By Fontay O'Rooney
CONTROL VOICE: What is more fleeting than fame? The challenge lies not only in attaining it, but also in maintaining it once it has been acquired. A sudden reversal of fortune or a lack of adaptability can soon plunge one into a deeper chasm of obscurity than what he had known before. It is there that the seeds of desperation are planted….
"Is this the best you could get?" Ricky Redman complained, turning his nose at the rancid smell of the training room.
"You ain't exactly the draw you used to be," Wilson shot back. "Why don't you be grateful for a change?"
Redman grunted. He had fought in some great arenas and in some dumps, and Terion Gardens definitely counted as the latter. If there was a seedier cesspool anywhere in the galaxy, he had somehow missed it. With the sorts of gigs that Wilson had been booking lately, however, that seemed unlikely.
"It's your own fault," Wilson continued unsympathetically. "This sport is all about adjustments, kid. Your opponents adjusted to your style of fighting, and you didn't adjust back. So naturally you hit a skid. You want to blame somebody for this being the best gig I could find you, how 'bout looking in the mirror?"
Redman gave him the evil eye, but he couldn't say anything. People only cared about won-lost records, and his was terrible. Worse, he had been utterly routed in three of his last four contests. His mind still boggled at how quickly the cheers had become boos. Much as he hated to admit it, Wilson was absolutely right.
Wilson was now helping Redman with his gauntlets. Since his financial resources had taken a worse hit than his chin during his slump, Redman could no longer afford a separate trainer, forcing his manager into double duty. In Redman's opinion, Wilson was lacking in both capacities, but he could afford no better. "You want to get back to the big time? Tonight's do or die. You beat this guy, and you can call it the start of a new streak. Let him beat you, and it's all over."
Redman swallowed hard. "Has it really gotten that bad? This time last year, people were calling me an up-and-coming…."
Wilson glared up at him. "Yeah, last year. One year in this game is an eternity, especially when you have a year like you've had. Twelve short Earth months, and you've gone from the brink of stardom to looking like a clueless chump. Do you know what kinds of questions people are asking about you?"
"They've asked me if you were on the juice back when you were winning, for starters."
"What? You know I'm clean! I've never…."
"Yeah, yeah, I know that. Thing is, that's usually the first thing that people assume when a fighter tails off as quickly as you have. I've also had people asking if you're injured and not telling anybody."
"At least there would be some honor in that, even if it's not true," Redman sighed.
"I've also had people ask if you're not on the take, throwing matches for a bigger payday."
Redman grew indignant. "I hope you're setting these people straight!" Considering the way his career was going, the last thing he needed would have been for Wilson to undermine him further by not leaping to his defense.
"As best I can, but even the people willing to believe the truth don't want to fool with you. You're just not a good draw. You're anticlimactic, a dud. It took a miracle for me to get this gig. Nobody else wants to book you. You know yourself this is the bottom of the barrel. Lose here, and this is your farewell match."
It had been impressed on Ricky Redman from an early age that his potential, as compared to his peers at school, was limited. Reading and math had never come easily to him, and with each successive year the gap between his achievement and that of his classmates grew more pronounced. Eventually, the gap became a gulf, and he had been held back twice before he reached high school. Even in the years that he did get a promotion, it was obvious to everyone--including Redman--that the decision was based more upon sympathy than his performance.
By age thirteen, he had decided that his present to himself on his sixteenth birthday would be to drop out of school altogether. Since all of the aptitude tests had indicated that he was only fit for menial labor anyway, he doubted that a diploma would help. One fateful day in physical education changed that, however--the day that he was formally introduced to the sport of obstacle-boxing. As the name implied, it was a hybrid of boxing and obstacle courses, in which combatants had to negotiate a constantly self-repositioning maze of barriers in order to attack their opponent. Depending upon one's strategy and the stage of the match, the barriers could be seen as either offensive hindrances or defensive advantages.
To the surprise of everyone, including himself, Ricky was a natural. At last he had found somewhere to succeed, and the effect on his self-confidence was undeniable. Since the high schools offered obstacle-boxing teams, it also motivated him to improve his grades and finish school. In the process, he became something of a star, earning All-Quadrant honors in all four years of his high school career. From there, the jump to the pro circuit not only seemed logical; it was inevitable.
Despite a fabulous first year, the bottom was now beginning to fall out for Redman. As Wilson had put it, his opponents had figured him out and were adjusting their strategies accordingly, and he had yet to follow suit. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, he had gone from a rising star to a has-been.
In comparison to the arena itself, the training room smelled wonderful. Noxious clouds of smoke saturated the air, along with the body odors of some fifteen different species. Had Redman gone swimming in sewage, his nostrils could not have been more offended.
"Ladies and gentleman of all species!" roared the announcer. "Welcome to tonight's heavyweight showdown!" Thunderous applause rocked the vermin-infested arena.
"In this corner, representing the planet Earth, Rockin' Ricky Redman!" The crowd booed. Loudly. Just because Terion was the mildew on the underbelly of the galaxy didn't prevent the fans from sharing everyone else's opinion of him as a has-been.
"And in this corner, representing the planet Cantu, Jolting Jursan Ibesus!" Wilson hadn't told him he would be facing a Cantu! The green Cyclops leapt into the ring, lifting his massive arms into the air. The way Cantus looked would be enough to freak anyone out, but they had a healing factor that made them daunting opponents in the ring. A Cantu could be beaten, but it required pouring on blows quicker than his body could heal them. Redman swallowed hard.
"Tonight's match will be fought according to Fearlian rules!" the announcer cried, drawing deafening cheers.
Redman whirled around. "Wilson!"
