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TITLE FIGHT (The Galactic Football League Novellas), Page 2

Scott Sigler

  Too young, too strong, too fast.

  Korak’s undefeated MMA record of forty-five wins (thirty by knockout or submission, ten by decision, five by death), his title, his life ... it was all on the line.

  The bell sounded for the start of the round. The two corner-thrones, still dripping blood, rose up, carrying the corner crews 15 feet above the violent impressionistic masterpiece that was the Octagon’s stained canvas.

  With the ring clear of staff, the HeavyKi referee waved both fighters forward. The champion, Korak the Cutter, and the challenger, Mark “The Mangler” Wheeler, strode to the center of the Octagon to make war.

  • • •

  The Mangler was one of the best Human fighters Korak had ever seen. Seven feet, eight inches tall, two percent body fat, a lightning-fast 450 pounds, his punches registered the highest pounds per square inch that had ever been recorded in the IFA. For any species. Five years in, The Mangler had just two losses against eighteen wins: twelve by knockout, four by submission and two by death. The Mangler had exceptional grappling skills, a fantastic knowledge of non-Human anatomy, and his ground-and-pound skills could make a seasoned war vet wince. If Wheeler got you in a full mount, he finished you the hard way, with elbows so fast they looked like blurs even in super-slow-mo holoreplays.

  Both of the deaths, one against a Human, one against a Sklorno, had come courtesy of those elbows.

  The Mangler was one of the best Human fighters, which meant he really wasn’t that good at all. Certainly not good enough to beat Korak the Cutter, and not good enough to take Korak’s title. Young? Sure. Fast? Absolutely. Strong? Far stronger than Korak.


  Not enough, and that would be the difference.

  The Mangler knew he’d broken Korak’s arm, messed it up bad, and the Human would also know there hadn’t been enough time to fix it properly. He’d come after it. Korak could keep him at bay with left jabs, buy time while the nanocytes stitched up the internal damage, but the judges didn’t like that backpedaling, stick-and-move garbage.

  Korak stumbled coming out of his corner. He heard the crowd’s quick murmur. They had seen that stumble. If they had, so had The Mangler, so had his corner. That left only one question ... was the Human inexperienced enough, dumb enough to believe it?

  Four hundred fifty pounds of Human physical perfection shot across the ring, caution forgotten, mouthpiece bared and wide eyes filled with a hunger for intergalactic glory.

  Yep. He was that dumb.

  Korak threw a sharp middle-left-hand jab. The Mangler was coming in too fast, and the punch caught him on the right eyebrow, instantly opening up a fresh cut. Despite the cut, Wheeler kept coming, taking the blow like it was a free ticket to get front-row seats at the main event. Korak stepped back again and threw the same left-hand jab.

  Threw it a little slower, wondering if the Human would still not see the ruse.

  The Mangler ducked this jab, bent his knees to drop his level, then grabbed for Korak’s middle right wrist.

  Here was where the split-second dance of chess elevated to the level of the masters. Korak made it look like he was pulling the middle right hand away, but too slow, his punch-drunk lethargy making him groggy, weak.

  The Mangler reached in, reached down for the wrist. He was a disciplined fighter, a skilled fighter, but Korak had learned something in the last seven years — the lust for the title, the glare of the golden belt, it can make an opponent overeager. Not much, these are the best fighters in the galaxy after all, but when you’re facing the champ, it doesn’t take much to shuck up royally.

  Korak’s dance began: offer the sacrifice, step back, lure the opponent in ...

  Wheeler’s ham-hock hands locked down on Korak’s right wrist. The champ stepped forward with his left foot as he turned his right shoulder back, seeming to pull his wrist away from the aggressor. The Mangler had no problem with the evasive move, taking an extra half step forward to compensate. He closed in with his chin down tight against his chest, raw fury and youthful skill pouring off him like the sweat dripping off his tanned skin.

  Offer the sacrifice, step back, lure the opponent in, turn shoulders, make opponent turn to match ...

  The sacrifice had been offered and taken. Wheeler’s carbon-to-diamond grip squeezed tight. Now Korak could not pull away even if he wanted to. But the champ just wanted to turn, to put his back to the ref.

  So the ref couldn’t see what came next.

