Raining again. Crimson drops splatter Jo’s hat brim as he emerges from under the ticket seller’s awning and crosses the rails to meet me.
Above comes the thunderous cheers of the spectators. Can see by the glow of the score board Joe’s face. His expression says it isn’t any good.
“Same reason?” I ask.
He nods. “I don’t understand how you want to do this,” he says. “Look at that rain. Somebody’s dying up there.”
“Don’t you want to get out of here? The grid is the only way out and I’m hungry. You know I’m hungry. Every night, it’s the grid in my dreams. I wake up tasting it.”
Joe says, “You could put me down as your second. They’d go for that.”
“Yeah? You’d do that? I mean…of course I’d win. You’d be safe. But, thought you couldn’t stand it?”
The arena bell rings above us. We walk back over to the ticket seller.
The robot through the window scans me. I look like a fighter, got the mass. That’s why I sent Joe over. Joe looks like the trolley ran him over and he’d just stood up again. Thought maybe they’d see him and not bother processing my name. I don’t know…slim chances.
“Two tickets,” I say. “I’m first.” I glance at Joe. He nods. “He’s second,” I tell the bot.
I clasp his boney shoulder as we ride the cage up to the grid. He is shaking, stinking with nerves. My chest pumps with what feels like kill juice, but is only gratitude.
“You stay in the corner,” I tell him. “Everything will be cool as ice pie.”
The crowd noise shakes the platform. Opponent is a shark human mutant. Ancient predatorial look. Mouth full of fangs. Almost 360 degree visual field (except for directly in front and directly behind). Acute stereoscopic smell. Uncovered gills below its head. Just for show? No water up here. Solitary brain. Weapons, only its teeth. Mutants, unlike humans, can’t bring in weapons.
Joe is a leaf in a wind behind me. Sixth sense aware of him back there. The weight of the axe bends my shoulders, a good 20 kilos of edged murder.
Bell goes clang. Here we go.
Head-down, shark guy charges. Fangs long as my pinky. Axe meets smile.
Blood spray red as rubies across both me and Joe. The shark guy clenches its jaws and rips. The axe is torn out of my hands. Fuck.
No slowing it down. Focus. Kill juices spike my brain.
Joe, in the peripheral, moves to my left, its right. I keep it ahead of me, try to keep in its blind spot. Its head twists.
It worries about my hands. Why? Can’t choke gills. Lost the axe. Its eyes?
Half a second spools out. I drive forward. Drive the attack. Thumb gouge for the eyes.
Head turns. Fangs open wide. Axe falls out of its mouth. One, two thumbs screw into the eyes and its jaws clamp on my left bicep. Pain daggers through my shoulder, embeds in my heart. Sparkles behind my eyes. Punch out. Punch it up. Focus. Drive the fight.
It’s got me. Shaking me.
Joe grabs the axe. Against the rules for seconds to move before firsts are down. Does he think I’m down?
I am down. Spine flat on the metal grid, head pounded. My blood is the rain.
Joe moves forward, scrawny Joe, driving the fight.
Surprised Joe can even lift the axe. Short swing at the shark’s knee.
I get my feet under me. One armed, I’m up, swaying, seeing red, feeling the kill juices make me mad. No guts no glory. Time to disembowel.
I one-hand up the axe while the shark guy toys with Joe. Joe is on all fours, the shark’s foot on his tailbone. Distant cheers want the shark to finish Joe. The shark wants time on the grid for the spotlight shine. He wants a fight deal. Wants an agent’s gaze to settle on his ugly visage and snap him up, stick him in their deck of fighters.
The axe cleaves an arc through the air. Impact in the shoulder. Taste the music, sounds like blood. Rain for me rain.
In the aid station, I get my arm sprayed. Joe’s spine is realigned and he’s shot to the eyes with pain drugs.
They told us it didn’t count. I threw the fight when I got up. We have to do another match. It’s that or take the loss. We can’t afford the loss.
“Is it worth it?” Joe asks. “I know you’re trying to get us up top. But is it worth getting kicked to shit for? We get rained on below, but it isn’t our blood.”
Joe doesn’t have it, the blood lust, the fervor for the hunt. He likes to make sandwiches for hungry kids who work hard in the 3D mills. Doing work too tedious for bots. “Kids gotta eat,” he says. Well, this kids gotta fight.
I go to the ticket seller. Ask if there’s a chance I can take Joe off as my second.
“No deal,” the seller says. “We got plenty of mutants waiting for a chance. You guys don’t make a good show unless you make a good show as being weak. People like to see an unfair fight.”
“Two mutants isn’t an unfair fight.” I point out.
“People like to see a fair fight as well as an unfair fight.”
“So what am I alone up against a mutant?”
“You’re half and half. They don’t know whether the cup’s half empty or half full when it comes to you alone.”
So, Joe’s in it with me again, back corner left. Now, we have to win to stay out of debt jail.
The grid is 80 feet from the street, the lowest point of the Up Top. Cages from the street won’t go any higher than the grid. Our fight space is 100 foot square. No cover. Tourane is metallic grid. Slippery when wet. Knives get lost down the holes. Been people below stabbed.
Our monster of the evening is another down-below tough. Someone like a mirror image of me. But he’s got metallic armor inserts—3d printed plates over his vitals. One brain, though. Three breathing holes and two of them are on his nose. I can do this.
His weapon is a bat with a steel spike on the top. I can see the advantages. Clubs don’t get caught in meat. That spike will slip in and out easy as ice pie.
