Joshua Trupo

“You ready, champ?

Maria looked up, seeing Captain Rickard standing before her. He was a large man, with an even larger frame. The Captain was the premiere Warrior for the United Americas, boasting the only undefeated record of any Warrior from any Coalition.

Strength was his Mutation and it was readily visible. The Captain stood at bit above six and a half feet, with bulging muscles laid bare by the sleeveless version of his battle suit. His power combined with his singular focus, and the hardiness and healing factor that came with his Mutation, helped the Captain win many an uneven battle through sheer force of will.

“I suppose.” Maria replied softly, in awe of the monster of a man standing before her.

“You suppose?” He barked. “You suppose? That’s no way for a Warrior to respond. You must know you are ready. Know it in your bones!”

Maria just nodded, afraid to say anything else that might upset the Captain. She’d heard, back at Battle School, that he had an infamously raging temper, sometimes taking it out on his fellow Warriors.

“Say it!”

“I know it!” Maria found herself shouting back. “I know I am ready!”

Rather than getting upset at her outburst, the Captain just smiled. He stood to attention, saluting Maria. She echoed his stance, saluting right back.

“That’s a good soldier.” He said in a much more conversational tone. “Dissipation. That’s your Mutation, right?”

Maria nodded, accessing that part of her mind that allowed her to use her Mutation. She created a void inside of her, to which she fed every aspect of her being. Her every sense turned inward, swirling into that void. After a moment she felt her body dissipate. She became intangible, removed from the real world and stepping into the emptiness she had created.

The Captain swiped at her with one of his massive paws, and it went right through her. She could feel her atoms resist the motion. She had to focus her attention on staying together. When she accessed her Mutation, she ran the risk and fear of disappearing completely, unable to come back together. She had no idea if such a loss was possible, but she feared it all the same.

“Quite the skill, that one. Unbeatable in defense, I’d bet. What about going on the offensive? How have you bent it to your will?”

Maria, still holding herself together, on the brink of solidity, reached out and punched the Captain. At the last moment her fist became realized, striking with a force that belied her slender form.

The Captain laughed, shrugging off the blow as if it had never happened.

“Interesting. A blow that cannot be blocked, except at the last second.”

Maria brought herself back together. Where it had taken strength and will to stay dissipated, it was easy to return. Like holding back a river and then finally stepping aside to let it flow along its natural path.

“You’re not as strong as me, but then again who is?” He chuckled. “I imagine you’ve been trained in hand-to-hand combat. What sort of armaments do you take?”

“I’ve no need for armor, and I can only barely extend my dissipation to my equipment, so I run light. I carry two daggers on my belt, as well as a handful of stars for throwing. Mostly I just use my fists.”

“Ha! A Warrior after my own heart. Nothing like beating down an enemy with only your own strength and skill. Am I right?”

“Well, I’ve never really-“

“Oh, that’s right! This is your first battle!” the Captain said, kneeling down and leaning in close. “One piece of advice. Sounds obvious, but it bears saying. Don’t hesitate. You’ve trained in battle, but you’ve never had to kill an opponent outside the simulations. Not yet. When the time comes. Do. Not. Hesitate.”

With that the Captain stood, winked, and walked away. Maria watched him leave, thinking that the tales of his rage were overblown. She found herself pondering his last bit of advice. She hadn’t even considered that she might hesitate when the time came.

She’d been trained, since birth, for the Battle Games. Her mother had been a Warrior, and her grandfather before that. Still, she’d been told that a true Battle Game, a fight to the death, was a different beast entirely than the trainings and simulations she’d been through. She resolved to strike true when that moment came.

Maria continued to stand outside the prep-room, waiting for her Master Technician to arrive. She would have one assigned to her, whose sole purpose was to create any and every piece of equipment she might need.

Not for the first time, Maria found herself wondering about the Battle Games. She’d always held a few reservations about their purpose, though she’d never share her thoughts with anyone else. They made sense, in a way, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was a weapon herself and not a human being. Warriors were heralded as heroes and held in high regard, but they had none of the freedoms and choices that most regular citizens were granted. The trade-off of the Battle Games.

