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Chapter 3 - The Superior Warfare of SkyPrincess FairySparkle

The door to the helicopter is opened by a Dragon with the same diamond shoulders as Franshesco - until a week ago I hadn’t seen any of those. He helps me into a chopper loaded with crates from Synthia’s company: Genessee Genesis Group.

“Welcome aboard!”

The Dragon looks like a model soldier for some Eastern European army’s recruitment pamphlet. His head is shaved, his face is gaunt, but healthy, and he’s tall, quite a bit taller than me. The only exception is his expression: he smiles warmly as he gets us ready for takeoff.

“I’m Centurion Stanisław Wrocławski, my brother Oskar is at the controls. Step in quick, we have a show to catch!”

The door closes fast and I have two seconds to grip and brace before the chopper’s off the ground.

“What’s the rush?”

“We’re late to Meizhan.”

“What, you mean mahjong?”

He slaps his palm to his head.

“You’re joining the Dragons and don’t even know about Meizhan?”

“No, I don’t subscribe to What Mercenary magazine.”

Stanisław cracks his neck.

“You’ll find out soon.”

“Am I gonna find out why two officers are picking me up on a Genny Gel run?”

Oskar nods back and grumbles. “The show must go on.”

Stanisław picks up.

“We do the most dangerous work in the world. We haven’t had a casualty in three years, and we’re going to make it thirty.”

A million Yuan is chump change for this. But I guess now I’m in no position to play hardball.

“Well I’m glad to help. How long until we reach Watkins Glen?”

“Novaurora. Ten minutes.”

“Not Aurora?”

“There’s already a town named that, on Cayuga. We’re new.”

“I respect that.” We nod and share the closest thing to a moment of silence under the whir of helicopter blades. “So what’s this Meizhan all about, gonna throw me in a pit of tigers or something?”

“It is Chinese for ‘beautiful battle,’ or ‘American war’ — the characters are the same. If you like your Super Bowl, you will like this. Superior fighters are the most valuable assets to our society, and this is how we resolve disputes. But it must look perfect to us because we must look perfect to our customers, so style is important too. There is a Glory Vote after each match, open to everyone.”

“You’re a democracy?”

“Yes and no. Mostly no — Glory Vote is just how voices are heard. Dragons vote on Auroran affairs but it’s weighted by rank. Residents of Novaurora have their own government but we don’t interfere. And if you work for us and don’t live in the city, like a Spectre, then it’s your business. It’s not like we tax.”

“Not at all?”

“We make a lot of money. We spend by choice where others would be forced by taxes. Like free health care.”

“It sounds good, but how do you pay for things?”

“Dragons get a cut, contractors get a fee. But if you live in Novaurora you pay sales taxes, property taxes…” He shrugs. “You know.”

“Hm. Not as bad as I thought.”

“Fighters-for-hire have a bad reputation. It’s the second-oldest job and people say, ‘mercenary’ like they say, ‘whore.’”

“Coming up on Novaurora!”

I hold on for the landing and look out the window. Last time I was here I was a teenager camping with my friends. Jeremy and Natalia were off doing their own thing at the time. Everyone else I went with is dead now. The older part of Watkins Glen looks the same since I remember: pretty little resort town at the foot of Seneca Lake. But further south there is a lot of development: condos, offices, restaurants, all kinds of buildings stretching all the way to the famous racetrack, but most prominent of all is an enormous stadium, and we’re heading straight to it.

Oskar continues to talk, presumably to a control tower.

“Flight one-five-three approaching the Galvadrome. Affirmative. Make sure the crew is ready to unload the moment we come down, we’re not showing them the ropes like last time.”

I barely get a good glimpse of the Galvadrome before we land. Right on cue, the moment the chopper sets down the doors are flung open to workers - not Dragons, no collar.

“Come on, Wade! We’re gonna be late!”

The closer we get to the Galvadrome the more my lungs shake with bass. The music comes from every angle and it’s made from every genre. It just makes you want to move. I’ve been to concerts and boxing matches, but never anything like this. The two Dragons have three reserved seats a few rows up from the vast arena floor with a fantastic view of the colorful laser light show that could be a performance all in itself. I’m enamored.

“The show’s about to start, you should read up on the fighters.”

Stanisław swipes the Meizhan app over to my Bionet and we go from crazy to insane. The app simulates infrared and ultraviolet light flowing through the Galvadrome like river currents. I can see the music. Every wub, every drop, every frenetic guitar riff circulates through the air, latching itself onto our bodies and just as quickly breaking free with the beat. Why the hell did I leave my acid at home?

