Chapter Eight - More Than Just A Fight
Eli thought Squall was exaggerating when she told him to arrive at dawn. He set out from the Rim before first light, but when he arrived at the Aleratorium it had been daylight for an hour and the streets were packed with people. Crowds like this made him uneasy now. What if someone tried to take Phyre? What if Kalex was here looking for him?
Sneaking from the Blueline to the Topside wasn't simple either. Particularly with a growing meka in tow. Phyre was starting to get heavy and he was still carrying her everywhere, despite his injuries, because he was afraid what would happen if he put her down. Without a citizenship card, the easiest way to get from the Blueline to the Topside was through cracks in the city foundations or abandoned pipes. The building commission and the militia worked to patch these up as they were found, but someone could always point him toward a new route.
Getting caught on the Topside without a citizenship card was a bad idea—though he'd done it plenty of times before. At the very least he'd spend a night locked up while they ran tests to check he hadn't brought up some rare disease from the Rim or Undercity. If he got caught committing some other crime, like stealing or accessing network points, it was likely no one would ever hear from him again. Not that there was anyone left who would miss him.
Eli had no intention of doing anything illegal, just of showing up and finding Squall. Which had sounded straightforward until he arrived and saw the mass of people blocking the street. Meka weren't common, but he supposed ‘rare' in a city of twenty million people was still a lot. There were only a few hundred here, but it looked like a flood; meka in every size, shape and color he could imagine. And a few he never would have imagined in a thousand years.
"How are we going to find them in this?" he asked Phyre. His gaze slid over the many scales and horns, fur and teeth. Maybe he shouldn't find Squall at all. There was no way Phyre could compete here, even if they were partnered with Dirge. Every moment he spent here was another moment he wasn't scavenging. But he was desperate. He needed money. If he and Phyre were going to have any sort of future, he needed to do this.
He made his way into the crush. Phyre pulled herself part way out of the backpack to drape her claws across his shoulders, looking at the other meka with interest. She bombarded him with mental images of sight and smell, too excited to contain herself. Apparently, she didn't share his fears.
"Stop it," he scolded. "I can't think when you're doing that. We have to find Squall and Dirge."
Without layers of other buildings pressing down on top of it, the Aleratorium was free to rise into the sky, jostling for space with the skyscrapers around it. Eli had seen it on the vids, of course, but it was something else to be standing right in front of it. It was like an art installation, an eight-story tall slate gray square with a shimmering blue sphere rising out of it.
Inside there was a museum and three main arenas, along with a series of smaller ones, but even the smallest one looked big on the vids. The scale of it up close was monumental; just looking at it gave Eli vertigo. He took a deep breath.
Weaving through the crowd, trying not to bump into any meka that looked like they could eat him, Eli made his way toward the open doors of the Aleratorium and into a huge foyer. He paused there, momentarily stunned, trying to take it all in.
There were ‘Life Without Boundaries' banners everywhere, hung for the event. Fiberglass models of famous meka hung from the vaulted ceilings. At ground level, there were even more models on raised platforms, with plaques listing their accomplishments. Once he would have daydreamed about his meka being there, now he just hoped they made it out of the building alive.
The walls were festooned with screens displaying commercials for the event and epic moments in meka fighting history. Speakers blared a steady stream of advertisements, upbeat jingles with short catch phrases for brands and products:
"D-caps: Vitamin D for those who flow in the glow."
"Pastry Pete's Premium Pies. Now with added vitamin D and point three percent real beef, guaranteed!"
"Soya-ice, made with real soya products. So creamy and sweet, just like real dairy!"
"Live in the moment. See the world through YiFi."
And, everywhere, more people. Some were children and others were in their fifties, striding around with venerable meka at their sides. It was easy to tell the Blueliners from the Topsiders. The Topsiders were decked out with, musi-pods, screensheets, GAUs, YiFi glasses, hand held jabbers, even the latest in body modifications. Anyone with enough money could change their skin tone, or get wyld implants. The Topsiders sported cat ears, fox tails, green skin and even sparkling pink skin with blue tiger stripes.
