Saturday, May 31, 2008

Chapter seventeen: I felt like ice was thickening in my veins

Previous Chapter

It was in the third week of my slow infiltration of Carnival cluster that the megastorm hit. It was at the south pole of Venus, and Lewis had been right, the live footage of it was impressive. All the news channels were full of the thunder and lightning it and people followed the storm's course as if it were a war. There weren't many casualties; people had learned the lessons of how to ride out the fury from previous experience.

With the news of the storm, there began a mass migration of bloon fishermen from the northern to the southern hemisphere, because the dust stirred up by a megastorm causes a huge upsurge in the bloon populations in the storm's aftermath.

The storms effects were felt even at the equator; the overturning of the atmosphere at the south pole generated planetary waves that rippled along the natural stratifications in the Venusian atmosphere. The City and the Circle around Venus started a slow undulation that the control systems of the City worked hard to dampen. They were largely successful, and a good thing, too. Uncontrolled oscillations of that magnitude could rip the seams of the City apart.

In Darkunder, the altitude controls for the clusters are inferior to those of the City and the Circle. Small clusters are less at risk; they don't flex to waves that are longer that the cluster size. They do bob in the air currents, however, and the storm brought a mild sense of unaccustomed movement to the land of shadow.

I watched the storm for a few hours in the afternoon, then headed over to Carnival. I took a taxi, letting someone else drive for a change. It was light night; I wasn't sure how long I'd be away from my hotel and I didn't want to tie up one of Fumio's transport bloons for so long a time.

When we arrived at Carnival, I noticed that it had grown since the day before. Many of the traveling shows were returning for the duration of the storm, to make preparations before heading south to entertain the fishermen during the great bloon harvest that was in the forecast. Another shuffle of the cards, I guess; another Carnival hand to play.

I paid the driver and sent him on his way. Then I headed toward theater row.

There are five main theaters in Carnival, performance spaces large enough to hold as many as five hundred people at a time, though it would overload the cluster if all were to be filled at once. One of the theaters, called The Labyrinth, has been cut up into a multitude of smaller spaces, public, semi-private, and private. The Labyrinth specializes in sex, a venue for voyeurs and exhibitionists, people meeting people that they don't particularly want to ever see again, but who they want to see for a night. It's not a very good market for prostitutes, except as stage acts; The Labyrinth specialized in amateur talent. It also seemed like a good place to track certain types of disease vectors, and I'd been keeping my eye on it for a while, with no success. I had, however, checked its history well enough to have found a couple of outbreaks of hepatitis G in which it had been implicated. People never learn.

Three of the other four theaters in Carnival were general performance spaces that swung from light opera to Shakespeare to power quintets. The remaining theater was called The Arena.

The Arena was another specialized venue; it specialized in fights. Mostly this was human combat, but I saw one cockfight staged during my time there. Beyond that there was boxing, judo, full contact karate, kendo, fencing, you name it. As long as it involved a winner and a loser, The Arena liked to put it on the stage, especially if there was the possibility of blood involved. It was this aspect of it that interested me.

I'd been to The Arena three times in the three weeks I'd been investigating, and I hadn't seen the entire repertoire of the place yet. That night, there were two scheduled competitions, Olympic-style gloved boxing, and a relatively new thing called "slasher." I hadn't seen a slasher fight yet, but from its description, it was something I needed to check out.

The larger clubs and theaters are near the midway of Carnival, where the air is a swirl of light and shadow, and there is always a babble of a crowd. I trailed a parade when I arrived, a procession of costumed dancers following a drum line toward who knows what destination. The costumes seemed to have an animal theme, with wolves and tigers in the majority. People seldom dress as sheep or cattle; they prefer to fantasize about freedom and power.

I was maybe a hundred meters from the Arena when I heard a woman's voice from behind me. "Hello, Ed," someone said, and I turned around.

It was Cheryl Chiba, Calvin Lee's former girlfriend. She was with two other people, one male, one female, both about her age. All three were wearing masks, but they were for show only, black eyemasks that covered little more than eyeglasses would. Black was the central theme of the trio, in fact. Cheryl wore a striped black leatherette body suit that had a peacock sheen to it, barely visible in the shifting lights of the Carnival corridors. The stripes were dark gray on the black, and the whole things would have been unisex, except that the body that it enclosed was so obviously female. Wrapped around her at various places, as jewelry, were strands of metal, twisted together like barbed wire. Her belt band and bracelets were both fully spiked; the belt had several strands of chain dangling from it. The overall effect was an apparently deliberate traipse along the boundary between bondage and outright sado-masochism, a sexuality-in-your-face sort of outfit, with all the equipment fully tuned.