"What?" Not surprisingly, Wilson was making time with one of the girls in the crowd, who had responded by perching herself upon his lap. Judging from the lavender skin that distinguished her otherwise humanoid appearance, Redman supposed that she must have been a Xonite. That would explain everything; their standards were notoriously low.
"Fearlian rules? As in, the loser dies! If I live through this, you're fired!"
"If you don't, I'm out of a job anyway. I don't have a thing to lose." He leaned in and sneered, "Then again, maybe this is a job I want to lose. Free me up to get a real client."
"Shut up and fight, has-been," the Xonite girl jeered.
Then came the warning bell. In a few short moments, Redman would be fighting for his life.
Obstacle-boxers invariably had labels placed upon them by the media to describe their particular fighting style, and the label given to Redman was that of a "later." In his brief heyday, he would merely hang around for most of the fight, doing barely enough to keep from getting knocked down. Toward the end of the fight, he would kick into high gear, unleashing a flurry of blows with his staff. At first, the strategy worked beautifully. His opponents would get overconfident and be caught off-guard by his late surge.
Then the word got out. Some opponents began adopting his pace, surging when he surged, and his strategy became just as effective against him as it had been for him. Others decided to pour it on early in an attempt to wipe him out before he could even get to his surge. The resulting losing streak eclipsed his early success, and he found himself struggling to get bookings. When Wilson said that he found one, he should have been suspicious, but his desperation got the better of him.
Now, as his pitiful luck would have it, he was facing off against Jursan Ibesus from the planet Cantu. Like virtually every other obstacle-boxer from his world, Ibesus' label was that of a "monsoon." At least, that was how the punches would rain early on in the fight. Monsoons were the last thing that laters ever wanted to oppose in a fight, since they usually tried to end the bout before a later could have time for a surge of any description.
Then there was the little matter of Fearlian rules. Outlawed almost everywhere else in the galaxy, they changed everything for Redman. With life itself on the line, he couldn't afford to hold back. If he didn't come out of his corner full force, like a monsoon himself, he was dead. Under such rules, even the tiniest miscue could be fatal.
Standing at center ring, the ref was going through his usual pre-fight spill, but Redman wasn't listening. There was no need, for the routine never changed a single iota from one bout to the next. One would think that, with all of the advanced technology prevalent everywhere else across the galaxy, the Galactic Obstacle Boxing Sanction could have invested in a voice recording to be played at all of the matches. After the first or second match, none of the fighters listened anyway, having committed it all to memory.
Instead, Redman always spent those fleeting moments taking a quick survey of the obstacles comprising their battleground. Naturally there was the obligatory maze of rising and falling platforms, but there were also some unique quirks in play. The one that captured Redman's attention was a pit full of reptilian creatures sporting teeth that made Earth crocodiles look docile by comparison. He prayed that the course of the battle would not bring either he or Ibesus near them, then realized that they might very well be the mode of execution awaiting the loser. Finally the bell tolled again, and Redman's entire world narrowed to accommodate only the ring and his opponent.
After his first punch, he had no time for coherent thought. He became an animal, a raging bull, knowing only attack and counterattack. If the Cantu's tactics were any sign, his own thoughts ran no deeper. Redman threw punch after punch, but the Cantu healed too quickly for them to have any lasting effect. On the other hand, few Cantus could match humans for speed and agility. The diverse advantages offset each other, reducing the most of the fight to a stalemate.
With such astronomical stakes, however, there could be no tie. In some corner of his mind that still reasoned, Redman knew that the final round would tell all.
Once more the bell rang, and the combatants charged each other. Can't stop, Redman thought over and over.
Old habits die hard, and he couldn't resist reaching back for one last flurry. With all of his heart he rained punches down on the Cantu, trying to aim both fists at one spot on his face. If he could just bombard one spot, keep the healing element from having time to kick in….
For a moment, he thought it would work. The Cantu seemed to reel under his blows, driving Redman to close the deal.
That was when he ran out of gas. He was physically exhausted from the previous round, but emotion had fueled his flurry. Finally, his body could do no more, and his arms seemed to double in weight while their effectiveness was cut in half.
To make matters worse, the Cantu knew it. Rearing back, he delivered an uppercut that literally lifted Redman a foot into the air. He had just enough consciousness to prevent himself from rolling into the reptile pit upon landing. Once certain that he was not destined to become their lunch, he allowed himself to sink into oblivion.
When Redman came to, he saw the ref lifting the Cantu's arm, proclaiming him the victor to a mass of cheering fans. From somewhere just beyond the ring, he could hear Wilson curse. This is it, he thought.
Fearlian rules were shrouded in mystery, so he was unsure what method of execution awaited him, although those reptiles loomed in the back of his mind. Slowly he pulled himself to his feet. There would be no avoiding his fate; it was better to stand and face it with what little dignity he had left. "Death! Death!" the crowd chanted as he stood. His estimate of Terion just went down even lower.
"I assure you," promised the announcer, "that death does await Ricky Redman!" The crowd went wild, and Redman's stomach knotted. Facing him, the announcer continued, "You will die the death of obscurity, human. While your physical existence will continue, your name will be forgotten, and your former fame will fade into nothingness. You will never again throw a punch inside a ring! That, human, is your fate!"
An uproar from the crowd indicated that they had expected a more literal application of the death penalty, but Redman ignored them. Nodding grimly, he turned and made his way out of the ring.
Wilson had the nerve to be there, waiting. Redman just glared at him. Then, turning to the announcer, he asked, "Can I throw a punch outside the ring?"
"Outside the ring is your affair."
Without another word, Redman unleashed one last flurry of punches--on Wilson's face.
Never had the crowded applauded him more enthusiastically.
CONTROL VOICE: Fame does not last forever. At some point, the applause fades, and the crowds move on to a new favorite. The question is not in when it will happen, but in how those who have lost their fame will react….