“So if you total it all up the expenses will come to around… let me see… oh, let’s add this too… about $11,000,000,” said the accountant.
“Eleven… eleven million?” Dr. Ekso asked in disbelief.
“Yes, the fight rolled over briefly into the marina and the owners have filed a claim,” said the lawyer.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Eleven,” Dr. Ekso said, his electronically enhanced voice trailing off.
“We can fight the boat thing if we can prove there was no intentionality on your part. Do you recall intentionally damaging any boats in order to fight your enemy?” the lawyer asked.
“I don’t know, I think I remember seeing a boat or two after I was flung at subsonic speeds into the ocean!” Ekso said, his fist punctuating his frustration on the table.
“Easy, this is mahogany,” said the lawyer.
“I can’t do eleven. I just can’t,” said Ekso.
“We can go over some payment plans, doctor. These kinds of costs aren’t insurmountable,” said the accountant from behind the stack of bills.
“Million, Jim. Million!” said Ekso.
“Yes, million with an M, not billion. We can handle this. We’ve done it before,” said the lawyer.
“It’s a simple process really, just some forms to fill out,” said the accountant.
“Doesn’t the government do that Heroic whatever-it’s-called for this sort of thing? I’m a sanctioned super, there has to be something,” said Ekso.
“You’re talking about the HS Fund? The government only gives subsidies to those with a level S clearance and who’ve donated one hundred hours of their time doing rubble cleanup,” said the lawyer.
“What’s my clearance level again?” Ekso asked.
“A,” said the lawyer.
“Damn it, Jim! I worked on the Space Station! I’ve repaired satellites for these people, when am I gonna get a freakin’ S card?” Ekso asked, his Long Island accent slipping through as it usually did whenever he was about to lose his cool.
“It’s still coming down the pipes, doc,” said the lawyer.
“Yeah, you wanna know why? It’s because it’s crap. It’s a giant load of crap. All of it. Damn it,” said Ekso.
“It’s going to take time. The guy I know is talking to all his people on Capitol Hill but it’s still going to take time. More time than we have to settle this,” the lawyer said, tapping the folder full of expenses in front of him.
“What options do we have?” Dr. Ekso asked as he rubbed his armored hand on his armored forehead.
“We do have those payment plans,” said the accountant.
“I’m a doctor, not some two bit white trash junkie looking to buy a car I can’t afford. A super powered engine of justice that’s what I am! I will not subject myself to a payment plan,” said Ekso.
“You got your Masters in Mechanical Engineering, ‘doc’. You’re a hero not a celebrity who’s too important to file their taxes,” said the lawyer.
“I pay you to keep those kinds of things from coming up in conversation,” said Dr. Ekso.
“You won’t be able to afford me at this rate. You need to start showing up to these fights sober or we’re going to have a real problem soon,” said the lawyer.
“This is a real problem!” Dr. Ekso shouted.
“Not if you listen to me. I think I may have a way to solve our financial troubles,” said the lawyer.
“Please don’t tell me we’re going to rob a bank or something,” said Dr. Ekso. The lawyer didn’t respond. “Oh god, we’re not robbing a bank are we?”
“It’s not that, but it’s probably not the kind of thing you’re used to,” said the lawyer.
“Probably?” Dr. Ekso asked suspiciously. The accountant loosened his collar and hoped he wasn’t about to become an accessory to some crime.
“Look, I know a guy who knows a few more guys. You still have that old battle suit? The one you keep in your workshop to test out new weapon systems?” the lawyer asked.
“Sure,” said Dr. Ekso.
“How did he talk me into this?” Ekso mumbled to himself as he slipped the last part of the old suit on and activated it. The view screen booted up and started downloading an update. “No! No updates right now. Damn it. Damn it what am I doing?”
The sound of the crowd wasn’t deafening, there weren’t enough people here for that, but it was loud. Almost as loud as the sound of the two fighters dueling in the ring. Through the slits in the gate, Ekso could just make them out, one a tentacled netherbeast and the other an angel or something. There was an explosion and the crowd roared its approval.
“You can do this. You fought Oculon. You took on Cairobi Sam all by yourself. This’ll be easy,” said Ekso.
Another explosion, then an inhuman scream as the netherbeast ripped the angel’s head off with one clean twisting motion. The crowd cheered. Well some cheered, others booed. The nether beast shrunk down into human form and walked off the arena with the angel head in tow.
