Abducted by a warrior civilization and brought to Arena Planet on the other side of the galaxy, Carter Stone is forced to fight against other alien species in gladiatorial combat. As long as he keeps winning, Earth survives. If he loses...
* * *
Carter Stone has had enough. No longer would be be a hitman for the mob. All he wants is a cabin in the mountains to live out his life in peaceful solitude. Never did he imagine the alien ship suspended above New York City the last several days is in search of the perfect warrior, and it has found him.
Whisked away to Arena Planet with three others from Earth, Carter soon discovers they are expected to do one thing: fight against opposing teams of aliens to the death in gladiatorial matches. If Carter's team wins, they move up to the next level. If they lose, Earth is destroyed.
Known only as the Overseers, they are a militaristic race that controls most of the galaxy. The Overseers have created Arena Planet as a means of enhancing their warriors' skills as they observe other races fight to the death. Carter and his team have been given the help of a mentor named Taliah, whose job it is to train them in various forms of combat. Unknown to Carter, his teammates and the Overseers, she has been waiting for her opportunity to instigate a rebellion against her planet's conquerors. All she needs is a warrior with the right skills who is willing to lead the fight, and she believes Carter is that man.
There's just one catch. Carter must sacrifice his life to free Earth and the other planets under the Overseer's control.
Still unsure if he had covered his tracks, Carter Stone walked down the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and looked at his hands. No matter how many times he’d washed them, the blood of the men he’d killed always felt like a stain on his soul. He wiped his fingers against the side of his black jeans.
He was done with the whole thing. Finished. After a lifetime of crime, he no longer had the stomach for it.
Five long months before, he had been given a contract that should have been no different than the others—take out his boss’s rival in a staged accident, and then he’d disappear into the woodwork until the heat died down. When he had read in the newspaper the next day it had been the target’s daughter driving the car instead of her father, something snapped inside. He hadn’t been able to get the girl’s smiling face out of his head since. He wanted to get way. Far, far away. A simple place in the mountains he could call his own. That should wash away his pain. Just one problem. His oath that bound him to the cartel.
“Know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Those words cut deep into Carter’s soul. The priest said it to Clarence, the next man he was supposed to kill, as he waited for him in the church portico. Freedom. Was such a thing possible? As he observed the two talk, Carter mulled over those ten simple words. Not just words, but daggers that cut into him without mercy, revealing the truth he could no longer deny—his life had been a waste.
It was Clarence’s confession to the priest of all he he’d done wrong over the years, buttressed by the regret in his voice that finally pushed Carter into the light. He slipped his gun with the silencer back into his pocket and waited. That’s when the two came up with their plan.
Carter splattered him with chicken’s blood, then snapped three pictures. Convincing enough of the “hit” the two of them thought.
Clarence thanked him with tears in his eyes under the visage of a pale Christ. “Go and sin no more,” Clarence quoted. “That’s what the man said to that woman at the well. Just like that, she’s free. The priest told me so. You know how many good men I turned crooked? I can’t even remember. And now I’m free. Just like that.”
The words burned in Carter’s ears as he walked down the church steps. Burned but did not heal. It was one thing to turn a man bad. It was another to cut him down in the prime of life and toss his lifeless body into the East River, all the while thinking about what he wanted for dinner that night.
He felt it now though.
From his pocket, he fished out his Bluetooth and glanced at the crowded downtown street as he slipped it into his ear, then up at the sky. Hanging like a dark ominous cloud was the massive spacecraft that had been suspended above New York City for the past couple of weeks. It looked like the Millennium Falcon on steroids. Why it had come was anyone’s guess.
Carter punched in a number on his phone.
At first, people couldn’t talk about anything else after it arrived, both on the streets, and on the news. But then a strange thing happened. After a few days, the novelty had begun to wear off. It was as though an alien ship floated above New York since there was a New York. Now, it felt like another fixture in the city, the same as the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty.
“Lenny’s pizza,” came the nasal voice on the receiver.
“It’s Stone. I did it. Clarence is dead.”
“Have a change of heart, did you?”
“Clarence was my last hit. I’m done. You can find yourself a new killer.”
“...Not so fast,” said Lenny. “You have Carmen a little worried. A lot of people find their tongue loosening when they try to leave the family. You know better than anyone about that.”
Carter stared out at the passersby on the street. He did know about that. He’d killed nine narcs in the five short years for the family. He’d killed others too for various reasons. Killing was his business. But after what the priest had said to Clarence, he wanted out.
