Programmed for Success, Part 6

A slave’s day left very little time for contemplation. Siobhan found that almost comforting; she wasn’t ready to face her situation. By the time she had been sent to sleep in an alcove behind Proximo’s sleeping quarters, she was exhausted; but she still couldn’t sleep.

Time to face facts. Sid had somehow found a way to transport her to ancient Rome. She was a slave. Maximus was here, a Gladiator once more, and doomed to die in the Arena. He didn’t know her. Was she in his past or had Sid managed to return him as well? Would he find his way to the Point again? And what about her? If she were to escape, did she need to die or merely wait for the story to play itself out? If she inadvertently changed anything, would she change the outcome?

If she ever made it back to the Point alive, she’d reprogram Sid as a goddamned vacuum cleaner. Her head ached.

* * *
In the end, it had taken John, Mannie and Terry to pull Maximus off Sid. East and Cort dragged the bedraggled troublemaker downstairs to the lounge for what Terry was enthusiastically prepared to refer to as a debriefing.

It didn’t take long for Sid to cooperate. His outsized ego couldn’t wait to spill what he saw as his pure genius:

“For a mind like mine, this was a very simple process. I don’t expect you to understand, of course.” Terry’s hand landed on his shoulder, yanking him back into the chair hard. “But I digress. As some of you know, we can return to our previous lives, to the reality that we came from. Sheriff T…John does it when he visits his children. Most of us have chosen not to go back for various reasons…you know, like we’re dead.” He giggled. “If we can go back and forth to our own lives, why can’t we travel to the others? So I looked around, traced the atmospheric signs that occur here in conjunction with our appearances at the Point. I was able to isolate an area that could be opened at will, using high frequencies. Once I got it to work, I experimented until I found the right frequency for all sorts of interesting places. That’s why I built the lab where I did, so I could have a private place for the portal.” He was clearly enjoying the attention. “When the General’s little tart got so high-minded with me, I decided to have some fun with her. I waited in here for her to be alone. It was very simple. I changed her into the proper clothing, popped her through the portal and sold her to Proximo as a household slave. Very neat, very tidy and very done.”

Through this entire tale, Maximus had remained motionless and silent, his face hidden in his hands. When he looked up, Sid was in no doubt that he meant to kill him if he got the chance.

“I need to go back.”

“You can’t. She’s in your past. You already exist there,” John shrugged. “Isn’t that right?”

Sid was impressed. “Not bad thinking, but it can be gotten around. I can insert you in your own past.” He didn’t elaborate. “You can’t change anything though. You have to go through everything, knowing what will happen. No saving yourself or Cicero or Haken. If you do, who knows what will happen? You may be trapped there forever.”

“How do I get her back here?”

“She leaves when you leave. She has to be in the Arena when you die.”

“That can’t be true,” Terry interjected. “You got her in, you can get her out the same way you came in.”

Sid smiled; it caused John to shiver. “Try it and see. Do you want to go back or not, Slave?”

“I want to go back. I will meet you in the lab.” He got up and walked out without another word.

“Testy, isn’t he?” Sid quipped.

Mannie had been listening silently, but this was too much. “Mate, you’re lucky he needs you right now or I’d kill you myself. My advice is that you be ready when the General comes down there.”

John silently thanked God that no one but the Brothers were aware of what was going on when he saw Maximus dressed in his blood-stained blue tunic. Terry extended a hand, one soldier to another. “Strength and honor,” he said.

“Strength and honor,” Maximus replied.

Mannie’s handshake turned into a brief and silent embrace as did East’s. Cort said, “Vaya con dios, my friend.”

Sid was uncharacteristically quiet as he programmed the portal from a laptop. “See ya, General,” he quipped as Maximus stepped through the shimmering piece of wall and disappeared.

Siobhan had spent a restless night. Listening to Proximo and Merete having sex fifteen feet away had been repulsive, but not as repulsive as having to participate would have been. She braided her hair and pinned it up with Lia’s help and donned a clean tunic. Proximo liked his personal slaves to be neat. Not to mention female and attractive. She expected she ought to be flattered he bought her.

As she had lay on that pallet in the alcove, she had actually recalled her sale. Sid in a cloak and tunic had pushed her through a shimmering spot in the lab wall. They had emerged somewhere near the Coliseum, but in her drugged haze, she thought it was a dream.

