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Doom Knocks Only Once

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DOOM: Science fiction spoof on end-times religion, war, professional wrestling and comic books.

Mr. Big and Johnny Payback exited Big’s private aeroshuttle with the morning sun in their faces. As they neared the Doomdome a frenzied man rushed from the crowd. “Sinners, repent! The day of reckoning is at hand!”

Johnny pushed him aside, and a young woman pointed to the immense structure at the end of the walkway. “You feel like a caring human being. How can you allow the arena of the anti-Christ to defile this land? Daniel seven and Revelation thirteen tell us to beware the rising of Atlantis, the mark of evil and the beast. Trust in Preacher Man, read your Bible, and remember: ‘Jesus saves.'”

Police charged with stun-sticks and pushed back a dozen protesters. Payback cringed as the girl curled up in a fetal position and went into spasms. She reminded him of Constance: attractive, innocent, dedicated but foolish and over-reactive.

One of the cops shook his head. “Never figured t’ see such trash in the shadow of the Doomdome.”

Johnny thought about the girl’s hero–Preacher Man, biggest kook in the heavyweight circuit, paraded around in a black cape and wide-brimmed hat proclaiming gloom and doom. His fans disrupted games. The nut-case boasted a perfect record, but his defeated opponents denounced wrestling and went into self-imposed retirement muttering platitudes about truth, peace, love and other such garbage.

Preacher Man’s comments created media embarrassment. He’d become a drag on wrestling PR yet continued to throw his hat in the ring. That angered Doom who made no pretense of liking him. Doctor Doom—the name had been borrowed from a twentieth century comic book character. It reflected the fear and respect people had for the champ. Payback and Big had front-row seats compliments of Doom, who frequently made donations and gave appearances for friends and followers.

Payback strolled into the stadium beside the huge promoter. Though Johnny topped out at seven feet, he had to look up at his bear-sized companion. “Why did you start such an immense enterprise in Africa, Mr. Big? It was such a desolate, famine-ridden place!”

“It’s poetic justice, Johnny. This last of continents to be civilized was the cradle of human life. It’s only fitting the biggest names in today’s sports go to their final wrestling place here. HA, HA….” The eight-foot tall, pot-bellied man bellowed at his own pun. He added: “Doctor Doom wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Last civilized, first restored,” Johnny responded, “Put that way, who could disagree?”

The giant promoter clapped him on the back. “You know how to ride the tide, Lad. I admire that. You just might make it big in this business.”

“Make it Big?” Payback smirked.

“You do enjoy my puns!” Big dipped his head and continued: “More about why we chose Africa though: We’re creating things larger than life here, like the animals that roamed the plains and jungles before us.”

“Creating new death, maybe? … new extinction?”

“Ho, ho. No wonder they call you ‘Master of Hype.’ But you’re exactly right, Johnny, death to famine, pollution, disease, war, strife, an end to the extinctions and woes of the twenty first century. We can revive the continent, make it into something vibrant and beautiful again, and Africa will be just the first step in the transformation of our world. For millennia Africa was home to the largest land animals on earth. When they died out, we brought in Wrestlemania. The term was coined a couple hundred years ago in the United States. We took the concept a step further. It’s been an uphill fight, but for the most part, people here cooperate. After all, we built the place. We own it. We should be able to do what we want with it. Right?”

“So you filled in the missing pieces, created a new Africa, just as big, bad, bold and beautiful as the old one!”

“I like that, Boy. Doom said you have a knack with words. I’ve got to agree with him.”

“What does the match today look like?” Johnny asked.

“Three to two odds in favor of Doom. On paper, The Voice appears to be Doom’s toughest opponent to date, uses amplified sound, teleportation and some kind of image duplication as weapons. Watch your audiometer. It’ll give you an indication of his sonic barrage. To put things in perspective, 120 decibels approximates the volume of a loud rock concert. The Tunguska event over Siberia, which blew down trees and houses for 600 miles had an estimated rating of 220 decibels, even louder than Krakatoa. Scientists think an uncontained blast exceeding 320 decibels would throw the earth off its axis and put an end to life. The uninitiated may think those numbers sound low, but the decibel scale increases logarithmically. In other words, a 210 decibel blast is ten times as loud as one of 200 decibels.”

