Authors: John Peter Jones
John Peter Jones
Copyright (c) 2014 by John Peter Jones
Born to Fight
“The Animalis are your enemy,” the staff sergeant said with a growl. “It’s a challenging technical certification you’re applying for. Unpredictable, demanding, and dangerous. When you board a plane, you have to be ready for anything. Even when you’re outnumbered, you have to act like you’re in control.” The sergeant scowled with a look of skepticism at Jax.
Jax nodded; it wasn't like he could say anything comprehensible with his mouth-guard in anyway. Besides that, he was starting to feel sick and worried something might lurch out of his stomach if he opened his mouth.
“Clock starts now!” the staff sergeant bellowed and stepped back into the crowd of officers circling Jax and his opponent.
Jax swallowed down the fear and acid creeping up his throat and made a decision. This was his test, win or lose.
Adrenaline saturated Jax's brain and drowned out his awareness of the world around him. In front of Jax stood Gillian Skyles. They were almost the same size—being just under six-foot, about a hundred and seventy pounds—with only muscle mass setting the two apart: Gillian was ripped.
There was a hiss of fabric sliding against itself. Gillian moved in fast, pumping his thinly gloved fists in a blur of motion at the side of Jax’s body.
The crowd of officers and their assistants formed a wide circle around the two fighters. “Knock him out, Gillian!” one of them shouted.
Jax could barely hear it over the sound of his own breathing and the wet squeak of his shoes sliding through the damp grass.
Gillian’s fitness uniform made another textured swish as he feinted a punch. Jax angled away and blocked the next punch, but now Gillian was close. His protruding eyebrows drew a frightening shadow around his pale gray eyes and lean, angular cheeks. His lips formed a cynical smile, revealing his clear plastic mouth-guard. Before realizing what he was doing, Jax took a step backward.
Gillian’s well-trained fists punched hard into Jax’s chest and abdomen. It hurt, knocking the wind out of Jax, and he found himself regretting the decision he had made before the fight began.
Gillian brought his right elbow up, preparing to drop it down into Jax’s shoulder. Jax wrapped his arms around Gillian’s chest and continued to push his weight into him. In a quick jerk, Gillian stepped to the side and took control of Jax’s momentum.
Jax twisted without coordination. Again and again, Gillian hooked Jax in the ribs and abdomen with sharp, precise blows.
The fight was not starting out well. Gillian was in full control. Jax had taken a dozen hits and had only managed to get in one knee strike.
This is what you get for thinking you could handle this fight on your own
, Jax chided himself.
Gillian kept pulling at Jax, turning him around in a circle, and Jax caught a glimpse of Hank, his friend and fellow soldier. Hank held his hands tucked into the pockets of his retro leather coat and pushed his chin below the warm collar, trying to blend in with the crowd judging the fight.
It was Hank's secret plan that Jax had gone against. Before the fight, when the staff sergeant had reiterated the rules of the special aptitude test to the two fighters, Jax had silently pulled up a program menu. Three glowing orange options hung in the air for only Jax to see:
If he chose
the strands of invisible fighting suit—spread like the sticky tentacles of an octopus over his entire body—would spring to life and take control of his movements. Waiting at the other end of the connection—with his body sedated but his brain active and monitored—was a professional fighter. A fighter paid to win the fight without anyone but Jax and Hank knowing about him. Everything the pro fighter thought would have been transferred to Jax's body, giving him the moves and skill of a veteran.
Then Jax’s heart had quickened as his primal instincts had taken over. His stomach had twisted in anticipation of the split-second decision that triggered the menu. He trusted Hank, and wanted to pass the test and be placed under Hank's command, but with the available information, the plan was wrong. He’d chosen
keeping the fight in his own hands rather than those of the professional fighter. In that moment, Jax had exhaled, pushing the breath out of his lungs in a puff of steam.
Don’t hate me, Hank, but this fight is already lost if I can’t do it on my own.
Then Jax had looked into Gillian’s eyes and felt anxiety.
This wasn’t a video, or a video game, where Jax could sit and watch.
