Vegas, Baby, Vegas! (Part 5)
A Whateley Universe/ Loose Cannons Story
VEGAS, BABY, VEGAS!
Bek D Corbin
DATE: You’re asking ME?
I spent the time between when I woke up and when they rounded us up in the morning (I think) trying to figure out how the hell I pulled that trick with running up the swinging chain. I mean, I did not plan that, no-how. I was running on pure improvisation. I mean, if I hadn’t been shitting bricks, there is no way that I would have even tried anything that crazy. Then again, I wouldn’t mind knowing how I pulled off that sucker-punch on ‘Congarr the Concussed’. I mean, seriously, if I hadn’t hit him in exactly the right area the first time, it would have been a much longer-and from the way those axes were glowing, nastier- fight. But the problem with pulling off slick moves like those is that people expect you to be able to do it again.
That, and I’d like to be able to pull that off when I mean to. I mean, ass-pulls are good, but sound strategy and tactics are way better.
I had arrived at a solid ‘hellifiknow’ when the door opened and the breakfast parade marched on.
When we got to the arena, the instructors went over footage from our bouts in detail, critiquing them mercilessly. The reaming that I got over my move with Congarr was just this side of toxic! They spared no one (except for the paying customers), but they saved their real venom for Billy. His punk-out with Man-Eater reflected poorly on the Death Matches, and on them (the instructors). During the play-by-play, I got an idea of what Blood Witch, Draconis, Glitter and Thundergun looked like out of character. And, sorry horndogs, but those slinky, curvy, busty supervillainesses that you’ve been drooling over? Odds are that a hefty portion of those physiques are the result of strategic padding, and wigs and makeup and other tricks of the theater cosmetician’s trade. Though, Thundergun deserves some commentary as well. Apparently, a big chunk of that intimidating chassis comes off. Walking around, T-gun looks a lot more like a matte-gray skeleton than the Terminator. Still, the missing left arm should have been a giveaway. On the flip-side, the robo-muscle wasn’t completely for show. Which makes sense- having a combat-trained cyborg prisoner running around with his entire weapons array is not the sort of thing that leads to a prosperous retirement.
After the review session, we were marched into the cafeteria for breakfast. Apparently, gladiators listen to criticism better if they’re hungry. As we endured the boot camp quality cuisine, Marly and Ginny joined us. “If it means anything, Madam Viscous is real happy with you guys,” Marly said. “Apparently, after your big debuts last night, demand for in-person tickets went WAY up.”
“Yeah but on the downside, I found out why Vicious does this in the first place,” Ginny said with a look like she’d just sipped some sour milk.
“Ah… she’s a cold-blooded sadistic bitch?” Roxie said with a ‘duh!’
“Yeah, but it goes deeper-or something- than that,” Ginny said. “I mean, I was there, and she was really getting off on it. And… after the rest of them wrapped up… she invited the Golden Gladiator up to her suite… and…”
“They had hot, sweaty, adrenaline-charged monkey sex?” Chris filled it in.
“Ahhh…. YEAH.” Ginny cut it off by drinking her OJ like she was hoping to get the taste of something nasty out of her mouth.
WOW. That was something that I did not need to know.
Then one of the other gladiators walked up to our table. I recognized her as ‘Glitter’, without the glitzy suit or wig (or padding). I searched for a diplomatic way of saying ‘gee, I’m sorry that I rammed an energy sword into your gut, but I had no real choice in the matter’. But I must have some good behavior points stashed away somewhere, because she cut me off before I made a complete fool of myself. “Chill! I’m just here to tell you that, yeah, you stabbed me, but on the other hand, you had a perfect opening to get your first kill on your debut in the arena, and didn’t take it. I’d say that given where we are, that counts as a big favor.”
“Yeah, not lopping off your head is generally regarded as a good thing,” Roxie said snidely.
“You’re taking LOSING in the gladiatorial ring rather well,” Chris noted skeptically.
“Hey, I went down a couple of spots in the ranking, but I was high enough that a couple of spots won’t hurt me,” she said in the way people who are pragmatic because they just don’t have a choice in the matter. “And you didn’t take that much power from me, so I’m not that hard up. But the Pros don’t know that. So, they think that I’m chugging along on half-power. The greedy ones will think that I’m not worth tackling, while the pissants will have a nasty surprise.”
Glitter looked around and saw some pretty uniform ‘what are you TALKING about?’ looks.
“Y’know? Dynamorph Challenges?”
A bunch of us looked at Billy, who was our resident expert on things like this. Billy locked up for a second, but then dug deep and pulled something out of his duffle bag of superhero trivia, “Aaarreee… you talking about that thing where people with dynamorphs are supposed to be able to steal power from each other?”
“That’s part of it,” she said. “Y’see, dynamorphs are sort of like Pokémon- they don’t just get more powerful on their own. But when you set them against each other, they get more powerful. And yeah, one guy can walk away with a big chunk of the other guy’s power,” she nodded her head in my direction, and I remembered that big rush of power that I’d gotten when I almost gutted that Green Lantern poser at Buccaneer Bay; and when I did the same to that asshole in black armor just after we got out of the Snowfish building; and now that I think about it, I did feel a jolt after I tagged Glitter last night, not as much as the other two. And those eye blasts aren’t taking it out of me as bad as they used to.
You could see Roxie putting two and two together. “How many of the, ah, ‘resident gladiators’ here are dyna-hosts?”
“Oh, not all of ‘em,” Glitter assured her. “Just WAY more’n there should be.” Then, seeing that a bunch of us were following the train of logic that Roxie was laying track for, she added, “Yeah. A big part of her business here is Madam Vicious keeping us dyna-hosts here so her ‘guests’ can take big juicy bites out of our dynamorphs.” She paused and a curious look passed over her face. “I wonder how much extra she charges for that.”
“So…” Rae started, following some train of logic of her own, “last night when the Golden Gladiator capped that guy, Mr. Z…”
“He was taking Freddy for everything that he had? Yep.”
“Freddy?” Ginny echoed, giving Glitter sad looks of sympathy. “You knew him? Personally?”
“Meh,” Glitter bleated. “No one’s crying for Freddy, least of all me. He was dead-set on getting out of here, and he didn’t care what he had to do to get cut loose. I heard that when he first got here, he got all buddy-buddy with a speedster called ‘Slipstream’. Between them, they decided to phony up a big feud that would keep them fighting each other, and they’d ‘pillow fight’- y’know mix it up big and dramatic for the crowd, but not really HURT each other? Y’know, the idea being that if the crowd is all amped on them fighting each other, then Vicious isn’t that eager to throw them into the ring with someone who might fight for keeps?
“BUT, on their… I think it was their fourth set-to, Freddy talked Slippy into this big splashy complicated crowd-pleaser sequence-”
‘And broke his neck for him?” Rae finished with a flat voice.
“YEP,” Glitter said with the same flat tone. “Slippy was Freddy’s first kill.”
“But not his last,” Marly finished for her.
“Nope,” Glitter shook her head. “For all his scheming, Freddy made a dumb mistake- by jazzing up his dynamorph like that, he made himself too tempting to the real predators. I’ll bet you that the Golden Gladiola got footage of Freddy fighting- and I wouldn’t be surprised if Vicious didn’t sell him some footage of Freddy training and maybe even trainer’s reports.”
“She really hates to miss a trick, doesn’t she?” Mack asked with a worried expression.
“Oh… YEAH,” Glitter affirmed with a wry expression. “Anyway, I’ll get a pass on the next bout, so my dynamorph will have a chance to recover some.”
“Wait a minute…” something nasty occurred to Chris, “What about Suzy? Er, ah, Trubble? She’s a superspeedster with a broken leg! She’s no use to them! It would take weeks, if not months for her leg to recover, and even then, she’s a speedster! There’s no way of knowing whether her leg will be able to take the kind of beating that it used to!”
“Not to worry,” Glitter assured us. “Vicious is, well, vicious, but she’s not stupid. People with super powers aren’t so common that she can just throw them away like that. And you’re all Dyna-hosts, which means that Trub- er Suzy’s still a viable commodity, and that she’ll heal faster and surer than baselines.”
“You mean that Suzy will heal up soon?” Ginny asked with a hopeful look in her big gray eyes.
“Not tonight or tomorrow,” Glitter said. “But they’ll give her something to make her bones knit faster, and one of the girls they got here, Helen- y’know, ‘Blood Witch’?- well, she’s a mutant who creates that weird blood shit out of nothing, and while it can rip you up something fierce-” she gave Roxie an off look. Rox itched at something that looked like it might be a welt left over from last night, “-well, besides that, it can heal wounds and breaks and shit. Not so much nerve damage, dunno why, and it usually leaves some ugly looking scars, but not so much for a bone fracture I think.
“Look, from what I saw of Suzy before, she’s taking to being stuck in a bed like a junkie being kept away from a fix,” Glitter said. “Normally, the Infirmary nurse doesn’t like us visiting each other when we’re banged up, but in her case, I think Ol’ Ironbritches will make an exception. Do it one at a time, so the D-Is won’t get the idea that you’re goofing off,” Glitter lowered her voice, “AND it’ll stretch out her visit time, so she doesn’t drive Ironbritches nuts.”
Glitter turned to leave, but just as she was going, she muttered just loud enough for me to hear, “Talk to Draconis.”
Surprisingly enough, the instructors were okay with us visiting Suzy- one at a time. As long as we kept it short, and didn’t use it as an excuse to goldbrick. Past that, it was personal training, Dorsai-style as usual. They were covering up for Madam Vicious’ slip-up regarding the difficulties of a Close-biased fighter versus a Range-biased fighter. Which is very important, if you’re going for a career in blood sports.
After lunch, I was given the heads-up that I could go talk to Suzy. As I walked up to the infirmary, Mack was coming out. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a look that told me something was up, and to be sharp.
Now, when you hear ‘infirmary’ or ‘hospital ward’, you usually think of rows of beds, maybe with Star Trek sensor panels overhead. Maybe, if you’re really into Sci-Fi, you think of transparent fluid-filled full-immersion cylinders, like Luke Skywalker was stuck in at the end of . And while there were beds, across the room from the beds were these big bulky suits, like supersized EVA spacesuits, with all kinds of tubes stuck into various places. Suzy was stuck in one of the super-suits, and not enjoying it that much. To my surprise, I recognized the woman in the gladiator scrubs who Suzy was chatting with as ‘Draconis’- y’know, the bitch who put Suzy in that suit in the first place? Okay, she wasn’t wearing the long flame-red wig or the padding, going for a subtler, more comfortable look, like Glitter. But the way she held her head, the set of her shoulders, the way she carried herself- yeah, that was the Alpha Bitch from last night.
‘Oh, HEY, Ev!” Suzy greeted me from the open ‘visor’ of the ‘helmet’ of the suit. WowyoujustmissedMackandwewerehavingagreatime,weren’tweTyro? HEY TYRO! YouwannaplayTwentyQuestions? Illbetyourgreatattwentyquestionsain’tchaTyro?Cool! I’llstartI’mthinkingofaperson-” But the yammer stopped dead as soon as the guy in the next suit over, ‘Tyro’ no doubt, did something that sealed the ‘visor’ of the ‘helmet’ to shut out Suzy’s sedative-induced blab. Suzy relaxed and let out a breath. “I have to do something like that every time I get a visitor,” she grumped. “I’m running out of material!”
I gave Draconis a searching look. “Oh, she’s cool, Ev!”
I gave Draconis the ‘if you’re so fucking cool, why did you put my friend in the hospital, hah?’ glare. She gave a sigh of tried patience and said, “I tried to go easy on her, but I didn’t know how much stress that stupid bungee cord could take, and it snapped.”
“Oh yeah, those hits I took looked hella nasty,” Suzy interrupted, “and they stung like crazy, but I was good at least until the end of the bout, when SNAP!”
Draconis headed this off; she was probably very aware that she only had so much time. “I’m part of the Escape Committee.”
Escape Committee? Well, of course, it wouldn’t be a Prison movie without an Escape Committee!
“Getting the tunnel and ‘going over the wall’ jokes out of the way,” Draconis continued, “the entire situation here in the Hole-in-the-Ground is all about these fucking collars,” with a look at the Nurse’s alcove, she ran a finger along the collar around her neck. “Gladiators were trying to figure out how to get the hell around these things years before I got here; I’d really prefer it if they weren’t trying years after I’m gone.”