Sometimes it was hard to tell who was the handler and who was the meka. There was so much chaos, so many alarming things to see, Eli didn't know what to do or where to go.
Somehow Squall's voice rose over the burbling roar of the crowd and Eli turned to find her making her way toward him. It was an arduous task in her chair; though growing up in the Blueline seemed to have made her quite apt at maneuvering crowded places.
"Hey," he said feeling a wave of relief. "How did you find me?"
She stretched up her hand and Phyre obligingly hung off Eli's chest so Squall could scratch her head. "Dirge sniffed you out."
"He can smell that well?" Eli asked surprised.
"Phyre probably can too. Here—" she held up an arena pass on a string. Eli took it, turning it over in his hand.
"Thanks. How did you sign me up without a citizenship card?" he placed it around his neck, where Phyre toyed with it.
She grinned, "Easy, I acted flustered and pretended I was going to cry."
"It does when you're a cripple."
He gave a startled laugh. "You said it, not me."
She waved him along. "Come on, let's go find somewhere wheelchair friendly to watch the competitions."
It was slightly less chaotic once they left the foyer and entered the arenas. Here, the ceiling rose up hundreds of feet and the vast rows of seating looked out of the equally vast arena space. ‘Wheelchair friendly' turned out to be a platform right alongside the front row. There weren't any chairs, and Eli leaned his forearms on the railing to look out over the arena below. It didn't look like any fighting arena Eli had seen. In fact, there didn't seem to be any fighting going on at all.
"This isn't what I was expecting," he told Squall, puzzled. "What is this?"
Markers along the wall indicated the oval field was one hundred and twenty meters long and he guessed it was half as wide as that. The space had been sectioned into four smaller arenas. One was divided into tracks for racing, another had an elaborate maze of opaque plastic walls. Another racetrack had hurdles and tunnels for the meka to navigate and the last was an even more complex obstacle system.
"You didn't think it was all about fighting, did you?" Squall asked, amused.
He shrugged. "I guess I did."
"Not all meka are built for fighting. Races can make a handler just as much prize money as the fights. Companies arrange other events too. Some are just for fun: egg and spoon races, stuff like that." She seemed so at ease here. Calm and confident. He wondered how many events like this she had been to.
"So, the races, I guess they're safe? The meka can't get hurt, right?"
She tilted her head, studying him, and then sighed. "Eli?"
"What?" he asked dubiously.
"I told you not to get a meka from a black-market dealer, didn't I?"
He frowned. "Yes."
"And you did. And something really bad happened to you."
He shifted uncomfortably, feeling the pull of the stitches on his back. "Yes."
"I know it must have been horrible, but that's not what meka competitions are about. Sometimes meka do get hurt, but they don't get killed. Dirge likes to fight, and maybe when Phyre's had some good experiences, she will too. When I met you, you were so passionate about competing. Now you're just afraid."
He scowled and looked away from her over the arena. "You're wrong. You don't know what it was like."
"Okay, I'll admit I have no idea. But I do know what meka fighting is like when it's done right. It's a rush. It's fun. You shouldn't be afraid to be here. You should be excited."
He clenched his fists, turning to face her. "I'm not excited, I'm just desperate! My troupe kicked me out. The doctor said-" He hissed, angry at himself for raising his voice at her. He looked out over the arena again, trying to force himself to calm again. "I don't want anything bad to happen to Phyre ever again."
She frowned, silent for a long moment. "Doctor, huh? I know a lot about those. Just give this a chance, okay? I'm going to sign us up for a doubles fight today. Just one. And if we win, you can have the prize money. Does that sound like good incentive?"
His heart lurched at the thought. But he needed the money. The last time he had made a deal that seemed too good to be true, Phyre had almost died. Squall wasn't like Kalex though, was she? Still, he said: "You don't have to do that."