  HeavyKi refs were the only sentients that could work a heavyweight MMA fight. Heavyweights were among the strongest beings in the galaxy, and they were trained to break joints, cut off airflow, pulverize nerve clusters and, if those things didn’t work, use fists to turn flesh or chitin or pebble-armor into a broken stew of protein and calcium. Outside of the ring, MMA fighters could be polite or obnoxious, professional or arrogant, quiet or loud, but inside the ring, at this level, they all wanted the same thing — they wanted to destroy. If you were going to pull one berserk 450-pound killing machine off of another, that wasn’t exactly a job for the delicate Harrah refs of the GFL. You needed strength, you needed mass, and having an extra set of muscle-bound arms didn’t hurt either. Hence, 700-pound HeavyKi got all the prime-time officiating gigs. With their size and strength, it was a damn good thing they were too slow to make good fighters.

  Speed. Fighting always comes back to speed. But speed is only half of a fighter’s ability to land blows. The other half is timing. With seventeen years of professional fighting under his belt, timing was something ingrained in Korak’s soul and in every atom of his body.

  Offer the sacrifice, step back, lure opponent in, turn shoulders, make opponent turn to match, back to ref, then ...

  With his smaller upper right arm, Korak drove an uppercut into Wheeler’s jaw. The upper arms couldn’t really hurt Wheeler’s massive jaw or huge neck, but they could make the Human move a little. The perfectly placed punch drove up under the point of Wheeler’s jaw, forcing his chin up and away from the chest for a fraction of a second.

  Offer the sacrifice, step back, lure the opponent in, turn shoulders, make opponent turn to match, back to ref, small-arm uppercut, opponent’s chin comes up, and finally ...

  The rabbit punch.

  Korak didn’t know what a “rabbit” was, and he didn’t care. It was some obscure Human reference describing a blow to the back of a Human head, where it connected to the spine. A punch there was just as illegal as hitting a Quyth Warrior in the nerve cluster that controlled all four arms, just as illegal as back folding a Sklorno. That’s why this dance wasn’t just about landing the punch — the follow-through had to be right, or IFA administrators would disqualify Korak in the post-fight holoreviews.

  Korak and Wheeler turned just as Korak threw the short upward hook to the back of The Mangler’s head. The hard chitin fist landed dead-on, just under the left-rear ridge of skull, driving into neck muscles as dense as hardwood. Korak put everything he had into the blow, a blow that would have instantly snapped the neck of a normal Human. The Mangler, of course, was far from normal. But he also wasn’t made of metal. He was flesh and blood, and every anatomy has certain limits.

  Their turn continued. Wheeler’s hands spasmed, his grip loosened. In a fraction of a second, Korak reversed it, his three-fingered hand rotating outward, fingers extending, the movement forcing The Mangler’s hand backward until he lost the grip on Korak’s wrist. Korak continued the outward turn until his fingers locked down on Wheeler’s now upturned wrist. The grab, then the pull, keeping the spin going.

  Wheeler stumbled forward as Korak hopped onto the Human’s broad back.

  All of this as the rabbit punch skidded across the back of Wheeler’s head, Korak’s right fist sliding around, under Wheeler’s jaw, across the throat. Once past the fingers, the Quyth arm is rather similar to a Human’s. The inside of Korak’s elbow met Wheeler’s “Adam’s Apple” (Korak knew as much about Adam as he knew about rabbits). Korak’s arm tightened, all si
des pressing in on Wheeler’s neck, cutting off blood, cutting off air. Finally, his two smaller, upper arms locked onto his lower left, wrapping Wheeler’s head and throat in a python-tight chitin cage.

  The challenger planted his feet and tried to turn in. He’d already recovered from the rabbit punch. In fact, it had only stunned him for maybe half a second, but by that time Korak had mounted the challenger’s back, the chokehold locked firmly around the Human’s neck. Locked in deep.

  Korak’s legs sank around Wheeler’s front, three-toed feet, locking tight on his abdomen, digging in and constricting the diaphragm.

  The crowd’s roar hit like the slap of a god. Louder than most battles Korak had fought in, and yet the noise in both the Octagon and in war meant the same thing — the sound of blood.

  Wheeler tried to stay standing, tried to balance 400 pounds of Quyth Warrior on his back because he knew that to fall now meant submission, it meant a loss.

