It was hard to know whether the guy who decided to route the path from the tracks to the main concourse directly through Nines & Circles was a sociopath, a genius, or some combination of the two. Nines & Circles had the aesthetic of some kind of slum town dive squatting in the middle its steel and glass neighbourhood. The combination of low ceiling and low light interspersed with glaring neon signs and dazzling panels dotting the space set the tone.
A bar stocked with overpriced alcohol from a few dozen microbreweries and distilleries, in addition to the half a dozen familiar main chains that made up the backbone of all bars, dozed along one wall. Opposite, a row of cramped cubicles arranged around a series of stout pillars in which betting terminals could be used. The path through Nines & Circles was flanked on both sides by rows of slot machines endlessly spinning their wheels and reels of lights and icons. Walking between them was another gauntlet of electronic pings and whirrs and atonal-jangles. He’d once seen someone collapse in an epileptic fit on their way through.
Along the wall over the exit, another screen flared with the anarchic flashing of an advert. “Are you tired of beta showers? Your high-T life deserves a shower that matches your masculinity. Get an Alpha-shower, from MaxStacked Inc., and cleanse yourself in a rain of bullets! Kill your germs the way a real man should – with lead. The Alpha-shower comes with a drum magazine-style drain. Seize the Alpha-shower today!”
On the other side, was the main attraction. A large octagonal pit ringed by matte-painted bars at the top. Four of the pit walls were inset with studded doors, and beside each of these, a cage. Over this pit hung a clumsy rig suspending four huge display panels looping through pit event-related information and a series of battered speakers.
They made their passage through the valley of ringing lights. Ahead of him some guy slowed to a crawl, looking around in a daze at the slot machines and screens. He took his phone from his jacket pocket and inspected it, tilted his head this way and that, and then meandered towards one of the chairs. He hadn’t managed to sit down before a blonde in knee boots, suspenders and a crimson corset slid out of the background with a silver tray balanced in one hand, and breathed something into his ear. He nodded, said something back and then watched her saunter away like a swinging bell, not quite capable of keeping the stupid smile off his face, before returning his attention to the pinging reels in front of him.
A man stepped out on the path, casually shoving someone out of his way, and greeted Caleb with a grin full of perfect teeth. Caleb stopped short, blinked and then threw on a smile of his own.
“Can’t stay, just passing through.”
“You’ve got time to stay for a quick chat.”
“No I don’t, sorry.”
“Sure you do.”
Hesitation. “Sure.” He followed Paul over to the bar.
“Who are you betting on?”
“I’m not,” he shook his head. “Just heading through.”
Paul handed him a drink and Caleb followed him through the rows of betting kiosks and slot machines to the edge of the pit. They leaned on the rail and looked down in the hole illuminated by an excess of pale light. The commentator kept up a steady stream of babble through the speakers while the referee watched on with a half interest. A black fur and a brown fur squatted in cages, glowering at each other across the ring. The board hung over the pit – contenders, next bout, odds. Next up James vs Barry at 11:59. Caleb glanced down. James and Barry had gotten bored to glaring art each other and, seeing no immediate danger, were ferreting around their respective cages, occasionally starting and glaring wide-eyed up at the crowd whenever someone let out a cheer.
The lead blue-grey paint covering everything, coupled with the dingy light in the low-ceilinged arena contrasted with the neon glare of the pit itself, gave the atmosphere a sort of off-kilter oppression. More people funnelled in from the platforms, glanced at the faux-rusty crowd, the board, the pit, and funnelled out past the cluster of small round tables at the exit. Caleb watched them with something like envy.
Paul took a swig, “come on Barry!”
Barry was missing an eye and several patches of fur. James’ nose had a chunk missing and he also bore several bald spots in the course black fur, but he had both eyes so Caleb supposed that would make him a reasonable bet.
The announcer announced. The match began. Spectators huddled, ignoring the crowd filling in from the hall. The dull drone of background chatter lessened. As the fresh group of commuters filed out again, a single siren blared and the cages opened.
The rats exited cautiously, sniffed the air, sniffed the ground, watched the crowd, and then watched each other. James was eager. He charged across the arena and launched himself at Barry with a ferocity bordering on disturbing.
“He’s always been very aggressive,” remarked Paul.
Barry met James mid charge, locked his jaws around James’ throat. They entered a jerky haphazard dance. Then there was muffled growl, a dull crunch, and then James died. The commentator roared, the crowd cheered, Barry began to tear chunks off of James’ corpse.
Paul nodded at the briefcase, “that looks heavy.”
Caleb shrugged, “It’s empty.”
Paul considered this and nodded to himself. He turned back to the rats. Caleb became aware of a sudden acute sliding sensation in his face. He threw his head forward, mouth wrenching open. A long string of jellied gore spattered onto the floor. Paul regarded him with disgust while he caught his breath.
“So when are you going to place a big bet?”
“What do you mean, you’re not?”
“I’m not keen on wasting money I don’t have.”
Paul gestured at the briefcase, raised an eyebrow.
Caleb shook his head, “Empty.”
Paul rolled his eyes, “What difference does that make?”
“Plenty. Why all this all of a sudden?”