“What kind of volume is The Voice capable of?”

Before Big could answer, two sensuous beauties in bikinis brought the men their safety shielding and sensory-deprivation packages in overstuffed duffel bags.

“Later, Johnny…. Let’s get our equipment on.”

Johnny reached into the mouth of his bag and removed a suit of armor. While pulling on the Kevlar and chain mail under-jackets he noticed a tag bearing his name on the plate armor. With a smile, he inserted the foam ear plugs, fit the sonic-absorption mufflers to his head and let the sound cord dangle. He eased the infrared visor over his eyes then snugged the harness. After slipping into the magnaboots, he threw a switch and tried to walk. His feet held fast to the reinforced steel floor at the base of his safety chair.

“Hurry, Son,” Big urged. “Match time in fifteen minutes.”

Looking at one of the bikini-clad attendants, Johnny nodded ever so slightly. She rushed to him and ran her fingers through his shoulder-length hair. “I’m here for you in any way you need me, Big Boy. What can I do?”

“Probably lots, Sweetheart, but for now, just show me where this foam piece goes.”

“Sure, Darlin’, just exhale and suck in that tight, little tummy.” She rolled yellow, catlike eyes and smacked her moistened lips.

“Ooh,” Johnny gasped as she eased the foam around his crotch with a gentle squeeze. “It’s a cushion for my package….”

“Yeah, Big Boy. I’d like to be your personal cushion for that package after the match.”

She helped him into his chest and back plates then slipped an active tongue into his mouth. He quivered as it lashed about his teeth and gums. Was it forked, or had he just imagined that? “That–would be my pleasure, Doll,” he responded.

“Mine too,” she cooed. “Name’s Jezebel. I stay at the Sodom and Gomorrah Sleep House next to Big’s private office.”

Johnny groaned as she slunk away. Despite his wrestling status, long blond hair, muscular build and boyish good looks, Payback knew this treatment was a perk of being the Big Man’s guest. Few spectators were given such personal attention.

Fitting the fronts and backs of his leg and hip plates together, Johnny snapped all fifty clasps and recalled how Constance used to sermonize about temptation. Part of his ancient past, she was the antithesis of what he wanted in a woman. She had often preached to him, annoyed him with her manipulation. She was half the reason he left Amsterdam to join the African middleweight circuit.

Johnny pulled the hood over his head, slipped on arm-length gloves, the polarized solarshield and an explosion-proof helmet. He threaded the sound cable he’s let dangle through a slot in his mask, plugged it into the console of his safetychair and strapped himself down.

When he hooked in, a recorded message activated. “The computer link assures us your electronics and safety equipment are properly connected. Should you experience thermal, visual, auditory or tactile discomfort, press the emergency button on your safetychair. Your seat will retract to the escape chamber below the arena where doctors are on call for your safety and convenience. Stay tuned for commentary on today’s match and feel free to adjust your controls at any time. We welcome you to the Doomdome and hope your visit here will be memorable.”

After five minutes of music, a voice croaked over the patch in. “This morning’s contest, today’s main event, is for the Continental Wrestling Network’s heavyweight crown—the most prestigious title in world wrestling. The match will be viewed on time delay in four billion homes worldwide and seen live in virtual reality at select bars and sleep houses, but you lucky ladies and gentlemen will be watching live, here in the world famous Doomdome.

“Today’s bout features our reigning heavy weight champion, King of Wrestling for thirty years, Master of Disaster, Dealer of Death, Ender of Breath, the man who made professional wrestling the most exciting sport on the planet–the invincible, incomprehensible Doctor Doom!”

At the north end of the arena, a dark, ground-level cloud churned through the entrance. Thunder rumbled, and flashes of electricity highlighted a ghastly figure. When the stadium’s sky-canopy opened like the shutter of a camera, the interior vapor joined a cloud that loomed over the stadium. At 11:00 A.M., with the sun near its zenith, no light shone through the open roof. Photoceptors activated the stadium’s illumination system that sprawled around and above the seats.

