You have found a secret story that is not featured in the Feedback episodes. Nice! Read this if you have read Mixer (Episode 3) but have not yet read Chorus (Episode 4).
In a square room, pearlescent white and with one black rounded microphone in each corner, sat a young lady at a table and chair. Both were immovable, and had been formed from the same dull, non-reverberating white polymer, like natural extensions of the floor. At the middle of the wall ahead of her was a black three-digit counter, with blue digits frozen at 999.
She was one among tens walking through this building, one at a time sitting down to perform. The paper exam was completed and this was the final test for a professional decibism certification. The walls were all one-way mirrors, designed to appear completely solid on the inside, and yet exposing her actions to everyone beyond. This included the girls waiting, and a bigger, somewhat older dear with a wild blond mane, too fierce to ever compete in this sport.
The girl competing wore a pair of cordage wrappings at her wrists, and on the sides of each hung two small red bells. She kept her fingertips perched at the table. One hasty movement would lead to four nasty ear-piercing tones beating in cacophony. In the middle of the table lay a single overripe orange.
It was a special variety, practically flavorless, loaded with seeds, and with a thick, greasy rind. The genetic modification of the strain was attuned for only one purpose: interchangeability. Every single orange of the same age was physically the same, inside and out, with virtually zero margin of difference.
The buzzing computerized female voice perked her ears.
“Competitor 943 of Coltra: Serena of Lotara House. For your challenge, you must peel this orange. You may peel all but the very bottom if you wish. You must be as quiet as possible. Mind the bells on your wrists. Do not stand up during this task. When you finish, wait until the bells are removed and leave quietly while your score is processed. Thank you for competing.”
The counter on the wall descended, and her hands rose, like puppet strings pulled at each finger evenly. Red was the first color of the pro circuit, and for many it was the only point in the year that they would wear them.
The blonde outside watched, idly rubbing the tip of her ballpoint pen against her notepad. Despite how most people reacted to paper, she appreciated its permanence. She would take her notes only on paper, never submitting them to the Total Connectivity network. Serena of Lotara House, she wrote quickly, before looking back up to watch.
No rings yet as Serena hovered her hands to the orange; a good start. The difficult part would be applying force to break and remove the peel. Decibests always had long, polished nails. Their utility for professionals overrode the risk of foolishly clacking them against a surface, in the same way that a dull knife was more dangerous than a sharp one in the hands of a trained chef.
Serena tore off a large section of oily rind, which stained her fingers like transparent tar, and the bells on her left hand rang, not that anyone but her could hear it. But the drop in the counter and her grimace made it clear to all. The chancellors knew an oily fruit would make a competitor’s hands slippery, and then sticky. The noise dropped the counter faster.
954, 953, 952
She was taking too long by her own standards, but her watchers were impressed enough. Finishing above 850 would probably net a professional license, but there was also starting rank to consider. The first major chunk of the soft rind folded away, like one petal of a flowerbud maturing early. The next one was almost half the rind itself. She stuck out two fingers and pushed to rotate the fruit, giving her leverage for the thumb of her other hand, sticking it down and letting it wrench the next chunk free. With a gentle rotation, that sadly left another ring, and a repeat of the technique, the rind now hung vaguely around the white and honey-gold sphere.
She kept her hands in place, still craned over the table. The timer stopped.
904 – Serena of Lotara House. Please leave quietly.
The ushers came in, tall and composed ladies who undid the wrist wrappings. Even with their gentle touch, the bells dinged and whined.
In the dark, before it started, all Jack felt was heat. His whole body, despite wearing nothing but constricted shorts pasted with advertisements, urged to rush forward and feel the cooling wind of his own speed.
The arena’s numerous, massive screens efficiently delivered the action up close to nearly 20,000 citizens, and not a single seat was empty. A calm man in the center of the square, roped ring raised his hand high up, holding a microphone in the other.
“Dear visitors, thank you for your patience. We will now begin the main event of the evening. The five-round Super Heavyweight title match for the Flatson Scream Fighting Championships.”
In the dark, visitors flashed their light pens, sending thousands upon thousands of tiny green lasers straight to the roof of the indoor arena.
“Introducing the competitors. First, with a record of 41 bouts, 11 victories by vocalization, 16 victories by knockout, four victories by decision, and one loss, the nail puncher, Hammond “The Hammer” of Garden Spring House.”
The spotlight moved from the announcer to a corner. Hammond’s bald head and almost blue-pale skin betrayed the sunken eyes, ugly mashed lips, flat nose, and warped ears of a lifelong fighter. He had a nickname that fit him: an unpleasant, noise-producing tool known only by the dregs of society.
