A quick jab. A hook.
My snap-kick checks his left foot
I cross, cut, and kick.
The kid doesn’t have a chance. My heel catches him square in the ribs and sends him flying across the pit.
He comes down on his back, tumbling across hard-packed dirt until he’s up on his knees. The pit’s ochre dust stands out against the coal-black grime ground into his worn driller’s pants, and his bare knuckles are bleeding. He takes a few deep breaths and rises to his feet, dazed but not really hurt. Not yet.
Poor kid, just another desperate fool lured by the promise of freedom, young enough to think he might walk out of the mine and see the sun – if he can survive a hundred fights.
I’ve stood in ninety-eight. In my lifetime, no one has survived a hundred. Bet they didn’t tell him that.
Overseer Thota shouts at him from the booth. The nine foot tall Raiyp is wrapped in his own golden feathers, preened and polished with outlandish colors – a dandy among dandies. Too pretty and proper to soil his feathers in the mine-that’s human work. He commands the boy to attack while silk-gowned attendants feed and brush him.
The boy straightens and comes back at me, a little slower this time, keeping low and leading with his feet.
He’s lean and muscular, his chest bare and oiled. Baggy driller’s pants hang down to his ankles and his feet are bare like mine. He’s wearing a black leather mask that only shows his eyes, and I see fear in them. The last three or four kids they’ve sent after me all wore masks. Maybe because of that riot a month back after I killed the fat one. I didn’t mean to, but it happened. His friends rushed the pit, almost got into the overseer’s booth. Now they wear masks, and the overseers bring a small army of bodyguards.
The kid lunges, sweeps, then drops for a back-kick.
Fire off a quick combo. Snap…snap-snap.
He gets under my punches, gets in close and throws a series of hooks and knees pushing me back against the wall.
The little shit hits hard.
And fast. I manage to block every strike, but my arms are singing with pain. This kid is small, but knows how to get every ounce of his weight behind his punches, and each one hurts. I need a fast take down or he’ll wear me out.
Back off – parallel to the wall.
Ignore the shouting miners who reach down and grab at us.
Feint left, draw him in.
Sweep, step back then snap another low, fast kick. It catches his hip and knocks him back, in pain and off balance.
Step out from the wall to buy some room. Breathe. Breathe. Remember to breathe.
Is it time yet?
Overseer Fratarra isn’t even watching. The crusty old Raiyp is still trying to goad his buddies into betting. How long does this have to go on? I’m not as young as I used to be. I’ll lose an endurance match.
The kid is coming back, coming on hard like he wants to end it fast.
Snap. Snap. Snap. His bare feet lance up at my face, high, hard kicks, forcing me back. But he’s not trying for position. He’s trying to get lucky – to knock me out.
His kicks have a rhythm. High, high, low, step up. High, high, low, step up. Like clockwork. That’ll be his undoing.
One more to make sure, oh yeah. Got ya. I step inside a high crescent kick, in close where the kick has no power.
He sees it, bounds back and throws a slow, clumsy kick to keep me away.
The world flashes white hot and spins. Bright lights, the overseer’s balcony, the matrix of steel around the fighting pit, filthy, screaming miners howling for blood – all of it turns in a lazy tilting arc.
My bald head hits the hard-packed dirt, and everything flashes white.
I imagine the sun looks like that. Pure and white, like a sharp blow to the head or the flash of a sodium lamp burning out. Just once, I’d like to see it.
They always talk about the sun, the newbies. They talk about the sun, the stars, the sky, grass, trees, cities and the war. Nothing in the mine is like what they describe. I’ve seen pictures and books but these things can’t be real. Probably just something the overseers tell them to say, a trick to keep us in line.
The newbies say the sky goes on forever and that our starships fly between planets. I imagine the sky is like the deep core shafts, black pits too deep to light, bottomless and inviting, the way death becomes after years in the mine. A lot of newbies take that way out. It’s faster than the pit. The sky scares me, deep and dark and forever, but I’d like to see the sun. I’d like to stand in its warm light and see the whole world lit up around me with grass and trees and birds and bees. I’d like that.
