“What the fuck is he doing here?” Nike growled.
Frank took another swipe at her face but this one she saw coming. She ducked out of the way. He lunged after. His taller frame only served his reach. One hand snagged her hair roughly as his knee slammed into her crotch. He laughed. “That’ll teach you for losing.”
As she fell to her knees, hands pressed against the floor as she curled around the blow. Tears streaming from her eyes, she bit back a groan. Her legs were jelly as she fought to stand again. Krycek’s smirk swam in her vision as she dashed the tears furiously away.
Through the years Frank was alternatingly vicious and sweet towards her. She never really know which side she’ll get. But he’d always bring one of the street walkers home and be in a foul mood for hours later.
Nike remembered one such event.
The door to his office clanked open. The street walker scampering out, her dress in tatters, her face bruised. “Get away from me, you one testicle freak!”
Scars, herself and a couple of the younger members were present. Frank stalked through the door like a thundercloud. He was tall and muscular, his presence was always menacing. More importantly, he never took embarrassment lightly. Surreptitiously, Nike signalled for the others to go as she edged towards the door. She didn’t intend to hang around. With Frank’s mood this way, it could easily be re-directed to any one of them.
Whimpers and shoes scraping against concrete rang out as the street walker, with makeup running down her face, attempted to escape.
She spun around. The street walker was headed straight for her and she was at the threshold. “Sorry,” she whispered as she caught the street walker roughly.
One punch and a twist of limbs later, Nike had the woman restrained. “Please, please, please,” the street walker cried. “Let me go. He is crazy.”
She schooled her features into one of indifference. Her answer was a tightened grip. The street walker struggled and screamed, but Nike despite being shorter had the trained strength to hold her still. Frank shot a look at the others and growled, “Get out!”
They needed no other reminder. One curt gesture at Nike, Frank turned back towards his office. The street walker locked her knees, refusing to walk. Nike lacked the leverage to dislodge her. “Scars,” she called out. “A little help?”
“You’re on your own,” came the instant reply and steps that receded as the door slammed shut.
“Please, just let me go, I have credits. Just take it, just take it,” the street walker begged continuously like a prayer. But Nike had no choice.
“Bring her!” Frank barked.
She pushed and met it was with more resistance. She sighed and pulled at her biotics. Her amp stuttered and spiked painfully. Stupid thing. She hissed as she tried to shove the street walker. There was zero finesse and all power. It was as gentle as she could manage. She was used to giving 110% or nothing at all. The street walker flew the entire length of the communal sleeping area, sliding to a stop at Frank’s feet. The grin on his face was primal. Nike shuddered as he dragged the groaning street walker to her feet. She watched as he retreated with the street walker to his office.
The next day, Nike saw Cutter and one of others dragged a bloody beaten pulp of a body out of Frank’s office. “Dead?” she asked apprehensively.
“Almost.” Cutter replied.
She was responsible. She knew it. I had to. I have no choice. And so, the guilt was quickly locked away and sealed.
Frank placed an arm over Krycek’s shoulder as he said, “He is the latest addition to the Reds.”
Nike’s lips curled. That’s obvious enough. Krycek and her crossed swords plenty of times. He was her first battle, her first win. He was the only other fighter in the ring that was as young as she was then. But she hadn’t seen him in the ring for the past year. She figured he had been claimed by the streets or Red Sand. It didn’t make a difference, they were the same thing.
“Despite your success, I’ve decided to take out an insurance policy on you. And looks like you have proven me right,” Frank went on.
“I am said insurance policy,” Krycek explained as if she was stupid.
Nike bristled as she straightened and sneered, “You? I’ve beaten you so many fucking times. How are you anyone’s idea of an insurance policy?”
Frank let go of Krycek and circled back to his desk. Nike watched, hoping they didn’t notice the tremble in her limbs. She was exhausted and in pain. There was nothing she wanted more than to down a couple bottles of sugary drinks and sleep. Frank opened a drawer and retrieved a vial.
Her eyes widened. She couldn’t help the gasp that escaped.
“I see you know what this is.”
A syringe joined the vial. Fear thrummed in her chest. Her jaw tightened. “No.”
Frank narrowed his eyes. “This is a formula Stitches made just for you and now Krycek. It will boost your biotics ten fold. Just a little jab, that’s all.”
Blood drained from her face. “No,” she repeated, shuffling away.
No matter what Stitches might claim, no matter what it potentially could do, Nike didn’t care. It was Red Sand at its base, pure and simple. The reddish particles swirled around in the vial. She had seen the havoc it wrecked in fighters, in regular people. It was a drug that stole credits, devoured lives and destroyed souls. Nike wouldn’t touch the stuff even if she was paid to do so.
