My Lovely Monster

Summary: What if your toys bled? When advanced biotech is widespread, young hobbyists battle their synthetic organisms in bloody tournaments, with the victors claiming fame and fortune. A mysterious girl funds an ambitious trainer's entry to a championship tournament, and they find that victory can bring powerful enemies.

"If we're going to play God, we might as well get good at it." -Unknown

Chapter 1

Luz Ortega walked amongst the assemblage of teenagers and young adults, camouflaging herself amongst them with the adroitness of an ambush predator. The task was trivial in the converted warehouse, as the halogen lights focused the crowd's attention at the arena below. The murmur of the crowd and pounding of a bass-beat set an ominous and primal atmosphere in anticipation of the savageries within the cage that dominated the center of the room.

Luz herself was a newcomer to this particular arena, but the setup was familiar enough to her. Her short black hair barely reached to the back of her neck. She wore a dark green sports jersey that concealed much of her body beneath it, save the line of briars tattoos down both of her olive-toned arms that terminated on the backs of her hands. She felt the reassuring weight of her smart phone in one jeans pocket and the concealed wasp knife in the other. The latter was something she had never had to use, but carried out of habit to such outings.

Luz had little doubt such fights drew out the horrifying and pitiful in equal measures. She saw some spectators pull out their smart phones and wearables, eager to record footage of the coming fight. Others passed out bottles of beer and tablets of club drugs, substances that would undoubtedly make every moment of the fight more exciting and visceral. Uninhibited patrons were already buying overpriced snacks from the bar that opened near the base of the bleachers. Beside it stood two massive bouncers that looked to be the only individuals in she had seen over thirty.

On opposite sides of the arena were two dugouts with cages built into the chain-link fence that would occasionally rattle from within. A massive bouncer blocked the entrance to each, shielding the occupants of each from leaving just as surely as dissuading unwanted guests. On the left side sat a bald girl no older than twenty with more tattoos than visible skin, sitting beside a girl of similar age with shoulder-length blonde hair in a white dress reminiscent of Victorian fashion. Across from them was a tall and lanky boy engulfed in reading a textbook. Immediately recognizing her target, she circled through the carousing audience to approach the dugouts.

A tall black man in a stained lab coat and goggles wanted into the center of the arena like a chemist blundering into a mixed martial arts bout. He gave a dual "thumbs' up" gesture to each dugout, and then towards the crowd. He disappeared as abruptly as he had appeared, and the arena lights began to dim slightly as the music waned in volume and tempo. Being familiar with the workings behind the scenes, Luz assumed he had just confirmed that no illegal substances were present in either party's entry. The bouncers still remained, but she knew they'd let her through after the match due to her VIP ticket.

Feeling the contagious enthusiasm for the looming fight, Luz took a front row seat just behind the curly haired boy's dugout. She pulled the smart phone out of her pocket and activated the augmented reality overlay on the camera as she focused on the fight. Pulling ear buds out of her pocket, she put the headphones on as a virtual announcer narrated the lead up to the event in an overly excited voice she could hardly tell was synthesized.

"The last of the Natural Selection Qualifiers is almost ready to go! In one corner, the Savage Sisters have stood undefeated with their entry, Chuppy. In the other corner, the relatively unknown newcomer from Ashton Arthropods has a vicious and clever asset in Skitters. We think it's going to be a close one, folks! If you are 21 or older, send a Wager-Coin to this address if you want-"

Luz plucked the headphones from her ears as a man in a white coat walked in front of the arena. This sharp face surveyed the crowd with the bloodthirsty gaze of a jungle-cat seeking stragglers while the illumination overhead caused his short platinum blood hair seem to shimmer. His distinctive dark gray eyes, Luz recalled, were almost as ambiguous as the legal area these tournaments operated in. That last fact provided solace to her as the manager of the Natural Selection himself, Greg Oakley, prepared to open the festivities. "Professor Oakley here," he said, still using his vestigial title from academia. "Today, we'll see which one walks away and which one goes extinct. Let's get it on!"

The overhead lights focused on the arena, and an electronic buzzing heralded the cages' release. With eyes focused, the combatants emerged from within the cages. From the left side, a small and distinctly rodent-like creature blasted out of the box. While Luz could easily tell it had once been a Chihuahua, its modified gait reminded her of a rabid canine than the glorified rat it was more properly identified as. It was furless and covered in scars, crudely sheered of all hair. Depilliation reduced the creature's appearance to a skeletal husk, with rusted metal prongs jammed downwards from its upper jaw. As she beheld the animal with a contemptuous gaze, she was forced to remind herself that underwhelming appearances were often deliberate ploys in the sport.

