“A tune-up before you start, ma’am?”
I nearly jumped at the frail voice of the man by the door to the locker room. He’d poked his head through to get my attention, and I could see the cart he was pushing through the crack of the door. He seemed genuine enough.
“No, thank you,” I said as politely as I could, but I knew it came out weighed by trepidation.
“Are you sure, ma’am? The service is free for-”
“I’m fine,” I replied, knowing it sounded curt, “and I’d like the time to think, please.”
The older man squinted at me, but left with a shrug as his hand snatched the door and pulled. I noted the light reflecting off of the metallic fingers that disappeared as it closed. I sighed and looked to my shaking hands I’d concealed between my legs. Why did I agree to this?
“That’s it for the final match of the night, folks!” an energetic man’s voice announced over the intercom. “I know, I know, you want more! Well do I have news for you! We’re not done yet! We have one more exhibition not on the schedule, and it’s bound to make that main event look like…oh hell, it’s going to be a slaughter!”
I could hear the cheers and thundering stomps, and I was two levels below the arena. I had to wonder how many of those were from bionic legs?
“The reigning champion has been challenged by a complete outsider. That’s right folks, someone not even on the circuit! If the brave soul survives four minutes against the undefeated champ, then a prize of a million dollars awaits! Now, everyone give the newcomer a warm welcome, and…I’m just messing, scare the shit out of ‘em!”
A subtle knock came from the door, and a man in a black suit stepped halfway inside. Judging from the heavy footsteps, his legs weren’t natural. I guessed titanium framing rather than a normal calcium-based structure. Even his eyes didn’t look natural in the light.
“Ms. Halls? I’m the coordinator, Hank Redfield. It’s time.”
“Okay.” I stood up from the bench and took a deep breath.
“Please, follow me,” the Hank said dully. I walked through the door and into the dimly lit hallway. The announcer’s voice over the intercoms was just a buzz in my ears as we got onto the elevator and rode it up to the arena floor. The doors split open, and I was staring down a hallway of brutality. Men were on gurneys being tended to by hired surgeons who had probably lost their medical licenses doing God-knows-what. One had a man’s chest peeled open and was using a power drill to undo screws to get to his innards. Another was trying to reattach wiring on a severed arm that rested next to a young man who kept a hand over one eye. The fingers on the arm were twitching, with sparks shooting out between the torn skin of the knuckles.
“Be still,” the doctor instructed, inserting a scalpel between the knuckles to open the wound for a better look.
“I don’t get it!” the teen whined. “My dad paid for the best augmentations! I downloaded the best martial arts styles into my-”
“That is the difference between explicit memory and implicit,” the doctor explained in a condescending manner, “you know these things, but have no practice in the arts. You could download the entirety of The Art of War into your brain and still not be a great conquerer.”
“Hey, you’re a repairman. You’re paid to fix me, not teach.”
“Fixing you will require more than rewiring and a replaced free-rotating shoulder socket, child.”
The humor was a nice thing to focus on, but the words of the repairman were really quite wise. Society was spoiled by the works of Copper Veins Inc. Their grand technological revolution had erased the days of human limitations and forced evolution through artificial means. Soldiers were literal war machines, and even construction workers were overpowered brutes who could sling a girder like a baseball bat. I didn’t even want to think about baseball. That sport was ruled obsolete decades ago thanks to the hypersensitive responses of all of the players. Most players opted against using bats versus their own arms when they could calculate a precise hit with everything from wind variables to spin. It was a sport of who could put the best money into cybernetics, and in the end it fell victim to the times.
“You seem distracted,” Hank noted. I shook my head and realized we were standing at the end of the hallway, right before the doors to the arena.
“I’ll be fine.”
“What kind of enhancements do you have, anyway?” Hank asked, looking me up and down. “Whoever did the skin work did it well. No signs of surgical scars or anything. You must’ve paid top-dollar for that. Of course, if that were the case, I’d have to ask why you’re even doing this?”
“I have my reasons.”
