A million and more bright lights sparkled and shone across Arcadia’s glorious capital city, accompanied by a vast ocean of enthusiastic applause. Cars of all shapes, sizes, and colours clogged the streets, each of their drivers desperately inching closer and closer to the grand stadium located just shy of the center of town. Six pairs of high-powered spotlights positioned atop the stadium swayed to and fro in a rhythmic, high-energy dance of illumination that lit up the otherwise pitch black night sky. Blinding flashbulbs popped up and down the street as multitudes of reporters rushed to get the best seat in the house. But the brightest spot of all, the current white-hot core of the city, was the interior of the stadium itself; and with its domed roof open, that white-hot core was exposed for all the world to see.
All 75,821 seats in the stadium were full; the place was so filled to capacity that some people were even sitting on the stairs. More flashbulbs could be seen going off all over the place. At the very center of all the commotion, a huge wrestling ring was set up. Red, white, and blue ropes cordoned off the ring from the rest of the stadium. At the moment, the ring (as well as the area directly surrounding it) was empty.
In a strategically positioned spot halfway up the sloping stadium wall, a glass skybox was perched. Stenciled in bright yellow letters above the skybox window was the word PRESS. Two men in suits were seated in chairs just on the other side of the glass, overlooking the entire spectacle. A set of oversized microphone headsets was wrapped around both of their heads. The men looked at one another. They exchanged a nod. Then they switched on their microphones.
“Goooooooooooooooood evening, Coinopolis, and welcome to tonight’s main event! I’m Bob Oaks!”
“And I’m Dolph Garcia!”
“And we are here live at the Technodome! Let me tell you, the air is just buzzing with excitement right now!”
“Right you are, Bob. Tonight, of course, is the night: quite possibly the most anticipated night to come along in sports history in years!”
“The Technodome is full to capacity, with millions more watching from home, as the clock ticks down to what is sure to be the most intense fight of the season!”
“Four-time world AFC champion Vodka Gobalsky has been the game’s golden boy for almost half a decade! But tonight, we’re separating the men from the boys in a competition that may very well end Gobalsky’s four-year reign as champion!”
“Absolutely, Dolph. Gobalsky may be the best, but his day of reckoning has come, and now the world is waiting to see the answer to the question that has been plaguing them all year: can Gobalsky defeat the Coinopolis Thunder?!”
“Fans have spent the past season in awe of the underdog newcomer who surprised everyone by fighting his way up through the ranks of some of the toughest customers around. And finally, in just a few minutes, local boy Spryte Plummer, the Coinopolis Thunder, will face off against the champ himself in a battle that’s sure to rock the walls of this stadium right off their foundations!”
“You know, Dolph, Spryte’s story has been truly inspirational to all of the wannabe fighters out there. It really must feel like a fairy tale to him. Average, everyday kid, living here in Coinopolis, who wakes up one morning and thinks, ‘This is the day I change my life. This is the day I enter the Androidimal Fighting Championship League!’”
“It is a truly amazing story, Bob. Oh, we’re getting the signal now, folks! The chatter is starting to die down! The lights are getting dimmer! The music is fading away! It sounds like we’re just about ready to get things started!”
“Yes, indeed! This fight, of course, is being brought to you tonight by Noagie: the only sportswear champions can trust! And by Fizz’d, the soft drink of the new generation! Get Fizz’d tonight!”
Just as the commentators pointed out, the myriad of bright lights that dominated the stadium finally gave way and dimmed until only a few spotlights remained, pointing ominously at the empty ring in the middle of the Technodome. The crowd’s lively chatter turned into hushed whispers of excitement. A man with way too much gel in his hair wearing a slick tuxedo trotted into the ring, ducking beneath the ropes as he entered. A thick microphone was clenched between his fingers, bearing the AFC logo in blazing orange across all four sides of the plastic cube just above the grip. The man smiled and spoke into the mike.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is my pleasure to welcome you all here...to the title match...of the Androidimal...Fighting...Championship!”