“Hey where’s the program of events?”

“There is none, just the fighters involved. Sometimes you can guess the matchup, sometimes it’s a surprise.”

After a couple minutes of browsing profiles the music builds to an exciting drop and everyone leaps from their seats to scream. I look up and see a man walking onto the arena. Tall, with long brown hair slicked back onto his armored Multiform swirling with gold and violet so vibrant it looks like he is wearing a nebula. He is carrying a massive golden staff with the Auroran flag at the end. I look around and see everyone — literally everyone — cheering like there’s no tomorrow. There are even kids here as young as five screaming and jumping for joy. The man stops at the middle of the arena and slams the staff into the ground with a shockwave that almost rocks me to my seat. The music goes silent.

“Loyalty to the mission!”

The crowd responds.

“LOYALTY TO THE END!”

“What is our mission?”

“HEALTH AND WEALTH FOR EVERY AURORAN!”

“Today marks a signature achievement in the history of our nation. Through the hazy clouds of the Upstate sky we receive more power from the sun than we will ever need, and after perilous months of rigorous testing, our grid battery is online and fully functional! Our energy production is now ONE HUNDRED PERCENT RENEWABLE!”

Grid-level storage on a city this big? That would be astounding in Ithaca; we’re still dependent on coal when the sun goes down. Even then I doubt we’d cheer with as much vivacity - the crowd is reacting as if they had just announced the cure for immortality. On second thought, maybe they have.

“Our strength to build has never been greater. Just this day Centurion Caliez announced that the last rebellious enemies of Columbia’s state have been killed and left for the wolves. We have ended a civil war that stretched for decades, and all of the Auroran nation can share in the ultimate prize: mineral rights, and royalties, for the next one hundred years!”

The crowd begins chanting “Health and Wealth for Every Auroran” while the man in the middle basks in jubilation. Stanisław whispers to me:

“That’s the Master Legate. He founded the Dragons with us and Franshesco.”

Before I can respond the Master Legate slams his staff into the ground and again we are silenced by the shockwave.

“And tonight we will see the pinnacle of our society engaged in beautiful battle! Our greatest fighters will clash for the heart of Aurora! They will face pain and suffering to see our society free of fear, secure and liberated, a paragon of excellence and a pinnacle of inspiration!”

The arena floor fills with lightning and smoke, and in a flash, the Master Legate is gone.

The DJ spins up some dank trap and the stadium is jumping. Out of a trapdoor in the center of the arena emerges an armored Dragon who’s built like a tank and strapped from head to toe with pistols and sawn-off shotguns. He’s even got an Uzi on his back. My Bionet pings me with a profile of Tylak Jackson. Centurion of combat operations, former US Marine, over a thousand confirmed kills, and counting.

“Are those live rounds?!”

“We play with rubber bullets. Stings like hell but better than getting shot.”

Targets pop up from every corner of the arena and Tylak blasts them away as quickly as they appear. As soon as the last one is down he fires is shotgun into the air.

“AURORA! How the hell you doing?!”

They let him know.

“It took all of us to turn this beautiful resort into the greatest city in the world! Not a soul sleeps hungry or homeless in the city of Novaurora! We have created a paradise!”

I clap along and nod a bit.

“And yet…some of us think that the people are not to be trusted! That every sight, every sound, every touch, every memory our Bionets pick up belong to the Dragons! They say it is to fight traitors and terrorists, but what makes a terrorist? Fear! Injustice! Every day growing up in Baltimore the state terrorized us, beat us into biting the curb! The state dashed dreams and fractured families with the excuse of smelling weed, just so an officer could get a promotion!”

Another voice rings though the Galvadrome. Female, sounds Asian.

“A terrorist traitor leaves no scent. A terrorist has no regard for our rights but how to undermine them.”

A petite Dragon strides into the arena from a side entrance and the crowd goes wild.

Stanisław almost leaps from his seat and shouts. “Uyen, Centurion of intel! This is gonna be a great fight.”

“She’s gonna be your boss,” Oskar adds dryly.

She speaks up as the music warps into a tranquil offset around her. Light flows through the air like a river and parts at her footsteps.

“Our world is war. If we allow ourselves a weakness, we threaten our prosperity. It is a long fall from the top.”

