How we think the fight will go
Exile had not been kind to John Anderton. After Kaplan died – after Anderton killed him – the offer of a one-way trip to the colony had seemed like an act of mercy. Now, he wondered if he would have just been better off accepting the faulty judgment of the Precogs. Death or imprisonment would have been ideal compared to living his remaining years as a corporate detective in a floating rat cage orbiting the Tannhauser Gate.
They called the colony Valis 236. Tyrell Holdings had advertised it as a glamorous new start; a life of adventure among the stars. The deadbeats, desperadoes and misfits who ended up here found what Anderton did: a sub-orbital madhouse full of marginally “free” corporate slaves who spent their days mining asteroids and their nights drinking PseudoScotch and shedding blood at one of the hundreds of underground fights held in the station’s bowels. Finding and shutting them down was Anderton’s job. He hated it. Especially now that he was alone. Lisa had been brave at first, but living in the fluorescent, toxic waste of Valis 23 had been too much for her. One day he woke up and found her gone. Later he learned that she had taken a walk into an airlock without a suit. They never recovered the body.
Anderton still struggled sometimes to think of Kaplan’s murder as one he committed. Referring to it as “the murder” was slightly more palatable to the once-proud founder of the Precrime unit, a law enforcement officer with just a little over a decade left to go before retirement. It had all been for nothing: After the worst of the scandal was over, the Supreme Court had judged the system unconstitutional – partially based on the advice of the nonpartisan Ethics in Physics panel. He had watched the proceedings through a black-market vidfeed. He understood that technology had advanced since his exile, but Anderton had still been struck speechless at the sight of the transhumanist holographic specters of Michio Kaku, Neil de Grasse Tyson, and Ray Kurzweil materializing to deliver their testimony. To think that Kurzweil had been right all along.
Regardless, both Kaplan and his wife were dead, Anderton was exiled, and Precrime was no more. This is what he had: a job he hated and a rapidly expanding potbelly barely held in check by the synth-leather belt upon which a third-generation smart pistol with a patched-together guidance system was holstered. Some days, that airlock looked tempting. He understood. He really understood.
He had gotten the call yesterday: Another off-the-books cage match hidden somewhere in the jungle of smoking reactor units, ramshackle huts and stim-shot junkies that characterized Deep Level 19. The rats grew to the size of cats down there, and had lost all fear of human beings generations ago. No one knew how they had gotten to Valis. Perhaps they came on their own when they heard the pickings were good.
One of his snitches had pointed him in the direction of an old polystone warehouse off of the corners of Corridors P, R, and H. Anderton paid for the tip from his own private stash of stim-shots. He wasn’t a real cop. What did he care? Tyrell Holdings certainly didn’t.
In the early days of the station, the planners had come up with mnemonic devices to remember the maze of corridors. These three? Penguin. Random. House. Cute. Anderton unbuttoned the smart pistol’s holster and approached the warehouse. It was just as the snitch had described: A sprawling building, perhaps the size of a football field. The walls were painted with a mural depicting various 20th and 21st century science fiction characters. Anderton could never get into the classics. The only “Hunger Games” he knew were the ones that he and the rest of Valis 23’s captives were forced to engage in every day: Play Tyrell Holding’s games or go hungry.
The smell of perspiration, adrenaline, and cheap vat meat slammed into Anderton like an invisible wall as he walked in, instantly swallowed by the throngs of StimFreaks, low-rent cyberpunks, and slumming corporate overlords, smartly masked and costumed in a variety of outfits that matched the fantasy and science fiction themes painted on the walls outside. Sometimes Anderton wondered if Tyrell Holdings didn’t actually sponsor these things as a way to burn off the anger and frustration. Sometimes he wondered if his job was just part of the charade. Sometimes he wondered if he was even alive. Deckard, a detective he once knew, had a crazy theory about synthetic humanoids he called “replicants.”
Anderton should have brought back-up. This was like nothing he had seen before. Too many of them. He would be helpless if something went wrong. Or, more wrong. His radio didn’t carry down here. Maybe he would be meeting the airlock sooner rather than later. He hid his holster beneath his knee-length coat as best he could and tried to look inconspicuous as he moved further into the crowds.
The cage was hard to miss: An octagonal monstrosity shaped of bloodstained fencing probably stolen from the alien studies division. Anderton never went there. He heard stories: half-whispered nightmares from a drunken scientist with the unlikely name of Dick. Fungal beings. Titanian Vugs. Psychotronic cats. Surely, none of it could be any stranger than the events unfolding in the cage.