The reply was a roar of enthusiastic applause from every fan in the stadium. The announcer, pleased, cupped a hand to his ear. “How is everyone doing tonight?” More applause. More cheers. “Is everyone ready to see the fight of their lives?” Even more applause. Even more cheers. “Ohh, I think we can do better than that. Let’s try this again: is everyone ready to see the fight...of...their...LIVES?!” The resulting roar was so deafening it made the announcer wince. “That’s more like it!”
With a broad, gesture, the announcer motioned toward the left side of the ring with one arm. “Ladies and gents, please join me in welcoming our fighters for the evening. First off, direct your attention to my left and put your hands together for the reigning king of fighters...the man whose legendary skills have become synonymous with the AFC...the current world Androidimal Fighting Champion...Valentin “Vodka” Gobalsky!”
A second spotlight winked into existence, illuminating the dark doorway from which the first fighter emerged.
He was a huge beastly man, with a single stripe of thick brown hair running down the center of his otherwise bald head. He was dressed only in boots and bright yellow pants, his impressive chest bare for everyone to see. A white and red cape was wrapped around his shoulders, flapping behind him as he walked. Waiting to greet him was an extremely attractive, large-bosomed woman wearing a gold dress with a matching feather boa. In her hands, this woman carried a simple-looking silver briefcase.
Up in the press booth, Bob Oaks and Dolph Garcia continued gushing excitedly about the events to the folks watching and listening from home. “Here he is, the champ himself, Vodka Gobalsky. See the look in his eyes, folks, there is a man who is determined to defend his title at all costs.”
“He is indeed, Bob. And there’s his trainer –and sister –Natasha Gobalsky, waiting to get him set up. She looks absolutely stunning this evening!”
“Doesn’t she always, Dolph?! Heck, I would give my right hand to take her for a spin!”
“Bob, you do realize that we’re broadcasting live coast-to-coast, and about a million people just heard you say that?”
“Right you are, Dolph. I really should start thinking more before I speak!”
Oblivious to this rapid-fire exchange, the announcer pried his attention away from the Gobalskys and addressed the audience once more. “And now...please welcome our challenger. Folks, this young man clawed his way up from nothing...to become one of the most famous fighters in the AFC. The local boy whose underdog story touched the hearts of thousands of fans...coming to us tonight with a staggering string of 27 wins and 0 losses...here he is...the Coinopolis Thunder...SPRYTE PLUMMER!”
The explosion of cheers and applause that followed could have probably been heard from space. A helmeted figure appeared atop a bright blue motorcycle, zipping into the stadium through another pair of dark doors illuminated by a spotlight. The motorcycle surged forward, welcomed by thunderous salutations on all sides, finally skidding to a stop a few feet away from the ring. The figure riding it stood up, gave the crowd a quick wave, and removed his helmet.
Spryte Plummer was a man in his early twenties, with close-cropped dirty blond hair and green eyes. The motorcycle suit he wore didn’t quite disguise the fact that he had a relatively scrawny frame. But not an ounce of apprehension or fear could be found on Spryte’s eager young face; as far as he was concerned, that championship belt wouldn’t belong to Vodka Gobalsky for much longer.
“And Spryte Plummer has entered the playing field, folks!” Bob Oaks exclaimed.
“Quite a grand entrance, but the crowd sure loves him, don’t they, Bob?” asked Dolph Garcia.
“They certainly do, Dolph. The amount of confidence he’s displaying here is staggering! Any lesser fighter would be shaking in their boots at the prospect of having to take on Vodka!”
“Well, if anyone can do it, then my money is certainly on the Coinopolis Thunder!”
The huge four-sided television screen that floated a few dozen feet above the ring showed a close-up of Spryte grinning and waving at the camera. The crowd gave another soaring whoop. Then the camera panned over to show a pretty young woman sitting in the front row, her long black hair flowing down her shoulders in an almost liquid-like fashion. She blushed when she realized that the camera was on her and smiled, giving the audience a thumbs-up and fluttering her long eyelashes before hastily turning away with a bashful laugh.