I nodded. She continued, “You Loose Cannons are our first real break in a long time. That bitch Vicious loves playing ‘divide-and-rule’ games with us, almost as much as she loves watching us beat each other to death. BUT, up till now, we’ve all been individuals. As Glitter probably told you, trusting the wrong person can be a fatal mistake here. But you Loose Cannons are a group, a team. You’re not just a mess of kids who got thrown in here; you’re a unit: you’ve got a sense of yourselves as a squad; you’ve got a command structure, if what Suzy’s told me is right; Blue Max or Mack or whatever, is the leader and War Chief; Robo-Thug is his good right hand; you and Shoxx are his Brain Trust; Stonewall is his tactician; Spotlight is your group’s face and wheeler-dealer. The Girl Friday that Suzy tells me is named Marly sounds like she’s shaping up to be a decent Security officer. For a bunch of kids, you’re very well organized!”
“And Vicious isn’t used to coping with groups, especially groups that tight. She’s going to break you up. But she doesn’t have a lot of experience with that. Which means that she’s going to concentrate on that, instead of her usual shit-stirring games. Which means that we have a chance to pull something off, before she realizes that she’s let her control slip.”
“And you want us to rattle Vicious’ cage, keep her rattled and second-guessing?”
“That would be best,” Draconis agreed. “But your group also has two things that we need desperately.” I gave her my best ‘Mr. Spock’ raised eyebrow. “Look, these collars are VERY well designed. The only weak spot is the Wi-Fi link. We need to try a brute-force decrypt for the release.”
“And you want us to help scavenge bits and pieces of computers and like that to build a computer to hack the code?”
“No. When I first came here, there was a guy, a Mad Gadgeteer type called ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’. Don’t ask. He managed to kludge together a scanner and a decrypt computer. Don’t ask me how. The thing is, he said that while the release codes for the collars are very long, the detonation and punishment trigger codes are very short.”
“To trip up anyone trying a brute-force hack.”
“Bingo. But Jack said that in order to avoid accidental detonations and like that, both the Release and Trigger codes have to have unique characters or combinations or combinations of unique characters, that aren’t used in any of the other communications bands.”
“Being underground and probably miles away from the nearest source of wi-fi bands, all we have to worry about are the in-house communications bands,” I said, already working away at it. Damn, I know just enough about high-band communications to completely fuck us over.
“Right. In order to test his theories, Jack triggered the collars of a couple of gladiators who we were sure were sucking up to Vicious, trying to get a better deal by selling the rest of us out.”
“And Vicious was ready and waiting for him the second time he tried it, right?”
“Aaahhh… Yeah.” She gave me a bleak look that implied that she’d been there when his head blew off. “Vicious found his scanner and two of the decoy computers he made, but not the real thing, or the backup scanner he’d built.”
“Gotta love a tech who stands by reasonable redundancy. Did he at least get an idea of where the signal router is?”
“No. But then he complained that he was an inventor, not a TV repairman. He said that the signal was all over the place, and that he couldn’t separate it from the other routine chatter.”
“Relay boosters,” I said. “Like a cell phone tower. Vicious doesn’t really need the other routine bands to cover the entire area, but she does need the punishment bands to be everywhere. And something just as important: the maintenance signal.”
Draconis looked at me warily. “Are you sure about that? Wouldn’t she just have the triggering signals?”
“It’s a deadman switch,” I said. “Vicious called it a ‘proximity detector’, but that would mean that if you wander outside the signal’s area a trigger signal can reach you, you block it somehow, you’re free. But if it’s an interrupt switch, if you leave the signal’s area or block it, it automatically trips the switch, and *boom!* you’re dead, man.”
Amazingly, Draconis was relieved by this. “Good. That’s the first thing we need from you Cannons: we need people who’re tech savvy, and can actually USE Spring-heeled Jack’s stuff. Mack said that you, Roxie and Billy have a good understanding of that kind of thing?”
I nodded, not really liking it. Rox, Billy and me were just tech savvy enough to get us all killed. But when you don’t have a hammer, you make do with a wrench. “Okay. It’s not the dumbest thing we’ve done since we got caught up in this mess. What’s the second thing?”
“The two girls Ginny and Marly- they’re telepaths?”
“Yeah. We’ve got them pushing Vicious people’s buttons and picking up whatever they can ‘overhear’.”
“Excellent. Put them on figuring out as much as they can about the trigger and release systems. Tell them that Crane is the head of the technical department, but Dixon and Hovis are the two guys who really make that department work, and Dawson and Clary are the guys who do the hands-on stuff. Crane thinks he’s slick and a lady’s man. But they’re both too young for him- or at least I think they are; it’s hard to tell with a sleaze like Crane- and he’s more management than a technician. Besides, he’s too obvious, and he’s been drooling to get a slice of Vicious’ pie since I got here. Dixon’s too sharp; tell them to keep away from him, he’d probably pick up on anything they play on him, right off the bat. Dawson and Clary are easier, but they’re more hardware, and we need code. So, have them target Hovis: he knows both hardware and software, he’s gullible, easily rattled, and best of all, he’s scared to death of Vicious.”
“Jeeze,” I mock-whined, “do all the work and take all the fun out of it!”
“Okay, one last thing before I leave, and this is for you, Hexblade: take Wardance up on her offer.” And with that, she was out the door.
After lunch, the instructors made us pay for the ‘unpardonable breach of discipline’ of visiting an injured friend by making us walk across a beam. Over red-hot heating coils. Carrying an egg with a spoon in our mouths. Without using our powers. If we used our powers, we hadda do it blindfolded. And if you did it well, you had to do it all over again, carrying weights. In one hand.
As we were slogging through this, one of the other gladiators broke off her own training to walk over and watch us. She was a lanky olive-skinned woman with long severe features and close-cropped dark hair. She watched us with bland disinterest for a while, when one of the instructors asked her in the approved scream-in-the-face manner, “And what do you think YOU’RE doing?”
“Watching a waste of time,” she droned, paying us more attention than the guy who could order a disciplinary zotz from her collar.
“Oh?” the DI demanded, “And exactly WHY is it a waste of time?”
“Because you’re training flying bricks the same way as blasters and acrobats and a giant,” she answered in a way that suggested that he was being deliberately obtuse. Well, of course he was- he wasn’t trying to train us, he was just putting us through the wringer on general principles. Even Billy got that.
“WHY are you bugging me?” the instructor said.
“Because beating up on Deathrace and Nightwitch got boring.”
“Well then, what about Retarius or Backbreaker?”
“Please! They’re scared to death of me.” She gave me a look of moderate interest. “Besides, I want to learn how she pulled that ‘run up the chain’ move. You never know when you might have to escape something by running up a swinging chain.”
“It’s very handy,” I said, getting my ‘Daria’ on. “after all, people leave big whacking chains swinging around all over the place!”
“Shut It!” the instructor snapped, “Look, Wardance-” Wardance? That was the name Draconis had given me. I listened to the back-and-forth between them; Wardance was playing some kind of subtle power game with him. The instructor didn’t want to lose face- hey, in this place, looking weak is the equivalent of tying a bloody steak around your neck and jumping in a shark tank- but Wardance had something, I have no idea what, on him. Finally, he made out like it was no big deal, and he had his hands full with the rest of us.
She led me out to one of the training mats. “Wardance?” I asked. “You’re really into your First Nations heritage?” I asked. Hey, it wasn’t like I had a lot of opening lines.
“I’m not an Indian,” she said flatly. “I’m Italian. But then, so was Espera Oscar Conti, or ‘Iron Eyes Cody’, the famous movie and TV ‘Crying Indian’.”
“Okay, then are you gonna show me how to deflect laser blasts with my ‘lightsaber’?” I asked puckishly.
“You can’t deflect a laser with an energy sword,” she said with all seriousness. “However, the Star Wars trope is possible: but instead of deflecting the plasma bursts ‘using the force’, what the Jedi would be doing was using their lightsaber’s containment field to detect the presence of the maser guiding beams that the blasters use to keep the plasma packets traveling in a straight line. They wouldn’t knock the packets away; they’d simply deflect the guide beams with the lightsaber. They’d use the packet hitting the lightsaber as the most effective cue to move the blade as to deflect the next most dangerous guide beam.”
“uh, oh-kaaayyy…” As I searched for a better way to open the conversation, Wardance let fly with a combination of very fast jabs that set me up for a tripping kick that would have taken out my knee before.
“When you’re on the mat, always assume that you’re in a combat situation,” Wardance said as she pulled me to my feet. Then she attacked again without warning. Eight times. I didn’t even get as beat up as this during my first week at high school at Peterson AFB! And those assholes had it out for me!
Finally, she summed me up saying, “Grab Bag of Armed Forces Self-Defense Classes, none of which I’ll bet you ever used in a real fight.”
“Well, my preferred self-defense move was always ‘Run Away’,” I said. “If you try to win a fight, you get socked by the asshole’s parents. But nobody can fault you for running away.”
“Sensible,” she gave me. “But not an option here.” Then she checked out the action with the instructors. “I’m your contact with the Escape Committee,” she said as she gestured me to a gear cabinet. She opened the cabinet and took out a pair of padded batons and matching head guards.
“I figured as much,” I responded as I slipped the guard over my head. “How are we supposed to get at your scanner or your computer? They got every minute of our day inked in from Reveille to Taps, and we’re locked in every night.”
“True,” she agreed as she took her point, “but the level of Security drops sharply once we’re locked in for the night.”
“Let me guess, besides being Madam Vicious, she’s also Madam Cheap?”
“It also means that there are that many fewer people who can compromise Security.” She started me on the forms and we started battering away at each other. “The key to it is the collars and being locked in for the night. Fortunately, there’s a glaring gap in Security.”
“The Infirmary. The training here is tough enough for gladiators to regularly spend the night in Sick Bay. Nobody thinks to keep that close an eye on the recouperees, and it’s not locked down, in case there’s an emergency.”
“And the Nurse only spends as much time there as she absolutely has to, right?” Wardance nodded. “What about the collars? The trackers built into these things must go off the second we go off the reservation.”
“There are no trackers in the collars,” she said.
“Trackers would require that someone or something keep track of them. It’s probably just a cost-saving measure. They count on the prisoners being sophisticated enough to make that assumption. Finding the tracking beacons was Spring-heeled Jack’s first project. He got real mad when he figured they’d cheaped that part out.”
“Can’t say as I blame him,” I said. “BUT, if we can get Billy- er, ‘The Squid’, out of his cell at night, then it’s a whole new game.”
“Fortunately, there’s an easy way to do that,” Wardance said as she shifted her balance.
“The same way we’re going to make sure that you’re on hand to keep him in line, and give you time to look over the notes we’ve got.” And no further ado, she proceeded to batter me into the Infirmary.
When I woke up, sure enough, I was in the Infirmary, it was lights out and Billy was lying on the fold-down bunk next to me. And the nurse was nowhere to be seen, and the closest thing to any kind of security was a big red panic button. As the raw hurt ebbed away, I became aware of some papers taped to the calf of my leg. The papers were the technical notes that Spring-heeled Jack had made, and locations of his various caches. When Billy came to, we found the caches. The computer was pretty much a desktop scrounged together from whatever the Technical department was careless enough to just chuck out. It was glitchy, but it worked. Though I guess it helped that Spring-heeled Jack was a Linux buff, and didn’t inflict MicroSerf on himself- or us. As I tried to figure out what Spring-heeled Jack had been up to, Billy roamed the halls with the Scanner, taking samples.
While we weren’t in Eddie’s class when it came to regeneration, both Billy and I had a definite healing factor. We were achy but ambulatory, and the cold-blooded bitch-ass nurse told us to get out of her clinic, or she’d write us up for malingering.
I gave the crew the low-down at breakfast. “How far can we trust these guys?” Mack asked.
“Once we hit the surface?” I answered his question with a question, “Who knows? I mean, gladiator slaves or no gladiator slaves, these are NOT nice people, no-how. But up to that point? This isn’t a POW camp, where a stooge might play up to the Kommandant hoping for better treatment. No, there’s no way that Vicious is gonna let a rat go for finking us out.”
“True that,” Rae sighed. “She might tell this yoyo or that that she’ll let ‘em walk, but anyone slick enough to pull what they have together is not gonna buy that crap. B’sides… really, what do we got to lose? It’s either escape or keep getting shoved into the fight pit.”
“As much as I hate to say it, but I gotta side with Rachel on this,” Eddie said around a mouthful of oatmeal. “Big mindfuck games that play with prisoners’ sanity are one thing on TV; but in a place like this?”
