ZEROBOXER Excerpt

Fonda Lee

Chapter One

Carr Luka woke from a nap three hours before his fight. He ate two hardboiled eggs, a handful of raw almonds, and a bran muffin, then drank a bottle of water and spent twenty minutes stretching on the floor of his single-room apartment in the inner ring of Valtego Station.

The Moon’s desolate, pock-marked dark side loomed large across the upper right corner of his wall screen. Beyond it, the sunlit blue and white marble of Earth hung suspended in the vast black infinity of space. It wasn’t a real view of course—probably not even a live feed, just an old recording. The real views belonged to the expensive premium suites, reserved for Valtego’s high rollers. They were betting 3:1 against him, as of yesterday.

He didn’t usually follow odds, but Uncle Polly had fake-casually dropped that tidbit on him, angling to amp him up, get the I’ll show those bastards juice flowing. It had worked all right—not because he cared that some bettors thought he might be a flame out, but because he hated to think that, after the disaster of his most recent match, Uncle Polly might secretly agree with them. Other promising young fighters had been broken by an early loss; he certainly wouldn’t be the first.

Carr stood, shaking out his limbs, reaching for his warm-up clothes. He didn’t need to be reminded of the stakes. He’d been on the city space station for a year and a half. This sixth and final fight in his contract would determine whether he landed a new deal, or found himself on the next flight back to Earth, relegated to fighting in orbital dives reeking of pot, where the vacuum plumbing regularly gave out and big bubbles of pee floated in the bathrooms.

He made a face; not about to happen. He was no planet rat.

Carr tapped the cuff-link display on his forearm to play something high energy—the neo-urban skid music that was popular earthside these days—as he packed his bag. Gripper gloves and shoes, cup, mouth guard, fight shorts, a towel, a change of clothes for the press conference and after party. He zipped up the bag and slung it over his shoulder. After a final look around to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, he stepped out of his room and navigated the halls of the apartment complex up to the main thoroughfare and into Valtego traffic.

The streets were crowded, echoing cavernously with the noise of people and music and cars. Well-dressed couples, families, and packs of young men and women spilled onto the main concourse. When Carr looked up, past the reddish simulated evening light, through the enormous sky windows into the docking hub, he could see that even more ships had arrived since yesterday. Half a dozen Earth-Mars cargo cyclers, a few private solar sailing yachts, and plenty of commercial passenger craft. It was one of those times when summer in Earth’s northern hemisphere coincided with dust storm season on Mars, inciting residents of both planets to travel. Super high season on Valtego.

He caught the city-station bus as it pulled up with a pneumatic hiss, its silver body flashing the usual promotional banner: Valtego: It’s More Fun on the Dark SideTM. Carr didn’t bother to sit down; he was only taking it a few stops. He stood near the door, closed his eyes, and let the burble of voices from the other passengers float around him. He heard English in American, British, and Martian accents, Mandarin, Mars Hindi, Spanish and German. In his mind, he turned the hum of conversation into a growing swell of cheering, a thunderous crowd calling his name.

His cuff vibrated and a rising chime played in his ear. He glanced down at the display on his forearm, then smiled, shut off the music, and took the call. “Enzo,” he said. “Are you going to watch my fight?”

“No, I happen to be hiding in my closet with my screen, under a blanket, for no reason. OF COURSE I’m watching!” Enzo’s voice, transmission-delayed by a couple seconds, sounded, in Carr’s cochlear receiver, as if the boy was shout-whispering an urgent secret. “My mom is going to go fusion if she finds me.” He gave a wheezy, excited cough. There was a pause, and Carr winced, picturing the boy sucking hard on his inhaler.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” Carr asked.

“Whatever. School is useless. You barely went.”

“Sure I went,” he lied. “And I was tutored.” Which was true, if you could call Uncle Polly helping him fudge through remote study modules ‘tutoring.’ “Besides, you’ve got to make a living using your brain someday.”

The boy gave a long sigh. “It’s so unfair.” He sounded as morose as he had when Carr had first left for Valtego. Carr felt a pang of worry. Now wasn’t the time to question the kid, but Enzo was small, he didn’t have many friends; who was watching out for him, spending time with him, now that Carr was living in deep orbit on the far side of the Moon? Carr wouldn’t trade his place here for anything, but Enzo was one of the few things he missed about Earth.