Plenty of cheers and boos on both sides. I’m split — they’re both good points, but does this mean they’ll always be watching me?

Tylak steps forward and furrows his brow.

“We fight the fears of the world so our people don’t have to. They shouldn’t fear us-”

He cocks his shotgun.

“-and I don’t fear you!”

Uyen giggles and sinks into a stance.

“Don’t be afraid of me…”

She splits into five and each jumps in a separate direction as barriers rise from the arena floor.

“YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID OF US!”

I turn to Stanisław.

“Ive never seen holograms that realistic!”

“Bionet simulation. Everyone here is plugged in.”

Tylak fires his shotgun dead ahead and the hologram fizzles away.

Some of the holograms lunge for cover while others charge him at angles. He shoots at one to the right and it disappears. The DJ favors winners of the second. He sets up a drop if there’s about to be a big hit, and if there is, the lights and music blast against them. Not a moment of mercy.

The real Uyen throws smoke in a dead giveaway but just as he turns to shoot at her, another hologram charges at him with a suicide shriek and explodes into light. Tylak is distracted for just long enough for Uyen to kick the shotgun out of his hands. She blasts him in the face with a loud, bright flash from her wrist but takes a few bullets in the neck from his sidearm. The impact points flare up in gold.

Just as she falls to the ground she rolls into a defensive stance and kicks Tylak’s legs from underneath him. He blindly shoots at the ground she occupied a second ago. She swings back up and slams her elbow into his ribs. He puts up an arm for defense and reaches for his Uzi. Uyen makes a mad dash for a barrier and catches a few shots in the back before she leaps to safety. Four holograms emerge and run in opposite directions. He sprays all along his left flank and the two of them disappear. He tries firing in the same arc but runs out of bullets. Two figures remain.

Uyen and the hologram fling themselves over the barrier and hold out their hands for blinding blasts from their Flash Cannons. Tylak fires wildly at the two but neither get hit. Just as he runs out of bullets he barely misses the chance to put his guard up and takes a kangaroo kick to the stomach. He falls to his back and his head slams into the ground. Uyen lunges forward with a golden blade sprung from her wrist and slashes his throat to a torrent of violet sparks and cheers from the crowd. Tylak howls and writhes in pain.

“Oh my God, did she just kill him?”

“Golden Blade to the throat is the means of victory. Your Bionet tortures your nervous system if you lose. Temporary but painful. Better than death.”

I get a popup on my Bionet to vote. I go with Uyen because she proved how easily distortion can take you down. She wins at sixty-four percent of the vote.

“Wow, that’s close!”

“Fourteen points?”

“In a knockout like that it’s usually thirty. The dragnet issue has been causing a lot of debate.”

The arena floor fills with smoke and presumably some staff come to clean it before the smoke is gone, but I can’t see anything. When the smoke clears we see the arena as flat as it was before.

The music takes on a Japanese quality - pounding percussion alongside a twanging koto. Out of a side entrance steps an Asian man dressed like a high-tech Samurai. Two blades hang by his side while his elaborate Multiform blinks and buzzes along with the tunes. Cherry blossom petals fall at his feet. Bionet says he’s Shiro Suzuki, Decurion, head of software. He slowly raises his hand and opens his palm. Millions of little fireflies fly out to fill the Galvadrome.

“All that we have in this life…” — begins a man who speaks as if he had achieved Nirvana so long ago that he had forgotten what life was like on the other side — “…is a gift from those who came before. There is no reason to hoard what we have in this life if we cannot take it to the next. But when we give back, we advance our species, and live on in our legacy. Our society should value open-source work to be a volunteered virtue, as worthy as helping the few poor we have left.”

Mostly nods. Beautifully spoken but not the kind of thing you go crazy to cheer for.

“Come on, man,” speaks up an American emerging from the other end: Jake Evans, Decurion of High-Risk Security and Loss Prevention. “Health and Wealth for Every Auroran isn’t enough for you?”

“Nothing is enough unless all of humanity shares in the benefits.”

“We can’t trust most of the people on this rock anyway. We do what we can to survive, there’s your legacy.”

“The more we all contribute to open-source projects, the more we all ascend.”

“But on paid company time? If we slack on our own work we could lose a lot of people and profits. Get your head out of the sand. Your little code gods will go on regardless of what we do.”

Shiro seethes into a hiss.

“I cannot fault you for ignorance….but I will not tolerate an insult to the Kodokami!”

