My Lovely Monster

Chapter 5

Long before she had selected Adam, Luz Ortega had examined the prior champions of the Natural Selection tournament. Lana had worked with her to identify desirable traits in both trainers and their synthorgs. The trainers were often eccentric, persistent, creative, and passionate about their interests, typical signs of high intelligence. The successful synthorgs were survivable, versatile, and able to know when to retreat or attack. Overspecialized synthorgs could do one thing extremely well, but died quickly against foes able to exploit their crippling reliance on a single tactic.

Last year's international champion, Luz recalled, was the kiwi trainer Linda Lo with a kakapo-based replica called Big Tom. Like its natural counterpart, Big Tom could climb and glide well but not fly. Unlike its natural counterpart, Big Tom was equipped with sonic weaponry and metal reinforcement of its tissue. With a beak and claws like a can-opener, it had opened the veins of its competitors like a kea dissembling a car door. Fortunately for everyone else, she had retired on her prize money to promote endangered bird preservation. With a vacuum at the top, the contestants this year were well motivated to fill it.

From Luz's experience, even more important than known the individual competitors were the minds behind the tournament. Natural Selection had the good fortune of deep pockets, good PR, and superb marketing that set its brand above the other biosynth tournaments of the prior three years. Its manager, Brandon Oakley, was a former University of California Professor of Biomedical Engineering with university PR experience, and it showed.

Oakley was savvy enough to let bots manage the mundane details of his enterprise, so he could travel and host the major matches in person. His passion was obviously enough to drive him to leave tenure track to pursue his idea. He was savvy enough to network with like-minded individuals around the world, from Africa to Europe to Asia to Oceania to North and South America. The fact he had been able to endure legal assaults from at least four countries was a testament to his knack for survival.

While Luz was certain Oakley's legal software handled the bulk of the work, he undoubtedly still had a vast web of connections. One if his earlier associates from academia was one she surmised she had seen the previous night at the bout. The black man in the lab coat matched the profile and description of James Johnson, a PhD that had once worked in his lab on organic computers based on slime molds. He likely oversaw testing for banned substances or implants in biosynths, undoubtedly one of many responsibilities he was tasked with. It was with his input, Lana had surmised in her report, that certain implants, chemicals, and poisons were banned or permitted.

Luz greatly respected Oakley's method of validating creatures. After the final international tournament each year, the recipes for all entrant biosynths were released to the public. The disclosed recipes contained the method of breeding or constructing a creature, its genome, the implants used, diet, training regimen, and the like. In addition, a whole new range of permitted poisons and implants was released. The prior competitors had to adapt or die if they sought to retain their competitive edge as a new progeny of abominations was bequeathed to public domain.

The perverse creativity of humanity and machine was unleashed in the following months as biohackers ran evolutionary algorithms or performed ad-hoc experiments to design their own creatures. Just as successful creatures bred, improved variants of earlier designs undoubtedly emerged. Even training and diet could drastically affect the same synthorg in dramatic ways. In its own perverse way, a synthorg was the confluence of artificial evolution and natural selection. Luz momentary wondered if the breeding and self-replication ban was lifted, perhaps the synthorgs could fill in the ecological niches left empty in humanity's wake.

Her mind rapidly dispelled that as a bad idea. The starvation riots that followed a basement bioterroist's GMO corn blight had led to a slew of copycats targeting other stable crops and livestock with the most insidious types of synthorgs, a microscopic menagerie of designer diseases. The petrochemical dependant industrial agriculture had mostly been replaced by automated tissue vat farming, but she knew it was just a matter of time before another deranged mind tried again. That was one of several reasons she found it prudent to become involved with a synthorg trainer, as they could provide expert insights into the field's latest developments.

Luz prepared to gorge herself on the biographies of Adam's competitors as the car pulled into the driveway of her house. The brick manor in West Philadelphia had been in the Ortega family before even Ortega Informatics had been founded. Its two floors were small and humble by comparison to neighboring structures, but crammed with more history than even she was aware of. Opening her front door to step onto a soft carpet placed in front of a large television screen and entertainment system. She sat back on the large and bilious cushions of her sofa as they enveloped her like quicksand. She sat there for a long time, forgetting about the troubles of the day as her eyes drifted towards the portrait on the nearby wall, a larger one of the same on her phone. A soft, soothing classical track played from the speakers as the manifold invisible sensors in the room correctly identified her mood.

Luz found the melodic chimes to be particularly conducive to mental relaxation. She walked through a well-stocked kitchen and into her study. Bookshelves twice her height dominated the edges of the room like an academic skyline. She sat down on a leather-backed swivel chair on her hand-carved mahogany desk. Much of the collection had been in her family for years, and she had every desire to keep it that way. She brought up the library's computer, and then activated the projector. Lana had sent her a video presentation of her findings on the other competitors, which suited Luz as she had little urge to read something heavy now.

