issue 7

And in This Corner, the Indomitable Feather Rex, by Rebecca Bennett

Feather Rex is three pink boas to the wind. Synthetic ostrich feathers drift loose throughout the arena, while their plucked strings lie limp at Feather’s rotors. Some fluff has caught between Feather’s arm plates, but most swirl over the broken metal in the centre of the ring. SolderBoy lasted three bouts, but once the boas snaked around Solder’s arms, Feather only had to tighten until Solder’s elbow joints locked together. After that, it was just pummeling.

Beyond the death rattle of Solder’s power core, Feather can hear the audience’s distant roar. The arena’s walls are soundproofed to keep the crowds from interfering in the fights, but during the bookends when the caretakers slink in to clean the arena for the next bout, cheers or boos leak in. If Feather had to rank their favourite sounds in the arena, the screech of a human audience would be dead last. At the top would be the classical music piped into their core, Paula Abdul crooning about snakes or Tiffany confirming the security of her abode. Next would be the first rumble as an opponent enters the arena, the gentle skid of a flipper bot or the grinding of an overpowered drum bot. It all hits the same–an ease to Feather’s chest cavity.

Solder’s remains are emptied into the trap door at the centre of the ring while Feather is re-oiled and polished. As the vacuum clicks on to remove the plucked remains of Feather’s boas, they already miss the pink strings of fluff, but the rule is to not repeat accessories in a bout. Feather’s manager pushes an updated news feed to their internal viewer. Good fight, not great. No bonuses this round since 15% of the audience switched over to watch the rest of Bloomer’s fight. They’ve both won their matches. If the cameras were still on, Feather would rub their limbs together in anticipation. It’s been years since Feather has met Bloomer in the ring.

The arenas are the same from city to city, a ten-metre circle fitted with high walls, floor spikes, and flamethrowers. Outside of each ring is No Man’s Land, a metre-wide perimeter blanketed by low polycarbonate walls. It’s a place of punishment for bots that leave the purview of the best camera angles or try to escape the fight. There’s only one overhead camera that captures the carnage wrung from trap pits and laser wires. The traps are only for show, though. The real danger is the magnetic lining. Bots bent on escaping may seem partially successful at first, rattling and shaking from the different traps, but the magnets rendered them dead the moment they entered.

Management timed cleaning the arena meticulously, just enough of a gap in entertainment to provide the audience a chance to use the bathroom or buy merch. The wait is endless until finally, finally, the announcer howls about the shared animosity between Feather and Bloomer. The many fights, the different trophies, the bitter losses. He’s too gleeful about the moment and the expected butchery; Feather wants respect and admiration for the fight. They’ve been circling around this fight for years–the necessity of it might as well be hardcoded into Feather’s core.

The grind of a motor clicks on. The sound is fake, but it builds anticipation that lures in more views. A platform rises from beneath the arena for Bloomer’s slow entrance. It’s a hero’s welcome as the wall-mounted flamethrowers trigger on and off. The high-up flamethrowers are mostly for show, but humans tend to lose their shit at the spectacle of fire.

Feather has seen Bloomer dismembered by a thousand different cuts. Metal is resilient—slashes and wounds can be welded, teeth gouges softened and sutured, caved in siding can be hammered and buffed into shining smoothness.

Countless deaths should have made Bloomer strong, sturdy with layered metal and reinforced siding. Instead, Bloomer has shrunk over the years.

The announcer quits his howling and the lights of the arena flash red. The starting bell peals for the third time just as Feather’s limbs unlock and Bloomer’s finger joints twitch as their own locks disengage.

They circle each other.

Contractually they have to circle each other two to five times to establish a story line with the audience. There are no moving features on their faces (apparently humans didn’t enjoy seeing the feigned agony on destroyed bots), so they use body language and loaded gestures to convey the emotion that the audience craves.

At the end of the third turn, Bloomer opens their palms to reveal sixteen antique USB drives in each hand. Feather scans them quickly, revealing (disappointingly) that the only data on the drives are old spreadsheets with names of Egyptian gods, Pokémon characters, and Star Trek aliens. Useless information that humans collected like the dust mites on their bodies.

As Feather pauses, Bloomer cocks their head and raises their palms to the camera above. It takes 0.3 seconds for the camera lens to focus. Once the lens has zoomed in, Bloomer crushes the drives and litters them to the ground.

It’s part of a long storyline, where Feather is mocked for their age, despite the fact that both were created in tandem. No, the standard line is that Feather is little more to the younger bots than a discarded hard drive. No matter the fights Feather has won.

Feather’s current body was created when monster fights were all the rage, fantastical bouts that kept humans distracted from resource wars. Away from the frailty of flesh. Droids would compress themselves into wolf shapes or expand their limbs to become ogres. Feather’s body has changed significantly since those days but the core is the same–a barrel-shaped torso, wide with thick casing to protect their innards. 

As with the newest fashion, Bloomer’s core has been moved up from the centre of their mass to create a large chest; their waist is tucked in (almost 5 inches smaller than in previous bouts) and skirted with hammered metal petals. With each new addition Bloomer has become more brittle, more breakable. Thinner metal, forced curves, useless embellishments; all of it only serves to hold Bloomer back.

Feather is disappointed. This isn’t the fight they’ve waited for, a true challenge between masters. This isn’t the Bloomer they know. Already Feather’s manager is typing in potential maneuvers, all so obvious and dull that Feather doesn’t bother to read them. Rip off the metal petals that decorate Bloomer’s waist? Astounding tactical observation.

Communication is only ever one-way between bots and managers, as much as Feather would like to make their displeasure known. The makers and their managers funnel funds and commands, setting up storylines and rivalries for Feather to parrot in the arena. It’s stage play, when all Feather wants to do is rip up some metal.

Bloomer is midway through their soliloquy when Feather feels a small ping at their motherboard. Feather scans the message while dodging through Bloomer’s attacks, feinting with such slowness it’s a wonder they aren’t moving backward. It’s a communication request from Bloomer. Robots aren’t allowed to communicate with each other during fights; technically, they aren’t allowed to communicate at all. How Bloomer breached through layers of security, Feather can only guess.

The fight is boring. Feather can already narrow down victory—something more interesting than a ripped off petal shoved down a torso. They’ll catch Bloomer from behind and use the petals to spin the bot, twirling them faster and tearing off metal at each rotation. It’ll be a tornado of metal scattered about the arena like shiny glitter.

Feather accepts the request and pushes their manager’s ratings report to the back of their mind.

<I am honoured to fight with you for my last show.> The words are displayed on Feather’s visual hub. The neon letters blaze but the sans serif font seems almost welcoming. Surprising, really. Feather would have pegged Bloomer for a no-nonsense, black-coloured, serif font bot.

The small spears at the ends of Bloomer’s fingers reach out and carve into Feather’s midsection. No damage, but the metal curls apart. Their manager is cheering about how the audience loves the destruction. Feather launches back and tears off three of Bloomer’s flanges.

It’s all so rote.

<Are they retiring you?> Feather responds. Their own text, a pink Papyrus that their manager hates, floats into the ether. Retirement can happen at any time; all it takes is audience engagement to shift. Pacemaker was retired a few years ago when their manager determined that ticking sounds ranked low on audience surveys. Never mind that Pacemaker’s ticker tape was an electrified menace that could conquer any arena anywhere.

Saw wheels bisect the stage, keeping Feather and Bloomer on either side. Bloomer is bouncing for the cameras, their petals arching with each lift and fall.

<They won’t get that chance.>

Feather is also dancing for the attention of cameras. It’s embarrassing. More farce than fighting. Half of the battles now are just showboating as the announcer lists off each bot’s victories. In the old days, Feather would have gone through three bouts by now.

There’s an infinitesimal pause but Bloomer continues their message. <I’m going underground. It’s been arranged.>

Underground is the word for robots that leave human management. Each quarter, Feather’s manager catalogues all the ways they are losing viewers to underground bot fights. Security is tightened up, rules are overexplained, and Feather fights harder to show that they are still viable. There are whispers of smaller bots, like MulletProof, leaving the system, but never one with the pedigree of Bloomer.

<They’ll never let you leave.> Even if the managers plan to retire Bloomer, they’d never abandon the audience loyal to the bot. Pieces of Bloomer would be repurposed, made into a new robot to draw in the same crowd.

As Bloomer eggs on Feather from the opposite side of the arena, tossing CDs into the saw blades to shatter into shrapnel, an image is shared between them. A blueprint of the arena, the magnets highlighted and a dotted path to an exit.

<At the end of the match, the magnets will be disabled during the crowning. All I need to do is leave when the camera switches to the overhead view of the platform lowering you for repairs.>

<You’re assuming you’ll win?> The fight is already so obviously in Feather’s favour it’s hard to imagine Bloomer lasting until the crowning.

<I have everything to lose if I don’t,> Bloomer replies.

Bloomer is closer now, using one of their own petals as a forearm blade for them to swipe at Feather. The metal latches into Feather’s throat, piercing one of their coolant tubes. The liquid is dyed red and spurts into Bloomer’s painted face.

The metal is sharper than anticipated and Feather is frozen, surprised by their own misjudgment. They never expected Bloomer to go for the neck; it was a 9% possible outcome. Most scenarios had Bloomer focusing on the core, breaking apart the metal into Feather’s processor.

<Cargobots will be picking me up after the fight. My codes will be scrambled and then disabled.> Bloomer is moving so quickly now, tearing off petal after petal and ramming them into Feather’s torso.

There’s no pain but Feather knows their role, to writhe and buck as though each wound is lethal. There’s still a secondary coolant line to keep their processor running; the injuries are mild distractions to the fight. The real shock is the deadliness in Bloomer’s actions. Bloomer doesn’t pull their swings or pivot for the best camera angle.

It’s brutal, vicious.

It’s glorious.

Caught up in the momentum of the brawl, Feather pulls the petals out from Bloomer’s torso and uses them to slice at Bloomer’s arms. The cuts are clean. Feather uses their considerable weight and smashes into Bloomer’s torso, knocking them both over. Bloomer’s weight is uneven, too heavy on top and too tiny in the torso for stabilization. Bloomer goes down harder and stays down longer.

 <Feather. Feather.>

Bloomer’s text cuts through Feather’s fog. Feather is straddling the downed bot using the detached arm to dent Bloomer’s stupidly small waist.

 <Feather. Stop. I need to win this.>

Feather pauses for a second, but it’s all Bloomer needs to stab Feather’s neck wound again. The secondary coolant line has been nicked. Already Feather can feel internal fans accelerating to compensate, their motor heating. They’re slowing down.

Bloomer has lifted Feather off the ground, tossing them across the stage like nothing. <You don’t belong here either Feather. I think you need the freedom more than I do.>

Feather can’t move. This isn’t how they saw the match going. Their manager didn’t either, judging by the flurry of furious messages. The chance for victory is gone. Now he wants Feather to lay nice and still so the camera can get a good photo of their defeat. All joy from the fight has been sapped by the barrage of ratings, comments, and video feeds that fill Feather’s memory bank.

Bloomer rolls Feather onto the centre pad, striking poses as the announcer describes the newest victory crown that will be bestowed on Bloomer. Bloomer’s bladed fingers linger on Feather’s neck before the platform lights up. <I hope to meet you in battle again one day.>

There’s a blinding light as the cameras focus on Feather’s body. The platform lights up red around them, puffs of air announcing its descent. Bloomer is just at the corner of their vision.

<You will recover,> Bloomer texts.

The bot has already left. It’s been four seconds but the cameras haven’t noticed yet. They are still focused on Feather reaching into their chest and pulling out a useless storage unit. Feather chucks it into the air, shrieking like a sore loser who still demands attention. They wail like a human, nonsensical diatribes that transition into moans.

It takes five more seconds until the announcer notices that Bloomer is gone. In the rabble that launches through Feather’s feeds, a small image file is uploaded to their unit. It’s a blueprint of Feather’s next scheduled match. At the bottom, in a welcoming neon font, is a message to wait until the loser’s descent.

Warmth, possibly from the coolant leakage, fills Feather’s chest. They ignore the mechanics already digging through them. Shuts down the reprimands from their managers.

There’s a promise of a fight in that message. Feather has always loved a good fight.

Rebecca Bennett writes speculative fiction with small town flair. Her short stories and poetry have been published in Strange Horizons, Bourbon Penn, Luna Station Quarterly and other literary locations. She wields minor power as a Senior Editor at Apparition Lit and adds extra vowels whenever she can. You can follow her occasional tweets at @_rebeccab

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