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Jump in the ring for a tête-à-tête with the legendary boxer
Given Name: Wesley Strike Age: 31 Home Region: James Park Favorite Food: Chicken marsala
Boxing legend. Harperdeen College Alumni. Savvy entrepreneur. These are just some of the words that have been used to describe Wesley Strike. After triumphing over his long-time boxing rival, Johnny Lombardi, Strike put his economics degree to work, opening Fripp's Haberdashery with then-girlfriend, Imogen Fripp.
After his mysterious disappearance around the time of his revenge match against Lombardi, and after his subsequent breakup with Fripp, Strike changed career paths, opting to become a Conductor for unknown reasons.
I would imagine Johnny was still upset about our championship match two years ago, and that’s why he thought up the rematch in the first place. I heard he still tells folks that I bribed the ref to let me punch him in the groin.
It’s funny how he remembers the match so differently than how it happened. Damn fool… I mean, come on. Like I’d risk my reputation with a cheap blow like that. I won that fight fair and square, and his ego was hurt so he couldn’t let it go.
He wasn’t always that way. I’d go as far as saying we even used to be close friends. But we made different decisions when we were kids, and that made all the difference.
Most boxing fans know we grew up together. Just two kids in a bad neighborhood in the foothills of James Park. That’s in all the documentaries about my career. What they don’t tell you in the films is how much I looked up to him, when we were kids. I wanted to be just like Johnny Lombardi. He showed up to school wearing a newsie cap, so I went home and begged my mom for money to buy my own. He joined the wrestling team at school, so I joined too. And when Johnny wanted to learn how to box, I went with him to sign up for a gym membership.
But the scene at the boxing gym changed as we got older. Johnny was hanging around with a bad crowd, and I started to wonder why I had looked up to him for so long. He had so much promise, so many opportunities to succeed, and I wanted those opportunities, too. Johnny just wanted to box, but I knew I needed more from life. So I moved across the Righteous River to study economics at Harperdeen College, in Pemberton Heights.
I kept up with boxing while I was at school as a way to stay in shape. Competed in a few matches and did pretty well. Caught the attention of a scout, who invited me to enter a tournament in Centuryville. And the rest, well… You’ve seen the documentaries.
The rematch started like any other highly-televised boxing match, with the pyrotechnics and the confetti cannons and the screaming fans.
All of Johnny’s moves were predictable. I could tell he was rusty and relying on his old patterns, and I handled them easily. For two rounds, we do the squared circle tango, fans screaming, MC booming over the speakers. And something else is booming: a thunderstorm raging outside the arena. But the noise doesn’t distract me. Lombardi telegraphs an uppercut, and prepared to dodge it and hit him with a strong jab.
And then the power goes out.
The audience roars, this time in surprise, and the lights are back on in a flash. I turn to Johnny and smile—you gotta laugh at times like that, even in the middle of a showdown with your rival. But when I look at him, I saw something sweeping in from behind him. Like some kind of shock wave, or a glitch in the system, but in real life. Just beyond the threshold of the wave, I saw that it was raining inside the stadium, and as the wave advanced so did the storm. I don’t know why, but I held my breath and shut my eyes before it hit me.
I opened my eyes again when I felt the rain hitting my face. Johnny wasn’t there.
“What in the hell…?” I muttered, turning to look around the arena. I was completely alone. No Johnny, nobody at ringside, no fans in the stands.
I started towards the edge of the ring to climb out and investigate the situation. My feet splashed through puddles that were forming in the fabric of the mat. I snapped to attention when I hear a loud crack directly overhead, and I rolled out of the way in time to dodge a bolt of lightning. Static crackled through the air and I felt it on my skin as I army crawled to the edge of the ring and slipped under the ropes. When I regained my footing, I sprinted toward the entrance to the stadium’s service tunnels. Electricity arced from one side of the ceiling to the other, bringing with it a boom I could feel in my chest. I saw a shower of sparks in my peripheral vision, and when I turned I watched the jumbotron fall onto the boxing ring. I winced, waiting for the sound of the impact, but instead of the raucous screeching of flattening metal, I heard…a splash? The giant screen landed on the mat and sank through it, like a space ship’s return capsule crashing into the ocean. A wave lurched over the edges of the ring and a moment later a colossal spike of water rose from the center before falling back down.