“You’re staying at (pods), right?”
“What of it?”
“Top tier. Expensive clientele. Big price tag for a delivery boy.”
“How the fuck do you know where I’m sleeping, anyway?”
“You’re in the deep end now, boy.”
“Look, it’s just temporary. I’m not rolling in piles of cash”
“Do a job for me, then.”
Caleb considered taking it up. Then shook his head. “No, I can’t.”
“What?” He considered walking away.
“You’ve never turned down work before.”
“I just don’t have time right now. First time for everything.”
“Bullshit. Whatever. Place a bet. A big one. It’s freeing. Trust me.”
To shut Paul up, he put money down on a rat. A big grey thing named Susan. A lot of money. I made his stomach churn. Paul stood next to him and shook his head. “Higher. Higher.” Caleb went higher, tried to smile and failed, but Paul shook his head. “Higher.” Caleb ignored him and punched his bet into one of the armour-coated machines. Paul snorted. “You’re playing with the big boys, Caleb. Act like it. Grow a pair.”
“You can’t be in the big leagues and play the little people.”
“I’m one of the fucking little people.”
Paul shook his head. “Not anymore.”
Caleb went back to the pits. Paul followed him. “Next will be really big, understand?” Caleb ignored him.
On the screen above the exit, an advert for the LineMaster 2750 promised that the TackleLords ‘HardHook’ would give Caleb the best fishing experience of his life. A woman in an electric blue bikini held the rod between heaving breasts and cranked the reel with slow methodical motions. Nothing would get away from the TackleLords HardHook, the announcer assured him.
“How much would Ada put on these, you think?”
Caleb shook his head. “Probably wouldn’t.”
“A bit gaunt last time I saw her.”
He thought about this. Shrugged.
“She’s wearing even more eye shadow these days.”
“What’s she aiming at, business goth?”
Paul laughed. “No, she would,” Paul continued, “I guess she’d need a twenty-point plan, though.”
They laughed again. “You might be right,” Caleb admitted, though the fact that Paul wasn’t wrong bothered him.
“I am. There’s nothing that girl does without a success percentage and some graphs.”
Caleb shrugged, “She’s on the clock.”
“When isn’t she?”
Paul shook his head, “No, I mean she’s really on the clock.”
Years before, it was Paul who’d introduced Ada. He’d been delivering something to someone, picking the package from Paul. He’d had a cold at the time. Ada had stuck her hand out, all business even then, he may as well have been a new office drone at a meeting. Sniffing up a storm, he’d attempted ‘hello’, but the attempt was drowned by a wellspring of snot running down the back of his nose. He’d sputtered on his words and then a sudden violent sneeze had overwhelmed him. Ada had slowly, deliberately inspected her hand, regarding it with a profound bored disgust. Then she looked at him. He couldn’t remember anybody having looked him with the same acid disdain she’d turned on him. He, a grown man, had fought an almost physical impulse to claw through the floor. She’d simply walked away, wiping her hand with a handkerchief. He caught himself looking after her like a dropped fish, and slapped himself mentally.
“What about it?”
Paul took a swig of beer, “She’ll run herself down.”
“Her? No way. She’ll outlast the both of us.”
“I wouldn’t be that sure. When was the last time you saw her?”
“A while back. What’s up?”
“She’ll run herself down. You realise that, right?”
“She’ll run herself down.”
“You keep saying that.”
Paul shrugged, “I don’t know.”
“Since when were you the posterchild for work-life balance, anyway?”
“Hey, don’t misunderstand me, I’m just saying is all. When was the last time you saw her?”
“A while back. Not too sure.” he admitted.
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
While he was figuring out a response, the sirens blared again. They looked down. Even with the bet, Caleb’s investment in Susan was minimal. The novelty of rat fights was short lived. Two aggravated rodents met, rolled around in a frantic ball squeaking and hissing and gnashing at each other. Fur trailed the floor behind them in matted bloody clumps. Susan gained the upper hand and latched her jaws around… what was the other one’s name? He looked up at the board. Joe. The other rat was called Joe. He looked back down, she had him pinned and was shaking him like a rag. Gore sluiced between her jaws and pooled beneath them. Joe died, the crowd roared approval.
Caleb looked over at Paul illuminated by a blue beam of stage light, and caught a momentary glimpse of rage clouding his face. Then he turned to Caleb and he was beaming. “Brilliant bet! Beginner’s luck.”
They went back to the machines to collect his earnings.
Caleb turned to Paul, “Definitely looks like I won’t need to take your job anytime soon.” The flicker of rage rippled over Paul’s face again and he downed his beer and held it up, grinning at Caleb. “Guess not.” He threw the back of his hand to his brow, “Oh! The good ones always leave!” He turned towards the bar.
Caleb bought him a beer, Paul waved towards the score board hanging from the ceiling. “Who’s next?”
Caleb shook his head. “No next. I need to go. Like I said, I was only passing through.”
Paul relented. “OK, fine, but here, come out with me and Ada to the climbing. I’ve got tickets. Want one?”
Caleb nodded “sign me up.”
“Great, see you then. I’ll message you.”