JACKS By James R Knapp
Monday, June 01, 2009
Not rated by the Author.
A group of off-world miners inhabit a strange hell they've learned to call home...
by James Knapp
I was born in the mine, and I'd worked the bar at Arms for most of my life, but it still sent a chill down my spine whenever that Jack started juicing up poor Timmy.It was a pretty typical night; the bar was crowded, most of the people there with Jacks, but a few without.It would usually start out about half and half but once the bouts started most of those without would pay their tabs and leave, and the fights were in full swing now.Everyone's focus was on the center of the room where Timmy and Bill Flannery's boy sat facing each other, leaning over the heavy wooden table, their right elbows locked in the metal restraints and hands clasped, clenched into fists.
Timmy was the favorite, like he had been for months running.That thing found itself a winner when it grabbed him.Tim was always strong, but to see him hunched over that table, there was something almost inhuman about him.The Jack was perched on the back of his neck like a shiny, black helmet, its spindly legs hanging onto his scalp and that long stinger stuck deep in the back of his neck.I don't know what it was the thing pumped him full of, but Timmy's arms, especially the right one, were too big for his body and as he struggled to get Bill Jr.'s arm down the huge muscles in his shoulder twitched like they were being electrocuted. His bicep bulged like a balloon, as big as his head and ready to snap.His forearm was a hard mass of muscle around cable-taut tendons and his hand looked like it could crush stone.Next to him, I could see the towel over the prize basket moving as something squirmed underneath it.
The crowd was getting rowdy, cheering and stomping their feet.Bill Jr. was putting up a fight, but he was going to lose in the end.The thing hitched onto him seemed to know it, too because I could see that greasy black juice start leaking from around the needle in the back of Bill’s neck, and the veins in his arm beginning to bulge.The other Jack responded in kind and Timmy’s eyes got wider as his wrestling arm went blotchy.He got that desperate expression on his face like he got when the Jack was really driving him.He started making that high-pitched crying sound as sweat rolled down his face.I took a deep breath through my nose, getting a big whiff of the ever-present cinnamon smell, and the chill along my spine subsided somewhat.Timmy let out a squawk as the Jack hugged itself to him, and a thin jet of black fluid and blood spurted across the table.I took another deep breath, letting that smell fill my nose and the pleasant numbness course through me.I didn’t like what was happening.I didn’t like it at all but somehow, no matter what, I still couldn’t help but root for Timmy.
Bill Jr. was done for.It wasn't ten seconds later I heard the crunch, then the meaty slam of what was left of his arm pounding onto the table.I started racking up shot glasses along the bar, putting the bottle next to them.Amidst the hoots and hollers money and merchandise were trading hands, but when they were done, they’d want to drink.At least Bill Jr. got to keep his arm.He'd be no good for wrestling anymore, unless his Jack wanted to try and go southpaw, but that was unlikely.It would probably abandon him and start scouting a new fighter.In a way, losing was a blessing as long as it didn't kill you and honestly, maybe even then it was.
That was the last fight on the roster, so I started pouring.Next to gambling, the thing they liked most was drinking and they got especially thirsty when they were riled up like they were right then.They started crowding up at the bar, their eyes getting greedy.I didn't even notice when Johnny came in.
Johnny was Timmy's older brother, and so he never came into Arms anymore.If I'd noticed him sooner I might have been able to stop him, but by the time I did the bar was getting thick and greasy paper bills were being pushed across to me as the shots began disappearing.Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Johnny walk right over to the blackboard.He chalked his name in the first empty slot, right under Bill Jr.'s name, which got crossed out after the last match.
At that point, mob or no I stepped away from the bar.I hustled over to Johnny and grabbed him.He looked at me real serious, but I couldn't read what he was up to.
"Take your name off that board, Johnny," I told him in a low voice."Take it off before he sees it.I won’t allow it."
"You don't have any say over it," he said."Not anymore."
That stung a bit, but there wasn't time to get mad at him.
"He'll take your arm, boy," I told him, pointing up at the row of over-muscled, malformed limbs mounted over the bar."You want your puny arm hanging up there with the rest?I know you feel bad about what happened to Timmy, but there's no sense in this.You can't beat him like he is, you know that."
"I might," he said."I've been training."
"What are you playing at?" I asked."Even if you win, which you won't, you've got no use for the winnings.If you're looking to commit suicide, don't make Timmy be the one to -"
Timmy hollered, then, and everyone turned toward him.He was looking at the chalkboard.His nostrils flared as he slammed the squirming basket back onto the table.
"No turning back now," Johnny said.
"You're crazy," I told him.
"Maybe," he said."How about a drink on the house?"
I poured him a double.He nodded, and reached into his shirt, pulling out something wrapped in paper and tied.He slipped it to me over the bar.
