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    Katharine allowed her muscles to tense, relax, tense. She allowed the excitement in the air to ripple through her body. Around her, the people chanted, whispered, imperceptible beyond the shattered warehouse walls.
    "Now!"
    Once.
    It was a clear night. The stars twinkled clean in the sky. Lanterns lined the cage. The contenders battered each other in a soft, yellow glow, tense, relax, tense. Not too much longer, Katharine thought. Four more bouts, maybe five.
    "Now!"
    Twice.          
    No. I must think no more. I must cleanse my mind. Katharine felt the dryness inside her mouth with her tongue. The crowd pressed against the wire mesh of the cage. For Aaron, my son, she thought, and for the price of a pass through the gates of Pacopay.
    "Now!" for the third time, and N'gul's fist lashed out, smashing Katharine's left cheek with a sickening crunch. Merciful Guardians, how swift his fists.
    Blood splayed five seconds into the match. Aaron turned so that he wouldn't have to watch. He grabbed at his face as if he'd been hit himself. Sentinels stood at each of the entrances and exits, trained eyes watching for the silent, black vehicles of the defense patrol.
    "Hi Bloodway," Aaron said to one of the sentinels, keeping his voice low. There was never any cheering or booing at a gruel match, no loud noises to attract the sensitive ears of the defense patrol.
    Bloodway nodded, never taking his eyes from the sky. "If your mom don't make it tonight, Aaron, you come home with me. You'd be more of a service to me than either of my own two shiftless sons."
    Aaron had long since learned how to wear a sincere smile no matter how twisted or intense his true inner emotions. "Thanks," Aaron replied, a smile on his face as firm as plaster. "Who knows? I might have to take you up on that." Inwardly, Aaron recoiled from the pain of Bloodway's remark. He imagined his mother beaten to death in the ring, her skull cracked, her insides ripped from her body. Aaron had seen it done to others, to stay alive in the gruel match cage and win the purse held by the promoter of the match.    
    Katharine willed her body to relax, jelly-like, nothing brittle, to soften the impact of slamming into the four meter high wire mesh wall of the cage and ricochetting back towards the center of the ring and N'gul's waiting fist.
    While still in mid-air, Katharine twisted her body. Her moves were balanced, planned, spontaneous and swift, or so went the litany that her instructors had engraved in her soul. N'gul swung but didn't connect. She kicked him in the groin, two walnuts and an incision. Katharine dropped to the ground, then was on her feet again before pain had time to cross N'gul's features. Katharine plunged a fist willed rock hard up under N'gul's ribcage. A blow to the kidney seemed to have little effect on him, but a nose bridge smash made N'gul twitch and trip himself in a sudden panic to escape from her. N'gul was a near two and a half meters high, three hundred pounds of solid, hard-packed muscle.
    Katharine felt something small and metallic bing off the side of her skull. The mesh of the cage was small, yet still people in the crowds managed to throw objects through. She was used to being pelted. She blocked the petty inconvenience from her mind immediately. The mesh whined from four sides, the crush of spectators pressing as close as they could to the contenders to observe every move, each minute detail.
    "The smog-head who threw that had better pray to the Guardians he doesn't get caught," Bloodway whispered into Aaron's ear. "I saw someone's hand broken once for doing that."
    "Once, I saw someone disemboweled for throwing a knife at a fighter." Aaron had been to many gruel matches in his young life, over a hundred, a quarter of those where his mother had been one of the fighters. Aaron talked so that he wouldn't have to hear the sounds that always emanated from the ring, skin slapping taut skin, harsh breathing, gasps of surprised anguish, the snap of bone.
    N'gul lashed out with his left foot, a maneuver Katharine expected and easily dodged, although she didn't expect him to flip his body around like a top and make a scythe sweep with his other leg. Katharine couldn't help but feel great respect for her opponent. They'd met for the first time as they entered the ring together. N'gul introduced himself and seemed gentlemanly and shy.   
