The crowd swarmed Elliot’s black sedan as it stopped in front of his apartment building; journalists and photographers pounded on the windows, shouting questions and jostling for the best position. Through the tinted windows, Elliot could see the hotel security struggling to keep more of them from sneaking into the lobby. He grimaced. While he usually enjoyed celebrating with his fans after a fight, tonight’s match had drained him. He needed to rest and patch himself up before he stepped into the public eye. He already dreaded the next morning’s press conference.
The driver glanced at Elliot in the rearview mirror. “Are you sure you want me to drop you off here?” he asked, “I can circle around back if you’d like. No extra charge for you, Mr. Bellfield.”
Elliot laughed. “Don’t worry about it Axel,” he replied. He withdrew his phone from his pocket and quickly checked his appearance in the camera. His skin had mostly healed itself, thankfully, though one nasty cut on his face hadn’t yet closed, and still bared the metal cheekbone reinforcements implanted beneath. He shrugged; one or two battle scars would make him look tough for the pictures. He took one last deep breath, said goodbye to the driver, and ventured out into the crowd.
Cheers erupted the second he opened the door, and the crazed mob assailed him from all sides as a troop of bodyguards ran to his aid. He smiled halfheartedly and waved for the cameras, but he felt too exhausted to stop for interviews. If not for his bodyguards, the reporters may have trampled him. Unsure of how much longer his men could hold them off, he quickened his pace until he reached the door, nodding politely to the doorman as he slipped inside. It shut behind him, and the noise of the traffic and the fans disappeared behind soundproof glass.
Elliot sighed and breathed in the serenity of the apartment lobby. It was not home as he remembered it; everything was too clean and sophisticated, from the grand leather sofas, to the abstract art hanging on the walls, to the polished front counter where two receptionists sat ready to wait on his every need. The silence made him feel uneasy, and he longed to return to his penthouse, where he could blast music and lounge on his favorite couch. He could call his family and tell them about his latest victory.
Just as he began rehearsing the story he’d tell his mother, a voice shouted across the lobby and disrupted his thoughts. “Mr. Bellfield!” it came. Elliot turned his head to see a familiar short, bald gentlemen striding across the polished granite floor to greet him. “I’ve been waiting for you all night! Another great fight, I hear.”
Elliot grinned and nodded, concealing his annoyance. The last thing he wanted to do was to talk with one of his sponsors, especially about business. “Yes it was, Andrew,” he sighed, “Langston was harder to take down than I thought. He had one of those new shoulder pistons in his right arm. A few good shots from that thing and I’d have been out cold.” Before the man could say any more, Elliot started for the elevator.
“Well, we’ll just have to get you fitted with one of those, then.” Andrew jogged to catch up, fixing his tie as he fell into step next to Elliot. “In fact, that’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.”
As they reached the elevator, Elliot pressed the call button and squinted down at Andrew. “I thought we agreed to hold off on the shoulder piston until the new model comes out? It’s supposed to be more reliable, right?”
Andrew chuckled and rolled his eyes. “No, no, not the shoulder piston, per say. Just the upgrades in general. Everything working well for you? Any malfunctions?”
“Not that I can think of.” The elevator door slid open and Elliot stepped inside. To his chagrin, the man followed him. He sighed and furrowed his brow. “Well, since you’re here… there is this cut under my eye. I thought the synthetic skin should’ve healed it by now. And my knee started acting up in the fifth round, but it was nothing major.”
“We’ll get right on that, Mr. Bellfield,” Andrew said. He pulled a phone out of his suit pocket and began tapping at the screen. “I’ll schedule our best technician for you tomorrow at eight. He’ll have you patched up first thing in the morning.”
Elliot sighed, trying to hide his disappointment. He wanted to put off his repairs until at least Tuesday; he felt he deserved some time to himself, especially after nearly getting his head taken off by one of the deadliest right hooks in boxing. And he didn’t like the feeling of someone tinkering around inside his body, even if they only touched the artificial parts. “That sounds fine, Andrew. Just let me know when the shoulder piston comes in. I’m going to need it for the fight against Ruth.”
