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art by Wi Waffles

On The Big-fisted Circuit

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com, as well as several appearances in Daily Science Fiction. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and information about her popular online writing classes, see kittywumpus.net.

Jane counted them again to make sure: twelve.
Twelve signatures on the back panel, most jerky with haste, a couple deliberate and firm, one with a little flower above the i, for god's sake. The pen in her hand ready to add the thirteenth.
How blatant were they going to be?
This was the biggest suit she'd ever crawled into. It meant money, money dripping through the wires around her, money in the gleaming metal struts, money being made by every step it took, money her family needed, every step a week's rent and food if they were careful with it.
She'd never hit a thirteenth signature before. Most rigs, even the monster ones like this, got destroyed long before a thirteenth fight. It wasn't just the bad luck, it was dealing with machinery that had been damaged and repaired, damaged and repaired, until you didn't know what was original body and what was filler.
The sound of the crowd filtered into the suit. Most were screaming, "Coke! Coke! Coke!" as though they meant blood instead, shouts thrumming through the five railroad cars' worth of metal surrounding her.
Everyone knew what happened in a rig's thirteenth fight. Sure, not every time, if a fighter had enough mojo to overcome the bad luck. But who needed to ride odds like that in a fight? Plenty to think about then without having to listen for the black cat's squawl.
Unless you'd already closed your ears to the sound, choosing to listen to cash's siren song.
"Everything okay?" Herk poked his head into the interior, but came no further. Day of a fight, the suit's wearer didn't really want anyone else in the control cavity, the suit's heart, even with the struts retracted so there was enough room for a couple of people to wiggle around.
"It's a thirteenth," she said.
Her mechanic paused. The red and green and blue of the interior lights played over Herkimer Smith's face, scarred with sparks and the blow that had ended his own career. Jane had figured Herk wanted her to succeed, but it couldn't feel all that fine, seeing someone brushing past you on the path you'd figured you'd be treading.
And that blow had come while wearing a suit in its thirteenth battle, fighting for a breakfast cereal they didn't make anymore.
"You want out?" Herk finally said.
"Not an option," Jane said, her voice as flat as a past-due bill's red font.
"Then what do you want to do?"
"Can't do nothing about it," Jane said. "I was just recounting the reason for the delay. Go and check the ankles, Herk. They always pick up the most wear."
Herk hesitated. "We make our own luck," he said. "Ya know?"
Who was Herk to talk about such things? The biggest piece of bad luck possible had written itself across his face.
Jane shrugged. "Yeah," she said.
She put the pen away as Herk's head retreated back to the cooler, sweeter air outside. She'd sign it after the fight, if she could.
Checklist in her head as she strapped herself into the haptic skeleton, gleaming bones lying along her flesh like an eager companion spooning her. She ran through the servos: right thumb, ring finger, index, third, littlest finger, then the hand itself. Bend, flex, check the lights, one by one. Just like one of the smaller suits, even if each finger was now wide around as her waist. Herk was fussing with the right ankle still, but gave her a go ahead on it.
Money all around her, but it hadn't kept things in repair. You could tell how new a rig was by the little details in the chest space: how many scuffs clouded the metal, whether the brace around a camera was spikey with frayed wires, rips on the fake-leather of the upholstery. Interior wear visible only to the wearer and therefore allowed to accumulate because what the audience couldn't see didn't really exist. This one was the pits, no matter how cherry red and white the exterior might be.
Servo check 1-10, 11-20, 21-30... 115 altogether, and you couldn't afford not to test every one yourself, no matter how the automated tests glowed. Sometimes people resorted to sabotage. Rumor said Herk hadn't been above it himself, which was one reason Jane had hired him in the first place. Herk knew what to look for.
She thumbed the control and the struts folded out from the sides, filling the space with the intricate bracing that would allow the huge metal suit to take a blow from its fellow without crushing the tiny occupant. The sound system began to blare.
