13 down, 16 across, 23 down, 5 across . . . Deadreckoning Down, Pentraliamentis Across, TonicAcheronticPlatonic North, Enigma Down, BaconianDragon Across . . .
Jacharne chanted that string of directions and her memorized Word Clues several times each hour, even while fighting. To forget one's mantra home meant scuffling with the other Grid Yobs, maybe even waking up in the Tube the next evening with a Rape Code tattooed across your forehead. You might as well be dead, then. Only virgins were permitted to battle for the right to breed. Grid Yobs were nothing but a pain in the ass. Jacharne had no time to waste on such pointless altercations.
Now this fight . . . this was paramount.
The Korean girl was fourteen years old and petite even by CrossWorld standards. Extremely aggressive for her age group, her fighting techniques further attested to an astute and mature understanding of her savage art. Jacharne presumed her to be a precious Onlyborn, trained at the prestigious Combat Institute, whereas she, the Orphan, had been rough-schooled in the Grid's Outer Nul-Zone.
Jacharne had been warned by her many fans that this pip fighter with the pie-plate face and the spiked black pigtails would not be easily vanquished. That rumor Jacharne believed without question. No CrossWorld girl could afford to be anything less than bestial when it came time to justify her oxygen.
Crimson Jang pranced around and around Jacharne, but she was clever enough not to drift so close that Jackie could attack her. Crimson had no intention of providing Jacharne with the opportunity to deliver one of her specialty tornado kicks. For her part, Jacharne was furious that Crimson had managed to lure her into defensive mode so quickly. She hissed at the puny Asian though her mouth guard.
"Bitshhh" she said. "Screw your bald Nul-bred ass!" The Korean grinned, baring her pale and bleeding gums. Jacharne's gums bled also. She sucked and swallowed, sucked and swallowed, loving the coppery taste, grateful for the moisture. The entire population suffered from iron-deficiency anemia. Her teeth ached, loose in their sockets. Protein, a desperate dream, an untouchable luxury in the hermetically sealed CrossWorld. There were many competitions such as the one in which Jacharne and Crimson were now engaged, but none but the well-connected and powerful were ever treated to the losers' broken, but still tasty, remains. The undefeated Jacharne was thankful she'd thus far escaped serving as some CrossWorld Senior's main course protein source.
Then again, she did possess an unfair advantage. Jacharne nightly engaged in a fight far older than the CrossWorld tournaments; the competition between an ancient breed of occult beings and those who feared their unnatural hunger. When one is without parental resources, however, it requires only the slightest legerdemain in the ethical domain in order to see the justice contained in all unexpected advantages.
And Jacharne knew she must win this fightthe only fight that mattered. If she defeated the feisty Crimson Jang, then she would be permitted to mate with Rapt Mistkarr, the Scion's firstborn son. Not much of a Stun Hunk, was he. In fact the vanilla-haired Rapt was spindly, his fragile bones a poor scaffold for his atrophied muscles. His health had always lingered between tenuous and dire. But his was a lively, perceptive intellect, a Miltonesque poet. Jacharne recognized his insipid bloodline desperately needed the infusion of her sturdy and resilient genes. She loved him no less for that practical imperative. Though he was sheltered and guarded most of the time, they had been able to exchange CrossCodes, and thus they were able to rendezvous fairly regularly.
The match was not viewed as desirable by Rapt's mother. She considered Jacharne a crude ingénue, an unsuitable partner for her son, and almost always bet against her. But Rapt's gropings and infinitely gentle kisses were all the motivation Jacharne needed to re-enter the ring, week after week, month after month, year upon year, and ruthlessly pound her opponent into the past. Rapt's mother lost a great deal of money.
Jacharne regarded her taunting opponent and decided that she must fast-forward the pace of their sparring. Crimson Jang was about to be spattered with her liquid namesake.
The Korean wore the fighter's standard dust-dark skin-kissing synthetic garment. (The enormous Bio-Cube, which was cross-hatched with TravelTubes, could not support cotton fields, nor herds of farm animals.) She had declined the optional knee pads, forearm padding, mouth guard, the head gear: all of it. Her refusal to avail herself of even the most minor protection had been warning enough for Jacharne. Such persons had clearly made a conscious choice to accept the coming pain and unavoidable slaughter. They usually expressed the desire to experience fully the descending stages of their own demise: from collapse to coma to death.