The elevator came to a stop. The doors slid open, revealing the living room of Elliot’s penthouse; he had only moved in a month ago, so boxes were still stacked along the walls. All that occupied the giant space were two couches, a tiger print rug, and a flat screen TV. Behind them, floor to ceiling windows looked out over Manhattan. Grateful to be home, Elliot stepped out, only to groan inwardly as Andrew followed him. If he desired, he could punch the man so hard he’d fly through the wall, but he restrained himself. “Is there something else you wanted to talk about?” He asked, feigning cheerfulness.
Andrew gave his same unctuous laugh that let Elliot know he wouldn’t leave until he agreed to install a new pair of steel knuckles. “Well, I was just reading up on Ruth the other day,” he said, “and it appears he’s endorsed by one of our competitors. They’re testing their newest product on him. It’s supposed to change the face of boxing.”
Elliot turned to face Andrew and folded his arms. He was holding the elevator door open with one arm. “So you want me to make sure I beat him?”
“Not exactly.” Andrew reached into his pocket and pulled out a brochure, which he handed to Elliot. “We’re working on a similar product, one we believe is more efficient, and can give you the advantage you need to win.” He went on as Elliot skimmed the brochure. “It’s an augmented nervous system, one of the first of its kind. It can analyze data ten times faster than the human senses, and react for you. It can even analyze your opponent’s fighting techniques and prepare countermeasures without a single thought.”
Elliot looked down at the brochure and scowled. Complicated words and diagrams were spread across the page. “I don’t get it,” he said, glaring at Andrew, “are you saying this thing goes into my brain?”
Andrew beamed. “Imagine going for a car ride,” he said, “and having the car drive for you.”
For a few moments, Elliot stood in thought, perusing the brochure. He couldn’t make sense of any of it. His eyes drifted down to his wrist; he looked at the fake skin covering the access panel the technicians used to access the mechanics in his wrist. There used to be veins there, but now they were buried deep beneath a network of wires and switches. He wondered just how many upgrades he had by now, if there was a single part of him left untouched by machinery. “No,” he decided finally, throwing the brochure in Andrew’s face, “I’ve let you mess with the rest of my body, but you aren’t touching my mind.” He pushed him back into the elevator, reached inside, and pressed the button for the lobby.
Andrew threw his hand in front of the door just before it shut again. Elliot glowered down at him. “Mr. Bellfield, please,” he stammered, “this is boxing. You know just as well as I do that this sport isn’t about skill anymore. The man with the better parts wins. This is just the next step.”
“Get out,” Elliot snarled.
“Fine,” Andrew sighed, backing away from the door. “But just know that Ruth is going to have that implant when you fight him. You can have all the armored skin and reinforced joints you want, but you won’t win. He’ll know your every move before you do, and once this hits the market, all the other fighters will, too.” Andrew laughed as the elevator doors began to close. “I give you until the third round. So unless you want this to be your last fight, I suggest you give me a call.” Just before the doors shut, he threw the brochure through the aperture. It drifted to the floor before Elliot.
Elliot picked up the packet and looked through it once more. He could see now what Andrew meant; there were diagrams of sensors linked to his nervous system, all feeding information to a box by his temple. An artificial brain, he realized, to think for him. Throw punches with pinpoint accuracy. Exploit weaknesses he wouldn’t see. With one last growl of disgust, he tore the brochure to pieces and started towards his bedroom.
The bell chimed in Elliot’s ears as the arena swam around him. “Did you see that!” one of the ringside commentators shouted into his microphone, “Bellfield, the undefeated champion, goes down in round two. If he got to his feet just a second earlier, Ruth would have put him down for good! But Bellfield is saved by the bell, and now the combatants walk back to their corners to recover.”
“Maybe Ruth is walking,” the other announcer laughed, “I’m not sure what Elliot’s doing. Hobbling, maybe.”