He had to react.
Now, back in the moment, Gillian struck Jax again in the side and clamped a hand down on his right wrist. Jax knew he had to get into a better position or else the fight was going to be short and disappointing. Boxing was Jax’s specialty, but this wasn’t a boxing match. They weren’t allowed to hit each other in the head with their thinly gloved hands. If he could pull Gillian to the ground, he might be able to take control of the fight with one of the few submission holds he knew.
Jax struggled out of Gillian’s grip and lunged at him. Gillian turned and struck Jax, sending him tumbling to the ground alone. The wet grass soaked into his clothes, bringing the icy chill of the night air to his skin.
Rolling to the side, Jax got his feet in position and kicked Gillian in the shin. His legs flew out from under him and he came tumbling down.
Gillian caught himself on his hands and knees.
“If I die, there will be none to protect it. Jax, save me!” someone shouted from behind.
Jax jerked his head in that direction. The voice had been close to him, blocking out all other noise. From the corner of his eye, he could see Gillian moving toward him again. His eyes grew blurry for a moment, then all he could see was black and white, swirling together, trapped behind bars. It was an image of a yin-and-yang. The voice echoed through his mind again. Layers of vulnerability, hope, and an essence of wisdom were woven together to make a voice unlike anything Jax had ever heard.
Jax twisted to look around. Faces of the small crowd, remote specks within his consciousness, continued to watch the fight. No one else had seemed to notice the shouting. Was Jax wrong? He could have sworn the voice had said his name. And what else had it said—“to protect it”?
Padded knuckles snapped Jax back to the immediacy of the fight with a powerful blow to the side of his head. He felt a sharp sting in his ear.
“Head!” Jax called out reflexively. Thoughts of the voice evaporated.
Gillian held off another punch while the staff sergeant spoke: “Continue the fight.”
Looking up from the ground, Jax slit his eyes at the staff sergeant. He was pretty sure his ear was bleeding. Couldn’t the sergeant see that?
Gillian pressed his knee into Jax’s solar plexus, right below the sternum, sending burning needles of pain through his body. Then he threw another punch right into Jax’s face.
“Aww … h-head,” Jax slurred. He pushed his hand against his face and felt the blood streaming out of his lip and into his mouth. The taste of the blood blended with the fragrance of northern Idaho’s pine and western hemlock trees floating in the crisp autumn air. He squeezed his eyes shut, blocking out the fuzzy human figures swirling around him. “Did … Is someone trying to talk to me?”
“You can do better than this, Minette,” the staff sergeant said. “Your real enemies are not playing by any rules.”
Gillian kept his knee pressed at the base of Jax’s sternum while they waited. Jax cracked his eyes open and tilted his head back to look at the people standing around the fight.
Gillian … He’s breaking the rules …
Jax thought through the fog of pain and the confusion about the voice. “This should be a clean fight,” the staff sergeant had said before the match began. “Don’t touch the head, groin, or individual fingers.”
Jax found Hank’s eyes and waited for a response from him.
Hank shrank backward, tucking his chin back into his collar. He looked at the men beside him and said nothing.
Of course, Hank had come up with a plan to avoid this mess: having Jax wear the intricate tentacles of the fighting suit and using the pro fighter to control his movements. Hank had known it wasn’t going to be a fair test anyway. If Jax had just gone along with it, put his faith in Hank, and told his naive sense of moral responsibility to back down for a second, the fight would probably be going smoothly, as Hank had predicted.
After a smirk and a feigned empathetic shrug from the staff sergeant, the fight went on. Gillian still had Jax pinned to the ground. More punches alternated between hitting Jax’s arms and his ribs. Jax could tell Gillian felt he had already won the fight; the punches were big and dramatic. Gillian knew that Jax couldn’t escape, so with just a few more punches, Jax was sure to tap out, right? It seemed to be what Gillian had in mind—but not Jax.
