Don’t kill this one, Screft thinks as his opponent staggers backwards into the centre of the ring, right under the spotlight. No more killing. You promised yourself.
This can’t end up with Tyrone Fitch simply toppling over though. The human with skin as black as his temper has about ten seconds left on his feet if he’s lucky. Most humans wouldn’t be standing after the display Screft just unleashed on Fitch’s torso, but Fitch has been here before. After this, Screft thinks, he probably won’t be again if he lives. That’s what I owe this crowd, and myself. Indisputable victory. And I owe Fitch his life. Dead opponents are no fun in a re-match.
Screft knows Fitch’s fighting from weeks of watching. On the brink of defeat, Fitch’s willpower always buys him a little more time. He waits for his opponent to move in for the finish and then strikes first. The teetering balance is often an act, but not this time. Fitch is coughing blood onto the arena floor and clutching his stomach, bending over double. His right knee buckles and he lifts his foot off the floor, all weight now on his left leg.
The crowd roars for the finish. Screft darts into the centre and jumps, throwing a right hand punch diagonally down into Fitch’s face. As Fitch staggers back onto the ropes, Screft throws his weight forward and uppercuts into Fitch’s jaw with his left fist, whiplashing the human’s neck back. Screft drops down, grabs Fitch’s legs and is about to up-end him out of the arena when the referee intervenes. Screft drops Fitch’s legs as the referee pushes him back. Fitch crumples to the matted floor, and Screft knows he’s gone too far again.
Or perhaps not. Fitch’s body twitches. One hands raises up slightly, then reaches for the ceiling, then the other one as well. Then Fitch scrabbles, his mouth trying to speak but no words possible above the roaring crowd who are now chanting for the countdown.
A medical team rush in before the referee can give it. Instead, he takes Screft’s arm and holds it up, and now the crowd are chanting his name instead.
Poor simple crowd, Screft thinks as the medics load his now unconscious victim onto a hover board. They only see what they want to: a one in a million victory, from a kid who barely looks old enough to buy a legal drink, let alone sign for his life. They don’t see an unlicensed Kendrii in his favourite form. They don’t even miss the scam because my act is convincing; they miss it because it’s easier to pretend Kendrii simply aren’t an underground part of the paradise that is Sentago.
All those posters with Screft’s kind on that say ‘Keep Your City Safe – Report Invasives’ ought to say ‘Keep Yourself Safe – Hire a Kendrii’ instead.
This is human pain on display here, Screft tells himself as the spotlight dazzles him and his brain vibrates with the crowds’ explosive cheers.
Breathe like a human, whose body is one stage short of collapse. Don’t just breathe, pant. These human lungs are virtually refusing that sweet air and your willpower is overriding them. Use the broken ribs. Feel them crack with every breath. Bleed a little more for good measure. The broken nose and then the missing teeth are useful. Make them gush. Spit into your hand wipe it down your chest, for lack of clothing besides the tight shorts. Getting the soft part of your inside leg stamped on just above both knees would have knocked most humans out completely, so limp a lot, because it really did hurt. Too much softness under this fake human skin, too authentic, too sympathetic to a human’s true form.
Just like you feared. Just like you wanted.
You are a young human male. Twenty-one Carnathian years. Late leaving the nest, had a few problems, but now you’re flying. Sentago University. Get laid for the first real time, no more simulations. Work a nice clean job in a library or a cocktail bar to pay your way, look good in designer clothes that go with your brown hair and blue eyes. Keep yourself in good shape too. Avoid toxing up. Take up a martial art. Learn to fight. Defy your family’s expectations of their sweet, good natured boy. Then get yourself in the ring and sign for your life. Make some money. Maybe graduating won’t matter that much when you’re already rich.
Except Bobby Galbraith was never that boy, Screft thinks, with the lights reducing his vision to a blur. When you stole him, you stole a spoilt rich brat whose life was only ever going to end up in one place: rehab. You owning his identity and the body that looks like his was the kind of second chance most rehab patients don’t get.
This was a crazy idea in the first place, Screft thinks. It was just meant to be a way of making money. Now it carries the risk of sensation. Sensational Kendrii always get themselves caught.
