Geno stared at the drenched asphalt as he walked down a blackened street. The soothing rumble of pouring rain was the only sound in the world. Dead streetlights loomed over the curbs upon an unoccupied avenue. He stopped at the corner of Emm Boulevard and pinched the edge of his hood with his gloved fingertips. A hard tug stretched it more over his brow, and then he lifted his head to look forward. There it was, his destination—a three-story parking garage across a broad main street. Blue headlights flashed on the second floor. He crossed the silent road beneath old dusty, rusted, cracked streetlights, springing into a jog, quickly passing twenty squares of ground that sided the nourished yard of the Gilmore College Campus. A left turn brought him to the opening, and a hop over a black and yellow parking gate began his upward trek. The fine pitter-patter of rainfall faded. Shouts of excitement reverberated from above him as if there was a live concert on the higher level—as if there were live concerts in the Sectors of Netherground Zero. He discovered the ruckus around the curve at the ramp’s top. Hordes of people in black crowded the center. An amplified voice stretched over the mass of screaming shadow, the intensity like booming thunder.
“Hey, listen up! The champ from Sector 4 ain’t here yet. We gonna’ give him five more minutes. After that, the floor’s open to anybody who thinks they can challenge Lions!” Jeers exploded in the crowd. A pale teenager of slicked blonde hair stepped forward. He wore a crimson and gold letterman jacket and black denim trousers.
“This is a joke. Ya’ boy ain't comin’, Rex. Is he? Psh, I knew it. Heard he was a wuss! I could probably beat 'im down in my sleep… Quit wastin’ everybody’s time!” he shouted before a mocking chuckle. He then raised his arms and riled the crowd’s roaring chorus.
Rex, a tall caramel-toned man with a head of dreadlocks, was fed up with the blonde punk running his mouth in the crowd. “Hold the mic real quick, bro,” he said as he brusquely passed the baton. “Tell you what, Brad Pitt,” he mocked. “If you just tryin’ to catch a beat down, come square up and let me really give the crowd a show.” The ‘oohs’ went louder. ‘Do it, do it,’ and, ‘fight, fight, fight,’ edged them on resoundingly. The white boy sucked his teeth and pursed his lips. Rex raised his chin of dark peach fuzz, “Yeah, that’s what I thought, ol’ banana bread-lookin’ dummy. Sit down somewhere.” The resounding noise spiked with louder shouts. The mob behind Rex grew louder than the rest as if they had suddenly caught fire. “He’s here!”
Geno marched through the crowd, shaking the rain and proverbial dust off his shoulders. The excitement peaked. He came to the center, welcomed by the Sector 4 thugs. Rex, his boy since high school, stood there with a teeth-grinning smile. After the two exchanged nods, Rex twisted his mouth at the white boy. “Next time keep yo’ mouth shut, boy.” The humiliated blonde spat a smug humph.
“A’ight, y’all, now that both parties are in attendance, let’s get to punching, kicking, and bleeding like real men. Can you dig it?” Rex announced. Shouts erupted. “It’s the fight we all been waiting for—the best members of rival gangs, going head to head to settle all the rumors of who’s number one around these Sectors. Let’s see who the big boss on the block really is, eh?”
“YEAH!” went the crowd in unison.
“Ok, ok, ok—over here in the left corner, from Sector 4, we have the champ, my boy, my prodigy—Geeenooo Swift!”
It was always at this point Geno drowned out the cheers and sounds. He concentrated on finding that numbness that helped him before every fight. He took a deep breath and looked at the ground, losing himself. After a while, he couldn’t even feel the hands on his shoulders rousing him. A girl, likely one of the groupies of Sector 4 came behind him, licked his neck and nibbled on his ear. “Good luck, Gee.” He didn’t even feel it. He couldn’t feel anything. He was officially zoned out—the world completely gone until Rex announced his opponent.
“In the right corner, we have a new kid on the block. He’s been climbing the ranks of the Sector 5 Kings faster than any ever before him. Give it up for, Lioooons!” A young mulatto man stepped forward, dressed in a letterman jacket and black denim pants, as were his counterpart gang brothers. He had a sincere demeanor, with a dark, short haircut and a nose bigger than most. He wore red sparring gloves with black X’s on his knuckles. He took a deep breath and slammed his fists together. Two girls came and tried to take his jacket off. When he refused, they rubbed his chest and kissed him on both cheeks. Good luck gestures.
