It was a fairly short flight for Nick across town. Entrances were everywhere, if you knew where to look.
The one he settled on was in a back alley behind a local restaurant. It was just wide enough to accommodate his wingspan as he glided to the ground in front of a pair dumpsters. A rat squeaked nearby. Nick cringed. Even the air felt dirty back here.
Not wasting time, he stood up on two paws and began feeling the bricks along the wall. Foot by foot he progressed until his paws suddenly passed through the brick and mortar by two full inches. It tingled faintly, made his fur stand on end when he wasn’t touching the cold metal surface underneath. Standard hologram tech. Nick glanced either way down the alley to make sure no one was watching, then groped for the door handle and passed through.
A staircase led him down under the building and through a long narrow corridor before emerging into a crowded, bustling bazaar. Mercantile stalls of all sorts formed haphazard rows along the length of this expansive concrete cavern. Figures of all shapes and sizes, almost none of them human, pushed past one another as they went about their business. Most of the city’s alien population was down here, buying, selling, trading, advertising, chatting; late as it was, with no day or night down here, the buzz of daily life never really paused.
Nick kept his tail off the ground as he made his way through the crowd. He was only a bit taller than knee-high--by human standards--at the shoulder, and didn’t want it getting stepped on. He passed without incident through the subterranean marketplace until he reached an area with some more permanent shops actually built into alcoves in the walls. The third one on the right, Syzzlin’ Hot Wares
, was what he was looking for.
Nick entered the shop, briefly glancing around at the shelves packed with off-world gadgets for anything he might need. Somewhere in the back, an electronic chime announced his presence.
“Be right with ya!” came a voice from behind the counter. “Closing up soon, so don't take too long!”
“It's just me, Syzzaji,” Nick said.
A small gray figure, no more than three inches tall, peeked their large yellow eyes out from behind the register. “Nicky boy, how ya doin’?” The Galvan stepped out, a smile on her face. “The hero deal workin’ out for ya?”
“Not ideally.” Nick let the words hang for a bit. He looked away.
“Somethin’ wrong? You look down.”
Nick shrugged. “I dunno. I was just thinking we should take Ohmnee out for a spin.”
Syzzaji’s expression turned to a devious grin. “Been waitin’ a week to hear ya say that.”
* * *
Mr. Salty’s Underground Dream Casino. Home to some of the best bot fights in this backwater corner of the galaxy. A den of vice featuring gambling of the high-stakes and low-stakes varieties, whatever you can afford as you desperately crawl your way out of debt for life a few pennies at a time. It was noisy, crowded, filled to the brim with obnoxious blinking lights everywhere. And oddly enough, still one of Nick’s favorite places despite all that.
The central attraction was on the lower floor, a large circular ring surrounded by bleachers and covered by a powerful dome energy shield. It had a steel floor, able to adapt itself to have any number of traps or obstacles to make things more interesting. A huge holographic display directly above the ring showed a public chat room which was constantly spewing memes at any given time.
Nick headed to the backstage area with Syzzaji riding on his back. A series of huge lockers, almost tiny workshops, contained bots of all shapes and sizes. And in lucky number thirteen, Ohmnee.
Ohmnee was a wedge bot, but so much more than just that. Virtually every part of the bot could be taken out and replaced to deal with any opponent. It had a sort of post-apocalyptic style in its appearance, at Nick’s urging. Faux-rusted patina with the words “Ohm nohm nohm
” scrawled across the side in red fingerpaint, and a couple spikes welded on for good measure.
“I replaced that strut what bent last time,” said Syzzaji as she hopped from Nick’s wing to the dolly that held the bot. “The aluminum wasn’t cutting it, so I upgraded to carbon fiber. Hope ya don’t mind me doin’ it without tellin’ ya first. You was busy with all that hero stuff.”
“Nah, that’s fine.” Nick peered underneath to see the part in question. “It’s your bot. You design and lead the building, I drive. I mean, you’ve taught me basically everything I know. I trust that.”
Syzzaji scooched underneath the chassis. Her voice reverberated from within. “Oh, quit bein’ modest, you’ve added plenty to this bot y’self. It’s at least half yours.”
“I…” Nick let himself trail off. The side armor plate popped loose, and Nick used removing it as an excuse to not say anything.
