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The voice of the announcer echoed off the cavernous sound stage walls. "One...two...three...testing," he said, repeating the phrase a half-dozen times. His tone fluctuated, grew louder, before evening off to a steady, level pitch.

Claudius Marcus stood, arms folded across his ample girth, and watched him. “Six minutes,” the man added, noting his attention.

Claudius nodded, glancing at a wall clock perched above the reviewing stand. 8:54 pm Sunday night, the end of the annual Saturnalia and the people would be home by now, most of them anyway, home and nestled before their television sets, winding down from ten days of festivities and revelry. The best night of the year as far as ratings were concerned, viewer ship likely in the hundred million range. Easy.

The proconsul smiled. Perhaps he hadn't been such a fool after all to waste a barbarian match on the slim Saturday audience. It did, after all, set up the scenario about to unfold. A pity to lose such a fine specimen so soon but the Vulcan was useless in the arena anyway if he refused to fight. Even when he'd finally reacted, dispatching two of Claudius' finest gladiators with an almost seamless ease, it had been a bloodless thing, swift and painless. Anti-climactic in the extreme.

An inconceivable waste of talent. Claudius shook his head in disbelief. To be blessed with such strength and not use it? Why, Spock could have been the best gladiator in the land, could have had women fighting to crawl into his bed, little girls doodling his likeness in their diaries. Could have been famous throughout every corner of the Roman world. He certainly looked the part, what with his exotic features and dark coloring. When Claudius was a child, the fat, clumsy boy other children made fun of, he'd often dreamed of being such a man. True, he'd achieved the pinnacle of power without it but still, to have his name carved into building walls, surrounded by little hearts and x's, to be lusted after by half the populace, now that would have been something else.

Sounds came from the corridor and he glanced to one side, his smile returning when he saw his unwilling guest walk in from stage left, flanked by two enormous and heavily armed guards. Holding his arms out before him in a gesture of mock welcome, he approached. "Captain Kirk, I trust you enjoyed your day.”

“What's happening to my men?”

Claudius rolled his eyes. “Always your men.” Last night, after Spock and McCoy had been taken away, he and Kirk shared a rather tense dinner together, the captain bringing the conversation back to them again and again. Where are they? Are they being well treated? Have they been given food and water? So many questions.

He'd waved them all off with a dismissive, “they're still alive.” Forced Kirk to sit through a game of chess afterward, although he was clearly not interested and just as clearly let him win; then, bored by his now tight-lipped demeanor, had summoned the young Persian boy who was his favored bedmate of late. Dismissed the plea skirting Kirk's eyes, leaving him locked in a pampered cell off his quarters, one stuffed with pastries and wine and soft, down-filled pillows. Kirk had ignored most of them from what the guards told him later. Had paced a little, checked the room with a studiously disinterested eye. Slept some. Spent a good portion of today sitting on the bed, staring at the monitors placed strategically every few feet along the walls.

Until a few minutes ago, when that massive door had opened at last and he'd been bundled into a reinforced transport and brought to Sound Stage Number Four.

Kirk was watching him intently, didn't seem surprised at his lack of response, his attention shifting slightly to take in the room in general. The wires and equipment and various studio personnel scattered about; the position of the guards and the weapons they carried, most of which were aimed directly at him. Scoping out a possible means of escape, no doubt.

“I'm sorry we had to restrain you again.” Claudius disregarded it as hopeless, fingered the cuffs circling Kirk's wrists, “but one can't be too careful.”

The captain said nothing, just looked at him with that unnerving steadiness of his. Plainly, he thought he'd come here to die, the guards having been given explicit instructions to taunt him on the way over, to describe in gruesome detail the death that awaited him here.

And yet there was no hesitation in his eyes, no sense of dismay or regret. The only emotion Claudius could see in them was defiance.

He shrugged that off, too, knew it wouldn't last. “Now, now.” Draping a limp hand over Kirk's arm, he guided him toward the reviewing stand. “Don't take what my men said so seriously. They were only poking a little fun. I couldn't possibly deprive myself of your company so quickly.”

Kirk's step faltered ever so slightly at that, a nearly imperceptible lapse Claudius wouldn't have noticed at all if he wasn't touching him.

But he was and he did, had long since trained himself to pick up such subtle weaknesses. Decided to twist the blade, stoke the game up to the next level.

“Someone's going to die here today, my friend, but it's not going to be you."

