ROBOT FIGHT TONIGHT, ALRIGHT!!!
"What's everything times two?" Fatman asked.
A rope muscled thug in an ill fitting suit walked behind Roland Consolver and wrapped a metal tracking collar around his sweaty neck. He held very still, too afraid to move. "I don't know," he said, his bobbing Adam's apple touching chilled steel.
"Tell you what it is. It's still everything. You want double or nothing but you can't double what you already owe me. Looking at this bill, I'm starting to wonder if you can even pay that."
"I have something," Roland said. He heard a click and the collar was fastened. "My body. If I lose you can have my meat on top of everything else."
Fatman pulled a contract from his desk and nodded at the thug who unlocked the gleaming band.
Someone elbowed Roland in the ribs and he shoved back without looking. He needed this bet to pay. The hot jostling crowd cheered and cursed at the battling robots in the center of the ring but Roland stood very still, occasionally glancing up at the balcony where Fatman sat.
The casino owner ignored him. Didn't even deign to spare a glance. The first round ended without a blow being landed by either bot. Roland watched the girl carry the sign around the ring. He had betted on Bach. An egg shaped machine on two feet that had super spring loaded, titanium spears. Its walking was wobbly and slow but those spears could do damage. It just needed one good hit.
But finding the other fighter, Poly was a problem. That little robot never held still. It was man shaped, looked like a midget, and its arms ended in two claws. Bach was a tough old girl, but Poly was all about speed and precision. It needed to dodge and run, work on one spot with its weapons until it broke metal skin and then it dug right into the wound, spaying water and causing circuits to short. If Bach hit it with just one spear that would be it. Question was, could Poly avoid that and wear the egg down? Roland had bet that it couldn't.
Round two started and the crowd cheered, waving betting tickets in the air. Roland started yelling too. "C'mon Bach, kill that little bitch. C'mon Bach!"
The bots acted like they had in the last round. Circling, feeling each other out, driving the action craving crowd mad. "We came to see a fucking fight, not a dance," a man pushing behind Roland shrieked.
A barbed spear exploded from Bach's front. Couldn't see it move. It just appeared and stood there like an erect phallus. But Poly's motion detectors had warned her. She darted around it and stabbing at Bach's side with a claw. Another spear shot out and grazed the side of her head. Poly retreated to the other side of the ring and Bach, sucked the harpoons back into her body.
"Damn," Roland whispered and then consoled himself by yelling. "It only takes one hit Bach, just one! C'mon!"
He had to win this bet. He had lost everything gambling on these fights, his condo, subway pass, all the money in his bank, his clothes, watches, gold fillings – all of it. And most of it last night. It had started off good. He could do no wrong. Surfed on a wave of cash until Lady Luck flipped a bitch.
Just couldn't get it back together, couldn't get anything right. But instead of walking away from the table had ended up just betting more, hoping to at least get regain his losses, to break even on the night. Lost his condo on a microbot race of all things. The debt had piled up and then the casino had stopped accepting his IOUs. Thugs had walked him to Fatman's office. He had cut a deal but what a deal. Either he won this bet and broke even or he became property of the casino.
Round two ended and the third began. Poly was a new fighter, she just kept moving in, coaxing spears out of Bach and then dodging away without even trying to land a shot. Roland didn't like the look of this. Poly appeared to be memorizing Bach's weapons, figuring her out, testing the theories. As the round wore on, Bach was missing her target by huge degrees. Part of the crowd got very quiet. They had seen this sort of thing before. Poly was smarter. That wasn't good news.
Roland ignored the girl carrying the round card and looked at the EXITs. No escape there. Each one was manned by thugs, wearing biometric lens over their eyes, radio attached to a boxy computer at the base of their spines. Roland's face was registered. If he tried to leave this fight he'd be knocked right back into the crowd. Trapped. He looked up at the balcony and saw Fatman staring down, smiling. Chills all over Roland's insides. Felt ready to cry.
The bell rang and Roland yelled at Bach, knowing his voice was getting high and hysterical. He called her every name he could think of but it didn't help. Poly had started her attack, weaving through the spears, punching at Bach's side. The fight became regular and one-sided. The same move repeated again and again. The metal that Poly hit started to weaken. You could hear it in the noise her claws made. "Please God, let Bach have something up her sleeve," Roland prayed.
The crowd got quiet. They had seen this sort of thing before. It was a blow out. Just a matter of time. The rounds passed in mumbling silence as people quietly talked amongst themselves, just watching to see what round Bach was going to go down in. Roland sat down. His back was soaked with sweat, his thinning hair lank and damp. He looked at the ticket in his right hand. It was a simple bet, a fifty-fifty sort of thing. "Bach to win," the ticket said. "No round specified."
