A New Challenger

~ a short story

Dick sat in his spot. His lower half was numb. Half because he’d been sitting for so long unmoving. Half because of the ice packs covering both legs. The salves for his soreness were doing their special work. A bright screen covering much of the stone wall before him played out the visceral scenes of his latest bout. His room, serving both as training and sleeping quarters, resembled your standard spartan fair. The wall of screens represented the only bit of tech. It was all Dick needed.

The replay up there split between three separate iterations: the standard view from the broadcast, an overhead shot featuring the pair of fighters’ relative positioning from a bird’s eye, and a 1st person POV from the perspective of his opponent. Dick requested that last view specifically. To become the champion he’d always had to get into the head of his opponents. With the modernity of these micro-cameras grafted into their bodies, he could re-enter it. To not study such footage would be foolish.

My downfall won’t be because I didn’t put in the film hours.

Seeing the final moments of their lives, done in by his own hands — each of their downfalls — was exhilarating. However, it wasn’t as gratifying as he might imagine. After all, it was shots of him killing other men, often quite brutally. No, it was exhilarating because of the prospect of everything ending for someone, in a single moment. One missed step, one unblocked blow, and there was just no more. One punch, then an eternal midnight of dreamless slumber. ‘Fights to the death are a hell of a thing,’ Teach would always say during their early days. Back then, death was a specter beyond his understanding. But now, he couldn’t help but see himself in such a losing position. It wasn’t only because of the perspective of the camera digitally sewn into the dying man’s head. At this point, he’d been as close to death as one might ever become without fully inhabiting it. Dick might consider it all poetic, if it wasn’t so damn bloody.

Whether he wished it or not, Dick was thinking more and more about falling lately. Those of his opponents, and the possibility of his own. He was coming closer and closer to it, it more ways that one. By and by, Dick was now approaching the end of his run within the tourney. He’d be moving beyond these fights soon, to sit upon his spoils for a long, and secure future overland. No more dark rooms of stone, with only grey walls and weights to accompany him. And only the film of all his previous bouts of mortal combats to escape him from the doldrums of tedium.

Dick grunted with impatience at the slow rolling of the fight to its inevitable conclusion. He remembered now. It had taken a bit to get to the final blows. The two men rested, awaiting dodges and blocks, more than they committed to any strikes. Dick watched the POV of his own shifting eyes. They lay behind wrapped and increasingly bloody knuckles. Full of fear. What did he think they were filled with? Bloodlust, more likely.

Dick sighed and clutched his chest in a reflex. He only had a few more minutes of rest before Teach came in with the lowdown on his next opponent. At that point, the screen would be switched off and he’d focus on his mentor’s word.

Another day, another fight.

The end came down swiftly for the increasingly sluggish aspect of his opponent. He could see it all coming, the panic in his perspective, the frantic return of bad habits years of training could only keep at bay for so long under the threat of imminent unconsciousness. There’d been inklings of his tendencies in the first few rounds. It wasn’t until later, when he’d been damaged by the toils of repeated blows to the head, that Dick managed to capitalize upon those flaws. He did so, at every turn. All the way until the fatal one was strummed upon, as a final powerful chord in a ballad of blood. Dick readjusted his seat and watched the killing blow one last time. Coolness from the ice packs struck new regions of his leg muscles, igniting that burning sensation of cold anew. More specifically, he carefully observed his dodge of his opponent’s, his feint to fool a placid defense, and then the strike itself to end it. The flow of the finality was like a dance. There was a process to it, a series of steps that led to that finisher.

The dagger to the throat.

To a less experienced fighter, they may only see the flash of the dagger as the pivotal maneuver. But no, there was more, much more, before that furnishing of the blade into that defenseless region. To understand it in its fullness, one had to watch closely to see it. Or be the one that devised and executed the attack.

The process. His process. Teach’s ways coming to their fruition within my frame.

Dick understood more than anyone the simple power of a weapon in an otherwise equal fight. It held the power to interrupt his process.