    Katharine felt her legs sweep out from under her and let her body tumble backwards. She made certain that it was a complete backward somersault. The balls of her feet made a light thup as they touched the canvas, balanced and in perfect control, although by this time N'gul was once again on the offensive. Katharine bent low and tangled herself in his legs. She moved erratically so that N'gul would have no solid thing to kick or strike at. She chopped the backs of N'gul's knees with the edge of her palm, fingers outstretched and rigid. His legs collapsed. Katharine saw a right fist, dodged. N'gul's knuckles grazed Katharine's chin, which was enough to snap her head back. Katharine's consciousness exploded in a blood red fireworks display. She forced herself back to reality with the same suddenness.    
    There was no time for thought now. The attacks came too fast, and N'gul was too strong. Tangled in each other's sweating bodies, Katharine bapped N'gul in the nose a second time, dodged a punch, dodged a second punch. She got in a solid uppercut to N'gul's underarm, just as he hammered an elbow into Katharine's ribs, snapping one, every defense and offense, offense defense, as quick as warring insects. 
    For Pacopay, Aaron thought, where the townspeople drifted through the sky in their own personal gleaming silver air chariots. In Pacopay, everything was free and anything could be obtained. There were those in Pacopay who ate in a day what a dozen 'troplis dwellers couldn't find to eat in a week. It was hard to imagine, every moment with a face gorged with delicious food. Aaron's stomach grumbled at the thought. 
    A bubble of panic popped at the base of Katharine's neck. This was usually one of her strong areas, flick fighting, a hundred blows thrown, parried, connected in eyeblink succession. There were few gruel fighters who lasted longer than two minutes with Katharine under those circumstances. Each of Katharine's punches, chops, kicks were aimed and timed perfectly for maximum effect.
    Bloodway frowned, pointing up. "That's no good." The small warehouse had no roof. There were miles of deserted neighborhoods, houses, stores, many rotted away from lack of use. Not one house or building had either a roof or a second floor. Every room had to be in full view from the sky and the defense patrol copters. Besides a rule of silence, there was also a no smoking rule, a rule that few people were observing tonight. Smokers incensed Aaron. The need for the harsh, gray leaf the guardianship insisted was tobacco was so great a smoker couldn't last an hour without inhaling its burning smoke and exhaling it back into the atmosphere. Gray swirls of smoke swam upwards, dissipating in the sky. 
    As quick as a bomb flash, Katharine reviewed all she knew about this man, this N'gul, the only person she'd ever fought who could match her blow for punch, and although his punches were nowhere near as precise as Katharine's, they had the force of three-hundred pounds of trained, solid-packed muscle behind them. N'gul was a product of the secret cult of Cadre, self-avowed enemies of the ruling guardianship. From birth, the children of Cadre were trained in the belief that their bodies were weapons and therefore had to be kept well-honed at all times. Once, in a skirmish with the defense patrols that involved a row of warehouses dotting a lake front, Katharine watched a cultist bash through an aluminum door using only the edge of a clenched fist.   
    Katharine greatly respected the cult of Cadre, and only with great reluctance did she accept the challenge to fight N'gul. The purse the promoter offered was thirty crid, an unbelievable sum. An entrance fee to the testing center for acceptance to Pacopay cost one hundred and fifty crid. By fighting and winning two dozen other gruel matches Aaron and she had managed to save eighty crid. With the money from this match, their savings, and the money from maybe five other matches, they'd have the fee.   
    "I'd better tell the speculators about the smoke," Aaron said. He started towards where they stood, the nine of them, elbow to elbow, flanked by three bodyguards apiece, backs against the wall nearest the exit. Then,
    "Guardians, Bloodway."
    "What is it, boy?"
    "Out of the corner of my eye, over there where those people are bunched together. I just saw a glint."
    "There's a curse on tonight's match."
    "I've got to find out who it is."
    "Not alone!"
    Katharine leaped free from N'gul and broke for the other side of the cage. She turned, knowing that N'gul would be right on top of her, pressing the attack. She fended him off with quick snaps to the open wounds and sensitive areas of N'gul's body. She couldn't possibly hope to keep it up for long. N'gul had the definite advantage. His reach was much longer than Katharine's. She needed a few moments to clear her mind and think through a new strategy. N'gul swung high. Katharine was able to duck, giving herself a clear shot to his larynx.  