I didn’t have time to consider the possibility of the spectacle. The ground beneath me opened, and suddenly I was sinking into the water. I caught myself on the edge of the puddle, kicked hard, and hoisted myself out of it. That’s when I noticed the shrieking. It was different from the cheers of the fans. It sounded…wet. Unearthly.
Something grabbed me from behind and pulled me backwards into another impossibly deep puddle. I barely had time to hold my breath before I was careening headfirst, down, down, down into the depths. I writhed and jerked, trying to shake off whatever had grabbed me. I forced my eyes open.
With blurred vision, I saw I was being dragged toward a brilliant white light one hundred yards below me. In the light, I could see the thing dragging me was some kind of monster with a shell on its back and a dented skull. And when I looked up, I could see hundreds more of them circling like sharks above me.
I started to lose consciousness. And for some reason, the thing that was on my mind wasn’t the monsters pulling me god knows where. I was thinking about the neighbor kid I used to play with on the gently sloping plains outside the neighborhood.
What had happened to Johnny?
After the first round of tests, the Researcher said I was free to roam the lab.
It felt like a trap. I didn’t see cameras anywhere, but the room felt like an observation tank, and I was the animal inside it. Or, rather, I was one of the animals inside it.
There were six enclosures scattered around the space, all containing different biomes, seemingly designed to best suit their inhabitants’ needs. And none of the “animals” in them resembled anything I’d ever seen before. I had already been personally introduced to three of them while I was being tortured. And I’d already made memories with another of them.
The turtle creature that brought me here was in one of them, greedily gnawing on a cucumber. I shuddered when I thought of the massive swarm of them swirling in whatever watery pocket of space it had dragged me through. When it pulled me through the ring of light into this laboratory, I was immediately sedated, then woke up bound to the table in the center of the room. The pungent flavor of vinegar coated my tongue. A man wearing a white coat and dark glasses stood over me, smoking a cigarette.
“Sorry about the vinegar taste,” he said through a cloud of smoke. “Side effect of the drug we gave you.”
“Where am I?” I asked.
“The Johnson Group Research Foundation.” He spoke deliberately, in an even tone, like every word was practiced.
So, I’d been kidnapped by the Johnson Group. I always wondered what it was they were up to in their ominous, sprawling compound. Of course, I’d heard the rumors. And I didn’t like any of them. I knew I needed to find a way out.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“The Researcher,” he said.
“Is that your birth name?”
“Of course not.”
“Why am I here?”
The Researcher took another long drag from his cigarette. “For testing,” he said finally.
“Testing for what?”
“I can’t tell you that information.”
“It was worth a shot,” I said.
“If you say so.” The man snubbed his cigarette and wheeled over a machine that featured a long appendage with numerous joints. He aimed the arm directly at my torso and switched it on.
I don’t know what I expected the thing to do to me, but even then, what happened was not what I was expecting. An invisible warmth poured out of the device, and I felt like I was floating in a gentle current.
Interestingly, I could smell a woman’s perfume, though I couldn’t tell where the scent came from.
“How do you feel?” asked the Researcher.
“Fine,” I said. I wasn’t going to give him any more information than he needed.
“Excellent,” he said. He walked away and returned pushing what looked like a fish tank on wheels, positioning it at the end of the table near my feet. The Researcher pulled a salted cracker from his pocket and crushed it in his hand, letting the crumbs fall into the tank. For a moment, nothing happened, and then a long, red tendril shot out of the pool.
Or rather, it was dozens of smaller tendrils woven together in the form of a singular, larger one.
It wrapped around my leg.
“Oh SHIT!” I yelled. “What IS that?”
“Patience, Mr. Strike,” the Researcher said in his same, even tone, completely unphased by what he was seeing.
A second braded tentacle shot out of the tank. Then a third. And a fourth. As the slithering limbs wrapped tighter around my legs, I began to feel something else. I felt the surface of the tentacles shudder against my skin, and hundreds of sharp suckers latched onto me, digging into my flesh.
