By Damian Herrera
The battle arena’s crowd seems uglier and stupider than usual, hooting between gulps of cheap stadium beer, excited to see shrapnel flying off the exosuits in front of us. I sink in my seat, a hard steel throwaway from either one of Earth’s favored planets or a wrecked star ship; it stabs past my black skirt and into my thigh. These stadiums are always full, yet no one ever complains about the horrible seats; probably because most of these idiots are on their feet, jumping around like animals out here in the freezing cold wind which whips me with my own black hair and sends blue bangs into my eyes. These people… they could care less if Dad dies for their entertainment.
In front of us, Harrowing, a medium-sized exosuit(about eight feet high) painted white with dabs of red reminiscent of blood, swings high voltage whip cables at Merlin, a thick armored yet small power armor(not much bigger than six feet). Merlin’s operator went in with a broken arm; if he manages to walk out, it’ll be with serious burns to his other arm, where the cables are currently coiled. I would say he’s an idiot for going into the arena like this, but he’s got reasons; there’s always reasons.
“Eli,” my brother, Aden, says, putting his hand on my shoulder. He raises an eyebrow at me then motions his eyes towards my hand, which I had balled up into a fist.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Sorry. Reflexes.” I try to laugh it off, but it comes off tense.
“Reflexes?” he asks, taking a seat next to me.
“You know how guys are around here.” Being Sixteen isn’t exactly a deterrent against drunk, old creeps.
“Someone been bothering you?” Aden asks, looking back and scanning the drunkards, trying to pinpoint a suspect.
“Yeah, you’re not gonna find him though,” I smirk.
He sighs. “You didn’t get into a fight did you? Where the hell is he?” Aden’s face gets harsh.
He closes his eyes and shakes his head at me then rubs his hands against his face until his fingers meet at his chin. “And if he had friends?”
“Honestly, if you had seen the guy, you’d know he didn’t.” I try to keep the smile; my chest feels heavy.
Aden stares at me. For a while, he tries to do his I’m-going-to-make-you-feel-guilty face, but when it doesn’t work he laughs and aims his eyes at the floor. “Next time, you tell me. Okay?”
He looks disappointed.
Usually, Aden offering to beat some creep’s skull in would make me feel better. I know that sounds stupid, but it would, like maybe I have some control over things. Like someone’s got my back. I know it would make him feel better, but not today. Today, I rather not call for more violence.
“I couldn’t talk him out of it.” Aden finally bursts out, almost melding the words together into a single syllable. His gazes blankly into the arena rather than towards me.
“You didn’t try. I mean, honestly.” I look at him as he flicks his thumbnail to his middle nail and feel tears welling up around my eyes. I have to take a deep breath and bite my lip; the last thing I need is someone feeling sorry for me.
“I mean, what did you expect me to do? I told him not to, but there just wasn’t much I could do.”
“I know. Old guy’s stubborn.”
“But hey, me and Dad have been working on Zenith. Got the beam blade up to ten seconds before battery depletion.”
Our opponent’s weapons can last an entire match.
The crowd screams angrily. Someone knees me between my shoulder blades. The energy field protecting the crowd buzzes, then flashes bright colors as debris collides with it. I look to Aden. I’d rather not see the outcome myself; at least, not until I see Aden grinning.
“The winner is Merlin! Merlin, with a nasty comeback! Give him a round!” the announcer booms through the speaker system. “Harrowing, and his operator, have been spared!” Announcements are usually reserved for after a match and to talk about major injuries. During fights, things get too noisy.
Aden stands up and makes a noise somewhere between a shout and a laugh as the stadium lights dim.
I stand to get a look at the big projection screen. Merlin’s operator, a man in his forties, takes off his helmet. He smiles and waves. A fresh long thick burn traces the side of his neck. The screen splits in two so we can see Harrowing’s operator release his emergency latches. He’s bruised up, but he’ll live. Whatever Merlin did, it was to the armor.
“Next match: Harbinger vs. Zenith!”
I fall back to my seat. The sudden elation disappears. Something squeezes my knees. I don’t realize it’s my own hands until I look down. My grip doesn’t loosen.
“I’m glad Merlin won.” Aden says, taking his seat, “Harrowing wouldn’t have let him live.”