"I'm here to play for fun. I can afford to lose."
He felt a flush of humiliation. She was being so nice to him. He hadn't done anything to deserve it. "Thank you. I'm sorry I…" he trailed off, embarrassed.
"I know." She flashed him a grin and despite himself, the corner of his mouth twitched in return. How did anyone forgive so fast?
He felt himself start to relax again. "I think I'm lucky we met at the skypath station that day," he said.
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, you really are." She pointed down into the arena. "Look, this is the first heat for the hurdles."
Eli watched the meka assemble, lulled by the ebb and shift of the settling crowd behind them. The meka jumping the hurdles were sleek and long-legged, clearly not made for fighting. Maybe this was where Phyre belonged. Not jumping hurdles, obviously—her belly practically dragged on the ground—but maybe there was a non-contact competition she would excel at.
Uninterested in his musing, Phyre slithered out of his arms and leapt lightly onto Dirge's back. Eli reached over to snatch her back before the larger meka could snap, but Dirge didn't seem to mind. He peered over his shoulder at her and she waddled up his spine to sit on his shoulders making little grunting noises. Dirge gave a long kind of growl and Squall patted him absently.
"It's almost like they're talking," Eli said to Squall.
She chuckled. "Well, of course they are."
"I didn't know the meka could talk to each other," Eli raised an eyebrow, studying them with renewed interest.
Squall laughed. "You though she could only talk to you?"
He nodded sheepishly.
"The meka can communicate with each other, but she'll always have a greater range with you than other meka. I can be miles away from Dirge and still contact him, but our meka won't be able to talk unless they're on the same street."
"Well," Eli mused. "That will make finding each other at events like this easier."
"It's hard for them to focus when there are so many meka around, but now they know each other a little better it should be possible."
Dirge flopped down on his belly and Phyre slid down his shoulder to curl up between his forepaws, swiping at his chin playfully. Eli smiled. It was cute to see her with another meka. He was glad she wasn't scared of her own kind, even after what they'd been through.
Phyre fell asleep, but Eli and Squall watched the competitions for over an hour. The companionable silence was odd, but he liked it. Sometimes Squall would point things out or make generalized exclamations when the races got exciting, often joining the roar of the crowd behind them, but it was the companionship that was so strange. It was alien to the life Eli had known on the Rim where everyone wanted something, and no one was friends with anyone unless they stood to gain from it.
He tried not to think about Apple. Tried not to wish he could be here to see this too.
"Do you know anything about Nightshop?" Eli asked Squall in a lull.
"Depends," she said. "Some people will tell you it's the pinnacle of meka fighting. They'll say that the true battles happen there, and that the handlers are elite gladiators. Other people say they're a bunch of murdering criminals."
That was what Aunt Cleo had told him too. Did everyone in the world know about Nightshop but him?
"What do you believe?" Eli pressed.
Squall laughed. "I don't. It's not real, you know."
He blinked. "You sure?"
"Pretty sure, yeah. It's just a story. Like monster rats and science labs in the Undercity." She shook her head, amused. "I better go sign us up."
Eli nodded, deciding not to tell her where he had got Phyre. "Yeah, sure. I think," he hesitated, chewing his lip. "I think I'm going to sign Phyre up for one of the races too. Just to see how she goes."
"Sure. I'll meet you back here in a bit, okay?"
Eli scooped up the sleeping Phyre. "Squall."
She grinned. "You were going to say I was wonderful, weren't you?"
"Something like that," he agreed.
# # #
And remember, if someone asks what you've been doing this week, you'll sound much more interesting if you tell them what you've been reading, not what you've been doing!
Nine - Coming 24th July
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Fifteen - Coming 4th September
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Seventeen - Coming 18th September
Eighteen - Coming 25th September
Nineteen - Coming 2nd October
Twenty - Coming 9th October