Shiro rips his gold-plated katana from his sheath and holds it squarely in front of him.

“The Kodokami live in you as well, fool! And with my help…THEY WILL SHOW YOU THEIR POWER!”

Jake pulls out a pair of blades and charges at Shiro. Shiro holds firm, he doesn’t even adjust his stance.

At the last second he throws a star at Jake’s throat. Contact sizzles with golden sparks and Jake falls straight back.

Shiro stomps on his chest and firmly stabs him in the stomach so hard that the sparks turn to bolts of lightning. Shiro steps off and leaves Jake to writhe. He turns away and speaks calmly to the audience.

“The price of ignorance is failure. We must be grateful for the labor of our ancestors, always.”

Shiro turns to Jake.

“You will learn gratitude.”

Shiro raises his katana over his head.

“Starting with your life!”

Shiro slams his katana past Jake’s desperate palms and into his throat. Without the armor, Jake would surely be dead. The violet explosion is so forceful it blows us all back into our seats. The arena floods with smoke and my vision fills with an exceptional ninety-three percent Glory Vote for Shiro.

“I’m surprised, short fights usually get voted down,” Stanisław says.

“And his request for open-source work on paid time is not very popular among Dragons,” Oskar adds.

“Why would he get voted down? That was awesome!”

“That’s the beautiful in beautiful battle,” Stanisław replies. “That is how customers choose us, like Coca-Cola. Being the best mercenaries isn’t just about ability, it’s about perception. We look as good as Hollywood so people think we’re perfect.”

“People come to us because they can’t afford to pay less.”

The smoke clears just as quickly. The arena is cluttered with sand and debris, like a ghost town from an old Western. Right on cue, an electro mix of country and house music gets the sand bouncing. Out of the ruined saloon steps a Dragon with Centurion markings on a hot pink Multiform duster, with rattlesnakes slithering across the desert fabric. Everyone leaps out of their seats to cheer.

“Airyn the siren!”

“Who?”

“Airyn the siren. The terror from Texas. Centurion of Wealth!”

I check Airyn on the Bionet: former Marine colonel, straight from dissolution to Dragons.

Airyn’s thunder is stolen by a Dragon approaching from the opposite end. She has a set of deep blue armor plates and tin buttons for decoration that give the Revolutionary War jacket just the right shock trooper touch. It looks like she’s got a musket on her back but I watch enough action movies to know that yellow magazine anywhere — that’s a railgun. The audience cheers even louder than I could have imagined. The Wrocławskis can barely contain themselves.

“Amber Wheelehan!?”

“The Health!”

“Great fights tonight!”

“Incredible.”

I take a look at Amber’s profile and a half page of abbreviations after her name before I notice her previous position and blurt out: “She used to run Harvard???”

“We’re lucky to have her.”

Amber shouts out at Airyn.

“There’s no other way to settle this, is there?”

“It will never be settled. We both know that God decides in the end.”

“And what about all the women you put at risk? A blanket abortion ban isn’t just cruel it’s bad social policy. What will you say to women who were raped?”

“What will I say to God?! That I paid to kill the innocent and unborn!? Abortion is legal, the Dragons just don’t pay for it. What more do you need?”

“To tell me what happens to all of those unwanted children.”

“We will take care of them. Health and Wealth for Every Auroran!”

“Those children will grow up feeling like they were bred to be robots!”

“Typical liberal assumptions.”

“And your conservative denialism is making it awfully hard to be a woman!”

“Please, Amber, I have three kids.”

“Good thing they live here instead of Texas so they can learn something smarter than abstinence-only.”

“Look, honey, only one of us gets to be sassy here.”

Airyn sinks and holds her hand to the revolver at her side.

“But don’t you DARE insult Texas OR my kids!”

“You want my sass? Come take it from me.”

“Sass is all you’re made of…”

Airyn raises her six-shooter and pulls the hammer back.

“And when I’m done, there won’t be anything left!”

Airyn unloads at Amber, who throws a squadron of bees from her wrists that zero in on Airyn. Airyn grabs ahold of a rifle from inside her duster that fires clouds that turn into lightning. It sears Amber’s miniature drones into robot toast.

Amber grabs her musket-railgun in response. Airyn jumps behind a ruined wall a moment before the top is blown off right over her. She whips her revolver to a quick-loader on her back and spins around to spray down suppressing fire just long enough to ready her Thundercannon.

