art by Erin Cardwell
“Last chance, Trinta. You either make it as a grummer, or it’s back to the bordello.”
Trinta shivered at the ice in Arich‘s voice. She was wrapping long strips of fabric around her knuckles so that her thumb was bound to the side of her hand, and her fingers couldn’t spread apart. Grappling was strictly forbidden in Inverse Gravity Rumble, but the fighters could still turn their hands into hooks to grip the handholds — and each other.
Arich stepped around in front of her, his hands folded behind his back. She kept expecting him to touch her, for her to feel his breath on her neck. It had been nearly two months, and he hadn’t once laid a finger on her.
“I think you can do it. You’re tough. You’ve got more potential than some of the other grummers I’ve sponsored. You just have to want it hard enough. Win it all in this grum, and I’ll keep you.”
She felt her face flush.
“Time to go!” came the grum-master’s voice from down the hall.
Arich moved from in front of the door to let her exit.
“Go splash them,” he said.
She stepped into the hall, joining the other five grummers. Trinta’s blood felt alive, like all the nerves in her body were pulled taut. All six grummers strode down the hallway toward the turret. Kasi checked Trinta into the wall as she moved ahead of her.
They all bounded up a flight of stairs, emerging into the grum turret. There were hundreds of punters in the surrounding torus, crowded up against the glass walls of the turret. Even though she was a skinner — used to be a skinner, anyway — she’d seldom felt so naked as now.
Trinta slipped around the pool that occupied the center of the turret. Purple light emanated from the pool, illuminating the portion of the ceiling directly above it, which was composed of the same steel panels that made up the floor.
Trinta glanced around at the other fighters to make sure she was lining up properly behind a glass panel of the floor that read “Nova.” As she stepped onto her starting block, she could feel the electromagnets of her boots disengage from the floor.
She glanced up at the handholds on the ceiling. They were directly above her on the edge of the steel plating. When Arich had first got her, she didn’t think she could jump high enough to reach the bounder bars, but after weeks of training, mounting was second nature to her.
The purple light coming from the pool turned to blue, and everyone standing just on the other side of the glass wall around the turret raised their hands to the barrier.
Then the light turned to green, and the sound of a thousand open palms banging on the glass reverberated through Trinta’s bones. It took her a moment to remember the grum had begun.
Blushing hard, she sprung up and gripped the bounder bars with her mummified hands and jackknifed her feet up toward the ceiling. As her boots neared the steel panels lining the top of the turret, the electromagnets in the bottoms of them turned on and pulled them onto the ceiling. Then she let go of the handholds and straightened, feet planted on the ceiling and head pointed toward the pool below her.
By the time Trinta got mounted, the two grummers on her right were already engaged. On the other side, Kasi was trying to get a hooked hand under Trinta’s left armpit. As she spun to face her, Kasi lost her grip.
Kasi started to throw a straight punch with her right hand, but something drew her attention over Trinta’s right shoulder.
Trinta made the most of her moment of distraction. She pushed Kasi’s outstretched arm across her body, moving to Kasi’s dead side, then pulling on the back of her opponent’s neck with a hooked hand. The movement propelled Trinta away from — and Kasi right into — the oncoming Rhene. It must have been Rhene’s approach that had distracted Kasi in the first place.
Rhene crouched, allowing Kasi to stumble over her. Then she straightened quickly, pulling Kasi free of the steel. She tumbled slowly — her screams of rage drowned out by the crowd still pounding on the glass — and splashed into the glowing green pool below.
Trinta stepped back from the fight for a moment as Metis closed in on Rhene at top speed. This was probably intended to catch Rhene while she was still recovering from taking out Kasi.
Metis threw a diving uppercut at Rhene’s head, but she didn’t get her front foot planted before engaging her adversary.
Rhene was already firmly established, and saw the attack coming. She was able to deflect the blow overhead toward the pool. Metis swung backward so she was dangling from her right foot.
Trinta quickly stepped in behind Metis. She hooked her hand around the inside of Metis’s flailing left leg and gave it a shove. Metis tumbled into the pool below.
When Trinta turned to the last two fighters, Miranda had Rhene from behind in a bear hug. Trinta hung back, waiting to see who her final opponent would be.
Miranda pulled Rhene a few centimeters off the ceiling.
Rhene tucked her knees in, placing her feet on Miranda’s thighs. Just as her opponent’s arms loosened to drop her, Rhene doubled over, forming into a ball. Then she pushed off, forcefully separating Miranda’s feet from the steel and propelling herself through the air in a slight backward arc — her belly just centimeters from the ceiling — toward Trinta.
Trinta’s eyes widened in surprise. She tried to move to the side, but one of Rhene’s outstretched arms caught her around the waist. Rhene used this point of leverage to — by sheer force — plant her own feet back on the ceiling and pull Trinta’s off.
Trinta scrabbled at Rhene’s back with her bound hands, trying to grab anything to keep from falling, but without success.
She floated down slowly in the low gravity, twisting in the air, finally landing in the pool with her body spread as flat as possible. A fighter wasn’t counted out until they hit the water, so she could delay the inevitable by about half a second by laying herself out flat.
When she came up from the water, the thunderous pounding on the glass had subsided. As she raised herself out of the pool, Kasi walked by and used her foot to shove her back in.
Trinta finally climbed out of the pool. Rhene swung herself down using the bounder bars and went ahead of her out of the turret.
When she got back to her locker room, Arich was already there.
“I’m sorry I didn’t win the whole thing. I should have got out of the way… I–“
“You’ve got potential. I’ll keep you for now.”
Read the next chapter: Kasi