Not so crazy when it’s me running the scam though. Because I’m Screft Galbraith. I even changed Bobby’s name officially. Fresh start for both of us.
Tonight’s referee is Corfeng, who owns the arena. Special appearance, for the fight that was supposed to qualify Fitch for the professional league. Screft was never supposed to win. That means the house does, because everyone bet on Fitch, so Corfeng is more than happy to hold Screft’s arm up. He’s even happy enough to let Screft clasp onto his shoulder to keep balanced, or at least Screft hopes he is.
Anyone who believes Kendrii can’t feel pain, Screft thinks, would get a good lesson in how shape shifting doesn’t solve all life’s problems if they possessed my body right now.
It’s going to take days to get over what he let Fitch do to him and regenerate, even if he shifts back to true form. Then he gets the flash of a fighting coach back home on Nastrophen telling him how no true Kendrii would let themselves be punished without a fight, and smiles.
No true Kendrii ever shifted back to true form even under the pressure of intense pain either, he thinks. They told me that once too, once they saw how good my human was. The last Kendrii to try a fight scam in this place got caught because his wasn’t good enough. That’s not happening to me. Not tonight.
As Corfeng leads him back into his corner for the medical team to inspect, Screft concentrates his regeneration ability into his face and brings his bleeding under control, dampening the pain in the sockets where several of his teeth used to be. The medic shining the torch in his eyes needs to see them dance with the pleasure of victory, so Screft glistens them up a little. Just like the school back on Nastrophen once told him: when you shift form, people can’t just see you as something different, they have to believe it. Convince a doctor and you can convince anyone.
Screft realises his pulse is a little too rapid and drops it as the medic holds his wrist. For a moment, he catches something in her face, but she looks away from him, not even timing his pulse to her watch.
‘You work in the library, don’t you?’ she says, releasing his wrist and touching his chin with a tentativeness more reserved for a dead body than a live one. ‘Open up, let’s take a look.’
It was risky using his day job form to fight, but Screft is glad that someone’s recognised him. Hopefully some of these punters secretly like a good physical book, or perhaps they just read old books about fighting to compare them to Pocketsphere and neural bionet data. Let them talk. Let the librarians hear wild rumours about the Galbraith boy that couldn’t possibly be true.
Screft’s already worked this form out at the local gyms and the wrestling clubs. A little taste of back home; a way to make some human friends who’ll vouch for how he’s at least a competent fighter. Now they’ll know what he can do under the rush of a real fight, once the news starts to spread.
‘Bite down on this.’ The medic places a swab inside his mouth. ‘I hope you have a good dental plan.’
Screft smiles and thinks: I have the best; it’s called being a Kendrii. Re-gen in a few days. Hours if you have a re-gen chamber. The trouble is they cost too much, and as soon as you buy one, people know what you are. Fine if you’re a government ambassador, you’re licensed, and the Interplanetary Guard know you’re on this planet. Not so fine if you’re me. Plus people notice missing teeth. Then they notice when they’re no longer missing.
Then again, I’m Screft Galbraith. My dental plan, and every other kind of plan I need, is called being a senator’s damaged angel.
He looks over at the bar to see exactly what he was hoping for: his friend Colwyn receiving twenty thirty thousand credits in bet payout. Six to one odds on Screft to win. Screft’s five thousand as the bet, with Colwyn taking a cut of five for placing the bet and not asking where a kid who works in a library got that sort of playtime money.
The medic looks as though she might either give him a hug or call the authorities to report suspected exploitation. ‘Screft, do your family know you do this?’
Inevitable, Screft thinks. ‘They will soon enough. Better this than me being back in rehab. You’re not going to judge, are you?’
‘It’s not my job to judge,’ she says. ‘I’d just rather not see you end up like the last person I attended here. You know what happened to him?’
Yes, Screft thinks, I killed him. Weeks on end I spent perfecting the form I did it with, and now I can’t use it anymore because a bunch of gangsters are hunting it down, for putting their latest human cash machine on ice. A punch to the sternum with hammer-drill force behind it is always fatal to humans. Funny how you forget anatomy class when you’re laying into a real person.