“You're way too hard on yourself, kid.” Syzzaji stared out at him, leaning against the motor casing, a small sonic screwdriver-like device in hand. “I mean, tell me, what's wrong with this picture?”
Nick blinked. “Umm…”
“I’m just talkin’ about the robot here. Don't think too hard about it.”
“Oh.” Nick looked over the internals for a moment. “Well, the connections to the batteries look like they shook themselves loose again, so we need to re-smother that in hot glue. The bolt holding the right track is starting to stretch from all the stress it took last time, it looks rattly.” Nick paused, but Syzzaji was still looking at him expectantly. “And, umm…”
The gryphon’s eyes flicked frantically over the inner workings, going over smaller and smaller details as he searched for anything that might be off. Syzzaji rapped her fingers against the motor casing as she patiently waited, smiling the whole while.
Then it hit him. Glaringly obvious, of course. Embarrassingly so. “Oh yeah, that motor’s looking kind of… scorched.” And indeed it was. About half of the casing was caked with black carbon streaks emanating from the leads. The wires were basically ash, having been burned to a crisp when the positive lead disconnected itself and short-circuited. Nick sighed, more annoyed with himself than the robot.
“Bingo,” said Syzzaji. “Hand me the spare, wouldja?”
Together, they spent the better part of an hour getting Ohmnee in fighting shape. Nick caught himself smiling more than he’d expected to, despite his rough day. Working like this, disassembling and reassembling a piece of machinery he knew inside and out, was extremely meditative. It didn’t take long for all the stress to melt away.
* * *
“And the winner by knockout is… Ohmnee!” the announcer’s voice boomed from above.
Nick moved his paws off the control pads, still shaking a bit from the previous match. A clean win, it looked like. Ohmnee had really only taken a grazing hit from Annihilator’s vertical spinner, so repairs would be minimal and they could definitely go again tonight. Maybe even more than once, if luck held. He allowed himself to smile as the crowd cheered and the chat above spammed F to pay respects.
Mechanical remains were gathered, and the arena was reset for the next fight. Syzzaji drove Ohmnee out on a motorized dolly, pausing as she passed Nick at the entrance. “I’ll take our baby back for a checkup, you keep an eye on these jokers,” she said. “See if we’ve got any real competition here.”
Nick gave a nod. “No problem.” Rather than follow her down the ramp backstage, he hopped the low wall that separated the circular bleachers from the arena. He found a seat in a middle row and rested on his side, letting himself relax a little bit.
A few more fights passed, with Nick taking mental notes on the winners and their bot designs. The Verminator was on a hot streak, it seemed. It was a grappling bot, a tapered body supported on a pair of tank tracks with two grabbing arms that could scoop from underneath. Three wins in a row with basically no damage was quite rare, Nick mused. Even more so for a grappler, and yet it had just casually dominated some real heavy hitters.
Nick watched, now very curious, as The Verminator entered its fourth match, this time against a full-body spinner bot named Roulette. Should be an easy win for a spinner, Nick figured. But no. Fifteen seconds after Roulette had reached its max rpm, The Verminator dove in and managed to get its scoop underneath the rim, tossing it high into the air. The airborne Roulette tilted sideways before catching the ground with its teeth, sending up a shower of sparks and a hellish grinding noise as it propelled itself at high speed, smashing into the energy barrier and spilling its mechanical guts all over the arena floor.
Nick’s beak gaped in shock as cheering erupted throughout the arena. That approach should've been suicide, but it worked thanks to either sheer luck or incredible precision. Had to be the former. The driver, Viktor, was known more for his build and software quality than any kind of driving ability. Or sportsmanlike conduct, but that was a separate matter.
Or was it? Nick couldn’t think of anything he might be doing that could be breaking the rules. If he had someone else driving secretly, that might be frowned upon, but it wouldn’t be illegal. The gryphon did a quick scan over the crowd to see if anyone might be holding a remote control, but quickly realized that plenty of the alien spectators were carrying some form of communicator that could possibly be a covert remote.
Nick’s bracers buzzed after another match went by, and he glanced at them to see a text from Syzzaji. “Meet me backstage,” it said. “We’re up.”