Chuppy charged with abandon towards the adversary that raced forwards with equal aplomb. The chitinous march of a hundred feet sounded across the arena floor like the rattle of maracas, heralding the emergence of the second combatant. A massive centipede with an obsidian black exoskeleton thrust its body underneath the dog's legs like an insectile phallus. Skitters sank its jaws into the tender meat of a recent scar on Chuppy's leg, and pulled itself away.

Luz heard Chuppy whine in a distinctly canine manner as blood sprayed from its leg. The transient reflection of the overhead lights on a translucent slick near the wound confirmed her thoughts that the centipede had delivered an envenomed bite. Chuppy bit down on the closest segment of Skitters with his implanted fangs. The rat-dog's head pulled the centipede up by its rear segment, unsuccessfully trying to bite it in half as it slipped from his muzzle. Twin puncture wounds had been delivered into a rear segment, but Luz could not tell if Skitters was affected by some poison.

The increasingly frustrated dog then tried to roll the centipede over with its snout hoping to find a soft underbelly, but the centipede had already shifted to a curled defensive position. Skitters coiled itself like a wagon train imitating the Ouroboros, but its legs began to scuttle like a crab towards the edge of the arena. Luz saw Chuppy's head twitch uncontrollably as he winced once more. The spectators jeered at the rat-thing, while Skitters took the advantage to clamber up the chain link fence on the arena's wall. Turning its head to face the yelping mammal beneath him, Skitters let his forelimbs go as his body coiled like a snake.

The next thing Luz saw was Chuppy standing with its forepaws against the cage walls, trying to futilely trying to rattle the chain-link barrier its opponent was entwined with. It threw itself upwards in half-hearted hops, while its eyes began to blink erratically. Skitters kept itself primed just above the apex of the rat-dog's ineffectual leaps, waiting for the prime moment. The viewers gasped as the standoff continued.

Luz blinked when Skitters finally struck. As Chuppy began its descent from a jump, the centipede's jaws struck the nearest eye socket. With a vice grip around the eyeball, it tugged the sensory organ out by the optic nerve as gravity did the rest. The audience began to holler and cheer as the bloody eyeball hit the floor, but the centipede was not done yet. With the served stump of a wound barely registering, Skitters' front body dove into the new aperture into his enemy's brain cavity and began to haphazardly lobotomize the overgrown rodent. Skitters greedily gorge itself upon the limp body of its fallen adversary. Bodily fluids from the augmented Chihuahua painted a putrid arabesque stretching across the arena and dripping over the side.

Luz barely registered the beer that the man beside her carelessly splashed on the leg of her jeans as he stood to cheer in excitement. She could hear the popping of corks and fizz of new opened beer over the din of the crowd as the young revelers in celebrated the grisly conclusion of the event. While she considered herself more restrained than those bacchanal celebrants around her, she could not stop herself from raising both of her own hands in an imaginary shared triumph. The excitement from a victory was always contagious.

What Luz did next was key in concluding the entire purpose of her visit. She walked past the bouncer as she raised her VIP ticket. The young man in the booth could only grin with what was undoubtedly schadenfreude at Chuppy's caretakers across the arena. A moment later, she could see his composure melt into an apologetic and conciliatory frown as a foul slurping sound came from somewhere within Chuppy's carcass. He turned to greet his guest, and Luz excitedly greet the trainer she had expected to win.

"Hello? Can I help you?" he asked in a nasally voice.

"Hello, Adam Ashton. How are you?"

"I'm just relieved that Skitters is okay. You?"

"I'm Luz Ortega from Ortega Informatics, and I'd like to tell your sponsorship application's been approved," she said as she extended her hand. "Can you meet this week?"

"Glad to meet you, Luz," the pleasantly relieved Adam said as he compressed her own hand. "How about lunch tomorrow at noon at the Old Campus Cafe?"

"Works for me," Luz said. "I'd talk more, but your new fans won't want to wait."

"Well, nice to meet you!"

"Likewise. I aim to pick a winner," Liz said as she departed. A glance behind her showed that a line had formed behind and was held at bay by the bouncer, with the black man in the lab coat at the front. Assuming they would soon be talking technical details, she hurried to the exit and the fresh air of the night.