The kid’s brutal uppercut caught me from behind a slow, almost whimsical, crescent kick that swept my arms aside and concealed the punch. It’s a good move, one I’ve used on occasion, but it’s a beginner’s trick and I shouldn’t have fallen for it. The punch broke a rib or two. No matter. No upstart wearing a goofy black mask is going to beat Tangerine McCready. As soon as fat old Fratarra gets his bets, I’m shutting this little shit down.
But first, I’m going to lay here a bit. It feels good, sucking in this dusty air. The pit is the biggest chamber in the mine, nearly a kilometer across and five hundred meters tall. The air tastes like dirt, real dirt, not the carbon filter taste the air has down in the shafts. It tastes fresh, even with five thousand miners and two hundred overseers sucking it down.
One more breath. Ahh, that’s nice.
As I stand, the crowd goes wild. Their hungry shouts rattle my head like a ten-ton core drill hitting a layer of ferrite. The kid is dancing around the pit, shaking his fists in the air. Cocky. So sure he’s won. Wait until he sees this old dog’s tricks.
He reluctantly pulls his eyes off the crowd as I get my feet under me. He doesn’t want to. Probably his first fight, or the first one he’s lasted this long in. I can use that.
We hammer on each other, a long exchange of punches. My fists land on his arms and shoulders, meat slapping against meat. Nothing decisive, just a steady rain of punishment to wear him down and keep him busy.
Up in the booth, Overseer Fratarra opens his pelican fan and waves the dusty air away from his breathing tendrils. That’s it, then. The bets are closed, and enough money stands against me to make the fight pay off. Time to end it.
I stop bobbing and weaving and plant my bare feet in an open stance. The kid weighs five or ten kilos less than me. I bet two solid blows will put him down.
He veers left, trying to get outside my arms. Let him. That’s just where I want him. Just turn enough that he can’t knock me off balance, keep the stance low and grounded.
Here he comes, must think he’s got an opening.
One more step. That’s it.
He throws a quick snap with his lead leg.
I catch it and drop down on him like a ton of ore. Pull him in, smash both elbows down on his back and… I’m in the air. He snaked under me. He’s slamming me against the wall.
Don’t flinch, roll with it.
Suck it in – suck up the pain.
Breathe. Shit that hurt. Breathe.
That’s my move. He used my move on me. My father taught me that move. Said he learned it in the army, back when humans still fought other humans. Back before the Raiyp showed up and decided to have a war with us. They captured my father and sent him to the mines. I was born here. This kid probably was, too. Most newbies don’t fight, not unless they were soldiers. I wonder if his father taught him that move.
Shit, he’s still coming.
Can’t take another hit like that.
Move. Left. Right. Left.
Now get close and trap his arm, then send that boy on the roller coaster. Up, down, wind up my elbow and slam it into his face… yeah! Nailed him.
Breathe. Breathe while he’s on his knees.
Overseer Fratarra has his blue fan out. Damn it. I hate when he makes me kill people in the pit. It’s been years since the slime-sucking Oversear pulled out the blue fan. Seven years. Back then it came out often, and nobody wore masks.
The fights haven’t been to death since the flow of newbies dropped from a few hundred to a few dozen per year. They say it’s because the war has moved far away from here. None of them know who is winning, and the overseers would never tell us.
Fratarra killed my father when he tried to keep me from fighting in the pit. But what else could I do? A driller or a digger has no future. A pit fighter does. After every match, the fighter gets to visit the women’s tunnel and after that hundredth fight-freedom. It’s the same reason my father went into the pit. It’s hope. Even if you don’t make it out, you’ll have children and maybe someday they’ll get out.