The shuttle bus left behind the rows of densely-packed apartment entrance tubes provided for Valtego’s less wealthy residents. It passed shops and restaurants catering to visitors from the planet, before turning and sliding to a stop at the gravity zone terminal. The doors opened onto a wide platform bustling with people and lined with colorful holovid ads promising the best deals on theater tickets, spacewalks, hotels.

“I wish you could see this place,” Carr said. “It’s something else. I’m going to bring you up here someday and show you around.” If I’m still here after today, came the unwelcome reminder.

“Would you? That would be so stellar,” Enzo whispered. “Oh shit, I think my mom is home. Okay, I just called to say: Good luck! Make him float!”

“Thanks, little man.”

The connection clicked out as Carr stepped onto the terminal platform. Uncle Polly and DK were waiting for him, looking comically mismatched standing together—old, pale and lean, next to young, dark and muscled. DK clapped Carr on the back. Uncle Polly put his hands on Carr’s shoulders and broke into a slow, approving smile that made his left eye squint. “You’re a hundred percent ready,” he said.

On fight days, Uncle Polly underwent a magical transformation. Every other day, he could chew Carr out in practice, find fault in every detail, cuss at him if he wasn’t pushing hard enough, but on fight day, he was optimism incarnate. Carr felt himself grinning, buoyed.

“Where would you rather be right now?” Uncle Polly demanded.

“Nowhere, coach.”

“What would you rather be doing?”

“Nothing, coach.”

“You ready to fly?”

“Hell yeah.”

“Get in the car.”

He strapped his duffel bag into the overhead compartment before climbing in. Once everyone was seated, the harness straps tightened and the doors closed. The vehicle shot down the freeway tube—one of several that connected Valtego’s rings with the central zero gravity complex like spokes of a wheel. Carr ran an appreciative hand across the smooth tan upholstery of his seat. He took the commuter bus to the zero-g complex every morning, but the routine trip was far more enjoyable in a private car. Another special fight day perk.

Streets and buildings shrank as the view of Valtego spread out around them in all its slowly turning immensity, the bright lights and artificial gravity of the city’s habitable rings receding as the freeway sailed the car into a breathtaking expanse of space. Carr craned his neck against the mild g-force pressure, looking past the shadow of the Moon and catching, for a few seconds, a glimpse of Earth—a real view, not a projection. The planet always looked smaller in real life than on the wallscreen.

Uncle Polly ran through the game plan once more. “What are you going to do in the first round?”

“Stay out of his grab zone. Wear him out, frustrate him.”

“He doesn’t like to climb. Make him climb. Second round?”

“Hit him from the corners. Use my fast launches and rebounds.”

“Good, good.”

“Third round, spin him hard and finish him off.”

“You got it. What’s your strength against him?”

“My space ear.”

“Always fear the better ear! You’re ready.” Uncle Polly was not really Carr’s uncle. He wasn’t even old, maybe sixty-something, but he was scrawny and bent-backed from a career spent on mining ships and in orbital gyms during a generation when zero gravity alleviation therapy wasn’t what it was today and so many years in space took a heavy toll on one’s body. He had a full head of short, gray hair and a permanently grizzled jaw. But he moved and spoke with the fire of a younger man, and when he slapped his hands on his thighs, he radiated confidence like a solar flare.

The zero gravity complex, recently renamed the Virgin Galactic Center, loomed ahead of them. As the vehicle slowed, the familiar transition to weightlessness tugged at Carr’s stomach, pressed his chest against the harness, and drew his limbs upward. They glided past a group of tourists on a beginner level spacewalk, the suited figures cycling arms and legs slowly and awkwardly as their guide coaxed them along with gentle bursts of his thrusters, like a shepherd leading a herd of nervous farm animals.

The car docked in the parking hold. Carr drifted up to retrieve his bag, and pushed it ahead with one hand while unclasping his belt tether and hooking it around the hallway guide rail with the other. It was an irritating requirement; he could easily climb this place free floating and blindfolded, but there was a fine if you were caught untethered, even if you were a Valtego resident. Management didn’t want anyone setting a bad example for the tourists and seasonal workers, who might hurt themselves crashing into things or get stranded in the middle of a room and create extra work for the maintenance folks who would have to rescue them.