“This many people with so many different super powers, most of whom would gleefully tear Madam Skankilicious apart with their bare hands?” Roxie cut in, “Keep it simple and safe.”
“So, we got no choice,” Chris summed it up. “But how close are you to cracking the code? I mean, how many times can we go into the ring, before it comes down to kill or be killed?” Chris ended with a squeak that does not bode well for any hopes she may have of being a guy again.
“Actually, we caught a break there,” I said. “This ‘Spring-heeled Jack’ guy was very smart, very methodical, and very thorough guy, especially when his own head was on the chopping block. Remember, according to Draconis, he was down to testing his guesses regarding the release codes.”
“By blowing people’s heads off,” Mack pointed out sourly.
“I said that he was smart, methodical and thorough,” I pointed out, “I never said that he was NICE. Anyway, the hardware’s tested and proven- now it’s entirely a software solution. And THAT is where we have Queens of Trumps. Marly, Ginny?” I passed along slips of paper under the table, which reached our two telepaths. “Draconis says that Hovis is the guy to target. Get him to fill in these blanks, and we should have the answers to our puzzles.”
“What are we looking at, Ev?” Mack asked.
“Spring-heeled Jack realized something very important: you have to release EVERYBODY,” I explained. “Even the people we don’t like. The more people who’re free, the more people who’re busting up Madam Vicious and her goons, while we’re heading for the surface.”
“Hey, the collars come off, what’s the first thing that the guys we’ve been training with will do?” Eddie pointed out. “Make sure that Madam Vicious can’t play any sneaky cards that we haven’t thought of. She’ll be too busy running away from them to do anything to US.”
“It’ll be a bloodbath,” Chris said, squicked.
“Yeah,” Mack agreed, not loving it. “But it’ll be a bloodbath we can get away from.”
“Yeah, but there’s one really nasty problem with this,” Rae pointed out. “We can’t risk trying to release everyone, and not have it come off. To make it work, we gotta know that it’ll work. Like that Spring-heeled Jack guy, we’re gonna have to test it. So? Who’re we gonna test it ON?”
I passed this admittedly very touchy point on to Wardance. I had my answer by lunch. Draconis managed to catch me between the end of the mid-day chow and the resuming of concussive training. “I have someone who’s willing to be your test subject.”
“Who’d volunteer to run the risk of having his HEAD blown off?” I asked.
“Actually, we have three people who’re quite willing,” she said. “If it works, they’re free. If it doesn’t, it’s over.”
“Techno-demon, Thundergun… and Me.”
“You?” I asked. Hey, if anyone here wants to live to see daylight again, it’s Draconis. I mean, she has a serious case of got it going on.
She read my presumptions. “I made a big mistake,” she said. “I let my dynamorph get too powerful. I was focusing too hard on staying alive, day to day. My sources tell me that Vicious is asking top dollar for bouts against me. The last two guys I faced were stone-cold killers. The only reason I won was that they were focused too much on trying to tap my dynamorph, while I was fighting to stay alive. The next guy probably won’t make their mistake. And even if I beat him, there’ll be another guy, and another guy. And I’m not good enough a fighter to throw a fight and live. There’s no Wooden Sword for me; Vicious will never let me go. Not as long as there’s someone who’ll pay good money to drain my dynamorph. If your code works, I’m free; if not, it the closest thing to an ‘up yours’ that I’ll ever get on Vicious.”
“Okay…” a bit more angst than I was really expecting, but… “And what about the other two?”
“T-Gun’s a 17-year-old kid who’s 85% machine, and he’s just realizing that he’s never gonna have sex. And he’s got two kills under his belt.And it’s getting to him.”
“You watch out for TD. He’s on the edge. He’s killed five people. And it’s getting to him, too. And one of them… a couple of weeks ago, there was a broad called Daisy Mayhem… she… wasn’t nice people… but she and TD got along. It was… sweet…in a sick, twisted David Cronenberg kind of way. So Vicious overrode TD’s bionics somehow and made him kill Daisy in the ring. With his bare hands. The fans loved it.”
“Weee’lll… leave the matter of selecting the test subject up to you guys,” I said, really wanting to skate on picking between those three.
The next three days slid by in a blur of violence, pain, fear, frustration, and stress that would have sent an air traffic controller berserk. Ginny and Marly managed to zoom that Hovis guy somehow. I showed my work to Roxie, and she agreed that it fit, for whatever that was worth.
On the second day, we got a visitor that made my skin crawl. He was a good-looking, athletic guy with sandy blonde hair in one of those ‘Caesar’ cuts and he dressed real nice. What creeped me out about him, beside the fact that a civilian was down here in the first place, was the way he watched me, like a race course tout sizing up a filly- or a butcher checking out a side of meat. After watching me work out with Wardance for a while, he strolled out onto the mat and checked me out. I am not used to guys checking me out. Especially sleazy guys who can’t keep their libidos off their faces. “So,” he said with a bland smile, like he was trying to pick me up on the street, “you’re the Hexblade….”
“And? You are?”
“I… am known merely as… Deeeaaattthh Ghoossstt….” He said like a radio DJ on Halloween.
“Death Ghost? You’re gonna be a ‘special guest gladiator’? Are you here to tell me that you’ve bought an option on fighting me tomorrow?”
“As a matter of fact, NO.” he said genially. “I am going to be fighting in the arena tomorrow, but not against you. No, the honor of squaring up against you has been bought- at great cost, may I add?- by a colleague and competitor called… Power Lantern.”
“Power Lantern?” I echoed, wondering who’d give themselves such a dorky handle.
“Yes, you met him briefly- but very dramatically- during your big Battle at Buccaneer Bay. He was the guy in the black-and-white ‘Green Lantern’ suit? The one you skewered, just before you made your escape?”
Oh. Him. And if what Glitter told me was on the up and up, then I jacked him for a nasty chunk of his dynamorph power. Ew.
“Now, Power Lantern is, understandably, rather torked off at you. Not only did you stab him, but you stabbed him on national TV. Serious loss of face there. AND, you made off with a big slice of his dynamorph pie. He’s been grousing loudly, that you got him with a cheap shot. He’s managed to scare up a large wad of cash to pay Vicious, to try and make good on that claim.
“BUT,” Death Ghost stepped up well into my personal space, “I do know a few things about Power Lantern that you’d be well advised to listen to.”
“And? What do you want in return? You’re not seriously trying to sell me that you’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart, are you?”
“Actually, I’m putting a sizeable bet down on you, sweetheart,” he said with that bland smile. “First, that ‘power ring’ bit he works? It’s a shuck. He just focuses his blasts through that stupid ring for effect, and to sucker people into trying to get it away from him. Dumb move; someone’s just going to lop off his hand someday.
“Second, don’t bother trying to get his mask off. He mentioned that while he really doesn’t like them, he’s gotten a pair of contact lenses for this fight. But they itch his eyes, so if you make a lot of sudden moves, you might be able to throw him off his game.
“Third, you may have already figured this out, but PL is a ranged combat monster, but he doesn’t do anywhere as well in close combat. Use that if you can.
“Fourth, you stabbed him in the chest,” he tapped me on the chest, which means a lot more when you’re a girl. “But PL has had his chest armor reinforced, just in case you get a second chance at the big prize. BUT, while your reflex targets are the chest and belly, the way that dynamorphs work, the best spot to strike for tapping someone’s dynamorph is right here,” he tapped my solar plexus, at that spot just below the arch of the rib cage. “Feel there first, get a sense of his energy, and then, STRIKE!” He pulled me to him with his off hand as his right hand speared into my solar plexus. We stood there for a long moment, and he smirked into my face. Then Wardance separated us, and sent him off on his way. Death Ghost strolled off with the air of a guy who’s gotten over.
“Evie?” Wardance said to me as she watched Death Ghost strut off the mat. “The first chance you can, KILL that man.”
“Don’t you remember? Death Ghost is the one who raped Cannon of his power, sending him into that tailspin, which wound up costing him his life? And while I won’t waste time mourning Cannon, I don’t like the precedent that that sets. And Death Ghost just got over on you, big time.”
“He just did a classic cold read of your buttons. He may not have you taped yet, but he has a good handle on you. For the rest of the day, we’re going to concentrate on the tactics used by Power Lantern, Death Ghost and the Golden Gladiator.”
“You’ve been studying their tactics and habits?”
“No, the question is: why haven’t YOU?”
DATE: How am I supposed to keep track?
The next day, at breakfast, I gave Draconis the silent heads-up. I’d send word through Wardance, and things were go.
Wardance clobbered me three times before she got down to sharing information. “You’ve got something?”
“Jackpot. Between them, Marly and Ginny managed to play Hovis for the Punishment, Explosive, Release and Targeting codes.”
“I accidentally activated the punishment code on myself. Longest 15 seconds of my LIFE. The rest follows naturally.”
“You can’t be sure about that. And a mistake would be disastrous.”
“True that,” I nodded. “We’re gotta test it the old-fashioned way.”
“Talk to Draconis at lunch. This is too important for any broken telephone fuck ups. But get me and Blue Max a copy of the codes, so it doesn’t get lost if anything wrong happens.”
“You think something gonna go wrong?”
“No. But that’s usually when things go really bad, when you don’t think anything wrong is going to happen.”
The setup was this: the test subject would walk to a place where he could be seen, but not obvious. He’d put his hands on his collar. Eddie would be standing where he’d be able to watch, but again, not be obvious. He’d give Ginny a mental cue. Even through the ‘fog’ the dynamorphs gave us, a telepath could contact someone if both parties were really willing. Mack took that news with a stoicism born of much practice. Eddie would give Ginny the heads-up, and Ginny would contact Suzy, who had the computer hidden away in all the medical gear up in the Infirmary. Suzy would cue in the release code. If the collar went ‘bang!’ or ‘owie!’ the other gladiolas could say with all honesty that they’d seen our poor sacrificial lamb pulling at his collar. If it released, he’d click the collar back in place.
At the appointed time and place, namely right next to the gladiator’s entrance to the arena, right before lunch. The brave volunteer was… Draconis. Either she’s a big believer in ‘there are things you don’t ask other people to do’, or there’s more stressing her than Vicious pimping her out. She put her hand on her collar, she gave a nod. Like, three seconds later, Eddie also gave a nod. There was one of those 10-seconds that seem to last forever on hot coals, and Draconis smiled. She did something with her collar, and then she walked through the door for one of the best lunches that she’d had in weeks.
Houston, we have liftoff.
About an hour before we could break for dinner, another Gladiator walked up and asked Warpath if she could get some sparring practice in with me. Her handle was Starblaze, and you guessed it, she also had an energy blade. Oh, superior strength, flight and a few other things, but her big nasty was her energy blade. She was pretty enough, with shaggy short blonde hair, a round face, and a good body. She affected a British accent, but if she was putting us on, then she had the sense to go for a stock ‘BBC Broadcast’ accent, rather than the usual posh ‘Received Pronunciation’ thing. After a few minutes, during a tight clinch, she told me, “Draconis sent me.”
I looked at Warpath, who nodded. Of course; it would be suspicious if she was constantly seen chatting with Draconis. “And?”
“Here’s the plan. We wait until just before we go in for the Match tomorrow. They’ll be rested and in their fighting togs, and best of all, the transports for the spectators will be there. When Draconis gives your man the sign, you pull the same game, only you trigger the release for ALL the codes. Can you do that?”
“Yeah, Spring-heeled Jack figured that cutting everyone loose at once was the best plan. He hacked into the system and found the ‘affect all’ codes for both the Agony and Explosion triggers connected to the Select menus, and spliced a variant of them onto the Release trigger.”
“You could have just said ‘Yes’. What measures have you taken to make sure that she can do this, without the Nurse or someone else fouling it up?”
“Suzy’s mobile again,” I said. “They’ve got her in a walking cast.”
“A walking cast? For a super-speedster? How do you design a walking cast for the Flash?”
“You put a very sturdy wheel on it and let her zip around with her other leg.”
“But that means that she won’t be in the Infirmary, and she could be watched.”
“Good point.” I let my attention slip as I worried that over and got zotzed for it. “Try this: it’s stupid to put all your eggs in one basket. So, we kludge a radio control button into Suzy’s cast. But we just patch a big red GO button onto the computer, move it down into the Green Room and hide it among the Nautilus machines. If something happens to Suzy, and nothing happens ten seconds after Draconis gives the green light, we just do it the hard way.”
“Then why bother going through your girl Suzy at all?”
“Surprise is always key for these things. We want it to be simple: *click* Liberation Day, Go, do what we tell you to. People tend to do what they’re told when they’re surprised. Digging the computer out puts people on their guard- including guards.”