“That was quite a match. Who’s ready for another one?” asked the voice over the scratchy PA system as a team of guys dragged the angel’s body away. Ekso swallowed nervously. He was up next. “Our next round of victims, I mean contestants,” the voice said with a cheesy chuckle, “are on their way now. Here’s another newbie for y’all. He’s a big hunk of metal with a heart of gold. Give it up for the Tin Man.”
The gate lifted and Ekso walked into the bright lights of the arena to the sounds of a few cheers and boos but mostly a lot of chuckling at the name and the look of the suit. Ekso had put the suit together from a bunch of older models of his current suit, along with some aesthetic changes so no one would think it looked too familiar.
“Our other organ donor comes to us from flyover country. He’s a big ol son of a gun and he’ll rip yer guts out if you look at him wrong. It’s an old favorite, Bonefucker!” The other gate lifted and out walked a huge man. Well, it sort of looked like a man. He was hairy and scaly and very very muscular. And his teeth were razor sharp. “As always, anything goes! If you quit or die, you lose! Have at it gentlemen!” said the voice. The PA system cut out with a high pitched blip. Bonefucker cracked his neck.
“I’m, gonna open you up, Tin Can,” said Bonefucker, looking down at Ekso.
“Oh shit,” Ekso said to himself. Luckily his trembling didn’t translate well over the arm and leg servos.
“Get him already!” someone yelled from the stands.
Bonefucker rushed forward and grabbed Ekso by the shoulders, trying to wrestle him down. Ekso pushed him off and punched him right in the chest. Bonefucker snorted out his nose, but otherwise gave no indication that he felt anything. Bonefucker responded with a haymaker. It should have gone wide, would have in the new suit, but Ekso couldn’t maneuver well and the punch landed right in his face. Ekso stumbled backwards. Bonefucker grinned and went for another haymaker. Ekso caught the punch, but it did no good. Ekso’s own metal fist went right into his mask, and he fell backwards. Bonefucker straddled Ekso and started wailing on his face. The armor plated mask was taking the full brunt of the assault, but it was a lot of movement and his head was rattling inside the helmet. He had to stand up, but Bonefucker was way too freaking massive. He couldn’t keep taking direct hits like this. He had to get Bonefucker off! In a flash of brilliance, Ekso closed the exhaust ports along his torso, heating the outer shell until it glowed orange. Bonefucker didn’t seem to notice until his jeans caught on fire.
“My jeans!” Bonefucker yelled as he padded down his crotch. Ekso took the opportunity to sit up and jab Bonefucker in said crotch area. The force of the blow knocked Bonefucker off of Ekso completely.
Ekso got up as quickly as he could. He could turn this around; all he had to do was… Bonefucker bull rushed Ekso and knocked him into the wall of the arena with such force it shook the whole building. Ten floors up somebody thought she’d heard thunder, but from where she didn’t know. Ekso pushed Bonefucker’s face away and with his other hand pushed against the wall of the arena. The crowd was getting excited now. The two were evenly matched it seemed.
Bonefucker roared and bit Ekso’s hand, his razor teeth digging deep into the metal. Ekso’s years of heroic experience took over. He grabbed Bonefucker’s bottom jaw and placing his legs further apart, he threw his opponent into the wall behind him. Then he kneed and kicked and punched the brute over and over again. This got some cheers. Bonefucker went for Ekso’s legs. Ekso braced himself, stopping Bonefucker’s assault. He elbowed Bonefucker in the spine and then picked him up from the waist. The crowd knew what was coming and they cheered even harder for the Tin Man. Ekso dropped down into a piledriver. Bonefucker yelped in pain.
“Give up,” said Ekso. Bonefucker spit and squirmed, but the doctor had a tight grip. He got up and went into another piledriver. Bonefucker screamed in pain, but would not yield. “You’re gonna die, give up damn it!” Ekso said. Bonefucker tried to kick Ekso’s head, but he was braced fairly well. He got up and piledrived Bonefucker again and again and again and again and again, each time the crowd cheering louder and louder until they were chanting his name. Finally Bonefucker stopped moving. Ekso let the body flop down to the ground. His sensors confirmed it. The bestial man-giant was dead. Bonefucker was no more.
“Heart of gold? That must have been a typo because this guy is cold as ice! Give it up for our newcomer, the Tin Man,” said the voice over the scratchy PA system. Ekso couldn’t believe it. He’d won. He killed a man in cold blood, but he’d won. And he felt great. What the hell? “Alright, coming up next we have two favorites, I know you’ll love to see who wins this next one…” and it faded into noise. It was all noise. Ekso felt numb. He killed a guy he didn’t know for no reason at all except that he needed the money. That wasn’t just. That wasn’t right. What had he done? He felt wrong. He’d killed people before. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes on accident, but never like this. This was different. This was wrong.