DK tethered himself and tilted his head to one side, listening. “You hear that?”

Already, the low thrum of a crowd was growing over the steady whoosh of shuttles and cars docking, one after the other. Distant loud music began pulsing through the thick walls of the parking hold. DK smiled, showing small, brilliant white teeth against tropical bronze skin. “Full house tonight, I’ll wager. All here to see you, kid.”

That wasn’t exactly true; the headline fight was between Danyo “Fear Factor” Fukiyama and Jorge “Monster” Rillard, but DK had told Carr that his match had the most hype he’d ever seen for the undercard. Of course, maybe DK was just saying that to pump him up. DK was not a large man—a natural feathermass—and he looked slightly rodent-like, with his big ears and fists, large eyes, and small nose, but he exuded a gregarious charisma that was rare in this sport. He was also one of the best young zeroboxers anywhere. His full name was Danilo Kabitain, but no one called him that. He was DK to his flymates, “Captain Pain” to his opponents and the media, and a hell of a man to have in one’s corner.

They climbed along the hallway using the spaced rungs, turned right, and passed through the athletes’ entrance. The locker room and adjoining warm-up space were empty except for two men. One of them was seated on a bench, feet hooked under the stabilizing rod, elbows on knees, broad shoulders hunched forward. He looked as if the universe had just ended.

“What’s the matter, Blake?” Carr asked.

“My fight’s canceled.” Blake Murphy didn’t look up. “The other guy tested positive for endurance-enhancing nanos. Bastard.”

“Damn. Sorry to hear it.”

Blake’s trainer glanced over from where he was furiously shoving his fighter’s gear into a bag. “You’ll be up early then.” He pointed to the small wall screen which showed the evening’s two commentators, Xeth Stone and Jeroan Culver, up on deck. Carr swiped the volume up and Xeth’s energetic voice filled the locker room. “…change in lineup, it won’t be long now before we see one of the most anticipated matches of the night!”

“That’s right, Xeth,” Jeroan replied in a straight man monotone. “Carr Luka is still something of an enigma to this crowd. He burst onto the ZGFA scene not long ago, gained a strong following when he racked up four impressive wins in a row, and then choked in his last fight against ‘Death’ Ray Jackson. Now he’s going up against the third best zeroboxer in the lowmass division, and the question on everyone’s mind is: does he stand a chance of coming back against Ferrano?”

“I think he does, Jeroan,” Xeth enthused. “I don’t think Luka is a flash-in-the-pan like some people have been saying. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I tell you, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a guy, born on Earth no less, with the kind of instincts he’s shown in the Cube. That kid can fly. Did I mention he’s still seventeen?

“Sure, he can fly, but Ferrano is an expert grabber. How’s he going to do against that?”

Zeroboxing commentators liked to speak of fighters as “grabbers” or “fliers.” It was rather artificial, Carr thought, since any good zeroboxer had to be both, but there was some truth to the distinction. To inflict any bare-handed damage to a person in zero gravity, you had to establish a brace or a point of leverage—preferably a vulnerable part of your opponent’s body—to keep them from floating away while you hurt them. Or you had to treat space itself as a weapon, using the infinite angles of movement to strike and rebound, strike and rebound, faster and harder than the other guy.

“Luka is an ace flier,” Xeth agreed, “But his grabbing game is solid, and it’s getting better with every match. I think we’re going to see—”

Uncle Polly slashed his hand across the front of the screen to turn it off. “You heard ‘em, you’re up early! Get changed and warmed up!”

Carr untethered himself, stripped out of his clothes, and handed them to DK, who stuck them to the magnetic locker pegs and passed him his shorts. Uncle Polly hurried to find the ZGFA official, a dour bulldog of a man who inspected Carr’s gripper shoes and gloves and watched as DK wrapped Carr’s hands. He flashed a retinal reader across Carr’s eyes, checked his vital stats off his cuff—heart rate, blood pressure and temperature—then gave him the go-ahead. “Forty minutes,” he said.

“I need to take a leak,” Carr said.

“Make it fast,” Uncle Polly warned.

Carr climbed over to the stall and dug his feet under the toe bar, streaming into the vacuum funnel for what felt like an eternity. Everyone said that for a young zeroboxer, he was remarkably composed, never visibly nervous before fights, but his bladder knew better. Maybe that was a good sign; he hadn’t been nervous enough before the last match.