With his entrance, the entire stadium rocked. Payback switched off the electromagnets on his boots and stomped his feet in rhythm with the man-made earthquake. He picked up the thundersticks beneath his seat and beat them together with such vengeance that the electronics of his visor detected a fracture in the larger of the hollow titanium rods. After five full minutes of tumultuous noise, the stadium quieted enough for the commentator to continue.

“Doom will face… will face… an undefeated challenger: Nemesis of Silence, Duke of Decibels, Mouth of the South, the most amazing thing to come out of the diamond mines of Kimberly, victorious in fifty-two matches—The Voice of Darkness!” A polite fanfare welcomed The Voice as he charged through the south gate with his entourage.

The PA sounded again: “You scantily clad lovelies and groundskeepers, please return to the safety zone. Spectators: Don’t forget to re-energize your magnaboots.”

As Doctor Doom and the Voice of Darkness walked to the Death Chamber, thundersticks sounded a staccato beat. The roar of the crowd ended when the armor-clad giants faced off like warring nightmares, and the internal sound system blared its warning. “Hang on, everybody. We’re in for one helluva ride!”

Through Payback’s optical array, the combatants appeared as slow moving phantoms of surrealistic proportions. The dimmed images were so bizarre that Johnny refocused the lens selector manually to eliminate distortion and increase lumens. What he saw stretched his imagination to the breaking point. Reptiles? Dinosaurs? The picture was short-lived. A warning indicator blinked on the periphery of his visor and the auto-focus altered his visual. Payback chose not to override.

The audio system blared, “LET THE WAR BEGIN!”

Sonic booms sounded from a dozen locations: “DEATH TO DOOM… DEATH TO DOOM… DEATH TO DOOM….” The message echoed around the arena, and the digital readout on Johnny’s wristband registered 130 decibels.

Doctor Doom stretched his arms upward like stubby lightning rods. Twin bolts descended from the storm cloud above him. Thunder crashed, static charges of red and blue encircled Doom like fire. He extended his right arm towards the Voice of Darkness, and bursts of lightning blazed from his fingertips. The pulses missed Doom’s opponent but incinerated spectators and seats across the Death Chamber. Then, multiple images of the Voice appeared.

Twelve adversaries encircled and taunted Doom. Payback was impressed. Illusion? Mass hypnosis? Some form of mind travel? Whatever The Voice was doing, his technology was cutting-edge.

“YOU CANNOT FIND ME, DOOM. I SPEAK FROM DARKNESS. I AM ITS VOICE!” The taunt registered 140 decibels.

The contest had just started, and Johnny experienced a grating feedback as the Voice’s message bled through his suit! He turned the level of his audio buffer to maximum. “Really good stuff!” he remarked to Big through their internal patch.

Doom lumbered towards an image of his opponent, then raised his arms again.

“OVER HERE.” came a voice from behind the Doctor.

Doom discharged another bolt in the direction of the outburst, and four more spectators burst into flames.

“YOU’RE TOASTING ALL YOUR FANS, FOOL. SOON THEY’LL WANT ME AS THEIR MASTER!”

Doom sprang at the figure in front of him, swung left then right, sending drafts of wind across the stadium. The Voice’s laughter echoed everywhere.

“OVER HERE… OVER HERE… NO, OVER HERE…”

The maximum burst eclipsed 150 decibels. Experiencing such power first hand was exhilarating. In the excitement. The noise. The light. The fire. The shaking of the stadium. The deadly darkness… many observers would lose their lives. Payback sneered. With battles of his own to fight, he wouldn’t be so careless. He slipped his right arm into the sleeve of the massive auxiliary shield at his side and eased it in front of him.

When Johnny’s attention refocused on the arena, he watched Doom’s feet get swept from under him. The entire stadium shuddered when he hit the floor. Instinctively the champ rolled over and away. An explosion sounded where his head had been. The stadium floor was rent, twisted by the blow. Six inches of hardened steel plate, three feet of bamboo reinforced concrete–penetrated. Beneath the six foot gash, attendants scurried with beams, metal sheathing, welders and concrete mixers to patch the hole.