Hammond put his gloves together slowly, thick wrappings that squeezed together as he pushed fist to fist. A fair splash of supportive green lasers cut through the darkness. Though Jack had been the champion for years and should have earned home town respect, the twenty-nine-year-old was as undefeated as he was controversial, and once again, only had a little over half the crowd on his side. Younger blood like Hammond were getting to the point where they got more fights than Jack, by the time the industry was finally willing to do a title match.
The business itself hated Jack more than the fans. But few fighters stayed prime material after 30. People wanted to see Jack lose, and it was looking more and more certain that it would happen, which only further roused his dedicated fans.
“And in the other corner, with a record of 38 bouts, 38 victories by knockout, and zero losses, Jack “The Silencer” of Chellerk House.”
A nearly equal number of green lights flew around the two-hundred-foot ceiling. The lights were automatically disabled when pointed too close to the ring, to be sure no one could distract the fighters directly. Jack’s cornerman, Arnold, sat up on the ring post and held up Jack’s belt: a gaudy gold and emerald band with the detailed engraving of two sets of bared, filed teeth. One was curved to look hungry, the other terrified and shrieking. Thousands of green lights converged directly on that belt and over Arnold, like being consumed by some mix of firefly and locust.
“I want a clean bout, gentlemen,” said the referee, a balding man dressed in a bright yellow jumpsuit. “Fists closed at all times. Do not take the fight to the ground. If at any time you do not wish to continue you may tap the floor to surrender. Otherwise, winner is determined by knockout, doctor stoppage, vocalization, or the judges’ decision.”
Jack held out one open glove. He had never fought this one before, and had no reason to start things off too harshly.
“Too late to get friendly now, has-been.”
Oh, too much, Jack thought. The fool can’t fight with words. “Thank you for the opportunity.”
“Head to your corners.”
The spotlight broadened over the ring as the relatively young men watched each other. Hammond was visibly younger, likely still waiting for the 25 mark. His skin was taut and baby-like, easily accommodating an even broader chest of pure muscle than Jack’s. An in-fight wouldn’t be smart.
The referee brought both hands up, and then crossed them as he brought them down, hurrying out of the way.
Jack, fists raised and shoulders tight, found Hammond’s eager fists crashing against his side as if time had skipped. Little penetrating jabs pushed the skin and flesh at his ribs a little too hard. He’s fast. Then, out of nowhere, Jack felt his back nudging the soft foam of the corner.
In the silence of the ring, every blow both slammed and whistled as the air got pushed from the compacted layers of leather in each glove. Some of the challengers got cocky and wanted to make Jack lose by vocalization, even though nothing could make Jack scream in pain. Hammond lived up to his ring nickname, and skipped all pain, going straight for damage to the core body.
The damage to my middle will take out my legs and slow me down, and he’ll keep me trapped in here, Jack thought, guard up and still solid as blows rained against him. But I can outlast you for a round. Then I’ll recover and smash you in the next.
All of a sudden, there was a lull in the storm of fists, and Jack foolishly loosened his grip, prepared to assess the situation and possibly make his move. Instead, a sweeping, perfectly balanced high kick tore Hammond’s heel against Jack’s guard, sending both arms tumbling to the right. Jack ducked just in time before a balancing left straight could smash into his chin.
Though Jack disliked doing it, he took the chance while crouched to roll away, and quickly hopped to the center of the ring. The lasers were going wild all around them, like a hurricane swaying thousands of super-tall and super-thin glowing grass blades.
He can high kick? In this weight class? Jack charged and found a front kick holding his right arm folded in place, so he hooked the knee of that leg. The smack of the blow was the first good hit he’d landed. The judges heard it, but they heard Hammond’s kick as well, putting Hammond at two points versus Jack’s one. This was the worst start to one of Jack’s matches ever.
Hammond flew to the side, rotating around Jack, and then stopped with his knees lowered, peek-a-boo guard up and shoulders kept down. The lasers went so crazy that Jack felt immersed in a glowing green sea.
You dare mock me? Jack smiled and lowered his guard. I like you, kid. I think I’ll go through with it after all.
The spotlight on the ring flashed red and blue, and the referee jumped between then with his arms outstretched. Round one was already over, and it was one for the history books: the first time Jack had lost the first round of a match.
In round two, they met each other in the center and rotated, watching every faint movement, predicting actions a full second ahead of time. Hammond took initiative with another forward kick, but this time Jack moved inward in a dodge and delivered a loud, smashing kick to the back of Hammond’s stable calf—the classic kick for getting a sound point. Hammond rolled backward with the loss of stability and was soon on the ropes. Jack wouldn’t let him escape, matching every lean and duck with a hail of left jabs. His right straights wheezed against Hammond’s tight forearms, no longer held in mockery.
Everyone knew Jack’s strategy. He was the antithesis of scream fighting as a sport. Once his opponents exposed their neck, Jack would strike in just the right way. If it didn’t end at a knockout or doctor decision immediately, it left them choking and unable to scream. That was why all of Jack’s victories had been knockouts.
