Chapter 4 - Isaac
I opt to take the shortcut home, which goes past the buildings that burnt down last month due to a huge fire. The Radii have sent people to come and fix them, but it is slow going.
I sigh as I travel down the deserted streets. Quiet walks like these mean I think. I don’t want to think about certain things, so I turn my attention to the black buildings to my left.
The rubble around has been cleared up, and the buildings, though an unsightly black colour, are safe enough to walk around, but people tend to avoid this part of town now, except the nearby residents, who just have to deal with the gloomy atmosphere.
The observation of my surroundings is not completed – something makes me stop dead in my tracks. Distant sounds, like crowds . . . even though I’m well away from the main road.
Frowning, I speed up my pace, and the noise becomes more pronounced. Groans intermingle with relentless cheering and booing. I jump over low hedges and empty gardens, seeking the source, which I soon come upon.
With furrowed eyebrows, I squint towards the people making the racket. There are about two dozen of them, arranged in a circular position – looking at something in the middle of the circle. My eyes focus on the place they stand in – an abandoned park, with overgrown, dry grass and various weeds sprouting from the earth. Behind them are woods which would give them an excellent means of escape . . . is it intentional? Probably. There aren’t many abandoned places in the Circle – this is unlikely to be a coincidence.
I stand on a small brick wall to get a better look, and my eyes widen. In a net-encased ring stand two men wearing only trousers. They are throwing punches and kicks at each other; tackling one another to the ground. This isn’t even the old wrestling or boxing; it looks like an ugly fight, but they wouldn’t exactly be scrapping in a mesh-encased ring with spectators if it was just an anger inspired brawl.
Biting my lip, I step down. Illegal. Definitely illegal. Some people have previously wanted all sports to be made illicit, claiming it made people resentful and jealous of one another, and caused many preventable deaths. Others strongly disagreed. The Radii’s compromise was to meet the last request; ban only the most harmful sports – activities like Tennis were kept, but intense, bad injury causing ones, like boxing and rugby, were abolished.
People found out to have participated in these activities are sent to RepAnt – Repentance and Atonement. Not prison – we are taught not to think of the harsh places used before. In RepAnt, the offenders are persuaded to think that what they did is wrong, apologise, and carry out a sentence. We are supposed to help wrongdoers become better people, not punish them, which is thought to just stoke the fire.
However, people are sent to Confinement if they commit a crime more than twice, where it’s worse. A lot less freedom and vigorous lectures. It’s possible to get out of Confinement and into RepAnt – only if the criminal has thoroughly changed their path. People who don’t are kept in Confinement until they do. Can’t be too lenient, I guess.
The only exceptions to the RepAnt and Confinement laws are the Antithetical. Whether they have committed a crime or not, once captured, they are in Confinement until they die. I find this incredibly unfair – why condemn the innocent – but what can I do?
I bite my lip as I try to decide what to do about these law-breakers. I’ve only secretly played boxing and wrestling with a few friends, and there are very strict rules about things – we follow the old protocols rigidly. Break a rule, warning. Do it again, you’re out. It’s less barbaric, but I’d still be a hypocrite if I reported it this affray.
The bigger guy in the ring suddenly goes down and there are somewhat muted jeers and applause as the winner lays a foot on the other guy’s chest and throws his arms in the air in triumph.
Then someone notices me – a short but formidable looking man. He nudges those next to him and points at me. I rest against a nearby brick wall, watching to see what they’re going to do. Perhaps I should be afraid of these criminals, but I’m just curious. An exaggerated shudder runs through me. I’m turning into Isolde.
Some of the onlookers take off into the nearby woods, and I quirk my eyebrows. Am I that scary? I’m just a normal guy – almost six foot, I’d like to think, but certainly no physical wonder. They’re probably worried about me sending a report to our Arc, where the Radii of our Sector congregate and deal with various issues like this.
I wait as the one who first spotted me approaches. “Looks interesting,” I say in a casual tone.
His eyes scrutinise me, trying to gauge what type of person I am.
Oh, you’ll never guess.
“You ever come here?” he asks. His voice is low and grating, like gravel.
“No,” I say.
“Keep quiet about it.” His eyes are a lifeless, watery blue; like a shark’s.
There is an undeniable threat in his words, but I just grin, wondering, amused, if he would attack me. “No.”
Suddenly, his fist shoots out, aiming for my head. I easily block it, and drive my leg into his stomach – he stumbles back with an ‘oof’ sound. So it’s a fight, then?
I throw myself into the battle with enthusiasm, confident that I will come out unscathed. Holding firmly onto his sinewy arm, I slam my back into his chest, crushing him against the nearby wall. I can hear the yells of the remaining crowd, but I’m too caught up in the moment to take much notice.
The guy’s legs thrash violently as he swears, trying to wriggle out of my grip. Some kicks make contact, and they hurt like hell.
With a slight grunt of effort, I pull him onto my back, and flip him over. I don’t let gravity steal the glory – I forcefully push him down, too. He smacks into the pebble-ridden ground out my feet, groaning loudly.
There’s an oncoming rush of people, and I internally debate whether it’s time to move.
A woman with hair cut short and spiky stares at me as she nears. I don’t understand the incredulous look on her face. What did she think I’d do? Let myself be beaten up by some hare-brained fool?
“Who are you?” one of the people says angrily – a man similar in build to the one I beat up, but slightly more thickset.
I smirk. “Isaac.”
“You better wipe that stupid simper off your face ’cos –“
“’Cos what?” I interrupt. “So you’re telling me that you can watch people scrapping like undomesticated dogs but I can’t simply defend myself?”
The man’s face is livid. He starts towards me angrily, but the woman with the wild hairdo lays a restraining hand on his thick arm.
She mutters rapidly in his ear, and then turns her head towards me.
“Get in the ring,” she says in a high, tinkling voice, and gestures to the construction behind her.
I raise my eyebrows, disbelieving. “You say that like you think I’ll listen to you.”
“We have one . . . two . . . three . . .” – she points to different people in turn – “. . . four . . . five available fighters.” She crosses her arms and gives me a smug look. “However strong you may be, I doubt you’ll be able to take on five at once. So I suggest you listen to me.”
I smile placidly. “Bring it on.”
The man who just challenged me (I think the woman called him Dom) launches himself at me, pulling his elbow back to slam it into my face. I bring up my hands to deflect his hit, but I’m about half a second late – his sharp bone finds its target, and shocking flashes of pain spread throughout my face. My opponent smiles in triumph while the other fighters form a ring around me.
Dom comes back for a follow-up; an uppercut to the jaw. This I manage to parry, though the pain in my cheek is distracting. I grit my teeth and try to ignore it as best as I can. I duck my head as his fist shoots out, sending a foot in his direction – a kick to the knee would make him lose his stability. He wobbles, but doesn’t fall down. I take advantage of his temporary unbalance and give a classic jab in the stomach.
I risk whipping my head back to check on my other rivals. They are converging in, convinced that Dom needs some assistance. I’m caught off-guard by a powerful punch. Dom might be a bit slow, but he sure is strong.
A sharp kick from behind has me wheeling around – bad choice, I immediately realise. I quickly lower myself, but am hit with a glancing blow to the temple. Thankfully, it doesn’t cause me much damage. I know that the two men will be on me in a moment, so I tune out the aching in my head and stumble back, managing to evade Dom, who is coming after me with a deadly gleam in his eye.
I walk backwards as fast as I can. He runs towards me, turning his body slightly – intending to slam into me. I wait till the last second until speedily moving out of the way. He realises my plan too late, and loses his equilibrium, falling ungracefully to the ground. I give him a good few kicks, making sure he stays down. His hands don’t manage to grasp hold of me. I stamp on them for good measure.
Breathing heavily, I turn back round to face the rest. Two assailants come at me at once. I knock into the one on my left, and shift my position to attack the guy on my right with an expertly timed right hook to the chin. The one on my left is close, so I decide to poke him in the eye. This isn’t a dignified, fair match; it’s five guys homing in on a single person. I have a right to be cruel.
The prodded man cries out. I push him away from me, simultaneously bracing myself for a return from my other adversary, who runs into me, solid as a truck. As I fall, I put all my strength into revolving; he is the one who lands on the bottom. I pin him down with one hand, and draw back my other to pummel him.
He cringes. I am merciful; I leave him.
When I get up, I look at the men still standing. With a sinking heart, I see that the man who I beat up first, and Dom, are now up. So . . . how many left? I don’t allow myself to be distracted with the mathematics, but face my enemies. They have learnt their lesson; they don’t run at me, but approach me with a pace just above a jog.
I rack my brains for any more tricks, and come up with nothing. I’ll just have to use brute force – knock them out. Or I could just run . . . I keep perfectly still, not hinting at anything.
The chances of me beating a bunch of hostile men is slim. The numbers overwhelm me. If I run . . . abruptly, I sprint out, back in the direction I came from. I don’t like turning my back to the guys, but I must if I want to gain enough speed. Instead of using my eyes, I use my ears to detect incoming opponents.
I can hear pounding footsteps coming behind me, and strain myself, moving faster, away from the threat, zigzagging through alleys until I come to one of the main streets, where I stop running and mingle with the crowd. I’ve lost them.
My breaths gradually slow down to a normal pace, and I smile widely. That was exhilarating. My body is quite sore – namely my face – but I still feel euphoric. I am practically skipping in step as I make the long way home.