Day of the fight. Wake up that morning with a temperature of 100.6. Sweating. Flushed cheeks. Anxious. Always am on these days. Feel the regulating coolant kick in as I get out of bed, blooming at the base of my skull and spreading through my body.
Manuela already in the kitchen doing dishes. Ignore her and do what I always do the day of a fight. Do what I always do no matter what—prepare. Strap on the goggles, run the simulations again. Run them so many times the images of that wiry Hispanic sneering at me with a black mouthpiece burns into my vision. Win them all again—just like I will the real thing.
Manuela heats a frozen TV dinner and turns on the television. Grab the remote and turn it back off. Close my eyes as I eat in silence, imagining the fight. Abraja ducking for the takedown, me raising my knee and slamming it into his cocky face. Him collapsing to the mat with a busted nose, me lunging on top of him raining down blows before the ref pulls me off.
Day moves slow. Fight day always does. Run the simulations more. Take a shit while sketching out Abraja’s punch combos. Skip rope in the living room for an hour staring at the wall of my living room imagining me bobbing and weaving his strikes, countering with a knockout blow.
Reason I’m going to win: no one else on this planet has my drive.
Wait by the door for Dade’s text, chest warm like I’ve had a shot of whiskey. Already out into the apartment corridor by the time my phone chimes.
Night is 27.4 degrees when I step out of the dingy apartment building. Adrenaline thrumming through me the way it always does before a fight. Dade’s black sedan at the curb. Slide into the backseat. He’s already on a phone call.
“Yes sir,” Dade says. “I understand that, sir.”
Hands me water and protein bar without looking back at me. See him in the rearview, Asian man with pouty features. Down the water bottle in seven deep gulps. The heated air from the car vents is 86.3 degrees. Dade pulls back on the street, phone still to his ear. Car’s speed fluctuates between 14 and 23 miles per hour, windshield framing wet city roads, orange streetlamps dawning night in sepia tone.
“I understand, Mr. Vanderbilt, but we knew there was going to be a learning curve,” Dade says. “We knew the risks going into it. If we were going to truly create an AI that would be comparable to humans—Yes, I understand that. I understand that. Of course. And it took a little longer to click into place than we thought, but now he’s firing on all cylinders. I mean, the success should speak for itself. He’s fought his way to a title bout.”
Car stops at a red light. Dade’s hands grip the wheel. They’re small, wrists thin. Not the hands of a fighter.
“Yes, I know it’s not about the wins. It’s about the money. And you don’t know how much I appreciate that loan—again, I understand.” Dade pinches the bridge of his nose, closes his eyes as we idle at a stop light. “I know you need it very soon. No, there’s no need to bring the lawyers into this. When he wins tonight, the purse will go a long way. From there, I’ll figure it out. I—”
Silence. Dade throws the phone at the passenger side door and curses.
“Hung up on you?” Knew all about Vanderbilt. Met him once. Business suit, gelled hair. Typical rich white guy. Smiles how I imagine a shark would smile.
Light turns green. Dade accelerates. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Throw me another water.”
Dade picks up a bottled water from the cup holder and slams it into my hand.
“When you moving me out of that apartment?”
“That’s the least of my worries right now, Aris.”
Next street over, see flashing lights, police tape. See a man in an overcoat squatting over a body in blood. Blood’s colored red 113, green 5, blue 5.
“Don’t belong in this shithole neighborhood.”
Dade turns, stadium coming into view in the distance, traffic picking up now.
“You win tonight, you can have any apartment you want in this city.”
“Thought this was the American Dream. Make money and spend it. Not let your chauffeur take it all.”
Dade slams on the brakes, cars honk behind him. Turns to face me. See how tired he looks.
“I’m not your chauffeur, Aris. I’m your programmer. I’m the reason you’re here tonight, fighting for the light heavyweight world championship. You have no idea how much I’ve put on the line for you. The toll it’s taken on me. The only reason you’re able to work for this, is because I worked my ass off for it in the first place. And if you think I’m getting to pocket any of the money, you’re wrong. You win tonight, you’ll get a new apartment.”
Look back out the window. Clench my fists. Only sound the hiss of tires as they cut through puddles.
In the stadium. Cramped bare-walled room where we wait before the fight. Running another simulation while Dade texts. Body temperature goes up again, coolant lowers it. Temp in the room is 71.4.
Dade brings out his tablet. Last-minute tweaks to my programming before they call for me. Block of code appears on the screen. The Sisyphus Code. What makes me, me. What gives me my drive and the ability to learn from mistakes, get better.
“Just remember the game plan, okay?” Dade says as he types. “A standing fight wins. He’s too dangerous once he gets on the ground, even for you. Remember all our preparation, all the tape we watched. Watch for the takedown. When you see it, throw a knee.”
Nod. Can’t stand still. Look at myself in the mirror. Shaved head, black skin. Body sculpted with muscle. Not an ounce of fat on it.
Knock on the door.
“The two mantras,” Dade says, hand on my shoulder, all the earlier tension between us gone.