But Hammond stood up to the constant blows without loosening his guard or getting tired. He held up against the pressure even better than Jack.
Had to happen sometime, Jack thought. But I don’t care what you have over me. It won’t add up to enough!
With a quick step backward, Jack lifted his right leg and kicked outward. The massive blow, despite being blocked, was loud enough to count for a point, and bounced Hammond backward against the ropes and then closer toward Jack and the ring’s center, to the younger man’s shock. As he flew toward Jack, he had no time to block the kneeling, twisting uppercut Jack sent into his diaphragm.
“Uh…” Hammond released a pained choke, but not enough to warrant stoppage. The referee dove between them again and nearly got Jack’s knee to the nose.
Round three began, and Hammond was once again at full speed and form, showing no sign of decay. Realizing Jack’s durability, he seemed to change course, and go for a scoring victory. He went from an aggressive but simple in-fighter to a dancer, circling Jack and delivering side-kicks with a rotated heel at just the right times. The blows weren’t enough to hurt, but they smacked against Jack’s skin and racked up points quickly.
You son of a whore! Just fight me!
Then again, this historic battle was surely an unheard-of development in the sport, after over five years of Jack reigning undefeated, or really unchallenged.
Hammond was amazingly versatile with his talent. He switched strategies to throw Jack off, and was racking up points on the older, more-easily tired fighter after luring him into an exhausting battle for a knockout. Every hook was ducked and met with an impotent jab, every kick was met with an elbow that savaged Jack’s thigh muscles, making it harder to stand tall and keep up with his movements, and every guard was met with a lightning-quick rotation to smack-punch the liver.
Jack didn’t care that he was in pain, and he didn’t worry about his health. He worried about really losing. They had set him up with the best fighter yet, and he was mature enough not to deny… it could happen.
“You’ve got to lure him into a deathstroke,” Arnold said, squirting water into Jack’s mouth for him to spit into a bucket. “You’re way behind on points, Jack. Now’s not the time to get creative.”
“He’s too fast. But you’re right, I do have to lure him.”
At round four, Jack’s arms hung low, he snarled and did a jumping downward punch, but Hammond met it with a counter, slamming his full force along with the gravity of Jack’s jump all into the champion’s nose. Pressure washed through Jack’s eyes and face, colors sprang forth, and he turned to the side, gasping.
Hammond was rushing toward him with a more deliberate blow in mind. Even turned to the side, Jack knew the difference. He had taken the bait.
So now you want a true knockout?
Blindly, Jack wrenched his entire body back around in a barbaric right hook, the force almost sending Jack to the ground in a slip. The only thing that kept him up was his knuckles pounding clean into Hammond’s left temple and slipping past. Sweat flew off Hammond’s face. The pale man’s head bobbed all the way in the direction of the punch and back, and his face pouted. Those disoriented features were a full invitation to deliver the same punch again, from the left fist to his right temple.
Jack had to hold in a guttural roar as he treated Hammond’s head like a very slow speedball, clogging it again and again, shaking his brain in his skull. Unless he was deliberately moving his neck to diffuse some of the power.
Then something pierced Jack’s neck, jamming his Adam’s apple with almost enough force to tear the skin. He coughed and retreated out of instinct.
He hit my neck? Did he just use my own strategy?
Hammond was no longer looking lost or confused. He stood with one foot up, knee bent. It had all been an act, overselling the effect of Jack’s punches to set up an upward kick that jabbed his throat with his big toe. Jack found it harder to breathe, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to vocalize very well. Not that he would, but to imply that Hammond wanted to use his own strategy to prevent such a thing… Jack laughed silently as the crowd swung their pens with a berserk level of praise for both fighters.
Round four continued to be a point match, but after accepting Jack’s temple punches in a ruse, Hammond still had slowed down. They feinted at each other, matching classic move with classic counter over and over. The people watching, both there and across the world, soared at the sight of it.
Both men were so durable and persistent that neither could knock out the other, and yet both entered a haze. Round five just seemed to happen. Despite their titanium wills, their shaken brains and shocked nerves brought them into autopilot states. Both were not so much planning moves as exerting tens of calculations every second, a debate of limbs.
The referee jumped between them for a fifth time and was nearly crushed as both rushed for one last exchange. It was over. For the first time ever, one of Jack’s fights was going to a judge decision.
“That man is truly made for this,” Arnold said, squeezing Jack’s shoulders as he sat at his corner, panting. “He’s a machine.”
“Just goes to show,” Jack gasped. “There’s always someone better.” And indeed, he was better in pure statistics. But who had performed better on this night would be decided by three judges, tallying both the general level of dominance and the points from clean, loud strikes.
“Dear citizens,” the announcer said, reading the card with wide eyes. “I have the decision. In a unanimous scoring of 79 to 79 points, this match is deemed a draw, and the champion, Jack “The Silencer” of Chellerk House will keep the Super Heavyweight Title.”