Airyn blasts Amber in the back of the legs, hairs of a second before she gets behind the saloon. Amber falls over and Airyn swaps her Thundercannon back for dual pistols. She sprints towards the corner Amber ran past and narrowly misses a railgun shot to the chest. Airyn pumps bullets into Amber and makes a move to pistol-whip her in the ribs while the railgun blocks her head, but Amber lands a grappling hook at the roof of a bombed-out building and gets flung upwards just in time to give Airyn a solid boot to the face.

Airyn climbs to the top of the saloon and rolls to dodge a shot from across the street. She jumps to her feet and teases Amber.

“Is that railgun too heavy for you? Maybe you should go back to lifting papers!”

Amber shoots just underneath Airyn and she nearly falls through the roof.

“Shouldn’t you be wrangling cattle somewhere?”

Airyn shoots a pair of lassos from under her sleeves and pulls herself up.

“Thanks for reminding me!”

She whips a lasso over at Amber who skips over it like a jumprope and laughs.

“I’m a little tougher than a cow.”

Airyn whips back the lasso and it splits at the end to wrap around Amber in six directions.

“I was talking about you.”

She retracts the lasso to drag Amber down two stories and all across the street. Airyn leaps from the building and slams her feet into Amber’s gut. She lifts her up by a rope and holds her Golden Blade to Amber’s throat.

“Any last words?”

“Next week.”

Airyn slashes her and spins on her heels. She fluffs her hair and makes her way towards the exit without even looking at the Glory Vote. Eighty-four percent in her favor.

I’m too caught up in the action to expect the Wrocławskis literally lifting me out of the seat.

“Come on, let’s beat the lines for intermission.”

We all shuffle into the Galvadrome. I see elaborately decorated — they look like vending machines — lining the walls. Have I seen these before?

“Go ahead and pick anything you like, it’s all free.”

“Wait a minute…is that a Brahma?”

“Plenty.”

“What?! These things cost a fortune! How can you afford it?”

They fold their arms and give me funny looks.

“Ok, stupid question. I mean, why? Why do you give away so much for free?”

“In most countries, you don’t interact with your state unless you’re breaking the law or need a driver’s license. Nobody thinks about their country throughout the day, they think about work, or family, or movies, or Twitter. But here, every Saturday, we bring every Auroran together to celebrate our nation, and remind them why we’re in charge. We don’t enforce religion in Aurora, but people need a ritual, and Meizhan happens on the weekend.”

“Then it’s time for my weekend ritual meal.”

I rub my hands together.

“All right tough guy, hit me with a beef on weck.”

“On what?”

“Kummelweck roll, it’s a Buffalo thing. The kind of thing you eat while you watch the Bills lose.”

He raises his eyebrow. “You like watching them lose?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bills, but you try getting a coach to live in a place that cold when San Diego’s on the table.”

It’s out in less than a minute. I go ahead and take a bite.

“Not bad, they even have the right amount of salt.”

“Which is?”

“Too much. I need a beer.”

“Meet us at our seats, we’re set.”

Oskar brandishes a bottle of vodka.

“You can bring vodka in here?”

“Only Dragons. Special privilege.”

As I’m getting my beer I flash back to what happened in Geneva.

No, there’s no point in ruining the experience. Just don’t think about it. Think about this beer. It’s gonna be nice and cold. The line moves fast. Perfect amount of foam. Yeah. Ok, back to our seats. This really is nice. Would’ve figured these guys for Bond villains without a Bond to foil their plans. If I had known this was what the culture was like I would’ve joined a while ago. Maybe Jeremy’s wrong - about these guys, not Perlman, obviously. He’s a smart guy and all but the clueless liberal Ithaca bubble can get to anyone, I guess. Whatever, I’m here now, he can go do his own thing, and I can do mine. And apparently that means sitting down with two Poles sharing a bottle of pale green vodka and pounding it down like it’s Gatorade.

“Look who made it back! Here, take a sip.”

“Burns like I remember it. Tastes like bad decisions.”

“They’ll turn into good decisions, just stick with us.”

“I think… I think I understand the Dragons now. You put on these big shows so that people will stay content with bread and circuses so they don’t rise against you.”

“You’re sort of there. You know Machiavelli, better to be feared than loved as long as you’re not hated, right?”

“Yeah, from school. Vaguely.”

“Ok, so, being feared works better than love when you’re in a tight spot, but fear spawns hate. Why be feared when you can afford to be loved?”

“Dragons kill people and call it a Tuesday, of course the people here are afraid of you.”