“Hey,” it said from its side before the bell. “Hey, bitch. Am going to fuck up your boy. Your second. He gets the spike through the eye. Don’t give a shit ’bout you.”
“Don’t worry,” I murmur to Joe. “Just talk.” Can’t go after you until I’m down. Would throw the fight.”
Bell clangs. Here’s how it happens.
1. I’m in low, under the gravity centre. He’s tall. Against him I have bigger reach with axe.
2. I chop at the ankles, going to get both feet gone. He’s not there, moved by in a snap. Didn’t see.
3. Has Joe in a headlock. Short grip on the bat club, spike poised above Joe’s eye.
4. I see red shadows. I hear my heart screaming in my chest. Things happen too fast to move.
5. Joe sinks the two hands worth of razor blade into the unarmoured lower jaw. Blood rains.
They call the fight a failure. Twice rules of engagement have been broken. Joe and I are uninjured and drinking coffee in his shop below. He’s making sandwiches for kids just off the line. I’m on a stool, looking out the window.
“I’m done,” I say. “I’m not doing this again. I’ll just get used to it down here.”
“One more chance and we’ll get it.”
“No, I don’t feel it anymore. It’s not a thing.”
“I don’t understand.” Two pieces of bread, a squirt of sauce, a slab of bio-grown meat, sliced off with the same knife Joe stuck the tough with. There’s a sandwich. Five bites.
“They won’t let me go up there alone,” I say. “I don’t want you up there.”
“So close,” Joe says. “You’re so close. It’s been bad luck. Think about the exposure you’ve had. Got to capitalize.”
“When did you become a fan?”
“I’m nothing. Want a sandwich?”
next day, he brings me a ticket. Not a first, a second. He’s the first. He’s got the lust. Outside, it begins to rain.
Up top we hit the grid. It’s a black knight, a mech in ebony armour, broad sword chopping ghosts before we start. Crowd is one voice, roaring, snarling. They smell death.
We had switched tickets last minute. I told the official there had been a mistake, that I was the first. Joe was second.
“Better odds the other way round,” he said.
“I don’t care,” I said. “Change ’em.”
Now, I can’t get my tongue to work up the spit. There’s no kill juices in me. I’m rung like a cloth. Something’s drained all the go out of me. I want to run.
The bell rings. The grid clangs with armored boots. I move forward. Got to drive the action. Axe is so heavy in my hands.
We meet in the middle of the grid. Sparks jump as steel meets steel. The jolt staggers me back. The mech moves forward.
I haven’t looked for weak points, assessed where its breath holes are, its centre of gravity, its brains. There’s an organism in there somewhere, human or mutant, I don’t even know. I’m gone. I’ve kissed the world goodbye. I see death looking at me. It says my name.
We meet again. My axe swing is wild and it knocks it aside. Goes in for the stab.
Stabbing with a broadsword is stupid. I should use its stupidity to my advantage. I do not.
It’s everything just to get out of the way. I hop backward, madness buzzing me like flies. It’s my madness, my madness for even being here. Why am I here? Joe, of course. The Up Top. Not for me. Never for me. Always for him.
Broadsword descends once, twice. I move so slow I can feel the wind. I can’t find my fight. There’s no blood lust left. It’s rained away through the grid.
But Joe is second. If I crash and burn then Joe dies. It’s the Up Top or nothing.
So move in. Drive the attack. Focus. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. Cut and cleave. Ware it down. It’s got to take a lot of energy packing a suit of metal.
It’s like chopping wood. I am soaked in sweat. It cleaves a flap of flesh from my right shoulder. I dent its helmet.
Blood on the grid. Slick. Watch it.
I can almost taste the taste of blood.
The knight slips in my blood. Down it falls. I move in for the kill. Axe up. Axe down.
Pain across my shins. Pain as bright as suns.
I’m down. Spine to the grid. Above me the knight swarms to its feet. Its helmet has been knocked sideways by my axe. But it seems unharmed. I believe I can die.
Joe steps in. It’s what he’s wanted. He’s driven me up here. I told him I didn’t care. He’s in the knight’s face, stabbing with his bread knife, a propeller of churning death. The knife breaks in two.
Joe grabs my axe. Holds it up close to the head. Does care about reach. Moves like a dancer.
Joe builds a sandwich. He has assessed the weak points in the mech suit. Threatens them on each side. It’s hard to work terrain on the grid, but Joe does it. Gets the knight into a corner.
You should always leave your opponent an escape. Otherwise, they will fight with desperation. This is something I was told a long time ago by someone who’d never fought on the grid. Someone who did not know the desperation that drove people up there already.
Who in the world would willingly face mortal combat for the chance to leave the Down Below? No matter if they’re pumped up on kill juice injected straight to their hearts. No matter if they have family counting on them. Lovers praying. Those aren’t the reasons. Those are the justifications.
The people who do it are the crazies who see that they can, and because it’s there to do, they believe it must be done. People do fucking stupid things for those reasons alone. They die climbing mountains, going to space, exploring far-flung regions of a blue-green orb that only exists now on the faded memory cores of out-dated computer sets.
Thus Joe cleaves the knight’s head from its shoulders. Thus Joe sends a shower of red through the grid. Thus Joe kneels over me until the medic droids come and slap me up with tranquilizers.
The truth, of course, is that above the Down Below, there is the Up Top. But above the Up Top, there’s something even taller.