Herk knew the machinery the way she did. He'd been the same mix of athlete and script-kiddie, a fiddler and fixer with razor-sharp reflexes, honed to video-game quickness. Plenty of them out there, all trying for the big fight, the spectacle, the one whose video clips would be viewed over and over again, generating revenue and side profit, the kind that could lift a family out of poverty, out of subsistence level.
No more knowing you were just a scrounge away from starving, a medical accident from sleeping in the streets. No more teeth-grinding frustration, constant aching worry about rent and power and food and let's not even think how you're going to add in transportation and clothing, days when you patched your shoes with cardboard and duct tape, because a new pair was a financial hit you wanted to put off as long as you could. No more stealing soap and toilet paper from lavatories, loving free samples, taking extra food whenever you could in order to wrap it in a napkin for later.
No more dumpster diving and defiantly wearing the discards, blazoned with orange spray paint, to school the next day, a big "fuck you" to the monied who'd rather spend time making their discards unwearable than give them to the poor.
Now that she'd been fighting, now that she'd edged them past the boundary of poverty, they ate all right. They could pay basic tuition and heating bills and buy those shoes.
She still scraped the household bills to the bone, flensed them in the name of putting away for the unanticipated eventuality, the kind that was always coming like jabs to the gut. Punches that could cripple if you didn't have money to cushion the blow. She hovered above the line of disaster, knowing sooner or later they'd fall down.
That was all she wanted, a safety net for her family. What she worked for. That was the right thing to do. You do the right thing, day by bay, carve out a life however you can, even if you had to climb into a mecha and face death each week to do it.
Determination tightened her jaw like a screwdriver. The IV slid into her wrist, beginning a slow seep of speed and euphorics meant to carry her through the fight.
Fancy drugs and fancy equipment, no matter how run down it might be. Like the screen displaying the social networks, ticking off the number of thumbs up people clicked on, showing they were rooting for Coke, rather than the competition. Though the competition would be raking in its own: some people liked to support the underdog.
A feed like this, with a keyboard for her own observations, contracted for 5-10 before the fight and another 5-10 if she won. That was a benefit of the big-fisted circuit, rather than running the mini-mechas that the smaller chains used. Some of those were warming up the crowd: Papa Johns battling a many-tentacled Five Guys in her left-hand side screen.
She had to admire how the Five Guys fought. It took skill to handle more than one set of arms, took a twist of the brain that she'd never managed. Kids could pull off that sort of thing, the kids raised from birth wired into video games.
Or gene-spliced to make them better fitted for the suits. That batch was just starting to hit the circuit and she wasn't sure what she made of it all. She could see why some were calling to split the league, put the gene-augmented against the gene-augmented.
But everyone was doing it nowadays, even if it was just the basic package the government handed out free: perfect teeth, an intelligence bump, and a slew of other things designed to cut down on health care costs and make you a better worker.
Everything was changing, but no matter what, the crowds would always want people like her supplying the blood for their circuses.
"You sure about that ankle?" she said over the talkie.
Herk's voice was scrubbed raw with weariness. They'd been through thirty fights in as many days; both of them needed a rest. "You want to do my job too, now?"
He had as much riding on this as Jane had. She couldn't have made it to this fight without Herk behind her, making sure she fought unhindered by glitch or lag, the sorts of things that led to so many downfalls.
The question had trembled between them for days, ever since they'd found out she'd be fighting for Coke. Time to let it out, so it wasn't cluttering up her head during the big moment.
"Herk," she said, "it bother you that I'm up here 'stead of you?" Is that why you're doing it, she wanted to ask. She bit back the question.
Not an ounce of hesitation. "Sis," Herk said, "you're doing the hard work. All I gotta do is watch the boards and scream if I see the other guy sparking."
Another voice overrode them, bright as a match's flare. "I hate to interrupt the tender interlude, but I wanted to check in."
Lucia. Her manager.
"Go ahead," Herk said. "The ankle's okay, but I'm going to check the arches."
"It's a thirteenth fight, Lucia," she said. "Did you know that? Is that why the other guy dropped out?"