I nod. Rumor had it Harrowing’s people were responsible for that broken arm. One of Harrowing’s top engineers had been shot dead months before for stealing a power drive from Valkyrie. Lucia, her pilot(and just about the biggest bad ass this side of the galaxy), came out saying that she ‘coerced’ all kinds of stories from him after his capture. Of course the people in charge ignored her. Eyes tend to be turned when it means publicity is at stake. Lucia’s solution? She handed the thief over to one of the shadier mech crews whom he had stolen from. His body was found eight weeks later.
“What do you think of Harbinger?” I ask.
Aden looks at me and bites the insides of his cheeks. “Eli, Dad’s fine. I’m sure.”
He’s quiet for a moment, then exhales. “He’s good, his pilot’s really good. His armor specs are even better. Energy wrist blades, mounted cannons, a torque hammer, and that’s just his standard equipment.”
“Okay. That makes sense.”
“Why he hasn’t come to us with any threats. I’d heard all these rumors that he attacks his opponents and crap like that. Stories about him bullying opponents and sabotaging shit in their power armors. Zenith doesn’t threaten him.” I don’t feel like crying anymore. I don’t feel tears, just this feeling like I’m about to throw up.
”And now, Zenith vs. Harbinger!” Boos follow Zenith’s name, cheers follow Harbinger’s. It’s obvious where the money is.
Aden and I stand. I feel my nails stabbing into my palms.
A set of large steel doors open up. A spotlight turns on and reveals Dad. Zenith is a gleaming mid class suit. She’s a deep black with a bronze star on her chest and back. The arms have long metallic blades attached to them and on the chest are slots for attachments, such as the energy blade. Her helmet shines with large golden eyes and a shield plating over her mouth.
Dad had always loved machines. He was a little younger than thirteen when he was working over at a big docking station. He had turned more than a few heads even back then. People knew he was good, and Dad didn’t hide it.
Maybe Dad could have gone off and been something special, but he never really wanted to. He ended up opening a small mechanic shop and marrying the love of his life. They had Aden, then me five years after.
I guess it was us that made Dad want off this world. Off of this hick planet that had nothing to offer, but that it was better than the nothing that surrounded it. This planet that was just advanced enough that it could house the exosuit battles, but far enough away so that nobody on Earth saw an issue with outsourcing their violence here.
Dad might have got us out, too, but Mom got sick. He paid all the best doctors around to try to help her. They all said they could, but it was only when our funds got low that they admitted their lie. It was an unpaid intern to some renown physician that told us that her symptoms matched a sickness found on a more central planet. The cure was available if we could wait for shipment.
The medicine arrived exactly a week after Mom’s tombstone was erected.
Dad blamed himself. Said that had he worked harder, if he had taken the right jobs, if he talked to that boy sooner, had he just done something else, Mom would be alive.
He started to drink. He was a functional, yet depressed drunk. He took pride that he had never let a job suffer from the drinking, but he was suffering hard. He still wanted a better world for us, but no one quite took him seriously anymore; even Aden had lost faith.
Then along she came.
When I first saw Zenith, Dad was pulling her into the shop’s garage on a large antigrav lift. She was scrap. Dad was much too practical to have ever bought her sober.
Aden’s arms drooped low and his jaw fell. “This is garbage, Dad. Total garbage.”
“He’s a fixer-upper!” Dad said(both Dad and Aden like to think Zenith is a guy).
Aden clenched an oil rag in his fist and shook his head.
“She’s beautiful!” I screamed in my high pitched eight-year-old voice.
Dad smiled widely. “See? Beautiful.”
Aden threw the rag on the floor and stomped away.
“He’ll get over it,” Dad muttered, “help me get him in.”
We got her into the garage and turned all the lights on her. “I saw him in the yards. Just a big guy peeking out from underneath garbage. People, just writing him off.” He looked at me and smiled. “He’ll be worth the repairs. He’s a winner, Elliot.”
Zenith had been a winner. She’d won matches in several smaller leagues and even sobered up Dad, who was happy for the first time in so long. We’d actually begun to make a profit, but with more prize money comes more risks.
Dad said we’re playing for enough to change our lives tonight. I’m terrified that he might be right.