“Learn by doing.”
“And the second?”
He pats me on the back. “Let’s go.”
Walk out of the room into the hallway with concrete floor and cinder-block walls. Cameraman backtracking with the camera aimed at me, documenting my walk from room to ring. Pound my fists together, sneer, glare straight at the camera.
Intro music starts playing. “More Human than Human” by White Zombie. Round a corner, entrance up ahead. Buzz of the crowd, bursting into cheering and booing when I finally step into the arena.
Walk down the aisle, ignoring the audience. Show my gloves to the referee, walk up the stairs to the cage, jog around the ring. Stop in my corner and wait.
Few seconds pass. Arena goes dark, cheers rising. Abraja’s song over the loudspeakers: “Human” by Rag’N’Bone Man. Not his normal intro music. Making a point.
I wait, shifting weight from foot to foot. Know Abraja appears when cheers spring through the arena.
Comes into sight. Clay-colored skin, body slimmed of fat, only toned muscle remaining. Goes through the same process as I did, staring at me the whole time. Stare back. Steps into the ring, jogs past me, both of us still staring.
Go through the motions: ring announcer belting out introductions, the ref calling us to the middle of the ring, explaining the rules, both of us staring at each other and ignoring him. Spend the whole time wondering what Abraja’s smug face will look like once my knee caves it in.
Return to opposite sides of the octagon, wait a few seconds.
Ref drops his hand in the middle of the ring and shouts, “Let’s go!”
Advance on each other, shuffling to the center of the ring as quickly as possible, crowd’s cheer swelling.
First few seconds, that dizzying sensation, mind adjusting from simulation to the real thing. He throws a jab faster than I expect. Dodge it and the hook that follows.
He continues forward, hands dancing up and down, up and down. He’s a ground-and-pound fighter, decent striker but not as good as me. But he doesn’t seem to care. Advances on me, pounding fists together.
Try to slow him down with a couple jabs and hooks with little power behind them. Doesn’t slow Abraja, though. Keeps advancing, backing me against the cage.
Stand my ground. Dare him to come at me. Throw a testing jab, then a hook that would cave an eye socket. Cuts through air where Abraja’s ducking head was a second earlier. His shoulder and arm slam into my midsection, breath knocked from me as he drives me to the ground.
Crowd’s roar deafening. Dade’s shouting. Can’t understand what he’s saying. Abraja’s pinning me in half-guard, his breath hot on my face. Keeps me pinned, our bodies writhing, until he lifts his elbow and slams it down on my head.
Feel hot blood, 99.1 degrees, spatter on my face. Burning pain above my eyebrow. Try to get up, but he rains blows down on me. Clicking that marks the final ten seconds of the round. Hits me in the head, dazes me. More strikes. Block myself, hoping the ref won’t call it. Then the ding. Dade’s already getting out the stool by the time I get to my feet.
“You got cocky,” Dade says. “Thought you didn’t have to watch the takedown. He baited you the whole way.”
“Yeah.” Breathing a little heavy. Cut on my brow stinging, more blood dripping hot down into my eye. Cut man wipes it away, presses on the swelling with a cold compress.
“Good news is, this is the best thing that could’ve happened in the first round. Shows you that you’re mortal,” Dade continues. “He won that round. You have to come back and take the next one. Remember. When he goes for takedowns, throw the knee.”
Cut man fingers a generous dollop of Vaseline from a container and smears it on my cut.
“Learn by doing,” Dade says.
“And win,” I say, and the bell rings.
Abraja settles back, plays conservative after stealing the first and taking the lead in the fight, looking to weasel out a 10-9 round. My turn to advance, to throw him off balance. Keep the distance close between us, waiting for Abraja to try to execute a takedown. His fists piston up and down. Time his movements and plant my front foot, throwing a blurring jab that lands on his nose. Snaps his head back. Not enough power to wound him, but enough to stun him. He takes a step back. I advance, hands held in front of me, elbows sticking out, fists ready to fly.
Right uppercut slams into Abraja’s stomach. He lowers a hand just as I plant a hook on his nose. Feel the crunch under my fist, his blood spraying 99.4 degrees onto me. Dodge his counter. Watch him stagger into the side of the cage, huddling, trying to protect midsection and head simultaneously.
Rage screaming in my head. Throw fist after fist, aiming wherever I see an opening, one slipping through Abraja’s gloved hands to snap his head back. This one powerful, slamming his head against the cage. His feet unsteady now. More blood, his right eye swollen shut.
Crowd erupts into even louder cheering than before, louder than I thought possible. Dade screaming, his voice cutting through the chaos.
“Throw the knee!”
Hasn’t tried to take me down yet. But I do it anyway. Throw a knee into his stomach.
Doesn’t have a chance to connect though. Something flashes in my vision. Like a photographer’s bulb going off inside my head. And what’s left is nothing. Nothing that matters at least. Can remember who I am, what this is, everything that’s happened leading up to now. But can’t remember what matters. The right way to throw a hook. How to cut a cheek open with an elbow. How to takedown an opponent.
Step backward. Look over to Dade, but he isn’t looking at me. Arms resting on the elevated ring, head on top of them.
Ring of the bell. Abraja struggling to stand on unsteady feet. Not knocked out.
Walk back to my corner in a daze, collapse on the stool.
Still won’t look at me.
The last-minute tweaks to my code. The phone call with Vanderbilt about paying off the debt. The texts Dade sent while I ran simulations.
“You did this,” I say. “You rigged the fight. It’s all gone.”
“Just your fighting knowledge,” Dade says, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“How much you bet on me to lose?”
“Enough, and then some. Enough to quit all this.”
No punch to the head ever dazed me like this.
“I trusted you.” Tears springing in my eyes.
“I would’ve done something less extreme, but I had no time. After Vanderbilt’s call, after his threats, I had to improvise. This was the quickest fix I could think of on short notice.”
“Restore it. Restore it all.”
Dade shakes his head.
“Restore it after the fight, then.” Voice pleading now. “Please.”
Dade’s look of pity. “I deleted it. Permanently. This is our last fight. I’m not doing this anymore. If I was you, if I had your programming, maybe I could find a way to deal with Vanderbilt and all the stress. But it’s—it’s just too much. Some things aren’t worth the money. Or the effort.”
Think of everything I just lost, all the years of work. Trying not to cry.
“You think this has been easy for me?” Dade says, seeing the expression on my face. He’s tearing up too. “Having to admit to myself that I failed? That all this time and effort has been a waste?”
The bell rings.
“Get out of my way,” I say. “I’m gonna win.”
Abraja steps back into the middle of the octagon. Doesn’t take long to see how helpless I am. Confidence replaces his wounds. Spends the first minute priming me, getting me pressed against the cage like he did the first round. Try to defend myself but can’t. Dodges my counterpunches easily. Plunges in and takes me down, maneuvering on the mat. Smell of sweat and the feel of hot breath and the crowd’s roar becoming my world. Puts me in a kneebar.
Grit my teeth and flail my arms, trying to hit him. Pressure mounts. Feels like my knee is about to break. More pain than I’ve ever experienced. If Dade had programmed me without pain sensors. Maybe then I could do it.
He explodes to his feet and sprints around the ring, celebrating with his camp. Lay on the ground, staring at the lights above me. The bright lights of the big time, my one-and-only chance.
Check the clock. One minute and twenty-three seconds to lose. To expose the difference between who I was before and whatever I am now.
Struggle to my feet and leave the ring. Shouts rain down on me as I step down the aisle toward the back. A chant rising up from the crowd.
“We won. We won. We won.”
Step back into the rainy cold night, puddles reflecting the city lights above.
“Need a ride?” A cabbie asks, rolling down the driver’s window.
Tell him I’ll walk.
“Tough fight tonight.”
Turn and head down the sidewalk, not sure which direction I’m headed, knee throbbing from the submission, cut above my left eye swelling it to a squint.
Take out my phone. Call Dade.
“The purse you got tonight? That’s my emancipation fee. You never talk to me again. You never think about me again.”
“Aris, you’ll need regular updates. You’ll need—”
“I’ll figure it out. I know what I don’t need, and that’s you.”
“Think about this. You don’t have what it takes to survive on your own. You’re not programmed—”
“Programmed to learn from mistakes. And I learned from a big one tonight.”
Hang up and bring up the AI on my phone. Asked it for walking directions home. On the way, turn off my internal thermometer and all my sensors.
Manuela’s there when I return. Tell her to get out and not come back. Sit down on the couch. Try watching TV but the talking heads are recapping the fight, offering their theories on why I came out so flat in the last round.
Grab the goggles off the coffee table. Don’t want to, but have to. Strap them on and enter the simulation, world around me going bright blue.
“Good evening,” the female voice says. “What would you like to learn tonight?”
“Basics of Brazilian ju-jitsu.”
“My records indicate you have previously mastered these courses. Would you still like to continue?”
Figure appears in front of me, talking about the basics of mixed martial arts. Spend four hours training. Do my dishes, fold clothes after. Next day, go to the local warehouse, ask for an application.
“You sure?” The foreman asks. Recognizes me, gives me a smile. “Man of your talents?”
“All right,” he says, handing me the tablet to fill out the application. Still sounding like I’m making the wrong decision. “We’ve had half our jobs cut in the last few years. Automation’s killing the manufacturing industry. But I’ll see what I can do. Boss’d like to have a celebrity like you around.”
“You should know, though, if we do have a spot for ya,” he says after I finish my application. “This ain’t an easy job. Twelve hour days, back-breaking work. But hey, a little elbow grease is what keeps America running, am I right?”
John Post is currently a communications director at the University of Arkansas and, having recently decided to pursue his passion to become a published author, has begun writing in earnest. He currently resides in Fayetteville with his wife and sons. He is also the former Arkansas State Checkers Champion, a hobby he pursues in his spare time along with coffee roasting, reading and playing video games. He muses periodically on his blog at https://johntpost.wordpress.com.