“Which Nautilus machine?”
“The one closest to the Wall, taped to the underside of the seat; it’s the least used and it’s the least open to casual observation. Just walk over, reach under and slap the button, with actually dragging the damn thing out as a last resort.”
Starblaze nodded. “Nice, simple, effective, pares everything down and uses the flaws that Madam Vicious doesn’t want to admit exists in her setup. Do it.” And with that, she did Warpath’s usual job and proceeded to put me in the infirmary- again.
Techno-Demon did the same for Billy. When our bodies were done hating us, we got down to the brass tacks of wiring Suzy’s cast and schlepping the computer down to the Green Room.
The next day was Deathmatch Day again. Reveille, a wake-up session of getting screamed at and beaten up, breakfast, more getting screamed at and beaten up, Lunch, and then- Quiet time. The best thing about this plan is that it didn’t matter if we were jittery and on edge. It was Deathmatch Day. It would be suspicious if we weren’t jiggery and on edge. Suzy was zipping around on that rolling crutch, doing errands and all like that. Mack all but commandeered the Nautilus machine, just so that no one else would and spot the computer and do something stupid.
Then time came for us to suit up. Once we were in our fighting suits, we filed back into the Green Room and tried to get Zen while the inevitable last-minute delays played hob with the schedule. Then there was the ‘five-minute’ chime, and Draconis gave Eddie the nod. Eddie paused, and then gave a nod. 10 -9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1- PAIN!
Pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain pain!
Agony ripped through me and kept ripping in a steady piping hot stream of the agonies of the damned.And none of that wussy Jean-Paul Sartre existential stuff either, I’m talking good old Calvinist fire and brimstone eternally consuming your flesh and soul!
Then suddenly, the pain clicked off like a switch. I got up and looked around, and from the looks of it, everyone in the Green Room had gone through the same thing. Then Madam Vicious sashayed in, and looked around with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smirk. “You can thank your good friend Draconis, and her bungling confederates, the Loose Cannons for that,” she purred, rubbing salt into the wounds with gusto. Then she strolled over to the Nautilus machine, reached under it and tore out Spring-heeled Jack’s computer. Then she trashed it with that green energy of hers. “If you shit or pissed on yourself, take care of it,” she said on her way out. “But be quick about it- it’s almost Game Time!”
At Las Vegas Metro PD HQ, MCO Field Operative Haines asked, “Any signs of Madam Vicious’ organization trying to backtrack our unpaid feed?”
“Why? What’re they gonna do? Call the Cops?”
From her position near Madam Vicious’ ‘throne’- but not so close that she’d show up on camera- Ginny had a great view of all three rings. But then, it’s a lot different, when instead of seeing a guy you only barely kind of know from having a couple of classes together going out to maybe get his ass kicked at football, you’re seeing a bunch of your friends going out to maybe get killed. Especially Eddie. Eddie probably played fullback or the front line, or whatever, back at that high school in Sacramento where the Cannons all came from. Unable to help herself, Ginny couldn’t help but worry about the force field dingus that Madam Boobjob had given Eddie to duplicate that ‘stone skin’ effect. She didn’t trust the bitch to not give him something that would burn out when he needed it the most.
The camera guy gave Madam Nasty the heads-up, did the countdown, and then she smoldered on cue for the camera. She did her ‘look at me, I’m so Evil and Hawt’ intro, followed by the ‘Real Las Vegas Mutant Death Match’ bit. On the monitor that Madam Malice used to keep her comments on track with what the cameras saw, Ginny saw the lurid ‘Death Match’ logo play across the screen. Then she rattled off the Gladiators’ ‘battle names’ in order of their standing, starting with Techno-Demon and ending with Nightwitch. The Loose Cannons were spread out among the other Gladiators, again by their ranking, with Evan- or Evie- or, screw it, Hexblade- what kind of world is it, when not only is the girl who used to be a guy cuter than she is, but the guys who change back and forth are cuter as girls?- in the lead, and Billy the Squid trailing behind the other Cannons. Not that Nightwitch, the woman who was bringing up the rear for the rest of the Gladiators, wasn’t looking mighty stressed.
The three rings had already been set up. Ring A was set with a mockup of a sailing ship made up of three levels of plank platform, with the levels high enough for the spectators to see, well littered with coils of rope, chains, barrels and other props from Swashbuckler movies. Rising high up from the ‘deck’ were three thick masts, complete with spars, sails, rope, rigging, a big Jolly Roger flag and even a line of signal flags. Ginny wondered if they really spelled anything out. Beside the ‘ship’ were six 10-foot tall standing oval swimming pools, just enough for a hope of a splash landing, but more than enough chance of a hard hit.
Ring B had Four towers with ‘carousels’ at the top, spinning various stuff from dangling chains, with a short pyramid of obstacle blocks in the center. Each of the towers also had cross spars, and Ginny got the impression that they could be added to later for whatever purpose.
In stark contrast, Ring C was bare and open.
From her (kinda- sorta) privileged position as Madam Obnoxious’ gofer, Ginny knew that the Loose Cannons had made a big stir, and the Slut-er, sorry, Madam, had received some heavy offers for bouts against specific Cannons. Even the Squid had gotten some fast bidding for his squiddly ass in the ring. Madam Vicious didn’t even bother with the ‘pick a gladiator’ bit this time. Instead, she admitted flat out that the opponents had been bought and paid for up front. She even had the ‘Special Guest Gladiators’ come up and chat about why they picked their particular gladiator. Power Lantern, the guy that Evan had skewered back at Buccaneer Bay, had bought out Ev’s ticket, and was woofing about how the thing at Treasure Island had been a big fluke and he was gonna prove it with a rematch. That ‘Golden Gladiator’ guy from the first match was back. He was yapping about how Mack or ‘Blue Max’ was supposedly making big noises about being the best, and how he (the Golden Gladiator) sort of had that spot wrapped up. This broad called ‘Darkmoon’ was making out like she was all hot for Shoxx’s body, and was making noises like smacking him around would be like really sweet sex for her. She was working the ‘sexy witch’ bit, with a skanky little ‘Witchblade’ outfit under a draping dark hooded cloak. Please! Are there any ‘witch’ types NOT working the dark hooded cloak bit? Chris’ ticket had been bought by a guy calling himself ‘Star Falcon’. He was rocking a skin-tight star-glittered black suit with silver/blue wings, gloves, boots, belt, starburst chest logo and ‘Blue Falcon’ hood. Still, he was showing off a seriously buff bod there…
Rachel was slated to go up against a guy who called himself WarMech. He was working a power frame that had more heavy weaponry stacked on it than was in both Operations: Desert Storm. WarMech wasn’t in the mood to play Vicious’ chitchat games. Death Ghost was next, and he had taken out the option on Draconis. Out of civvies, he was wearing an outfit that was like a negative version of the Space Ghost character: a black outfit with a gray hooded cape, and a skull on his chest. Unlike WarMech, Death Ghost was very chatty, talking about how he just loved a really good scrap. Like he was seriously gonna just shake Draconis’ hand afterwards, and tell her ‘good fight’. Eddie was slated to fight this big old Swedish or Norwegian or Danish, or whatever guy called Jotun. Jotun was very chatty, all big, bluff and brag, but all his bee-ess boiled down to wanting a good fight. And Billy looked like he was gonna be served up to this badass backwoods type called Packmaster. Packmaster said that he wasn’t looking for a fight- he was looking for a good HUNT.
A hunt. In a ring. With spectators. Right.
Once all the gabbing was done, and the construction guys said that the last-minute problems had been dealt with, it was FIGHT TIME!
“And first on the card we have POWER LANTERN, seeking revenge for his humiliation at the hands of our own Hexblade!”
Power Lantern floated over to face Evan, working that ‘I’m one micrometer away from copyright infringement, but it’s still a micrometer, so there’s nothing that DC can do’ outfit for everything it’s worth. With a smirk, he pointed at the barren open space of Ring C. “Over there,” he said smugly.
“NO,” Madam Vicious said. “Over THERE,” she pointed to the ‘ship’ in Ring A. “You said that you wanted a rematch, didn’t you? Why do you think we went to all the bother of mocking that up? Besides, the Bookmakers would have both our heads on platters, if I just handed you an easy kill like Ring C.”
Power Lantern wasn’t happy, but he backed down a lot at the mention of the bookmakers. It was Las Vegas, and in Vegas, you played by The Mob’s rules. He floated over to his starting circle on the far side of the pools from the ‘ship’, while Evan strolled over to her starting spot on the very far side from him.
But as the countdown started, Evie broke out into a loud song that Ginny vaguely remembered from a movie with Kevin Klein:
Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part,
With a pirate head and a pirate heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where pirates all are well-to-do;
But I’ll be true to the song I sing,
And live and die a Pirate Queen!
Looking aghast at this, Vicious muttered, “I thought I told them: no more Bugs Bunny.”
Evie’s song ended just as the starting klaxon sounded, and she bounded high up into the air. Just as she crested, she whipped out with that crazy sash that the wardrobe department had given her and snagged a spar or yardarm or whatever it was that held up the masts. Then she used the contraction of the sash to jerk herself over to the yardarm, just in time to miss getting blasted by Power Lantern.
Evie rolled herself up onto the spar, struck a pose with energy blade drawn and yodeled out, “For I AM the Pirate Queeeen!”
And someone, probably Roxie, who was the kind of know-it-all who’d pick up on something like that, sang out, “And it is, it is, a Glorious Thing, to be a Pirate Queen!” And the rest of the Cannons started singing along the very simple and quite repetitive chorus, “she is the Pirate Queen!” and “it is, it is, a glorious thing to be a Pirate Queen!” as Evie bounced around, using the spars and rigging as gymnastics gear. Power Lantern chased her around, trying to get a decent shot, but she was too fast and erratic for him.
“Another Cat-and-Mouse chase?” Madam Vicious muttered, “We’re a cartoon show now?”
Almost as though Evie had heard her, Hexblade did a thing where she suckered Power Lantern over one of the spars and did an insane thing with a rope where she appeared to dive for the deck, but used the momentum with the rope to swing back up behind him, and come down on him. She sent him crashing through the spar, and down a good ten feet to the next spar. He managed to get to his feet, but Hexblade battered away at him with her energy sword. He was able to deflect the blade, but he gave way, backing down until he ran out of yardarm, and fell.
He did have the presence of mind to remember that he could fly, but he just barely kept from hitting the deck. And that set him up to barely miss getting hit by spar that was swinging around. He managed to avoid that, but not the big hoisting block that Evie threw at him.
Power Lantern decided that if Hexblade could use the environment, so could he. He snagged a row of barrels with his energy beam and threw them at Evie. That flushed Hexblade, and Power Lantern kept her dancing avoiding his energy blasts and the barrels that he was throwing around. Then he pegged Evie with a good solid hit. He lifted off and blasted at her, only barely missing her as she kipped up into a series of back-flips. Then she did another big vaulting leap. Power Lantern strafed above her to keep her from getting back into the rigging, but instead, she grabbed the shrouds (y’know those rope ladders sailors use to climb up in the rigging? Ginny had no idea how she knew that) and bounced back downwards. She hit a plank that she’d arranged as a diving board with a couple of barrels, and-
-no, she didn’t spring up, as Ginny (and more importantly, Power Lantern) was expecting. Instead, she used the plank as a lever, sending the ‘anchoring’ barrel flying, right into Power Lantern. It caught him square in the chest, and sent him flying back off the ‘ship’. He landed in one of the tanks of water. Power Lantern popped to the surface, gasped for air and then glowed with power, probably gathering up energy to take off. But instead, somehow, he wound up boiling the water around himself. He scrambled through the scalding hot water, and hauled himself out. He took a moment to get his breath back, but seemed to realize that he was wasting time, which was a measured and precious commodity just then.
He landed on the top deck and looked around for Evie, who wasn’t showing herself at the moment. “Okay!” he shouted, “BE that way! I’ll just tear this whole stupid thing APART!” He blasted at the floorboards, but then his ring gave out flash and a gush of smoke that sputtered out, and his blasting power sputtered out as well. Power Lantern looked at his ring like it betrayed him somehow. Then he looked around the ship very nervously.