“That was a great fight. The crowd loved you,” said the lawyer the next day. He took a sip of whiskey and noticed Ekso was very quiet. In fact the good doctor hadn’t said anything for most of the limo ride. “You okay in there?” the lawyer asked.
“Underground street fighting? Is that what I’ve been reduced to?” Ekso asked.
“Super underground street fighting,” the lawyer corrected.
“I can’t go back there, Jim. This isn’t how I want to do this,” said Ekso.
“Unless you can come up with ten million, nine and ninety nine hundred thousand dollars in a few months’ time I don’t think you really have a choice,” said the lawyer.
“I’m better than this. I’m a hero,” said Ekso.
“Oh really? Let’s recap the situation, shall we? You got a call from the governor to contain a level three public safety threat and showed up drunk a half hour later. You destroyed an entire city block just in your first salvo alone. You knocked a hole in the Pershing Building, doc. That’s a protected landmark and it’s swiss cheese now. You finally took the fight away from the populated area toward the warehouse district but then you sunk a yacht or two at the marina and now you’re eleven million in the red. Does any of that sound especially heroic to you?” asked the lawyer.
“No,” said Ekso, his dejected tone plainly audible over his speakers.
“That was amateur level stuff. You’re lucky the state of Washington hasn’t sent you to hero remedial. I hear Colorado is chilly this time of year,” said the lawyer.
“I never want to go back to remedial, screw Colorado. Should I just call it quits? Hang up the cape so to speak and go into consulting like everyone else?” Ekso asked.
“Not until we knock this bill out. Rest up for a few days. When you feel better, go for another fight. The more popular you get the bigger the winnings and the sooner you can quit this,” said the lawyer.
“I wanna quit now. This ain’t legit, Jim. I know I don’t got no goddamn choice but it’s still wrong. I could handle the drugs, the money, the weapons testing, but this is too real,” said Ekso. The lawyer sighed.
“You made your bed. Sleep in it,” said the lawyer, downing his whiskey.
The next six months were a blur for Dr. Ekso. During the day he would do his usual community service, no heroics until the court reviewed his case, and at night he donned what was increasingly becoming known as the Ice Cold Tin Man armor. The money went from a trickle to a river and before he knew it, Ekso was out of the meat grinder rings and fighting in actual leagues in actual arenas. It was all still underground, sometimes literally, and all still of highly dubious legality, but it was cleaner, bigger.
He zoomed up the ladders, taking out favorite after favorite. Fight after fight. Face after nameless face. Oh they had titles alright; The Green Terror, The Thing between the Spaces, Feathermore the Parrot King, but they were people. Sometimes they weren’t but most of the time there were people behind those masks, behind those faces. It scared Ekso how easy it was getting to kill. It also scared him how often he would see famous people in the crowds. Not Hollywood famous of course, though they would sometimes pop up. Now that he was fighting in the big leagues he was getting bet on by the uber rich, the kind that ate food off of supermodels and wore money. Big names in Wall Street and the tech industry would show up along with oil barons and weapons industry giants. The kind of people villains started off as. At least, that was his experience with it. That’s where he was when the man with the scar made him an offer.
Carlo Falcini was his name. He was a big name in weapons tech, made top of the line assault rifles and cannons. His weapons always seemed to end up in the hands of rebels, revolutionaries and terror cells, though he swore that he had no knowledge of how that happened and the international courts tended to agreed. And now he wanted to talk to Dr. Ekso.
“You’ve made quite a name for yourself. Ice Cold. I like that,” said Carlo as he approached Ekso in the ready room.
“Something I can do for you?” Ekso asked as he adjusted a power cufflink.
“I see you’re a business man. Ready to get right to it. Excellent. I have a proposition. This next fight you’re going to have. I want you to consider maybe dialing it back a bit. Say down to 40%? That sounds like a nice round number,” said Carlo.
“You want me to take a dive? Is that what you’re asking?” Ekso asked.
“Some people would call it that. Me, I think of it more as a strategic withdrawal.”
“Why do want me to throw this match? Are you not confident in your boy?” asked Ekso.
“Oh no, I have the utmost confidence in Rexor. But see, he has another fight after you. A real toughie. The league favorite in fact,” said Carlo.
“The former Champion,” said Ekso.
“Yes. I want Rexor in top condition. There’s going to be a lot of money riding on that fight. Money I can better guarantee if Rexor doesn’t get, how you say, clobbered in this next match. It’s all very strategic, you see,” said Carlo.