The later rounds of the tourney had thrown such a thing into the mix. A single dagger, thrown betwixt the combatants at the bell. It made the fights that much quicker. It also completely changed a fighter’s strategy. Such a MacGuffin of blood had to be factored in to every bout from here on out.

Dick’s heartbeat grew in rapidity as he watched the two bloody, tired men struggle to grasp at the thing. The thing which could carve its way into one of their lives. He knew how it ended, and yet still a dread touched down upon him.

~

Teach sauntered into the room. He did not sit beside Dick upon the lounging couch, and instead remained standing. Grey-white stubble furrowed along the crown of his head as he grimaced at the screen. Through his beard he stretched his tongue out as he made a growling face. Like a lion’s yawn but soundless, Teach displayed his displeasure at a happening of Dick’s previous fight playing out upon the screen. To Dick, the specific mistake causing his grimace went unseen at the moment. Unself-consciously, he straightened himself in his seat with a visible inclination to find out.

What was it this time? I thought that fight was pretty clean. We both struggled at the end. But that exhaustion. Always there at some point in these mortal affairs. But Teach always found something though, didn’t he?

Teach raised his right finger to the screen. It wobbled in the effort, his whole hand shaking with tension.

There. You keep giving yourself away. On your left strikes. Over and then underneath. Gives ’em time to defend.”

“Where?” Dick asked. Still, he didn’t see it.

“It’s a new tick. Sources from some distant point in your past. You regress to it when tired,” Teach continued, lowering his point. “Watch it again and clean it up.”

Dick rewinded it. He saw it, reacted accordingly. Fool. What am I blind? Dick’s grip at the end of the couch’s armrest whitened his knuckles. Teach turned and observed him becoming visibly upset. After a few breaths between the two of them, he lowered his gaze to the coach and sat slowly. The creaking and cracking of his knees and his back broke the muted silence from the screen. When he’d finally completed the process and sunk his back into the chair with comfort, he sighed and spoke again.

“I saw it in real time. Wanted to make sure you saw it. Now you have.”

In the playback, not long after his mistake, Dick took a few more shots to the jaw. It made him woozy. He remembered almost falling down, dropping the knife. He recalled no pain. But he was more than conscious of his terror. He almost lost. He almost died. The knife had been to blame. Or, his tactical decisions with it in hand. He’d become overconfident. Exposed himself unnecessarily. His opponent, one of the best he’d yet faced, had taken advantage.

Damn. Thinking of how sincerely Teach throws himself into the fights, and how fragile his heart had become in his advanced years, made him sick to his stomach. Dick looked over to him. He looked tired, more than before. Seeing the fight again wasn’t doing anything good for him. Dick flicked it off instinctively. By chance, the screen went black right as he plunged the knife home for the victory.

Closest fight yet, Dick realized. As he had continually come to realize. As much as he hated them… for everything, they’d been accurate in their assessments. The ones setting up the fights. The bracket placements, and his progression of opponents, had certainly been a progression in every sense of the word. Teach sighed again. The sounds in his throat surfaced in preparation. A slow side eye scan upon him revealed to Dick he was ready to speak. He already knew what about. Dick listened with deathly intention.

“Got the hot sheet on your next foe.”

A long pause. Teach’s ragged breath cycled through enough cadences to ratchet up the pressure in Dick’s blood to a temporarily unsafe level.

This is bad.

“Dick…” Teach said. His tone serious, his drawl as slow as he’d ever heard it. Either Teach is having another stroke, or he thinks I am about to die.

Never consider defeat. Only consider its nearness! Teach’s voice snapped into Dick’s mind. From years and many fights ago. When he could still beat his ass into shape himself. There are no defeats up here in the mind… only the dread of it coming nigh. Do not fold under it. Use it! Teach had tiraded, drunk on his own counsel, his own mad fighting spirit. It was one of those things he’d never revisited. It stuck in his heart. Consciously or no, the advice was always playing its song upon him. To Dick now, it meant that defeat was not something one imagined. To imagine it would be to destroy yourself. There was no value in imagining death. There is value, however, in imagining the coming dread, and the loss it heralded. Dick reminded himself again of young Teach’s old words, as in a mantra, while he waited for old Teach to continue with his coming words of dread.