On the only empty wall in the study, a square of white light beamed across the room as the projector came to life. The title card read, "Synthorg Competitors for North American Natural Selection Tournament." It was immediately followed by Lana's voice in narration.

"This year, the competition looks especially interesting. There are seven other competitors than Skitters, but Adam only has to face three to claim the championship. First, there's the quarterfinals, then semifinals, and then the championship bout. Of course, it's easier said than done, as he's not the only one with innovative synthorg design."

A map of North America dominated the next slide, with each of the eight regions demarked in a separate color.

"While it is too early to know or estimate his specific second and third opponents, one of my sources has confirmed his first opponent. We know at least the quarterfinals will be based on geographical location. Since Adam represents the Mid-Atlantic, he'll he up against New England's champion."

The next slide had a picture of a raven-haired girl with brown eyes and pale skin, dressed in a cowgirl outfit as she held up a large red lobster in her hands. On her hat was a cartoon lobster in a black Stetson hat, aiming its claw like a gun. One of the lobster's claws was almost grotesquely larger than the other, both in the cartoon and the animal on her hands. Luz wondered how the creature was able to balance itself, but reminded herself that if it had made it this far, it was a serious threat worth consideration. Even the young woman's playful countenance and costume was a facade to case enemies to underestimate her to their own peril. Such flamboyant personalities were not uncommon in the sport, but often drew burdensome drama. Jennifer Kim was adept at it, and the fact she was an MIT degree in biomedical engineering gave credence to her technical prowess.

Luz made a mental note to find all relevant information relevant to her and her creature, keeping in mind that such a beast could also half last-minute adjustments made before its entry into the internationals. Lobslinger was less than half of Skitters' size, but routinely bested foes almost twice Skitters' size. While technically an augment due to its original form, it had most of its body parts replaced by engineered and synthetic counterparts over the course of its career. Lobslinger was primarily a gimmick fighter dependent upon its larger claw, based on a pistol shrimp's, but more than able to do battle in other ways.

Lana had sent over an archival video of just such a bout. The sheer oddity of the filename compelled Luz to watch it: Lobslinger vs. Lemurian Knight. She recalled reading about a champion synthorg from the prior year called Lemurian and correctly surmised Lobslinger's opponent was a derivative of the previous year's model. As she started playing the video, she recalled that she had witnessed another match in the same arena.

The match was held in an abandoned retail center somewhere in the Boston suburbs, but occasionally reclaimed by locals specifically for such events. Some of the bleachers were clearly dragged in from nearby sports fields, but had been welded into a semi-permanent circle around the central area. The two dugouts sat opposite each other with a fine, mesh-like cage in between them. She noted both the arena and seating arrangement was cleaner than what she was used to. The camera focused in on the arena as the signal was given, and the doors opened.

The first synthorg to charge out was a miniature humanoid, no taller than a small dog. While Luz recalled that primates were not permitted, a lemur-inspired frank with enough modifications could serve just as well. The tyrannical limitations of natural genetics had long since given way to the fecund human creativity. As if signaling condescension to supernatural forces, the Lemurian was covered in metallic armor with occult sigils engraved into it. It was almost completely engulfed in the armor, save a few holes for breathing in the helmet. It bore a dagger-length "longsword" sheathed on its hips, but its primary weapon seemed to be a pike and circular shield. While she already knew the outcome, she was curious to see how it came about.

In contrast, Lobslinger trundled out of its box with an odd and leisurely gait. It lacked the decorated armor and armaments of its almost-humanoid counterpart, but its sublime simplicity instantly made it the underdog. Its eyestalks fixated on the chivalrous synthorg, halting a distance beyond its enemy's reach as it cocked its big claw. The land crustacean turned to face the Lemurian as it charged.

The instant before the lance struck true, the claw detonated like a gunshot. On her surround sound speakers, the deafening crack thunderously resounded to an extent that caused Luz to involuntarily pull her head back. Within the arena, she could see the carnage had not ceased for an instant. Lobslinger hooked its other claw around the dazed Knight's neck as it snapped shut. The Lemurian struggled for a second as the appendage cleaved through the neck brace until it had made a gap in the armor, jerking the victim around all the while. Lubricated by blood, Lobslinger did not stop until the head was separated from the body beneath. The messily hewn cut left only ragged flesh on both ends of what had once been an appreciably armored neck. The video terminated with Luz feeling less hungry than she had been before.

Luz wondered what novel, wicked tricks Lobslinger would be bringing in the Nationals. Its single gimmick was an effective one, and she had no doubt it was capable of improvising other tricks. The first match would be in a month, and she hoped that it would be enough time to prepare for it. She texted Lana and thanked her, but also suggested she should join the next meeting with Adam. While she was becoming increasingly vested in a fringe blood-sport, she turned her attention towards other matters for the remainder of the night. She had to know the winners before she picked them, after all.