He heard a sizzling noise and was afraid to look up. Maybe just maybe, Bach had landed a blow, just the one she needed to impale that little fucker Poly. After a long moment, he looked. Bach was dead. So was he. Roland felt like vomiting. Someone tapped his shoulder.
"Truthfully I wasn't very worried," Fatman said, leaning back in his plush chair. A small, woman-shaped robot danced across his desk, its nipples flashing pink lights. "Even if you won, you'd be back and you’d lose again. Just a matter of time. You realize I've never lost money at this casino. Never had a day when I didn't turn a profit?"
Roland nodded, afraid to meet the man's swine eyes. That little silver woman seemed to be mocking him, its dance a victory jig. He wanted to smack it off the table but couldn't bring himself to do it.
"So, why do you guys all figure you'll be the one to change that? Never understood that. You think God is looking down on you, cheering you on?"
"Maybe. I don't know." Roland wanted to beg but wouldn't let himself. All he had now was his pride and he wouldn't have that for long. No idea what would happen to him but it wouldn't be good. He felt emptied out of everything positive, his guts brimming with grief. Like after the first time he had lost his subway pass and, as a result, his job at the sports store. His wife had left him, taking the kids with her. His parents no longer talked to him because they knew he just wanted to borrow money. Everything and everyone was gone. Including him. "What's next?" he asked.
"So you want to get right to it?" Fatman asked. "No sense putting off the inevitable?" He smiled. A sick looking expression full of gold, diamond studded teeth. His eyes shone with something like lust. "You know why Poly won tonight?"
"Because I bet on her?"
Fatman made a wheedling noise like a squealing pig. It took Roland a moment to realize that it was laughter. He shuddered.
"You aren't that important," Fatman said. "You guys take everything personal. That's your problem, right there. Figure the whole Mall revolves around you. Figure luck or money gives a damn. Think you're special. But you're not."
Maybe there was some truth in that and maybe not. Roland didn't know. He knew that no person gave a damn about him. Not the shopkeepers on the green or blue levels and not the bordello or casino owners in the reds. His life had been a slipping down, a drowning. He had slowly sunk from the blue levels into the reds, losing his business and family on his way into the depths of the Mall. Each victory was a gasp of air, his head thrust above the waves for a brief gasp before the next riptide of losses. His arms and legs had stopped working, he couldn't swim any longer, and all he had to count on was luck. It was the only thing that ever put his head above water.
He was low now. Deep. Bottom of the ocean and in the jaws of shark named Fatman. No more luck, no more nothing. It was over for him. They should make a movie based on his life. Call it "Catastrophe and Chance, the Rise and Fall of Roland Consolver." Could picture the byline. Something like, 'The epic story of one man's meteoric rise to Sport Store Manager to his fall into gambling addiction. See how he loses everything." He must have smiled because Fatman turned death cold, serious.
"Bach lost tonight because Bach is stupid," Fatman said. "And you're even dumber for betting on her. Probably figured she'd get in that one lucky shot."
Roland, sobered by Fatman's mood twist, nodded.
"But it don't work that way. Robots don't get lucky. It’s all programming and statistics. Only fools like you think they'll get lucky, and why, cause you think you're lucky."
He cleared his throat and lit a cigar. Roland was no expert but it smelled expensive.
"And that brings me to my point. Bach is one of my robots. One of my designs and I take no pleasure in seeing her lose. Even if it earns me a creitin like you. But I don't like betting against my own bots. And I especially don't like seeing a prancing jack off like Poly running an alorithum execution on it. Sickens me actually. Bach is like my baby. So I'm gonna upgrade her and you're providing the material."
"I don't understand."
"You don't need to, but let me put it in dumb language for you." Exhaled a cloud of yellow smoke. "Your brain is going in the new Bach model. The 666. That piece of meat has a lot of processing ability, even if it's wasted on you, and, better yet, its unpredictable. I can use that."
A man in a white coat strapped Roland to a table and attached a mask to his face. Knocked Roland right out. He dreamed of a place outside the Mall, a place he had never been to or thought about. The ground wasn't charred. It was a green meadow domed, not by a ceiling, but by blue sky. Birds sang. He woke up. And screamed.