Doom lunged forward, swinging as he went. The air buzzed with the power of his punches, but he failed to connect even a glancing blow.

“TO YOUR LEFT, BUMBLING DINOSAUR!” a voice rang out… “NO, YOUR RIGHT, YOU DOLT!”

Doom adjusted the vid-pac on his visor, but his tormentor had vanished.

“I HIDE WITHIN THE DARKNESS, MORON! YOUR FEEBLE MIND IS BLIND TO ME.”

Doom stormed across the stadium, flailing wildly. “SHOW YOURSELF, YOU MISERABLE MOUSE!”

“YOUR TINY BRAIN CANNOT DEFEAT ME, DOOM! PREPARE TO JOIN YOUR ANCESTORS IN HELL.”

“NO MORTAL CAN BEST ME,” Doom replied. “THIS DAY I WILL STILL YOUR VOICE AND ADD IT TO MY POWERS.”

“YOU HAVE BUT ONE CHOICE, AND THAT IS TO DIE, MENTAL MIDGET!”

“YOU MUST DIE FOR YOUR INSOLENCE! I, DOOM, AM THE APOCALYPSE, THE OMEGA, INSTRUMENT OF DESTRUCTION. YOUR GREATEST WEAPONS ARE BUT CHILD TOYS TO ME.”

“THEN FEEL THE STING OF MY TOYS AND DIE!”

The digital display on Johnny’s visor registered 170 decibels. Already sixty per cent of the people had activated their safetychairs.

Doom faced a dozen likenesses of his adversary. They surrounded him and slowly closed their circle. Payback watched the action intently. What in blazes were these things? Mirror tricks? Holograms? Superimposing an image of the Voice over each of the doubles, Johnny registered a minimum 99.4% similarity rating. These things were real. Doom faced twelve physical challengers. There were no appreciable differences in their mass, size, reflective properties or audio output. The whole thing baffled Johnny. Was some kind of cloning device in use? The match was billed as one-on-one, but fair play seemed irrelevant at this point. Doom’s very survival was at stake!

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

Payback’s audiometer registered 190 decibels, as loud as Krakatoa, and the sound was directional–focused on Doom.

One hundred-ninety decibels…. Johnny winced. Doom went to one knee at the center of the auditory blitz, hands alternately covering his ears, face and eyes. Steel fragments filled the air, and the stadium vibrated with sonic booms. As the Doctor approached the hostiles, they vanished like vapor. Psychological warfare at its best! Johnny scanned the Doctor’s shielding. It had been reduced to 12% of optimum.

Johnny figured another attack of that magnitude would kill the champ. Three quarters of the spectators had already ejected. Most were probably viewing the virtual coverage from the sanctuary below the stadium floor.

Again Doom stretched out his arms to summon the powers of the Darkstorm, and lightning scorched the arena. Johnny’s air quality readings registered ozone and burnt flesh. He pulled up the data on the carbon filter in his mask and checked his air tube.

Payback hadn’t believed it possible to survive a direct hit from a lightning bolt without full shielding, but Doom had managed. Despite his charred flesh and glowing body, the champ invited confrontation.

“STAND AND FACE ME, COWARD!” Doom prowled the Death Chamber in search of his elusive foe.

“AND SO I WILL, BUFFOON… BUFFOON… BUFFOON…”

A shrouded image appeared across the ring from the Doctor, then disappeared and materialized to the right. Doom addressed the new threat, but the specter vanished to show itself even closer. The closure occurred again and again until a ring of glossy, black faces stood shoulder to shoulder around Doom.

The Doctor looked from side to side.

“EEE…”

After an instant of blaring noise–silence. Disembodied faces converged on the champ who fell to his knees, hands pressed against his ears. The arena shuddered as the two unleashed their weapons, but surprisingly the noise level registered zero.