Cheryl's companions were similarly dressed, though the effect was less pronounced. They looked like xerx plant copies, following along after the original.

"Hello, Cheryl," I said, turning. "What brings you to these parts?"

She let a smile break though the intense blasé expression that young people have always worn as an attempt to appear worldly. She held out a hand to me, and I touched it briefly in greeting, wondering just how much damage a full embrace from her barbed outfit could do to a man.

"We're here for slash night at the Arena," she said. "This is John and Joan, not their real names, but an accurate simulation." Her eyes glittered behind the mask, and her voice was slightly revved, like someone with a stimulant buzz on. Her companions seemed to vibrate slightly; they didn't have the sort of muscle control that Cheryl had, and their movements were vaguely spastic. Cheryl's had a more controlled, whiplike character to them. I wondered just what mix they were on.

"Nice to meet you," I told the two of them, and offered a handshake to each of them. The girl giggled when I touched her.

"So are you headed for the fights?" Cheryl asked me. "I hear that Caine is fighting tonight."

"I'm going to The Arena, yes," I told them, as the four of us began to walk again. "I don't know any individual fighter's name; I only got interested a few weeks ago."

"Why the sudden interest," she asked. "Are you thinking of taking up a hobby?"

I shrugged. "No particular reason," I told her. "Just curious."

"Is this the guy you told us about?" said John. "It is, isn't it? The cop-oid who does the jump kicks and who did the sky dive that time?" Cheryl made a face at him.

"Jeez, John, you can be such a pleege. Why don't you just ask him his dick size while you're at it?" Then she said to me. "Sorry if I blabbed," she told me.

I shrugged again. "No matter," I said. "These stories grow with each retelling." I paused. "Rather like my dick size, in fact." Both John and Joan giggled.

Then we reached the Arena, paid our tickets and went inside.


The Arena can hold maybe four hundred people without crowding, but it was crowded that night, and the four of us had to push our way through the crush of people at the door. We'd gotten seats near the front, but there were a lot of people milling around in the standing room section behind the seats. There was an edge to the spectators. Violence as a spectator sport can do that. The main ring was an elevated platform at the center of the space, surrounded by wire mesh. From the looks of the crowd, I could see why the fighters might feel safer that way.

One guy tried to block our path as we neared the seats; I couldn't tell if he was just harassing the rich folk, or if it was meant as some sort of challenge to me. I sometimes get that, most often in a certain kind of bar, and it has always baffled me why the challengers are so often guys who can't fight worth a damn. That looked to be the case with this one, certainly.

The guy was more intelligent than some, though, or maybe my cheery smile, and "Excuse me," confused him. Anyway, the four of us slid by him without a protest. The aisle wasn't quite narrow enough to block without effort, and I don't think this guy wanted to expend much effort. Or maybe he didn't want to miss the fight.

We'd arrived between rounds of a gloved boxing match. Olympic-style boxing has lasted for centuries; it found a good match between style and bloodshed, and it has served as a crowd pleaser ever since. I've tangled with a few boxers from time to time, and they are not my favorite sport. They're tough and they know how to take and inflict pain.

Every martial art has to solve an important conundrum, which is, how do you make it real? You can do kata until your body is hard and tuned, but you still don't know how you will react in a real fight, when there is something at stake other than a raised eyebrow from the sensei.

So the fighting arts tend to divide into two categories: those that test, and those that hold competitions. Each has its drawbacks. Those that give tests can only hope that the fear of failure somehow approximates the fear of death or mayhem that comes when someone is really trying to do you harm. That it works at all gives some indication of the relative importance that we give our egos and our bodies.

Competition, even full contact competition, brings a more subtle problem. No martial art will last long if it kills its students with any regularity. But that means that the strongest techniques -- those that can kill -- must somehow be blunted. I have seen powerful and well-trained men lose an encounter because their training included too much of pulled punches, and proscribed strikes. They simply didn't get reality through to their reflexes.

The introduction of gloves into boxing (the old word was "fisticuffs" because all the hitting is done with the fists) produced another paradox. The gloves are to protect the hands; bare-knuckled fighters break their hands too often, and that shortened careers and lost students. Also, the gloves, because of the way that they cushioned the blow, actually improve the momentum transfer between a thrown punch and the body or head of the target. The paradox then, was that hand protection translated into increased risk to the head and its contents. Knockouts became far more common after the introduction of the gloves allowed a punch to bounce a man's brains back and forth inside his skull, rather than expending its energy in breaking bones. And with the knockouts came a greater risk of brain damage, and occasionally, of death.