Kirk stopped, swiveled his head sharply to look at him, and that was when Claudius saw what he'd been waiting for: fear, pure and unfiltered. Only visible for a second before Kirk buried it away but there nonetheless.

And he knew that his gut instinct had been correct. To make this man watch as one of his people was brutally killed and be totally unable to do anything about it would cut him to the quick, torture him far more than any physical pain on his own person ever could. True, he'd never order the rest of his crew down in order to stop it: Claudius had already admitted that much to himself. But it would crush him, poison the rest of his life, a life that he intended to last for many, many years.

As my personal servant, he mused pleasantly. You've already told your people up there to stay away. So you'll be my personal servant, cleaning up after me, McCoy's life hanging on a job well done. And every day of it you'll remember what's about to happen here, and how you sat and watched and did nothing. Nothing.

The very thought warmed him to the core of his being.

“Please.” Gesturing toward the podium, he sauntered up the steps, the guards prodding rifle butts into Kirk's back, forcing him to follow.

Claudius sat, the captain shoved into the seat at his side when he stubbornly remained standing. "Although most of the people who live in the city were away from home last night and missed the match,” Claudius began smoothly. “ I understand that the Vulcan's..." he paused for effect, "unorthodox method of fighting has attracted considerable interest. It is unheard of for a slave to violate the rules of the games in order to come to the aid of another." Claudius sniffed. "Compassion has no place in the arena, Captain Kirk. As you know, we have a troublesome minority, slaves and the poor primarily, who believe such drivel, and we have to show them that there's no mercy here. Only life or death, winner or loser.”

He leaned closer, well aware that Kirk was holding his breath. "You're a military man. Surely you understand the importance of discipline. Your Vulcan broke the rules and we can't have the rabble thinking he got away with it, now can we? That would be even more dangerous than his original transgression. So,” Claudius waved a soft finger in the air, “I've given him the best time slot we have: 9 o'clock Sunday night. Everybody will be watching. The slaves will learn their lesson, the middle class will be entertained, and I'll score a few points in the popularity polls."

"I'm responsible for the actions of my people, Proconsul. If you want to punish someone, punish me."

Claudius audibly sighed, Kirk's words coming as no real surprise, considering that rather tedious dinner last night, and he ignored them completely. "I'm afraid that the method of his demise will be rather, how shall I say...undignified. But it'll be a great show, I promise you that.”

Kirk's face paled, another involuntary reflex he couldn't quite suppress.

"There is no nobility in resistance, in disorder,” Claudius continued, digging that blade in a bit deeper, “and there shall be none in the death of the transgressor. He will die without dignity, like an animal."

"It was his duty as a senior officer to come to McCoy's aid." Kirk kept trying, his words a bit more rushed than before. "He's a trained fighter: McCoy isn't. I'd have done the ---"

A fat hand slammed the arm of the chair. "I don't care what you would have done! I only care what he did. And he broke the rules of the games – on public television! Why, I'm told the video's been downloaded onto personal computers nearly twelve million times since this morning. I simply cannot allow him to get away with such a thing." Claudius' tone gentled in an obscene parody of concern. "I'm sorry to say that's how we keep order. Regrettable, perhaps, but necessary."

Kirk shifted slightly in his chair and Claudius knew exactly what he intended to do. It was, after all, the same thing he'd done yesterday when Maximus had that weakling of a doctor at the point of his sword. Didn't much matter then as Spock's almost simultaneous actions had kept the focus firmly on him, the shouts of the guards, the canned hisses and boos, drowning out any trace of Kirk's little heroics.

The situation tonight, however, would be quite different. Tonight Marcus wanted silence. Such executions always worked better that way, the only sounds breaking it the creaking of leather, the wheezing of tortured lungs; the cameras zeroing in on the condemned man's face, catching every twitch and nuance. Watching as the flesh began to darken, the eyes bulge out. Gods, but it was mesmerizing. Theater at its best.

And if Kirk yelled or lunged at the stage, if he kicked up a fuss, it could totally ruin the mood.

Claudius wasn't about to let that happen. He bent very close, looked the captain squarely in the eye. “I'm warning you now, Kirk, if you so much as make a sound I'll have McCoy taken out to the Varangian Gate and crucified. Tied, not nailed, so he'll live longer. Why, I've been told that some of them have lasted nearly a week up there. Imagine that, your frail little doctor hung up there for an entire week.”