As he scanned the fighting, Johnny’s sensors revealed a small, dome-shaped energy envelope around the action. Additional monitoring showed the hemisphere was contracting as the forms moved closer to Doom.

When The Doctor’s attackers closed within a fifteen foot radius, the champ thrust quivering arms above his prostrate form. Streaks of red and blue exploded from his fingertips. The bolts converged at the apex of the unseen barrier and created a matrix of electricity that washed the hemisphere’s periphery. The static charge struck all Doom’s tormentors at once, then returned to play on his body before beginning its deadly path again.

Each time the charge descended to the base of the contracting shell, Doom burned brighter than the time before. After four circuits smoke and fire obscured the action in the capsule. Johnny made sure his audio buffer remained on maximum. As the pyrotechnics continued, a buzzing, crackling sound grew in the arena. Then the shell dissolved in a flash of blinding light.

… BOOM …

Payback’s accessory deflector vaporized in the burst, and he shook off its smoldering framework. As he looked at his wrist band, he read 195 decibels. “Damn, this is good,” he managed with a lump in his throat.

In the arena, Doom staggered toward a slumped shadow—stripped of shielding, hands before its face. Johnny smirked. The real Voice of Darkness, in the flesh…. Without hesitation Doom grabbed him by the throat and lifted his massive bulk overhead. As Doom’s Hand of Death locked about The Voice’s neck, sparks, smoke and flames engulfed them. Through shields and buffers, Payback watched Doom close his jaws around the Voice’s throat.

AAAAAAiiiiiii eeeeeee…

Disembodied faces flew to Doom like ghosts leaving a battlefield. As they merged into his mass, the champ’s bulk increased by half. Lights flashed from his eyes, and he discharged twin bolts of fire in salute to the crowd.

“I, DOOM, AM GOD OF WRESTLING!” he proclaimed as he bounded from the Death Chamber.

A patched voice sounded over the stadium PA system. “The Doctor will not accept interviews today, but will relay an audio message to his fans in twenty minutes.”

Payback peeled off his armor, gazed at the almost vacant stadium and watched Mr. Big remove his paraphernalia. Only eight or nine hundred spectators remained; ninety eight per cent of the safetychairs had been triggered. Johnny turned to the pot-bellied promoter. “Look at this place!”

“It’s what happens when giants tangle, Son. I’m impressed you toughed it out, especially with a front row seat. Take your time. Look around the arena. I’ll see you at the bar in fifteen minutes. I have a booth reserved where we can talk.”

Payback scanned the stadium. There were holes in the decking, the smell of burned flesh everywhere. Clerics placed liability waivers on body bags that attendants loaded into carts. Aidmen swarmed the injured. Cleanup crews sorted through rubble. Welders repaired the damaged shielding on the walls, seats and floor.

Watching the operation, Johnny thought of Constance. She objected to the violence of wrestling, said it was a violation of The Armistice. “Just a way to circumvent the weapons ban,” she’d insisted. She’d never understood Johnny’s need to challenge himself or others. In fact, she’d never understood his needs at all.

Johnny wondered why he thought of her. She would never have given him real satisfaction, only stolen hugs and kisses.

He walked the arena, scrutinizing the disaster, picked up a palm-sized flake of fiber resembling a fish scale. He bent the piece with difficulty then watched it resume its original shape. The fragment had an amazing ability to absorb and dissipate light, appearing black, then white, then translucent. He twisted it again–strong, durable, resilient, it responded like living tissue. The possibilities for this laminate armor were mind-boggling.

As Payback eased the fragment into the pocket of his fatigues, he heard a small voice. “SOON YOU WILL BE WITH US, JOHNNY PAYBACK.”

Johnny turned. The only people nearby were the medical and maintenance attendants, and they seemed preoccupied. He shook his head and hurried through vault-like doors to the bar at the entrance of the safety zone where Big awaited. Perhaps he could drown that nagging, little voice.

“How’d you like it, Boy?” asked Big. The cagey, old promoter began to fidget.