"Hide this," he said."Don't take it out until after the fight."
I took the package and stowed it in my apron, leaving him there to drink his last supper while Timmy crashed back into his chair and slammed his elbow back into the metal restraint.Johnny knocked back the drink, watching Timmy.This was probably the first time he'd seen him since he was taken.Outside the bar we mostly stayed out of their way, and that went double for Johnny and his brother.
Johnny walked through the crowd of those shiny, black helmets, toward the table which was still stained from the last fight.Most people had kind of come to accept the way things were, but Johnny was different that way.He was restless even before they got Timmy, and he was there when it happened.He actually saw him get taken, and after that he was never the same.I think he felt guilty that it took Timmy and not him, like he let it happen, but the truth was it wasn’t his choice to make.They got what they wanted, and whatever that happened to be we couldn’t change it.
Johnny took off his shirt, and I could see he wasn't kidding about the training.I didn't know how long he’d been at it but his right arm was almost twice the size of his left, with a lot of bulk in the shoulder, bicep and forearm.He had some impressive size, but it was nothing compared what Timmy got turned into.He sat down, facing his brother, and put his elbow in the restraint.
That was a first.I’d never seen anyone stupid enough to enter a match willingly before.The two stared at each other as they clasped hands, and it seemed like something passed between them.The greedy grin on Timmy's face faded, and he seemed to calm a little.The Jack didn't like that so it dug its legs into his skin, making his face screw up.The table creaked as the muscles in both men's arms began to bulge.
I wasn't going to watch.I didn't want to see John get what was coming to him, but I couldn't turn away from them.Johnny had gotten himself strong.He wasn't winning, but his arm was still in one piece.He stared at Timmy from under his brow, his jaw clenched and his eyes determined.His arm was shaking, being forced back, but just barely.The room actually got quiet as everyone began watching the spectacle.I don't think they could believe it any more than I could.
Timmy's eyes were bugging out and he was making that noise, even more high-pitched than usual.It was a fearful noise like he was wishing himself anywhere else but where he was.Tears began to leak from the corners of his eyes even as he began to grind Johnny's arm down toward the tabletop.There was no way those bones were going to hold up much longer, but Johnny still wouldn't give it to him.
I wished I could stop it, but I couldn't.I was resigned to hearing that snap, and was waiting for it when Johnny lashed out all of a sudden with his free hand, and Timmy screamed.Blood had come from somewhere, and both boys had it on them.Timmy let go of Johnny's hand and stood up, knocking his chair back.It looked like Johnny had used a razor to cut the big tendon in Timmy's wrestling arm.The giant limb was hanging by his side, bicep bunched up by the shoulder while blood ran down the forearm.
The crowd was not happy.They began to mob the table, ready to tear Johnny apart, when Timmy lunged and grabbed him by the throat.Johnny didn't struggle as Timmy dragged him across the table until their foreheads were touching, and I finally saw what it was Johnny had come to do.
Timmy convulsed as the Jack pulled out its stinger, then while it was still wet it scuttled onto Johnny.It was angry no doubt about what had just happened, but it had found a new fighter, and an even better one.It would take it some time to build up that already impressive arm, but in the end he would be stronger even than Timmy.
The others backed off, and that seemed to be that.I grabbed a bar towel and went to tend to Timmy’s wound.He looked disoriented, like he wasn't quite sure how he got there.
"Give me your arm," I said.The wound was deep, and it looked like the tendon had been severed.He would never wrestle again.I pressed the towel to it as Johnny grabbed the wriggling basket off the table and stalked out of the bar with it without even a glance back at us.
“Damn fool,” I muttered.Why did he go and do that for?
“Where is he?” Timmy babbled.“Where’s Johnny?”
My eyes were tearing up.I reached into my apron for a napkin and came out with the package he had given me.I looked around to see if I was being watched but the others were starting to leave now that the fights were over.I untied the string and opened it.
There was a picture inside, a sketch.Johnny never had any talent for that kind of thing, but I recognized it as Timmy’s work.It was a picture of what looked like a huge cave, only instead of rock up above there was only blackness, speckled with what looked like little white lights.There was something written on the paper it was wrapped in.
You have to wake up.We don’t belong down here, they’ve made us forget.Timmy knew.The cinnamon smell is–
I stopped reading, crumpling the paper in my hand.
“Dad?” Timmy said.“Dad, where’s Johnny?”
“Never mind about Johnny,” I said.Johnny was too restless, that was his problem.He spent too much time wishing for things that weren’t true instead of leaving well enough alone.I stuffed the crumpled papers into the trash.
I looked down at Timmy.He was a hulk, but he lay in my arms like he did as a child.I breathed deep, letting that smell tickle my nose until the image of that needle slipping into Johnny’s neck stopped replaying in my mind, and I remembered that having one son was better than having none at all.