Another spotlight turns on and aims towards the other vault doors. The crowd’s so loud I have to fight back the urge to hit the nearest shouter. Harbinger is gunmetal grey with red diagonal lines going across his arms and chassis. As he steps onto the arenas concrete floor he holds his arms out, shooting out sabers of light. From his shoulders, turret machine guns ease out. His right hand sheaths an energy blade and pulls a hammer as tall as himself from behind him. The hammer is bigger than I thought and has large exposed turbine engine. This is what a heavy class looks like.
The stadium lights intensify one row at a time until they all shine brightly. The crowd cheers and jumps again, all waiting for the horn to go off.
My brother grabs my hand, without looking at me. I push him away and he laughs. I don’t need him trying to comfort me. I hold myself tightly.
The horn goes off.
Harbinger opens fire on dad. Zenith takes the hits and makes a line for him. The bullets keep pounding into Zenith scratching up the paint and sending sparks flying all the while.
Zenith finally gets to Harbinger and swings her wrist blades, his left arm blocks the blow with its energy blade. When Harbinger pushes back, he breaks off a chunk of Zenith’s blade.
Before Dad can move Harbinger pushes his hammer up to Dad’s chest and activates the turbines at the side of it, slamming into him and sending him back a few feet.
I look at Aden from the corner of my eye. He’s shaking with his arms wrapped around himself, as if to stay warm, but as he sees me looking he gives me a smirk. “Dad’s still got the trump card.”
Dad stumbles back. He reaches his right hand to Zenith’s chassis and pulls out the beam saber hilt, but as he does so, his left arm jolts back. Harbinger’s turret pierced a circuit. It must have pierced the armor, more than likely it reached Dad.
The pain in my chest worsens.
Dad pulls his sword’s trigger. A bright white beam flows from it. Even the people around us who were booing cheer at the reveal. Dad moves in and swings his blade at Harbinger’s blade emitters. A loud spark and many boos accompany the blade’s last fizzes.
Then Harbinger smashes his hammer into Dad’s chest again.
Zenith’s on the floor and my nails- my nails dig bleeding indents on my palms. Harbinger smashes the hammer down onto Dad’s chest. Then again. Then again. And again. I can feel my heart bouncing like the ugly animals around us. I look to Aden, looking for that damn smirk of his, some sign of assurance, but instead he’s shaking- just like me. His fingers continuously clap against his palm.
I look between the hammer- rising and falling, Zenith’s chassis denting up- and my brother. I grab his hand and give him a nod. He lends me a quick smile before looking back to the fight.
The hammer smashes into Dad again, only this time it glows, readying itself to activate its turbines again. I close my eyes.
I only hear the explosion.
When I open my eyes, Dad’s hand is inside the hammer’s turbine. Sparks fly from the engine as it tears up Dad’s hand right through the armor. My brother and I squeeze each other’s hands. Dad pulls at the hammer’s head. There’s a loud pop, then the recoil sends the long handle straight into Harbinger.
Cheers surround us. Harbinger falls to his knees, unable to lower farther with the handle through his stomach.
“No life signs detected from Harbinger! Zenith is the champion,” the speakers announce.
The crowd who had so supported Harbinger hoots and cheers. Only those who placed significant bets boo at the outcome.
I can’t cheer, not when someone just died, but I also can’t hold back my smile.
Aden lets his head fall back and takes a deep breath. The large screen splits in two, one showing Zenith, still lying on the arena floor, the other showing Aden and I.
“Look, here they are! The winner’s kids! Give them a hand!” the announcer screams, and the crowd obeys. My cheeks burn.
“Come on out, operator!”
We smile and wave at the nearest camera.
Steam escapes Zenith as the emergency latches open up, and parts of the chassis fly off. Dad coughs. He rolls over and pushes himself to his feet, still coughing, but smiling victoriously.
“I told you, Eli.” He tosses me a stupid smirk.
“Yeah, you did.” I smile right back.
“Wait, what’s this?” The speakers let out.
The screen performs a close up on Dad. He’s throwing up blood. I tighten my grip to Aden’s now limp hand.
The crowd cheers.
The screen splits again. On one side, Aden’s face is buried into his free hand and his back is doing a sort of sputtering shake; I look smaller then I expect, my mouth is open a bit, and my skin seems pale. The crowd gives us space. On the other side, Dad is still. Blood covers his mouth, but it’s there. In his very last moment, he smiled.