An anguished look came over Kirk's face, Claudius taking full advantage of it. “It'd have been futile, anyway. There'll be a dozen guards on stage with him, to say nothing of my men behind you. Besides,” he indicated the cuffs holding Kirk's wrists together, “you're quite helpless in any event. I'm afraid there's nothing for you to do but sit and watch. However," he added with a snicker, "if you find it too painful you may close your eyes. The cameras will not be on you."

Kirk's expression changed, the distress vanishing, replaced now with a look of pure, unadulterated loathing.

Claudius met it evenly, had grown used to the hatred of others. "Tell me," he continued smoothly, "how do Vulcans die, anyway? Do they fight back or are they passive? Seems illogical,” he dragged out the last word, noting Kirk's flinch in response, “for him to resist as he has no more chance of success than you do."

The captain said nothing.

“Sixty seconds." Both men looked up to see the announcer hold his fingers in the air as he counted down. “Thirty. Twenty. Ten. Five.” Then, assuming his best professional voice, he spoke into the microphone. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Live from City Arena, brought to you by Proconsul Claudius Marcus, a special presentation, one that you'll be sure to remember for years to come: the execution of a barbarian, one of the strangest creatures ever to grace our stage, captured only yesterday in the foothills outside the city and condemned to die for violating the rules of a matched game last night. For those of you who may have missed it, here is a replay."

A pause as he stared at a tiny screen before him, Claudius just making out the phony jeers and yelps, the cry of “Foul! A clear foul, Proconsul!”

“As you can see,” the announcer continued as the video faded to black and the show returned live, “a blatant violation, one that will be corrected in just a few minutes. But first, a word from our sponsor....”

Different music, the revving of car engines, a woman speaking in a low, sultry voice.

Two minutes later the broadcast resumed with the blare of trumpets, more canned cheering.

Slowly, off in the distance, other sounds intruded, the effect heightened as the music morphed into a solemn lament: the shuffling of feet, the clatter of boots. Metal hitting metal.

The music stopped and then Spock was there, walking beneath the portal. His hands were manacled behind his back, a thick, heavy chain hanging down to fasten to the restraints around both ankles. The chain holding his feet together was too short, making it difficult for him to walk. The intention was to make him appear clumsy as he stumbled forward, prodded by the swords of the guards. The effect, however, was just the opposite as he moved onto the stage with a grace difficult to describe, his head held high, his expression calmly dignified. The men flanking him seemed ill at ease by his demeanor and lagged slightly behind, casting one another looks of uncertainty.

The klieg lights flared, caught Spock in their intersecting beams, and he blinked and turned his face away. After a moment, he looked up, searching the room.

"He can't see you, Kirk, because of the lights."

But he could, Claudius realizing with a start that Spock was looking directly at them, that, despite the glare, he'd found the captain almost immediately. And his eyes changed. Even from thirty feet away Claudius could see it. Those eyes that had shown so little emotion up to now filling with compassion and sorrow and a deep, mournful sense of regret.

Slowly, Kirk rose to his feet, Claudius, feeling strangely irrelevant, scrambling up beside him.

An odd, almost mystical, silence descended, as if some sort of spell had just been cast over them all. Everyone felt it: the technicians, the gaffers, the grips. As one they stopped what they were doing, their attention shifting from Spock to Kirk and back again.

Sensing their scrutiny, the Vulcan's expression abruptly closed. He lifted his chin in the air, spreading his legs as widely apart as the chains would allow, and stood absolutely still, waiting.

“A pity.” Claudius murmured, struck once again by the regal aura of the man, the nobility and strength that seemed to shine from within. “He is a magnificent specimen."

Kirk turned to him and there was quiet pride in his eyes. "Proconsul, your people see the same things in him that you do. They'll be displeased if you have him killed. Pardon him and your popularity will double."

“No.” Claudius shook his head as the director, taking his cue at long last, hastily ordered the music to begin again. "I know them better than that. We've been advertising this on every channel since midnight. I can't change it now, can't disappoint my loyal subjects." He put undue emphasis on the last two words, his tone returning to its familiar mixture of cheerfulness, ridicule and superiority.

Kirk's lips pressed together but, much to Claudius' disappointment, he did not plead. Turning, he refocused his attention on Spock, his fingers loosely entwined, his breathing slow and measured.

Frustrated by this continual calm and determined to shake Kirk out of it, Claudius clapped his hands and gestured toward the stage. "Get on with it."