"You told me you weren't superstitious," the clipped voice said. "You said--and I quote--'Move me up where the money is, no matter what it takes.'"
She clicked on the ventilation system; let it sigh out disappointment for her. "Fair enough."
"You can back out if things don't feel right," Herk said.
"Bullshit," Lucia snapped. "Not without forfeiting money that you don't have. You said you wanted to be where the big cash is, wanted a fight that'd keep your family comfortable. This is how you do it."
The upholstery smelled of sweat and blood, but maybe that was her imagination. This behemoth had won twelve fights so far.
Battling for the corporation. Which was its own machine, its own inexorable construction, capable of decisions. And sacrifice and compromise and even games. No one wore those machines. They had gotten too big to ever be human.
"The mini-mechas are finishing up," Lucia said. "Some op broke his arm. Aren't you glad you aren't working the petty circuit anymore?"
Sure. Up here in the big leagues you didn't break your arm. The scale of these suits was monumental and so were the risks. You didn't walk away from an injury incurred in one of these.
That was why they were safer, statistically speaking.
That was why a death in one paid out so much.
Maybe she'd dreamed last night. Sometimes the drugs took her when she was outside the machine, made her see things, hear things, imagine things. She pushed.
"Goddamit, Herk," she said. "You sure that ankle's all right? I could have sworn it wobbled."
"You just want a reason to back out," Lucia said. "Thirteenth fight, my ass. You've got cold feet."
She was trying to bait her, she knew, but the words' hook bit in nonetheless, pulling a reply out. "All right."
She let out a sigh. The ventilation system seemed to pick up speed, as though in anticipation.
Couldn't put it off any longer. She signaled acquiescence with a nod, switching on the sound system. It blared in on her, hard rock fight music, amping up the speed in her system.
She said to the air, "Anything it takes, eh, Lucia?"
"There's big money on this fight."
She said, "It's better than a kid from the sprawls should ever be able to aspire to, isn't it, Lucia?"
"That's not what I think at all," Lucia said. Was that sincerity in her voice?
"Are you sure about that ankle, Herk?"
Herk's dispirited voice said, "What do you want me to say, kid?"
"Mr. Smith," Lucia began, "you'll be in breach..."
Herk continued, talking to Jane alone. "Yeah, it'll be the ankle, just as you're thinking."
"You go try to shut me out of this channel," Herk said. "See what good it does you." He addressed Jane again. "You know and I know. It's time for Coke to go down, for Pepsi to rise for a while, keep the wheel turning. Trick is to throw the fight without getting killed, do it before whatever they've got--"
His channel went dead.
"Jane," Lucia said. Her voice was very calm, very deliberate. "Are you ready for the fight, or are you going rogue on me?"
"No," she said. "I just wanted to let you know I knew, that's all. I heard you two talking last night."
The music sang and roared. The drugs had her wrapped in their embrace. She was ready to fight, ready to kill, barely able to think of anything but battle.
But she persisted. "Anything it takes. Even going into a fight knowing I'll lose. You could have told me."
"It's better if you don't know the set up ahead of time," Lucia said. No apology in her voice. "Otherwise sometimes we have to censor things."
"I see." The music screamed at her, dragged her into the moment.
The vast machine, four stories tall, stepped forward hesitantly towards the waiting opponent, which matched it in size. Sun beat down on the gorge all around. The crowd's roar wasn't audible at this distance--they were far away, watching on video camera. Drinking their sodas, holding the cups up, and cheering for their robot. Their beverage. Their symbol. Shills in the crowd passing out free samples of new products and sheaves of coupons.
Money was the new blood; you just had to get the right exchange rate.
With this fight, her death would lift them far enough away from the edge of disaster. They'd have good lives. Bought with her blood.
But that was all right.
She stepped forward and the machine stepped with her, shaking the earth as though she was the most powerful creature in the world, even as she felt the betraying wobble in her ankle, waiting to falter, while the music told her lies and she surrendered to its promise and the match began.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 12th, 2013
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