“I’m looking to make a quarter million easy. What will you offer me?” Ekso asked.
“I think one hundred grand,” said Carlo.
“Are you serious?” Ekso asked.
“Dead serious,” Carlo said, with a dead look in his eyes.
“Oh yeah?” Ekso said, swallowing nervously. Something about this guy scared him.
“Let me put it to you like this. If you survive the fight, you will not survive the night. But trust me, you will not win this fight. Rexor is my baby. He’s never lost.”
“I never lost either,” said Ekso.
“But you came very close many times. Skin of your teeth, that should be your nickname. The way I see it, better one hundred grand than dead. So how about it? Do we have a deal?” Carlo asked.
“Look, I don’t care about the fight. It’s all about the money for me but if I’m gonna take a dive I’m going to need a little more than asking price,” said Ekso.
“Are you negotiating? How very businessman of you. But you see, you are not businessman here. You are fighter. Therefore you only have two choices. Make it easy for yourself or make it hard. Choose wisely,” said Carlo.
The ring was basic. A large oval surrounded on all sides by seats situated high above the dirt where Ekso would be fighting. Very coliseum-esque as befit the rich and famous. Everyone was dressed in business suits tonight and the atmosphere was quiet and subdued. Ekso felt unnerved by it. It was like he was performing an opera rather than fighting. A lot of the newer leagues attracted big money, but this was the most he’d seen to date. He’d felt cheap when he first started. Now he felt different. He’d graduated from hooker to escort, he realized.
“Gentlemen, take your seats. The fight will commence shortly,” said a soft but curt voice over the sound system. The lights dimmed slightly and the dome that hid Ekso opened. “Weighing in at two tons, he has risen quickly from humble beginnings, please welcome Tin Man.” A round of golf clapping. Ekso wasn’t sure what to do so he waved. “A league runner up for years, he has a lot to prove and a lot to show for it. Here he is. Rexor.”
The other dome opened. Standing before him was a normal sized man. He looked perfectly human at first, but upon closer inspection, Ekso realized that Rexor seemed to be made of a plastic composite of some sort. Flesh colored, but shiny smooth in the light. The light in the center of the ring flashed green, signaling that the fight had commenced. Ekso started off with an opening salvo of halo missles. Rexor didn’t make any attempt to dodge. The explosions rocked the arena and when the smoke cleared Rexor stood in the same spot, apparently unscathed. Rexor lifted his arm and it transformed into a rocket pod.
“A cyborg!” Ekso said under his breath. The rocket pod launched several missiles at Ekso. He activated his arm cannon and shot half of them out of the air, but the rest hit him dead on.
“Structural integrity compromised,” the armor said in Ekso’s ear.
“Already? Damn,” Ekso said as he got to his feet. He shot at Rexor, center of mass, but he dodged expertly. “If I still had a targeting computer you’d be dead,” Ekso said to himself. Carlo watched from the stands. Was this a dive? Or was Rexor just that good? He smiled smugly and took a sip of wine.
Ekso changed his strategy. Time for energy lances, the poor man’s laser. His shoulder mounted lancer spewed a torrent of orange energy beams. Most of them missed but one or two hit their mark. The damage was visible. That was good. The lancer stopped firing. Too much heat. Ekso shot another volley of halo missiles while he waited for the lancer to cool off. Rexor stopped and let the missiles hit him. The smoke and the dust obscured his position. The lancer still had another few seconds to cool down, so Ekso switched to the arm cannon, but it didn’t make much difference. Without line of sight, he was shooting blind. His low tech sensors registered movement behind him. He turned just in time to see Rexor punch through his armor with a metal studded fist.
The pain was unbelievable. Ekso looked down and screamed at the sight of hydraulic fluid streaming down his armor. Rexor retracted his arm and struck again near Ekso’s ribcage. The armor was enough to stop his fist from penetrating skin but it still hurt like hell. Ekso grabbed Rexor’s arm to hold him in place and tried to punch him, but the angle was weird and he couldn’t quite connect.
“Pitiful,” said Rexor in a Mediterranean accent Ekso couldn’t quite place. “Were you actually trying?” he asked as he ripped free of Ekso’s grip and kicked him away.
Ekso went flying and landed with a metallic thud. He groaned in pain. Every muscle burned. To move even an inch was torture.
“It seems Tin Man is down. Don’t put those check books away yet, he still has not given up,” said the announcer as Rexor approached.
“You have until I reach you to surrender,” said Rexor.