Two soldiers grasped Spock tightly between them, locking beefy hands around each arm, the others stepping out of camera view. The music picked up, drumbeats increasing in tempo, as a third man, hidden in the shadows until now, walked out into the light, the announcer killing the music and cranking up the 'oh's' and 'ah's'. “Lupus Quintillius,” he intoned solemnly, “whom I'm sure you all recognize. This will be his two hundred and eighty-sixth execution.”

Quintillius stopped, turned full face to the camera, and flexed his biceps. Huge even by the guards' standards, he was dressed totally in black, his tunic draped over one shoulder to highlight the powerful torso, the skin shaven bare and glistening with oil. In his hand he held a finely woven cord with a large knot at the center.

Claudius poked the captain with his elbow. "Done right the rope won't even leave a mark on the skin. And Quintillius is very good. He hasn't disappointed me yet."

Kirk ignored him completely.

Claudius felt his face flush at the clear dismissal but was quick to conceal it. No way he'd let this insufferable human control the situation, ruin the festivities for him. Reseating himself with a rather forced grin, Kirk forced down into the chair at his side, he relaxed and prepared to enjoy the show.

Quintillius approached Spock, his steps measured and unnecessarily slow, the rope draped loosely in his fingers.

The Vulcan, for his part, kept his attention on Kirk, showed virtually no reaction as it was draped around his neck, Quintillius reaching around to position the knot directly over his tracheal cavity before glancing up at Claudius, waiting for the cue to proceed.

A nod and the rope tightened. Spock closed his eyes in concentration as the knot cut into his windpipe, blocking off the air.

For a moment all was still. Then Quintillius, apparently disappointed by Spock's lack of reaction, took the rope in one hand and, curling the other into a tight fist, drove it into his spine. Simultaneously loosened the pressure to allow air in, Spock gasping as he instinctively drew in a deep breath, letting out an involuntary cry of pain as Quintillius hit him again.

That cry was the last straw, sent Kirk rocketing out of his chair. The guards at either side, anticipating his action, lunged forward, one grasping his collar, the other slamming a rifle butt between his shoulder blades. Kirk staggered and, before he could recover, another caught him in the chest and the captain went down.

Spock's eyes flew open as Quintillius tightened the rope again, saw Kirk fall, soldiers swarming all around him. The light caught on a sword that flashed somewhere over the captain's head.

And in a heartbeat every trace of passivity, of acceptance, vanished without a trace.  Twisting sharply to the side, he forced Quintillius to relax his hold, then hit him hard with his shoulder, sending him into a camera and cameraman, all three collapsing in a shower of sparks and broken glass. Dropping his head, he brought it up against the chin of the man to his left, knocking him out cold, then pivoted, slamming his boot into the sandaled foot of the one on his right, crushing all five toes beneath it. The man fell like a stone, shrieking in agony, his body curled in a fetal position.

Pandemonium broke out. Soldiers came from everywhere, charged onto the stage to surround the enraged Vulcan who, despite his chains, seemed positively demonic now. They tackled him, drove him to his knees, overwhelming him by sheer numbers alone. Their heavy armor tore at his shirt, cutting his skin and drawing blood. Spock attempted to stand but more men joined the fray and held him down.

The struggle lasted less than thirty seconds but that was more than enough time for Kirk to regain his feet. Throwing his weight backward, he sent both preoccupied guards of the rear of the podium. Spun around in one fluid motion to kick a leg out of Claudius' chair, the proconsul screeching in fear as he tumbled to the ground with a dull thud.

Several soldiers, believing him in danger, rushed to Claudius' defense. Kirk lowered his center of gravity as they charged him, aiming for a small gap in their ranks, but the defensive motion came an instant too late. They impacted with a crash, a shield swinging around to deal him a stunning blow to the forehead, opening an inch wide gash in his flesh, and once again the captain went down.

Nostrils flaring as he scented Kirk's blood, Spock's hormones went ballistic and, drawing on some hidden reserve of strength, he threw the soldiers away in one supreme effort, scattering them wildly across the tile floor. Rising to his feet, he moved toward the podium.

Claudius scrambled up. The cameras were still rolling, swiveling back and forth from the battle on the stage to the one on the reviewing stand. He pointed at Spock, advancing toward them with impossible speed despite the shackles around his feet. "Stop him!"

At his side, Kirk groaned, pressed a palm against the wound as he attempted to rise. Soldiers grabbed him, spun him around and pushed him back into his chair.