She stepped out onto the open walkway and looked down. It was a beautiful morning, with the promise of heat as the sun rose higher in a clear sky. The unfortunate stench of rotting flesh and unwashed bodies wafted up on a gentle breeze. ‘Mixed blessing that,’ she thought as she sought out Maximus among a crowd of gladiators heading to breakfast. There he was, walking with Juba and Haken. He carried himself like a General, no matter what the situation. A smile of pride played across her lips as she watched.

“Oh you’ve spotted him already,” Lia came up beside her. “Don’t let Marcus catch you watching them, especially the Spaniard. Come on, we need to eat quickly before Proximo starts calling for us.”

Her day seemed simple enough: help prepare and serve meals for Proximo, change his linens, bring his wash water and clean clothing, accompany him to the baths, and remain nearby in case he needed or wanted anything. She could do that. For all his bluster, he was not a deliberately unkind man, unless you were a gladiator. Household slaves were not expected to mix with the gladiators except when they served the Master during practice.

Lia was a font of knowledge. She was quite taken with the sullen Spaniard and regaled Siobhan with stories from Zucchabar. “He’ll win his freedom, you know. The Master says so. I hope he buys me when that happens. He’s so handsome.”

Siobhan suppressed a smile. “He is very attractive.”

“Go see him up close, he’s even better. The Master will want one of us nearby with wine during the practice today. Then we can go to the Games later.”

“We’re allowed?” She wasn’t certain if this was a good idea. “Aren’t they afraid we’d run away?”

“Oh no. Where would we run to with no money and no men to protect us?” She opened a cupboard door and handed a pile of sheets to Siobhan. “Keep clear of Marcus, Hanna. He’s not too happy about yesterday, you know.”

Proximo didn’t question the new slave’s appearance at his elbow. He sat in the shade, fanning himself and watching the gladiators spar with a self-satisfied look on his face. The Spaniard was his ticket back to the Big Time. Already he could afford to buy better slaves. Some 10 pairs of men were fighting in the hot sun.

The new slave seemed to be interested in the Spaniard. She stared a hole through the place where he fought the Nubian with wooden swords. The surly gladiator had nodded in greeting to her as he entered the exercise yard. More attention than he gave the other women. Maybe he should send her to him, Proximo thought. There had to be something he wanted, something to make him easier to deal with.

Siobhan stood transfixed, grateful for the opportunity to watch Maximus. Sid would be furious to know that, she opined silently. This was a side of Maximus that she had only been able to experience through the film. Now if he only knew who she was and remembered that he loved her.

“Wine, girl!” Proximo ordered. She turned to fill his goblet. When she turned back, Maximus was staring at her, his sword by his side. He seemed suddenly unsure of where he was. He began looking all around him and never saw Haken’s shadow until the huge gladiator’s arm smashed into his head. He fell to the ground, stunned.

Siobhan started forward, Proximo’s cup in her hand. The old man reached out and grabbed her wrist as she passed him. He studied her distraught face for a long moment, then released her and said, “Go.” She pushed her way through the ring of gladiators who stood amazed. Juba was trying to help him to sit back up when she knelt on his other side.

“Help him sit so he can drink this,” she ordered. The Nubian obeyed, watching in concern as she lifted the cup to Maximus’ lips. “Drink slowly,” she told him. He opened his mouth to speak her name, but she shook her head as she saw recognition in his eyes. “Are you all right?”

“The sun was in my eyes. A momentary weakness,” he replied as Haken pulled him to his feet. He reached down to take Siobhan’s hand to help her up. “And you, lady?” He lifted his eyebrows at the sight of her bruises and squeezed her hand before dropping it.

“Better now.” She turned and walked slowly back to her position behind Proximo’s chair. “Thank you, Master,” she murmured softly, startling the man by speaking her gratitude.

“He is my most valuable fighter, girl.” His hand waved carelessly at Maximus, but his distrusting eyes were on Siobhan. “Spaniard!” Blue eyes trained on him made him shift uneasily in his chair. “I expect an exceptional showing today. You, girl, see to that he gets rest and food. And I mean rest. He needs his wits about him.”

Maximus walked off the practice ground without a glance behind. Proximo was already suspicious enough to send Siobhan off with him; perhaps it could be used for their advantage. She was following, he knew.