Goodbye, sight, touch, hearing, scent and taste. Hello, thought-flash code and knee-jerk animal reaction. Supposed it could still be considered his senses. Brain translated motion detector signals into something resembling sight. Waves of moving force sketched patterns. Sort of like seeing. More like being underwater, so deep that no light moved, feeling the heat of huge beasts swimming around you, except you didn't feel them, you just knew—DANGER. His side was hit.
Think, he had to think. Words made psychic noise. Reassured him. Start with basics. My name is Roland. My brain is in the new Bach bot, model number 666. I am supposed to fight. Other sounds outside him, not heard but could sense shockwaves vibrating through air. Translate that movement into words, alphabet code –
"I want that sight up and running. Goddamn brain can't think right if it can't see. Don't need a crazy fucking robot you stupid bastard. If that thing starts shrieking again, you'll be shrieking too."
Everything went black and then white. Checkerboard pattern. Little squares got smaller and then a system emerged, a sort of chunky fractal thing. Took Roland to realize that he was seeing. Okay. Relax. Just relax. Two man shapes. Greater detail. That was Fatman. Loved Fatman. Maybe. Someone else, face not recognized but body language indicated that he was a subordinate unit of Fatman.
"Can you see?"
Vision pixilated and reformed in greater, almost human detail. Black and white though. His imagination filled in the blurry spots. Message was text at bottom of two dimensional screen. Roland watched the screen from a nothing vantage point. He was a labryinth of thoughts that possessed no sense of place or body. He directed his thinking at the screen. "I can see," he said. The words printed at the bottom as he thought them. Instant.
"Couldn't understand that. Go slower."
"I . . . Can . . . . See."
"Okay," Fatman said. "It's working." He looked at the man at his side. "Get it fighting, I want to see how it does against a Bach 1. See if it can beat itself."
All Roland had to do, he realized, was nothing. The machine part of him fought without interference but it was locked into a stalemate. Couldn't hit the Bach 1 or be hit by it. The machines struggled for position and expertly countered each gambit. This went on for hours with no interference from him.
Eventually he got bored. Wondered why his mechanical body hadn't used its lower spear to distract the opponent and then hit it with another. Just a one two combo. Ordered the metal body to do it. The Bach 1 reacted to the first shot and Roland fired the other spear right through its center. Bach 1 stumbled back and then stopped. Dead.
Fiery blue joy bloomed within Roland's mind. He had felt like this before. One night he had put two grand on a forty to one pitbull in a dogfight. The thing was old and it was her last fight, but it had come out of its coner like a snarling hellhound. Grabbed the other dog by the throat and chewed. That bet paid crazy money but the happiness didn't come from the cash. (He ended up losing it over the next few weeks anyway.) It was just this feeling like all the circuits in his brain had gone off, all this fragmented thoughts had united into one burning hole. Called it the kick and that's how he thought of it. Winning a bet gave him a kick, the worse the odds the better the kick. And he had just taken a mighty boot to the base of the skull.
Part of him knew that he must be wired to feel this but it didn't matter. The feeling was all that counted. He wanted to fight again, to win again. When he saw another Bach 1 put into the ring with him, he went straight after it. Took it down with one fast blow and boom. Same feeling. But, this time, maybe it wasn't quite as strong.
"Again!" he yelled. "Again!"
The technitian looked at him and pulled out a telephone. A few minutes later Fatman arrived and examined the robot corpses. He read the folder the tech passed him and walked to Roland Bach's side. Patted it on it side. "Real good," he said. "You figure you can do that in a ring."
"Yes," Roland said. "Again, again!"
"Easy there big gunner." Fatman turned his back and returned the folder to the tech. "Have It ready to go for tonight. I'm gonna schedule a semi championship bout."
The tech picked up a remote control, looked at Roland and said: "Lights out."
Dreams of a clear blue sky, birds flying. Roland watches and makes a bet with himself. "Bird on the left to win."
He wakes up to a ringing bell. Another robot is looking at him. A flat box with a spiked hammer heads hanging off a pole in its center. A mace design. The pole spins and centrifugal force pulls the blunt clubs away fro the center. A whirling dervish. The Mace moved in fat then pulled back. The Bach automatically avoided it and shot a warning spear. Wanted to keep the enemy at a distance until it learned its moves.
Roland remembered watching a fight with one of these Mace's. Thing had a hidden tentacal, sort of like a lasso that pulled you into its swirling weapon. It bluffed and dodged until the other bot went in for the kill and then it grabbed, tilted the mace forward and tore the challenger to pieces. It had a small but heavy body, hard to hit. The Bach had a couple of spears that could do it but not from this distance. Problem was, it couldn't get within range without getting its top knocked off.