“But that’s the difference! Aurorans are in on it, just like us. Nobody goes bankrupt from medical bills, everyone has a home, everyone has a job. Seriously, everyone. When we talk about the poor we mean people who can’t travel outside of North America on vacation, or maybe afford to send their children to college. Not like they need to - we have apprenticeships at school starting at eleven so when they graduate they can start full time at a company they’ve been loyal to for half their life.”

“Eleven, that’s young.”

“The earlier they start the more they make on graduation.”

“How much is it?”

“You could get a mortgage on a home and start a family as a teenager.”

“What about people who don’t want to work for the Dragons?”

“Other employers compete with us for apprenticeships. We draw a pretty large pool but we don’t try to occupy every niche. Take grocery stores for example. The more they automate the more they need talented people who can respond to complex situations that computers aren’t programmed to do, like event planning or recipe advice for guests with food allergies. It’s more than just scanning and bagging. But if everyone wants to work for the Dragons then employers have to raise their wages. We don’t have a minimum wage, but even the crummiest jobs are livable.”

“Yeah…sort of like what they do in Ithaca with guaranteed income. I don’t live in the city limits so I don’t get the monthly check but I’ve done all right for myself. I mean it’s nice that people aren’t in desperate poverty but sometimes I wonder how much potential they lose by handing money to people who buy things from out of town.”

“Sounds like Ithaca wasn’t the market-state for you.”

“I…don’t really know what that is.”

“It’s how states choose to succeed. Take China, for example. They’re a mercantile state. They use state-owned companies to get wealth and protect their order at all costs. We’re a mercantile state too, but not centralized like China. We leave laws to the city.”

“I think I get it. So what are the others? Like, what’s the Metropolitan State?”

“New York says it’s entrepreneurial but it’s mercantile like the rest. Wall Street will always run that city. A purely entrepreneurial state is hard to make past theory, but the closest example is Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurial states say the freer the market is, the easier it is for people to be prosperous. And they do have distributed government: laws and regulations are pretty thin across the Bay Area, but they can vary by city. So in Mountain View there are sensors everywhere and Google owns all of your data, but next door in Cupertino where Apple rules the roost, surveillance equipment is strictly prohibited. Flying a drone without a license can get the SWAT team busting down your door.”

“Mercantile versus entrepreneurial, makes sense.”

“There is another, managerial, like Ithaca. Also Germany. There the focus is on removing risk in people’s lives so that individuals can be independent, but society is collectively productive. The problem we see is that it typically comes with populist ‘tax the one-percent’ policies that discourage growth, but at the same time it can be really good for entrepreneurs, because they can spend their whole life hustling without ever having to worry about feeding themselves. We’re kind of managerial with free health care and apprenticeships, but the difference is at the end of the day, Aurora couldn’t be Aurora without the Dragons.”

At that point, the intermission ends, and the second round of Meizhan begins. The rest of the fights are a multitude of lower ranks. Less political debate and more grudge match, like a Thai boxer taking on a Californian bodybuilder over whether the difference of a hundred pounds matters when there’s an arsenal of weapons and tech available to each. Smart money’s on the Thai boxer and he keeps the upper hand for most of the fight, but all it takes is one well-placed uppercut and he’s flat on the ground. There are a few more, all impressive displays of combat and music, but none posses the flair to compare with the first three, or the last.

Before the final fight begins, I check the profiles and they’re both blank. Just two fake names and a stamp underneath each: [SPECTRE].

“Is my Bionet being hacked?”

“What, are you drunk already?”

“I gotta be if one of the fighters is named Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets and the other is SkyPrincess FairySparkle.”

They both laugh at me.

“Those are Spectres, Dragons that stay anonymous and report directly to the Centurion’s Council, and even most of us Centurions will never know their true identity. They don’t sleep in the same bed twice. Once this fight’s over they’re on the next flight to another mission.”

“Why go out in public if their lives are a secret?”

“To have a good time, you workaholic American! When nobody knows who you are, you can be whoever you want. It’s fun to watch them fight, they don’t fight for anything but fun.”

“Do you know about the fighters?”

“SkyPrincess FairySparkle is a crowd favorite. Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets…don’t know. Maybe a new Dragon, maybe one we’ve seen before using a new persona, we’d never know.”