“And of course, there’s Spryte’s #1 fan and long-time girlfriend, Pixel Durango! The girl whose smile has won the hearts of pretty much every AFC fan with a TV screen!”
“That’s right, Bob. Pixel has been supporting Spryte since Day 1. She is probably the most excited and nervous person in the house tonight. All of that hard work and training, all of the practice, all of the promotions, it all comes down to this night. Right here, at the beautiful Technodome.”
Spryte finished greeting the audience and walked over to the ring, where a small old woman in a grey sweatsuit stood waiting. In her hand, she carried a briefcase very similar to the one being held by Natasha Gobalsky. The old woman fixed Spryte with a stern look. “Are you ready, kid?” she asked.
“I was born ready,” Spryte told her. “Open the case.”
The sports commentators waited for the jumbo TV screen to show a close-up of the old woman. “There’s the legendary Daisy Marigold, Spryte’s trainer and previous record-holder of the championship belt herself!”
“Right you are, Bob. Daisy Marigold held onto that championship title longer than anybody else in history, a whopping nine years! With her showing Spryte Plummer the ropes, it’s no wonder the kid is as good as he is!”
“I couldn’t agree more, Dolph.”
Natasha Gobalsky placed a well-manicured hand on her brother’s shoulder. “You are going to win this, yes? You have crushed many fighters with twice his skill before.”
“Da,” growled Vodka. “I will shatter him until there is not enough left to fill teacup.”
Evidently pleased with this response, Natasha pulled open the silver briefcase. On the opposite side of the ring, Daisy did the same.
Both cases contained two objects: a highly elaborate remote control, and something resembling a misshapen metallic Rubik’s cube. Both Spryte and Vodka pulled out the remotes, while their trainers took hold of the cubes. Both women proceeded to climb into the ring, cubes in hand. They greeted one another in the middle, under the watchful eyes of an attentive referee in a striped black and yellow shirt. The women nodded at one another and shook hands.
“May the best champ win,” Daisy said.
Natasha smirked. “May he indeed.”
They placed each cube down onto the mat in opposite corners of the ring before stepping back out. Daisy hopped back onto the ground and got right down to business. “Okay, kid, remember...don’t let him grab you. Those arms of his are way too strong, you won’t be able to break free. He takes a while to turn around, so try to maneuver behind him as much as possible. You’re quicker than he is; use that to your advantage.”
“I’ll be fine, Daisy,” Spryte cut her off. “Don’t worry about me.”
“It’s my job to worry about you, you idiot. I’m your trainer!”
“Then don’t worry about me so loudly. Just let me concentrate.” Spryte clapped her on the shoulder. “I learned from the best, Daisy. I’ll be fine.”
“Fighters!” the announcer bellowed. “Are...you...ready?!” The crowd whooped with glee as both Spryte and Vodka raised their thumbs in the affirmative. “Then at this time, fighters, I am going to ask you to please...activate...your...ANDROIDIMALS!” Leering at one another from across the ring, the two combatants flicked a red switch on their remotes.
Accompanied by a cacophony of cheering from the crowd, the two metallic cubes burst to life. Their pieces started to shift and click into place, growing exponentially in size with every turn they made. Pieces flapped up, pieces popped to the side, pieces writhed and snaked around in concentric loops to expand to their full length. And in a matter of mere seconds, those two seemingly innocuous cubes started to take some very familiar shapes.
Spryte’s cube was taking the shape of a man-sized falcon with a proud, lithe chest. It had a bright blue beak and matching blue metallic wings that spread impressively at its sides. Instead of the stick-thin legs that normally chauffeured birds around, the falcon’s legs were chrome, laden with scuffs and scrapes from previous battles. Its eyes consisted of two bright red sensors, ensconced in a steel mechanism that widened or narrowed like a camera lens, depending on how angry or pleasant Spryte wanted the bird to look.