  Korak’s inner thighs squeezed down on Wheeler’s hips. His arms cinched even tighter. Pushing down with his legs and pulling up with his arms, Korak focused all of his strength on snapping the arrogant Human’s neck.

  The crowd roared so loud, Korak almost couldn’t hear the Human’s pitiful choking noises.

  • • •

  “Enough,” Vikor said. “Everyone out.”

  Ki security guards started pushing out the media and the celebrities who’d crowded into Korak’s dressing room. Mumbles of complaint went ignored, and in seconds the crowd-control experts swept everyone through the door, leaving Vikor alone with his fighter — still undefeated, still the champ.

  “Good thing Wheeler tapped out standing up,” Vikor said. “It looked like you might break his neck.”

  “I was trying to.”

  “What do you mean you were trying to?”

  “I wanted to kill him,” Korak said. “Kill him like I did with Khalide two years ago. I pulled Wheeler’s head as hard as I could. His neck should have snapped, but it didn’t.”

  Vikor looked at him for a long time. The locker room hung heavy with silence. “I think it’s time,” Vikor said.

  “Time to go do my post-fight interview?”

  “No, Champ, it’s time to—”

  “I know what time you think it is,” Korak snapped. “It’s not time.”

  Vikor’s eye flooded black. It was just the two of them now. They’d been together too long for the manager to try and hide emotions. “You’ve slowed down, Champ. And it’s not just that, you’re getting weaker. You took Wheeler’s back. I don’t care how big he is, if you can’t break a Human’s neck when you’ve got him locked in like that ... well, you know what that means.”

  Korak did know what it meant. It meant that not only had he lost speed, he’d lost strength. And when a Quyth Warrior starts to lose strength, the grave isn’t far away.

  Round Two: The Heretic Vs. Brocka the Razor-Barbed

  “What were you last time?”


  “What are you now?”


  “What were you last time?”


  “What are you now?”


  Marcus drilled the mantra into Chaiyal’s head with all the subtlety of a rusty corkscrew, over and over again, relentlessly. The older fighter-turned-manager paced up and down the corridor, scarred hands clasped behind his back. He wore the same blood-red satin ring jacket that he’d worn back in his days of chasing the title, DIABLO lasered across the back and a pair of smoking satanic eyes under it. But the tunic underneath the jacket was emblazoned with the name THE HERETIC.

  Chai braced himself against the wall, head lowered, eyes closed. The Klar brothers buzzed around him, performing last-minute prep on The Heretic’s tricked-out wetware. Jorgie checked the stability of the radiant shielding that protected Chai’s neural implants, while Bennett, a handheld monitor jacked into one of the dozen ports embedded in Chaiyal’s flesh, downloaded diagnostic information from his body’s electrical system.

  “It’s time,” Marcus finally growled.

  Chai stepped away from the wall as the Klars disengaged their equipment. The noise beyond the huge steel door at the end of the service tunnel was dampened, but Chai knew it would be deafening in a few seconds. It didn’t faze him. Nothing did. He was trained. He was ready. His moment was coming soon.

  Together they all mounted a steel conveyor sled. It hovered on an invisible field of electromagnetism, carrying the foursome out of the service tunnel, into the arena and to one of the corner-thrones that sat poised above opposite sides of the Octagon below. Countless thousands waited to greet The Heretic, some with boos, many with fanatical cheers. Chaiyal’s blond hair was shaved to resemble a Mohawk warrior from ancient Earth, and he’d painted inverted crosses on the sides of his head. The same symbol decorated the hard composite spaulder he wore over his left shoulder, as well as the thick codpiece secured to his regulation shorts.

  As the challenger, Chaiyal’s corner-throne lowered first. The announcer called him in, introducing him as the pride of the Purist Nation. Funny — that might have been true once, but not anymore, at least not the pride of the church. His corner-throne touched down. Chai stood, his bare feet touching the canvas that was still a bit damp with blood from the undercard.

  The announcer started calling out the name of the champion, Brocka the Razor-Barbed, but even the high-tech sound system couldn’t overpower the screams of the audience. Chaiyal watched Brocka’s corner-throne descend, spotlights tracking it all the way.

  “It’s time,” Marcus growled in his ear. “They won’t even see you comin’, kid.”