Almost a hundred years ago the world was on the brink of destruction. Technology had advanced so far that warfare was indescribably deadly. The various countries of the world fought with massive battle-mechs, all equipped with micro-nukes. Cities had been demolished, refugees of war numbering in the billions. If Abdullah Ahmad had not created the Battle Games, it was not unreasonable to predict that humanity would have bombed each other into extinction.

Instead, the Battle Games pitted Warrior against Warrior. No guns, only personal strength and a return to the weaponry of old. Any conflict would be fought man on man, or a small team against a small team. If a country wanted to expand into a foe’s territory, they would challenge their opponent. Individuals would fight in the Battle Games, the winner treated as if they’d won a full-on war.

Since its inception, countries had grouped themselves into coalitions, working together to improve and augment their Warriors. It had been Oscar Elario who unlocked the key to genetic editing. At first it had only been the United Americas who had been able to create Warriors with Mutations. However, it hadn’t taken long for the other Coalitions to catch up.

Nowadays, Warriors like Maria and the Captain fought against their foreign counterparts as a proxy for full-scale battles and warfare. Maria could understand how, in a way, the Battle Games had saved the world. Still, she struggled with the fact that Warriors were born to fight and die, with no chance to live a fulfilling life.

She shook aside her doubt, knowing it had no place in the arena. She could not change the realities of the world. All she could do was fight and fight hard. Win or die. That was all the motivation anyone needed to give it her all.

“Hello, you must be Maria.”

Maria turned to see a young man standing before him. His dark skin stood in stark contrast to his brilliant white uniform. It seemed modeled after the common battle suit, though with a few differences. Mainly the insignias on the arm and the long sleeves. Maria did not know the command structure of the MT’s. She suspected, however, that he was as green as she was.

“Yes, that’s me. I presume you are my MT?”

“Jamaal Hendricks, at your service. Come on in and let me show you what I’ve been working on.”

Maria followed Jamaal into the prep-room. Inside she found the usual 3d-printers, computers, and smith tools that would be used to create her suit and armaments. She saw a battle-suit, her perfect size, placed on a mannequin. Jamaal walked over to it and dove right into explaining the equipment.

“Standard battle suit, with a few modifications. We cut the sleeves and legs off, that way you have less material you have to dissipate. You and the Captain are the only sleeveless Warriors, so you’re in good company there.”

Maria walked up and touched the suit. Made of a special proto-kevlar material, it would provide some protection from the slice of a blade. With it shortened in this manner, it did leave her limbs open to attack, but she had her Mutation to compensate for that.

“What of the helmet?”

“Oh that’s where it gets good. I’ve made yours extra special. My own design.” Replied Jamaal proudly. “You have the usual HUD, feeding you information about your vitals and the like. I added a little something, though.” He held the helmet up, letting Maria look inside of it. “These electrodes in the helmet, they connect to your brain. If I did my job well, and I always do good work, you should also have a percentage display on your HUD.”

“A percentage display? Of what?”

“You dissipation level. As I understand it you work mostly by feel. Well, looking at your bio-scans, we’ve isolated where in your brain your Mutation resides. The sensors can tell how active that part of your brain is, giving you real-time, hyper accurate percentage of dissipation. Cool, right?”

Maria was taken aback. She had expected the same simple battle-suit and weaponry she’d used all through training. She hadn’t considered that her MT would create items such as these.

“Now for the weapons. I understand you travel light?”

Maria nodded. Jamaal went to a small cabinet against the wall and pulled out a drawer that had two daggers and ten stars encased in soft foam. Jamaal pulled out a dagger, handing it to Maria. She was shocked by how light it was. She inspected the dagger, noting its sharp edge. She gave it a flourish. It felt as if the handle were made specifically to match her grasp.

“Tailored to your form and stance, the daggers are made of a special ultra-carbon of my own design. A tensile strength through the roof, it should never break or dull, even against the Hardened and Heat based Mutations. Same with the stars. Give one a throw.”

Maria took the star, tossing it at the target placed across the room. It flew true, cutting through the wind until it embedded itself deep into the target.

“Well, that’s all I’ve got. I’m working on something special for your battle-suit, a new material designed to augment your Mutation, but that won’t be ready for some time. For your battle today, this is what you got.”