So right now it was a dance, until the Mace figure out where the spears were, it would just run in and test. Roland thought about it. Needed to get lower. Perhaps, if he tipped the Bach onto its side . . .
He ordered the feet to throw the Bach into the air and then flung them forward. Bach landed hard and fell face first. Roland wondered what the crowd would be thinking? Malfunction? Would they think that the fight was all but over, cheering Mace in for the kill? He wished he could hear them.
Mace paused for a moment and then bolted forward, tilting its hammerheads down so that it looked like a sideways helicopter. Roland waited for it to come within range and then shot a spear into the swinging ropes. They spun around the spear and tangled. He yanked the harpoon back in, pulling the mace over so its flat body laid on its side, presenting a large target. Roland fired every spear he could at it, their armor piercing heads smashing into the metal.
A single word came up on his inner screen. Read: "VICTORY." Roland felt his head fill up with joy. When he was put back on his feet he did a victory lap, watching a crowd that was going crazy.
Without Roland's brain locked safely within, The Bach 666 won fight after fight, each one in the first round. Fans loved it because it added unpredictablilty to a tired sport. The odds were stacked heavily in its favor before the Championship match.
Roland read this on the news reports Fatman uploaded into the robot so that he'd have something to occupy his thoughts. Roland figured that he was getting concerned about the time Roland spent alone, worried that his cash cow might go nuts. He spent more time with him turned on, Roland sitting in the corner of Fatman's office, watching his beloved boss snort coke off his desk.
He read the advert in the news. "ROBOT FIGHT TONIGHT ALL RIGHT!! Watch the weathered and wily Poly take on the new unpredict-a-bot, the upstart with the wacky programs, heavy favorite, Bach 666! Place your bets at Fatman's casino. TONIGHT!! BE THERE!!"
Fatman brought his head up from his desk, a bit of white powder clinging to his sweaty upper lip. Through shifting pixels Roland saw a smile. "Gonna make me money tonight?" he asked, sniffed, wiped his hand across his mouth and sneezed.
"Yes," Roland said. Flesh bothered him now, reminded him of heavy soft sheets. It was always sweating, sneezing or consuming. Disgusting.
"I know you are," Fatman said. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a little news chip. "Got something for you," he said and stood up, walked across the room, his eyes wide and stoned. Roland , who was learning to see color in the black, white and grey shades, knew that the eyes were bloodshot. He was suddenly worried about his Master. Fatman slipped the chip into his egg shaped, metal body. "Gonna make me a lot of cash," he said and turned him off.
The bell ringed. It was the only sound he could hear and it sent his Bach body into automatic fight mode. Poly stood across the ring, ran at him then backed off. The two robots circled each other for a while. Roland remembered the fight that had cost him his body. Remembered that Poly had gone into a super repetitive mode in the forth round, using the same move again and again, exploiting Bach's weakness. He'd just wait for Poly to do that again and then use a well timed harpoon to take it down. Besides, winning in the first round was getting a bit boring. Had to think of the audiance.
Seemed that Poly remembered Bach. It started testing the reflexes in the first round and Roland's mechanical frame ran just as it had in the first fight. Robots were a lot of things but adaptable wasn't one of them. Poly played it cautious and waited until the second round to start hitting. Its movements were regular and Roland watched, carefully getting into the rythem of the thing. Duck, weave, run forward pop with right hand claw, duck, run back, do again. And again.
He waited for Poly to come in and then ordered the body to spin. Nothing happened. Poly hit again, dodged back out and came in again. Roland tried to fire a spear. Nothing. Couldn't figure out what was going on, his control was severed. A memory. Fatman sticking a chip into him and saying: "Going to make me a lot cash."
The fix was in. Fatman had bet against his own robot to beat those huge odds. Roland admired his boss. A move like that took real balls and real class. His metal shell ruptured. Wouldn't be long now. Poly ducked and weaved back in and reached into the wound. Roland felt something pierce and for a moment he smelled something burning. A deep disapointment seized him. He had lost.
Suddenly he was in a field, then flying over it, his body disjointed. He was a flock of birds, watching wind currents through countless eyes. He made a bet with himself that the one on the left would be the first to the tree and wasn't surprised when that little sparrow pulled ahead.
"Truthfully, I wasn't very worried," Fatman said to the three men who sat in front of him. All of them had bet their bodies and brains on the Bach 666 and all of them had lost. He glanced at the female robot who danced across his desk, pink light flashing from its nipples. "You realize that I've never lost money at this casino? Never had a day when I didn't turn a profit?"