Jackie understood the decision. It was also her opinion that one's Terminus should not be diluted, nor its sister, agony, attenuated. But Jacharne did not plan on dying, ever.
She formulated her killing strategy while the energetic Asian continued to bob, weave, tease, feint. Jacharne heard Crimson's deadly feet as they whissssked across the mat. They'd been posturing and strutting for the last five minutes, and the crowd was getting antsy for action. Still Crimson did not enter Jacharne's kicking range. Instead she forced Jacharne to keep turning in a dizzy circle in order to maintain essential eye contact with her rival.
"She wants to dance a bit?" thought Jacharne. "Let her dance. I'll kill 'er just the same." No matter. If necessary Jacharne would employ any number of her hidden shivs, spikes, stars, venom-sticks. By any means, she would murder her opponent. She had no choice. The CrossWorld5 Auditorium was capacity-maxed. Room, room, there was never enough room. People perched on the backs of seats and wedged skin to shove in the narrow aisles. They screeched and bellowed and waved their polyester banners. Jacharne heard hoots, howls, whistles, shrieks.
"Eeeeyahhhheeeah!" Jacharne's attention wavered when she noticed the crowd, chanting and waving in the wobbly plastic bleachers.
"Jacharneserve her spleen!"
"Crrrrimson, put down the Nul-dog!"
"Spill the blood! We wanna see you bleeeed!"
"Waste her, waste her, waste her!"
Crimson pressed her advantage and lunged forward, executing a powerful front kick. It connected with a resonant smack beneath Jacharne's chin, snapping her head backward. She immediately dropped to the floor.
Jacharne was aware only of a horrible vertigo. She was not sure whether she was standing or sitting or flying. Her visual field grew colorful seizure flowers. One by one, she wanted to pluck them, offer them to Rapt. She distinctly smelled the clean odor of talcum powder, (when was her last bath? Water was never wasted on vain ablutions) and then the familiar image of her dead mother walked across the auditorium's ceiling.
Jacharne reached upward, her bruise-blue eyes welling with tears. The crowd booed and castigated her. Intent upon catching her mother's attention, she could not hear them.
Her mother had been murdered and eaten five years ago, killed in the Grid by some renegade Yobs. A brutal clash between the Unnatural and the Criminal.
She moaned aloud. There was the most exquisite agitation in her ribs, pleasant but disturbing, like a host of forbidden kisses. An elbow slammed into her mouth, and Jacharne's eyes flew open. She attempted to focus her vision, but the room flexed, converged, undulated, dissolved. She heard a voice, usually soft and melodic, now strained to its limits, crying out, crying out: "Jaaah Carrrr Nayyyyyy!"
Love justifies, she thought. It redeems, it fortifies. Rapt's love jolted her heart, her spine, her appetite for killing. She coughed violently, then rolled to her side and began to retch. Her body was a pin map of select agony sitings. Her instincts, keen and far more reliable than her emotions, impelled her to at least sit up so that she wouldn't choke on her own blood. And, sitting up, she spat out four pale amulets: her teeth.
They lay glittering on the mat like stained shell fragments. Jacharne knelt over them, marveling. She had barely scooped the two important ones into her hand when Crimson screamed like a skinned demon and then axe-kicked her in the back of the head. Pain radiated out of her medulla. She collapsed, face down, into the mat.
"Jaaah Carrrr Nayyyy! Rally! Jaaaah Carrrrr Nayyyy! Rally!"
An ocean she would never see swelled and shuddered and whispered in her ears. Unimaginable mountains told a tale of missed adventures. A beam-crowned sun pulsed in her cerebral membrane. She knew its appearance only from the bleary image she'd viewed through the frosted casings of the TravelTubes. No one ever got to see those natural marvels anymore, except in the picture books. But her children might be able to see them one day.
And for them to have a chance to be born, Jacharne knew, *she* must survive. Too many people breathed in CrossWorld, and the rich ones ate the flesh of the poor and the weak. Because of her amazing martial prowess, the Orphan who had never lived in her own comfortable cubicle had finally managed to obtain one. She, who never had a home before, would always remember the way back . . . remembered it every day, twice an hour.