Ekso panicked. What was he going to do? If only he had his seventh generation armor. He could have easily dispatched this Rexor guy with his signature suit on. He never had a chance with this amalgam third and second generation kludge he was wearing. Rexor had closed about half the distance now. His mind raced. What could he do? He lifted his body up from the floor. There was one thing, but it would hurt. The lancer was on the fritz but the coils should still be intact. He ripped the lancer off and attached the hanging wires to the energy cufflink near his wrist.
“There’s movement from Tin Man. He’s not out yet,” said the announcer. His mistake, Carlo thought.
“Time is up, speak your last words,” said Rexor as he aimed his rocket pod.
“Medium or well done?” Ekso asked.
“What?” Rexor replied before an arc of lightning struck him in the stomach.
“Diablo!” Rexor screamed when he saw the gaping hole where his abs used to be. Ekso fired his autocannon, ripping Rexor in half. He kept firing until Rexor was a pile of burning cinders.
“As far as last words go, those weren’t too bad,” said Ekso.
The crowd politely clapped. Ekso looked up into the crowd. Carlo was talking on his cell phone, a look of pure irritation on his face. Ekso collected his winnings and left the basement of the high rise where the fight had taken place. His van pulled up and took him away.
“I think a few more fights and we’ll have this bill all paid up,” said the lawyer.
“Drive. We have about a minute before goons with guns show up,” Ekso said to the driver as he repaired the damage to his armor.
“What are you talking about? You piss someone off?” said the lawyer.
“I didn’t take a dive,” said Ekso, pushing an armor plate back into place.
“Who wanted you to take a dive?” the lawyer asked.
“Holy- the Carlo Falcini? Why the hell didn’t you throw the fight, man?” The lawyer asked.
“Because he’s terrible at bribing,” said Ekso.
“He doesn’t have to bribe. He’s Carlo motherfucking Falcini. Anyone else would have jumped at the chance to get paid to lose to him. But no I get the one fucking fighter who doesn’t know how to size people up,” said the lawyer.
“Quiet down. You’re panicking,” said Ekso.
“I have every right to!” shouted the lawyer.
“Jim for god’s sakes…”
Gunfire. The van was riddled with dozens of armor piercing rounds in seconds. The van swerved, but the driver managed to regain control. Ekso looked down at his lawyer and friend. Jim was gone. Ekso opened the back of the van. Two SUVs loaded with thugs in suits were tailing them. One thug was standing in the sunroof shooting a large caliber rifle. Ekso fired his autocannon into the engine of the first SUV. It exploded, sending shrapnel in every direction. Five dead, two of them civilians who’d been on the sidewalk. The other SUV maneuvered around the fiery wreck and caught up with the van. These thugs had submachine guns. Their 9mm Uzi rounds bounced harmlessly off Ekso’s armor, ricochet shattering the windows of parked cars as they passed.
“Eat lead you motherfuckers!” Ekso screamed as he shot an explosive round. The round missed, exploding behind the SUV. Another car went headlong into the explosion, killing the driver and injuring two passengers. One of the thugs rolled his window down and aimed his grenade launcher. “Oh no,” Ekso said as he tried to reload his auto cannon.
The grenade went off on Ekso’s chest plate. The blast destroyed the back half of the van’s chassis and knocked him back. He landed violently into the driver who was crushed and killed instantly. The van swerved off the road, hitting several pedestrians before they could get out of the way. It crashed through a storefront, killing two patrons, and hit a wall before stopping. Ekso barely registered the sight of four men aiming their weapons at him and firing before everything went black.
The next sound he heard was the beeping of a medical machine. He struggled to open his eyes. After a while, he managed to get them slightly open. He was in a hospital room. The nurse said something but it sounded like gibberish. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again there was someone in the room. A man in a suit.
“The doctors say you’re going to make a full recovery. That armor of yours is a miracle in ballistic protection, Dr. Kosorov,” said the man.
“What?” Ekso mumbled.
“Try not to talk. You’ll have plenty of opportunity once you’re all healed up,” said the man as he placed a folder on the table next to Ekso.
“What is this?” Ekso asked.
“Dr. Edgar Kosorov, aka Dr. Ekso, aka the Tin Man. You are to appear before a court of your peers to stand trial for your actions this past week,” said the man.
“No no no. You got the wrong guy. I’m a hero,” said Ekso.
“Reckless public endangerment, firing advanced weaponry without a license, multiple vehicular fatalities, defacing public property, illegal street fighting. No, I think we have the right guy. I hope you have a good lawyer,” said the man.
“But I’m a hero. A hero…” Ekso struggled to say.
“Tell it to the judge,” said the man as he blinked away.