In the other corner, Vodka’s cube had transformed into a massive brown grizzly bear. Like Vodka himself, the bear wore a pair of bright yellow pants and a scowl. Two enormous paws capped off the ends of his long arms, each paw ending in five black titanium claws that twinkled menacingly under the unrelenting stadium spotlights. Its eyes were similar to those of the falcon’s, narrowed into slits of “don’t-eff-with-me” red. When the bear was fully finished transforming, Vodka fiddled with a few controls, producing a terrifying result: the bear lurched its head forward and let out a tremendous roar. The audience gasped and then applauded even louder.
The robotic bear and falcon exchanged fierce glares. Spryte’s thumbs hovered anxiously over the controls. Vodka wiped a trickle of sweat off of his forehead. On the sidelines, Pixel chewed at her fingertips.
“Knock ‘em dead, kid,” whispered Daisy.
“You are true champion,” whispered Natasha.
The announcer spread his arms wide. “Let the championship bout...BEGIN!!!” The bell rang. With a sound akin to crashing thunder, the Androidimals attacked.
The blows their metallic limbs dealt each other would have been powerful enough to reduce a human being into nothing but a gooey splotch. They punched and kicked and lunged, using both their natural animalistic weapons and a variety of powerful martial arts moves.
“Ooh, and we are off to a fantastic start here!”
“Absolutely, Bob: Falcor and Zoba, the two most feared Androidimals in the entire league, are finally duking it out here, just a few dozen feet in front of us! You know, it’s times like these that make me glad I chose to become a sports commentator instead of a neurosurgeon!”
“I know exactly how you feel, Dolph!”
Spryte’s fingers danced across his remote control, urging Falcor to duck under one of the bear’s mighty jabs and retaliate with a flying uppercut that sent Zoba staggering backward. The crowd responded with great enthusiasm. Falcor snuck in another punch to the gut, and was about to go in for a third when Zoba clapped his paws together, catching Falcor’s fist between them. His eyes wide and his teeth gritted, Vodka thrust one of his joysticks forward while holding down a trigger. Zoba proceeded to lift Falcor right off the ground and over his head. While Spryte struggled with his controls to try to break free, Vodka rotated two joysticks counter-clockwise. Zoba started to spin Falcor in quick concentric circles, the way a human wrestler would. The falcon Androidimal was unable to wrench free of the bear’s mighty grip. Grinning like a madman, Vodka continued spinning his joysticks, while an increasingly-frustrated Spryte searched desperately for a way out.
After several seconds of this, the bear stopped spinning and –with a mighty thud –slammed Falcor back down onto the mat. Zoba reared back; it was clear from his position that he intended to leap down and strike Falcor on his neck joint with one of his thick steel elbows.
Spryte’s eyes widened. “No, no, no, no, no! Move it!” He jammed his joysticks to the right. At the last second, Falcor rolled away and jumped back to his feet, just as Zoba came pile-driving down on top of where he’d been a moment ago. The ground floor of the whole stadium rattled as the 6,000-ton robot bear crashed onto the mat. Everyone in the first four rows collectively bounced in their seats.
Spryte wasted no time guiding Falcor around the ring. He input a quick series of commands that made his falcon avatar sit on Zoba’s back, grab him by the legs, and pull the bear into a hold. This did not make Vodka very happy. Flipping a second switch on his remote, Vodka amped up Zoba’s power input and gave the joysticks a complex little twirl. The robotic bear pulled himself out of the hold by brushing Falcor aside like a fly. Standing back up to his full height, Zoba whirled across the ring with a bone-jarring spinning punch that sent Falcor careening into the ropes.
“Agh! Come on, get up! Get up!” hissed Spryte.