He looked down at his hands. He swore they had a red tint to them, stained, as if the blood of every person he executed had soaked like tattoo ink into his skin.
He clenched his fist, suddenly furious.
“I’m out Lenny! Tell Carmen I’ll die with his secrets, even if I have to choke on them.”
“That’s nice,” said Lenny. “Do you know how many of the people you knocked off told him something similar? All of them. And did any of them tell him in person. Not one. Do you see the pattern, Stone? He ain’t gonna trust you any more than a pit bull that’s been beat with a bat its whole life. Now you come in, and we’ll talk.”
Carter almost hung up. “You think you can talk me into more killing? Or do you have some kind of job for your ex-hitmen who’ve suddenly gained a conscience?” He was wasting time. He had to leave the city. “What’s the point of coming in? So you can knock me off easy?”
“Shut it, Stone... I’m beginning to wonder if you did the job at all. Is Clarence really dead?”
“Two rounds to the heart.”
“Where’d you do it?”
“St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
“You killed him in a church?”
“That’s right,” he lied. “The guy practically lived in there. Never came out. The priests were bringing him food and water.”
Carter heard someone shouting on the sidewalk. Across the street, a man pointed up at the sky. Everyone around him stopped and looked up. Carter threw a glance in the same direction, and saw it. Something was coming down from the ship. Some kind of swirling light.
Lenny’s nasally voice suddenly burst in his ear, “I’m calling you a liar, Stone. You tell me you have this religious moment a week ago, how you can’t kill anymore, and then you go and shoot the guy in church. I don’t believe it.”
“I have pictures.”
“Piss on your pictures, Stone. You don’t think I smell something rotten. Where’s the body?”
“I threw it in the dumpster. Covered it with some cardboard boxes.”
“Alright Stone, I’m sending a guy to the church right now. Then I’ll know you’re not a lying sack of manure. If Clarence is in that dumpster, then we can talk.”
A scream tore the air.
Carter kept his attention fixed on the conversation. “Lenny, you tell Carmen to forget me, or I swear, if I get wind the family is coming after me, I’ll sing so loud the entire city will be humming my tune.”
Tires screeched on the street. Carter looked up just in time to see a taxi smash the back of a Porsche. Then he noticed the people. Everyone was running and pointing.
Wind whipped his hair. The swirling light was coming straight for him.
Carter sprinted down the steps and found sidewalk. A sharp screech grabbed his attention. Ahead of the light, a taxicab jumped the curb. People on the sidewalk dove out of its way as it passed them. Carter stopped. A familiar face peered out from the passenger seat and from behind the wheel. He had a gun in his hand and a smile on his face.
All Carter had time to do was jump. He hit the hood and the impact rocked his body like a doll into the window. Glass cracked against his back, and then he was airborne over the back end of the cab. Everything spun around him until his body hit the sidewalk hard.
Dazed, he tried to stand, then crumbled over.
More tires squealed. The effect pulled him out of his state of semi-consciousness. Despite the pain in his arms and back, he managed to pull his head off the concrete and look.
As though in a dream, the cab sped towards him in reverse. Unable to move, he laid down flat and looked up. If this was it, he didn’t want to see the car as it hit him at full throttle.
The bright swirling air whipped overhead like a tornado and sucked up every Christmas light in New York.
Carter felt his body lift—consciousness ebbed in and out—the roar of the cab’s engine faded into silence.
Then, everything went dark. A numbing wind bit at his bones and he opened his eyes. To his surprise, he found himself staring at the city skyline from above. In the distance, the Statue of Liberty rose out of the New York Harbor. She stared at him with the same placid expression that his boss, Carmen, had whenever he assigned him his next hit.
Carter laughed. He’d been rescued by the damn aliens. He pictured Carmen’s face when he heard the news that the spacecraft had whisked him away. His soulless lips curling into a frown.
The image faded, as did the exhilaration over not being a human stain drug over a quarter mile of sidewalk.
As the spacecraft twice the size of Central Park swallowed him, the question of what he would face became a sobering reality.
The pale-faced visage of the Christ he remembered from the church bore into his mind.
Whatever was about to happen, he felt sure it was some kind of retribution from above for the body count he’d accumulated.
Perhaps it would have been better to have been a human sidewalk hamburger.
He was about to find out.