Spock's eyes were black, flashing with fire and murderous rage. Shoving one unfortunate guard aside as if he was a rag doll, he was less than ten feet from the reviewing stand when four others hit him from behind, knocking him to the ground. Three of them lay across his legs, two more pushing both shoulders flat against the floor. Quintillus, shaking off the broken glass, and furious at being made to look the fool, twined the rope between his hands and, straddling Spock's waist, wrapped it around his neck once more. “Hold him still!” he yelled, trying to reposition the knot as expertly as before.

Claudius' heart was racing. This was even better than he'd dared hope, the spotlight zeroing in on Spock, twisting mightily under overwhelming strength. Ironic, he thought. I buy Kirk's good behavior by threatening McCoy and I buy Spock's by threatening Kirk. A devil's bargain, to be sure, Claudius clearly recalling how the Vulcan's face had paled to ash when he'd described the fate that awaited his beloved captain if he put up any resistance during the execution. And he wouldn't have fought back, didn't fight back until Kirk was attacked. Had stood, stoical and unmoving, until he'd seen him fall, the sight transforming him into a wild beast, savage and primeval, consumed by a fanatical need to protect.

But now he was helpless: they were both helpless, Spock crushed under the weight of a half-dozen men, Kirk, immobilized by his injury and the vise-like hands clasped around both arms. You didn't intend to fight, either, did you, friend? Claudius felt a momentary twinge of compassion as he watched the captain's blood flow down the side of his neck. You tried to protect the doctor but when he cried out in pain you couldn't sit still. You couldn't. Spock is your true weakness, Kirk, not McCoy. He's something special to you, stands apart from the rest of your crew. Perhaps it's just as well that you don't see this.

Facing the stage, he called out, “Get it over with.”

The cords tightened around Spock's throat as he fought in yet another attempt to break free but the effort was useless this time. He had no leverage in his prone position and his motions weren't strong enough to throw the men from his back.

Seconds ticked by. The distracted guards eased their grip on Kirk's arms as they focused on the scene unfolding before them.

Nearly a full minute. Two. Three. The guards backed off, everyone watching the execution with rapt attention. There was no music, no sound other than the shuffling of bodies as the men shifted to get a better hold on the prisoner. The occasional pants as they jostled against one another.

Unnoticed, Kirk stirred as he fought to retain consciousness. He blinked, instinctively stopped moving as he tried to gather his thoughts.

Then he looked up.

Spock's eyes were glazed, his skin turning a ghastly shade of green. His head was pulled back by the pressure of the rope as he continued to struggle weakly against the deadly pressure suffocating him.

Kirk's mind cleared instantly. He scrambled to his feet, the pain in his head forgotten, and jerked a gun free, bringing it up against the guard's jaw. The force of the blow sent him careening into two of his fellows, all three falling off the edge of the podium, landing in a heap scant inches from where their compatriots had a few moments earlier. Shifting the rifle, Kirk fired several shots into the ceiling as he tore onto the stage.

The sight of a man who seconds before had sat slumped, semiconscious, in a chair, now charging at them as if he had an entire battalion at his back so unnerved the soldiers holding Spock down that they, led by the mighty Quintillius, nearly tripped over one another as they scattered before him.

He reached Spock just as they stopped their wild retreat, no doubt abashed they'd just been filmed fleeing like scared rabbits before a single adversary. Milled about in a loose group, caught between their embarrassment and a complete loss as to know what to do.

"Can you breathe?" Kirk sensed their uncertainty, assumed his most aggressive posture, aiming the gun at each soldier in turn.

Kneeling beneath him, Spock bowed his head, repressed the gasping reflex, knowing that it would be a distraction. "Yes."

His voice was raw but if he could talk he could breathe and Kirk nodded, grateful for the voice, lacerated though it was. "Get over against the wall."

Spock moved without question, crawling toward the painted background. Kirk moved with him and, when the Vulcan was pressed against it, planted himself directly before him, the gun in his hands, as if daring the soldiers to try anything.

Claudius stood on the reviewing stand, as mesmerized as everyone else by this startling turn of events. Kirk's rapid recovery had left him quite speechless. If he hadn't seen the ease with which he'd scattered those soldiers, he wouldn't have believed it. Glancing at the wall clock, he noted with surprise that barely five minutes had passed. In a way it seemed hours ago since Spock first made his appearance but in another it had all been a blur, and he found himself grateful that it had been recorded on film. A fascinating show, once his soldiers' disgraceful behavior had been edited out, anyway.  No doubt would draw stupendous numbers in reruns.