Chuckling under his breath, Vodka’s fingers navigated down to a third –much smaller –switch near the bottom of his remote control. He moved the switch into the top position, prompting a small light on the device to flicker on. The tiny HD screen positioned in the center of the remote flashed one word in bright green letters: SPECIAL. Vodka hesitated only for a second, then pressed the required buttons.
Instantly, Zoba dropped to all fours and roared to the heavens. His head pointed directly at his disoriented foe, the bear opened wide his metal maw and unleashed a jet of blazing fire. The faces of thousands of onlookers were illuminated with a hot orange glow. Spryte couldn’t maneuver Falcor away in time before the flames engulfed the Androidimal completely.
Up in the press booth, the commentators laughed and clapped their hands with delight.
“Heh! Heh! He’s gonna want to watch out for that! Zoba’s Flamethrower attack has been known to burn lesser venues to the ground!”
“You got that right, Dolph! That is some serious shit right there!”
When the smoke cleared, everyone could see that a good portion of Falcor’s body was singed. Spryte managed to pull him back to his feet, but the falcon was moving considerably slower. Spryte, of course, had done his homework; he knew very well that Zoba’s infamous Flamethrower attack could have ended the competition early. So before the fight, Spryte made sure to apply two coats of flame-retardant chemicals onto Falcor’s main chassis. Thanks to this foresight, Falcor escaped the fireball with little more than some cosmetic damage. The cooling systems inside the Androidimal, however, had definitely been affected by the flame; as a result, Falcor’s internal processor was now running at half its normal speed as it struggled to keep from overheating.
“Damn it!” Spryte muttered under his breath.
“If you want to win, you need to end this soon, kid,” said Daisy, who stood next to him. “Falcor’s too slow now; keep it up much longer and he’ll get pulverized. I guarantee it.”
“I know, I know! I’m working on it!”
“Come on, Spryte,” whispered Pixel, her fingers crossed. “Come on...”
Zoba bounded towards Falcor. There was no point dodging; the falcon was moving too slow now for evasive maneuvers to have much effect. Desperate, Spryte attempted to make his Androidimal jump straight up in the air and plant a good solid kick on Zoba’s head. He pressed the correct buttons, but he was a second too late.
The bear knocked Falcor out of the air mid-jump with one furious swipe of his claws. While the falcon lay incapacitated on the mat, Zoba began pounding him mercilessly with his fists. Each strike was like a thunderclap. Spryte groaned.
The falcon reached up with one arm, trying in vain to pull itself back up, but Zoba just retaliated with another punch. One more heavy one like that and Falcor would shatter. The bear raised his brown fist.
“Oh, and that’s the end of Round 1, folks!” Bob Oaks exclaimed. “Extraordinary! This is Androidimal Fighting at its finest!”
“You can say that again, Bob!” concurred Dolph Garcia. “And as it stands here at the end of the first round, things are not looking good for Spryte Plummer!”
“Indubitably, Dolph! Could it be that the Coinopolis Thunder is on his last clap?! We’ll have to wait and see what happens come Round 2!”
Spryte climbed up into the ring, squeezing himself between the ropes, and rushed over to his wounded Androidimal. He fumbled for the master switch on the side of his controller. The switch had three settings: OFF, AUTO, and MANUAL. At the moment, the switch was pointed in the MANUAL position. Spryte hastily flicked it onto AUTO.
Instantly, Falcor’s eyes switched from bright red to royal blue. His head jerked to one side as he turned to look at Spryte. His beak opened and a tinny but perfectly intelligible voice spoke from it.
“Master, we’re not doing as well I’d like.”
“It’s okay. We can beat this guy.” Spryte touched Falcor’s shoulder. “Can you stand up?”
“I will try.”
Shakily, Falcor got to his feet and –with Spryte’s help –hobbled over to his starting corner, where a stool set by Daisy was waiting for him. Falcor sank into the stool, a tired sigh escaping his speakers. While Daisy applied oil to Falcor’s joints, Spryte started fiddling with the knobs on his controller while firing off a rapid string of questions.