He was waiting for her around a corner, pulling her into a small alcove. “Thank the Gods,” he whispered, holding her face between his hands and kissing her. “Are you all right?” He studied the bruising and swelling on her face. “Marcus?” He didn’t need to say a word for her to know that Marcus was going to pay for this.

“Yes. I don’t understand, yesterday you didn’t know who I was.”

“I don’t understand either, just that Sid somehow managed this. I walked through a wall in your lab and suddenly I was here, fighting Juba.” His kiss robbed her of her breath.

“So it was Sid?”

“It was. We have to find a doorway to get you home.”

“Us, right? Get us home.”

“Us. Who braided your hair?” he asked, changing the subject. He wasn’t sure he could go home again once he changed a few events. He turned her slightly to admire the elaborate braid pinned at the back of her head.

“Lia.”

He smiled, “You look authentic until you open your mouth; then you betray yourself. Try to keep your opinions to yourself until I can get us out of here?”

“I will.” Her smile was brief. “I will, I promise.”

“Give me your cross,” he pulled on the gold Celtic cross she wore around her neck. “The workmanship is too fine and you definitely don’t want to be taken for a Christian.” She unhooked it and dropped it into a small golden pool in his palm. He slid it into a small pouch at his waist.

“And do this for me. Do not go to the Coliseum, no matter who offers you the opportunity to see the fights. Which reminds me. When did we arrive from Zucchabar?”

“Yesterday.”

“Then today is the Second Fall of Carthage.” He didn’t want to worry her with what Sid had told him, but he had to. “Try to stay out of the way and don’t try to change anything.” He could see she had no plans to obey that request. “Cara, change nothing.”

“What? Oh if you think I can stand by and watch you die…”

“You can and you will, my love. Now come feed me like a good woman.” He kissed her again. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she pasted a smile on her face. “Lia asked me to go watch you fight.”

“Lia interferes. You’re going over there, aren’t you?” he shook his head. “You never learn. I told you to stay away from Sid.”

“I kept my promise,” she defended herself petulantly. “He must have been hiding in the lab.” They approached the kitchen. “Must I stay here?” she grabbed his wrist.

Her sudden change in demeanor made Maximus laugh. “No…no, you go watch. I guarantee you will be very sorry you did.”

As they entered the kitchen, it passed through Siobhan’s mind that she had never prepared anything for Maximus before. And she was damned if she knew how to heat anything up here without breaking a vessel or burning herself. Her bewilderment must have been apparent because he pointed to a basket.

“Fresh bread, olive oil and salt. Fruit over there.”

“Really?”

“Really. There’s the salt crock,” he pointed again. “Wine’s in that pitcher.”

“I’m hopeless.”

She pulled a large hunk of the bread off, poured some oil onto a crude plate and sprinkled salt liberally into the oil before handing it to Maximus. He offered her some, but she shook her head. “I ate, thanks.” She found fresh grapes in a basket and brought a bunch over to the stool he was sitting on.

“You’re just out of your element. We need to get you out of here soon.” He took a bite of the still-warm bread. The gladiators wouldn’t get any until it was past serving to Proximo and his staff. By then it would be stale and hard; a man had to soften it in the swill that passed for stew.

Her hand rested possessively on his forearm. “Why do you keep talking as if I am going back without you?”

“Because if anything changes, it will alter the outcome of my life. I may not be able to leave when you do.”

“Sid tell you that? Because that is Star Trek bullshit.”

“Lower your voice, my love, unless you would like to once again explain your Star Trek to people who use oil lamps.”

“There was an alteration from the moment Sid brought me through the portal, Maximus.” Her eyes held his. “I don’t belong here. Everyone who speaks to me here is set along a slightly different path.”

“Perhaps.”

“Listen to me. If you don’t go back, I don’t go back. My life is where you are. You came back to this hell for me.” Her eyes brimmed over. Maximus put his plate down and touched her cheek gently.

“Then I go back.” He smiled. “Cara, be careful. Be quiet. You are everything a woman in this time cannot afford to be.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“Opinionated, outspoken, disobedient?”

“Obedience implies someone has the right to tell me what to do.”

“Proximo does have that right. You’re his slave. I wish you’d pretended to be a mute.”