    The glint of metal by moonlight, which violated a third rule of gruel matches, strictly and mercilessly enforced, that no metal was allowed within a hundred meters of the ring. It had to be a knife. No one would risk instant dismemberment to smuggle in anything less. Aaron sifted through the crowd. He searched the eyes of each person he passed.
    Katharine willed her body into a bow, her right arm and fist the arrow. She had waited patiently for her moment; now it had come. There was nothing to do now but follow the course to its inevitable conclusion. She drew all of her strength into her right fist, then hammered it home to a spot at the center of N'gul's throat, punching through the larynx.
    Relax, tense, relax.
    Bloodway signalled the guard to his left. Red urgency! Glint! Alert the speculators! The speculators sponsored the gruel matches. Hundreds, at this particular match thousands, of crid passed between their hands depending on the outcome. They were dressed in clothes not bug-infested from sleeping with the weather. There was color in their faces that spoke of regular meals. From their vantage point near the exits of the warehouse, the speculators watched the match, eyes intent on each intricate move of the contenders.      
    A wave of triumph washed over Katharine's senses, then, as abruptly, disaster. Just as Katharine made contact with N'gul's larynx, his right fist exploded into the side of Katharine's skull. Katharine felt nauseous from shock. Not now! Concentrate on your next...Then, incredibly, the left side of Katharine's skull erupted from a second shattering blow. Four experienced gruel fighters were dead due to Katharine's larynx smashes. More had been left writhing on the canvas, gasping for breath and grasping at their throats, which made them easy to finish off. It was impossible that N'gul had recovered so quickly. Katharine felt blood run thick from her forehead. That second punch had somehow completely blinded her. She felt light and detached, as if she could float from the cage and drift free with the wind, which was a bad sign. That meant concussion. She knew she couldn't afford a third punch from N'gul. It would most certainly kill her.
    Aaron saw the glint again. Her eyes locked with two embedded in the shadows of a ragged, mud-caked hood. The person in the hood wriggled into the crush of spectators lining the ring but didn't have the experience Aaron did of working through a crowd. Aaron made a hammer out of his right fist and brought it down hard on the base of the skull of whoever was inside that hood. Aaron heard a nerve-piercing screech, and the hood fell away from a woman's head. She was bald but for a few brittle hairs. She was toothless. Her skin was death pale, her eyes as black as oil, the eyes of a bu-tall addict.
    And there was the knife, thin and pointed and needle sharp. The bu-tall addict held it tight in her fist.
    N'gul stood over Katharine, swallowing hard past his damaged throat, squinting in fury, concentrating hard to stay on his feet long enough to throw that third and final punch. The knife flew from the bu-tall addict's palm like a bird of prey, slipped clean through the wire mesh of the cage, and bit hilt deep into the square of N'gul's back.
    Katharine heard the addict's scream, and it scared her because she knew that now the defense patrols would be there within seconds. She heard the light thip of a blade piercing flesh. Katharine felt the panic from all around her. It passed through her body in waves. Guardians, give me my sight, she prayed. I need my sight! 
    A dozen people grabbed onto the bu-tall addict all at once, and they twisted and they gouged and they ripped until blood spurted, shoving Aaron aside in their silent zeal. Bloodway appeared at Aaron's side. "I see black bugs in the sky..." Defense patrol copters. "You'd better get over to the promoter quick." Aaron smiled thanks to his valuable friend Bloodway, removed his own blade from his left boot, then crossed to that place next to the cage's door where traditionally the promoter of the fight stood with the promised winner's purse.
    Through a gray-black haze, Katharine saw that N'gul was, incredibly, still on his feet. He stood in an ever-widening pool of his own blood. Katharine felt a powerful empathy for the swift, graceful giant that had been her opponent. If things had been different, if Katharine had met N'gul outside of the ring, what great friends they would have made.