Then Evie flipped up from below decks, a big wiseass grin on her face. “My, My…” she drawled as she extended her energy sword, “How the world does turn… one minute you’re a Big Stink… the next, you’re a little fart…”
Then Power Lantern let out a burst of energy that caught Evan square in the chest and knocked her clear into one of the masts. “Yeah,” Power Lantern gloated, “Sucks, don’t it?” Evie tried to jump out of the way again, but Power Lantern cut her off again. So Evie slashed at a rope, probably out of desperation, and brought one of the sails down, yardarm and all.
Power Lantern blasted his way out of the sail and rope, but Evie was already hand-springing away from him at top speed. He lifted off again, but this time he fired in front of Evie, setting the tangle of rope and wood and cotton on fire. Evie danced back and forth. Power Lantern blasted at one side and then another, cutting her off from whatever she was planning. Then Evie noticed something, did a half-step to the side, and blasted Power Lantern with her eyebeams. Power Lantern had never seen Evie’s eyebeams before, and they caught him flat-footed. They knocked him back into a mast hard enough to break it. He fell a good seven feet to the deck and hit hard. And then the upper part of the mast him even harder, followed by more rigging and gear.
Vicious grumped, “I thought I made it clear that I didn’t want any more Bugs Bunny.”
Power Lantern lifted the wreckage off of him with his power, rage on his face. But Hexblade stood her ground. Power Lantern didn’t lift off this time, but tried his ‘herding’ blasts again. But this time Evie just moved forward carefully, energy sword raised to strike. Power Lantern took this in, braced for a clear center shot, probably going for a killing strike.
He let fly, but at the last second, Evie jerked her left arm up, forming an energy shield that deflected the blast. Power Lantern had just enough time for a ‘wait, they never told me she could do THAT!’ reaction before Evie charged into him. Power Lantern had enough power to not be bowled over, but Evie went for the kill, driving her energy sword right into his gut.
“I knew that girl had the killer instinct,” Madam Vicious gloated.
Hexblade broke the clinch, and Power Lantern just stood there, a gape of pained dismay on his face. Evie stepped back a couple of paces and let him have it with another eyeblast. The blast knocked him clear off the ‘ship’ and into another tank of water. The water boiled again, but not as fiercely. Power Lantern weakly struggled to swim to the side of the tank. But when he reached the rim, Evie was there waiting for him.
Power Lantern gaped at her helplessly. Evie raised her energy sword and brought it down at his head. But she stopped at the very last second and mimed a pistol. She ‘shot’ Power Lantern in the forehead, turned and strutted toward the ‘ship’. Power Lantern slumped against the side of the tank in abject defeat.
Evie power-jumped up to the deck of the ship, held out her arms wide and spun around. The Cannons, joined in by most of the Gladiators, sang out, “For it is, it is, a Glorious Thing, to be a Pirate Queen!"
Evie waved them silent and sang out:
When I sally forth to seek my prey
I help myself in a royal way.
I sink a few more ships, it’s true
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do
But many a queen on a first-class throne,
If she wants to call her crown her own,
Must manage somehow to get through,
More dirty work than ever I do.
Madam Vicious looked into the camera with a sour expression. “If anyone brings a PUPPET into the pit, I cannot be held responsible for my actions!”
Evie finished with sweeping bows, and sprang off the ‘ship’, swaggering to her place in the lineup.
Haines had his PDA out. “I’m checking to see if Martin Sammish high school did a production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’…”
“While you’re doing it, check to see if there are any laws against Wanton and Gratuitous use of Gilbert & Sullivan.”
“While our construction crew puts out the fire and repairs the good ship ‘Buttercup’, let’s continue with a serious bout,” Madam Vicious said pettishly into the camera. “Next, we have a returning favorite,THRAEX! Golden Gladiator! He’s facing off our hot new contender, the Blue Max! Let’s try this one without musical interludes, shall we?”
Thraex greeted the crowds with a flourish of his sword and shield that Russell Crowe would have applauded. Mack also entered the arena with a bravura show of raised fists, like he was a boxer entering the ring. Thraex walked into the starting circle closer to Madam Vicious’ box, while Mack walked the long way past the stack of obstacle blocks to the far circle. As he walked, the hard light rezzed into the image of bustling downtown city blocks, complete with pedestrians, cars and even an old-fashioned newsboy waving a paper around. Ginny wondered if they’d be penalized or rewarded for ‘civilian casualties’.
As the countdown started the four carousels started spinning and, off-balance, they wobbled in the air. As the carousels picked up speed, Mack and Thraex glared at each other across the pyramids of blocks, waiting for the countdown to end. “Wouldn’t you know it?” Vicious sighed, “They listen to me about the ‘no music’ thing, and now I want a Clint Eastwood leitmotif…”
The starting klaxon sounded, and both Mack and the Golden Gladiator headed upwards. Mack shot up to above the level of the carousels, while Thraex bounded up the sides of the towers, exploiting the hard light manifestations in a way that suggested a familiarity.
“Annnddd…. Thraex is drawing the Blue Max in,” Madam Vicious reported. “And the Blue goes for it… commits to a charge… and Thraex manages to make it to the ‘crane’ with the dangling hook. Thraex must feel that he has to keep up with Hexblade- he’s swinging on the hook and- yes! He gives Blue Max a sword-thrust on the move-by! And again- and again-and again!”
“But now Blue Max has gotten used to that tactic and is tearing the crane cable apart with his bare hands! Thraex has gotten to one of the other towers… Blue Max is following as quickly as he can and-
“Lieber Gott!” Vicious gasped, “Thraex just cut out a major section of the support for that tower, and he’s brought it down on the Blue Max!”
Ginny just barely managed to stifle a scream and sob as Mack- who was a very nice guy, even if he was hung up on Marly- was buried under a pile of steel struts. There was a long moment as the clock ticked, and then the pile shuddered, and Mack shoved the wreckage off himself.
But the second that Mack was clear, Thraex was right there, way inside Mack’s guard, whacking away at him. Mack reflexively stepped back, letting Thraex push him. The flurry of blows became a blur, and the Golden Gladiator was totally owning Mack. Then Thraex pushed Mack over a pile of junk, knocking him over. Thraex dived for a grapple, but Mack twisted on his side and landed a palm-heel strike on Thraex’s chin that would have broken a normal man’s neck. As Thraex reeled, Mack instantly went into a weird clinch that the Golden Gladiator did NOT seem to like.
Ginny noticed that while the rest of the crowd was just roaring with appreciation for the turn of the fight, both Madam Vicious and that sleaze Death Ghost leaned in with interest.
Mack, who had been taking it on the chin all through the fight and should have been at least woozy or something, was suddenly large and in charge. Now he was in charge of the fight. The Golden Gladiator tried every trick he could think of to get Mack off his back, but none of them worked. Between them, they tore up the bogus cityscape, to the point where there was only one tower left.
Finally, Thraex got a break and managed to get control of his space back. He had that shield of his between him and Mack, and they faced each other down. There was that ‘gunfighter’ moment where they were gauging their chances, and giving the other guy a chance to make a move, so they could make a counter move. Then Thraex got on the mark Mack set for him, clearly having some play up his sleeve-
-and the five-minute bell sounded.
Neither of them stood down until the judges announced a tie. Even then, Madam Vicious had to tell Mack to step down and return to his spot. And he watched Thraex very carefully as he walked out of the ring.
On the Guests’ Waiting Line, Death Ghost was watching something that troubled him. He remembered that Wardance, the faux-Indian Warrior chick, had been giving Hexblade some private personal instruction. That was not what worried him. He noticed that she had been carefully watching both Hexblade’s and Blue Max’s matches with the studied mien of an instructor watching her pupil’s matches. That was not what worried him. What was worrying him was the fact that she was sending subtle gesture signals to someone. That worried him some. But what really worried him was that when he studied this match’s prey, Draconis, he spotted that she was also sending signals- to Wardance. Who was answering. It occurred to Death Ghost that while Hexblade had used the hints that he’d given her, it had been to a more effective use than a 16- or 17- year old girl should have pulled off. And it registered that the Blue Max had managed to hold his own against the Golden Gladiator. Indeed, if Death Ghost’s reading of the fight was on the money, Blue Max had taken Thraex for a nasty cut of dynamorph power. Hexblade must have told Blue Max about the power challenges. Worse, it added up that Wardance had been studying both Power Lantern and the Golden Gladiator, and had instructed Hexblade on how to deal with their tactics and weaknesses.
And now, Wardance was passing along information to the bitch that Death Ghost was slated to fight. Wardance had an enviable reputation as an effective fighter, even if she stubbornly refused to kill the people she beat, merely ‘counting coup’ on them. If a couple of kids could get over on a pair of blooded fighters like Power Lantern and the Golden Gladiator using Wardance’s advice, how would a seasoned fighter like Draconis be able to do with that advice? Against HIM?
He needed time. To figure out what that bitch Wardance was saying about him.
“WELL!” Vicious said brightly to the camera, “another stirring fight with no kill. And Blue Max has another Tie to his credit. I do hope that doesn’t become a recurring theme with two such promising young combatants. And a LOT of collateral damage. Even with our excellent repair crews, it may be a while before we can use Ring B again. Give me a moment… I need to find a pairing that don’t want Ring B. Nobody wants Ring C yet. No… It looks like we’re going to have to use Ring A again… So! DARKMOON! Get ready! It’s time for your big date with Shoxx!”
Darkmoon flitted coyly to her starting place on one side of the battered, semi-repaired ship model as Roxie flew on his disk to the far side. As the countdown began, the hard light twisted around the structure of the bogus ship to form the seeming of vines and flowers, to create a romantic bower. As the countdown ended, Madam Vicious purred, “It’s the same old story, a fight for love and glory… and to keep breathing…”
“How romantic!” Vicious added when the klaxon sounded. “At the very first chance, they LEAP into each other’s arms! Or, each other’s throats…”
Roxie opened with that expanding whip, but Darkmoon blocked it and did something that ripped the whip apart. “Well the course of True Love never did run smooth, and all that,” Vicious quipped.
Then Darkmoon pulled something out from that cape of hers (God knows there wasn’t any room in that outfit to carry anything, Ginny snipped to herself). She fanned out a set of sticks that unfolded into three-bladed throwing irons with a flick of her wrists. She threw them all in a flurry. Roxie dodged them on his flying disk, but to his clear dismay, they followed him no matter of far or fast he flew. So he zapped them one at a time, deflecting them into decks, barrels, masts, spars, or whatever was close enough, getting them to stick in the wood.
Darkmoon rode on that straight-out-of-Everquest staff, whether it was to keep up with her throwing irons or not give Shoxx any breathing room wasn’t clear. But Roxie reached up with ‘chains’ of lightning, and pulled down one of the yardarms, bring it down on Darkmoon, timber, rope, chains, sheets and all. Roxie picked up one of the timbers and was waiting for Darkmoon to disentangle herself from all that, ready to brain her. But she did something that made a misleading lump in the canvas, sneaked out the other side of the sail, and launched something at his back.
The projectile exploded into a bush of fibers that wrapped itself around Roxie, forming a cocoon in which he couldn’t move a muscle. He toppled off his flying disk and fell to the deck. But he didn’t hit the deck. Rather, he managed to levitate somehow on his own. And after a second of floating, he burst out of the cocoon in a flash of lightning. Then he reached out for several lengths of chain and magnetically threw them at Darkmoon who deflected them as well with bursts of purple lightning, making several of them wrap around this projection or that.
Then Roxie hopped up and his flying disk pulled up under him on the fly. Rox chased after Darkmoon, wending in and around the masts. “Ah, one way or another, it always comes down to the chase,” Vicious smirked.
But as Darkmoon passed through the area where she’d deflected the lengths of chain, Shoxx sent a charge of electricity ahead of her, hitting the grounding bits of iron, as to create a ‘web’ of electricity. This took Darkmoon enough by surprise that she flew right into the ‘web’ and was shocked off her staff.
Darkmoon landed hard, but this move pissed her off enough that she launched bolts of purple lightning at Shoxx. Roxie did a sort of barrel-roll to evade it, but Darkmoon seemed to have seen that coming. She latched onto his flying disk with her lightning and took control of it. She sent the disk directly at the main mast, and Rox was just barely able to disconnect himself from the disk in time. He managed to slip past the mast, but he found himself scrambling on top of a row of barrels on their sides, sending them rolling down the deck. The sight of Rox jumbling on top of those barrels struck Darkmoon as hilarious, and she broke out laughing at him.
And THAT pissed Roxie off enough that he found it in himself to take control of the barrels. He was not only able to steer the barrels, but he found a plank and rolled them at breakneck speed, right at Darkmoon. Darkmoon snapped out of her laughing fit just in time to lash out with her staff to smash three of the barrels in turn, and then simply duck the last two.