The arena flashes back to life as a deck on a cruise ship. There are all the expected amenities — deck chairs, pool, sushi bar, a little casino, waterslides for the kids, margarita hose for the parents — and one extremely distraught mass of feathers and glitter in shape of a human male. His wings glow vibrantly on their own but through my Bionet they radiate colors at the edges of human imagination. At mere sight the audience goes wild, kids especially. They wave all sorts of banners they’ve saved up for this point.

“This is the worst seafood in my life, and I’ve been to Oklahoma! Is it too late to go back to Miami?”

He sounds as gay as you’d expect.

“Then go for a swim!”

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets looks halfway between preparing jaguar filet, or hunting it to the ground.

“Shouldn’t you be used to that by now?”

My jaw drops as the audience - my hosts included - burst out laughing.

“Dude! Way too soon!”

Stanisław pushes my shoulder.

“Oh come on, Hurricane Carrie was a year ago. Miami’s still there, sort of.”

SkyPrincess FairySparkle punches through a blackjack table.

“You think that’s funny? You should go for a swim, your lead shoes really complement your tongue!”

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets sprays an olive oil slick at SkyPrincess FairySparkle and blows and handful of pepper into his facemask. SkyPrincess FairySparkle sneezes and slips on the oil, grabbing the edge of a blackjack table just in time to stable himself enough to whip his wings at the chef, smacking him in the face with a residue of glittering powder. Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets growls and steps back into a coughing fit.

“Bad reaction? Maybe it’ll remind you of the trash you make us eat. Hope you took antihistamines!”

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets clutches his chest and backs up to the bar to retrieve a syringe. He jams it into his leg.

“What is this, amateur hour?”

SkyPrincess FairySparkle dashes at Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets to slash him with his claws and gets rebuffed by a cloud of spices.

“Ouch!” Oskar yells. “Wouldn’t want to be caught in that!”

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets sprays SkyPrincess FairySparkle with molasses and slows him from following through with an attack.

“What’s wrong, am I not sweet enough for ya?”

SkyPrincess FairySparkle puts one hand to his hips and another to his lips and blows a kiss to the audience.

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets snatches a bottle of moonshine from the bar and stuffs a rag in. He lights it with a blowtorch and readies the throw.

“Ugh like every bad chef you try to get us drunk on flashy cocktails.”

“If this doesn’t work it’s ‘cause you’re already flaming hard enough to burn down Southern California.”

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets throws the bottle and SkyPrincess FairySparkle rips it out of the air, but it slips out of his hands before he has a chance to throw it back. His feathers singe off and leave his wings dark and hellish.

“Thanks for burning all of that sugar off. You really don’t know your ingredients, do you?”

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets flings another open bottle in an arc with a light from a blowtorch. SkyPrincess FairySparkle deflects it with a wrist spray of rosé.

“I was saving that for after the show! Have you even been to Napa?”

Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets grabs a cleaver and a filet knife and jumps up on to the sushi bar. SkyPrincess FairySparkle extends his claws and follows suit. Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets jabs with the knife to keep SkyPrincess FairySparkle from making a move, then swings around with the cleaver. SkyPrincess FairySparkle roundhouse kicks Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets in the wrist and clocks him in the forehead. Elite Chef Crunchy Pockets slips off the bar and turns it into a cartwheel to get his footing at a distance. SkyPrincess FairySparkle leaps like a cat with such ferocity that he plows straight through his opponent’s defenses and wraps his claws around his throat with violet sparks shooting out at every angle.

Playfully leaping back onto a table assuming a “who me?” pose, SkyPrincess FairySparkle watches his Glory Vote soar to ninety-seven percent.

I guess Crunchy Pockets isn’t coming back next season.

“Hey Wade, want to get some drinks with us?”

Surprisingly, the offer came from Oskar. He’s been quiet all night.

“Phew, yeah, uh, I’m pretty tired but I could get a drink, sure.”

“Great! We’ll take my car.”

Oskar’s Lexus gets priority in the flood of traffic around the Galvadrome after the show. Once we’re out of the worst of it we only have to wait a few minutes getting up to the top of the hill.

“Pantheon is an exclusive club. Dragons and guests only. See that reflective surface?”

The glass that dominates Pantheon shimmers and glistens with an evocative allure to precious gems and metals.

“How can I not?”

“One-way mirrors.”

“Must be a great view.”

“It’s even better from our table.”

The parking lot at Pantheon is like duck-duck-Porsche. As soon as I notice the Pagani I get distracted by the drop top Ferraris, Corvettes, Maseratis, a McLaren, and a pair of actual monster trucks. Cute when couples arrive in matching cars.