The wash dispenser squirted a bubble of soapy water onto his fingers. Blake emerged from one of the other stalls and pulled himself over to the neighboring dispenser.

“Rotten luck,” Carr said, feeling obligated to put in a few more words of sympathy. “You’re bound to get another fight soon. At least they caught him. You wouldn’t want a loss on your record because the guy cheated.”

Blake looked up, his eyes like two pale blue gas fires. “Who says I would’ve lost?”

Carr hesitated, wiping off the water with a towel, not sure how he’d somehow given offense. “No one. But even if you won, the guy doesn’t deserve to be in the Cube.” It made Carr angry that some people tried to fool the system, to take shortcuts around putting in the years of time and effort. It was mentally weak.

Blake’s mouth sagged a little, his eyes cooling, losing their ferocity. You never could tell with Blake. Most of the time, he was one of the most polite and soft-spoken guys Carr had ever met. But in a fight…well, he wasn’t nicknamed “the Destroyer” for nothing. As he turned to leave, he looked back at Carr and said, “Good luck out there. Stay out of those corners, yeah?”

Corners. They had never been a problem for Carr, not until his last fight, when “Death” Ray Jackson had flown him hard for two rounds, then trapped him in a corner in the third and ground it out to win in a split decision. Carr did not take losing well (who did?), especially since he was certain he could have won, and had only his own overconfidence and ill-preparedness to blame.

Uncle Polly had given him hell, and he’d deserved it. He could barely look at his coach after the fight. For days, he’d felt so low he couldn’t bring himself to leave his apartment. Uncle Polly had shown up on the fifth day. His face had been severe, but his voice had been kind. “It’s good for you, to know what it feels like on the other side, for once. Now you know. It’s shit. So—you planning on whimpering back to Earth for a planet rat job, or are you going to get off your ass?”

He’d gotten off his ass. It had taken time though, weeks, to shake off the malaise, and he suspected the loss would stay with him forever, like a benign cyst under the skin.

Carr clambered back out to the warm-up area, shaking his head to clear away the unpleasant memory and refocus on the present. He had another chance—that was what mattered. DK helped him pull on and bind his gripper shoes. Carr wiggled each of his enclosed toes and gave a thumbs-up. He took off his cuff-link and handed it to his friend. Keeping a fighter’s cuff for him during a match was an important job for the cornerman and symbolic of trust; DK put it on next to his own. Carr’s gloves went on, over his wrapped hands, bound securely several inches up his forearm, leaving the wrists fully mobile. Some zeroboxers opted for the heavier gloves with more wrist support, but Carr didn’t think it was worth sacrificing climbing agility.

“Thirty minutes,” the official in the hallway called.

“Terran or Martian?” DK retorted, cheeky. Zeroboxing rounds were always measured in the fractionally longer Martian minutes, so it was an ongoing joke that zeroboxers had no sense of standard Terran time.

“Get moving,” Uncle Polly said. “You know the drill—five times around the room, then wall-bounces.”

Carr swung into the square warm-up room and jogged the walls, up, down and around, exerting himself just enough to raise his heart rate. There was a lumpy target dummy secured to the center of the room with cable wiring; he launched off a wall, somersaulted to strike the target with both feet, and rebounded to another wall. He worked the dummy from each wall and corner, and in the last five minutes, Uncle Polly called him back down for a brief recovery. Carr was warm now, just beginning to feel a sweat. Uncle Polly drifted in front of him and did a final check on his gloves and shoes. He clapped his fists down over Carr’s. “Let’s do this.”

The official’s voice called down the hallway, “Luka, you’re up!”

A deep thrill of nervous energy raced through Carr’s veins. He faced the hall, drew in a long, uneven breath, and let it hiss out slowly.

“We’re right behind you,” DK reassured him. Carr gripped the rungs and climbed. At the stadium entrance, the rumble of the crowd suddenly faded as the music and lights dimmed and blue spotlights began sweeping back and forth. The announcer’s bass voice bellowed, “Fighting out of the red corner, with a mass of seventy kilograms, and a record of four wins, one loss, CAAARRR… ‘THE RAPTOR’…. LUKAAA!”

 

Zeroboxer final cover

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