Hank seemed unsatisfied with that reply, but gave up and opened the door for me. The sounds of excitement and blood lust slammed into me. The roar of the crowd was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life, and as I took one careful step after another into the circular ring I was overwhelmed by the attention. Apparently, no one had expected a woman. The ground was nerve-wrecking. Craters pocketed the concrete, and scorch marks were visible in a few spots. Dried blood and even oil stains were abundant. A true place where even angels would dare to tread.
“Okay, folks, settle down!” the announcer’s voice boomed over the speakers. “Now, this will be a single one-on-one round between the lovely Ms. Brenda Halls and our very own Trevor “Headcrusher” Marx!”
On that note, the doors opposite me opened to reveal a shady figure who slowly walked into the light. The whitish-blue flooded over him and revealed the abomination of a man who would be my opponent. Tall, covered in scars, and equipped with visible robotic legs and arms, the man’s eyes flared even from a distance. There was no telling what he was scanning for. X-ray views of my innards to determine what he was up against? Probability computations? There were plenty of ocular amplifications that could do everything from give the blind the ability to see again to eliminating the need for viewing instruments.
The crowd was going crazy over the champion’s appearance, and the announcer let the air fill with energy to feed off of. “I don’t even have to ask how excited you all are, do I? Well, I would say that our champion needs no introductions, but you all want to hear it! He wants to hear it! Let’s get this show started!”
The strange glow to the champion’s eyes stopped, and I found myself more nervous than relieved. Feet apart, I stood my ground and focused on breathing. I had to stay calm.
“With 315 pounds of flesh and metal, he’s broken and beaten everything in his path to the top to keep the champion title for three years straight! That metallic, flat mohawk isn’t just for style, because he keeps the advanced processor that keeps him a step ahead of his opponents and his pain inhibitors in there. The man is a walking weapon who was turned away by the Army for his brutal tendencies! Give it up for Trevor, the “Headcrusher,” Marx!”
I closed my eyes as the audience went insane with their cheers. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
“The challenger, well that’s another story. She opted out of the questionnaire before the match, but little does she know that we have guys for that reason!”
My eyelids split open. What did he mean?
“Get this! Her late husband was a mechanical engineer who worked for Copper Veins Inc.! He was one of the guys who designed the very augmentations we use! Don’t let her feeble arms fool you, because she could be packing Mk-3 Hammer Arms under lovely synthetic skin!”
He was trying to rattle me. I couldn’t lose focus. My target was the thing that resembled a man before me. Survive. I just had to survive for four minutes. I could do this.
“We also have information that suggests she’s actually a doctor who specializes in tending to artificial organ repairs! Now, I have to wonder what a doctor would be doing trying to earn money in a place like this?! What does everyone else think?!”
The crowd began to throw around speculations, and the murmurings weren’t exactly private. They didn’t need to know why I was here. They just needed to know that I wasn’t here to be scared away.
“Well, Mr. Halls did leave quite a bit of debts in his wake with all of his research, so I suppose she’s not in the best financial state with his passing. If it’s any condolences, Ms. Halls, he was a brilliant man to give us a reason to be entertained every single night. Am I right folks?!”
The murmurs became cheers, but I wasn’t swept with a feeling of pride. My husband’s work was to benefit humanity, not to turn us all into the weapons that these people thrived on watching. It was a dishonor to his name.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any medical records to hint at what possible enhancements she might have, and since there’s no rule against hiding personal augmentations from your opponent, we have to let her fight, folks! Desperate for money, or to join her late husband?! You decide! Let’s hear it for the brave soul down there! Ms. Brenda Halls!”
The cheers transformed into boos in an instant. If it weren’t for the cage surrounding the arena, I would have expected food to be thrown at me. Mr. “Headcrusher” took a fighting stance of some kind, and I did the same, drawing laughter from the spectators. A display above Trevor showed the time. The number four was never going to be just a numerical value to me ever again.
“Let’s get this party started!” the announcer shouted. “Let the match begin…now!”
Trevor stood his ground, motionless and cold. I shifted my footing and waited, wondering just what the monster had planned. The excitement that had taken the crowd began to soften and die as the time ticked away. Trevor showed no signs of aggression, and the onlookers weren’t happy. They cried for blood, but he remained still.