“Even better than I imagined, but I’ve never watched a championship match in the flesh, only on virtual. What happened out there, anyway? Were those two creatures really Dr. Doom and The Voice? What kind of duplication was The Voice using? How did Doom absorb that lightning without shielding? The specs on Doom’s vocals max him out at 80 decibels; how did he increase his audio after the match?”

“Whoa, young man, one question at a time….”

The PA boomed with Doom’s voice. “I’D LIKE TO WISH ALL MY DEVOTED FANS A WONDERFUL DAY. IT’S BEEN MY PRIVILEGE TO BRING YOU THE BEST IN WORLD-CLASS WRESTLING. OF COURSE, I AM THAT BEST.

IF ANYBODY DOUBTS, CONTACT MY MANAGER, MR. BIG. HE’D BE HAPPY TO ARRANGE A SET OF MATCHES FOR YOU. AND SHOULD YOU PROVE VICTORIOUS, I WILL EXTEND AN OFFER FOR A TITLE BOUT. I, DOCTOR DOOM, CHALLENGE ALL WITHIN THE SOUND OF MY VOICE AND WISH YOU A GOOD DAY!”

Johnny looked at Mr. Big. “That was strange. Doom has always been soft spoken; now he’s struggling to keep his voice in check.”

“Not so strange, Johnny. How long have you been wrestling professionally?”

“Close to two and a half years now.”

“And how long have you been following wrestling?”

“Most of my life.”

“Remember when Doom defeated Darkstorm?”

Johnny nodded. “Sure. That was his toughest match, until this one.”

“Do you recall that in his next match he used the powers of Darkstorm against The Hand of Death?”

“Sure…. The technology was his to use. He earned it with his victory.”

The big man smiled a generic smile. “Let’s take another approach. Why do they call you, ‘Payback’?”

“Because I have the technology to turn an opponent’s weapons against him.”

“Now indulge me for a minute. I’m going to take this fondue fork and poke you in the eye.” The pot-bellied giant didn’t alter his expression.

“Why on earth would you do that?”

“Bear with me, Johnny. I hope to make a point.”

The big man held a long, thin fork by its wooden handle and eased it toward Payback. Johnny’s eyes widened, then narrowed. Perhaps this was only a test of trust. When the fork was less than a foot from his nose, Johnny furrowed his brows and glared. Big pressed until sweat beaded on his forehead, but the fork didn’t move. Just as the contest appeared a standoff, the tines began to bend back towards the over-sized promoter. “Stop,” Big blurted. “Enough! Enough!”

“Wha… Oh….” Payback came out of a trance, shaking and looking at the fork in amazement. “What the….”

“Tell me how you did that, Son.”

“You seem to be the one with the answers. You tell me.”

“You were born in the Middle East when all the nuking started–if I’m not mistaken?”

“Got out before the war began in earnest, grew up in Amsterdam,” Johnny countered.

The old promoter unwrapped a giant stogy and licked its length. “Moved too late. Radioactivity had already gotten to you.”

“You don’t mean the short time I spent…”

“Sure do, Boy.” Big gnawed off the end of his cigar and lit it. “So who gave you your toughest match?”

“Had to be The Rapper. He kept telling me I couldn’t win. The guy developed voice-activated chips capable of interrupting semi-conductors, then established his computer/mind links in my neurotropic system. The psychological part worked on subliminals and hypnosis…. After awhile he had me believing everything he said. Had to reach deep to get through that one. Overcoming his technology was the toughest thing I ever did.”

“And now you’re more persuasive, both in and out of the ring. Right?”

“Where exactly are you going with this?”

“You really don’t know, do you?” Big puffed on his cigar. “Let’s see if I can tell you more about yourself…. When you moved to Amsterdam you were in bad health, sickly, on the verge of death. You started school anemic, half the weight of your classmates, inches shorter.” Payback’s eyes grew large.

Big continued: “Your parents died of radiation poisoning, neural disorders–when you were young,. You were put in an orphanage. Kids teased you about how small you were. You ignored the taunts, but when one of the sorry bastards forced a fight, you found out you were tougher than you thought. The more he hit you, the stronger you got. When you took the offensive, the contest became a bad joke.

