mechanical fighting machine, like the tanks of old.

Suddenly the diplomats and the reporters were gone and Suzi was there, the star dust in her eyes again.

Before she could speak, I told her, humbly, “You were right, Suzi, I am a phony. I’m no champ. I was scared to death out there, when I found that all the super-weapons they’d made for me were⁠—”

“But, darling, you won!” She knelt beside the bed, but I turned my head away.

“Won,” I said bitterly. “Sure, by a fluke again. I won against a little half pint that could have been defeated by a child.” I snorted in self-deprecation. “I wonder what the crowd out there is thinking. I enter the arena with enough weapons to depopulate a small planet, and it takes me half an hour to find out it’s all a hoax.”

She remained kneeling there, but it was another voice that said, “The crowd doesn’t see it that way, Jak.” It was Alger Wilde, who had entered with my manager.

“Of course not,” Suzi insisted. “You didn’t know what you were against, but you were in there all the time, taking on something worse than any gladiator in the System.⁠—You proved yourself, Jak.”

Alger went to the window and opened it. “Listen to this,” he said grudgingly. From the distance I could hear the arena crowd singing “The Solar System Forever.”

Even Mari Nown was happy. It seemed as though the judges unanimously voted to make me Interplanetary Champ for the rest of my life. The situation was obvious. Terra couldn’t afford to let anything happen to me now. As soon as I died, the next Interplanetary Meet would result in a new champ and a new change in the balance of power. Terra wouldn’t allow me to fight⁠—not even in exhibitions.

Mari Nown’s chicken head beamed as he bounced back and forth on his heels. “You’re going to live to a ripe old age,” he shrilled happily, “and the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do is sign endorsements for Venusian Salt Water Taffy.” He added, more happily still, “And I’ll get ten percent of everything you make.”

“Everything but Suzi,” I told him, sticking out an arm to encircle her.

Alger Wilde frowned. “You know, Jak,” he grunted, “I think you’re right about that music. ‘The Solar System Forever’ is a raucous thing.”

It was welling, ever louder, through the window.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said as soon as I took my lips from Suzi’s. “I’m beginning to like it.”

END