“Well…this is an odd start,” the announcer said, the disappointment evident in his tone. Trevor’s eyes flared a brief flash barely visible by me before going dark again. What was he doing? “Hey, are you two going to stand there?!”
I didn’t have to fight him, so wasting time like this wasn’t really a bad thing in my mind, but with every passing second I could only feel the tension escalating. Maybe he was just enjoying my discomfort? What if he was playing a mind game with me?
“Come on, you two! These people want a match! I know you’ve fought women before, Trevor! One actually gave you a scare last year!”
Trevor’s head shifted on his neck, facing upwards towards the commentator’s box. An audible gulp was heard over the speakers before the announcer spoke again. “N-never mind. You just have fun down there, okay big guy?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I braced myself and charged forward, screaming all the while as Trevor’s visage grew larger and larger with the distance becoming smaller and smaller. I stopped right before his figure, scared by the actual size of the cyborg. Trevor Marx emanated intimidation. His eyes were emotionless, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he really was a machine somewhere in there.
“Ms. Halls looked to be ready to strike, but has stopped short just at Trevor’s feet! I can’t say I blame her, but she’s going to have to do something soon if she wants to win! Personally, I suggest running!”
Trevor’s chin drooped downward, and I realized he was staring at me. My chest tightened, and my heart missed a few beats.
“Two minutes and thirty seconds,” Trevor said plainly. His voice even sounded mechanical. I could see the scars across his throat. His vocal cords had probably been replaced some time ago.
“What?” I asked, scared and confused.
“I will give you one minute to do whatever you would like. Pray, find peace, think of your loved ones, flee, or attack. Try to hack into my processor. Short my eyes. Stop my heart pump. Your choice. After that, I will not stop beating you until time is up.”
The words took a moment to register. In that time, ten more seconds passed, and I could see the screen up on the cage behind him. I was down to two minutes.
“My husband created technology like those things you call your arms to help people. They weren’t meant to hinder the world, but to lift people up in it.” I looked him square in the eye. “If you don’t agree with that, then at least don’t be so condescending just because I’m a woman.”
Trevor’s eyebrows raised up, but from the rest of his plain face I could tell he really didn’t care what I did with my time left.
“I think those two are having a heart-to-heart, folks!” the announcer stated. “I hope she doesn’t think that will work!”
“Why are you here?” Trevor asked me. It was funny; I think he was serious.
“I want to win that money,” I answered, watching him closely for any sign of a surprise attack.
“If what the loud one says is true, then you should not be in financial trouble, no?”
“My husband used his savings to fund his research, and my earnings and his insurance are paying that off.”
He chuckled. “Then why are you throwing your life away?”
His question sank into me like a stone to water. Unfortunately for him, I was a lake of faith. “To save another one.”
Trevor nodded, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I looked past his head to the display. One minute was left.
“Terminating limbic system responses. Engage all other systems. Overriding directive: eliminate Brenda Halls.”
The voice was so mechanical in tone that I almost missed the actual content of his words. “What?”
I didn’t even see what had happened. One second I was staring at Trevor, and the next I was staring at the concrete floor, chest aching and senses disoriented.
“Trevor knocks his opponent feet away with one swift punch! This is it, folks! The end of Ms. Halls!”
I hadn’t even pushed myself up yet when I felt the ground shaking from each powerful step Trevor took towards me. Something hard connected with my right arm and snapped the elbow like it was nothing. I went tumbling away, my forearm uselessly flailing about with me.
“Did you see that?! It snapped like a twig! I guess she doesn’t have bionic arms after all! I hope something she has will be useful!”
I managed to roll over onto my chest and force myself up on my remaining arm. Trevor was standing over me, his right hand outstretched and inches from my face. In the center of the palm was a green dot that was beginning to glow with an intense shine. A bright flash overtook my vision, and then it was gone. What was that?
“Trevor uses an electromagnetic pulse against Ms. Halls! When did he have that installed?!”
We stared each other down for a few seconds, confused by one anothers’ reactions. The hand became a fist and cocked back before coming at me fast. A few inches saved me from becoming mush in a crater as I rolled aside. Trevor was struggling to pull his arm out of the floor as I scurried to my feet and went on the offensive. I threw one foot at his metal elbow to no avail, so I resorted to punching him in the face. Each strike did nothing but reaffirm that even his skull was plated. He didn’t even react to my hits as he tore his arm free from the concrete in a cloud of dust. A hand plunged through it and seized me by the neck.