“Hysterical paralysis of the vocal chords as a result of seeing you in the ring?”

“I also wish you’d never watched those soap opera things. Don’t even try it, you couldn’t keep quiet that long,” he shook his head. “I am going to kill Sid for this.”

“I’m so sorry,” she told him, her eyes filling up with tears. “Bad enough you have to be here again without worrying about me.”

Maximus smiled. “You have nothing to feel bad about, Siobhan.”

“Hanna,” she corrected him with a glance at the door.

“Hanna,” he acknowledged with a nod. “It gives me a chance to put a few things right before I die.”

“I thought you said we shouldn’t change anything.”

“Like you said, things have already changed. We’ll see, shall we? One thing,” he told her. “Proximo has caught on that we are not strangers to one another.”

“Was I so obvious?”

“You were. So what do we tell him when he asks?”
Siobhan grinned. The years of fan fiction came in handy at a moment like this. “I was your slave before you lost everything?”
“I’d have sold a slave as disobedient and argumentative as you, Maximus told her with a smile. “But it’s inventive and will do.”
He shook his head and chuckled appreciatively. “You, my slave. I could get used to that. Siobhan, bring me a beer.”
He grabbed at her waist and pulled her into his arms, kissing her. “Be careful.”

* * *

Maximus crossed the dusty Roman streets, surrounded by a string of guards and chained to his fellow gladiators. This time he knew what awaited him; it made it no easier. The way was familiar as was the holding cell where the patrons could view the combatants. There was one thing he hadn’t told Siobhan. When he passed through the portal, his memories were intact, but with each passing moment, he could remember less and less of what was to come. Impressions remained, the past was intact, and his time at the Point with Siobhan was vivid. While Siobhan was blissfully ignorant of the danger she was in, Maximus knew only that.

 

* * *

Siobhan followed Lia up higher and higher, trying very hard to concentrate on where she was going. She was in awe. The Coliseum was even more beautiful than she had imagined. Every bench provided an excellent view and the acoustics were a mixed blessing. While she could hear everything clearly, the sound of men dying was something she would have cheerfully foregone if it hadn’t been for Maximus.

They settled about midway up, in a corner above and right of the Imperial Box. Lia assured her it was shadier and more comfortable. They had brought pillows to sit on, a basket of fruit, and a wine skin to share. It hadn’t taken long for Siobhan to realize that food would be wasted on her.

Everything was more vivid than she had expected. The heat and the stench of unwashed bodies, onion and garlic breath, vomit, and the pervasive scent of blood and death turned her stomach, but she was determined to stay.

At the far end of the arena, the gates opened and a troop of gladiators entered, squinting in the sunlight. They looked all around themselves, bewildered at the noise and enormity of the place. Maximus’ walk and the spiked helmet gave him away.

The trumpets sounded the arrival of Commodus and Lucilla. They stepped to the front of the box and waved, as she remembered they would. Lucilla’s icy loveliness was apparent from a distance; Siobhan smiled at the thought of telling Lucilla that Maximus was safe and happy in another lifetime. Operational word, “was,” she thought.

The sight of Commodus made her wonder if somewhere a place existed like the Point, a place where Joaquin Phoenix’s creations lived together and tried to make new lives. If so, she hoped that Commodus was happy there. Despite the pain that he had inflicted on Maximus, she couldn’t bring herself to hate him.

So intent was Siobhan on the scene before her that she barely heard Cassius’ booming voice droning on and on about the Barren Plain of Zama. She couldn’t see what Maximus was saying because his back was turned to her, but she kept her eyes glued to his back. Suddenly the gates flew open and the chariots thundered onto the sand.

From her perch, she saw everything as it happened and nothing close up. Life, not film, drew her forward in its’ intensity. Her eyes still never left Maximus. His voice was distant but discernable:

“Come together! Come together!” she heard as he exhorted them like Roman soldiers. “As one!” From above, it looked more ragtag and haphazard, but they still managed to follow his orders. She saw the lances go down together, breaking the wheel of one chariot and heard him cry, “Well done!” A moment later he was diving to save Haken.

She became aware that the crowd was roaring its’ approval. Men behind her were cheering as the female archer was cut in half. The screams of the horses as they crashed through one gate made her shiver, but she never turned away.

