By Peridot: (email@example.com)
Kate stepped down from the shuttle and fell into line with the other students
who were waiting to retrieve their luggage. It was a bright September morning
and everyone was squinting with sleepy eyes under the glare of the rising sun.
The leaves were whispering all around them, roused by a gentle breeze, and
the sparrows were fluttering overhead, some of them singing their cheerful
It had been a three-hour flight from the terminal in Lancaster, and Kate had spent five hours on another shuttle the day before, crossing the Atlantic from England. She was relieved to be at the end of her journey, though she knew her arrival at Kayo was really just the beginning of a much grander voyage. This was where many of the best young fighters in the world came to train and compete. If Kate managed to make it through the admissions competition, she could expect a long and arduous three years to follow. But she was determined not to get ahead of herself. Right now the five hundred other applicants, each hoping to be one of only fifty admitted, were her main concern.
Once they had all claimed their bags everyone was lined up in rows and told to wait for further instruction. Kate guessed their number to be sixty or so as she glanced around her. They were the last group of applicants to arrive, and most were international students from what she could tell. Some were struggling through conversations in English with thick, stuttering accents, while others spoke rapidly and fluidly in shared, native tongues. The anxious babbling filled the morning air, and as the minutes passed the group became increasingly uneasy.
“How long are they going to make us wait like this?” asked one girl standing beside Kate, posing the question to no one in particular. She was small and pretty, with vibrant green eyes and short, wine-red hair that glinted purple in the sunlight. “It’s been like ten minutes already!”
“And it’ll probably be a few minutes more,” answered Kate with a little smile. “This is all part of the ceremony. They want us to be anxious.”
The girl returned her smile. “Well, I’d say it’s working. Everybody’s stressing.”
“They really are,” was Kate’s reply as she gave the crowd a sympathetic glance. “I guess I’m lucky I know what to expect.”
“Mm? Have you done this before?”
“No,” said Kate, shaking her head. “I just graduated from high school in the spring. But my brother was a student here, and he’s been helping me prepare all summer.”
“Whoa, if he went here he must be really strong! Is he fighting on the pro tier now?”
“Only in the UK leagues. He’s taking a few years before he enters any of the bigger tournaments.”
“Ya, that’s what most people do.”
There was suddenly quite a commotion in the group as three people dressed in uniform came striding around the corner of the walkway. The man looked to be in his forties and the two women behind him seemed slightly younger. Their expressions were very grim.
The girl beside Kate leaned close to whisper, “I’m Elly, by the way,” and Kate whispered back her own name. There were a few other murmurs throughout the crowd, and then everyone was silent.
The man and the two women came to stand in front of the gathered hopefuls. They spoke to each other quietly before the man stepped forward and addressed everyone with a loud, commanding voice.
“Group D966, welcome to Kayo. My name is Mr. Wynn, and I’m with Administration.” He gestured to the woman on his right and then his left. “This is Ms. Simon and this is Mrs. Bolonov -- both are with Orientation, and they will be taking you through the campus shortly to help you familiarize yourselves with the grounds. Before that, however, I’ll need to confirm each of your registrations with a retinal scan, and make certain that we have your up-to-date neurological maps on file, so that our meds can properly attend to you should you suffer any serious head trauma in the coming week. I know many of you have had a long trip and are anxious to get settled, so let’s push through this as quickly as possible. Step forward when I call your name.” And here he began working his way down the sizeable list.
Nearly an hour later everyone had been scanned. Two students weren’t properly registered, and Mr. Wynn said they would have to go back with him to the Administrations office in order to sort things out. He wished the rest of the students good luck (without breaking his frown), and then he turned and left.
After a brief conference with one another, the taller of the two women remaining, Ms. Simon, came forward and began to speak.
“We’ll now be walking through the grounds, and Mrs. Bolonov and I will be sharing with you some of the history of the academy. We ask that you save any questions you may have for when we reach the residence -- we’ll be happy to answer them at that time. Now, this way, if you please.”
The neat rows of students, which until that point had been studiously maintained, merged into one large mass of bodies as everyone picked up their bags and began to follow after the two women along the walkway. The path twisted and snaked between various buildings, and the women took turns unravelling the long and venerated history of the school. The campus was large and beautifully kept, and although it was quite modern, it had an archaic sensibility and charm. Kate drank everything in, feeling elated. She spotted some second and third year students in their trim black uniforms seated in a spot of shade, talking and laughing with one another. They seemed so mature, so strong, and yet so relaxed. She knew that while only a year or two separated her from them, getting to where they were would be extremely difficult. But she felt ready. She felt eager.
“And this, of course, is the Arena.”
They had been walking for about twenty minutes when they came to stand outside of an immense, oval-shaped building. Most of the students knew this structure by sight, as they had been watching many of the competitions held here since they were children. Of course, seeing it on a screen was much different than gazing up at it from only a few metres away. It was at this point that reality usually sank in for the applicants; standing there, they realized the enormity of what they were attempting. It was inspiring and devastating all at once.