Geno had never seen Lions before, but the talk of his skill as a fighter was a sprawling rumor around the Sectors. He didn’t know what to expect from this kid. It made him a little nervous. He usually saw his opponents fight a battle or two before getting his hands dirty in the ring with them. With such heavy tensions between the Kings and Cobras, he could never get around to it. The two gangs were at war, and Geno, even being the exemplary fighter that he is, would’ve gotten himself killed if he ventured into their Sector.
He kept his jacket on too, though he usually took it off. It was odd that Lions had chosen to fight with his on. To the Cobras it was a sign of arrogance, a gesture of knowing you could really beat somebody down. Was he that good? Now was a better time than any to find out.
Geno locked eyes with Lions before Rex came in front of him, laying hands on his shoulders.
“Look, I know I said I wouldn’t put you in a fight where you’d be completely blindsided, but I know you got this. This fight has been the talk for months now. These rumors got people throwin’ some heavy bills in the pot. Not to get your panties in a bunch, but we started wit’ six thou’ and now we’re up to ten—that’s five thou’ for the both of us. Who knows what it’ll be up to by the end of the night. It’s the biggest pile of money I seen for a fight in years. We need this, Gee. I know you can beat this cat. Come on, baby. He ain’t nothin’ but a street thug, ‘bout to be roadkill. This is our turf. Go show him what a King really is.” A smack hit his shoulder. Rex kissed him on top of the head before going back in the open center of the crowd.
“Y’aw ready to light this dynamite!”
“I said, is everybody ready to get this battle off the ground!”
“YEAH!” the crowd pealed.
Geno felt his ponytail loosen and retighten. “Good luck, pretty boy,” said a girl behind him who redid it for him.
“Alright, fighters, take your positions.”
Lions stepped up and rolled his shoulders. Geno bounced in place and then met his opponent in the middle of the crowd. Rex came between them. “Alright, fighters, listen up. There’ll be no interference from the masses. You’ll win by knock-out or tap-out, understood? Ether shots are allowed, but don’t throw nothin’ above a level three or I’ll be steppin’ in to shut it down. We don’t need no troopers breakin' up our little shindig, feel me? You got each other for three, four-minute rounds, a’ight? The judges are the Patriarchs from Sector 2, so ain't gonna’ be no funny business. When the music stops, the round’s over, and another thing—”
“We get it, bro. Unless your boy is a rookie, we’ve heard it all before.” Lions’ voice was as stern as his expression. He wasn’t much of a talker. Rex made a face. Geno stopped him before he said anything.
Rex turned to the MC, nodded and backed away. The loud, crashing peal of Heavy Metal cried out from the over-sized speaker stacks, signaling the start of the match. Lions nodded at Geno before taking position. It was a simple gesture that had changed the entire feel of the fight before it even started. With a sigh, Geno took his place. Why would a King nod to me? Geno had no love for him or his crew, and he was positive could be said in return. It would be on his mind for the entire fight. There would be an ounce of regret when he had to hurt the kid now—if he had to. It was easier when Kings proved to be the over-confident and snarky scoundrels they were. He’d had a hunch that there was more to this Lions cat than that. No one had ever shown Geno a sign of respect before a fight—let alone a King.
He saw Lions put up his fists, his stance more of a forward position. Geno fought from his side, almost the exact opposite. Usually, forward fighters were more punchers than kickers, due to constant, crazy pivoting on that back leg. Usually. He’s probably a fast puncher. There was only one way to find out. Geno closed the gap and came with a left hook.
Blocking, Lions responded with a roundhouse kick aimed for Geno’s midsection. Geno blocked with a forearm against a hard shin. So, he’s a kicker. It didn’t surprise him. Geno himself was what they called a goofy fighter. Side stances were for kickers, and Geno was a puncher. All the rotating he had to do at the waist gave his punches just enough torque to land blows almost as deadly as any kick—sometimes deadlier. Most of his knockouts came from his notorious right hook-uppercut combo.
