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* * *

by Mercedes Lackey

“The five S’s of sports training are: stamina, speed,

strength, skill, and spirit; but the greatest of these is spirit.”

—Ken Doherty,

American Decathlete and Coach

New York Times Bestselling author Mercedes Ritche Lackey (born June 24, 1950) is the author of popular series like Serrated Edge, Elemental Masters, Bedlam’s Bard, and Diana Tregarde. Many of her novels and trilogies are interlinked and set in the world of Velgarth, mostly in and around the country of Valdemar. Her Valdemar novels form a complex tapestry of interaction between human and non-human protagonists with many different cultures and social mores. Her other main world is one much like our own, but includes clandestine populations of elves, mages, vampires, and other mythical beings. Also a prolific writer of short fiction, she has also edited anthologies and can be found online at

With the Olympics, it all began with running, and Mercedes Lackey gives us a new take on the sport here.

* * *

Dimitrios Nikolaidis paced restlessly behind the starting blocks, conscious, ever conscious, of the need to keep every fiber of every muscle warmed up. The 1500-meter race would begin soon; the field was sparse. So few had come to run it that there had only been two elimination heats.

It was a perfect day for running, neither too hot nor too cold. The sun shone down brightly on the white marble stadium. There was not a cloud in the sky.

Of course it was perfect. The alien masters who controlled even the weather would not spoil the Olympic Games here in Athens; not when they provided such an amusing contrast with their own Galactic Games.

Oh, they made a great pretense about “honoring the original Games,” but he didn’t think anyone but the most naïve or credulous was likely to be taken in by their bland lies.

Not with that overhead. . . .

Dimitri glanced up at the Skytron covering a quarter of the sky, carefully altering its position as the day went on to avoid obscuring the sun. It showed the Galactic Games stadium in all its eye-watering glory. Unimaginably huge, of course, and packed with a bewildering assemblage of sentient beings. The attendance—inside a purpose-built space-station permanently orbiting a particularly scenic binary system—stood in sharp contrast to the stadium here, a replica of the historical Athenian original, whose stone benches held perhaps a tenth of the number of spectators it could have hosted at capacity. The Athens Arcology, just visible over the eastern rim of the stadium, was about an hour’s maglev ride away—too distant for anyone but a dedicated Olympic enthusiast to come. As for visitors from other countries, much less other worlds, well, why would they bother to attend in the first place? You could watch the Olympics from the comfort of your own chair easily enough—assuming you weren’t preferentially watching the Galactics.

Dimitri had not been born when the Galactics finally arrived in all their glory to save Earth. Of course, it wasn’t until after the fact that people realized the Galactics had not been saving the Earth for humans. By that time, of course, it was rather too late. By the time Dimitri was five, Earth had become what the Galactics wanted it to be. The old cities were emptied, the inhabitants replanted in purpose-built Arcologies, the emptied shells looted of anything the Galactics wanted, then razed and replanted as resort parks. The climate had been restored to pre-Industrial perfection; the growing acidity of the ocean taken care of with a virtual wave of the hand, and even the most poisoned waters dealt with by means of purification plants. The vast wildernesses had been restored, complete to the wildlife, where Galactic tourists could marvel at the views from their resort hotels.

Earth’s culture was looted too; ancient artifacts carried off to ornament Galactic estates, museums denuded down to the plaster, entire buildings and even some cities, like Paris, carried off wholesale. Movies, plays, books, music, anything and everything, all had been appropriated by the voracious Galactic culture, which swallowed up everything Earth could produce.

People became loot too. There were some, artists and musicians, writers and composers, and even historians, who made out very well. Most of them weren’t even on Earth anymore either; their patrons liked to keep their clever pets near at hand.

Dimitri glanced from time to time at the other runners, pacing, stretching, running in place. He knew them all, and they knew him. As in the ancient days, it was again; they were all friends. Henri, the Jamaican, together with Vidor, the Russian, and St. Denis, the French-Canadian, were his main competition. They all ate together, lived together, the tiny sports-villages holding so few competitors that there was no point in being segregated by nationality.

There had been no vast conquering army. There had been no need for anything so uncivilized. Not when a vast, overwhelming technological superiority allowed the Galactics to simply do as they pleased. Resistance really was futile; the Galactics took no notice of it. The wealth of the Galactic civilization was such that they could treat an entire planet the way that the Native Americans had been treated by the white races, only without the genocide. The Galactics took what they wanted, and in compensation for their looting, installed all of humanity in the Arcologies, where, if they chose, they could live without ever doing a bit of work.

And many did choose that path. But if you wanted more than bare subsistence . . .

Humans were amusing generalists. They made good servants, if they were obsequious enough. And if they weren’t, well, there were so many that it was easy enough to replace those who failed.

So the Galactics were free to have anything they wanted on the entire planet.

Except . . . in this one, singular case. One thing that the Galactics had wanted that they could not have.

The idea of sports competitions had come as a revelation to them, and they went sports mad. The appropriated every sport they saw, and some resurrected from the past. And four years after their coming, when it had been time for the Olympics, they made to appropriate those, too.

And for once, met a barrier they could not beat down.

No, said the IOC, and no, said the Priestesses of Zeus, whom the IOC had resurrected from the historic record. The Olympics are not for sale, said the IOC, and the Olympics are only for humans, said the Priestesses.

The two groups had been colluding, planning for four years, setting that barrier in stone ever since the first ship had appeared in the skies. Nowhere in any ancient writing was it said that any creature other than a human could compete in honor of the gods in whose image humanity had been made. This was what the IOC had concocted the moment they realized that Galactic civilization intended to strip everything of cultural worth from the planet.