“How do you feel?” the Researcher asked.
“Are you KIDDING me?” I spat. “I feel— I feel—” I didn’t feel the tentacles at all. When I paused to truly consider what was happening to me, I realized I had only anticipated pain, and thus assumed I was in pain. “Actually, I—”
Suddenly, I felt an explosion in my left temple which fractured and radiated throughout my skull. It felt like someone three times my size had sucker-punched me from point-blank range. I gasped for air.
The Researcher’s lips curved into a horrible, toothy smile. “Good,” he said.
What followed were a series of “tests” in which I was harmed by one of the creatures but the pain I experienced did not match my injuries.
It started with the tentacles, which made me feel like I was being punched in the jaw.
Next, a small, hairless, cat-shaped creature with a forked tail climbed onto me. In place of a mouth, it had a bony protrusion filled with holes, like honeycomb. When it ground its face against my shoulder, it felt like hot coals had been placed in the palms of my hands.
After that, my mouth was forced open and a shimmering black insect was placed on my tongue. I would later learn it had cut into my tongue with a sharp protrusion on its thorax, but at the time it felt like hundreds of needles had been forced into the skin of my chest.
And then it was over.
“I’ve been instructed to grant you a fifteen-minute break,” said the Researcher, peeling off his rubber gloves.
“You’re just…” I panted, “Leaving me alone?”
“I agree, it’s unwise,” he said. “But my superior has insisted. Do whatever you want. Just don’t die. We’re not finished with you.” I heard a mechanism whirring inside the door as it closed and locked behind him.
I wavered on whether or not I should look into habitats of the remaining two creatures. Would it be better to be prepared for the next round of tests? Or would knowing what was going to happen to me make the anticipation unbearable?
For that matter, even if I knew what the creatures looked like, who’s to say I could begin to guess at what kind of unrelated pain I’d endure while they toyed with me?
In the end, I decided it would be better to know.
I slowly walked to the fourth tank, stopping 6 feet away from it. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to steady myself.
“Whatever’s in there, you can handle it,” I said to myself. I took another step toward the tank and stopped again—this time because of a noise.
A deafening metallic clatter erupted behind me, and when I turned, I saw the machine I’d been irradiated by on the ground.
I heard a different noise, a sparking pop, as the fallen machine’s appendage detached itself from the rest at the base joint. A muffled crunching accompanied the metal siding bending itself out of shape, as if an invisible person were striking it with something heavy, again and again.
“Is someone there?” I shouted when the commotion died down. I didn’t know what to believe in that moment. Hell, there really could’ve been someone there. Getting no response, I cautiously approached the machine. It looked completely busted. “So much for round two of testing,” I said under my breath.
Just then something caught my eye. A folder resting on a rolling tray near the torture table, labelled “CONFIDENTIAL.” I opened it. Attached to the top page was a picture labelled “Subject 1,” featuring me raising my arms in victory after my championship bout with Johnny Lombardi. Behind it, I read the words “Anomatic Entanglement in Parallel Realities.”
I quickly closed the folder and scanned the lab. Still no cameras. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t being watched. And if they felt confident enough to leave me alone, they probably didn’t think I could use the information in this file to threaten them—let alone escape.
I opened it and continued reading.
The goal of this study is to determine the plausibility of the synthesized anomatic entanglement of two subjects existing in overlapping realities. Each subject will be exposed to controlled anomatic radiation, and then will endure a series of tests design to inflict pain. Their reactions will be recorded and compared. Lab technicians will then confirm whether each subject’s pain sensations are transferred to their entangled dyad.
I didn’t have time to think about parallel realities, because at that moment I heard the electronic lock in the lab door buzzing. But I did have an inkling of an idea. Without hesitating, I folded the page and tucked it into my waistband, praying the Researcher wouldn’t find it.
“I hope you enjoyed your break, Mr. Strike,” he said entering the lab, pulling something behind him: a new radiation machine.
“Sure did, boss,” I said. I bit my lip to hide my smile.