Darkmoon got up with an ‘oh, now it is ON!’ snarl. She spun her staff like a baton until it was a blazing hoop of energy, and then threw the hoop at Shoxx. Roxie ducked it, but it simply bounced off the deck to come at him again, and then off the mast when Rox dodged that. But Roxie saw it coming this time, and did a lightning fast grab into the center of the ‘hoop’. He caught the staff and held it for a triumphant moment.
Then the staff erupted in a burst of energy, ‘shocking’ Shoxx badly. As Shoxx shook his head to clear it, Darkmoon reached into her bag (or cape or whatever) of dirty tricks. She threw a handful of dust at him, which held together in a pod of purple energy as it traveled. Roxie deflected the pod of dust, but that only set off a brilliant burst of light only a foot or so from his face!
As Rox clutched at his face in blind pain, Darkmoon dived at him with a predatory grin on her face. But just as she reached him, Shoxx pulled his hands from his face and drove his fist into her midsection, hitting her solar plexus perfectly. This knocked the wind right out of her, and as she struggled, Shoxx gripped her breastplate and made a spear hand for her solar plexus again.
The breastplate came off in Shoxx’s hand. She wasn’t wearing a bra under it. Not that she had much for a bra to lift or a breastplate to protect. This got the wind right back in her, and she let out a shriek that would have woken up Elvis. Roxie took this in, flushed, and finally latched onto her with both hands. He shocked her into unconsciousness, just to get her to shut up.
Madam Vicious smirked and jibed, “I don’t know what she was so upset about. It’s not like there was anything there to SEE,” she punctuated the last by thrusting her own ample bosom forth a tad. And late bloomer Ginny found another reason to hate Madam Vicious. Like she needed one.
After she was revived by the medics, Darkmoon took the news of her defeat with no show of grace whatsoever. “I DEMAND A REMATCH!” she shrieked. “I want that little pervert’s HEAD on a platter!”
“Shoxx may have ruined your reputation- in more ways than one,” Madam Vicious replied loftily, giving the deceptively ample breastplate an amused sneer. “But he still left you alive. Misguided gallantry. If you want to risk it again, you’ll have to come up with another fifty-thousand-dollar gate. In the meantime, cover up- what you DO have to cover.”
“Look, Hung, if you can’t decrypt a pack of lousy hand signals and get me a synopsis of what that bitch is saying in a half-hour, then I guess you’re just not GOOD enough for a hundred grand!”
“STAR FALCON!” Madam Vicious called to the raptor-theme supervillain, “Have you decided which arena you want?”
“Indeed, I have!” he answered with a hearty tone. Giving Chris a leer you could see, even through that hawk-visor, he continued, “We’ll be using Arena B.” he said it like he was picking a motel room.
“Are you sure? They haven’t finished the repairs yet. Blue Max and Thraex did an excellent job of wrecking the place.”
“It’s perfect for what I have in mind,” Star Falcon said with another leering look at Chris. Ginny had never been one to pay any attention to attractive girls who complained that they were getting hit on all the time. That Chris was actively disliking this was an uncomfortable new thought to Ginny.
But Chris, or Spotlight, was pointedly NOT consulted in the choice. The two fliers walked to their spots on far sides of the pile of no-longer-neatly stacked obstacle blocks. As the countdown counted off, the hard light imaging painted a scene of a gorgeous Sci-Fi cityscape, all glittering towers and mirrored buildings and flying cars zipping among the structures. The pyramid of blocks was turned into a fountain. There was a glitter that ran over all the surfaces just as the countdown ended. And then both combatants streaked upwards, leaving trails of light behind them.
Star Falcon reached the apex first, turned and blasted down at Chris. She managed to deflect the blasts, but it cost her initiative, and Star Falcon came swooping down past her, raking her with a punch that rattled her. Chris dove and tried to get one of the ‘buildings’ between her and Star Falcon, but he kept cutting her off, blocking her into the sides of buildings, and generally harassing the hell out of her.
Finally, Star Falcon had Spotlight on the ground. They paused for a moment, and then Star Falcon leaned over her and there was a pause.
Then Spotlight screamed in a rage that caught even Madam Vicious by surprise, and she exploded in a ball of coruscating iridescent light. Star Falcon was thrown back, but Chris followed him, harrying him back with a barrage of light-blasts. Star Falcon wasn’t beat; he came back with blasts of his own, and tried to take the fight back to Chris. But Chris was using the environment much better now, using the reflecting surfaces to blast or bedazzle Star Falcon. One time, Star Falcon tried pushing Chris into one of the structures, only for her to pass through completely. Then when it looked like Star Falcon had Chris cornered again, she erupted in another bubble of coruscating light, that exploded outwards in all directions, only to reflect off a surface and bounce back in on Star Falcon from a dozen different angles, almost roasting him.
Now it was apparent to both combatants, and the spectators as well, that both sides had their strengths and weaknesses. Star Falcon’s energy blasts were almost useless against Spotlight, but he was significantly stronger and tougher than she was. Chris couldn’t take the pounding that Star Falcon could, but she could attack him at range. There was a pause as they caught their breath, and suddenly, they were back in flight again, zipping around, Star Falcon trying to close on Spotlight to get his hands on her, and Spotlight letting him get just close enough to think that he could, while making it easier for her to blast him. They spiraled around each other, with energy blasts ripping out past each other. Chris used the ‘flying cars’ a lot more creatively than Star Falcon did. Then they both misjudged a turn and they ‘crashed’ through a hard light wall in a way that neither of them enjoyed. They spilled to the ground, and both took a long dangerous moment getting up.
But they did, and they faced each other. Star Falcon braced himself, raised a fist and charged at Spotlight. Chris waited for him, clearly taking her time and aiming directly at his head.
And then the Five-Minute bell rang.
Chris and Star Falcon paused, glared raw hatred at each other, but reined themselves in. They turned and faced the judges. The judges took their time, and eventually the scoreboard returned figures that summed up to exactly ONE POINT more than would dictate a Tie- for Star Falcon.
As Chris screeched pure outrage, Star Falcon basked in the approval of the crowd for a glorious fight.
In her suite at the Aladdin resort, the woman known to the Law Enforcement, Superhero, Organized Crime, Supervillain and Covert Operations communities as ‘Black Sapphire’ was raking her agent over the coals on the phone. “What do you mean, I can’t afford her? Listen, Larry, GET ME A BOUT WITH THE SPOTLIGHT CHICK! Right now, Star Falcon’s asking price for his anemic services just jumped by Ten Grand American!I’m telling you, if they’re eating up that mediocre dogfight with that loser Star Falcon, they will go absolutely APE with me up against that flash little bitch!”
“Are you sure, WARMECH?” Madam Vicious asked the short, stocky man in the gray technician’s jumpsuit. “Blue Max and the Golden Gladiator put Ring B through a grinder, and Spotlight and Star Falcon’s fight completely blew away what progress our construction team had been able to make, and blasted apart a few things that the first fight didn’t even scratch!”
“It’s perfect, just the way it is,” WarMech grinned with atypical eagerness. “The wreckage and kipple just makes the fight more interesting.”
Madam Vicious shrugged without any real concern. “Oh well, it will give the team more time on Ring A.”
Rachel watched the short man trot from his spot in front of Madam Vicious to where his bipedal power frame was idling with the detached disgust of someone viewing a new but repugnant breed of beetle from a safe distance. Shrugging deeper into his sports parka, ‘Robo-Thug’ slouched over to the spot on the far side of the ring. As the countdown sounded off, Rachel made a production of studying WarMech’s mech without looking like he was studying the power frame.
But the second that the starting klaxon sounded, the fight immediately went too fast for Ginny to really follow. Rachel sort-of ran, sort-of jumped WAY faster than you’d think a big heavy guy like Rae could, and got into the cover of the wreckage. WarMech tried to flush Rae out with a barrage of missiles from this big boxy rack on one side of the robot. But Rae returned fire with some kind of energy weapon. But instead of the robot’s main body, he targeted the missile rack, and caused it to explode.
From there it was machinegun fire, return energy weapon, flamethrower, thrown chunks of concrete, rocket propelled grenade, more return energy weapon fire, big-ass plasma cannon that brought down one of the towers.
But that tower landed mostly on WarMech’s unit. As WarMech was digging himself out of the wreckage, Ginny just managed to catch sight of ‘Robo-Thug’ as he climbed up on WarMech. The mecha’s pilot saw- or more likely heard- this and Ginny could see him scrambling for something inside his cockpit. Then Rachel did something, and the canopy of the big robot shot off, and the pilot’s chair ejected, like on a jet fighter.
The ejection chair just barely managed to crest before hitting the ceiling of the arena. As the parachute opened, the WarMech pilot opened up with some kind of machine gun. Rachel just stood there, ignoring the bullets, even the ones that hit, as he watched the parachute chair drift down. Rachel was right there when the chair landed. The pilot let off a volley of machine gun fire before Rae tore the gun out of his hand and tied it in a knot. The pilot went for some grenades, but Rae just knocked them out of his hand. She tore the pilot out of his chair and started pounding on him. She did this until he wasn’t moving anymore.
Then she formed an energy rifle with her right arm, pointed it at WarMech’s twitching head, braced to fire-
and the Five-Minute chime rang.
Rae stood over him, dressed in tatters. She turned her firearm back into an arm, and turned to face Madam Vicious.
“Well, Robo-thug. It looks like you’re going to have to be faster, if you want your first kill,” Madam Vicious chided him. Then she muttered, “No matter what anyone says, the next two bouts are going to be in Ring C.”
Then Madam Vicious addressed her next ‘special guest’. “JOTUN! Are you willing to face Stonewall unprotected in Ring C?”
“YAH!” Jotun roared with Nordic cheer. “If anyt’ing, doing it out in the open, suits me down to the ground!” Ginny wondered from his accent, if Jotun was from Sweden- by way of Minnesota.
Eddie trudged over into his circle- Ginny really hoped that he understood that she didn’t care about the whole Gay thing- and glared at Jotun as the older man strutted into the opposing circle. As the countdown began, Eddie grew up to 30 feet. In response, Jotun also grew, and in the process gained a layer of ice frosting that colored him blue and sharpened the points on his beard and mustache, and the horns on his helmet. Jotun gestured, and a big knobby club of ice formed in his hand. With a big smirk on his face, Eddie unstrapped the rainbow shield from his arm. Then he pointedly took it with thumb and fore finger, held it outside the circle and dropped it.
Jotun let out a big laugh and shattered his ice club. Then he took the horned helmet from his head and threw it out of his circle. Eddie crouched in his circle. Jotun readied himself in his. Then the countdown ended, the klaxon sounded and they both charged out of their circles at each other. They met in the center with the crash of two armies colliding.
“Lieber Gott!” Madam Vicious gasped, “That’s not what I usually mean, when I, say ‘Did the Earth move for you too?’”
Barely missing a beat, Eddie and Jotun pounded each other with more gusto than technique. It was a graceless, artless, relentless storm of muscle, guts and pain. And the crowd loved it. And from what Ginny could see, so did Madam Venomous. Oh, there was going to be hot monkey sex at her place tonight. Ginny just hoped that she wouldn’t have to be there to clean up afterwards.
Then the tempo of the brawl started to slow down, a combination of getting massively beaten and the exertion of massively beating the other. As the beat of the beating slowed down, both combatants slowly shrank to conserve energy. Finally, they were both down to their normal heights, sluggishly staggering through throwing punches that the other was too tired to avoid. Finally, just as Jotun was trying to scrounge up enough strength to throw a punch at a logy Eddie, the 5-Minute bell sounded.
As Mack, Rachel and Evan hurried into the ring to help a dazed Eddie out, Evan heard an exhausted Jotun mumble, “Good Fight. Tell the kid I said that: ‘Good Fight’.”
Madam Vicious barely had to ask the judges to get an immediate confirmation of a Tie.
Madam Vicious smirked into the camera, “Now THAT’s the kind of spirit we like to see here on Mutant Death Match! Who NEEDS blood, with that kind of mayhem? Our two Special Guest Gladiators have requested delays, so we’ll have a couple of In-House matches, with our usual band of maniacs looking to claw their way up the listings by tearing down one of the others- or just tearing them apart! Let’s see… who wouldn’t be a letdown, after that tour de force effort?