They turned the Olympics into a religious rite. And when the Galactics first became aware of the Games, they were informed that the Olympics were not just a sports competition. They were rites of the gods. They were not for non-humans, although non-humans would, grudgingly, be allowed as spectators. They were not to be held off of Earth. In fact, they were not to be held anywhere but in Greece, in the shadow of Mount Olympus. To violate religious sanctions was absolutely forbidden by the Galactics’ own laws. Faced with that—even the Galactics had backed down.

Dimitri glanced up again at the Skytron, potent symbol of just how petty the masters could be, however they pretended otherwise. You can hold your Olympics, but it will be literally in the shadow of our Games. The Galactic Games. Enjoy! Every moment had been scheduled to contrast with the Olympics, right down to the individual events.

The IOC had gambled on the fact that the Galactics would not trouble themselves to research the history of the Games once they had been thwarted. They had not been wrong.

To the original diaulos, or 400-meter race, the dolichos, or 1500-meter race, the pentathalon, the revived pankration, and the boxing, the IOC had added all the usual Olympic events, only to have to cut them back again when it became painfully clear that there were not going to be enough participants in most of them to make it worth while holding them.

Clearly they could not have held a Winter Olympics, at all, and still keep up the pretense that these were an original religious celebration dating back to Ancient Greece.

The revamped Olympic Games consisted of the most basic of track-and-field and gymnastic events. It all fit into a bare seven days, with room to spare, including some extensive religious ceremonies on either side.

Speaking of ceremonies . . . Dimitri straightened up. The Priestesses were coming to anoint the final participants. He and the others lined up at their starting blocks, and bowed their heads. As the Priestess whispered a blessing in archaic Greek, he felt the light caress of her thumb on his forehead, leaving behind a single touch of olive oil pressed from ancient trees on the slope of Mount Olympus.

He was not expecting it. He was really only thinking of his muscles, of the need to get out of the starting blocks ahead of St. Denis and Henri. But the moment he felt the Priestess touch his forehead, he looked into her eyes, and suddenly, he was filled with light. It was as if the sun had come down to earth and filled him.

He could not think. He did not want to think.

As in a dream, he took his place in the starting blocks.

Still in a dream, he heard the commands of the starter. His body reacted while his mind still filled with the sun, the sun, the sun. Ready. Set.

He did not hear the starter’s pistol. But his body did. Suddenly, he was in motion. No, he was flying. He could not feel his limbs. He could not hear his heart, nor feel the breath in his lungs. There was no effort. There was only light.

In the first lap, he and St. Denis were side-by-side, and Henri was just behind them both. This was wrong. Dimly, he knew that he was running the race all wrong. The 1500-meter was a matter of strategy; the man who won was always the one who came from behind. And yet, he could not have slowed his pace if he had been told that he would fall over dead in the next moment. He ran in a trance of joy, filled with light and energy, and his footfalls felt as effortless as dancing.

In the second lap, St. Denis dropped back. Vidor was coming from behind, and Henri was at his elbow. And he was no more weary than he had been the moment he flew from the blocks. He was running, running, running, not for himself, not to win, but for the glory of Zeus, for the joy of sport. He felt his mouth forming a smile, an enormous grin. Dimly, he heard the crowd roaring, as he moved into the third lap, and Vidor dropped back, unable to keep the pace. Now it was only Henri and him, and he felt not less energy, but more. The light filled him. The joy upheld him. He felt himself going faster.

The crowd was going insane. And as they passed into the last lap, he felt, rather than saw, Henri dropping back, and now, now it was only him, him, and the gods, and the joy of speed, the intoxication of that was more than he had ever felt, for any reason, ever before.

And now the tape loomed up before him. And now he felt his chest breaking it. And still he ran, not even signaling his victory, but ran as the light rose up within him like a song . . . and then, slowly faded, as his footfalls slowed, as the others gathered around him, and lifted him, dazed and bewildered, onto their shoulders, and he could hear, dimly, over the roaring, the words. The words. “Three minutes, fifteen point two seconds! A new Olympic and world record!”

And they brought him, on their shoulders, still dazed, to the victor’s stand. They put him up on the winner’s box. Henri came up beside him, and Vidor. And the Priestess brought him the laurel wreath, and placed it on his head, and the crowd deafened him.

And then . . . he looked up. To the Skytron. And there, at that moment, a strange scarlet creature with legs taking up half its body, legs like a kangaroo’s, was being put on a winner’s stand. Another thing like a blue stick-insect was putting a medal about its neck. And scrolling under the picture were the words, 1500 meters, new Galactic Games record! 2.32.04!

The light left him. He smiled, automatically. But the moment was over, the moment had died with his joy.

Now it was time for the next race, and he and the others left the podium. The moment was gone, as if it had never been.

He went to the locker room, and changed out of his tracksuit. And even as he pulled on his courier’s uniform, the implant in his head pinged.

“Dimitrios,” he said aloud.

“Ah, good,” said his boss, a creature who he had never personally seen. “Are you back on duty, done with your little games now?”

“Yes sir,” he said, politely.

“Excellent. There’s a package I need you to get at from Vericorp in Naples. Naples is close to Athens, isn’t it?”

Of course it wasn’t. But there was no point in saying so. It was the hand delivery that was important, not the distance. It was the cachet that his boss got from employing a very fast human. “I’ll get it, sir,” he replied automatically, accepting the job. The HUD implanted in his eye lit up with directions.

“Good lad. Chop-chop! Time is money!” Like most Galactics, the translation program his boss used aped the old arrogant forms of British colonial phraseology. He had no doubt this was deliberate.

The carrier wave cut off. He stuffed his tracksuit back in a locker, where someone would no doubt collect it, and ran for the maglev. That, after all, was what he was paid to do. Run.

Behind him, left on the bench, the laurel wreath began to wilt, and a single leaf dropped to the floor.

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