Maria thanked Jamaal, who took it all graciously. He seemed uninterested in the battle or in discussing tactics, he was just focused on his excitement about his creations. Jamaal helped Maria into her suit, equipping her weapons to her belt. He had her run around a bit and test the percentage display with her Mutation. It all fit and worked exactly. A true master-craft. She said that to Jamaal, who blushed and brushed off the praise. Still, Maria made sure he knew how much she appreciated the equipment.

“Five to drop in.”

Maria turned to see the Captain’s massive form leaning in the door way. He towered over her, leaving her wondering how the door frame could even support his weight.

“Head on through the tunnel, champ. And remember what I told you.” He said, giving a comforting smile.

Maria stood to attention and saluted the man before turning and heading down the tunnel into the arena. She felt her nerves rising but was trained to push that aside. She pushed everything aside, akin to the method of dissipating. She fed her emotions and fears into the void, standing on the edge of dissipation but not giving in to the pull.

A red light at the end of the tunnel turned green, the door sliding up and revealing the bright lights of the arena. Maria stepped through; the door slamming shut behind her. Since the Siberian Coalition had initiated the challenge, Maria and the United Americas got to choose the setting. A simple, flat grassy plane had been her choice. She needed no place to hide and had no affinity for the high ground. Only her and her opponent, face to face, that suited Maria just fine.

Maria looked to the other side of the arena, seeing the other Warrior standing tall. He was nearly as tall as the Captain, though not quite so burly. He wasn’t slim, he did seem to have some solid packed muscle, but she knew that was not his strength. Icing was his mutation. He could freeze any opponent he touched and could hurl deadly sharp icicles from long range.

He did just that, snapping Maria into her battle-stance as she dove between the incoming attacks. She had no need to dissipate, not at this range. All she had to do was dodge, which she did with expertly honed agility.

She ran at her opponent, tossing two stars in his direction, forcing him to roll aside and cease his icy barrage. She closed the gap as he stood out of his roll, dissipating just in time for the next barrage to flow right through her. She saw the percentage in her HUD. She was maintaining about 60% dissipation. This felt like her default amount. It was interesting to see the exact numbers that matched her instincts.

Maria went solid again as she stepped into her opponent’s range. She sliced with her daggers, which bounced off the icy protrusions that the man grew on his body. The scouting report hadn’t noted he could do that. Maria wondered what would happen if no winner could be found. She could avoid all his attacks, and he could shrug hers off.

Suddenly, she was struck by an idea, leaping back and tossing a few more stars to buy her some time. Her opponent dodged or blocked them, stepping back into Maria’s range. She continued to swipe with her daggers, which simply bounced off the ice. She tried to appear frantic and impulsive, which was easy since it wasn’t too far from the truth.

She dissipated again and again to dodge attacks and to try to land last-second blows. Her opponent was ready for all of them. When he smiled at her, a predatory smile, she knew it was time to act.

She sliced with a dagger in her right hand, which was easily blocked. With her left, she dropped her dagger and moved to punch. Her opponent underestimated that blow, not bothering to move ice along his body to block it. It would lead to his demise.

Still dissipated, Maria put her hand inside her opponent’s torso. She had to focus extra hard on her hand for this to work, leaving her other side solid and vulnerable. She felt an icicle pierce her between her ribs but paid it no mind. She knew now was the time to not hesitate. She suddenly made her hand, only the part inside his torso, go solid. She found his spine and squeezed, crushing it.

Her opponent fell to the ground, his connection to his legs severed. He tried to produce more ice to cover his body, but the pain must have been too great, because he could not get it done. Instead, Maria removed her hand and, with her knife, cut the large man’s throat.

She stood over the body, panting from the exertion. She felt for the first time the pain in her side. A significant blow, but hardly lethal. She looked up to the crowd around her, cheering her name. The referee came down to the ground from the hover-platform he’d been using to watch from above.

He came to Maria and held up her hand, declaring her the winner. She knew not what exactly she had won for the United Americas, and in that moment she did not care. She was a Warrior now, and one that would prove to be highly deadly.

Her doubts about the Battle Games dissipated from her mind, akin to her Mutation. She knew, in that moment, that she did not care. This is what she had been born and raised for. She would fight, not for her people, not out of some sense of duty, but because she liked it. Oh, heavens above, how much she liked it.