The inside of the ship embodied pure darkness. No sounds, only a faint popcorn-tinged scent mixed with a strange otherworldly odor. He felt himself dropped lightly onto something hard. He winced as shooting pain shot down his leg. Probably the left over bite from the taxi hitting him at forty miles-an-hour.
Gingerly, Carter touched his hands against the alien floor. It felt cold and metallic, like an aluminum bat.
He tried to stand, but fell onto his back with a grunt. The pain in his leg was more serious then he first thought. Much more serious. Something was broken.
A low mechanical whine sounded above his head, and a light shot all around him. A shadowy shape floated into the room, large, like a grand piano, but with arm-like things dangling off of it.
It wasn’t the type of alien Carter had expected. He’d pictured the big bug-eyed creatures he’d seen in comics as a kid. One particular image had been burned into his memory. A close-up of a bug-eyed green man holding something unpleasantly shaped in his hand. An anal probe, as Carter recalled.
He tightened his butt cheeks. They wouldn’t take him without a fight.
Suddenly, his hand went for the forty-five mag in his coat pocket. He’d sworn he’d never kill again. But he also felt no qualms against putting a half dozen slugs into something shaped like a Steinway grand.
He removed his hand from the gun. Better to let the alien make the first move.
As the thing hovered closer, he saw the glint of metal. It wasn’t an alien, it was some kind of blasted robot.
A whirring noise reverberated from the machine, and a metal tube extended out from the thing like a hose. Carter’s eyes narrowed on the tip.
Several sharp clicks went off in quick succession, and a needle popped out like a five inch switchblade. Carter’s hand sprang for the gun.
A red glow pierced his eyes. Hot, like fire. When it felt like he couldn’t take one more second of this medieval examination, his entire body went rigid. No matter how he tried to move, his muscles no longer responded. The needle dove into his leg. He would have shouted in pain if he could. This place, it seemed, didn’t permit physical displays of disapproval.
Another whirring sound vibrated in his ear. Something clamped down hard on his head and then he felt pressure against the top of his skull.
He screamed inside as something bore through his hair and into his cranium. The agony drove deeper, until he wanted to die—and then the drilling stopped and darkness swarmed in. He couldn’t see, but it felt like a corkscrew had gone through the top of his skull and popped the top off. Desperate to get away, he found he still couldn’t move.
Carter focused on breathing to distract himself from the intense pain igniting his raw synapses, then something cool squirted from the needle that had driven deep into his brain. It spread like water trickling through his body. The ordeal finally relented, and in its place was a warm, soothing fire that he knew must have been some kind of drug. His senses dulled. No longer afraid, he simply drifted away for a time.
Sounds slowly drew him out of his wooziness. He felt like he had downed a liter of hard liquor and had just come out of the stupor. The same amount of liquor he drank the night after he made a kill.
A groan sounded above him.
Carter oriented himself. He laid flat on his back against something hard and cold. Fighting against the warm fire of the drugs tingling under his skin, Carter struggled to sit up.
A man in a camouflaged green and black mesh uniform lay face down on the floor. Carter noticed a Russian flag on his shoulder with strange characters: спецназ.
There was something odd about his head. It looked like a metal cockroach with two legs extended into his ears. Instinctively, Carter reached up and patted his own head where the drilling had been done. His fingers touched cold, plated metal, just like the Russian’s.
What were these things?
“America?” said a voice behind him.
Carter spun, his hand darting for the gun in his jacket. It was gone.
An Asian man with heavy eyelids and chalky skin sat with his back against the metal wall. The room’s single light shone down on him from above, illuminating the same metal cockroach nestled in his thick black hair.
“Yeah, America. Where you from? China?”
The Asian man looked surprised. “Do you speak Chinese?”
“I can’t even say hello in Chinese. So answer my question, are you from China or not? You speak English like you’re from the States.”
A scowl formed on the Asian man’s face. “I don’t speak English. Only Chinese.” He reached up and tapped the metal cockroach. “To talk much and arrive nowhere is the same as climbing a tree to catch a fish.”
Carter stared at the man a moment. “I know a few Chinese proverbs. Man who eat many prunes get good run for money.”
A smile slowly spread across the Chinaman’s face. Then he laughed from his belly. Carter had never heard a laugh quite like it before.
The Chinaman’s laughter eased into a pleasant smile. “My name is Han, and I am a rice farmer. What is your name and what is your livelihood?”
Carter frowned. “Carter Stone. My job? I’m unemployed.”