Said soldiers began to inch forward as a stab of pain momentary betrayed Kirk and he swayed to one side. Spock immediately staggered to his feet and leaned up against him, the contact seeming to strengthen both.

Claudius hazarded a few steps down the reviewing stand. "Get away from him, Captain. He's a condemned felon. You cannot protect him."

"I can try."

Small eyes narrowed. Stubborn bastard. "Move away,” he repeated. “Now."

Kirk stood his ground. Claudius shot a glance at Spock, hoping that he would attempt to dissuade him but, seeing them stand together like two halves of the same whole, he knew with absolute certainty that nothing short of death would separate them now. And the Vulcan obviously knew it too for he kept his silence.

A rather disgusted sigh, the proconsul not at all pleased that he was going to lose both on the same day. But what real choice did he have, after all? Such outright refusal couldn't be tolerated, certainly not on national television, and he reluctantly gave in, waved a jeweled arm in the air. “As you wish. Guards, resume the execution. Kill them both."

The soldiers advanced in unison. Kirk and Spock stood, back-to-back, to face them. Unseen by the natives, Spock stretched out his fingers and brushed them against the captain's back in a silent gesture of gratitude and farewell.

Suddenly a young nobleman, Titus Pullo by name, ran into the room and, bounded up the podium stairs. Seeing his frantic entrance, the men hesitated. Turning back to the reviewing stand, they waited.

"Sir," he whispered, sliding to a halt at the Proconsul's elbow. "All the phones are ringing. The people are calling in. Hundreds, thousands. The operators can't keep up with them!"

Claudius frowned. He should have known. The rabble was growing tired of the continual heroics. "They'll get their executions,” he muttered darkly. “Gods, can't they wait a few ---”

Pullo unthinkingly grabbed his arm. "NO!"

His voice was loud, clearly carrying to the microphones. Claudius gave him a severe look. "Keep your voice down!"

”No,” the man repeated, more softly this time. "The people like them. They want them to live. They all want them to live."

"All?" Claudius was shocked by this disgraceful, and quite unexpected, show of mercy.

The director was gesturing wildly as he listened over his headphones. Held up his hands, fingers splaying as he related the numbers rolling in. Pullo's eyes grew enormous. "93%! Lucius Vorenus says the odds are 93% in favor! You can't kill them now!"

Claudius digested this startling news silently. 93% favorable rating. Unheard of. A year ago he'd gotten the largest albino bull in history to be slaughtered in the annual Mithraic rites. He was happy then with his 73% share. It was, after all, the highest rating any program had ever received. Until now.

He looked down at the subjects of such intense interest. They stood, still pressed up against one another, Spock weighed down by chains, hands bound behind him, Kirk armed with a single rifle, blood coating his face and neck, spreading out across the front of his shirt. Claudius suspected that, if one of them was to move away, the other would collapse like a house of cards. But together, they gave off a strength that was undeniable. The reaction of his audience was not so difficult a thing to understand.

Claudius snapped his fingers, the cameras immediately swinging around to face him. He smiled his best diplomatic smile at the enormous, unseen audience. "My friends, I have decided that, due to the exceptional courage and tenacity displayed by these two slaves, they will be pardoned and will live to fight another day."

Canned applause filled the air. Claudius held up a white hand. "I trust that you all enjoyed the show, although it didn't turn out as expected. We will now return to our regularly scheduled program. I bid you all good night." He bowed at the waist as the announcer took over and the credits rolled.

Kirk and Spock had turned, stood now shoulder-to-shoulder, facing him. " Well, Captain,” he said with far more ease than he felt, “you've managed to save his life, after all. I compliment you on your accomplishment."

A soldier reached for the rifle. Kirk warned him back. Claudius protested. "Now, now, I've just told my people, on the air, that you'll be spared. Surely you don't think me such a fool as to kill you now, after that?"

Kirk cast Spock a quick look. To Claudius the Vulcan's face remained noncommittal but the captain obviously saw something there. Slowly, he extended his arm and handed the rifle to the wary soldier before him.

As soon as he was disarmed, Claudius walked onto the stage and stood a few feet away, hands on his hips. "Whatever shall I do with you?"