“How’s your processor doing?”
“Hot. According to my internal readout, it’s functioning at only 48% its total power.”
“Can you try to push it any further?”
“Not without a serious risk of overheating, Master. I’m afraid 48% is the highest recommendation at this time.”
“What about your wings? It looked like he clipped them there at one point.”
“There is a chip here. It’s not bad, purely aesthetic damage.” Falcor unfurled one of his metal wings and gestured to a spot where a sizeable chunk was missing. “Nothing serious, though it may reduce the damage of my special attack by a small amount.” The blue falcon paused for a moment before fixing his sensors on Spryte. “He is very strong, Master. Stronger than any other Androidimal I have faced thus far. Alterations of our strategy would be most wise at this juncture.”
“Yeah?” Spryte noticed one of Falcor’s finger joints had been dislocated during the fight and hastily secured it back into place. “What are you thinking?”
“If I may be so bold, Master...may I suggest leaving me in automatic mode for the remainder of the fight?”
Spryte’s green eyes widened. “Uh-uh! No way! It’d be suicide! We’ve never severed connection before!”
“Our prior unwillingness to sever manual control is the precise reason why I believe doing so will throw Mr. Gobalsky off guard,” explained Falcor. “Besides, there is a 0.0081 nanosecond delay between your controller input and my movement. I believe that is why we were unable to avoid his Flamethrower attack in time. We could avoid any more mishaps like that if we were to cut out the middleman...uh, no disrespect intended, of course, Master.”
“He’s right!” yelled Daisy over the din of the crowd. “Let him take the reins from here on in. We’ll need all the speed we can get at this point!”
Spryte bit down on his lip, then nodded. “Okay,” he finally said. He cast a glance over his shoulder at the hulking Zoba, who was currently engaged in a conversation of his own with Vodka and Natasha. “If that’s what it takes...go for it.”
“Thank you, Master. I won’t disappoint you.”
Spryte smiled and extended a hand. “You could never disappoint me, Falcor.” The Androidimal was physically unable to smile back (what with the steel beak, and all), but his body language made it clear that he was very pleased. He reached out with his own cold blue hand and grasped Spryte’s pink fleshy one.
As the robotic falcon sprang to his feet, Spryte and Daisy crawled back down out of the ring. The other two humans did the same, leaving the bear and the bird alone once more. Everyone in the crowd held their breath. Spryte’s fingers reflexively gripped the controller. Pixel leaned as far over in her seat as she could, her mouth an open O. A blonde woman wearing a red swimsuit finished circling the ring with a bright sign bearing the number 2 in bold typeface. She let the sign drop to her side.
“And there’s the bell, signalling the start of the second round! Now, this is interesting: it looks like Spryte Plummer has relinquished control of his Androidimal!”
“A strange move indeed, Bob! This is the first time in his recorded AFC career that Spryte has not fought with manual controls. Is this some kind of desperate, last-minute struggle to take back the fight?! Or does Spryte know something we don’t?!”
“I’m hoping it’s the second one, Dolph, because it sounds a lot more interesting! That, and I have a lot of money riding on Spryte tonight!”
“More information you probably shouldn’t have shared publicly!”
“Right you are, Dolph!”
Unlike Falcor, who was now operating under his own free will, Zoba was still being remotely controlled by Vodka. The bear charged forward, bellowing. Falcor feigned to the right, then zipped around to the left and landed a successful string of high kicks that dropped Zoba like a sack of titanium potatoes.
Spryte pumped a fist into the air. “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about!”
Irate, Vodka fiddled with his controls; Zoba swiped his arm across the mat, flipping Falcor right off of his feet.
“No! That’s not what I’m talking about!” cried Spryte.