    Don't think about that now, she scolded herself. Depressing thoughts only robbed Katharine of her spirit, slowing her down. Instead, she thought about Pacopay, where every need was gorged, every desire satiated. The sweetest songs were written in Pacopay, the wittiest jokes were conceived and passed along to the 'troplis dwellers. Only the guardianship's chosen ones were privileged to abide in Pacopay, or those who had intelligence and dexterity enough to pass the Test of the Cube.
    The speculators dissolved from the back wall with their bodyguards to waiting vehicles. The promoter backed away from the ring. He sidestepped and turned to run, his own five bodyguards matching him move for move. 
    "Stop, or my knife goes through your heart," Aaron said.
    Katharine concentrated the pain from her mind so that her reflexes could flow quick and unhindered and because she'd gone blind once again. I must get out of this cage. Where is my son? Where is Aaron? The door was to be unlocked the moment the match was over. Was it? In which direction am I sitting?  By the sounds from all around her, Katharine got her bearings and realized that the door was on the opposite side of the cage. Katharine fell forward and crawled on all fours towards the door even as N'gul crumbled to the canvas. 
    By now, seconds after the copters had been spotted, the warehouse was practically deserted, the crowd seemingly melting into the warehouse walls.
    "There's no time," Aaron said to the promoter. "By the code, give me my mother's winner's purse."
    "There's been no ruling. There's no proof yet that the black man cannot continue to fight."
    Aaron had nothing more to say. He readied himself to bury his knife into the promoter's heart, at which point he would most likely be killed himself by the promoter's guards. Aaron heard the bee buzz sound of sonic disrupter pistols, that and several wails of death pain. A defense patrol copter must've landed. Aaron knew from harsh experience that three other copters would now scan the walls of the warehouse, circling the broken buildings like vultures, while a half dozen other copters roamed the skies of the surrounding neighborhood with heat-seeking scanners searching the nooks and crannies for those citizens who dared to be out after curfew.
    The unwritten laws were on Aaron's side. If word spread that this promoter refused to pay the winning contestant, he wouldn't live long enough to promote another fight. There was great money to be made from gruel matches; there were great risks. 
    The promoter threw a dirty cloth purse filled with crids in Aaron's direction.
    "Now for the cage!" Aaron barked. "Open the cage!" 
    Katharine felt as if she'd just crawled the length of the continent on her stomach. She pushed at the door of the cage with her toe. It swung open. Thank the Guardians someone had been considerate enough to unlock it.
    "Aaron!"
    "I'm right besides you, Mother." Aaron saw pin scanners at one of the entrances, foot patrols. "Stay with me, Mother. We're going to have to make this fast." Katharine pressed her body against her son's. As one, they sprinted to a rotting pile of crates and filth against the stone warehouse wall. Another unwritten law was that an escape route had to be provided for the contenders in case of defense patrol intervention. Aaron and Katharine dove gopher-like down a dirt hole barely wide enough to squeeze through. They emerged seventeen minutes later in the kitchen of what had once been somebody's home. The roof was torn away.
    "Aaron, give me your weight. I doubt that I can stand any longer." Aaron wrapped her arm around his shoulders and leaned them both against a corner of the kitchen. A copter drifted overhead. Aaron waited for the red light of the heat scanner to flick on, but it didn't, not this sweep.
    "Are you hurt, Aaron?" Katharine whispered into her son's ear.
    "No, not a scar."
    "Good. And you have the money?"
    Aaron chuckled. "Yes Mother. We're rich."
    "Soon Aaron. You must train even harder now to prepare yourself for the Test of the Cube."
    Aaron slipped through the doorway, across an alley into a courtyard facing four other homes, his mother adhered to his back. Aaron's imagination ran rampant with fantasies of Pacopay, where it was said reading was taught. It was said there were thousands of books to be read in Pacopay. All of Aaron's urgent questions could be answered in Pacopay.
    Katharine fought to keep conscious. For Pacopay, she thought. where my body can be repaired, and where it was very possible for me to live another two hundred years in peace and contentment. It is for Pacopay that we do all of this, for the luxury and security of Pacopay. 

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