“Ah! Perfect! TECHNO-DEMON! You’re at the top of the rankings, but you only have Four Kills. Clearly you need another. But who will give you a fight worthy of your predecessors? Draconis is spoken for… Blood Witch is simply not your style… Diamond Girl? The Beauty and the Beast? No, I don’t think so… Glitter and Thundergun are still recovering from their bouts with Hexblade and Robo-Thug… Backbreaker? Retarius?
“NO!” Madam Vicious’ face blossomed in an evil little girl smile. “OGRE! Step forward! Let the better MONSTER prevail!” While Ogre wasn’t as tall or as cut as Techno-Demon, he was broader and thicker. There was something odd about his skin texture; it was like he was made of living white stone or something. While he didn’t have green skin or the weird conical ears, there was enough facial similarity to the Shrek character from the CGI movies that the costume department had come up with an outfit that was a near-copy of Shrek’s. Though, someone had the folklore awareness to add a leather apron, and a large-headed, long-handled iron mallet. Ginny wondered why Vicious was picking on Ogre; the big lump was one spot below the Squid, fer the luvva Pete!
Ogre trudged uncertainly into his square, looking at Techno-Demon with a look that wasn’t quite fear, but something else. Then he snarled fiercely, and held his hammer as though he was willing to fight to the death- but then that was the entire point, so… Techno-Demon spread his wings (on Deathmatch Days, they reattached his wings and razor-sharp horns and claws. He trained without them. After all, she was ‘Madam Vicious’, not ‘Madam Stupid’), extended his claws, and returned the snarl. The countdown ended and they charged at each other. Techno-Demon vaulted high in the air and came down with a controlled descent that was still very fast. But Ogre managed to nail him in the gut with his hammer just before Techno-Demon hit. TD sprawled, and Ogre was on him immediately, just barely missing Techno-Demon’s head with the hammer. TD used that to kick Ogre off him, and took the barest of minutes before he sprang on Ogre.
This went on for several passes, both sides trying furiously to get the other, but neither quite managing to land anything but the mildest of hits. Madam Vicious strummed her fingers on the arm of her chair in annoyance. “Pillow Fighting,” she grumbled. “Oh well, I was going to do this anyway…” She twisted the knob of her riding crop.
Techno-Demon jerked to a complete stop, taking a blow from Ogre’s hammer that looked like it would break concrete, but barely even nudging the cyborg. Ogre looked at Techno-Demon with confusion. Then Techno-Demon snapped to, looked at Ogre, and snatched the hammer away from him. From there, Techno-Demon proceeded to tear Ogre apart with his bare hands. Ginny turned her head from the sign of the pathetic victim, but the crowd loved it.
At the end of it, Techno-Demon snapped out of it, and looked at the bloody shreds of Ogre on the sand, and the blood on his hands. He fell to his knees with an expression of abject horror and grief that really did not belong on his demonic face. “You know the rules, Techno-Demon,” Madam Vicious said coldly, “Kills that you make while being overridden don’t count. No Wooden Sword for you.” Then she tapped the knob of her riding crop again, and Techno-Demon spasmed with agony until he passed out. Then she gloated into the camera. “Well, that was fun… let’s see what we can come up with this time. A change of pace. So, let’s go from the top of the list to the very bottom. NIGHTWITCH! Step forward! Let’s see if you’ve got enough mojo to stay alive…”
Nightwitch stepped forward hesitantly, looking more like a Grade School teacher chaperoning a trick-or-treating party than a dangerous supervillainess. Though, to be honest, that was mostly her timid demeanor. She was wearing the stock black hooded cloak (albeit with a nice purple trim) over a spider-webby gown with a purple satin corset. The cloak was closed by a clasp with a large purple crystal, and the staff she carried was also capped by a purple crystal. Ginny had heard that Nightwitch was at the bottom of the list. She’d also heard that ‘Molly’ was the fourth Nightwitch to appear in the Mutant Death Matches, that the other three had all died in the ring, and that Molly was 2 wins, 5 losses and 0 kills. She was also skretchy as hell about her position. Ginny didn’t blame her in the least.
Nightwitch plodded her way to the starting circle in Ring A. Looking at the sad excuse for a ‘gladiator’, Madam Vicious murmured, “Okay, who’s pathetic enough that they wouldn’t just step on her, but powerful enough that it’s not a shmoo-fight?” Looking around the ring from Nightwitch’s starting place, she mused, “Deathrace? No… Buzzkill? No… Ultiman…? YES!
“Congratulations, Ultiman! After your poor showing last match, you have a chance of picking yourself up in the ratings a little.” The camera saw Ultiman’s stunned face break out in a surprised smile. With a whoop, he launched himself out of his spot, flew over the ‘ship’ and landed in the far circle.
There was no one to pay for a hard light mask for this one, so there was no change to the still pretty dinged up ‘ship’ as the countdown went on.
Iron Tiger leaned over and asked Wardance, who was set next to him, sotto voce, “I hear that before you took Hexblade under your wing, you were working with Molly.”
Wardance merely let the slightest smirk break her stoic façade. But she kept her eyes on the ring. “Well someone had to. God knows, the stronzos that Vicious hires as trainers don’t have the slightest idea what to do with her.”
“Any idea what she’ll try?”
“Molly realizes that since she’s at the bottom, she doesn’t really have to win. She just has to stay alive.”
The klaxon sounded, and Ultiman lifted off. Nightwitch straddled her ‘staff’ and lifted off as well. Ultiman made a move to try and cut Nightwitch off from the open side of the ship. What he wasn’t expecting was for Nightwitch to fly directly at him, and wave her hand at him. A shower of sparkles erupted from her hand and washed over him.
“Hah?” Iron Tiger honked, “I never knew that Molly was powerful enough to get past Ultiman’s defenses.”
“Oh, that’s another thing that I pointed out,” Wardance said. “I reminded Molly that she didn’t have to hurt Ultiman- she just had to affect him in ways that would keep him from ripping her apart.”
“Like jiggling around the fluid in his inner ear, so his sense of balance goes wonky.”
“So what? Ulty can FLY,” Iron Tiger pointed out.
“That only makes it worse,” Wardance said with a smirk as Ultiman careened into one of the masts of the ship, not quite breaking it, but being thrown back by the recoil. “The only problem is that it doesn’t last very long,” she noted as Ultiman shook his head clear.
Then he snarled, looked around and spotted Nightwitch running toward the main hatch. “No y’don’t BITCH!” he snarled and power-dived down at her. But for some reason, just he was about to connect, Nightwitch was suddenly thrown to one side, and he proceeded down through three levels of planking. It didn’t hurt him, but it was far from pleasant. As Ultiman pulled himself together, Nightwitch was frantically putting things together from the bits and pieces of sailing gear and things that the construction crew had left behind.
Ultiman came crashing up through the deck, only to find a bizarre tangle of cords and rope and gear coming at him. As he struggled with the makeshift snare, Nightwitch stood back and let out a loud cackle of triumph. “What’s your damage, bitch?” Ultiman snarled as he tore his way out of the snare.
“Feel around your neck, Captain Marblehead,” she sneered, twirling a finger at him.
He did so, and felt that there was an additional collar around his neck. “What’s this?”
“THAT is a dynamorph tap that Madam Vicious gave me. Seeing as how I was at the bottom of the list, she figured that it would make things more interesting. And it does! Here’s the thing- it drains your power and gives it to me. It’s based on how much of your dynamorph power you use; the more energy you use, the more I get. Oh, and I made sure to entwine it with your punishment collar. You remove MY collar, and you remove HER collar. And we both know that you can’t remove that collar fast enough.
“So, there are three options- 1: you can take the collar off and get raked over the coals of HELL until the collar resets. 2: you can try to fight me with that collar on your neck, and feed me all the dynamorph power that I’ll need to crawl out of the basement, or, 3: you can just stand there and-” with no further word, Nightwitch channeled some energy through her staff and proceeded to batter Ultiman mercilessly with it.
“So…” Iron Tiger drawled, “Is that a bluff? Or is she trying to sucker him into fighting her with it on?”
Wardance just smiled enigmatically. “THAT would be telling.”
Ultiman put up with Nightwitch pummeling him as he carefully, gingerly untangled the alleged power tap from his punishment collar. Then, finally free of the threat of the tap, he swung at Nightwitch- and again, she somehow slid away from his fist.
Then Nightwitch did a vaulting backflip to just behind a barrel of tar that the construction crew had left. She’d set it on fire just before she went after Ultiman with the power tap. Clearly using her ‘magic’ to help, she lifted the barrel over her head and heaved it at Ultiman. Ultiman batted the barrel aside, but it exploded, covering him with flaming tar. Ultiman panicked, more out of instinctive reflex than actual danger of the flame penetrating his defenses. He rolled around, and managed to put out the flames, but he still looked a mess, and now Nightwitch was nowhere to be seen.
“She went below decks, Ultiman,” Madam Vicious called out. Then she turned to the camera and explained, “You didn’t pay all that money to watch a game of ‘Hide and Seek’ now did you?”
But the second that Ultiman was down the stairway, Nightwitch popped out of a steel barrel and used her Vertigo attack on him. Then she yelled out, “So, tell me Ultiman- do you remember that conversation you were having with Hellrazor about Fuel-Air Explosions?” Then she gestured at an open box of something, and a cloud of sawdust erupted, filling the entire deck area.
“Is sawdust really combustible enough to damage Ultiman in a dust explosion? And how could Molly survive inside that barrel?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Wardance said with a smirk. “The real point is that under all his bluster, Ultiman is a coward.”
Ultiman froze as the details that he knew, sketchy as they were, about thermobaric explosion and dust blasts registered. He immediately flew out the nearest hole in the side of the ‘ship’-
-only to get entangled in a web of cables and wiring. The cables gave too much for him to get any leverage in time, but it kept him from getting AWAY! He screeched in horror as he looked at the cloud of dust as it-
Laughter filled the arena at Ultiman’s expense.
“And, like all bullies and cowards,” Wardance snarked, “he hates being called on it.”
Even after the heckling and jeering from the crowd died down, Ultiman could hear them laughing at him. No, there was laughing-coming from that stupid BARREL! She was LAUGHING at him! Rage giving focus where panic stole it, he ripped out of the tangle of cable and wiring, and flew over to the barrel. “Laugh THIS off, BITCH!” he snarled as he hefted the barrel over his head. Then the barrel exploded, setting off a secondary (if rather minor) dust explosion that rattled the interior of the ‘ship’.
“You see, the secret is to get them mad, and keep them mad, so they’re not thinking,” Warpath explained clinically.
“And how did Molly pull off that decoy barrel bit?”
“She snuck out under the cover of the sawdust. There was a voice chip in the barrel, programmed with a simple laugh track. You see, Madam Vicious really did decide to let Molly perk up her profile with a few holdouts. Yes, the crowd is here for bloodshed, but it’s got to be spectacular bloodshed!”
Gasping with the lack of oxygen, Ultiman struggled up the stairs to the upper ‘deck’. As he gasped for breath, another collar floated up behind him, draped itself over his head, coiled around his collar, and tightened around his neck. Then Nightwitch popped up from behind a barrel and announced in her best 3rd Grade teacher tones, “The first power tap was a phony, to fake you out. But THAT one is a real power tap.”
“Like I’m supposed to believe THAT?” Ultiman snarled, raising his fist and setting his mark to charge.
“BRING IT, meathead!” Nightwitch jeered in a complete departure from her usual timid demeanor. “The more power you spend with your super-strength, or flight, or even your defenses, the more that tap will give ME your power! COME ON! Maybe I’m bluffing! Maybe I’m just getting you to stand still and let me whale the tar out of you!” She hefted her staff, with its crystal cap blazing with power.
That completely put Ultiman off his mark. As he paused, certain that he was being played but with no idea as to HOW he was being played, Nightwitch charged. She laid into him with her staff again, and DAMN, if it didn’t hurt worse this time!
Nightwitch broke off and pointed her staff at Ultiman, sending a ball of light that exploded in his face, blinding him. As Ultiman stumbled around, Nightwitch levitated one bit of gear or wreckage at him after another: buzz-saw blades, bits of chain, even a power line that she wrapped around him.
Wardance nodded, “Very nice. Keep him busy; don’t give him a chance to think.”
Finally, Ultiman decided that to hell with it, he was getting away from all this and taking the fight back! He lifted off, shook the stars out of his eyes, and looked around. He spotted Nightwitch crouched down between two of the pools around the ‘ship’. Too angry, confused, scared and simply rattled to really think, he executed a lightning fast power dive, too quick for anyone to duck out of the way.
