Sergei shook his head, trying to rattle out the incessant thud of the Techno soundtrack that was, for no good reason, blasting out to shake the foundations of the warehouse. It didn’t work.
The building was full to capacity now, the stands erected around the walls heaving with stern faced government apparatchiks, some vaguely nodding along to the music, others taking long draws from red-embered cigarettes or swigging from glasses of vodka. He recognised a few of the faces present, Generals, politicians, even a strangely orange toned man who could, perhaps, have passed for that guy off of the TV, the bombastic American with the bad catch phrases. Although all he could see of him was a small strip of gaudy flesh and petulant looking eyes, framed by layers of luxuriant winter furs and an oversized ushanka. No matter, Sergei didn’t keep up with celebrity culture anyway so his interest was limited and his commander had told him not to look too closely into the crowd. He was here to work after all, not gawp.
A few metres from him his opponent for the day was limbering up on the opposite side of the ring, showily flexing his muscles for the audience. A pointless display given the exoskeleton he was wearing, a series of cables, metal plates and pistons that encased half of his body. It was technology that would do the work, not the man inside it, they were just there to make a token gesture towards thought and give a name for the records to list as winner or loser. He’d noticed that the American fighters always enjoyed their showmanship though. This one no less than the others, his back piece even had the stars and stripes emblazoned on it, an American Eagle engraved on his steel shoulder pad, a weak spot perhaps given the circuitry that might lay beneath.
For his part Sergei is more practical, his commander doesn’t appreciate showmanship, he appreciated winners so a small Russian flag decal on his shoulder was the only concession to style he wore. The rest of his suit was just a bulky mix of wiring and armour plating. More than the American had on his, a point to remember when the fight started.
There were a few more minutes of posturing to endure, as the Yankee, a compact man, slight but densely built, played to his small but vocal contingent of compatriots in the audience. Sergei just stared at him, content not to have to feign his already real indifference. The foreigner had a look of All-American healthiness about him, side-parted brown hair and energetic brown eyes drawn straight from a commercial. Still, not someone to underestimate, when these fights took place everyone sent their best. The stranger would, at least, be military but probably special forces too, or Navy Seals, or drawn from one of those unnamed divisions who lived and died without ever passing through the paper trails of military bureaucracy. Looking clean didn’t mean he wouldn’t fight dirty. But then so would Sergei.
Eventually the showboating ended and, as the mumbled conversations of the crowd came to a trickling end, the anthems started playing. The Star-Spangled Banner first, a concession to the visitors and silently endured by the largely Russian audience, although out of the corner of his eye Sergei could still see the orange skinned man nodding his head in a poor attempt to match the tune. Next his own anthem played, voices around the warehouse dutifully belting out or miming their way through in a necessary show of patriotic fervour. He kept his own mouth shut for the duration, he didn’t know the words after all and as long as he looked suitably intense nobody would challenge him for focusing on the fight ahead, not even President Putin, who was bound to be somewhere in the crowd.
Formalities over a bell rings and the crowd stirs itself into a frenzy, ready to see some blood spilt. The American explodes out of his corner, mechanically augmented fists launching straight into a flurry of blows aimed at Sergei’s head. They hurt, they send him reeling, staggering backwards towards a steel ring rope that offers no give. No matter, he expects to take hits and where they bounce off of his body armour the shock absorbers do their job, where they connect with flesh he feels the adrenaline rush warding off the pain. The visitor gets to have his way for a whole minute, long enough for him to show himself and his intentions, long enough for Sergei to read him and know how he’ll behave. Only once satisfied with his gleaned intel does he launch his counter attack, punches and kicks sending his opponent flying as the force of technologically amplified blows take their toll. His fists focus on the gaudy shoulder decorations, the eagle etched out in gold. With the suits they both wear it’s hard to guess if there’s anything important underneath, he knows where his own precious circuitry is concealed but not his opponents. It’s a good focal point though, it’s worth a try and with surprising ease the metal starts to buckle. He can see that his opponent feels it too as a look of shock washes over his face. A soldier shouldn’t be shocked, not in a fight like this, but his suit is letting him down Sergei guesses, showing signs of damage too early, too easily. Hardly cause for sympathy but he notes it nonetheless as he continues his onslaught.