The android bear crawled over to where Falcor lay, moving with a slow, lumbering pace. Vodka was toying with him. But Falcor was waiting; when the bear got close enough, Falcor bent his leg back and kicked it out straight ahead of him. The kick caught Zoba directly in the stomach. It wasn’t powerful enough to do any serious damage, but Zoba did stagger back just a little bit. When the bear moved in for the kill again, Falcor performed the kick a second time. Then a third. Then a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth. By the eighth kick there was a sizeable dent where Zoba’s stomach had been. The wounded Androidimal dropped onto his side. The dent must have damaged one of his servos.
Leaping back into a standing position, Falcor took advantage of his fallen foe and peppered him with hits. He punched Zoba in the head, the sides, the stomach, the rear...finally capping it all off by climbing one of the posts at the corner of the ring and body-slamming down onto Zoba’s back. The giant bear was now covered in dents of all sizes. He tried to stand up, staggering. Sparks flew from damaged areas all over his body.
“No!” Vodka growled, working the controls as quickly as he could. “NO!”
Two words leaped to the forefront of Spryte’s mind. Had he been controlling Falcor, he would have flipped the switch and executed the move right this instant. But he didn’t need to. As if perceiving his master’s very thoughts, Falcor gave Spryte a quick nod and leaped into the air.
Razor Wing, they thought in unison.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Thousands of people rose from their seats. Flashbulbs went off at a dizzying rate. A collective gasp emanated from the occupants of the Technodome, escaping into the brisk night air above. Falcor rose ever higher, coming to a stop about twenty feet above Zoba. He spread his wings.
Then he dived.
A blur of aquamarine light appeared to course from behind Falcor’s body like a comet’s tail. The sharp edges of his steel wings glinted. His beak opened and the simulated cry of an actual falcon came rushing out of it at full volume for everyone to hear. A loud, unpleasant sound followed; the unmistakable harsh tone of metal scraping against metal. Falcor touched down on the ground a couple of feet behind the incapacitated bear.
A second passed. Then the entire top half of Zoba’s body split open, revealing a messy inner working of wires and processors. The sparks fizzed and sputtered. Zoba’s red eyes dimmed and went out. And with a howl of defeat, Vodka Gobalsky tossed his remote control to the ground.
The very walls of the Technodome were shaken to their foundations as the entire place erupted in a fantastic display of clapped hands, cheered shouts, screams, and whistles.
Bursting with joy, Spryte bounded into the ring with Daisy following close behind him. He grabbed Falcor by the arm and lifted it up. Falcor nodded his head with approval and let out a synthetic laugh. “We’ve done it, Master! We’ve done it!”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer boomed, rushing back into the ring with microphone and head held high, “we have our winner! The Coinopolis Thunder has usurped the throne in a stunning defeat by KNOCKOUT! Please put your hands together...for the NEW Androidimal Fighting Champion...Spryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyte Plummerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!”
A fresh wave of applause coursed down from the seats. Joyful tears were gushing out of the corner of Spryte’s eyes. Vodka and Natasha climbed into the ring; the golden championship belt dangled in one of Vodka’s meaty hands. He approached his foe and respectfully handed the belt over.
“You are fierce warrior, Spryte Plummer!” Vodka said with a bombastic chuckle (the announcer held the microphone beneath his mouth so that everyone could hear the exchange). “You, and your endearing trainer, and your plucky lady friend have taught me valuable lesson: family is most important thing! More important than fighting! More important than winning!” He wrapped one of his muscular arms around his sister’s shoulders and tousled her hair playfully. She did not look to be quite the gracious loser that her brother was. “This is why, tonight...I announce my retiring from the AFC games!” The crowd and commentators reacted with audible shock. Some of them yelled out, begging Vodka to reconsider, but the burly man just smiled and waved their comments aside. “Four years is long time enough to be champion. Now is time for NEW blood, eh?!” He gave Spryte a pat on the back that nearly bowled him over. “From now on, me and my sister will relax and concentrate on just being family again! Right, sister?”
“I hate you, Valentin,” Natasha said with a scowl.
