Suddenly he was vaguely frightened, and cast around for a chance to leave again.
But the customers were coming thick and fast now, and he was unwilling to push against the flow. Besides, there was a camera coasting his way. It rode a jointed metal arm, like a mantis’s foreleg, dangling from a miniature electric trolley on a rail under the roof. Its dual eye, faceted, seemed to be focusing on him. He was even more reluctant to attract attention by leaving than he was to stay and watch the show.
He folded his arms close around his body as though to stop himself from shivering.
It would only be an hour, he consoled himself.
The introductory acts he was more or less able to disregard though some nausea gathered in a bubble at the base of his gullet during the second item: imported from Iraq, one genuine snake-eater, an ugly man with a bulging forehead hinting at hydrocephalic idiocy who calmly offered his tongue to a snake, let it strike, then drew in his tongue again, bit off its head, chewed and swallowed, then rose shyly grinning to acknowledge the audience’s howls of applause.
Then came a stylized match between gladiators, a nod to the ostensible “Roman” format of the show, which concluded with the retiarius bleeding from a leg wound and the gladiator proper—the man with the sword and shield—strutting around the arena prouder than a turkeycock, having done nothing to speak of.
Dull resentment burgeoned in his mind.
It’s disgusting. Butchered to make a Roman holiday. A cheat from start to finish. Filthy. Horrible. This is where parents learn to raise the kids who get their kicks from tribaling a stranger’s home. This is where they get taught you should remember how you killed your mother. Cut off your father’s balls. Ate the baby to stop mom and dad loving it more than you. Sick. All sick. Crazy sick.
At Tarnover there had been a kind of subcult for circus. Something to do with channeling aggression into socially acceptable paths. The memory was a dun echo.
There was a dreadful confusion inside his head. He was hungry and thirsty and above all miserable.
“And now a short break so our sponsors’ messages can reach the world,” boomed the master of ceremonies over the monstrously loud PA. “Time for me to let you know about a unique feature of our Roman shows. Al Jackson, who’s our champion gladiator, that you saw a minute back…” Pause for a ripple of renewed clapping and shouting.
“Yea-hey! Tough as they come, with family following in his footsteps—y’know his son is warlord of the Blackass tribe?” Pause. This time not filled. As though the speaker had been waiting for a scream and yell from the tribers, who weren’t present.
But he covered the hiatus expertly.
“Al issues a real-time challenge on all these shows—yes, literally a challenge in real time, no fixing, no prearrangement. Want to try your skill against him, take over the net and trident for the final slot? You can, any of you! Just stand up and holler how!” Without intending, he was on his feet.
“He raised the warlord of the Blackass tribe?” He heard his own voice as though it were coming from light-years’ distance.
“Yeah man! A son to be proud of, young Bud Jackson!”
“Then I’m going to take Al to little tiny pieces.” He was leaving his seat, still listening to himself shout at the top of his lungs. “I’m going to make him weep and beg and plead for mercy. I’m going to teach him all the things his son taught me, and I am going to make him howl, and blubber, and plead and moan. And it’s going to go on for a lot longer than this show.” There was a rattle of applause, and the audience sat up and looked eager.
Someone patted him on the shoulder as he passed and wished him luck.
DEFINITION OF TERMS “A classic instance of the death wish.”
“Garbage. I had no least intention of being dead. I’d watched that fat slob. I knew I could dismantle him even though I was weak and excessively angry. Didn’t I prove it? He was seven days in the hospital, you know, and he’ll never walk straight again.”