He saw a clownlike figure capering about the walls of the cage, chattering into the microphone about games. A deathmatch. Something called a Unbound Worlds. Perhaps it was something from the Alien Studies Division, perhaps not. He’d include it in his report. Anderton watched as a small group of young people were ushered into the octagon: two young men and two young women. The women carried archaic weapons – even more outdated than the smart pistol and its whining battery and refurbished target acquisition chip. Swords. Bows. Ren-Fair freaks like the man outside.
They began to speak, but without the benefit of microphones – only the clown had one – he couldn’t hear them speaking. By their body language he could tell there was something about to go down. Something bloody.
There was a flash of action, and one of the women – the one with the sword – kicked one of the two men to the ground and turned to the other woman with the bow. There was an exchange of words and then the sword bearer bashed the archer into the wall. She slipped to the already blood-coated mat. The crowd roared its approval.
The clown returned to the microphone, gushing praise about the woman. Her name was Eowyn, apparently. Anderton had never seen her before. He wondered where she had gotten the sword, but down here in the bowels of the station, anything was possible. This seemed a good time to leave, Anderton decided, but as he turned to make his way toward the door, the crowd seized him and the clown began to speak once more.
“Our next combatant is Detective John Anderton, founder of the United States Precrime unit. I’m quite certain a few of you remember it! Yes?” The crowd began to boo and shout. A few spat on Anderton.
“A great many of you may even have Precrime sentencing to thank for your hasty departure from Earth and for your new life here in glorious, Valis 23. Maybe even a few of you had the pleasure of meet Detective Anderton himself!”
Anderton looked around. Indeed, there were a few familiar faces hidden under layers of grime and criss-crossed networks of scars. How had they gotten here? Perhaps Tyrell had a rat line to the station. What’s a few more murderers here and there? Survival rates among asteroid miners were hardly worse than life on death row.
“Well, then, now that we’re all reacquainted, let’s welcome Anderton to the cage! Eowyn! Get ready to fight!”
The crowd picked him up bodily and carried him to the rim of the octagon, tossing him in. He reached for the pistol in his holster as he landed on the slick, hard mats. Sliding it out from beneath his jacket, he rose to his feet.
The one they called Eowyn was beautiful and fierce, with lean, wiry muscle apparent in what he could see of her arms and legs. He met her eyes and searched them for any sign of pity. There was none. Anderton thumbed on the smart pistol’s targeting system and after a sputter of static he heard its reassuring whine. He glanced down and saw the tiny window scope flicker to life.
“We don’t have to do this, you know. I don’t want to kill you.”
With the last sentence, the beautiful woman’s eyes flared with anger.
“Kill me? Lady of the Shield-arm? Slayer of the Witch King? Better men have fallen to me: Younger men. Stronger men.”
Anderton continued to talk, buying time as he raised the pistol, pointing it at her face. He watched the target reticle flicker and move in tandem with every nod of her head.
“If we work together then we might be able to fight our way through this crowd. I have my service weapon and I assume you can use that sword.”
Somehow his comment about the sword angered her further.
“You shall soon see my skill with the blade, although you will not live to bear it witness.”
As the woman reached for the sword, Anderton heard the double-chirp indicating successful acquisition of the target. As she charged, sword in hand, he squeezed the trigger.
That’s when he heard the voice of the smart pistol’s crude AI.
“Terminal error #77. Targeting offline. Firing mechanism disabled for your safety and convenience. Please reboot.”
“Damn it,” Anderton cursed as raised his arm in a futile defensive gesture.
The sword slashed twice, and Anderton fell to the ground. As he bled out, he watched the woman sheathe her sword, her face a mix of anger and triumph.
Douglas Quail snapped awake in a comfortable chair, his heart still racing as REKAL employees unstrapped the amazing device that had allowed him to live the amazing adventure. He was a private detective on a space station. The cage match had been an unexpected touch. Bizarre, but not unpleasant. It had been a good demonstration of the technology.
“How did you like it, Mr. Quail?” the employee asked. “Are you ready for that Mars adventure?”
He paused for a moment. It was hard to justify the expense on a factory employee’s salary. Then he smiled and handed over his credit card.
“To hell with it: You only live once.”
Predicted Winner: Eowyn
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Monday, March 24, 2014, AT 12:00 PM, EST
Editor’s Note: Matt Staggs has been obsessed with books his entire life.
Cage Match fans: We are looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”