And Frank fucking knows this.
Frank shook the vial and if she wasn’t so afraid, she might find the red particles swirling around pretty, like a snow globe. Yet another one of those things she had never seen with her own eyes before. She tracked his hand as he picked up the syringe. It was a simple stab of the needle into the vial. A smooth pull of the plunger and it was filled. He grinned, showing all his teeth, wide and predatory.
“If you can’t keep winning, this will help,” he said, advancing towards her. “Help that I can provide.”
Her heart slammed against her chest as she weighed her odds. A biotic, possibly fresh with a well filled to the brim. Frank, with his size, reach and strength. A door, solid and closed behind her. Her biotics drained and her amp burning and sparking under her skin.
I can’t run. If I didn’t glitch, it will be a miracle.
He pushed the plunger after tapping a finger against it, ridding it of air bubbles. Some of the formula squirted out and Nike flinched. Frank laughed. She pulled her hands tight by her side, her hands balled into fists. Her breaths got faster and shallower. Panic was a rising tide inside her chest.
Frank grabbed the front of her jacket. He tugged, but she planted her feet and didn’t budge. His eyes hardened. It was both a question and a warning. He tugged again, harder this time. The fight went out of her. Nike stumbled towards him. She ground her teeth together as he traced a finger along her jawline, fighting the urge to jerk away. He brushed her hair aside gently, exposing the messy scar at the base of her skull. The one that came from the surgery that almost killed her. He hissed as his finger touched the spot. “Why is it so hot?”
She didn’t answer. The contact sent a stab up her head. Krycek looked on with interest. Frank looked at her as if she was responsible for his burn, but the look came and went. He bent over. “Stitches say the best spot is…”
His mouth right by her ear. “Right…”
Words were hot air against her skin. “By…”
Needle trailed up her neck towards her amp. “The…”
The sharp point stopped right at the base of her scar. “Amp…”
Nike held her breath, praying, beseeching for an intervention. Gods didn’t existed for her. No help came.
Frank straightened, the needle withdrew. She stared at him, confused and jittery from the unspent adrenaline. She didn’t trust him enough to relax. There must be something more. Something else!
He laughed like she had done a great trick, dropping the syringe back onto the table. “Nike, Nike, girl,” he said, “this is why I keep you around. You know who’s the boss around here.”
Her eyes darted between Frank and the syringe, unable to believe her luck. He reached out and tugged her towards him again, his face shoved right against her own. “But mark my words, I will not tolerate failure. You are the Champion. Be one,” he placed emphasis on the last word. “Another failure, you know what your choices are”
Nike nodded mutely. Her shoulders slumped as she staggered away from Frank. She had forgotten all about Krycek. He swooped in and grabbed the syringe off the table and plunge it into his amp. He couldn’t quite reach the right spot, but it didn’t faze him. Before either of them could react, he depressed the plunger and the contents emptied into his blood stream. The syringe clattered to the floor as his eyes fluttered shut.
Nike backed away. There was no telling what the fuck would happened, especially with an experimental concoction like this. Frank watched with interest while she waited with horror.
Krycek remained standing though he started to sway. She could sense it before she see it. The air seemed to electrify. There was a crackle and Krycek was bathed in blue. Biotic energy made everything not bolted down hover in the air for a split second before they fell again. His eyes snapped open and he roared, “I feel good!”
Nike cringed away as he started to pace as if standing still with this much energy coursing through his veins was impossible. His eyes took on a blue hue. Biotic surged and licked across his body. Krycek flicked his hand, directing the energy at the nearest object. It slammed against the wall and shattered. The wall had a slight dent from the impact.
Frank grinned wider. He pointed at his chair. Another flick of Krycek’s hand, it rose and slammed against the wall with ease. Krycek laughed. “This works. This stuff is better than the Dowager’s. I’ll fucking show how wrong she was for throwing me out!”
Nike didn’t need any more trouble, but she didn’t want to stay and watch him crash as they all inevitably do. As she turned the knob to go, Krycek shouted, “Champion, what you won’t do, I would. We shall see who is the real Champion. You won’t keep your throne for long.”
She turned and met his eyes. The blue flickered across his irises, was unnatural and it always came with a cost, one that she wasn’t willing to pay. “Whatever floats your boat, Krycek. Welcome to the Reds,” she said and left.
Fire, heat and pain. Children staring at the only home they had ever known. Whimpering and weeping filled the air, providing a counterpoint to the crackling flames that consumed the structure.
She levered herself upright and stared. Eyes tracing what was once familiar made unfamiliar. She gasped, her burns and pain all forgotten for a moment. The lightening sky revealed the extent of the damage.
A transport craft had cut a thick path through the neighbourhood. The wing had sliced into the orphanage and cutting through it like a hot knife through butter. Fire blazed strong and hot. It had burst glass and devoured everything along at that side.
A breath of relief escaped her mouth. “Luck, that’s all just luck.”
Her sleeping hall was on the opposite side of the destruction. She picked her way through parts of the collapse and escaped. In that moment, as young as she was she knew how little she mattered.
One day turned two then three. There was no help, no emergency services. Nothing. The fire had burnt itself out. Her home was now a blackened husk, teetering on the edge of completely falling in on itself. She didn’t understand it then why there were no adults coming to help, to tell her what to do. Among the survivors, she was by no means the oldest, but all of them looked as lost as she did.
Hunger tugged at her as she absently scratched around her healing burnt skin. She straightened and winced as the wound pulled. One last look cast upon her once home, she started walking.
And she never stopped.
She was on a path long before her birth, her creation, It diverged when a woman intervened when she was but a baby. Now after the fire, her path was forking again. She set out for a destination she didn’t know, a fate yet unknown. The fire took more than a home from her, it took her name, her past and all connections to it. Her memories of the place forever sealed in her mind, too confusing and painful to sift through.
In that the moment she was born anew of flames.
Nike jolted upright, confusion rippling through her head as she groaned. She remembering speaking to Frank. The image of a needle and vial flashed, a still image pressing against her consciousness, she shuddered. Her body hurt and why was her bed so hard? She was face down, limbs sprawled out against something cold and unyielding. Rolling over she realised, she was lying on the floor. Her bed was a mere metre away her.
“Shit,” she spat as she scrubbed her face with her hands. “I glitched.”
Nike had blacked out, again. This time, she had completely missed the bed she was aiming for. Sighing, she pushed herself into a sitting position, her hands touching her amp. It was cold and inert again. Gingerly she touched her forehead and found a big bump. Nothing new there. Ever since she got her amp, she suffered from these seemingly random bouts of blacking out, or glitching as she called them. It was usually worse after she drained herself. This was exactly why she wanted to sleep before doing else.
Sleeping a kind of blacking out, isn’t it? A safer kind.
She could already feel the tightening over her temples. A headache after an episode was inevitable and she had resigned herself to it. Her muscles stiff and tight as she stood. Hastily she pressed a hand at the nearest solid object to steady herself. Her stomach growled reminding her that it wasn’t fed the entire day, unlike an ungrateful cat.
First a shower, then food, then work.
Nike checked her door and was relieved to find it still locked. Thank gods she wasn’t so incapacitated to forget about it before collapsing. There was no way in hell Frank was going to tolerate his champion being a broken puppet. One that was prone to headaches, nose bleeds and complete black outs. It was the one secret she had to keep at all cost. The Reds was all she knew. It was fucked up at times, but she was safe. She knew where the lines were. She was the top dog here, outside she was a target. Now with Krycek all ready to step into her place despite his less than stellar fight record, she had to be doubly careful.
One moment Nike was a hunched back broken figure of a Champion shuffling around in her room. The next moment, she was straight back, confident and all hard edges. There was no room for error.
Despite not needing to collect protection money any longer, it was now a job for the younger Reds, Nike still enjoyed walking the markets. Taking what she fancied and making sure everyone still knew who to fear. Frank wasn’t above using her as a boogeyman when Cutter wasn’t intimidating enough.
I guess now he has a crazy dog to help with that too.
She huffed, kicking a soda can down the street as she munched on a stick of satay.
Kick, munch, kick, munch.
When the satay was done, she made sure to lick every last bit of peanut sauce from around her lips. She flicked the stick off to the side. Her hands dug around her pockets for her cigarettes. It was a habit she picked up from Cutter and the others.
Hitting the pack against her fist a couple of times before she fished a stick out. Trapping the filter between her lips, she rummaged her pockets for her lighter. Its brushed metal finish was all worn down by use. It thunked solidly when she flicked the cover open. A quick brush of her thumb down the flint wheel, sparks flew and a flame burst to life. Nike suppressed a flinch. Fire always did that to her. She lit her cigarette. The red consumed the lit end as she sucked. She drew the smoke into her lungs and held it. Detox by retox, didn’t some lyrics say that? The sharp taste of burnt grass was bitter on her tongue. A flash of a burning building, a sudden overwhelming sense of loss flashed through her mind. She blinked and the sensation was gone.
Nike shook her head and she exhaled. With each stick burnt to the butt, she relaxed marginally. Tension from the daily battles, the blade that hung over her head and the glitch eased a notch. Clouds of smoke trailed behind her before they got taken away by the warm breeze. Despite demolishing half a pack in quick succession, she was still restless. Frank’s threat was real. He had been harder on her ever since the winning streak started.
Nike sighed. There was only one thing she could realistically do. Her muscles were sufficiently warmed up from the walk and food. She stretched and tapped her omni-tool for some music. She took a deep breath and started jogging, setting a fast pace as she went.
This was her home. Streets lined with emptied, rundown buildings. Her feet pounded the pavement hard. She ran passed the posters which she now knew were just advertisements, not the pictures of glorious heroes.
Can you feel it running inside you
Can you dream it now as if its beside you
Street walkers returning from a busy night. Red Sand addicts that had fallen asleep on the ground. She passed the advertisement that she took her name from and couldn’t help running her hand across it. The image now bleached colourless by the sun and time.
You will taste it if you can be patient
The more you believe the more you'll create it
Nike was no longer the naive girl, barely able to read. She wasn’t the fiery slip of a girl, sleeping on the streets, stealing to survive.
We'll be rising in a new horizon
A place of freedom defined by your reason
She was a biotic fighter, a champion of the ring. Feared and revered by the gangs. Apart and alone within the Reds. Nike wasn’t exactly happy, but she was content. Her life, as it was now, was something she had worked for. It was paid for in blood, both hers and others.
Take the power its yours to claim
The more you believe the more you create
But with Krycek’s arrival, Nike knew he was the herald of change.
Sweat made her hair damp, her jacket was making her too hot. She tossed onto a nearby crate. Pacing a little as she cooled off.
This was her space. A little old basketball court behind a row of what used to be apartment blocks. They used to belong to one of the smaller gangs, but the Reds had cleared them out early in their rise. Now it was hers. Frank had wanted her to get good with her biotics, but with just a command and nobody to seek help from, she fell back to seeking answers from the extranet. And it delivered, somewhat.
The wall that the basketball court was set flushed against bore marks of her training. Bricks cracked in parts, completely crumbled in others. Concrete was as scarred as her arms and legs. Every single one earned in the ring or the battle field.
Nike stripped down to her sports bra and shorts. She set about clearing her training field of loose debris, noticing it was cleaner than usual despite not visiting it in a while. Absently, she filed the observation aside. She removed her shoes and started stretching. There was a new trick she was trying to master. She wanted to put it to use the next time she faced her opponents.
She started with the basics — barriers, pushes and pulls. She used everything around her. Small debris to chunks of bricks and benches that used to be bolted to the concrete floor. She always started small before moving her way up to heavier things. It was like limbering up a muscle. And this particular muscle had been sorely taxed for months. I could have fucking won the fight if Frank hadn’t farm me out to fights like a fucking dog.
Learning how to use her biotics via the extranet was a hit and miss experience at best. Fighters of the ring hoarded their knowledge like dragons with treasure. Watching vids and listening to rank amateurs attempting to verbalise the subtleties of various techniques didn’t a fighter make. Though she did find so many funny vids of biotics gone wrong. If she didn’t have Frank riding on her about it, sending her into fight after fight, each win eked out by the skin of her teeth, she might have spent all her time watching those vids. Nike fell back on instincts and self experimentation. This court had suffered its share of her frustration fuelled tantrums, but her whoops of triumph had echoed against its walls too. At first, her studies had an edge of desperation, she didn’t want to be constantly put into sink or swim situations. But she got competent and later, good. More than fucking good.
Nike had a sheen of sweat coating her skin. Against the afternoon sun, she looked like a lean bronze statue, bathed in blue. She padded to one end of the court after positioning a can at the midway point as a marker. Once she was at the edge of the court, she took another twenty steps backwards, having to step into the grass for that. She exhaled sharply, once, twice and thrice.
She kicked off, running onto the court. Pulling at her core, her biotics flared to life. Then, she willed herself to be there. The world rushed past her in a swoosh. Nike blinked and realised she was halfway to the marker. Her heart was racing half in exertion, half in excitement.
“Fuck, it worked,” she panted. “It fucking worked.”
She traced her steps back to the starting point and geared up for a second attempt. The same steps, the same sharp exhales and the run. As she flared, a sharp whistle followed by cheering made her jerk to a stop. One hand extended, she whirled, ready for an ambush.
“Do that again!”
It was Tiny, and he wasn’t alone.
Lyrics taken from Believe by Mitch King