The question was clearly rhetorical and received no reply. Marcus regarded the two men for a moment, then made his decision. "Take the Vulcan back to his cage, but..." he paused, fingering Spock's torn shirt, "clean him up first and give him some new clothes." Reached higher to brush against his neck. "You see, Captain, despite it all, no marks. My executioner is skilled at his work, even if, in this case he was unsuccessful in completing it." Marcus pulled away, sensing Spock's distaste at the touch. "Get him out of here."

Kirk stood stiffly, hands balled into fists, as Spock was taken from the room. "He'll be all right,” Claudius assured. “They'll return him to McCoy, who will undoubtedly soothe his bruised and battered spirit. And as for you, I have something different in store for you."

Kirk's gaze did not falter. Defiant to the end. "Do you recall Drusilla, the lovely Drusilla from yesterday?" Claudius tilted his head as he studied Kirk's wound.  The bleeding had begun to slow but it was still a nasty thing.  "She won't like that, though.  She's led a sheltered life in the palace, you know. The sight of blood will surely terrify her. We'd best clean you up as well."  He turned to his guards.  "Take him to the guest quarters in the southern wing and wash him.  And get my physicians in to seal up that wound.  When he's presentable again, see that Drusilla joins him there."

Claudius watched as the men roughly escorted Kirk away, his mind spinning. Spock might have the superior strength but it was Kirk who was the real danger here. Given the opportunity, after what he'd seen tonight, he might conceivable win his freedom and pose a threat to his very own position. An hour ago Claudius would have laughed at such a preposterous idea. Now he wasn't so sure. After all, it wouldn't be the first time a slave rose to a position of authority. His own great grandmother had been one although he'd gone to extraordinary lengths to purge that information from the record.

The young nobleman returned to his side. "Pullo," Claudius muttered, "I want you to make an announcement over the air in the morning. Tell the people that Kirk has raped and beaten a bed slave, a young, helpless woman – no, make her a child, say ten years of age - but in view of how positively they've reacted to him tonight, we're conducting a survey on whether he should be executed for this. Set up a phone bank and ask them to call in and vote: life or death. We'll announce the results before the eleven o'clock news report."

"But, sir, after what just happened, surely he'll be spared. The callers were beside themselves, over his bravery, how he defended his friend. He got even more calls than the Vulcan and, gods, he looks good on film. The cameras just love him. Even some of the people in the control booth were commenting on that. He could be a movie star!"

That was what Claudius was afraid of. He gave Pullo a searing glare. "The vote will be 52% - 48% in favor of death. Do you understand?"

Pullo regarded him without comprehension.

"Kirk is dangerous. I want him eliminated. The vote will be 52% in favor of death."

Understanding dawned, followed by a rather reptilian smile. "Yes, Proconsul. I'll see that it's taken care of." Bowing to the waist, he rapidly left the room.

Claudius' gaze followed him out, a feeling of vast relief coursing through his veins. It was a good decision. Kirk was just too admirable, too forceful, to be allowed to live.

Spock: he'd decide what to do with that one later. Another execution next Sunday? Or possibly some way could be found to make him fight. Claudius doubted he'd kill to save McCoy but drugs, with time, might do the trick. Perhaps they could turn him into an addict. Lord knows, the ones down here would kill easily enough to get a fix.

But Kirk would have to go. Young Pullo and the technicians watching the live feed were quite correct. The cameras did love him, too much by far. There was a fire to him, a fierce, almost frightening determination. Strong, yet vulnerable in a way difficult to pin down.

Claudius scowled. Charisma: that's what it was. Charisma and an overwhelming sense of self-confidence. Two qualities that were all too rare and couldn't be faked. A kind of animal magnetism, one that he himself lacked completely. The proconsul might be many things but blind he was not. He had no delusions about the way he looked. He was frail, despite his bulk, and effeminate. His popularity was based on the games and he knew it.

Turning, Claudius viewed the wreckage and blood of the reviewing stand. Tomorrow he would sit here again, that spineless Mericus at his side this time, and watch the captain die. And there would be no Vulcan to upset the dynamic, no drama or heroism or shared camaraderie.  Kirk would be alone and he would die. And that would be the end of it.

A slave sidled up and tentatively handed him a bowl of fruit. He took it without looking and the girl slipped away unnoticed. Claudius shook his head. He should be happy but he wasn't. He picked up a grape and nibbled one end but it tasted sour in his mouth and he spit it back out. Then, throwing the dish against the wall, he stomped from the room, barking out an order for the Persian boy to be brought to him without delay.








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