Smith pulled on the thick leather gloves, flexed his hands in them. They were stained black with old blood. A good puncher protected his knuckles; bad punchers didn’t last long enough to matter.
“What are the odds?” he asked his manager.
Alex was like that. What she meant was that there were nine to five odds against him. Knowing the odds wasn’t just important for his financial future. Those odds told him that they were going to have fresh ones. The type of zombie they released depended on what they could find. The fresher the zombie the higher the odds. Of course, the fresh ones were harder to capture, so the mix depended on the tournament.
Smith wasn’t supposed to know any of this. Part of the point of punching was that the punchers didn’t know what they were walking into. The tournament venues were changed, so a strategy that had saved your ass at the last tourney could get you killed if you relied on it this time.
As it happened, information on the venues was hard to get, and no puncher was likely to have the money to buy the information. Gambling on punching was big business, and the people who controlled the gambling were both very serious and very wealth, and they could buy the information and use it to set the odds. Smith could use that to plan his strategy.
The safe zone was the old high school. Smith was putting on his gear in the locker room. This was a privilege, more or less, one of the fringe benefits of his celebrity. Smith went through the same warm up before every tournament. He did pushups, squats and worked through a series of yoga poses, looking for tight spots. It was entirely possible that he was the only person within a hundred miles that did yoga.
He felt good. He flexed his hands again and punched a locker, hard.
Alex was always nervous before a fight, and she nearly jumped out of her skin now. She’d grown up in no man’s land, and it showed. She still kept her head shaved and she was determined to never go back to the QZ. She was a good manager, and she’d made a shit load of money with Smith. Not enough to establish permanent citizenship in the Old States, but she was close. If Smith died, that gravy train was over, so she was nervous.
“Just testing” he said.
“You break your hand before the tourney you cement brained idiot, we’re both gonna be poorhouse. Already made bets.”
She helped him slip into his leathers, and he zipped them up. Punching rules, such as they were, only restricted the use of outside weapons. Defensively speaking, Smith could have worn full plate armor into the venue. A lot of new punchers would take that approach, layering themselves with whatever tough shit they could find in order to stop from being bitten.
Smith didn’t. He wore synthetic material underneath leather. The leather has started as no color in particular, but like the gloves, it mostly looked black. He probably could have just gone with the bite resistant body suit, but he’d started out with the leathers and he was somewhere between superstitious and nostalgic. Plus, they were part of the Smith brand, now. He was unrecognizable without them.
“How much time?”
Alex yanked back a sleeve, looked at one of at least half a dozen watches. Same as him; old habits.
Anytime. He punched the locker again. Alex didn’t jump this time, but he could feel her staring at him. He felt fine. The gloves and Alex’s wrapping were doing their job. He felt loose and good.
The door opened, and a man stuck his head in.
Alex handed him his helmet, wiped her hand over sandpaper stubble. He was glad that she was doing the worrying for both of them. He slid the helmet on as he walked towards the gym door. He liked the helmet; it was a gleaming silver skull and while it wasn’t an especially subtle touch it did make a statement. Zombies didn’t care, but it did intimidate the other punchers.
It was hard to tell from the odds how many others there would be. Ship was a big venue, a decent sized college town before the outbreak. It was a full two miles from the start point to the turn around, and that meant it could handle a lot of punchers. Smith figured a minimum of five and a maximum of ten.
Less and it would take too long for them to find each other, which didn’t make for a good show. More and it was too many for the cameras which, again, was less than entertaining.
Smith turned to the man who’d stuck his head into the locker room, a weathered little man who was probably old enough to be Smith’s dad. He might even be old enough to have lived here before the big chowdown. He was holding a skull and, amazingly enough, a marker. Smith had never seen one out here in the mid zones. The skull had a fracture in the middle of the forehead.
“It was from when you were here in 31” the little old guy said, "I was a cleaner for that one." That was a good year. He had no idea if this skull was one of his, but he liked the idea. He should try and grab one for himself this time.
Smith smiled as he scrawled his name. Alex had taught him that. Her mother had lived long enough to teach her the basics of reading, and it was a useful enough skill that she taught herself a lot more when she was old enough. It was a big part of she’d survived to make out of the QZ.
“Thank you, sir” the little man said. Most of the time, these kind of things ended up getting old in the Old States for a tidy profit. Punching was illegal, or would have been if there were actual laws in the mid zones, so anything from the actual punchers had to be smuggled into the Old States, which meant that collectors went zombie shit for it. The little old guy had a look in his eye that made Smith think that the dude probably wouldn’t sell it.