“The admissions competition started yesterday, as many of you are aware.” This was Mrs. Bolonov, her voice low and monotone. “We’ll now give you a preview of what you can expect from tomorrow. Come.”
She turned and ascended the stairs. The students followed in a mutter of excitement. They made their way through a long passage and through another set of doors, and then they were out on the mezzanine surrounding the Arena itself. It was even more impressive on the inside. The domed roof loomed at least a hundred metres above them, and there were a total of twenty-six stages spread out over the expanse of floor. There were a number of matches being held, and the stands were spotted with students and instructors alike, watching attentively.
“We’ll walk around the perimeter and I’ll review the model for the competition,” said Ms. Simon. “Of course, everything is explained in your admissions guide in case you should miss something.” She headed to the left and everyone followed, though all eyes were focussed on the action below.
“The first thing you’ll notice,” she continued, “is that there are no force-dampeners or collision fields installed on any of our platforms. This means you’ll be getting hurt, just like the professionals, and, just like the professionals, you’ll have to render your opponent unconscious in order to win. Most of you have only ever competed on the secondary tier, so you’ll need to adapt quickly to these new, harsher standards if you hope to find success here. You needn’t worry about permanent injuries, though; our meds are some of the best in the world. Most graduates of Kayo will suffer through strains, breaks, fractures, and hundreds of concussions, but only two per cent ever walk away with any lasting signs of trauma.”
They had walked a quarter of the distance around the perimeter and were now nearing the cluster of centre stages. These were twice as large as the other platforms and were reserved for tournament finales. There was an admissions match about to begin on one of the regular stages near the bigger ones. Ms. Simon stopped and gestured towards the competitors.
“Since very few of you will have fought on anything but the standard rubber surface, all admission matches are taking place on this default, to make certain the conditions are fair for everyone.”
An instructor officiating the match below used a small device to scan the two young students waiting to fight. Kate thought they looked horribly mismatched. The one was male and an absolute giant. His body bulged everywhere with muscle and he looked to be well over two metres in height. He was shirtless and wore baggy, red pants and huge black boots. The other was female and quite small. Her brown hair was pulled back into a high ponytail and she wore a yellow unitard with grey sneakers. She held two black sticks, one in each hand, while the giant was unarmed.
“The same rules apply to weapons here as they do in any tier,” continued Ms. Simon. “No mechanized projectiles and nothing edged or piercing. You should have already had any weapons or accessories pre-authorized by Admissions, but tomorrow morning they’ll do a final verification. If an official scans you and finds you have an unauthorized weapon, or an implant, or anything that hasn’t been approved, you’ll be immediately disqualified.”
Kate glanced up at one of the screens and found the names of the two students below. The giant was Savan Gholm, age nineteen, with no matches completed yet. The girl was Amy Dean, age eighteen, with one match so far, and a victory at that. Both of their portraits were flashing green, which meant the scanner had approved them and the match could begin. The instructor stood in the centre of the platform and signalled for the field enclosure. The figures on the stage appeared distorted for a moment as the field activated around them, and then everything was clear again. Amy crouched into a fighting stance, raising her batons, while Savan levelled his gaze at her, his eyes dark and fierce. He did not move otherwise.
“Each of your matches will be attended by three instructors,” Ms. Simon continued, seemingly oblivious to the tension mounting below. “One officiates while the others simply observe. You have three matches total, regardless of their outcomes. Your job is to impress the instructors, and not necessarily win every contest. There have been students in the past who have won all three of their admission matches but have not been accepted into the academy. The instructors are looking for drive, resourcefulness, and a showing of your potential -- not a perfect score. This will be important to remember as you progress through the coming week.”
The official below hopped nimbly onto his repulser-pad and raised himself high above the two competitors, then the field around the stage flashed red and returned to normal, and the match was underway.
Kate and most of the other students watched intently as Amy dashed forward in a blazing charge. Ms. Simon was suddenly very silent, her attention captivated as well. Savan still hadn’t moved. The small young woman reached the giant in an instant and slipped behind him where she crashed her baton into the back of his thick leg. He buckled and stumbled, and in a blur of motion Amy had rolled to his other side and delivered three more precise blows to his other leg and his midsection. Savan crumpled to his knees and clutched at his side. He seemed to be in a lot of pain. To everyone’s amazement Amy then darted up onto the giant’s back and cracked the sides of his enormous head with her batons, and to finish she launched off of him like a gymnast leaping over a pommel horse, landing solidly and gracefully on her feet
“She’s amazing!” shouted Elly. Kate was also impressed, but something didn’t seem quite right to her. Amy was undeniably speedy, but the giant hadn’t even made an attempt to dodge her attacks.
“She’s done for,” remarked a young man behind them. The girls turned to face him.
“What do you mean?” Elly was incredulous.