Soon there are sparks, the audible groan of servos seizing up and the soon to be defeated enemy, or at least competitor, starts to collapse in on himself, his suit becoming little more than an encumbrance. It shouldn’t be this easy, it’s never this easy, but it is and there’s no point in second guessing it. Sergei takes a step back, fist raised to deliver a decisive blow to the American’s head, not a killing blow, not intentionally at least, but one to knock him out of the fight and avoid the ignominy of being stuck in an inert and broken suit. There’s laughter from the crowd although looking round with attempted subtlety he can see that the maybe-celebrity has revealed himself and is screaming with rage, hat thrown off, scarf slipped down. He’d heard that the man had gotten into politics, perhaps that explained the invite, another irrelevance though, Sergei didn’t watch the news much.
The final punch knocks the other fighter out, smoke starting to curl from his exosuit where circuits have fried themselves and motors burnt out. He’ll live, which is good, even if the crowd does prefer a more final ending. The American is stuck squatting, his jammed suit fixing him in position and his eyes closed as the dark fug of unconsciousness saves him from embarrassment. Sergei raises a fist in a minor show of celebration, although he doesn’t feel that it was much of a victory. Too easy, too quick, a poor competition and poor entertainment although no one can blame him for that. Casting an eye down he can see, to his amused surprise, a small plate screwed in to the rolled back metal of his fallen opponents shoulder pad – ‘Made in China’. It doesn’t explain much, he’s fought Chinese contestants before, their technology has never failed them but then he doesn’t pay much attention to the machinations of international trade and politics, there may be a game here played well beyond his pay grade.
His commander is in the ring too now, a heavy hand slapping imperceptibally on his plated back.
“Come on, time to shake hands.”
Sergei lets himself be led away to a hastily assembled line of dignitaries. Generals, politicians, well dressed others of undefined importance, and at the end of the line President Putin and the orange man. The latter still whispering with frustration in the ear of a nearby bodyguard whose expression remains a model of professional indifference.
The Russians in the line nod approvingly at him, or even smile. Even if the fight wasn’t the best they seem amused by it, happy to have observed a spectacle even if it wasn’t as impressive as the clashes they’re used to. Even Putin, when his turn comes seems to flash a half smile at him, not something that he’s ever seen before. Only the orange man, who to Sergei’s surprise is announced to him as the President of the USA by his whispering commander, breaks from the formal mood of satisfaction. He’s ranting, even as he shakes the victor’s hand with a limp grip. Sergei doesn’t react, he’s trained not to and by the sound of it the man doesn’t think he speaks English, unaware of his vague grasp of the language gained from a distant childhood spent consuming American films and TV.
“He didn’t really win, this result is all wrong.” Letting his hand go the American goes on, talking over his head to the assembled officials, some of whom seem to be suppressing smirks.
“I know our boys, they’re the best, it’s just that guy – I should have known when they told me his grandma was Canadian, I did know. I told them he wouldn’t fight right, I told them I knew about this fighting stuff, everyone knows that, just ask them, they say I’m the best coach there is. I could have been a fighter too, I was, I just don’t talk about it, I’m too modest, that’s what all of my friends say, but I could have beaten this guy. Look at him, he’s nothing, He’s weak, not like me, everyone knows I’m strong, and I’m an older guy but I could have gone ten rounds with him. And I’ll tell people that, tell them I would have won, and we’ll deal with that loser later. People believe me, they know how good I am, they won’t buy this because it’s just wrong, Vladimir, it’s just wrong wrong wrong.”
Sergei feels a hand pulling him away, his commander. He lets himself be led as the American’s bodyguard tries in vain to guide his ward away too, gently trying to lead him away from Putin and his cohort who seem to be struggling ever harder not to laugh. It doesn’t work, as the President stands his ground, stubbornly continuing his defence as a translator desperately tries to keep up converting it into mostly incomprehensible Russian. He’s glad to be taken away, back to the lockers where engineers start to swarm around him unscrewing his armour and plugging it into various computers for the post fight analysis. It’s only back here that he can relax a little, free of the obligations of being on show.
His commander is leaning against the wall watching the process, a cigarette slowly dying on his lips.
“Sir, permission to speak?”
The officer nods, rheumy eyes inattentive.
“Was that really the President of the USA?”
An engineer stifles a snigger.
“It was. Not impressed?”
“Do you think he noticed that his wig was falling off?”
His commander pauses for a second to stub the tail end of his cigarette out against the wall.
“I doubt it, he didn’t notice when he signed Texas over to us, he just kept telling people about how he could run faster than President Putin, if he wanted to. I don’t think he pays much attention.
Sergei nods and shakes off the last piece of his disassembled exosuit, glad as always that no one expects him to pay attention to politics.
For more from me you can check out my novel Crashed America (free on Kindle until 6/2/2017!) – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks.