A Quantum Destinies side story
by D. B. Sommer
Any and all C+C is appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com
Standard disclaimer: I don't own any of the folks from Ranma ½, they belong to Rumiko Takahashi, and the US rights belong to Viz Communications.
Quantum Destinies is a universe that belongs to Jurai-Knight, and he has been kind enough to let me play in it a few times.
Author's notes: Yes, this is another QD side story, but one that works into the current story line (unlike my last QD story). It's a prelude for Shampoo and her (re)appearance in QD as of chapter 16. The story looks like it will be a bit long, but hopefully will be worth the read as many of the events in it will tie in directly with the QD main story line.
The train station seemed to epitomize the words 'bustling with activity' as men and women wearing a variety of outfits, from well-tailored suits to torn rags that even a homeless derelict would be reluctant to wear, walked back and forth at various paces as they boarded and disembarked from the variety of vehicles present in the building. There were four separate tracks for the tremendous activity in the vast structure that seemed to be nearly half the size of Shampoo's village, all of it indoor.
Shampoo felt a bit overwhelmed by the constant motion of so many people in so small an area. Jaddo had warned her that the main station in Kunming was at least five times larger than the one in Shaoyang, which had impressed the young Amazon the first time she saw it, but the difference between merely being told and actually witnessing it firsthand was unbelievable. Still, she had become used to the bigger cities, and mass transportation like trains, since making the inner circuit of the fighting matches. In the beginning, she had openly gawked in awe at the towering structures that at one time had been relegated to photographs in books. Such amazing feats of engineering could not have been prepared for anymore than the train station could have for a young girl with her upbringing. But Shampoo had adapted quickly, and in truth found an odd sort of fondness for the larger cities that seemed to have a multitude of necessities no more than a block away. She still missed her home, but did not feel uncomfortable amid tall buildings that dominated those cities whose populations soared to over a million. And in spite of that, Jaddo assured her that Hong Kong was even bigger, the entire island nearly paved over in an endless field of concrete and steel that stretched to the ocean. Shampoo could barely wait to see the vast megalopolis.
And see it she would, for after another two and a half months, she was at last ready to go on the next leg of her journey. Thirty-four opponents had come and gone, and now only one remained before she could make the move to the 'big time' as Jaddo liked to refer to it. Just one more fight and she would be more than halfway to her final destination.
And yet, in spite of her anticipation, there were other, more urgent needs that plagued Shampoo's mind. The big fight wasn't for another five days, and there were more important matters that needed to be taken care of first.
Shampoo took an inventory of their surroundings. Jaddo had already purchased their tickets, and the pair were sitting alone on a bench, waiting patiently for their train to arrive. It was not due for another half-hour, and trains never ran on time anyhow, at least from Shampoo's personal experience. They had no pressing matters. There was nothing that should interrupt them. That would give her all the time she needed.
She cast an expectant look to Jaddo, who appeared bored as he watched the people walk by in an unceasing flow. After a minute of him continuing to watch the passing throngs of humanity, and showing no signs of stopping anytime soon, Shampoo switched to staring at him intently. Again nothing. She cleared her throat, trying to get his attention.
His eyes continued to follow the people back and forth.
She kicked him in the shin.
That gained a response. "Damn it, girl! Can't you tell I'm busy trying to ignore you?!"
"Too late now," Shampoo snapped. Two and a half months, and the man still knew how to make her angry with a single sentence. She wondered if it was an ability unique to him, or if all men could manage the feat if they put their minds to it.
"What do you want?"
Now it was time to enact her plan. She had thought things through, and believed she had chosen the best course of action to get what she desperately needed. Her opening move was to unleash a bright smile upon him, one her trainer rarely saw since she had little cause to give it to him. "It's my birthday."
Jaddo's mood changed noticeably as he returned her smile with one of his own, showing off his pearly white teeth. "Oh, well why didn't you say so? Congratulations on not dying in the last three hundred and sixty-five days." He went back to staring at the people passing by.
But not for long.
"Ow! Damn it, girl! Quit kicking me in the shin! What the hell do you want now?"
"You could get me a present," Shampoo said, trying to be 'nice' in spite of the remarks she was receiving.
"I have an idea, why don't you start holding your breath, and we'll see if I get you a present before you pass out?"
That sent 'nice' right out the station on the train that was currently leaving.
It took several tense moments for Shampoo to regain her composure. This was going to be difficult. She hated being reliant on Jaddo, but she needed more money than the cut he gave her from her winnings. "I need new clothes."
Jaddo sighed. "Look, I've been around women long enough to know that they all possess a shopping gene that kicks in every other day or so. Frankly, I'm astonished you've held out this long. I also understand that gene compels you to try to get the nearest man to buy you things, rather than paying for them yourself. But be that as it may, I am not buying you new clothes no matter how much you smile, beg, or grovel. Get over it, and have a nice day."
"But I need new ones."
"No, you don't," Jaddo assured her. "I've seen your outfits. All of them are a little worn, and that blue and gold number is too shabby to use in a fight anymore, but you can wear the rest just fine. I also know you got a new blood red one a month ago, which you've been wearing all the time. And that's not to mention your green dress that's too expensive and not fit for casual wear, let alone combat. You know, the one you bought right after I told you you couldn't afford it?"
"I never wore a dress like that before. It was pretty. I needed to have it." And Shampoo meant every word. The style of the dress, with its long flowing skirt that nearly touched the ground, and the frills that decorated the front of it from neck to navel, was unlike anything even seen in the village, or anywhere else for that matter. And it felt unbelievably smooth on her skin, even better than silk. She did not have a single recrimination about purchasing it. The only thing she was sorry about was that she couldn't wear it more often, and that she didn't have a pair of matching shoes to go with it.
"It was also an import from France and made from that Chantgard weave that costs a fortune to make," Jaddo reminded her. "It's your own fault for spending all of your money. Don't look at me to give you more. You'll thank me for being this stern with you when you're older. But even if you are still pissed about it in a few years, I won't be around so I won't care."
A trembling shook Shampoo's body. That man! It was time to bring out her secret weapon, the one she had been saving for an occasion such as this. Her whole posture changed to that of someone having been emotionally wounded as she unleashed her patented 'hurt puppy dog' expression. It was so pitiful that it would even make Mousse leave her alone for a few hours when she used it on him and asked him to leave. It never failed.
"I ate a puppy for breakfast." Jaddo scratched himself, then turned impassively back to watching the people go past.
Shampoo sighed. It looked like she was going to have to be direct and use the truth. "I'm not saying I want new clothes. I'm being serious when I say I really need them."
"Because all the ones I brought with me from home are too small now," Shampoo explained in a pleading voice. "They were getting a bit snug when I left, and in the months since we set out on the road, I've grown almost three centimeters. Now I can barely get into any of them. That's why I've been wearing that red outfit so much. It's the only one left that fits comfortably."
Jaddo rose to his feet. "Stand up." Shampoo did as she was ordered. He gave her a measured look with his eyes before his brow creased in annoyance at the decreased height differential between them. "Great. Nice timing for a growth spurt." He let out a deep sigh and held his hand to his forehead: an official signal of surrender. "Fine. I'll buy you two outfits and not one more. And when I say outfit, I mean the male definition, not the female one that includes matching handbag, shoes, and jacket composed of some valuable animal's hide. And nothing expensive either. The pay triples in Hong Kong. Once you get a few wins there, you'll have enough money to get whatever outfits you want. And if your contract gets bought up, your owners will supply you with all your clothing, housing, and food needs from there, and you won't have to worry about any of that crap."
Shampoo smiled at the concession, but then shifted somewhat uncomfortably. Jaddo saw the movement and grasped what she was feeling. He was beginning to understand her just like he would any other person that had been a complete stranger until he was forced to live continuously with them for several months. He gave her an affectionate pat on the shoulder. "There's no need to thank me. I enjoy helping you-"
"Actually, I need something else."
"-unfortunately for you, I enjoy having money a whole lot more. You won't bleed another cent from me."
"But you have to," Shampoo all but pleaded. "I need new underwear. It's even more important than the clothes."
"Yah. I noticed your butt's been getting a lot bigger."
Shampoo was getting good at kicking him in the shin. As he hopped around on one foot and swore, she said, "It's not because of my butt! It's my chest. My bras aren't big enough anymore. They were bad enough when we left home, but they're so tight now, I don't even bother wearing them." She shifted uncomfortably again, hating herself for having to point that fact out to him.
Jaddo stopped hopping. "Oh, I see. Now it makes sense. And here I thought your going without them was just some cheap, pathetic attempt at getting my attention, especially given how cold it's been lately."
That gained him a nasty look.
"Hey now, don't be that way," Jaddo soothed. "You should be grateful. This is a great birthday for you."
Shampoo's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Why?"
Jaddo unleashed that whiplash smile of his again. "Because, you've gotten the best birthday present any woman could ask for: bigger tits."
Shampoo broke part of the bench over his head.
"My butt is not bigger," Shampoo assured herself as she exited the ladies' restroom. At first, she had needed to get away from Jaddo and the depraved insults that he seemed to think passed for humor. After she cooled off, she found she actually needed to use the facility. And finally, despite the fact she knew he had only said that to anger her, she checked her posterior out as thoroughly as she could in the large mirror that hung in the restroom. Once satisfied Jaddo had just been more offensive than usual, she exited the restroom. Besides, other women had begun to stare at her as she gauged her bottom in the mirror.
By the time Shampoo emerged, she was certain Jaddo would have some pointed comment to make about how women always took forever to relieve themselves. Instead, she was confronted by a scene of chaos as people milled about in clusters, some talking in animated discussions, some screaming angrily. Others had formed long lines at all of the booths and administration areas, obviously in a distraught state.
Shampoo was wondering just what had happened when Jaddo came up to her. "Loo ks like we won't be leaving today."
"Didn't you hear the message over the speakers?"
"I was uhh… distracted." There was no sense in admitting that she had been affected by his remark about the size of her posterior.
"Those idiots in the People's Freedom Movement blew up all the rails north of the city. No train can leave that way now. We're stuck until they fix it up, stupid assholes."
"People's Freedom Movement?"
"Yah. Don't you…" Jaddo trailed off for a moment. "Oh, right. You live out in the boonies. I forget about that sometimes. The PMF are a bunch of terrorists seeking the freedom of the people from the Empire, or some such nonsensical rhetoric. All they really end up doing is little bombings, acts of destruction, and killings that end up hurting the people they say they want to help. They usually destroy something that the people use, like today with the trains, and don't affect the Empire in the least. Worse, the Empire then cracks down on the area the PMF operated in, causing the residents there even more harm. They're a bunch of stupid morons that wouldn't know liberation if it came up and ripped their nuts off with a pair of rusty pliers."
This was all new information for Shampoo. She knew there were countries that resisted the rule of the Empire, everyone in her village knew that, but they were unaware that people that actually lived in her lands did as well. True, the Joketsuzoku despised having to pay a token lip service to their conquerors, even if the terms of surrender had been agreeable, but the idea that there were others that had actually taken up arms against the massive Empire astonished her. "Are there many of them?"
Jaddo shook his head. "Nah. They're no bigger than all of them other piddly little bands of thugs that use the Empire as an excuse to blow up things and make themselves feel important. They're maybe a half dozen groups with names like 'Independence,' 'Freedom,', or 'Autonomy' in their name. They're all the same. Completely ineffective and crushed the instant they become an actual nuisance.
"Only ones that are any good are the Emancipation Brigade and the Tang Liberation Movement. I don't much mind the EB. Ironically, they're led by a former high ranking Imperial Security Directorate guy that decided he didn't like the way his homeland rolled over everyone and made them subservient to them. Empire tries to keep that fact quiet. It's a real black eye for them. The EB's a smart bunch. They got good training and work out in the West where it's hard to find them and they can do actual damage to the Empire. Mostly cut military supplies lines, communications, destroy property, especially high-tech stuff. Even been known to kidnap high-ranking officers and ransom them back. Not much in the way of killing, but it's been known to happen from time to time. Rumor has it some of the European governments secretly back them too, which gives them a power base to work with.
"The real bad boys are the TLB. They're into all the really bad stuff. Stealing and reselling arms. Assassinating key officials and so-called sympathizers. Drug running. Hell, smaller military outposts out in the boonies are known to disappear to a man, and even though it can't be proven, everyone knows who's really responsible. Most of the people they claim they want to 'free' are more terrified of them than the Empire. They disgust me, more than just about anyone. They're profiteers using their propaganda as an excuse to make a buck. Rumor's have it they're a cover for Shadowlaw even if no one in the know has the spine to admit it. Hell, I'd help to turn one of them bastards over if I knew any of them."
Shampoo was in awe. "I had no idea things were like that."
Jaddo gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "Don't be impressed. Even the TLB isn't more than a single leech sucking the blood out of an elephant. Nothing any of them do will amount to anything in the long run. Not that it really matters one way or another. I don't care. I'm no revolutionary."
Shampoo's gaze towards Jaddo narrowed. "You make it sound like you have no problems with the Empire controlling your lands."
Rather than be either offended or defensive, Jaddo shrugged. "Nah. I've never known a life where I wasn't under their rule, but I'd just as soon they pulled back to them Japanese islands that they originally came from. Mind you, even if they did, they'd just be replaced by other incompetent officials, but I'd rather have to suffer under local assholes than ones from thousands of miles away."
For some reason, his attitude bothered Shampoo. "It sounds like you wouldn't fight for your freedom?"
"I am free," Jaddo told her plainly, not offended in the least. "I go where I want and have a job I used to like a whole lot more before I met you. Yah, maybe I'm not legally a citizen, but out here that doesn't mean much. And I realized a long time ago that just because you get some fancy title added to your status, it doesn't mean you'll ever get your heart's desire."
That last seemed to be delivered almost pensively, a rare state for Jaddo to be in when not talking about fighting. Intrigued, Shampoo asked, "What's that supposed to mean?"
Much to Shampoo's surprise, he turned away from her and began walking, heading for the nearest exit. "We need to get hotel rooms. The morons won't get things sorted out for days."
Jaddo was moving faster than he needed to, or at least it seemed that way to Shampoo. She picked up her bags and hurried to catch up to him. "You didn't answer my question."
"It means you can win the tournament and become a citizen and still be miserable. Citizenship is no guarantee for happiness, no matter how much you want it."
Shampoo noted he had kept his face turned away from her the entire time. As a general rule, especially when he was instructing her in the ways of the world, like now, he always looked her in the eye. "It will mean happiness for me. It's what I want. And it'll show my people back home since I'm fighting for-"
"Honor and glory, yah, yah," Jaddo finished for her. "Not all people fight for the same thing. For some, Citizenship is just a tool, and sometimes it's not even the right one to achieve the goal they truly want."
Again Shampoo noted the unusual amount of feeling in his voice, or at least the little seen emotion of depression. Jaddo was many things, depressed wasn't one of them. "I still don't understand what you mean."
The duo exited the station and headed for the nearest hotel. Luckily, many were located near the station. "Move your flabby ass. I want to grab a room before the rest of those chumps in the station realize they ain't going to get rerouted today and try to grab them. That is unless you want to sleep in the park."
"No way!" Shampoo had her fill of that. If the choice had been between sleeping outdoors as a citizen, or sleeping inside as a non-citizen, she would have chosen non-citizenship in a heartbeat, promise to the village be damned.
As they continued to the nearest hotel, a tall white structure that was at least ten stories tall, Jaddo said, "Let's switch to Japanese. You need to get a better feel for the language. Your great grandmother said you knew some, and you'll be using it all the time in Japan if you're lucky enough to make it there. You're going to have to speak it too. I don't think a single citizen in that island knows three words of Chinese."
Shampoo nodded her head in agreement.
Living for years in Japan had allowed Jaddo to speak it with only a trace of his accent. Talking with the full-blooded Japanese and government officials had kept the language fresh in his mind. "<Right. Okay. If you manage to speak Japanese the rest of the way to the hotel, after we get settled in, we'll go out and pick up some outfits for you while we're here. Last thing I need to do is end up stuck in a room with you bitching and moaning about how tight your shirts are the entire time.>"
"<Good! Shampoo would enjoy shopping too, too much.>"
That stopped Jaddo in his tracks. "<What did you just say?>"
"<Shampoo said she would enjoy shopping for new clothes too, too much. What stupid old man think Shampoo say?>"
"<Riiight,>" Jaddo moaned as he felt a headache coming on. "<Okay, why don't we try this? If you manage to NOT speak Japanese the rest of the way to the hotel, we'll go out clothes shopping.>"
"<What stupid old man mean? Why can't Shampoo speak Japanese?>"
"<Because I won't hang around you if you do.>"
"<What that supposed to mean? Shampoo speak Japanese very good.>"
"<Only to yourself and a deaf-mute. Luckily, you might be able to get away with it. That pidgen-speak might actually make you seem cuter to the audience.>" Jaddo's headache intensified. "At least you'd better hope it does."
Shampoo spent the next five minutes grumbling to herself in Japanese. Jaddo was just being his usual insulting self. Her Japanese was superb. He was just giving her a hard time, as usual.
The duo got lucky on their first try and managed to get one of the last rooms that were available. As they made their way up to the floor it was located on, Jaddo began speaking again. "In a way, I'm glad those imbeciles set off that bomb. It gives us an excuse to either get to the fight late, or miss it altogether. Either way it would take a lot off my shoulders."
That surprised and angered Shampoo. "What would make you say that? I need this one to get to Hong Kong."
Reluctantly, Jaddo said, "This fight's going to take place out in the middle of a place that's shitier than anything you've seen. It's in a small mining town called Meiling, but calling it a town is being generous. What it really is is a hard labor camp where criminals serve out their sentences. The actual fighting place is at a big Impy military base, which is more like a giant glorified guard facility, called Hanshoi. But all the fighters call it Hellmount. It's a real nasty place to fight, as bad as any in Shanghai. Most of the fans that attend are soldiers, and a real bloodthirsty lot not all that different from the criminals they watch. Most of the rank and file have been relocated there because they ended up on someone's shitlist, and they ain't happy about it. Hellmount is infamous for the brutality of the matches. Got more deaths attributed to there than any dog pit in the Empire. The whole area reeks of desolation and pain, Hellmount's just an extension of the land and people around it."
"Then why go?"
Jaddo shook his head. "The head of base there, General Narayota, has some influence in the area, and especially in Arena fighting. It's considered prestigious to fight there, even with the viciousness of the matches. Most of the fighters are invited by request, and a lot of them move on from there to advance to Hong Kong. Many eventually go on to the Arena itself. That's what happened to me. But turning down an open invitation wouldn't look good, especially since you're so close to advancing. I just wanted to warn you it's probably going to be nastier than anything you've had to put up with so far."
Shampoo stood proudly before him. "I'll win. Have no fear of that."
"Yah, I know you will. Just warning you that things will be rougher than anything you've faced so far."
Their discussion ended just as they arrived at their room. Jaddo used the key to unlock the door and go in. The two had barely stepped inside when they noticed a slight problem.
"Why is there only one bed?"
Jaddo pulled out his receipt. "It says it's supposed to have twin beds. That's a queen. Oh well. The only other rooms left were single's anyway. Guess we're stuck with this. That means I get the bed."
Shampoo's willingness to take the floor took Jaddo by surprise. Ordinarily, she acted like a typical teenager and whined when she couldn't have her own way. It was not as though sleeping on the floor would be any more comfortable for a man his age. She was young and should be willing to make the sacrifice for her elders, just like she was doing now. "It's nice to see you showing your trainer the respect that's his due. You're finally starting to act like a savvy fighter. Looks like my teaching's finally starting to take."
Shampoo nodded her head in affirmation. "Yes, it has. You get the bed, just like you asked, but I get the mattress." She walked right over to the bed, pulled the mattress off and threw it on the floor.
"Damn girl's learning," Jaddo mumbled to himself.
The rumble of the super-steam driven locomotive made the travel too rough for Shampoo to relax. It was unlike the other passenger trains she had ridden, which moved so smoothly one would barely realize they were traveling at speeds in excess of seventy miles an hour. Jaddo said there were electromagnetic driven bullet trains in Japan that went even faster, though the technology was apparently exclusive to Japan, as well as some of the larger cities in Europe. Apparently, the seat of the Empire preferred retaining exclusive rights to the best and biggest toys. Still, Shampoo had found riding the trains that had left Kunming to be a pleasurable experience. It was after the second time they switched trains that the transportation took a notable turn for the worse.
There were no other forms of transport that left directly from Kunming to Meiling. That left the railroad, and they had to transfer not once, but twice to take the only form of mass transportation to get to the mining town. The moment Shampoo's eyes fell on the huge, dull gray vehicle with its engine that was three times larger than the previous trains she had ridden, she knew things had taken a turn for the worse. The cars that trailed behind the train were huge cargo carriers rather than the more familiar passenger expresses that only carried a small quantity of shipment containers. But this was the exact opposite, with only two small cars devoted to bringing people to and from Meiling.
The ride had proven bumpy and the seats uncomfortable. Even taking a window seat failed to distract Shampoo from the jolting journey. Jaddo explained that this was actually an improvement from when he had first ridden the 'Meiling Express' more than twenty years ago. Shampoo shuddered at the very thought of what the journey must have been like back then. Comfort cost money, and comfort was not what the Senzenin Zaibatsu, the company that owned the rights to the mines in Meiling and how the material was transported, was in the business of doing. "Extreme efficiency" was how Jaddo referred to it. Shampoo was forced to agree with the assessment, suffering as she was.
Looking out the window, Shampoo noticed an enormous cloud of black smoke rising in the direction the train was heading. She gained Jaddo's attention and pointed at it. "Something's on fire up ahead. It must be huge."
Jaddo looked for a moment, then sat back in his seat. "Nah. That's just the smoke the smelters kick up. At least one is going twenty-four hours a day. Always been that way, reckon it always will. This is one of the primary sources of ore for the Empire, and they want to keep the metal flowing as long as they can."
"Oh." The thought of living in such a place repelled Shampoo. She couldn't imagine what it would be like being surrounded by something that belched such horrible-looking smoke all the time.
As the train continued onward, Shampoo noticed the land becoming more open and gray. With each passing mile fewer plants grew from the ground. At first, it was the trees that disappeared. Then the bushes and shrubs that grew lower. And finally the plants themselves went from weak fields of green, to sparse things with only small patches of small weeds that were rugged enough to grow over the increasingly desolate ground. Eventually they too succumbed, leaving nothing but unending fields of stone in a show of colors that seemed to exclusively contain two emotions: drab and dreary. Only black and a mottled brown seemed to offset the endless panorama of gray that could be seen from the window of the passing train.
And then she saw her first pit.
It was a huge thing, having about as much in common with the pits she fought in as Joketsuzoku had with Kunming. The concepts might have been similar, but the difference in size made the nearly impossible to make a comparison. The giant hole in the ground was at least a mile across and incredibly deep. Numerous layers of strata could be seen as the various lines of rock marking the ages seemed to stretch without number to the bottom. It seemed as though nothing less than a hand of one of the gods could have reached down and scooped out the earth and tossed it aside, though there was no rubble lining either the sides of the pit or the surface of the land. The amount of rock that had been removed was unfathomable to her. Even the entire population of the Joketsuzoku working all day every day could not have moved that much in a year.
Jaddo had seen his student's look of awe and leaned closer so that he could look out the window as well. "That's what strip mining looks like. When the Empire does stuff, it does it big. Didn't use to reach out this far back when I fought here, but as the mines closer to Meiling play out, they keep going farther and farther away to make a buck."
The desecration to the land made Shampoo's stomach swoon and threaten to rebel. She was not an, what had Jaddo termed them? Ah yes, 'environmentalist.' She was not disturbed by people having to take what they needed from the land, but the scene before just seemed wrong on some instinctual level. "It looks horrible."
"Hah. You should see what the stuff close up to Meiling looks like. This is one of the newer pits. They've been mining stuff out here for nearly three decades, and had lots of time to really screw things up. This is just a little brother to some of the real big boys out there. Seen pits over two miles across and nearly twice as deep. The scenery is going to get worse before it gets any better. That I can guarantee you."
With the initial shock over, Shampoo settled back in her seat, not wishing to view the scene outside her window any longer.
Jaddo continued on, though. "You've got to understand, the Empire might view your land as their territory, but it's also a resource to plunder. Mind you, they would never do this sort of thing to their homeland itself, but the rest of the conquered territories, well, they don't treat them with anywhere near the same consideration. They still have plans, after all, and citizens need their metals for their tools and their toys. It's a fact of life you're going to have to deal with."
Shampoo cast another look outside. Indeed, an even larger pit was passing by. "But what they're doing here… it's wrong."
"Oh, it'll leave scars for a real long time all right," Jaddo confirmed. "I doubt if there's a living plant in the next fifteen miles around here. It's why this place is so far out of the way that only trains come out here to ship the metal out. But it's so far out of the way no one has to look at it. Out of sight, out of mind. That's the way the world works for everyone. No one cares about the manner in which they get their precious metal, just so long as the like the end results."
"Do they do this to all the conquered territories? Even your land?" Shampoo asked.
That made Jaddo think. "Sort of, but not like this. From what I've heard, this is probably one of the worst of the mining operations in the Empire. It's gotten some bad press from what I understand, since this land is going to be unusable for better than a century once the mines play out. But this operation is owned by the Sanzenin Zaibatsu. They're new money. They do thing differently since they had to fight their way to the top in more recent years. One of the ways they do it is to be leaner and meaner than the competition, and that means doing things easy and cheap, long term consequences be damned if it can get them the short-term gains they want. Stupid way to run a business if you ask me. Of course, I'm just a fight trainer while they're the ultra-rich elite. Maybe they know something I don't."
"Probably," Shampoo agreed.
That caused Jaddo to scowl at how quickly she had agreed with the idea that he had flaws. Not that he didn't have flaws, just that she was so ready to point them out. Kids had no respect these days.
Other large pits began to pass by. Jaddo watched as Shampoo continued shaking her head ever so slightly in disapproval at the sight. He felt the same way on the inside, but saw no reason to exhibit outward signs of it. The fewer people that knew about your true feelings, the more protected you were.
Shampoo leaned abruptly forward, pressing her face against the window. Her breath misted it up slightly as she pointed at something through the glass and said, "Why do all of those men have those collars on?"
Jaddo moved closer to see what she was referring to. Passing within sight of the train was a small group of men that were helping to load some large metal cylinder onto a truck. They were topless, most of them with thickly corded muscles that showed off years of hard labor, and wore an almost perpetual sheen of sweat that seemed inexorably mixed with dirt. Most wore the standard navy blue heavy trousers of the prisoners at Hellmount, though each had a unique bandanna, headband, or some other cloth wrapped around their heads to soak up the sweat that poured from their brows. The one item that appeared standard to the group was the thick, gray metal collars that each wore around his neck.
"They're prisoners. Those things are the way the prison keeps tabs on their little lambs. Inside those collars is some high-tech stuff that allows them to be tracked, monitor their life signs, and can be commanded to shock them if they get frisky. If they get too frisky, they can be made to explode instead. It's my understanding not many prisoners get too frisky."
"Remind me not to do anything to get these people angry with me," Shampoo muttered as the train passed by the group.
His protégé was displaying an exceptionally sensible attitude, which served to surprise Jaddo. Most people would have been revolted, or at least shown some sign of sympathy or outrage at the treatment. "So what do you Joketsuzoku do to anyone that gets into trouble with the law?"
Shampoo continued staring out at the brutal landscape as she answered, "Women we lock up. Men we castrate."
Jaddo made a strangled sound and reflexively placed both hands over his privates.
The reaction made Shampoo laugh. "I'm kidding. Usually the Elders order criminals to work off their punishment if it's for something minor. If it's for something major, we do have a jail to keep them locked up until they can be shipped to a major city. One of the things our people have accepted is sending the bad criminals to the Empire to punish. It helps keep the peace between families if a neutral party is passing judgment instead of an elder that happens to be from a clan that's a rival to the guilty party. But there really aren't much in the way of problems. Joketsuzoku is a nice place to live."
"Oh." Jaddo gave her a warded look. Someone had to teach the girl never to joke with a man about the 'c' word. If she had a set of balls, she'd understand all too well. He tried distracting himself from the topic by gazing out the window and seeing what other changes might have occurred since the last time he had taken a fighter of his through here. Then something about the men struck him as odd. Leaning closer, he looked into the pit they had almost finished passing by. "That's weird."
"What?" Shampoo leaned closer, trying to see what had caught Jaddo's eye. All she could see was a large number of rough-looking men working with big machines in the pit. Mining, presumably. That was what they were there for.
"That's an old mine," Jaddo explained. "I'm sure it's been played out for years. Wonder why they're messing around with it."
Further thoughts on the matter were interrupted when the dull droning voice of the public announcement system called out, "Prepare to disembark."
Jaddo and Shampoo grabbed their belongings and waited for the train to stop. It seemed to take forever for the massive vehicle to coast to a standstill. It took another five minutes for someone to get to the doors on the cars and unseal them, allowing the passengers to disembark.
As Shampoo emerged, she saw before her what had to be the most dismal town in the entirety of the planet. The squat buildings were all made of thick blocks of stone, decorated with very few small windows. Everything, from the trucks to the street signs, seemed covered in a dirty black grit. The smelters belched out smoke from high stacks that pointed upwards like fingers trying to caress the heavens. The pavement was worn and cracked in many places. The air was darker and more foul than anything she had experienced before, and it took a single intake of breath to place some sort of alkaline taste in her mouth. The entire town felt dirty and wrong. Had she any real choice, she would have left immediately.
Even as Shampoo's senses recoiled at the various stimuli they were receiving, a man approached them with a deliberate step. He was Chinese, about fifteen years older than Shampoo, and wore a black outfit that blended in well with the decor of the buildings surrounding them. His movements suggested he had some combat training and knew how to carry himself. She tensed up slightly. It never hurt to be too cautious in a new place where everything and everyone was an unknown.
The man stopped in front of the duo, placed his hands behind his back, and bowed. "Jaddo," he said as he rose.
Jaddo nodded in acknowledgment even after he came out of his bow. "Han. Been a while."
"Over a year."
Jaddo pointed to Shampoo. "This is my protégé. Shampoo, this is Han. He's a trainer like myself. One of his boys will be fighting on the card tonight. Not your opponent, though."
'Thankfully," Han said as he and Shampoo bowed to each other. "Let's get going to the Hellmount. I've got a jeep waiting. We'll need to get you settled in quick before your match tonight."
Shampoo and Jaddo picked up their belongings and followed Han. As they cut through the streets, Jaddo began to speak, "What is that funny smell? I mean, I know this place always smelled bad, but its got this sharp, metal taste to everything going on now."
"That would be the delightful new technique the Senzenin's came up with for working out old mines and getting even more material from them. It's some kind of chemical that can be used to melt the rock, then sort out the useable stuff from the bad. That smell is its delightful little toxic aftertaste."
"Toxic?" Jaddo looked alarmed and started to pinch his nose shut.
"It's not toxic airborne, though if you breath the stuff in long enough, who knows? They've only been using it for a year or so. Anything could happen to us a few decades down the line." Han grimaced visibly for his comrades benefit. "I guess the chemical works pretty good and, more importantly, is cheap. Don't need a third of the machines for mining they usually do and the work goes a lot faster, at least that's what the locals tell me. Of course, the residue is so toxic to the land that nothing will grow where it's used for about two hundred years, or so the studies have showed."
"Delightful," Jaddo said.
Shampoo just shook her head sadly. Her image of the Empire was shrinking in leaps and bounds.
"The worst part is you'll have a funny taste in your mouth for a few days even after you leave. It just seeps inside. Five years from now, we'll probably discover the taste rots your tongue or something," Han stuck his tongue out at Jaddo, who playfully swatted him on the arm.
Han led them to a jeep. It was of the same black color that virtually everything else was. Shampoo began to wonder if it was supposed to be the actual color of the vehicle, or if it was merely the smoke from the smelters that made everything so. In either case, she despised everything about this Hellmount, and wanted to be away from there as quickly as she could. She was just glad this was the earliest they could get there. Tonight was her fight. They would spend a single night in Hellmount, and head out on a train the very next morning. Every second here was going to be a trial.
They worked their way out of the little train station and beyond the boundaries of the small town and out across the barren landscape. Without the glass of the train as a barrier, the whole scene seemed twice as repulsive. Luckily, the high chain link fence that signified the borders of the military base was within sight of the town, and it would take them less than a couple of minutes to get there at the speed Han was driving. It made the ride bumpy and uncomfortable, but having a sore bottom was infinitely preferable to extending their 'tour'. Even the air was bone dry, as a gust of wind kicked up a cloud of dust that instantly absorbed all the moisture in Shampoo's mouth. It felt like the dirt was caked on her tongue, and the small amount of saliva she could muster proved insufficient to get rid of the dry and dirty feeling.
Through the bumps, Jaddo said, "So, what's the field look like?"
"You're not fighting my guy, thankfully," he shot a look over his shoulder to the backseat where Shampoo sat. "I heard about you. You're going to be a hot commodity in Hong Kong."
The way he emphasized the term caught Shampoo's attention. "Hot commodity?"
Jaddo interrupted before Han could explain. "It's a stupid term that's come up in the last five years-"
"Ten," Han corrected. "You wouldn't acknowledge its existence for five years, you degenerate bastard."
Jaddo scowled at Han for the interruption. "Anyway, it means stupid people like him think you're a shoo-in for the Arena, which you aren't. And I'd appreciate it if other trainers in the jeep would not give my already way too cocky for her own good fighter anything else to feed her ego."
Han held up one hand in mock surrender, while the other remained on the wheel. They hit a large bump, and suddenly the upraised hand returned to it as well. The trio remained that way until they arrived at the main gate. There, Han had to pause to show one of the sentries several papers. The soldier gave the documents only a cursory glance before waving the trio through and allowing the jeep to head up to the base itself.
Shampoo noted that the base seemed slightly less dark than the small town, though not by much. It too was constructed of small stone buildings with little in the way of windows. There were a number of military vehicles in view, mostly jeeps and trucks with a handful of weapons mounted, but very few soldiers. There appeared to be little activity currently at the base.
One of the structures caught her eye. To the left of the primary base was a structure covered by a dome, larger than any of the others and standing by itself. The dome was a dull silver rather than the black hue that most of the other structures were.
Jaddo saw what she was pointing at. "That's Hellmount itself. You'll be fighting in it. It's the biggest indoor arena you've been in yet. Get used to it, because the one in Hong Kong is even bigger."
Han added, "The crowd will be nastier than any you've seen before. They really want blood. This whole area's so dark and depressing, I think it would foul a priest's mood. Just be prepared for them shouting out a lot of 'kill, kill, kill's."
Han pulled the jeep up to a building that had glass doors in the front and a brighter gray exterior. It almost appeared inviting compared to the other ominous buildings.
"And here we are." Han continued talking as he helped the duo with their bags. "You've already got rooms assigned to you since you came in so late. I volunteered to show you to them, so I can get you set up fast. Still, you'll have to get a move on. First match will start in three hours, and you need to be ready by then. They like introing everyone before the first match begins, and easily get irritated by fighters that think they're too good to be formerly introduced by the general himself. Believe me when I say you do not want to get on these people's bad side."
"What's she got to look forward to tonight?" Jaddo asked.
Han's demeanor, which had been open and friendly since leaving the town itself, became serious. Deadly serious. "Let's just say, it sucks to be you. I'm not sure if anyone told you yet, but you've got the main event."
"Yah, that was what I guessed at from what the promoter told me on the phone. Since Shampoo's undefeated, he wanted her to get top billing. Had a bad feeling about the way he said that, like he thought she wouldn't win."
"She might not, but for her sake I hope she does," Han said ominously. He looked directly into Shampoo's green eyes. "Unfortunately, your opponent's a real monster. He's called the Northman."
Shampoo heard Jaddo take a sharp intake of breath.
"He as bad as I've heard them say?" the aborigine asked.
"Depends on the rumors, but probably worse. He's racked up over twenty-five deaths and maimings on both circuits. He's actually got seventy-seven victories and no losses right now, but hasn't been allowed in Hong Kong yet since he'll be bad for business if he kills or cripples people at that rate. He doesn't seem real receptive to advice, which means he's either very stupid or very uncaring and stupid. Tonight, though, if he wins, he'll advance. That's one of the things they've been hyping for the main event. A match between two undefeateds and the winner advances to the next circuit."
"He'll be fighting doubly hard then. I hate butchers," Jaddo said somberly.
"No one wants to fight him," Han confirmed. "He's not afraid to take a hit if it means he can dish one back. And he hits hard. So it's not like he's perceived as being unhittable."
"Yah, just indestructible and deadly," Jaddo agreed. "Any weaknesses?"
"A major one: he's one eye from night."
"What's that mean?" Shampoo asked as she considered all of the information being offered. This fight was going to be different from all of the others. She could feel it.
"It's an old fighter's saying. It means he's blind in one eye," Han said. "Early on, one of his opponents ripped his left eye completely out of its socket. Probably small consolation to the fighter since he died anyway. I'll warn you that no one has been able to capitalize on the advantage. Still, it's probably your best bet. One other problem you might have is his skin condition."
"Skin condition?" both student and mentor asked.
"Afraid so. It's rare, from what I've heard. His skin is almost gray and leathery. Worse, it's about as tough as leather hide. He's a hard man to really hurt. He's ugly as sin, too. His face is all disfigured, even cut off his ears. He claims it's ritualized disfigurement. If it's the truth, then he's a real sicko. It's going to be rough on you, but if you're as good as Jaddo says, I think you'll have a chance."
Not exactly the most ringing of endorsements. Shampoo was about to tell him she was confident she would win, regardless of the oddities of her opponent, when a voice boomed from the direction of the fighters' dorms. "So this is the little girl I'm supposed to be fighting."
All eyes turned to see the figure that had emerged from the building. He was a huge man, nearly seven feet in height and at least four hundred pounds of muscle. He had massive arms and tree trunk-sized legs that almost looked pudgy in comparison with the rest of his body. He wore a pelt of a huge animal with brown fur, a shade of which Shampoo had never seen, in a toga style of outfit. As Han had said, the Northman's skin was almost grayish enough to match the color of the parts of animal hide that were visible underneath the fur. Half of his chest was bared, and Shampoo could see a huge pectoral with a number of jagged scars over it. He wore a mask that covered the upper part of his face, but Shampoo could see a covering where a hole should have been for his left eye. One glaring brown orb stared in her direction. She shuddered for a moment, a sudden memory of Kwon Ching's predatory eyes on the night he tried to rape her bubbling to the surface. This man was like that, only perhaps worse. There wasn't the faintest hint of compassion in them. All they held was hunger and rage.
The Northman lumbered over with an almost loping gate until he was standing in front of Shampoo, no more than three feet away. He looked down at her, enough contempt shining in that single eye for any four men. "Little Joketsuzoku whore, after I'm through playing with you in front of all those men, I'm really going to cut loose and enjoy fucking you tonight. I'll even be careful and not mark up that pretty face."
He reached out with a beefy hand to cradle her chin. Shampoo lashed out to slap it away. She hit cleanly, but was barely able to move it more than an inch to the side. Still, the hand paused in its forward motion.
The Northman snarled, "Then again, maybe not. Can mess it up all I want if I mount you from behind." And with that he burst out in uproarious laughter as he turned to head towards the domed arena.
Once out of earshot, the men began talking. "Round one goes to him," Han said.
"What the hell was he wearing? Looked like furry rhinoceros hide or something," Jaddo watched the direction Northman had taken.
"He claims it's a Mammoth hide," Han said in exaggerated tones to indicate that was what he thought of the claim.
Shampoo barely listened, completely distracted by what had just happened. There was something about the Northman, besides his fearsome countenance, that had snagged her interest. There was something familiar about him. And his speech; she was certain the dialect he was using was from her area of China. But she was absolutely certain she had never seen him before. The Northman was the sort of person you met once and remembered to your dying day. What was it about him that was striking such a familiar cord in her mind?
Jaddo laid a hand on her shoulder and shook her out of her reverie. "We form a strategy tonight. This guy's more dangerous than everyone you fought put together."
For the first time in a great while, Shampoo didn't argue in the slightest.
Shampoo looked in awe at the spectacle before her. This was no mere pit, but a true arena for people to fight with one another. One continuous wall fourteen feet high formed a circle that surrounded the fighting area. Ten feet up, elaborate wrought-iron spikes that were each a foot long before tapering to a sharpened point were affixed in the wall about fifteen feet apart at regular intervals. The floor was composed of an almost white sand, about an inch deep, with hard stone lying underneath. There was not enough of the substance to slow a fighter down, unless they were careless. One moment of inattention could cause a fighter to lose their balance or miss a step, and that could be the end. There was also the potential to use the loose substance as a weapon, should one have the opportunity. Jaddo said the sand was supposed to be reminiscent of the gladiatorial games held in the ancient Roman Empire.
A skeleton (which had been there since the arena had been built, Jaddo assured her) hung from one of the spikes, impaled by it. Legends said it was the body of the first man ever killed in Hellmount, and that his opponent had thrown him upon it. Now it was the signature piece for the owners of the dome. Such background held little interest for Shampoo, at least at the moment. Her attention was reserved for one man.
"And presenting Shampoo's opponent: the most dangerous man in all of the Empire. He hails from somewhere to the North. An undefeated champion with seventy-seven victories to his name and seventeen kills to his credit. He is known only as… THE NORTHMAN!"
Shampoo watched as the crowd rose to their feet and roared loudly enough to shake the building. Certainly it was at least three times louder than the shout they had given for her introduction. Small surprise. Han had warned them that the Northman had already fought here twice, killing his opponents each time. The crowd had loved every second of it, from what she had been told. Given their current reaction, Shampoo found it easy to believe.
Much to Shampoo's surprise, the crowd's choosing the Northman over her did not disrupt her composure. Over the ensuing months, she had become used to the occasionally fickle crowds backing her, and had grown to like the cheers of approval, as Jaddo had predicted she would. But as the moments ticked by, Shampoo found herself pushing their shouts out of her mind and focused all of her attention on the one thing that mattered: defeating her opponent.
Confronted once again by the huge man, Shampoo found her mouth begin to dry up and the prospect of fighting him daunting her. No, that was not quite right. She found herself frightened by the prospect of losing to him. Since her first fight in a dog pit, which lasted all of one blow, to the present, this was the only time Shampoo felt as though she might lose to her opponent, and he had not even thrown a single punch.
Quickly she pushed the negative thoughts from her mind. Both her great-grandmother and Jaddo echoed repeatedly the need to keep one's opponent from having the psychological edge, otherwise the contest would be as good as over. It took a moment to find the center of balance within her psyche that she sought. Once there, her entire outlook changed. With a sort of calmness falling over her, Shampoo prepared for the fight.
The Northman approached slowly, his arms held out wide, almost as though he were a long lost uncle coming forward to embrace a favored niece. It was a ridiculous posture that left him wide open for any one of a number of attacks, but Shampoo did not rush in. The Northman lunged awkwardly at her, and she dodged rather then accept the offered opening. A second lunge resulted in the same action on the young Amazon's part, though she found it difficult to refrain from exploiting the wide opening and with a powerful strike. The crowd began to let their scorn for such evasive tactics be known as they booed and cursed her seeming fright.
She and Jaddo had spoken at length at what they could learn about their opponent from his appearance and reputation. The number of scars he bore, some fresher than others, indicated that he was not adverse to being struck, and the number of victories indicated he could obviously take such painful attacks and still end up victorious. Perhaps it was even part of his strategy to accept two blows for one, and given his obvious power, it would not take more than a single blow to devastate most of his opponents. Shampoo would have to bide her time and go for openings that she could make, rather than ones offered to her by her opponent, and hope she could stay out of his reach long enough to wear him down and defeat him.
And so she did, dodging two more of his attacks. His anger tripled as it became obvious Shampoo was refusing to fight back. She marked that he evidently was unused to his opponents running away, at least before he landed a blow upon them.
"Stand still, Joketsuzoku whore," The Northman rumbled. "It'll be over quick enough, and you don't want to get me angry for tonight. I might not be gentle with you and could break something important that might never heal right."
He snaked his tongue out and licked his lips in an obvious display for Shampoo's benefit. She kept from revealing her disgust; she could not allow him the knowledge that his taunting was getting to her. Frustrating such a big man could only give her an advantage. If only she could turn the tables by throwing some insult that would get under his skin. Something. Anything.
It was difficult. She knew nothing about him. His mask hid his features, and his unique physical form did not come close to jogging her memory of anyone she might have known. He was a mystery, except his accent, which meant he might have come from around her area. And then there were his derogatory 'Joketsuzoku' remarks. Most fighters that bothered to look into her past simply called her an 'Amazon;' a term the announcers on the circuit seemed to enjoy and used with great frequency. That, in turn, led to both the audience and the other fighters to using it when referring to her, That meant it was soon used exclusively to describe her. Few could name the village where she had come from, but not this mysterious 'Northman.' He knew exactly where she was from, and the way he spat out the word was like an insult. And there was the anger in his voice every time he directed it to her. Why did he seem to have such hatred of her people, who had not caused problems for anyone in the decades since they had been conquered by the Empire?
Shampoo's mind returned to the fight. The Northman had given up his blatant open handed gestures and tightened his stance to that of a well-trained fighter. It seemed her and Jaddo's assessment of the Northman's fighting tactics had been correct. It had all been a trap to lure her in so he could squeeze the life out of her as he had so many others. She would have gotten at least one solid blow in, maybe even two if she had been quick, but once she ended up in that massive grip, it would all have been over.
Now that the fighting had returned to a more conventional bent, Shampoo began to employ a more aggressive strategy. She allowed the Northman to probe her defenses with an initial wave of tentative strikes. When she did not strike back, he grew more bold, lashing out ever quicker with his huge hands and the longer reach his nearly seven foot form afforded him. The young woman's continued evasions served to increase the level of hostility directed against her by the crowd, which in turn fed the Northman's confidence as he increased the tempo of his assault.
And then Shampoo attacked. The Northman's cockiness in fighting someone that seemed unwilling to fight back made him sloppy. It was the moment Shampoo had been waiting for as she punched and kicked him in the opening unconsciously provided. Both blows landed solidly, making the crowd cheer. Perhaps the young Amazon could have landed another attack, but she chose to back off rather than see just how fast the Northman could recover.
It was quicker than she had expected, though nowhere near too fast for her to deal with. The Northman backed away, watching her carefully as he assessed the damage inflicted upon him. Shampoo looked on, seeing if she too could gauge the blows from his reaction.
He struck the area she had hit with a fist of his own. "Another ten of those and I might start feeling it, bitch."
That was not good. Shampoo reassessed her situation, and decided to go with the second part of the strategy Jaddo had come up with. The Northman was big. Supporting his massive frame could not be easy and would burn much of his energy, a lot of it, if she could work things out right. None of his fights ever lasted long, so his endurance was in question. All she needed to do was retreat just out of his reach and force him to follow, running him ragged. Time was on her side. The longer the fight continued, the greater an advantage she would have. All she needed was patience.
What enjoyment the crowd felt at Shampoo finally launching a successful attack was quickly forgotten as she returned to her strategy of avoiding the Northman's attacks. They booed and jeered as she continued to do nothing but dodge for the next five minutes while the Northman continued chasing and attacking her.
At the five minute mark she struck again, this time with an uppercut that snapped the Northman's jaw back. Again she backed off and allowed him to attack her repeatedly, drawing him in ever increasingly large circles in order to wind him further. After another half dozen minutes of chase, Shampoo thought she could detect the Northman's breath beginning to heave in ever increasing amounts. She was surprised he had lasted as long as he had, fully expecting him to have been rolling on the ground, out of breath a long time ago. His endurance was every bit as impressive as his strength, given his huge frame.
Shampoo saw another opening and struck again, aiming for a shoulder and his neck, though only getting a solid punch in with the former. That seemed to cause the Northman to back off and reconsider his strategy. Seeing him trying to collect his thoughts, Shampoo tried to disrupt them and get him to pursue her again. She backed away a couple of additional meters, then turned her back to him and wiggled her butt seductively in his direction. "What's the matter, ugly? Too slow? Looks like you'll never get a taste of this after all." The crowd roared out its approval at the display.
Rather than answer, the Northman simply lowered his head and charged. Shampoo was taken aback for a moment, both at the nature of the attack and the speed that he had gained instantly. She barely had enough time to react by straightening out and lashing out with a foot to trip him. Only he didn't trip. On anyone else, they would certainly have fallen from the force of the kick Shampoo landed on the shin, most likely breaking the bone in the process. But the huge man simply bore on, unflinching from the blow. Shampoo tried to get out of his reach, despite being somewhat off-balance from the kick, but was far too slow and ended up having a meaty fist slammed into her shoulder, driving her away several feet and to the ground for a moment. Luckily for her, the Northman seemed unable to stop quickly from the momentum built up from his impromptu charge, and ran past a couple of meters before recovering enough to turn. By that time Shampoo had returned to her feet in another ready stance.
She rotated her shoulder in its socket a couple of times. It was sore, and she would not be able to bring full force to bear from it. No one had ever hit her that hard in a single blow. Not even Perfume. She was going to have to be more cautious than ever dealing with this dangerous opponent.
No more words were exchanged between the duo. Shampoo because of her focus, the Northman because of his ever increasing state of exhaustion. His breathing was continually increasing in its heaviness, coming out in short, wheezing gasps. And as he slowed down, Shampoo continued to find openings to hit him. The fight progressed to a half hour, an eternity in such matches. As time wore on, Shampoo maintained her endurance while the Northman continued to slow down and tire out. Each passing minute opened more and more holes in his defense, and Shampoo was eager to take advantage each time.
Like the steady flow of a stream against a rock that finds itself stranded in the middle of a current, the number of blows added up and wore the Northman down. Large purple bruises formed on the part of his chest that was bared. Welts had formed on his arms from the number of times Shampoo had sneaked a blow in when he tried to hit her with one of his own. Even one of his legs was starting to limp from the number of times Shampoo kicked him.
And then Shampoo got in her most telling blow yet, a spinning roundhouse kick directly into the Northman's solar plexus. As it hit, a huge wuff of air escaped his lips and a lump of spit shot out of his mouth, only to be absorbed by the white sand the moment it hit. He fell to one knee, head held back as he tried gasping for breath.
Shampoo was quick to press the advantage, hitting him with a full force blow to the jaw just as his head came level with her. She snapped it back even farther than it had been a moment ago. Truly it was the most impressive blow she had landed yet.
And then she felt the arms close around her torso, pinning her sore arm next to her body in a massive bear hug.
"Got… you," the Northman gasped out.
It was true. Shampoo tried prying herself out of his grip with her free hand, but she couldn't. She was nowhere near powerful enough to break free of his strength. As he increased the force in the hold, she could feel the press of muscles and power that lay in his huge arms. For the first time since she was a child, she was helpless in another's grip. She could barely believe anyone could be so strong. Her strength was very impressive, there probably weren't more than a half-dozen warriors that could match her, and none of them had anywhere near her speed, but the Northman was more than twice as strong as any of them. It was inhuman.
Regaining some of his wind, the Northman said, "I'm a little too tired to give you a proper fucking tonight, Joketsuzoku. So it looks like I'll have to make it up to you by breaking your spine."
Shampoo panicked, fully aware he was going to make good on his threat. Already the discs of her spine were threatening to slip out, and he had even more strength he could bring to bear. With her free hand she lashed out at the only available target: his head. For the most part, it was a futile gesture. The mask he wore now fit fully around his cranium, with only his mouth showing. She couldn't rip his hair out by its roots. She couldn't shatter an ear drum because the covering extended over them. Even his remaining eye was protected by a light wire mesh over it. It had cut down on his vision, and Shampoo had used it to her advantage during the fight, but now its benefits far outweighed its drawbacks. The only part of his face that was visible was his mouth, and there was nothing she could do to it. Any attempts to rip his lips off would simply result in him biting her, possibly laying claim to a finger while he was at it. She had little doubt he would enjoy the act, too.
Drawing breath in was impossible now, and she would have to go with what oxygen remained in her lungs. She would swear he was drawing things out for the crowd's benefit, squeezing her slowly instead of just breaking her in half like a dry twig. There was nothing else she could do, so in desperation Shampoo clutched and gabbed at his head, trying to pry the mask off and get to his face before it was too late. But it was made of a tough leather and thick. It occurred to her that others in similar positions had probably tried the same thing, and none of them had been successful. There was no hope.
But something inside her refused to give up. She clutched and grabbed at the mesh over his eyehole. He tried shifting his head, but another grasp resulted in her thumb getting in the corner of it, and she refused to lose her purchase on it a second time.
"Die!" she heard him curse as he tightened his grip and she felt a lower rib go. Still she dug in with her thumb, hard enough to cause it to bleed as it pressed against the wire. Slowly, inexorably, she felt the mesh give under the pressure, even as her torso was following suit and giving in under the Northman's embrace. It was a race against time.
Tiny, individual wires of the mesh gave, each one driving deep into her thumb, but the pain coming from her back was far worse, and she could barely feel her hand at all. But she could see the eye protection pushing ever inward. It was almost ready to break.
And then suddenly it gave, and she could feel her thumb press hard against the eyelid. The Northman gave a shout and flung Shampoo aside like a rag doll. He continued crying out in pain as he tried to untie the buckles and straps of the firmly secured mask, shouting out a variety of curses as he used his awesome power to finally rip the thing in two to remove it from his head.
Shampoo had used the ensuing seconds wisely and recovered her footing. Regaining her breath was more difficult, especially with a broken rib. Every inhalation was like someone was stabbing her in the lung with a hot poker, and she needed hundreds of tiny breaths to regain one normal one.
Despite the pain, Shampoo tried to remain focused on her opponent. If she ended up in another bear hug, she was finished. If he landed one more solid blow, the outcome might be the same. She was on the verge of losing a lot more than a match. It was clear this was now a fight to the death, at least as far as the Northman was concerned.
Shampoo watched in a haze of pain as the Northman continued to hunch himself over and play with his face. It was taking him a long time to recover, unless it was another trap. Shampoo was beginning to wonder if she should try to attack when the Northman finally threw some tiny object from his face turned in her direction.
At last everyone had an unrestricted view of what lay hidden behind the mask. His ears had been torn to shreds, there were huge scars along his face, and it looked as though someone had taken the first quarter of his nose, leaving it incomplete. Red dotted his face from where the mesh had dug into the flesh of his eyelid, while not going to deep enough to touch the eyeball itself. Still, every time he blinked blood washed into it, making it nearly impossible for him to see. But between blinks, Shampoo saw something else which surprised her. It was the eyeball itself. Whereas before it appeared to be normal, now the pupil was large and black, nearly taking up the entire orb. She could barely see any white in it at all, and it was impossible that anything she did could have caused that sort of reaction. It didn't even look human, perched there in its socket. It was the eye of an animal. The thing he had tossed aside had to have been a contact, one of the tinted ones Jaddo had told her about.
And then it finally sank into place. The personal anger directed towards her tribe. The local dialect. The toughness of the Northman's almost grayish skin. His affinity for masks, and the so-called ritualistic scarring. The odd animal hide her wore. His lack of an acknowledged past, even going so far as to change his name. Hiding his eye, so dark and inhuman.
"Let me guess, you're, what, Tusk Clan, Musk?"
The Northman's head jerked at the name in recognition. That was the last bit of evidence Shampoo needed.
All the bravado left the Northman in an instant. Suddenly he was colder and more hard than at any point Shampoo had known him. For the first time, he spoke softly. "Your knowledge dies with you tonight."
His first lunge missed. He tried again with the same results. Repeatedly, Shampoo's superior speed effectively negated any advantage he had. Within minutes, even the desperate rage that had fueled him began to ebb while his opponent appeared almost as fresh as ever, save for her wincing with every breath she took.
Shampoo waited until his initial onslaught had passed, leaving him even more weakened than before. There were a handful of times early on when he had come close to hitting her, but now his attacks seemed ridiculously slow and ponderous. That meant it was time to end this. Slowly, as Shampoo evaded his attacks, she moved him into the proper position. Once there, she launched into her final gambit.
"So, did you mess up that face of yours fighting Imperial troops as they slaughtered your people? No. You probably messed up your face falling on some gravel while running away from the fight."
The single eye seemed to change to red. As before, when she taunted him with her body, the Northman lowered his head and charged quickly at her. All he had to do was connect once and all that would be left was a bloody smear.
The charge was even faster than before, not giving Shampoo enough time to dive out of the way as she had originally planned. Her mind was a whirl as she recalculated the only escape route left to her, and that was only if the Northman did not expect it.
Had the Northman kept his head up, he would easily have been able to prevent Shampoo from evading, but instead he was barely aware of her as she jumped straight up and out of his line of sight. An instant later he felt her hand use his head as a springboard as she removed herself from his charge by going directly over him. He was still in the process of mentally cursing her agility when his head impacted directly with one of the arena's concrete walls.
Shampoo winced slightly as a huge portion of rock buckled under the force of the charge. Her plan had worked to perfection, and she had won the match. Her own brains would have been splattered across the metal had she hit the wall with such force, or worse, if she had been caught between the Northman and said wall, but that had not happened. The taunt had blinded him in rage and made him forget his position on the field and the possible consequences from his actions. She knew from his previous charge he could not come out of it in time before hitting the wall, and it appeared he had not even tried to slow down when he struck it. It was over.
At least until the Northman pried his head out of the wall. With the remains of shattered concrete falling to the ground, the huge man returned to his feet. From the bottom of her spine, Shampoo felt a dread chill travel up its length. If smashing his head at top speed couldn't finish her opponent off, she doubted there was anything else in her arsenal of tricks that could do the job. At the moment, it looked like her best bet to win would be if the huge member of the Musk had a sudden heart attack from all of the running he had been doing.
But then she saw how groggy the Northman was, barely able to stand and with blood streaming down from some huge gash on the top of his head. Even his red inhuman eye seemed more bloodshot than colored with anger. The impact had taken its toll. Now victory was within reach.
Shampoo launched an unmerciful assault upon her opponent, most of the blows targeted at the head, though she would go after another body part when the Northman would focus his defense towards the now wounded portion of his body. Within moments, the formerly groggy Northman was now swaying easily, barely able to shield any part of his body from his opponent's blows.
With grim determination, Shampoo continued her attack. A critical mistake was made on the Northman's part as she saw one arm fall limp from one of her punches and the other arm cock back. He had left his head wide open. She brought her own arm back for a punch that would land far earlier than the Northman's ponderous blow.
And then he moved his head forward and into the blow, changing the point of impact for the Amazon. Knuckle met a skull thinker than any normal human's prematurely. The maximum force was not behind the blow due to the shift, but there was enough for Shampoo to feel a spear of pain shoot from where her hand met forehead.
Quick to take advantage of the gambit, despite the new waves of pain coming from his skull, the Northman lashed out with his good arm. Shampoo reacted in time to only take a glancing blow to the face, though there was enough force behind it to knock her to the ground.
A quick shake of the head momentarily removed the cobwebs from the Northman's skull. He had to finish her off fast. He leaped up into the air and aimed both of his feet right at Shampoo's head, one of the few basic attacks he still had the strength to execute after the tremendous beating he had suffered.
Only she wasn't there when he landed, seeming to disappear at the last instant as she rolled out of the way. Just as his feet hit, he felt a blow land directly upon his right ankle, which was solidly braced with the ground. The strike was enough to break the joint, the first such wound he had ever received in his life. Unprepared for the pain, he fell to the ground on his back, holding his ankle as the pain overrode his ability to think. But pain was a part of his life. It only took him a moment to force the sensations from his mind and reorganize his thoughts. Even with a broken ankle, there was still an outside chance he could win, somehow. He turned his head to see where his opponent was-
-just in time to see Shampoo at the end of her ten meter run, launching her foot forward and directly into his face. His head snapped back from the blow, and for only the second time in his life unconsciousness followed.
Shampoo ran back and prepared to deliver another blow if it should prove necessary. That kick would have killed almost any other man, but the renegade member of the Musk could barely be considered one. She watched his chest rise and fall, even if his eyes were closed. He was tricky, and it might have been another subterfuge to lower her guard.
However, after thirty seconds of her opponent lying motionless, the announcer declared Shampoo the winner. The crowd gave a thunderous roar of approval that shook the building. It was perhaps the loudest cheer Shampoo had heard directed towards her in her entire life, and it was the least concerned applause she had ever heard. Her ribs and spine hurt more than ever. The last blow the Northman had landed on her face was starting to swell up, and Shampoo was certain she would lose the vision in her eye soon. Then she would have to wait for the swelling to go down before she could see clearly again. Her shoulder still ached from his first blow, and she was exhausted. Never had she fought so long and hard. Much to her surprise, the hard-earned victory didn't give her the satisfaction she would have thought it should.
Not bothering to play to the crowd in the slightest, Shampoo dragged herself off the field towards the area where Jaddo waited. As the gate opened, several burly men, escorted by what she assumed were doctors, rushed out onto the field, presumably to remove the Northman. The last member of the retinue walked slowly and deliberately. He was an odd man in a black uniform and with the sharpest, most narrow eyes Shampoo had ever seen. But he was pushed out of her mind as her own eyes fell upon Jaddo, who placed a hand around her waist to help guide her to the nearest infirmary.
"I always said I wanted to test my abilities," Shampoo said, wincing as she felt her ribs twinge again.
She watched Jaddo turn his head from looking out on the small arena's floor and back to her. "I'd say that was a fair pop quiz. Satisfied?"
"Only if I get to quit now," Shampoo said, only half-jokingly.
Shampoo groaned as Jaddo wrapped another length of gauze around her ribs. The train ride back tomorrow was going to be like a journey through hell. Every bump was going to make her whimper in pain. She just knew it.
"Painkillers should be setting in any minute now," Jaddo informed her. "Normally, I don't care for any of my fighters using them, pain helps us remember there's room for improvement, but when it gets this bad, and the injuries aren't the result of your own stupidity…" Jaddo trailed off and shrugged.
"They're working," Shampoo assured him. She just wished they worked a little better was all. Still, the pain was currently dulled. She just hoped she started to heal before they wore off.
Her eyes searched their room. It was quiet, which was just what the young Amazon needed. After a preliminary examination in the infirmary, where the army physicians carefully examined Shampoo's injuries under a machine she had never seen before, they determined her only 'serious' injury was a broken rib, though there were a host of other smaller ones, like a sprained wrist and shoulder, sore back, and half her face swollen to nearly an extra third of its normal size. They had given her a shot of painkillers and wrapped them up for her. Jaddo had criticized their job and had rewound the majority of her injuries the instant they returned to their shared room. It was the first time he had ever handled her so gently, at least since that horrible night where she had nearly been raped. It was nice to see him show something like open affection towards her. She knew he liked her, just that getting him to admit it was like pulling teeth from a hungry tiger.
There were other questions preying on her mind. "Will it be like that from now on? In Hong Kong, I mean?" She found she feared the answer.
Jaddo cut the gauze and taped the end up, securing her ribs as best as he could. "They're all a lot better, yah, but not as tough as that guy, at least not normally. I don't think I've ever seen anyone take that kind of a beating and keep going. Not even Sagat, and he was one durable skinheaded piece of rock, let me tell you. Luckily, your guy wasn't that skilled. All power and little technique. Still, it was a close one. I thought he had you in the bearhug."
Shampoo nodded soberly. "He was going to kill me. I was frightened."
"So was I," Jaddo admitted. He then saw the look of surprise on Shampoo's face. "Look, one of the roughest things when you're a trainer is watching your fighters get messed up, sometimes killed. There ain't a thing you can do about it. All you can do is watch them bleed to death in the dirt. Not as hard as dying outright, but when it happens, a little piece of you dies with them. Happens to any real trainer."
"Did any of your students die?"
Jaddo nodded. "Yah, but only one. I've been lucky in that respect. Several been crippled, but only one actual death."
"I won't be your second," Shampoo promised.
"See to it you're not," Jaddo said somberly, but Shampoo could detect an underlying mirth in his eyes.
"What are the fighters like in Hong Kong?" Shampoo asked again.
Jaddo considered that. "Lot tougher. All the meat's gone by then. Only those that have some talent get there. Of course there's talent and then there's talent. First, you'll get lumped into age categories. You'll be in the under twenty-four bracket. That's the one most people watch, nearly two-to-one over the twenty-five to thirty-five bracket. There used to be an over thirty-five, but it proved unpopular except among the real masters of the art, so they got rid of the category and added more under twenty-four matches. Ratings and attendance went through the roof.
"You'll be in one place for a change, so you'll get a chance to make friends, though why anyone would want to buddy up to a moody girl like you I can't imagine. Probably only make friends among the fighters. Maybe some Arena personnel too, but mostly fighters. It won't take you long to figure out what clique to belong to. There's always cliques in the bigger arenas, here or Japan."
"Friends would be nice," Shampoo agreed. Jaddo was likable now, but he still wasn't the sort of person she could confide in like a friend. He was too old, for one thing. There were events in a girl's life that could only be confided in with other girls close to their age.
Jaddo nodded, remembering some of the friendships he had developed in the arena, some even lasting to this day. "There's three basic categories of fighters. You got saps, that's short for saplings. They're all lower-end for Hong Kong. Mind you, they're still better than ninety-five percent of the fighters you've faced, and that's a conservative estimate."
"Why call them that?"
"It's a way of saying they might as well make roots in Hong Kong, since they don't stand a chance of making it to the Imperial Arena in Japan. Two other categories are impact players. Those are the ones that the odds favor of moving on. They're all nasty. You got to watch out for them. Some of them will have a trick or two. Always take them real serious. Once you face a few of them, then you'll get a real feel for how good you are."
"And the last one? Are they the 'Hot Commodities' Han mentioned?"
Jaddo looked annoyed. "In my day they used to be called 'Dawgs', short for Top Dogs. Yeah, those are the sure shots to make it to the big Arena and probably have a good measure of success there. Sometimes hot commodities can't make the transition, but it's real rare. If others start regarding you as one, don't let it swell your head anymore than it already is."
"Not after tonight, I won't." And Shampoo meant it. The near death experience had changed her, especially concerning fighting. Never again would she take things as easily as she had before. It was all serious now, and each fighter a potential killer. No matter how easy they seemed, she would always be on her guard.
Jaddo finished putting away the bandages. "Still like to know where that guy came from. He's some of the worst news on the circuit I've seen in years. Odds are next fight he wins he'll be going to Hong Kong too, and you two might have to fight again. I want you a whole lot better next time around. You damn near gave me a heart attack once he wrapped those big hairy paws around you."
"He was that powerful because he's not a normal human. He's descended from animals. At least partially."
That made Jaddo chuckle. "Yah, I wouldn't be surprised if a few of his ancestors found some of the barnyard animals irresistible. He probably has too, given how big and ugly he is. Probably got an affinity for pigs, would be my guess."
Shampoo shook her head. "No. I don't mean it as an insult. I mean it literally. He's descended from a tribe that was known as the Musk. Long ago through magic they transformed animals into women and slept with them. Their descendants took on the characteristics of the animals over the ensuing generations. In his case, I think he's from the Tusk clan, who have the blood of elephants in them. They were one of the most powerful, if what my great-grandmother said was true."
Jaddo looked at her skeptically. "I've never heard of them. You think if there was a whole race of people like that, word might have gotten around."
"They were always secretive. Only people in the area were aware of their existence, and even then not that many. They were something of a rival of our village in the early days, though we hadn't had any trouble with them for a number of generations. Still, old hatreds die hard. There was no love lost between us, despite the limited contact. And after the Empire came, it didn't matter."
"When the Empire came with its armies and demanded obedience, the Musk were the first to resist. They fought well, inflicting a great deal of damage to the troops despite the Empire's superior technology and numbers, but, in the end, they were destroyed. Every one of them slaughtered in a week as a message of what it meant to resist the Empire," Shampoo shuddered a little at the retelling of the tale. Everyone in the tribe knew it by heart. It was used as an example whenever someone got the foolish idea in their head of starting a rebellion. The ideas were always quickly squelched afterwards.
Shampoo continued, "Still, in a way the Joketsuzoku have much to thank from the Musk. They had so depleted the local army's resources that had that army needed to get involved in another fight, they would have had to summon reinforcements. The general in charge would have been embarrassed to admit that he was unable to pacify the area with the forces he was given. So when the elders approached him with terms of surrender, he was eager to accept. The terms were most favorable for us, much better than many other conquered regions." Though it still wounded Shampoo's pride to admit they were forced to give up without a fight.
"Obviously one of them survived," Jaddo said.
"Yes," Shampoo agreed. "But I wonder why he's fighting. It seems awful risky. You think someone like him would try to avoid any attention. And why try so hard to become a citizen? If they ever found out who he really was, they'd still detain him for questioning, and I doubt they'd let him go after they killed his entire people. I can't even believe with his people slaughtered he's forgiven the Empire. I could feel the hatred radiating from him for the Joketsuzoku, and we weren't responsible in any way. He was desperate to win. It doesn't make any sense."
"No, it doesn't," Jaddo agreed. "Look, it's getting late. You get some sleep. I'm going out to have a little fun."
Shampoo gave him a curious look. "I thought you said you were going to stay in since Hellmount is such a wretched place."
"I'm going to go woman on you and say I changed my mind."
The insult made Shampoo bristle slightly as Jaddo went with a darker outfit than his usual going out on the town clothes. Probably it was to match the mood of the town. There was no point in further conversation about it. Shampoo was tired, and the painkillers were making her groggy. She bid him good night and lay down for a peaceful night's rest.
The sound of a door bursting open startled Shampoo from her sleep. She sat up quickly, and promptly let out a gasp of pain as her ribs reminded her of their current condition. The pain did serve to chase the lingering hold of sleep from her eyes as she sat up and saw that it was Jaddo who had barged in so loudly. "What's going on?" she asked as she rose from the bed.
Jaddo closed the door behind him far more softly than he had opened it. "Take your clothes off!" he hissed.
That caused Shampoo to blink at him in astonishment. That statement could not have been what she had thought it was. Perhaps she was still dreaming.
"Hurry!" Jaddo hissed again as he began to take off his own clothes quickly.
Shampoo blinked again. No. She was in too much discomfort for it to be a dream. She had to be awake, which meant her mentor was making an impossible demand of her. How dare he do this! She was not his little whore to have sex with him on demand. He paid others to do that and openly bragged about it. Just because he couldn't find a woman to have sex with in town did not give him the right to demand such from her. And why was he looking at the door and acting so nervous?
"I said strip now, girl!"
The intense look in his eyes startled Shampoo, and she found herself automatically obeying his commands just as she did in training. Quickly, she pulled off her nightgown and panties, allowing herself to stand naked, save for her bandages, before a man for the first time since reaching womanhood. Jaddo was in the process of removing his own underwear even as Shampoo covered her most private of parts with her hands, trying to hide her body from his view. Why was she being obedient to him? It was true that she had developed a healthy respect for Jaddo over the ensuing months they were together. Reluctantly, she could admit she even held a certain affection for him, like one would a favored uncle. But that affection did not extend to this sort of behavior, at least she did not think it did.
"Get in my bed, quick!"
That removed any doubts from her mind, no matter how odd he was behaving. What she should have done was kick him in the groin and run out of the room, screaming about how he was trying to force himself upon her. But those were just thoughts. She made no attempt to make her body follow through on the mental threats. What was happening to her?
Seeing her hesitate, Jaddo grabbed her by the arm and all but threw her in bed. She went limp with his pull rather than trying to resist, which was again a peculiar reaction for her. She should have been screaming at the top of her lungs and fighting desperately to get out of his grasp. Could it be she did want him, in spite of what she thought her heart and mind were telling her? Could she have been so desperate for the touch of a man that she would settle for someone she had only respect for? Was she secretly turned on by his brutish, coarse manners? Things were happening too fast for her to tell.
A soft gasp escaped her lips as she hit the bed. Jaddo quickly followed, placing his body directly on top of hers. Shampoo trembled in misery beneath him, feeling his nude form touch her in ways that no other man had ever done. This was not the way she had pictured her first time with another going. It was supposed to be with someone she loved, someone she wanted to be with, telling her how much he loved her and she saying the same to him. It was supposed to be a beautiful experience that she would cherish for a lifetime, not some act just to satisfy her partner's lustful desires. It wasn't fair.
But curiously Jaddo made no further moves towards her. Instead, he remained motionless, watching the door with his steely gaze. When it became obvious that he was not going to touch her further, or even say another word, she became even more confused. What was the point of all but forcing himself upon her (and somehow getting her to acquiesce) and then stop at the moment of truth? Not that she wanted him to keep going, but it just added to her already confused and agitated state.
A bit of anger started to overcome the feeling of confusion. Shampoo decided that she had enough and was going to ask him a question; she deserved to know exactly what his intentions were if he was really going to try to go through with this. It was just as she opened her mouth that he shifted his gaze away from the door and directly into her eyes. Again there was a panic in there that was not dissimilar to hers. Perhaps he did not want her after all, but if that was the case, what was he doing demanding she strip for him? It made no sense.
Then Jaddo's head whipped back to her, and she found her voice abandoning her as well. A moment later, the door to the room burst open even more loudly than Jaddo had done. Shampoo turned to see a man in a soldier's uniform, gun at the ready, pointing it in the room. He took one step in and shouted, "All right! Come out of WHOA!" He stopped entering and pointed his gun to the ceiling.
"Do you mind?!" Jaddo shouted, getting off Shampoo and rising to his feet, throwing the covers over her so that her body was hidden from the soldier's view. She noted that her mentor did nothing to cover himself up, almost showing off his body before their unexpected company.
"Is the intruder in there?" another voice shouted from out of sight in the hall.
There was a silly grin on the soldier's face as he looked back and forth between Jaddo and Shampoo. "I think I can safely say he is not in this room."
The other voice said, "How can you tell? You haven't even searched it." It was at that point the speaker, another soldier, came into view. His rifle at was pointed into the room too until he saw what was inside. He tipped his green helmet in their direction. "Oops! Sorry about that. We were looking for an intruder."
"The only intruder in this room was this guy here," Jaddo pointed at his groin. "And he was going to intrude in that little thing there." He pointed back towards Shampoo, who clutched the sheets high to her face in embarrassment.
The men made it a point to not look at Jaddo's groin. The second soldier said, "Yes, yes, I can see that. We just thought we saw an intruder run into this room here. Didn't mean to interrupt you. You carry on with what you were doing." He bowed again, this time directing it to Shampoo. "Nice fight you had tonight, ma'am. I'll know to bet on you next time."
Having no idea of what to do, Shampoo meekly nodded her head and held the covers more tightly against her body, wishing they would just go away.
A moment later, her wish was granted as the sounds of gunfire echoed in the distance, somewhere outside the building. Both soldiers looked in the general direction the noise had come from. The tension was broken as the crackle of the radios on their belts gained everyone's attention.
"Intruder in grid 4, section 5. All secondary guard personnel from grids 1 through 5, converge on the area. All primaries remain at your posts. This is not a drill."
The two soldiers looked at each other in confusion. The first spoke, "That's halfway across the base."
"Told you you were seeing things. Making me run in the blasted building and wasting my time."
"I saw someone," the first insisted.
"Fine. We'll write it in our report. We have to hurry. If we're lucky, the intruder will run in the opposite direction and we won't see him. Or the others get him, and it'll all be over by the time we get there." The second guard headed off at top speed to the nearest exit.
"Hey! I want to nail him!" The first shouted. He too started to run off, but then returned a second later, his body still pointed in the direction of the hall. He looked directly at Jaddo and said, "I just wanted to say, if she's half as good in bed as she is in a fight, you're the luckiest man I've ever met."
A momentary look of disbelief passed Jaddo's features. He then laughed and said, "Hell, no. She's terrible in bed. She's only sixteen. But I'm having fun breaking her in with my training methods, if you know what I mean."
The sly wink he gave was returned with snicker by the first soldier. The laughter was broken up by the second shouting. "Get moving or we'll get reprimanded again!"
A panicked expression passed the first soldier's features as he ran at top speed, placing a hand on top of his helmet to keep it from flying off his head. His shout of, "I'm coming," was met with a, "I thought you wanted to catch the intruder." Further conversation was lost as the duo sped out of earshot.
Once satisfied neither man would return, Jaddo closed and locked the door. Shampoo watched as her mentor's figure slumped so badly she thought he would drop to the ground. There was a sheen of sweat now covering his body, and an aura of palpable fear emanating from him. Never had she seen him so scared, not even remotely close to this.
He turned to her, and seemed just then to realize she was still unclothed. "You can get dressed now. If they come back I'll just say they broke the mood."
Shampoo, relieved at being given permission to dress (and trying to remember a time when she had ever needed permission to dress), made a little circling motion with her finger to Jaddo. It took him a moment to realize she was indicating he should turn around. She realized the gesture was probably silly given that he had been naked and on top of her already, but there was still a basic need to be modest around him.
Once the young amazon finished putting on her clothing, she finally had the courage to speak. "What's going on here?"
Seeing she was finished, Jaddo put his own clothing back on. Shampoo turned away as well, despite him not seeming to care whether she watched him dress. "I kind of almost screwed up there."
"No kidding," Shampoo retorted. With her clothes back on, embarrassment had been fully replaced by anger at the entire situation.
Some semblance of his former composure returned to Jaddo as he finished dressing. "You weren't the only one who figured out something was wrong the your buddy, the Musk. I saw a Security Directorate asshole make his way to the field with the medical guys. The Directorate's always bad news. The only reason he would make his way down to the field is if he was suspicious of something. So after I made sure you were okay, I went looking around the base for some info."
Shampoo looked at him in open disbelief. "You went lurking around a military base?"
"Hey, I still got a few moves you ain't never seen. I can be damn sneaky when I want to be. Security around here is pitiful since they don't have anything important, and it's in the middle of nowhere. I managed to overhear a conversation that they ran a blood test on big and ugly and determined there was something funny with his blood. I knew it was only a matter of time before they figured out he belonged to those Musk guys. So I sneaked into where ugly was resting in the infirmary and tipped him off to what was going down. He wasn't too grateful either, the animal. Still, he took what I said seriously. I headed out quick. Unfortunately, one of those two dopes that came into the room spotted me sneaking in. That's why we had to move quick to make sure they didn't realize it was me that was sneaking around. If I got caught, we'd both be in a world of hurt you couldn't imagine."
All but trembling with fury, Shampoo shouted out, "You had me strip for you, jump me, scare me out of my mind, humiliate me, and nearly got both of us permanently assigned here as criminals over that… that animal?! Why?! You don't even like him! You said yourself he's a butcher that goes out of his way to maim and cripple people! Why would you risk my life and yours for him?!"
Jaddo gave a soft shake of his head. "If a man is going to be killed, it should be for what he's done, not what he is. Even a butcher like him. It's just not right."
Shampoo crossed her arms in anger. "Maybe, but risking your life and mine for an animal like him is going too far. In case you've forgotten, he was trying to very hard to go out of his way to either screw me or kill me earlier tonight. I'm still in a lot of pain, and it's going to take days for my ribs to heal. So you'll excuse me if I don't find your argument persuasive!"
Jaddo worked his jaw back and forth, making a popping sound as he looked down to the ground. "You're right. I screwed up. I shouldn't have put your life at risk. I'm too used to being alone and only being responsible for my own hide. I should have remembered my responsibility to you. And I'm sorry I made you get naked and had those guys thinking we were screwing. Once we get to Hong Kong, if anyone implies it, I'll deny it. I'm sorry."
Turning partially away from him, Shampoo eyed him, though she still had her arms crossed in obvious hostility. "Did you just apologize to me?"
"Would you like me to bronze it for you so you can stick it on your mantle back home?" Jaddo said with the return of some of his swagger.
Shampoo looked back to him, and this time she could not prevent a forgiving smile from creeping across her face. "The next time you try and have me strip for you, I will not only see to it you shoot blanks, but I'll also make sure that your gun barrel is so twisted and broken it'll get rusty before the next time you feel like using it."
"And destroy one of the Outback's Eight Natural Wonders? You'd leave half the population of China very unhappy." In spite of his bluster, Jaddo shifted uncomfortably. Amazons and castration jokes mixed about as well as water and oil.
The two retired to their beds without another word. The events of the day and night had left each of them completely drained. Jaddo was just starting to drift off to sleep when Shampoo asked, "Do you think the Musk escaped?"
Jaddo thought about that. "His ankle was broken and he was in bad shape, but that guy's a survivor. Besides, we didn't hear any other gunfire other than those first two shots. It would take more than a couple of bullets to bring that elephant down. Yah, I think he did. You won't have to worry about him again. After tonight, he'll never be able to get back on the Arena circuit. Hell, he won't be able to pop his face up in Imperial Territory. If the Empire says they slaughtered a people, they want them to stay slaughtered. They don't take kindly to being contradicted, and will try and rectify the situation at the first available opportunity. I probably only bought the thug some time."
Shampoo remained silent. Despite the Amazon's disdain for the Musk and the beating she had suffered at the Northman's hands, she felt some sympathy for his plight. Morally, she objected to Jaddo placing her life on the line for him, or at least not being included in his plans. Still, the night was not a total loss. It was the first time he had apologized to her, and that did mean something. He dealt with her more as an equal if he could admit to her he was not infallible. It also felt good to be right for a change. And his unexpected act of compassion for one he held nothing but anger and disdain to spoke even more highly of his character than Shampoo could have imagined. Perhaps allowing him to see her naked wasn't the horrible, traumatizing experience she had originally thought it to be, though she still wasn't attracted to him. Even with all of the time they had spent together, the man was still an enigma when it came right down to it. He was a puzzle she wanted to solve before she reached the Arena in Japan.
The young girl tried thinking further on the matter, but sleep beckoned. Assuming they weren't pulled from their beds in the middle of the night, things would be fine until they took their train the next morning, leaving Hellmount behind forever.
After all, Hong Kong finally awaited.
To be continued.
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