“Your next one’s gonna be tough.” He always said that.

“Dude’s from Mariana. Deepest pit among ’em. Crawled his way over the bodies of his own siblings to get here. By the dozens.” This one is new. Mariana was an experimental zone. Something about cloning, designing mutations expressly for fighters… Dick remembered. A familiar fear surged through him. Now he spoke to still his body from a coming shake. His icy legs tightened up as he flexed every single sore muscle within them.

“What’s his style?”

“Changes it from fight to fight. From what I’ve been able to gather thus far, he starts slow but builds in strength the more he learns from his opponents.”

“Striker or grappler?” Dick’s teeth were nearly chattering.

“Both.”

“Gotta give me something… At least what’s he favor?” He clenched his jaw to still it.

“Stellar at both. And the more you try to push him one way, the more he’ll counter you with the other. Gathers information instantly, and manages to use it.”

It was the very thing Teach had always tried to imbue within him. To be as efficient with his mind as he was with his fists.

“What’s been his finisher?”

“Different every time.”

“I’m sensing a pattern…” Dick muttered. Versatility. He could relate. It was his own branded style of fighting. Something he’d learned from Teach. It was how he’d become champion. The ability to out-craft his opponents was a gift from a mentor equal to the task. A champion pit fighter in his own day, before the stakes had changed… before everything did… Teach had shown him in the old days. The key was not strength, not even dexterity, it was the repetitions. The practice. The hours in the gym leading unto out-maneuvering opponents from sheer technique and the memory of the muscles alone. No one had yet been able to match him move for move.

Teach held his breath for many moments, thinking of how to deliver his words. Dick could tell he settled, his brow lowered and his jaw slackened from … Guilt? Regret? Despair? Dick honestly didn’t know.

“This guy is you, Dick! But bred for it from birth. From before that, from designed D.N.A. Birthed by no father, and trained by no man. He was trained by a pit of blood and the screams of his own brethren. Emotionless, bloodthirsty. This thing doesn’t give a damn about the belt, and about what it might mean for his future. This dude is destined to fight in the pit ’til they force him out.”

Dick’s heart palpitated. The black void of the newly flicked screen beckoned him. His mind again returned to the images of that last fight. Dick remembered the fear, the desire to live on and be free in those eyes. In his own soul… He’d never seen this new challenger. But already he imagined that void within his eyes, that nihilistic candor of violence as the only existence he’d ever have.

And I have to fight such a thing. A soul versus nothing. The fire of life against the cold ice of undeath. Teach couldn’t prepare me for such a thing… no one could.

What can I do!?” Dick shouted, standing suddenly. His mannerisms were frantic, the ice fell from his legs in melted hunks at his feet. The cold streams released from more than the water in the packs there. Dick no longer kept his lip from blubbering, or the tears from flowing.

Teach remained sitting, even while he reached out his hand in a meager attempt to stay his surrogate son’s fears.

“What will I do!” Dick shouted. “I am going to die! I am going to die if we don’t figure something out!”

“The champion fears…” Teach muttered.

The champion fears himself. His own failings, and his own death, more than he fears any foe.

Teach’s wise words again. Of course Dick was afraid. He always was, always had been. They both knew the necessity of it, the strength within it. 

It was how he’d survived to champion. Every bout along the bracket carried all the weight of him. That’s what kept him going. Life. His own, and the prospect of un-life. It spurred him far more than the prospect of freedom. Something a part of him understood was never coming anyway…

“Go,” Teach bade him hoarsely.

Dick strode out of the room and into the simulation room. To sweat, to train, to best his fears in a flight of self-annihilative rehearsal.

Again.

~

Dick sat on the couch again, the LED glare casting his busted face in a spectral show of post-fight grace. His eyes shifted rapidly between a past vision of himself and his foe. The champion did not wince at their mutual fit of bloodletting. Dick watched it to the end, recalling that countenance again in post. At the end, he restarted it and began it again.

A few minutes later, Teach sauntered in with a grimacing groan. Dick’s heart began to race. ~