The crowd was jeering or cheering, she couldn't tell which. All she knew was that her body felt like a fractured statue. Her mouth and nose and ears were decorated with her own blood. She rolled onto her back.
"Deadreckoning Down," she slurred.
Crimson had one foot poised in the air, ready to stomp Jacharne right in the center of her scarred little face. She peered into Jackie's battered right eye and laughed.
"What you say, dead meat?"
Jacharne pulled Crimson's image into her head and saw an imaginary cross- hair superimposed over the piquant Asian face. She stumbled to her feet, mumbling: "Pentraliamentis Across . . . "
The Korean abruptly halted and strained to hear. Crimson had shattered every last bony rack of Jacharne's rib cage, had crushed her esophagus, broken her jaw. There was bright red blood scrolling out of every observable orifice.
"You should be dead, you whore!" Crimson shouted. She yanked back her fist and prepared to deliver one final nose-crushing punch. Jacharne grinned at her, thrusting her tongue through the gap in her upper gum line.
"TonicAcheronticPlatonic North," she whispered. "Enigma Down, BaconianDragon Across . . . "
"Aw man, you are *so* fuckin' crazy and now you are so fuckin' DEE-ceased," Crimson screeched. She leaped into the air, spun high and lithe as a dancer, and brought her right leg out in an impeccable roundhouse.
Jacharne's left hand disappeared into her uniform. Just before Crimson's kick made contact with Jacharne's head, the hand reappeared.
"What the fu . . . " Crimson had time to gasp. Two fangs, long and curved and sharp as Mother's memory, protruded from Jacharne's palm. She raked the teeth across the Korean's thigh, slashing Crimson's femoral artery deeply, irreparably. She drew her hand upwards and sideswiped Crimson's throat while simultaneously grabbing Crimson by the left arm and flinging her to the mat. Once she had the Korean on the floor, Jacharne collapsed her opponent's Pekinese nose with a devastating palm heel strike.
She pinned Crimson to the mat and waited for her rival to bleed to death. And no matter how badly she wanted to taste the blood of her victim, she knew she must not. Not with an auditorium full of excited and vigilant witnesses. Blood leaked, spewed, fountained, spattered. The mat was gore-soaked; their uniforms were uniformly scarlet. In the end, Jacharne could not tell the mortal from the Vampire blood.
She licked her sleeve quickly, covertly. Crimson's eyes never left Jacharne's palm, and Jackie could read the questioning look. She opened her hand, plucked out the fangs and popped them back into their empty sockets.
"Yeah," Jacharne breathed. "My mother gave 'em to me before she was killed." She paused to gulp back her tears. "Yeah. I'm one of them."
They'd terminated both her mother and her father. The Vampire weren't even immortal anymore, after all that radioactivity screwed up their cells. They still needed to drink blood, but they could not risk exposure. They could not even initiate extras because of the over-population. So it was just a low-volt kind of power that was handed down, generation to generation. Mamma said, "Jacharne, I fear that we're gonna be assassinated, because I've spoken out against these horrible competitions. If my enemies succeed, you'll be made to fight, and then you're going to need these, my girl. But I want you to remember: the power to kill isn't really in the teeth. Wherever you are, that's your center. Wherever you need it to be, that's where the victory will arise."
Jacharne held her fist over Crimson's fading eyes.
"I've got two of these, and I'm damn good with 'em," she said. "And when I need a little backup . . ." She grinned. "I've got these too."
The crowd was still cheering her when she stalked off the floor and out of the auditorium. Her feet minted the mat with bloody prints. Later she would lick her own wounds and revel in the rare moisture. The applause meant nothing. She knew Rapt would be waiting for her, aching to celebrate. She loved him, but he'd have to wait. This public fight was a private victory. As a cherished son, he would never understand. Jacharne needed some time to share this final conquest with her dead mother and to be thankful for the ferocity of Orphans.
She limped down the long hallway, hopped into the first TubeHole she could find, and waited for the automated computer voice to ask her for her address.
"Deadreckoning Down," she said, and the vacuum sucked her southward. "Pentraliamentis Across . . . "
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM