Strike up a conversation with the cantankerous former athlete
Given Name: Jonathan Lombardi Age: 30 Home Region: James Park Favorite Food: Double bacon cheeseburger with jalapeños and extra mayo
If you're a boxing fan, you either love or hate Johnny Quick-Knuckles. His feisty, disagreeable personality doesn't allow for middle grounds. But those who know him closely insist that deep down, Johnny's a good guy who cant watch "save the animals" commercials without crying.
It's hard to talk about his career without comparing it to that of his long time rival's, Wesley Strike. However, after their much-hyped revenge match was mysteriously cancelled, the two boxers seem to have finally put aside their differences. Lombardi and Strike now both work as Conductors and have been seen in public trading stories about life on the rails over a cold beer.
Last time I boxed Strike was two years ago. We went for 10 rounds. Bloodied each other up real good. Swear I would’da won, too, if he hadn’t cheated.
Ref didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout the jab below the belt.
I crumpled and Strike won the match. Won the whole damn championship.
It was the last match of both our careers, so of course it was this huge media circus. Hundreds of thousands of people got to watch Wesley Strike steal his place in boxing history, while I lay on the mat, barely breathing, watching my legacy go down the drain. I didn’t box for a year after that. Couldn’t bring myself to. But it ate at me, the way he cheated. I called Strike and challenged him to a rematch, to settle things once and for all, and surprisingly the dummy accepted.
This was supposed to be the fight where I could finally get even.
Y’know, we didn’t always hate each other. Before we were screamin’ obscenities at each other on pay-per-view promos, we were friends. Strike was my neighbor when we were kids. We went to the same school; both joined the wrestlin’ team; helped each other cheat on tests… Hell, we even asked twin sisters to the friggin’ senior prom.
Yeah, we were close. Life just took us down different paths, y’know? I mean, the paths were side-by-side—we both ended up fighters, for cryin’ out loud—but just different enough.
“Maybe once I beat him, we’ll be even. Maybe we can start again.” That’s what I thought before the match. Stupid…
The match was at the Centuryville Event Center. Huge arena—80,000 seats, jumbotron, TV cameras, the whole shebang. It was the same venue as my last fight with Strike, and this time I would leave the champion.
We didn’t talk before the match. The MC riled the crowd into a frenzy with the usual fanfare, introduced me, introduced Strike, and the match began. Even though I’d been training for six months, I felt rusty. Strike seemed rusty, too. But as the match wore on, I felt my muscles waking up, remembering how to jab, slip, roll, and pivot.
Round one: left jab, left jab, cross, slip. Right jab into a left uppercut, then roll. Bell.
A clap of thunder booms outside, loud enough to hear over the roar of the crowd.
Round two: right jab, cross, right hook. Pivot then telegraph a left jab, but throw right. Bell.
A second clap of thunder rumbles outside the arena.
Round three: Slip and prepare for an uppercut…
And then the power goes out.
The audience shouts in surprise. I stand up straight, frustrated that I didn’t get to surprise Strike with my uppercut.
A third clap of thunder shakes the building, but this time it sounds like it’s coming from inside the arena. It’s the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. I closed my eyes and covered my ears, but only for a second, because in that second two things happened.
First, the lights came back on.
Then a wave of static—like TV static, I can’t make this up—moves across the arena. When it’s gone, it’s like I’m in a different place. I mean, I wasn’t, it was the same arena, but suddenly the audience was quiet and Strike wasn’t in the ring with me.
Instead of Strike, there was this big, plain guy. That’s the only way to describe him. You’ve never seen a guy this plain. It was like someone had gone into his DNA and erased his skin tone and hair color and hit reset on his face.
“Who the hell’re you?” I asked the guy. He turned his whole body to look at me. Remember, during all of this the audience is dead quiet.
“Jonathan Lombardi,” the guy said, in the plainest voice you ever heard. But that was my name.
“The hell you are,” I said. I cocked my fist, ready to land one right between his eyes. “Tell me who you are, and exactly what is going on here.”
“Jonathan Lombardi,” he said again. “Alias Johnny Quick Knuckles.” He took a step toward me and looked down at me. Jeez, this guy was at least twice my size. “We have good news!” The words were friendly, but with him towering over me, they sounded like a threat.
“We?” I asked. “Who’s with ya? You gotta a turd in your pocket?” The guy didn’t laugh. He didn’t respond at all. But I did hear his voice coming from outside the ring, from where my coach was standing. It wasn’t my coach: it was another completely plain…person. If these guys were even human…
And then I heard the voice again, teeny-tiny, like it was far away. It had to be coming from the stands.
“Jonathan Lombardi,” said 80,000 of the same voice from every seat in the stands.
“What the hell is this?” I screamed at the big guy towering over me. I threw a left hook at him, and he grabbed my fist with lightning-fast reflexes.
“Greetings from the Johnson Group Research Foundation,” he said, calm as the dead. With his free hand, he punched me in the gut, sending me flying into the ropes.
A wave of cheers came from the crowd of clones. The brute slowly walked toward me.
“Wes—” I spluttered. I could taste blood. “What did you… Where’s Wesley?” The big guy grabbed my arm and pulled me up.
“Ms. Fletcher would like to offer you a career opportunity,” he said. Then he punched me in the face, harder than I’ve ever been hit. He dropped me, and I crumpled to a heap on the mat. Memories of my defeat during my last match with Strike flooded my brain. The room was spinning. I was starting to get tunnel vision.
I could hear the thunder again, but when I found the strength to look up, I saw it wasn’t thunder. The clones in the crowd were climbing out of their seats, falling over the rows in front of them, scrambling toward the ring.
“S-somebody…help,” I croaked. The clones were starting to crawl under and over the ropes.
“My colleagues and I would be happy to assist you,” said the big guy. “You’ll be escorted to the Research Bay, where Ms. Fletcher will—”
And then everything went black.
I woke up feeling like I’d just been punched in the head. The ringing in my ears and the pain in my jaw made me think that maybe I actually had been. And as I squinted, blocking the blinding light from reaching my throbbing brain, I remembered.
I had been punched in the head.
Quite a few times, actually.
The doc was probably gonna be pissed at me for failing another concussion test.
“Ah! Lovely. He’s finally awake,” a woman’s voice said. I slowly opened my eyes, seeing the outlines of two people in front of me. The one on the left was smaller. The one on the right may as well have been a gorilla. “Thank you, Unit C-602,” said the woman. “You’re dismissed.” I heard the distinct cracking of knuckles and the hulking figure on the right backed away.
“Where the—” I started to say, and was surprised by how shitty my voice sounded. “Where the hell am I?” I tried to sit up—I didn’t even realize I was laying down—but found out I was strapped to whatever I was laying on.
“Ope, ope, ope!” the woman tutted. She sounded like my grandmother. “You’d better save your strength, dear. We’ve got a long day of testing ahead of us.”
I kept trying to break out of the bonds. “I don’t have time for your tests, lady!”
“Oh, come now, you’ve got all the time in the world,” she said.
Whatever she’d tied me down with wasn’t gonna budge. I gave up and caught my breath. “Could ya at least tell me where the hell I am? And who the hell you are?”
“Now that I can do!” she said cheerfully. “How about we get this awful light out of your face?” Turns out it was one of those lamps like you see at the dentist office, hanging over me. She reached to turn it off, and when the blind spot in my vision started to fade, I finally got to see the room around me.
It looked like some kinda high-tech science lab. The floors were black and shiny, and there were all kinds of… I dunno, science stations all over the place. The ceiling looked about a mile away, with rows of bright fluorescent lights filling the room with office lighting.
“And let’s get you seated properly,” the lady said, reaching for a button somewhere below me. The thing I was laying on started to buzz and raise me up, kinda like one of those chairs you sit in—also at the dentist office.
“Is this, like, some kind of psycho dentist office?” I asked. That made the woman laugh—and it sounded like she meant it, too.
“No, Mr. Lombardi, you’re not at a dentist office,” she said. A big smile stretched across her face. “My name is Maureen Fletcher. You’re in my lab.” Maureen was wearing a long white coat and sitting in a rolling chair next to me.
I’d heard that name before. “You’re the lady from those press conferences,” I said. She didn’t say anything. “Yeah, I know you! You work for that health company in the big, black building. Is that where we are right now?” Maureen stared at me while I talked, her smile stretching wider and wider. It was really creepy.
“That’s exactly where we are, Mr. Lombardi,” she said.
“But I don’t get it,” I said. I moved my hand to scratch my head, then remembered it was strapped down. “I’m not, like, uh… Sick, or anything.”
Maureen laughed again, but this time it didn’t sound like she thought anything was funny.
“Of course not, dear,” she said. Behind her, I saw the same huge gorilla-shaped outline blocking the exit. And then it hit me it was the same plain guy I saw in the arena, the one who knocked me out. These people musta kidnapped me…
I needed to think of a way to get outta there. But, you know, I was still beat-up pretty badly. I couldn’t do anything on my own.
“Now, let’s get started with the test,” Maureen said. She hummed some kind of jaunty tune and rolled her chair over to one of the science stations. When she came back, she was dragging some kind of robot arm-looking thing behind her. I didn’t know what it was, but I hated it anyway.
“Nuh-uh, lady!” I shouted, thrashing around on the table. “If you think I’m gonna let you probe me with your crazy machine, you got another think comin’!”
Maureen pressed a button and the table lowered me onto my back again. “Don’t be a Fussy Filbert, now, Mr. Lombardi,” she said while she positioned the arm over me. It was pointed at me like the dentist light had been. “Or I’ll have to have you sedated.”
“Oh, a sedative! The lady is gonna sedate me now! That’s rich.” I saw Maureen nod at someone I couldn’t see, and then it felt like a semi-truck crashed into the side of my head.
I woke to ice-cold water pouring over my face.
“Thank you, Unit C-602,” I heard Maureen say. “Now, are you done struggling?” She was hovering with her face inches above mine. If the water hadn’t been enough to wake me up, the stench of her stale perfume could’ve worked like smelling salts.
I could barely see straight, but I managed to spit water in her face.
“Excellent,” she said, wiping it away. “I’m going to subject you to a laser, now.” She stood and walked around to the back side of the robot arm. “Though I suppose ‘laser’ is the wrong word for it. You can’t see what comes out of it, like you can with lasers. It’s sort of like… Well, it’s almost an x-ray machine. Only, this machine emits a different kind of radiation, and you don’t get to wear that neat lead cape to protect yourself.”
“You…bitch…” I managed to mutter.
“What was that dear?” she said, turning on the machine. “I can’t hear you over the sound of the machine.”
Maureen was right: I couldn’t see anything coming out of the machine. But I could definitely feel it.
I gotta be honest, it actually felt kinda nice. My whole body felt warm and sorta tingly. As far as super villain death lasers go, I think I got pretty lucky.
And also, I tasted vinegar, which was weird.
After a while, she switched off the machine and raised me to a seated position. Maureen sat down with a clip board and immediately started taking notes. Without looking up, she snapped her fingers over her head, and Unit C-602 appeared next to her. I saw a huge fist winding up for another powerhouse punch, and braced myself to get knocked out again.
But it never happened.
My head jerked to the side like I got punched hard, but I never felt the impact. What I did feel, was…something else. Something worse. I felt something wet and powerful wrap around my legs. And then another something. And suddenly, there had to be dozens of things wrapped around my legs, cutting off the blood flow. I felt rows and rows of suckers digging into my skin, eating me alive.
Yeah, of course I screamed. You would’ve too.
But when I opened my eyes, the only things wrapped around my legs were the belts binding me to the table. I kicked my legs, and as I watched the belts strain to keep me tied down, I saw dozens, no, hundreds of red circles appear on my skin. Sucker marks.
“Now how did that feel?” Maureen asked.
“What the FU—” I couldn’t get it out before her lackey decked me again.
And that’s how the tests went on for years. I mean, it wasn’t actually years, but it felt like years.
I got punched, but I felt tentacles trying to rip my legs off.
I got a hot poker pressed into my palm, but I felt a cheese grater scrape against my shoulder.
I got bee stings all over my chest, but I felt the tip of my tongue splitting open.
“That’s enough,” Maureen finally said, standing up from her stupid little chair. She tapped her fingers to her temple and said, “We need to let them rest before the next round of radiation and testing. In the meantime, you know what to do.” She nodded to Unit C-602, who began undoing the belts keeping me on the table.
“You’re just…gonna…let me go?” I wheezed.
“Of course not,” Maureen said. “You don’t seem like you’d have the strength to walk, anyway.”
I had to admit she was right. But I was still dead-set on escaping, somehow.
“No, Mr. Lombardi,” she continued, “my associates and I need to compare notes. For now, you’re free to roam this room, and this room only. The door will be locked, and I promise there are no other ways in or out.” She turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said. Maureen stopped with her hand on the door and turned to me. “Aren’t you worried I’m gonna, like… Destroy your lab? Mess up your equipment?”
The scientist looked me in the face, and I swear I saw a twinkle in her eyes.
“No, I’m not worried, Mr. Lombardi,” she said. “I’m expecting it.”