“Ha ha ha! She is jesting, of course!” Vodka boomed. “COME! Coffee and pastries are set up in lobby! Tonight we celebrate!” And the proud fighter gave his fans one final bow before bounding out of the ring. His sister compacted Zoba into his Rubik’s cube form again before following without a word.
Smiling to himself, Spryte pulled his ID card out of his pocket. This was by far the most satisfying part of winning fights: with a giddy thrill, Spryte watched as the number next to the label marked EXPERIENCE POINTS boosted up by a whopping 17,000. A wave of euphoria washed over him. He suddenly felt invincible. This was the greatest moment of his life. If there was any time to do it...it would be now.
Before his bravery had a chance to slip away, Spryte asked the announcer for the microphone. Holding it up so that it almost touched his lips, Spryte gestured at the audience for a moment of silence. “I owe this victory to a lot of people,” he began. “Starting with all of you! I never would have gotten anywhere without such a supportive fan base! I also want to thank my lovely trainer, Daisy, who spent all those early mornings teaching me what it takes to be a true champion in the AFC! And of course it goes without saying that I owe a huge part of it to my trusty Androidimal, Falcor!” Each of these salutations was punctuated by another round of cheering from the crowd. When Spryte spoke next, though, his voice became quieter. He could feel his knees shaking, but he dared not look down at them lest he call attention to it. “But the truth is, folks, the real reason I’m here tonight...has nothing to do with training or robotics or even luck. It has to do with one fantastic woman. Pixel...can you come up here, please?”
A spotlight swivelled through the crowd and fixed onto Pixel. She blushed again and shrank in her chair. She gave her head a quick shake, but Spryte and the crowd continued to urge her on until finally she left her seat and was escorted to the ring by two security guards. When she walked up to Spryte, the two of them fixed each other with a long embrace that made the crowd hoot with appreciation. Finally, Spryte cleared his throat.
“Pixel Durango, without you by my side, supporting me and loving me and taking care of me, I’d never have made it this far. This championship belt is as much yours as it is mine. I...I want to keep competing in the AFC for years to come, but...I couldn’t imagine doing it without you.”
“Awwwww!” said the crowd.
His courage nearly reaching its breaking point, Spryte dropped down onto his knees and retrieved a small felt box from the inside of his jacket. The crowd gasped and grew so silent that you could almost hear a pin drop (the flashbulbs, though, never stopped popping). “Pixel...please marry me.”
Pixel’s eyes widened. Her heart raced. The ring inside that little felt box could probably be seen by the spectators all the way up in the top row. A single tear coursed from the corner of one of her eyes. She opened her mouth. “Spryte...” she gasped. “I...We...No.”
Spryte, his hopeful smile and wide-eyed look of happiness never faltering, said, “...Come again?”
“I’m sorry.” Shaking her head, Pixel high-tailed it off of the ring and disappeared into the darkness. The crowd was positively stunned, but that was nothing compared to how Spryte felt. He remained locked in that position, crouched down on his knees on the oil-stained battle mat, his hands held aloft in a triumphant display of the ridiculously expensive engagement ring he’d bought just over a week ago. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved.
Gingerly, trying to be as inconspicuous about it as possible, the announcer wrapped his fingers around the microphone and pulled it free of Spryte’s grasp. Spryte didn’t even look like he noticed. “Uh...” the announcer stammered. “...Spryte Plummer, everybody!”
One or two people clapped. Someone else coughed.
Spryte continued staring ahead into that dark entryway, the door that led to the back rooms of the stadium. The door Pixel had just exited from. His mouth lay half-open in disbelief. He suddenly felt tremendously cold.
Trying his best to emulate human sympathy, Falcor placed one of his hands on Spryte’s shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, Master, I think the ring is very nice.”
Spryte finally (slowly) turned his head to look at Falcor. While still holding up the ring box, Spryte’s other hand moved to the remote control fastened to his belt. He flicked the switch into the OFF position. With a baritone hum, the lights in Falcor’s eyes went out and he stood very still.