Across the ring, Hammond swung a fist up and down in impotent disgust. Jack just lowered his chin and smiled. He got up, as he was, in a very technical fashion, the winner. The announcer offered the microphone and he took it.
“I would like to make an announcement,” Jack said. “I decided that after this fight, no matter the result, I would relinquish my belt and retire.”
For the first time, the crowd had trouble keeping its noise down. There were mumbles of disappointment, or of bitter relief and satisfaction. It was pointless to speculate which was the majority.
“I have earned quite a fortune with my career, and I intend to use it well. This isn’t goodbye. That’s all, and thank you to my fans. You’ll have more to see, I promise.”
“This… is unprecedented, dear citizens,” the announcer said as Jack made his way down the steps and to the fighter’s locker room. “By the rules of Flatson scream fighting, Hammond “The Hammer” of Garden Spring House will face his closest ranking competitor for the now-unclaimed Super Heavyweight belt!”
Didn’t mean to take the spotlight, kid, Jack thought as he walked under bleachers of people showering him in green dots. You can take it from here with my blessing.
“So, you really did it?” Helen asked, as Jack stepped out of the shower in nothing more than a short towel. He let the press try to hound his waiting room, while Arnold pretended he was in there. That way, the two of them could reunite in peace.
“Did you like the fight?”
“It was beyond description,” the business adviser said. “Although I think you should have lost.”
“I wasn’t sure you would go through with the retirement, really.” The woman was not as tall as Jack, but naturally big in a similar way to him. She was sturdy, and the thick locks of dark gold hair were like a lion’s mane, even though technically the females didn’t have manes.
Whatever, it’s cute.
“What do you mean? I signed your boss’s form, we’re officially working together. I was expecting at least for you to say, ‘I knew you could.’”
“Well, it’s just hard, imagining you good at anything other than beating other men to a pulp.”
“I want something more constructive in my later years. I want to create, and influence.” And I want Blackbird to not find a reason to fuck with me. If the birds are no longer profiting on my fights, so be it.
Jack sat down and sighed, patting the wooden fold-up chair next to him. Blushing, the fully-dressed woman sat next to Jack. She was not too far under his age, but there was no way to look at her and think “young lady.” She was the only true ‘woman’ of her age whom Jack knew personally.
“So, aside from watching me slug it out with Hammond, what did you do today?”
“I watched some amateur decibests up close in their pro certification tests. Took notes on a few promising ones to check on in the future. Anyone with talent, you can make money on if you’re creative.”
“I’m sure. Else you wouldn’t want to be my adviser.”
“Let me ask you something,” Helen said, crossing her legs. She wore long black silk stockings under a knee-length frilled cotton flapper dress. “Do you think we should have female scream fighters, and male decibests?”
Jack looked at her askance. “How would that even work?”
“They’d compete within their own genders. For instance, female scream fighters would fight each other. Have their own weight classes. Their own champions. It’s not nuclear physics, Jack.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Because they wouldn’t be the best.”
“Explain,” Helen said, crossing her arms.
“To me, this is about being the best. Let’s say I’m still fighting, and there’s a female division or what have you. And there happens to be a super heavyweight division, somehow, that’s equivalent to mine. Whoever the champion ends up being, she’s not the best scream fighter in the world. And worse, I’m not the best scream fighter in the world anymore, either. We add this clarification. Jack: the best male super heavyweight fighter, and Whoever: the best female super heavyweight fighter.”
“So that’s absurd. Sports should be about achievement, and superiority. I don’t care about decibism, but I’m glad that it exists. I’m glad there is something men can’t do. A male decibism division would be pointless. Women are more agile, and they have a natural soft touch. The best male decibest would never compare with the best female, and the best female scream fighter would never compare with the best male.”
“What if there really was someone who defied all expectations? What if there was a woman who could match you?”
“Then I’d welcome the challenge. Like I said, I’m only against the divisions. Let me see these fighter-women, and these bizarrely silent men. Let them defeat all others. That is how you discover the greatest things people are capable of.”
“In your own way, you can be really enlightening. I think I almost agree. While I still think gender division is a good idea, maybe they can be a soft division. A truly skilled man and woman should compete at the same thing, at the very least for the spectacle of it.”
Jack turned closer toward her. To Helen, his hairy chest made him look like a giant living boulder with grippable moss. “Now I have a question for you.”
“Let’s say I believe in my upcoming ventures so much that I believe I could be a candidate for Grand Mogul. And let’s say that once I become Grand Mogul, I could change things to be like what you said. I could change things however we wanted. Assuming all of that, would you be comfortable living a life with me?”
“You must be a little concussed after not winning a match,” she said with a laugh. Helen tried to grab Jack’s shoulder as support to stand up, but he held her hand in place.