Maybe that was why he didn’t want me to fight. Maybe he didn’t want me to have children. No one leaves the mines, so the children are as much slaves as the rest, and it’s worse for them. Most die before they get big enough to do any useful work or to fend for themselves. The newbies swear they’ll never submit children to this life… yet, most do in the end. A few years of the dark, the cold, and the endless work make the comfort of laying with another person mean more than mere idealism. For a few, having a child becomes their only reason for living. Still, the mine eats children faster than it eats drill bits, and losing a child is harder than anything the Raiyp make us do.
His mask is off. My elbow knocked it off his face. He has long, dark hair, glistening with oil in the sputtering light of the sodium lamps. Poor kid. His first fight and the Overseer wants a death match. Bet he thought he’d get a second chance.
He comes up swinging, a blind, futile rush driven by pain and rage. A sad end to this thing.
I take a relaxed stance and pull my hand back, setting up for a killing blow to his throat.
His long hair falls aside as he throws a wild haymaker at me and I get a good look at his face. I’m looking at myself when I was seventeen.
The clumsy punch catches the side of my head. I hear the thump, like a hammer against wood, and everything flares white again.
He rolls over me, knocking me to my knees.
Seventeen. I haven’t seen him in over a thousand shifts, not since they assigned him to work tunnel 91.
He spins back, a little more composed, and fires off three swift kicks, two low, one high. All three connect.
I’m on the ground again, looking up. The lights blind me. Incoherent roars from the miners fill my head. Can’t they see who he is?
My son dances back, waving to the crowd again. He doesn’t understand the blue fan means to the death. He thinks he’s beaten me. Taken me down with the same moves I taught him.
I wanted so much to set him free, to let my son escape the mine, see the sun and live free in the open air. But that didn’t happen, and now it never will – because I have to kill him. I have to kill him, or Overseer Fratarra will grind me down to fertilize the gardens.
This wasn’t who I was supposed to fight. I saw the name. It wasn’t my son. Ah, but that makes sense doesn’t it? Fratarra knows he’s my son. He knows all about humans.
Before the fight, I asked him about my release. I’ve stood for him in ninety-eight fights. More than any man alive in the mines. Just two shy of a hundred. After that, I’ll be like Gregory Archer, Boyle Milan, and Tobias Montgomery – they all made it to a hundred. They were the greats, the first pit fighters, the first generation of men to be brought here. All of them soldiers. All of them set free after their hundredth fight.
I asked Overseer Fratarra where I would go after the hundredth fight. I asked if I could take my son with me. Old Fratarra sucked in his greasy eyes and puffed up his feathers indignantly. Humans could never be free. Never. I’d be free when I died. That’s what he told me.
Now he’s making me kill my son. I have no choice.
Or do I?
I get up, slowly. As I rise, my son darts in and kicks me back down. I roll away, then get up on one knee, head bowed.
The bell has not rung. He’s starting to understand. He kicks my bent head, and the pit goes black. Something broke. A bone. I taste blood. But it’s not enough.
I get back up. I let my arms hang limp, not even trying to defend myself. Overseer Fratarra has a red fan out. He is displeased. This is his promise to punish me later.
When my son comes to knock me down again, I lower my arms and turn into his swing. His arm comes down on my neck so hard I can’t feel my body; his followup catches my throat.
His eyes meet mine.
He knows. He understands.
I choose not to be punished. I choose not to kill my son. I choose to live one moment of my life as a free man.
He hits me again-
Do I see tears in his eyes?
-hard across the throat.
Darkness closes in around me, impenetrable, unfathomable and there in the distance I see it – the glow of the sun boring a hole through the darkness to take me away.
Mark Patrick Morehead is an alumnus of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop (2002), who is busy writing his second novel with occasional breaks to write short stories and refine his golf swing. When not writing (or golfing), he works as an engineering lead on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. He lives in Colorado with his wife, newborn son, two dogs and a very fat cat.
Ever wonder about those mines on distant moons that slaves, prisoners and criminals get shipped off to in so many SF stories? I do. How do they work? What is life like there? How do these people live? What do they dream about? This line of thought amalgamated with discussions on tactics and physiology in a kempo class, and a story popped out.