A flicker of recognition twitched in Han’s eye. Either he had experienced joblessness before, or he knew Carter wasn’t being completely honest in his nondescript answer. Han looked over Carter’s shoulder. “What’s your name?”
Carter turned at a sound behind him. The Russian was standing, holding his head.
“Nikolai Mironov,” said the Russian as he looked about the enclosed space.
“And what’s your occupation?” asked Han.
“Lieutenant in Special Purpose Forces,” Nikolai replied with the same stoic inflection as before. “You speak Russian?”
“Yeah,” said Carter. “You think we’re dummies? Of course we speak Russian.”
“How’s your Pashto?” a disembodied voice asked in perfect English.
Carter looked about, but only saw his two companions, and that same piano machine, which appeared contented to stay where it was.
“Who said that?” he asked.
“Right here.” A man dressed in a black turban and loose-fitting robes appeared. “Anyone who’s been with the Mujahideen long enough knows you never announce yourself to your enemies until you’re sure, one, they can’t kill you. And, two, you can do that to them.”
“Three against one,” Han said. “The odds are in our favor.”
“Never underestimate your opponent.”
With lightning-fast reflexes Carter didn’t think possible, the Afghani grabbed Han and spun him around, his arm wrapped around his neck tight. His face began to turn red from the pressure.
A smile of satisfaction blossomed on the aggressor’s face, as if to say he could kill him with a jerk of his arm.
Han put up his hands, as if to surrender, then kicked his leg straight up, hitting his opponent in the face. The Afghani stumbled back, momentarily stunned. With a calculated look in his eyes, Han knocked the man down with a flying kick, and then put his knee on his neck. “Like you said,” Han retorted, “never underestimate your opponent.” He got back to his feet and assumed a safe distance from the man who had attacked him moments before.
“Whatever we’ve gotten ourselves into,” Carter observed, “it’s going to be an interesting trip.”
* * *
The twin suns bore down on Taliah as she walked the path from her home to the training grounds. The lavish, air-treated housing she’d been assigned would have made most men and women from her station in life extremely happy. For her, it made her feel the opposite. She was one of the few of her people from the planet Kor to have been given such privilege. While she dined on the food of the Overlords, the people of her world—her own mother and father—survived on scraps.
She was also sad, for if her world had remained undiscovered by the race of Overlords, she would have married Prince Torvix. Then she would have been lifted out of her lowly position as a hunter of game designated by her people’s caste system, to that of a Princess of the Eight realms. In that reality, a child might have been growing in her belly.
She often imagined this. Wishing it to become reality. But Torvix was dead. Killed in the war against the Overlords. She would have been executed alongside him if it weren’t for her abilities as a fighter.
Her past was as dark as her skin. The village chief had insisted she take up the Art of the Blade, and indeed he had been wise, for it had saved her life against the Dergamin tribe when they raided her family village. And it was her swordsmanship that caught the eye of Prince Torvix, though he had liked to joke that it was her beauty that wouldn’t let his eyes go.
All that was gone.
She was simply a well-treated slave now. And the luxurious food and housing would only remain as long as she continued to prove herself by training the incoming fighters.
And she hated it. Hated the killing, for its sole purpose was to give the Overlords tactics for future conquests. To train the Diremen, pale, soulless armies of genetically engineered killing machines grown at the massive incubation centers. With all the brains the Overlords had, they depended so much on their technology and on the mutated men they grew in the incubation vats. It wasn’t just the Diremen they were constantly perfecting. The Overlords constantly worked at tweaking their own genes toward their definition of perfection, they seemed less like human beings, and more like machines.
They’d tampered so much with their genetics, blind spots had developed over time that normal human beings would have seen. As powerful as the Overlords were, their greatest strength—their brilliant minds—had become their greatest weakness.
Taliah watched the great walled edifice of the arenas grow larger as she neared them. The Overlord’s world would have been beautiful if not for the twisted souls that ruled it. She bent down and picked up a blue flower with red tipped petals and put it to her nose.
Such a sweet smell. She tucked the flower into the tangles of her woven hair.
If she could find a way to rid this beautiful world of its sickness, she would give her blood gladly to the cause. There were others like her. Fellow slaves. And to her surprise, even a few of the Overlords.
It seemed even among the most twisted, genetically engineered race known in the galaxy, a soul designed to be cruel could be born with the defect of having a heart.
Not everything went according to plan on the Arena Planet.
That was a good thing.
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