Geno stepped back after the kick. It was a powerful one for a first. Ok, so he can pack one. But is he fast? He went in with a combination of kicks catching Lions’ shin and hamstring with the first two and was blocked with a hand as he went for the neck. More long ‘Ooohs’ resounded. It was a daring kick. Lions responded again—a mix of punches and kicks. All blocked. But they left a sting in Geno’s arms.
Geno was faster—an advantage that could win most fights, but Lions was the strongest opponent he’d faced in years. They began to calm down, and exchange blows steadily. Geno earned himself a string of bruises along his arms, even through his coat, in just the first two minutes. He’d landed more strikes than Lions, though, which put him ahead in the fight. Neither of them had hit one another in the face yet. The crowd had been on their toes with constant noise, waiting for that moment.
Neither had thrown an ether blast either. They were too close-quartered. A round of bone-shattering strikes continued for the next minute. Nothing changed. Geno was building his score, but none of his attacks seemed to be wearing on his opponent. If I can just land even a jab to his face , he thought. But it looked like the first round was going to end before he would see to it. Geno had never been in a fight where he hadn’t punched his opponent in the face first round. Lions was a good defender.
There was roughly under a minute left. Lions’ kicks had worn on him, and Geno felt the wrath of his strength during one slip up. He mistook blocking a punch for a kick, an anticipation that almost buckled him. Lions came with a roundhouse to the shin. At the connection, Geno leaned awkwardly with a grumble. Mistake. Lions’ kicks suddenly climbed, striking Geno’s side and, at long last, his face.
It hit him like a hammer. Geno reeled under its force, staggering. The crowd leaped. Lions advanced. In Geno’s stomach came a side kick that took his breath. His feet lifted off the ground, and he floated back and came down to his knees. It was an event that would hurt his score as well as his pride. Knocked down. It’d been two years. He smiled as he felt his stomach turn, palms in the ground. It was just what he needed to turn up the heat. Thumps came toward him. When he looked up, Lions was jumping into another roundhouse. Mid-section.
Geno climbed and caught it under an arm, taking the full blow. It hurt. Bad. But angry adrenaline was rushing through him. He held Lions’ leg and threw that renowned right hook. Spit flew from his opponent’s mouth upon contact, and his head jarred. A leg sweep took Lions off his feet, and another punch to the chest sent him crashing to the ground on his back. Lions was down. Redemption. The crowd went wild. The music stopped. Round one was finished.
They went to their corners. Lions hopped in place and slipped out of his jacket. Geno smiled. No one had knocked Lions down before. It was his facial expression that gave it away—determination and surprise, and then a smile. A girl gladly took his letterman.
Geno took off his jacket as well. Round two. When the music started again, they went toward one another. Geno leaped into a jab almost connecting.
Moving just in time, Lions retaliated with a hook punch and spinning hook kick—flashy and quick. Their moves were more daring now—attacks full of intent to take out the other, each strike packed to the brim with utter respect. Three punches flew into Geno’s face, fast and accurate. So, he’s got speed too.
Lions had been a fighter for less than six months, or so Geno had heard. Fighters with young careers like that could barely last two minutes in a fight with a veteran. Lions had some training beforehand. That much was evident. Still—there was something else about him. Geno’s first six months as a fighter were the roughest days of his life, far worse than any gang beating he’d ever taken in a hazing. Fighters that young were puppy chow for older fighters meant only to boost wins and prolong careers. It took at least a year for Geno to settle down and get used to matches. By then, most fighters were around their fifth or sixth bout if they remained healthy. For Geno, this was fight seventeen.
The record number of matches of the longest career was twenty-two—a Patriarch from the Brotherhood. Geno was determined to beat it. He was so close he could taste it. It was his motivation to win this fight.
Three shin kicks shot forward. Geno blocked with a foot. To his surprise, he watched Lions leap high into a spin. The King’s leg burst forward. Geno crossed his arms in front of his stomach. He wouldn’t be struck in the same place twice. He took the blow with his forearms, sliding back. A surge of electrical energy rushed through them, and his hands lit with viridian light that crawled to his elbows. He shook his arms, and it dispersed. Etherite. It wasn’t time for that. Not yet.
Round two was almost up. Bruises marked them everywhere, and they were apprehensive about head shots now that their strength had been exposed to one another. It would take only one blow to the face from either contender to end the fight, possibly a career. Geno couldn't get close. Lions tore into him with kick combinations that made his arms numb. He's strategizing, Geno realized. He stepped back and shook his arms, jolting his muscles with rejuvenating ether.