But again, just at the last moment, Nightwitch suddenly moved out of the way. Ultiman hit the concrete hard enough to crack the cement, and he sprawled on the floor, knocked out cold. The overhead voice counted him out and Nightwitch was declared the victor.
“Okay… I gotta know…” Iron Tiger drawled. “How’d she pull off that last bit?”
“Well, Molly’s primary power is a dynamorph based form of psychokinesis,” Wardance explained. “She can refine it with that staff and amulet, and a few powders and other gimmicks for various special effects. But it’s not powerful enough to stop or deflect that much incoming force, especially from anyone as powerful as Ultiman. So, instead of stopping the incoming force, she uses her PK to create a ‘bubble’ around her. The bubble doesn’t stop the incoming force; no, it uses the incoming attack’s own power to shove Molly out of its way. Like the last pickle in the jar staying away from your fingers. Why stop 6 tons of force, when all you have to move is 130 lbs.? That she’ll admit to.”
When Nightwitch saw the changes in the rating, she was happy to see that Ultiman had taken her place at the very bottom. But to be honest, her reaction was more ‘Thank GOD! I’m still alive, and I won’t be culled if there are too many new prisoners!’ than triumphant rejoicing.
“Very good, Hung,” Death Ghost told his codebreaker on his smartphone. “You’re worth every cent of the thirty grand I’m paying you. Hundred Grand? I never said that I’d pay you a hundred grand! A hundred grand for 20 minutes work? Jeez, think much of yourself?”
“Tell me, Packmaster,” Madam Vicious drawled acidic scorn, “given the level of ‘Bugs Bunny’ we’re having, are you really comfortable going on a hunt tonight?”
“Do I look like Elmer Fudd?” Packmaster jeered back. And give him is due, Packmaster didn’t. if anything, he looked like a badass villain-of-the-week from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show, with jeans and boots (and very high-tech shin and knee guards), a plaid shirt (over an impact-dispersing mesh long-sleeved undershirt), a hunting vest (over a reactive plate armor vest), a low-crowned Stetson (barely camouflaging a SOTA targeting headset), and hunting rifle propped casually on his shoulder (with an equally SOTA targeting array top-mounted on the rifle). From his belt hung a large Bowie knife, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn and several rather cryptic pouches. He was large and burly, and he looked like he hadn’t had a shave in a week. Unless that was exactly the look he was going for. “Besides, I’m not here hunting Wabbit! Or even Squid,” he spared a sneer for Billy, who was standing in his spot on the lineup. “I’m here after a certain Man-Eating feline. And she’s real pissed off at yer boy Squiddly-diddly. And I figure that if I pick off Octo-Pussy over there before she can scare up the scratch to take another whack at him, she’ll be pissed off enough to come to ME.”
“Oh please,” the Man-Eater grumbled back at the TV screen in the hotel room at the Treasure Island resort that she was sharing with the Mamba. “Does he really think that I’m gonna put myself at risk, trying to take him out, just ‘cause he kills that ‘Squid’ wimp?” Then she turned and scowled at her roommate. “And I can’t believe that you’re putting down a BET on it!”
“Are you KIDDING?” the Mamba shot back, turning her laptop around so that the Man-Eater could see. “Did you see the ODDS they’re giving? Thirty-five-to-One odds!”
“You’re putting twenty-five of the forty grand that’s all we’ve GOT, on a long shot like that?”
“We’d have Fifty more, if you hadn’t insisted on blowing it at these stupid Death Matches!”
“LOOK, we got OWNED at Buccaneer Bay! By a bunch of KIDS! I had to do something to show that we still got it!”
“And you did that. More’r less. And the Marino Family is gonna repay everyone at that game the value of the Falcons they put up, aren’t they?” the Mamba demanded.
“YEAH!” the Man-Eater shot back, “When they damn well FEEL like it! And in the meantime, that Forty was the only thing keeping us going!”
“Alice,” the Mamba assured her friend, “Forty K is just enough to give wiseasses idea, while not being enough to really DO anything with! Besides, the Marinos are picking up the tab for this suite, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, for this WEEK, anyway!”
“Just... Watch the show,” the Mamba grumped, “and hope that the Calamari Kid is still as slippery as he was last time.”
“So, which ring do you want?” Madam Vicious asked. “I’m sorry, but both Rings A and B were very heavily damaged in the previous bouts.”
“Not to worry,” Packmaster drawled confidently. “Ring B suits me and the boys right down to the ground.”
Madam Vicious gave a grump about little boys playing in the trash bin, but shrugged it aside. “Very well! SQUID!” she snapped, “Into the ring! NOW!”
Billy slowly, hesitantly made his way to the far circle. He was hurried along by zaps from Madam Vicious. Once the Squid was in his circle, Packmaster sauntered over to his circle, and pointedly chambered a round into his rifle.
As the countdown began, the wreckage around them rezzed into a leafy, shrub-choked wilderness. Packmaster put his rifle to his shoulder, pointed at the Squid and aimed. Billy looked around frantically as he tried to decide whether to bolt from the circle before the countdown started, or just stand there and get SHOT where he stood.
The second the Go klaxon sounded, Packmaster fired. But he shot at the point between Billy’s feet, making the Squid jump. “RUN, RABBIT, RUN!” Jeered the Packmaster. Billy obligingly headed into the ‘underbrush’ as quickly as his four legs could carry him.
The Packmaster let out a mocking laugh and pulled the rams-horn bugle from his hip. He let out three short bursts and then a long, loud blare. As the call resounded through the arena, a puddle of darkness appeared at his feet, and spread out around him. Then it rose up into six blobs of darkness that shaped themselves into large short-haired hounds. The only break in the darkness of the hounds’ forms was their red eyes and flashes of white fangs at their mouths. “Huntin’ Time, Boys!” the Packmaster announced. “Go Get ‘im!”
The six black hounds let out a howl, turned and bounded out in hot pursuit. The Packmaster readied his rifle and hurried after them.
Billy’s ‘squid-suit’ was refractive and blended into most backgrounds easily. Except when it turned bright neon red, making him stand out like a sore thumb. The Packmaster’s Hounds came straight for him with every intention of ripping him apart. So the Squid put everything he had into motion, and used every trick he could think of.
Mack buried his face in his hand. Not another one. Not so soon…
Evan silently urged Billy on. ‘Come ON, Squid! Get your head out of your ass!’
Madam Vicious simply murmured, “Looks like one less for dinner…”
Wardance silently disapproved of Billy’s run amok panic.
Man-Eater glowered at the Mamba and grumbled, “Well, there’s 25K down the shithole…”
Ginny worried that being in this place was already making her hard. She wasn’t very scared for Billy. And in only a week! How long before her reaction to seeing someone torn apart was, ‘I’m not cleaning that up’?
Finally, the Hounds had the Squid cornered. The Packmaster ran up, saw Billy cowering there, and muttered, “Pathetic.” Then he brought up his rifle, aimed and-
-Billy reached out with two of his arms, grabbed the two hounds on the furthest end of the line, and used them to sweep Packmaster and the other four Hounds off their feet. Then the Squid grabbed the first two Hounds to get to their feet. Then he thrashed out madly at both the manifested hounds and their master.
Mack, Evan, Madam Vicious, Wardance, Man-Eater. Mamba and Ginny, each in their own place, all took this in with the same wide-eyed look of stunned surprise.
Billy ripped apart the ‘dogs’ one at a time, and seemed to ingest them somehow. The Packmaster blew a retreat call with his horn, and three of the dogs survived to follow him to a safe distance. There, he’d hunker down, get a bead on the freak, and take him out with a single shot. But as the Packmaster looked for a secure shooting place, a red form zipped past him and there was a canine yip. Looking around, the Packmaster saw that he only had two of his dogs.
No, ONE of his dogs! Somehow, that Squid-freak got one of his dogs, right when he was looking!
And then the last dog was pulled into the underbrush by four long tentacle arms and there was a loud yip of pain and fear.
And the Packmaster was alone. With his prey. Or Vice-versa.
The Packmaster pulled his rifle to his shoulder and swept the area for any sign of the Squid. At this point, he’d take whatever shot he could get. Then he felt his hat pulled off his head.
Then his shooting glasses were plucked off his face.
Then two arms pulled his gun from his hands.
The Packmaster put his horn to his lips, to try and call his Hounds again. But the horn was pulled from his hands. The Packmaster pulled his Bowie Knife
Mack blinked numbly. What happened?
Evan screwed her face up in baffled smirk and muttered, “GO, Squid!”
Madam Vicious grumbled, “The Bookies are going to be absolutely furious with this one.”
Wardance simply nodded approvingly.
Man-Eater just sat there, blinking wide-eyed. But the Mamba was bouncing around, whooping, “WOO-HOO! EIGHT HUNDRED GRAND! OUT OF THE HOLE, BABY, OUT OF THE HOLE! GOD, I LOVE THIS TOWN!”
Ginny just sat there blank-faced and wondered, ‘When did Billy grow a pair?’
Billy was in the middle of pounding Packmaster into the ground (and the hospital) when the Five-Minute bell sounded. Billy gave Packmaster a couple more thumps, but then dropped him and walked with all due dignity to the circle closest to Madam Vicious.
“Excellent, Squid,” Madam Vicious purred. “Apparently, you’ve found your backbone. Or at least your cuttlebone. But you need to hurry up, if you’re going to have time to claim your kills before the bell rings. Still, in light of your vastly improved attitude, I’m jumping you up two places in the rankings.”
Then, dismissing Billy completely, Vicious smarmed into the camera, “Well, you can’t say that this hasn’t been a night for surprises. But now for our final bout, an old Mutant Death Match favorite: DEATH GHOST!”
Death Ghost stepped forward and accepted his accolades. “Death Ghost! Have you chosen your ring?”
“Ah, yeah… Well, to be honest, I was sort of hoping for Ring B. But after what Star Falcon and WarMech did to it…” he looked at the wreckage. “I’ll take Ring A. Just don’t expect me to sing a Solo.”
“And thank God for that!”
Death Ghost wafted over to the spot on the far side of the ‘ship’, which had not had a lot of repairs done on it. It was, after all, the last bout of the night. Draconis walked over to her spot and extended her wings and tail. As the countdown sounded, the hard light played over the ‘ship’ turning it into a ‘ghost ship’ draped in moss and cobwebs, with tattered gossamer sails. Madam Vicious addressed the camera and commented, “Death Ghost wanted ghost sailors and such patrolling the decks, but that would have been too much of a home advantage for him. We DO expect our guests to EARN their kills, as several of them have learned tonight.
“And there’s the starting klaxon. Draconis goes for height, but Death Ghost goes straight into the guts of the ship.
“And what’s THIS? Draconis has set the sails and upper rigging on fire! And now she’s flying down to one of the pools of water and flaming it! It didn’t take long for that cool water to heat up to boiling level! And now another one, and then another one, and- and, well, it looks like Draconis doesn’t want to cook Death Ghost’s goose, she wants to broil it.
“And now that she’s done with the other side, Draconis goes back up to the top deck. I wish I could say that I knew where Death Ghost has gotten to, but he’s especially hard to keep track of. Now she’s torching the forecastle- that’s the raised part at the front of the ship. She’s going below-decks- that IS a problem with this setup; we probably won’t use it again. At least, not very often. Now she’s at the aft and going forward, setting the deck afire as she goes. MMMmmm… the problem is that while I can’t fault her for her tactics, it isn’t very spectacular, which is the whole POINT…”
Then, to Ginny’s horror, Death Ghost rose up through the deck and nailed Draconis squarely in the solar plexus. While the actual fight took several minutes, and Ginny got the impression that Death Ghost was playing to the crowds. Death Ghost used the fact that Draconis had torched the area behind her against her. And while she was fireproof, the crumbling timbers were just as dangerous to her. Ginny didn’t get how the whole ‘dynamorph’ contest’ thing worked, but she was definitely picking up that Death Ghost was taking Draconis for everything he could.
After a few minutes of this, Death Ghost threw a logy Draconis into one of the burning masts, which brought a ton of crap down on her. Draconis managed to struggle free of the wreckage, but Death Ghost was waiting for her invisibly. She looked around groggily, and when he got his opening, Death Ghost got her in a headlock and finished the fight by snapping her neck.
As Death Ghost rose up to soak in the bloodthirsty approval of the crowd, Madam Vicious exulted, “And another spectacular kill! Draconis had a good long run, but she couldn’t quite go the distance! Well, don’t say that we don’t give you what you came for, here on THE REAL MUTANT DEATH MATCH!”
To Be Continued