“Ms. Halls shows no sign of stopping! She must have copper plating over her organs, because I can’t imagine what would keep her going like this after Trevor’s surprise attack! Now she finds herself in his merciless grasp! What will he do?! Focus your telescopic eyes if you have ‘em, people! You don’t want to miss this!”
I began to hammer his arm with my fist and kick at his chest, but Trevor threw me to the floor, where my head bounced off of the cold concrete. I felt like I was already dead. I could see why Trevor was the thing he had become. Bones are brittle, and break. That’s why we replaced them. Hearts are dying powerhouses we replaced with mechanisms that pump tirelessly. Our brains were only steps from being supercomputers, and we perfected that. We inhibited our nerves, and can turn off our emotions. Our eyes can see more than there is. Humans have evolved to surpass our barriers to divinity.
Another kick connected with my chest and sent me sprawling across the floor. I came to rest next to a puddle of oil, and some of my hair was soaking in it.
“It’s time, Ms. Halls!” the announcer yelled. “I’d suggest doing something now!”
Mustering all of my strength, I pushed myself back up again and stood in front of the “Headcrusher.” I looked to the screen again. Ten seconds left. I just had to make it ten more seconds. Trevor threw another punch, and then everything went blurry. I had lost all sense of time along with everything else. By the time everything came back into focus and the ringing stopped there was a man leaning over me and staring closely at my chest. It was the worker who had tried to offer me maintenance before the match started. I could see his pupils flickering as I listened to the crowd applauding.
“Her heart’s beating again. She’s not dead, but she’s unable to fight.”
Trevor spoke from somewhere out of sight. “She’s lucky my systems accounted for it. By that logic, since it registered to me, she still loses.”
“She may lose more than the match,” the repairman said.
“Everything we are is replaceable,” Trevor said coldly.
“True, but her left forearm is snapped off at the elbow. A few toes are broken, numerous ribs are cracked, and her right hand is fractured in…my god…”
Trevor came into view, towering over me as I lay on my back. “Explain.”
“Aren’t we all?” Trevor inquired.
“No, she’s completely human! She has nothing inside of her! Everything is natural!”
Trevor crouched down and squinted at me. “In this day and age? She must have something artificial. Who would live like that with all we have?” I tried to smile, but could feel where a few teeth were missing. Trevor leaned forward. “You said you were throwing your life away to save another. What did you mean by that?”
It hurt to move my jaw, but I answered him. “My daughter has osteogenesis imperfecta.”
Trevor looked to the repairman, apparently expecting a translation. The repairman rolled his eyes. “Brittle bone disease. Does that processor of yours only work in physical combat?”
Trevor examined me, no evident portrayal of peaked curiosity, but still he asked questions. “You speak of your husband’s legacy with pride, yet you refuse his gifts?”
“I told you, they weren’t meant to take lives, but to help them. I need the money for my daughter’s surgeries. She has a long road to replace her skeletal structure with something stronger.”
Trevor studied me carefully, apparently ignorant to what compassion looked like. He was just a machine, after all.
“You would make your daughter into something like me?”
I couldn’t shake my head, but I tried. “No. I’m lifting her up in the world.”
The machine grunted, and then pointed at the repairman and spoke in a commanding tone, “Take her into the surgical room and fix her. Don’t worry about the expenses.”
“A-are you sure?” the repairman asked.
“Yes. I’m going to speak to the coordinator.”
“About what?” I asked him. Trevor shifted his attention back to me.
“Giving you the money you earned.”
I felt a lot of pain, but the shock overtook all of that. “What?”
“Though you were rendered incapable of combat for the remainder of the match, you technically survived. I believe that constitutes a victory.”
I was astounded. I came here with a purpose, and it began to look like my goal was further and further from my reach; impossible by human standards. The machine stood up, still looking down on me, and cracked a smile. Odd; maybe I missed something while I was halfway dead for a moment there, but did he even reengage his normal brain functions?