Lions grinned and advanced. He leaped into another spinning hook kick that came for Geno's head. Rippling kinetic energy trailed his heel, bursting his attack to the velocity of a bullet. By sheer fortune, Geno set a forearm in front of him just in time. The music stopped. Round two was over.
Geno envisioned his career crumbling before his eyes. Lions had kicked him so hard that, for a second, he thought the mulatto King had shattered every bone in his valuable limb. He couldn't feel it until another jolt of ether brought it to life, and he moved his fingers. The atomic energy had made most humans indestructible. Geno rotated his wrist and kissed the rosary around his neck. His father, a man of faith, had given it to him when he first started fighting. Geno wasn't a true believer of any religion, only when necessity dictated it. The third World War had essentially demolished all spiritual concepts. But this was one of those times he would convey his gratitude. He thanked the Messiah for the recovered use of his appendage. Making a fist, he glared at Lions who was getting his shoulders worked by a copper vixen. It was time for ether.
The third song came thundering through the speakers, setting off car alarms, and igniting the crowd. Lions ran with yet another ether-kick. Geno had spotted it before his foot left the ground. A quick tennis ball of viridian ether repelled his opponent's swinging leg. The crowd exploded. Lions cast an ether sphere of his own. Geno grimaced as he batted it into the ceiling and stomped forward. Chunks of concrete plunged into the screaming horde, scattering them like ants. "That was a nice kick from before. Now I've come out to play." Geno lunged into a jab, his fist engulfed in lustrous ether. It was a punch that he knew wouldn’t matter whether or not it had connected. Lions was going to feel it regardless. The King crossed his arms before his chest, blocking. The force of the ether struck him from his feet and knocked him to his back. With a quick kick-up, he sprang upright again. This time, Lions didn't smile.
The third round was a test of etherite ability. The display of talent would go down in history beneath Chicago's ruins. Geno was impressed by the King. It was his most challenging fight yet. Lions’ technical skills were fantastic. Geno would go as far as to say that they even exceeded his own. In the same breath, it was the reason why he knew he was eventually going to win the match. Geno was a feel-it fighter. It provided him with the capability of generating unorthodox opportunities. Calculations could only take a fighter so far.
Neither of the two had knocked each other down again before the round concluded. Lions came close when he kicked Geno in the face and made him whirl into a twist-flip. When he came at Geno's backside, the renowned Cobra backed him off with a somersault burning with ether that almost sliced Lions’ nose off. When the round ended, they were at opposite ends.
Lions set his arms back, producing a globe of ether between his splayed fingers. Its electrical charge caused the lights in the parking garage to flicker. "To your corners! The music stopped," Rex barked. Lions ignored him, infusing his etherite basketball with ground-rumbling energy. Geno's eyes bulged. Who is this kid? He set a palm in front of him confidently, quickly forming a surging sphere of his own. The garage lights shattered, and the power of an entire block went out. “You don't want it,” Geno said to his opponent.
Rex urgently came between them, “Stop, fools, before the towers pick up on your energy readings.”
“Yo, Rex. They're both registering at a 4.5 on this thing, man. You better nip this in the bud before the boys-in-blue come slinging their blasters,” said someone in the crowd with a handheld meter. A sudden boom echoed in a distant Sector, silencing the assembly and turning heads. Geno and Lions’ etherite vanished with a sudden blink. What was that?
An alarm sounded from the nearest tower. The sirens came sooner than expected. “Argh! Eyendae, why'd you have to mention the pigs?” said Rex. “Everybody stay calm.” There was never any restraint once the towers went off. The mass bolted into an uproar, leaving stragglers trampled in the wake of expert escape artists. Geno almost fell as the stampede threw him around. Lions disappeared behind the swarming riot. In the midst of it all, a masked man went for the table where the Patriarch judges stood adjusting their suits and ties. He socked one in the jaw and took off with the winnings.
"Come on, Gee, before the troopers get here," said a well-acquainted Cobra named, Marco Polo.
"Forget about it. It ain't worth prison, brah."
Marco yanked him by the arm. “Let it go!”
Geno took off. The match was postponed for now.