The two commentators chuckled as Elliot collapsed onto his stool. His head pounded from Ruth’s devastating punches. The bodyshots had made breathing difficult, and every lungful sent spasms of pain through his ribs. He could barely stand, let alone fight. When he could finally see straight again, he saw his manager rush towards him, accompanied by Matt, his technician. “Everything alright, boss?” Matt asked, opening his toolbox as he knelt beside him.
“The wrist. It’s acting up.” He let his right arm fall limp, and the technician set to work opening the access panel and fiddling with the wires inside. Meanwhile, his manager, an old, gray man with stern eyes, grabbed him by the chin. “Listen, kid,” he said, “I can’t let you take a beating like this. If he floors you again, I’m throwing in the towel, you hear me?”
“Al, no,” Elliot said, panic constricting his voice, “my title-”
“Who cares about your title!” Al snapped, “what about your life? If Ruth got in another shot on you before the round ended, you’d have woken up in an ambulance!” Al sighed as Elliot’s head sunk to his chest. “I know about Ruth’s upgrade. That funny little guy in the suit wanted me to convince you to get one yourself, but I refused him.” He tipped Elliot’s head up towards him. “I know that boxing’s a machine’s game now. But that doesn’t mean you can’t beat him.”
“He knows everything I’m about to do.”
“Then do something else,” Al said. The two of them laughed, and the crowd roared in the stands; the next round was about to start. Al grabbed his shoulders and looked him the eyes. “You get back out there, Bellfield. Show them you don’t need a robot’s brain to win.”
Elliot swallowed and nodded. “Alright,” he said. Al smiled and turned to leave, but just before he did, his fighter called out to him. “But whatever happens, Al, this is the last time. These upgrades aren’t going to stop, not until they have machines fighting in our place.”
Matt finished his adjustments and closed his toolbox, then scrambled out of the ring. Al, meanwhile, turned back to face Elliot one last time. He smiled in understanding, helped Elliot back to his feet, and ducked under the ropes just as the bell rang.
Elliot raised his gloves as Ruth sauntered towards him from the opposite corner; the other combatant didn’t even raise his hands. His crooked smile told Elliot he was prepared to finish him off. Almost before he could react, Ruth swung his right arm at his head. He ducked just in time and backed away, but his opponent pressed the attack. He wove in and out of punches, doing his best to dance around Ruth while staying out of the corner. But he couldn’t keep it up forever; Ruth’s artificial brain would land a hit soon enough. He needed to find a weakness.
He thought back to the diagram on the brochure Andrew gave him. If he recalled correctly, Ruth’s implant should be located at his right temple. Maybe, Elliot thought, a swift hook to the side of his head could disrupt it long enough to give him a window to strike. It seemed like a good idea, but Elliot hesitated, unsure if his plan would work.
But then, at long last, Ruth made contact. Elliot sidestepped to the left to avoid a jab, and his opponent slammed his right fist into his stomach before he could dodge the blow. Elliot doubled over in pain and staggered backward until he felt the ropes against his back. The crowd roared, waiting for Ruth to end the fight. Looking up, he saw the hulking shape draw closer, flexing its arms in preparation to deliver the final strike. It was now or never, Elliot thought.
He waited as long as he could. If he was going to outmaneuver a computer, he needed to wait until Ruth was close as possible. He held his breath. Ruth was three steps away. Two steps. One. Then he raised his right arm, ready to put him down. Seeing a window, Elliot sprung to action. He swung his right arm up and plowed his glove into Ruth’s right temple. Although e closed his eyes for the impact, but he could feel the implant shatter beneath the skin. When he looked again, Ruth was staggering to the side, looking as if he was coming out of a trance.
Elliot struck while Ruth was discombobulated. Ignoring the pain in his ribs, he lunged forward and threw punch after punch into his stomach. His opponent, struggling to think with his own brain, lowered his gloves to protect his stomach. Elliot seized his advantage. He wound his arm and threw an uppercut into Ruth’s chin that sent him sprawling into the ropes. There, he sank to the ground and lied still, his eyes closed. The referee began counting, but Elliot didn’t stay to hear him reach ten. As the crowd chanted his name, he stepped out of the ring and headed to the locker room, hanging his head.
He knew this was the last victory for the human mind.