The guards at the door see me with the Centurions and let me in without a fuss. The inside shell has the shape of Mayan pyramid with three distinct levels of marble columns and grape leaf trellises, like Zeus’ summer home in America. The bottom level is full of Dragons without much marking aside from their collars, along with a few of their guests and a lot of pretty prostitutes.

The second level is a quieter lounge and dining area, with more families and less noise. Each level and section has a drown-out option so your Bionet keeps other sections’ noise from reaching your brain. Electronic music on the first level dissolves away to downtempo jazz on the second. Compared with the first level, the Dragons on the second are mostly men, white and Asian.

I’m nearly winded by the time I make it to the very top, dominated by a great round table that seats Aurora’s elite — including many of the fighters I saw just an hour ago. Even more than the last two levels, most of the seats at the table are taken by white men. As soon as I can see over the opposite end of the table I see the Master Legate standing with a glass of champagne pointed in my direction.

“Wade Foster, our new director of Infoteering, welcome to the Auroran Dragons!”

I’m too shell shocked by applause to notice an attractive waitress bringing me a glass, and when she places it in my hand I almost drop it. Uyen — without a scratch on her — guides me to an open seat between her an Airyn, who is just as unscathed. Before I have the chance to speak the Master Legate raises his glass again.

“Wade, we are very, very happy to have you here. Not only will you do us a great service by ensuring there will be enough Genesis Gel — and Health — for every Auroran, but we are honored to have one of Upstate’s best infoteers spearheading a grand new venture!”

More applause. I’m too terrified to go off-script that I can only think about following what everyone else does, except clap.

“Now before we have our drinks, Wade, won’t you say a few words?”

I come a hair close to blurting out that this job is worth way more than a million Yuan but my tongue hides in the back of my throat when the better parts of brain remind me that I’m a guest at the top of a pyramid of killers. I turn it into a cough and catch my breath.

“I have to say…I am impressed. The stories make you out to be monsters but you’re still people…and you’ve got class so you can’t be that bad.”

After a laugh the Master Legate picks up just where he was left off.

“Great sense of humor! If surviving near-certain death wasn’t proof enough, we can see plenty of it here. I think you will make an excellent culture fit. To Wade!”

“To Wade!”

Everyone downs their champagne in a gulp and I rush it down to keep from looking rude. Maybe my haste was seen as zeal because as soon as I set my glass down there are waiters all around filling them back to the brim before I can blink. Or perhaps it is merely the custom. The drinking is almost constant. By the sixth glass Airyn pulls me aside and lets me know I don’t have to keep up with everyone. I bet she says that to a lot of recruits. But I’m different, right? I have to seem like I’m different, at least, like I’m good enough to sit with Centurions.

I drink.

I go along with jokes and stories. Black ops in faraway lands drown out to anecdotes about trying to find decent falafel in Dubai. Oh yeah, totally sucks, you’d think in Dubai, right? What time is it? Nobody checks their Bionet at the table. If they do they hide it well. It must be late. Can’t check mine. Maybe I shouldn’t. Should I? Am I not supposed to know the time? Culture fit, culture fit, that’s what they said, gotta stick with it. Forearms on table not elbows. Say ‘sorry’ after interrupting. Laugh at jokes and smile. Wipe your lips with two napkin dabs. Wait did I see Amber do three? Or was that a signal? No, it was two, I just looked twice. Just sit tight. Keep drinking. Lose focus, enjoy the view, look impressed. Get a tap on the shoulder. Spin around two seconds late. Oh me? No I’m fine. No yeah I’m sure. Up tomorrow? Wait when? Nine? That’s way too early. Sorry I should get going. Am I allowed to leave…? Ok, yeah, sorry, just new here, haha. See you tomorrow. Oh! Right, yeah, see you tomorrow. Goodnight!

I don’t remember getting to the hotel. I think someone gives me a ride, or I take a taxi. I throw up at one point, maybe in the car? No, not in a car, I remember standing, for a bit. I remember a shrub. Oh right there’s a shrub in the bathroom. Now I recall. It starts with my Bionet.

[Start sleep sequence, drunk mode]

[Blood Alcohol Content too high to stabilize. Vomit purge required for uninterrupted sleep until 8:15AM. (5) purges remaining]

Next: Chapter 4 - Bring A Photo Of Their Faces

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