‘You only die in there if you can’t fight,’ Screft says, deciding it’s time to get to his feet, shake his limbs and walk around for a bit. He punches the air a little while replaying the fight to himself.
‘How did you get that good so quickly?’
This one’s sharper than the entire crowd in this place combined, Screft thinks. Doctors. Never trust them. ‘Always did like fighting. Family never wanted anyone to know. Sorry Mum and Dad. Guess I just came out.’
Corfeng comes up. ‘Nice one kid; they just said Fitch isn’t gonna wake up this side of the next ice age. You might as well have blown his brains clean out of his head.’ To the medic: ‘You done with him yet? He alive enough for us to have a sit down? Thanks, same time again next week.’
Screft sits down and stretches his legs out, exaggerating the muscle cramps as re-gen dulls them down. ‘He’s in PVS already?’
‘Don’t let it fuck with your head, senator,’ Corfeng says, putting a sneer on the title Screft it supposed to fall into one day. ‘What I tell you last week? You sign for your life here, you better mean it. Tyrone Fitch, he meant it. Shit happens. Bet he never saw it coming from you though. That your first vegetable?’
Screft nods his head. Humans, he thinks, surely developed this gesture as a way of lying.
‘You just don’t sweat about it. Fitch was shit on Sentago’s shoe anyway; he wouldn’t have cared if they were carrying that college boy face of yours out of here in bin bag. You see that guy last week? Fitch was only sorry it wasn’t his own handiwork.’ Corfeng pulls over the stool from Fitch’s corner and sits down. ‘He knocked you down, that was a chance he gave you to stay there. You blew it. He’d’ve put you right where he is now the second time. Same thing he did to half the other kids who come here from Slim’s Gym thinking they were hot shit.’
Corfeng is an engaging human being, Screft thinks. Full of the hand-waving zing that a good compare or talk show host always uses, except it takes blood to bring this out in him.
‘I’ve had a couple like you before,’ Corfeng says. ‘I thought they were the real deal too. So you get the same offer they did. You come into my office, we fix you up another fight. You show up for that fight and that’s you saying you’re everything I’m looking at right now. So you’d better be. Last two I had this conversation with didn’t show for that second fight. That’s the deal: you don’t show and I don’t ask any more questions; you do show and you make a promise that I don’t need to. You got brains that think as well as those light little feet just danced out there? Get what the deal is?’
‘Yeah I get it,’ Screft says.
‘Good,’ Corfeng says. ‘Because I don’t like telling anyone the story of what happened the last time somebody broke that promise. I’ve been running this place for thirty years. Wouldn’t want to get shut down because of people who break promises. It’d piss me off a little bit.’
I promise you that there are plenty of Kendrii who would happily kill you for fun, Screft thinks as he makes for the changing room. If my brother ever does show up in this city for real and hears about you, you’re lunch.
‘Get yourself decent and meet me upstairs,’ Corfeng says.
Perno would make it last hours, Screft thinks. Even after you told him what happened to Torix. Quite an achievement, making a Kendrii disappear, and still the authorities are searching for a missing human. They even used the picture from the fight poster on the ‘Missing’ one. Probably quite some connections it takes to arrange something like that so covertly. Torix was an embarrassment to the Kendrii underground, and that’s the one thing that’s kept you alive to run this place. Perno wouldn’t care about the underground though. He probably wouldn’t even have liked Torix much. He’d just want to see how long you could hold out before confessing. That would just be the icebreaker. You’d still be alive and watching while he put a serving of some soft part of you on his plate.
Not me though. You’re no use to me as a gourmet snack. You wouldn’t be able to hold my hand up in the ring after victories then.
‘Senator Galbraith’s little brat,’ Corfeng says. ‘I love that. This is going to be big. You’d better know what you’re playing at. What did you do with his corpse?’
Screft shrugs. ‘What corpse?’
Corfeng leans in close, and his speaking voice is a whisper behind the crowd, who are now high on cashing their bets. ‘If you need a regen tank I can get you access. Just ask.’
Screft shrugs. ‘Why would I need that?’ Time for the locker room, before he denies the scam so much he only ends up exposing it.