  Chai said nothing, but the words triggered flash bombs of memory in the back of his mind. Marcus’ voice, the Klar brothers’ voices, the announcer introducing his opponent, the fans, they all faded into the background. Chai closed his eyes against the bright, flashing lights of the arena. He closed his eyes and remembered.

  He remembered The Day.

  The Day ...

  • • •

  The Day, as Chai had come to think of it, began with his very first glimpse of Buddha City Station. He recalled every detail of what followed with clarity normally reserved for the first time a girl kisses you, but that single image remained the most vivid. The Crusaders frigate was on approach above Allah. Chai stood before one of the starboard viewing ports in the blue tunic with its crucible X symbol that all Purist Nation fighters wore. Beneath him, Allah rolled in seemingly endless shadow. Then the sun broke, and he saw it: Buddha City Station, rising over the southern hemisphere of the planet, its alloy edges burning with solar light.

  The man standing next to Chai commented that it surely was the finger of the High One himself. Chai said the High One could kiss his ass and went back to his cabin to take a nap.

  Back then he didn’t care about beauty, adventure or any of that esoteric crap. All he cared about, all he’d ever cared about, was competition. The Holy Men might say he was destined to be a fighter. Later, Marcus would tell Chai that “destiny” just meant having the right game plan. Chai figured the truth was somewhere in-between.

  Chai was the son of one of the last consolidated evangelists, a shameless con man who used the High One to fleece every poor, dumb outer-rim hick of the little money they’d managed to scrape together. His father had named him Chaiyal. That meant “soldier” in one of the old faith tongues. He did it so he could point to Chai during his revivals and call him the High One’s little soldier.

  An idea struck the old man one day as he watched young Chai wrestling with 40-pound quarry devils in the dirt field behind their home and breaking the vile creatures’ necks with his bare hands. A new gimmick was born in the back of his father’s brain, and the next weekend the old man began using Chai’s natural ability as a grappler in his act. He’d challenge any member of the congregation to tie up his scrawny, 14-year-old son in a gyroscopic grapple-roll rig that simulated zer
o-g. At first the old man fixed the fights, using plants or tampering with the gyrospheres, but it soon became clear none of that was necessary. Chai was a monster. It didn’t matter how old, how big, how skilled ... nobody could outroll or outwrestle him.

  And while his father ranted and raved about the strength of the High One imbued in his little soldier, all the while having his acolytes circulate among the crowd running side action on the matches and giving out sucker odds, Chai created his own world inside that gyroscopic sphere. He didn’t care about the ministry or about the church. He hated his father and everyone like him. Combat was Chai’s calling. He began working every day to make his striking skills match his power as a grapple-roller. Even before his first wetware implant years later, Chai possessed unreal hand speed. He was a natural.

  The old man knew Chai was a goldmine on two legs, and it wasn’t long before he took him out of the tent shows — twisting miners and freight loaders into abstract art — and started booking Chai in professional fights. When he was 18, the Crusaders promotion, the Purist Nation’s premier combat league, offered his father a twenty-fight contract for Chai. The terms amounted to indentured servitude, but Chai never cared about money, either. It meant he’d escape his father’s ministry. It meant he’d get to compete against the greatest fighters in the Purist Nation. It meant he’d get to prove that he was the best.

  Chai cut and shuffled the heavyweight roster like a deck of cards, decimating rankings in less than a year. He racked up an undefeated, 11-0 record in Crusaders. They called him “The Holy Hammer,” and he came to be feared by his opponents. More than one had attempted to bust the ring’s energy barrier to escape the punishment Chai inflicted.

  The Day. Bob Laramee Memorial Arena, Buddha City Station. Chaiyal “The Holy Hammer” North versus Kid Canwolf for the title of Crusaders First Templar. Next to the PNFL championship, it was the biggest event in the Purist Nation. Celebrities, VIPs and holocast crews from Promise Land Sports Network lined ringside. Chai shook hands with Stedmar Osborne, owner of the Micovi Raiders. Legendary templar Malachi “Ides of March” McMasters, Crusaders Hall of Famer, wished him luck. Many of the big Holy Men were there. The grandstand seemed to rise all the way into space with tier upon tier of Nationalites, tier upon tier of alien spectators quartered in their own sections. Chai had never seen anything like it, not even fighting at the MS Memorial Arena in Landing City.