So, although Olympic-style boxing has no truck with killing blows like elbow strikes, or choke holds, or neck breakers, it carries a significant risk to the boxer. It makes the combat real with the oldest of tricks, reality.

The reality that night was of a crowd in the opening throes of blood lust. We'd arrived just before the beginning of the fourth round, in what was billed as a twelve round fight. My first impression was that it would to go the distance. Both men were near-heavyweights, each massing easily above ninety-five kilos. There the similarity ended, however. One fighter was a short, squat, bull of a man, with a pneumotube body and a glaring expression. The other was taller, and seemingly quicker on his feet. He seemed to glide over the floor, his feet never leaving the springy surface of the cage the two of them inhabited. He was always just outside of the little one's reach, firing off short jabs that missed three-to-one and did seemingly little damage when they landed, but enough to score points with the judges and the crowd, and enough to infuriate his smaller foe.

I glanced over at my companions. They had slid into our seats before me; I'd chosen to stay in an aisle seat, Cheryl to my immediate left. Ordinary sound was drowned in the ambient noise and frequent shouts from the crowd, but occasionally, I'd hear a rasp of breath intake from one of the three. Often enough, one of them would shout encouragement to one of the fighters, adding to the surrounding din. I couldn't see her two companions, but Cheryl's brow had developed a sheen of sweat that matched the speedy glitter in her eyes.

Another roar from the crowd brought my attention back to the front. The small one had landed a vicious body strike to the abdomen of the tall one, and the tall one reached out to grab his small opponent behind the head, pulling him into a clinch. There were scattered catcalls as the referee moved in to separate them.

As the seconds passed, I began to wonder at my original judgment. The short one, for all his seeming sluggishness, was slowly modifying his style to take into account the quickness of his longer reached opponent. He already knew enough to roll away from the jabs; now he was beginning to roll forward when he wanted to attack.

The round ended, and the two men went back to their corners, and their handlers appeared through trap doors in the platform floor. The short one was bleeding through multiple cuts to his face and one fairly bloody one to his scalp. He grimaced as the styptic salve was applied to it, but was otherwise occupied in rapid conversation with his trainer. The tall one was unmarked, but he was also talking to his trainer, and he seemed a little worried.

The handlers vanished to where they had come from, and the fifth round began. The short one charged at the tall one, and just as he entered the dangerous range of his opponent's reach, his hips began an almost imperceptible rotation. The jab that was meant to stop him bounced off of his suddenly turning head, like someone punching through a swinging door. And like a swinging door, the short one's body cocked back and came at the taller opponent with a snap.

The tall one managed to get his other hand between himself and the roundhouse right that came at him, so it was primarily his own glove that jolted him. It was enough to interfere with his timing, and when he tried to pull a clinch with his free right hand, the short one ducked under it and landed a short but powerful blow to his short ribs.

The tall one should have gone down, then, to recover his breath. But he didn't and remaining erect was costly. The short one loosed a series of blows that broke through his opponent's guard and pushed him back to the padded wire mesh of the cage. I saw the tall one's legs quiver, like he was now trying to descend to the sanctuary of the floor, but he was pinned.

The crowd had leapt to its feet, and the sound of it was enough to feel as a physical thing. The referee was trying to get between the two fighters, but the small one was just pounding away at the taller man, feet set, like he was working a heavy bag. Finally, the referee grabbed his arm, the short one stepped back, and the tall man slid to the floor. Even then he wasn't limp; he kept trying to sit up, his eyes curling backwards into his head, but his body trying to continue its schedule, trying to get up and keep fighting.

The referee declared the short one the winner, and the trapdoors erupted with each fighter's handlers coming from below. The short boxer did a little victory dance while the taller man was lead off the platform, then the referee repeated the victory announcement, and everyone deserted the stage.

Then the lights came up, and a voice said, "Ladies and gentlemen, there will be a twenty minute intermission. Drinks are available at the rear, and from the roving vendors. If you leave the building and wish to be readmitted, please get your hand stamped before you leave."

"All right!" exclaimed John, who was sitting farthest from me. "And that was just the warm up act." He leaned over and kissed Joan full on the lips. She reached up to stroke his hip.

"Now, now, children," Cheryl said. "This isn't The Labyrinth, or even The Cave. Save it for later." Then she looked over at me and said, "Pretty plasmoid, eh? Maybe even coronesque?" A bead of sweat ran down her forehead and onto her cheek. I felt the cool air descend from the blowers high above us.

"Surface of the sun," I told her, but I felt like ice was thickening in my veins.

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