“I mean she’s going to lose. I saw Gholm fight in a tier tourney a year ago. He’s a berserker. Those guys just get stronger the more you hurt them.”
“And how do they do that?” asked Elly, her sweet voice heavy with scepticism.
“I don’t know how they do it, but they do. They never attack first. They let you hurt them and then they go all ballistic. If you don’t believe me, just watch. I saw him knock a guy out cold with one punch, and that was with force-dampeners and collision fields.”
“No way, he’s already beat,” called out another student somewhere in the group.
“Just watch!” The young man was irritated at no one believing him. He didn’t have to wait long for that to change. Savan was getting to his feet, and he didn’t appear at all shaky. He flexed his muscles and his fingers, and smiled sadistically at the panting Amy. Then he roared like something awful and savage, and bolted towards her with surprising speed.
The agile young woman had to be extra quick to evade his whirling roundhouse punch. When this missed Savan continued the press, swiping at her with his massive fists, and she continued to feign and dodge expertly, waiting for an opening. They travelled all around the stage in this manner, her grunting with exertion and him bellowing in a barbaric frenzy. Finally one of his punches missed with so much force that it took him off-balance, and Amy instantly pounced, bashing her baton into his exposed side and following through with a vicious blow to his neck that sent the giant reeling.
Amy paused only for a second to take a deep breath, then she flashed back into action, trying to connect another strike with Savan’s drooping head; but the brute suddenly straightened himself and puffed out his chest like a gorilla, and Amy’s baton bounced ineffectively off of his bulging torso. Savan leaned forward and let out another roar, this one even more dreadful than the last.
“See, he doesn’t even feel it anymore.” The young man’s lips were spread in a satisfied smirk. Elly gave him a disdainful glance and returned her attention to the match.
The giant charged at Amy again, and although she was still evading his blows, she appeared much less composed than before. A few of the students gasped as her foot slipped and she only just avoided being swatted away like an insect. But the slip still proved costly as it forced her back into one of the corners, and Savan was immediately there to box her in, glaring at her like a greedy predator. He let fly a furious punch that she couldn’t dodge completely -- she had to partially block the blow with her batons, and the force sent her crashing into the energy field surrounding the stage. She let out a cry at the impact, and then another yell as a monstrous hand snatched up her ankle and jerked her off her feet.
Kate and everyone else knew it was over at that point. Savan suspended Amy upside-down by her one leg, and she desperately tried to loose his grip by beating at his arm with her weapons, but it was to no avail. He swung her like a toy into the unforgiving barrier. There was a sickening crack. Her batons were sent flying, and she dangled limply in his grasp as he walked back to the centre of the platform. He held her up like a prize fish as she swayed to and fro, only semi-conscious, her fingers brushing the floor. Then he let her fall into a heap, and kicked her onto her back so the official could check her. But Amy was not entirely cooperative here. She rolled herself onto her side and tried to push herself up with her arms. Savan didn’t look surprised. He didn’t look anything but crazy.
“God, I can’t watch,” whispered one student.
“She should just stay down,” shouted another.
Amy wasn’t staying down. She managed to get to her knees and spot her batons. She was about to lunge for them when a hand closed around her throat and lifted her off the ground. Her nimble legs kicked out in meaningless protest. Savan held her there for a moment, deciding how he wanted to finish her. Then he pulled her body tight against his and wrapped her in a devastating bear hug. The poor girl suddenly sprang to life, motivated by pain, writhing as best she could in that vice-like constraint. It wasn’t long before the fight was squeezed out of her, however. Her eyelids fluttered and her head lolled from side to side as her consciousness quickly faded. Savan gave a powerful jerk and she slumped against him, her mouth hanging slack. He jerked again and she convulsed. He jerked one last time and she was completely unresponsive, her body flimsy and sagging in his arms. He sneered at her and seemed to be satisfied. Once again he let Amy fall into a heap before him, and kicked her onto her back. She flopped bonelessly on the stage and settled in stillness. Her breathing was rapid as she sucked in air through her open mouth, but otherwise she seemed lifeless.
“Sweet dreams,” chimed the young man who had assured everyone of Gholm’s victory. The students were silent as the instructor stepped off his pad and bent to examine the unconscious girl. He nodded to the other instructors and Savan Gholm was given the win. The giant gave another growl and stepped over his broken opponent to leave the stage. The field enclosure was dropped and the meds were on the scene a few seconds later, attending to Amy who still lay motionless in the centre of the platform.
The group was in shock. Of course they had seen many brutal matches of this kind before, but only as observers, never participants. Tomorrow it would be them on the stage, facing a Savan Gholm, or perhaps something worse. Tomorrow it would be their turn to shine or crumble.
“Well then, shall we continue with the tour?” Ms. Simon broke into the silence with her sharp voice. And then she did something she hadn’t done since any of them had set eyes on her: she smiled.
(Next: "The First Match")