When the Fall of Carthage ended with the “Carthaginians” still standing, she was on her feet with the others, cheering. Lia laughed, “He’s amazing, isn’t he?”

Forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to know Maximus, Siobhan turned proudly to her fellow slave and said, “Maximus didn’t become a general because of family connections”

“Who is Maximus?” Lia asked.

“Who?” Siobhan decided she’d better just pretend Lia had misheard her; it might have worked if they had left before Commodus entered the ring.

“Why doesn’t the hero remove his helmet and tell us all your real name?”

“My name is Gladiator.” Maximus turned defiantly.

“How dare you turn your back on me!” Commodus shouted petulantly. “Slave! You will remove your helmet and tell me your name at once.”

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the armies of the North, general of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.”

Siobhan held her breath; even knowing that Commodus would give the sign of life, the thumbs up, did little to quell her fears. It was not until they were back at the Lyceum that she felt the racing of her heart lessen. That didn’t last long for Proximo had asked that she be brought to him the moment she returned.

* * *

“So, a General, were you?” Proximo asked. “I won’t ask how you came to be a
slave.” He paced anxiously. The tension in the Arena had been palpable. Maximus had made no effort to conceal his contempt for Commodus; Proximo wasn’t certain whether he was glad to own the most popular Gladiator in Rome. “And the girl. Who is she to you? Don’t deny it, I can see it when you look at each other.”

“She was my slave,” Maximus replied simply. “She was taken from me, along with everything else.”

“So the devoted husband kept a woman, did he?”

“She was my slave,” he replied, his face flaring red in anger.

Proximo laughed, “Then I can sell her to a brothel?”

Maximus was torn. Distort the memory of his marriage or deny Siobhan. He prayed silently to his beloved Selene to forgive him.

“She was my mistress. Does that make you happy to know that, Proximo?”

“It does! At last, I have found someone or something that you care about. Not counting that vengeance you mentioned in the arena today. You do care about her, Spaniard?”

“I do.”

“Good. Marcus!” Proximo shouted, clapping his hands together. “Bring the girl in.”

Marcus pushed Siobhan through the door; she stumbled, righting herself at the last minute. “Come here, girl,” Proximo ordered. She approached slowly; Marcus pushed her again. This time she fell to one knee. “Enough, Marcus!” the former gladiator barked. “Touch her again and I’ll let the Spaniard have you.” He nodded at Maximus who had stepped forward in anger, and now held the overseer by his dirty tunic. “Let him go, General.” The General released the tunic, pushing Marcus violently away from him. He reached a hand down to help Siobhan to her feet and slipped a protective arm around her shoulders. The look he fixed on Proximo was defiant.

“No one will hurt you, girl. Tell me the truth. Did you know the Spaniard before you came here as my slave?”

“Yes, my lord Proximo.”

“How did you know him?”

“I was his slave.”

Proximo looked from his prized gladiator to the woman sheltered beneath his muscular arm. “You won the crowd and I will reward you. Just remember that she’s my slave now.” He waved towards the door. “Go, both of you.”

Maximus led her quickly from the room, down the stairs past the guards and slaves, not slowing until they were in a quiet corner of the back courtyard. “This is too dangerous,” he muttered into her hair as he held her close. “I have to find a way to get you home.”

“We’ve had this discussion before,” she reminded him.

“Proximo now knows there is someone that I treasure. He has already threatened to sell you to a brothel.”

“What did he mean by a reward?” she asked hopefully.

“You know what he meant. We will be given some privacy.”

“In one of those cells?”

“Yes. I don’t think Proximo has a luxury suite for the gladiators,” he teased. “A Holiday Inn without towels and no hot water, Cara.”

“You remembered,” she whispered with a grin. “But tonight is the night Lucilla comes to visit you. We can’t be off alone somewhere.”

This time it was Maximus’ turn to grin. “Lucilla? My stock will be high in the morning. First a well-born lady and then a beautiful slave girl.” His face turned serious again. “She’ll come early, before dark.” He kissed her cheek and then her lips. “Better get back to work, my slave. Stay away from Marcus.”

“That’s what everyone around here tells me,” she agreed over her shoulder as she walked off towards the kitchen. Something bothered her. Maximus didn’t remember Lucilla’s visit; she hadn’t mistaken the puzzled look on his face before he smiled.

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