He bent his chest forward, coming up off the ground and closer to Gillian’s knee. Then, with a burst of strength, Jax twisted his hips and shoved Gillian’s knee off his stomach. Freedom! Jax whipped his legs around Gillian’s waist, then arched backward and pushed his head out of Gillian’s reach. His feet locked together, creating an unbreakable seal just below Gillian’s ribs.
Finally, Jax took a moment to catch his breath and let his vision settle. So much adrenaline pumped through his brain that he could hardly tell what had happened in the last minute.
A reluctant smile emerged on Gillian’s face.
He knows I’ve outplayed him
, Jax thought,
for at least one moment of the fight
. The smile faded and Gillian brought his elbow high into the air. With a sickening smack, the sharp point of the elbow came crashing down into Jax’s groin. Jax hadn’t even thought to protect that area—it was so far below the line dividing the acceptable from the unacceptable in a fight—but just before the blinding flash of pain, he realized his horrible mistake.
Pain. Pain. Pain.
It was all Jax was aware of. Pain in his groin, pain in his legs, pain up his back and slicing through his stomach. Everything was pain for the first three seconds, then Jax realized his eyes were still open, mindlessly staring at Gillian and the crowd beyond. Somehow his legs had managed to stay locked around his opponent’s waist.
Gasps, chuckles, and jeers came from the small audience. “Do it again!” someone called out.
The pain felt unbearable. Jax’s head rolled backward with the agony of it, but before he squeezed his eyes shut to force out the pain, he caught a glimpse of the confused horror filling Hank’s face.
, Jax tried to tell himself.
It’ll have time to heal later
. He wasn’t sure, but just thinking it helped bring his focus back to winning. He fought past his body’s urge to curl up and pulled himself back off the ground into a seated position. Every movement dug the pain in deeper, but he kept going. His hands reached out to grab hold of Gillian’s head. At first, Gillian misunderstood the gesture, joking that Jax was reaching to him for help. Jax, though, used Gillian’s confusion to swing his right leg over the shoulder and tuck it in next to Gillian’s neck. Now Jax had his legs locked together again, with Gillian’s right arm and head trapped between them. The smile didn’t come back onto Gillian’s face.
Using Gillian’s own bulging bicep against his neck, Jax would cut off the blood being pumped to his brain until Gillian passed out or tapped out. If Jax could just put enough force into the squeeze without succumbing to his own pain.
A distant part of Jax’s mind could feel the twisting and shaking of Gillian trying to pull himself free. Jax held on, and kept holding on, but with each passing moment, it became clear that he didn’t have the strength left to finish the choke. The struggling slowed, and the two fighters waited for the end of the fight to be called.
“Time!” Through the tiny funnel that still connected Jax to the world, the voice of the staff sergeant signaled the end of the fight. “Good fight, gentlemen.”
Jax flopped back onto the grass and finally let the pain curl his body into a ball. He couldn’t hear what else was going on around him; the pain drowned out everything but his subconscious mind and the memory it dredged up.
“You expect to get anywhere in life if you let that jammed toe stop you now?” his father had scolded him.
Jax could see the memory more clearly as it pulled his attention away from his current pain. His father’s robotic arm had knocked a basketball out of Jax’s small hand and he started dribbling it down the indoor court. “I guess I’ve already won.” His father shot the ball from the three-point line. The sound of the ball sliding easily through the net echoed around the room he remembered from his childhood.
Jax had just sat there with his leg tucked against his chest, his hands squeezing the tip of his split-toe shoe, terrified to let go. His pinky toe had been knocked into a ninety-degree angle from the rest of his toes. The tears in his eyes flooded his vision, threatening to spill over and run down his eight-year-old cheeks. Seeing his father make the shot, though, turned Jax’s fear into rage, and he stood up abruptly. His father had just retrieved the ball, and at the sound of young Jax rising, he now waited in silence. Everything in Jax’s watery view seemed a blurry blob. He could have opened his eyes farther and let the tears drain away, but the distortion formed a shield of protection, and all he wanted in that moment was to be protected. His teeth clenched and he ran to the door of the rec room.
I’m not going to let it stop me!
he shouted in his mind, but he was not going to stay another second with his fiber-optic stand-in of a father.