“Each time you beat another challenger you got bigger and stronger till you outgrew all the children. People whispered: ‘What’s with Johnny?’ But they stopped taunting you. You were still growing at twenty-one; nobody else was. At twenty-six, you’re putting on pounds and inches, wondering if you’ll ever stop, because seven-footers aren’t normal. Sometimes you feel so much power flowing through your body it scares you. Wrestling helped, but the boys in Europe ceased to challenge you, so you came to Africa to fight the biggest and the best.”

Payback’s eyes followed Big.

“Well, Youngster, did I call it close or not?”

“How could you know those things about me?”

“You’re a mutant, Boy! All the best wrestlers are. I thought you were family but had to be sure. When the Doctor visited you in Madrid after your bout with Decepto, he figured you for one of us. Let us coach you, promote you. We’ll teach you things you’d never learn without our help. In a year you’ll be the CWN’s middleweight champ—almost guaranteed. You’ve got the stuff. In three years you’ll be a heavyweight. Five years from now, who knows?” Big took the cigar from his mouth, and a long smile spread across his lips. “That’s what this continent is about, Boy, mutants helping mutants.”

Johnny pulled out the scale-like tissue he’d saved and placed it on the table. It started to change before his eyes. “Ah, ah…” he managed. “What in the devil is this?” The material turned lighter in color until it resembled sloughed skin. Johnny rephrased his question. “What’s it doing?”

“All in good time, Son. The scale is light sensitive. You saw it in metamorphosis. Doom can explain better than I can.”

“So when can we visit the Doctor? Isn’t he planning a victory celebration for the defense of his title?”

“He’s in transition, Johnny, not quite himself and won’t see anyone for a week. It’ll take him that long to slow down and move past the stress of this bout. At the moment, he’s cruising on borrowed powers and adrenaline, trying to get hold of himself. ”

“In transition?” Payback scratched his cheek.

“Save your questions. Come to Babylon Garden’s Restaurant, tonight at six. I have a proposition for you.”

Johnny nodded. “Six sharp.”

* * * * * *

Walking through the gilded doors of the restaurant, Payback smiled. Laser lighting illuminated crystal pendants hanging from the cathedral ceiling. Ornate, spectraglass fixtures scattered rays from a dozen sources. Massive wooden timbers jutted from the floor and supported a vine-laced latticework. Large pots of fern dangled from the ornate framework. Tables spotted the floor, connected by cobbled pathways. Exotic birds were tethered to a dozen hand-tooled perches near a small fern and lichen grotto. A rock garden surrounded the central bar. The place appeared to be a bona fide arboretum, styled after some designer’s concept of the hanging garden’s of ancient Babylon. Johnny found himself gawking.

“Can I help you, Sir?” a female attendant asked in a sultry voice.

“I’m here to see Mr. Big.”

“Oh, Johnny Payback? Of course…. This way, please.”

The woman led him across the room, and scattered diners watched them pass. Johnny followed her to the back wall where a large double door was tucked in the corner of the atrium. “Please wait here, Sir.”

She emerged a moment later. “You may join him, Mr. Payback.”

Johnny noted the gold-inlaid inscription over the mahogany door: Big Enterprises.

As Johnny stepped through the door a familiar voice bellowed, “Good to see you, Boy!”

Johnny took in the room a section at a time. Ornate, silk murals depicted well-known matches and battle scenes covered the length and breadth of three walls. A life-sized sculpture of Doom kneeling before a group of children dominated the open area in front of the fourth wall, and crushed velvet couches and chairs faced a wooden console with a set of large video monitors. A bar made of cherry wood, decorated in mosaics, extended from the right wall. The mirrored ceiling was dominated by an over-sized sky light, and slim-line solar lamps sprang from the plush carpeting.

“Make yourself comfortable, Son. Care for a drink?”

Johnny dove into a section of the padded couch and sighed as the cushions absorbed his weight. “I’ll have a Doom-Crunch.”

“Good choice, Son.”

Payback stood and smiled at his surroundings. Europe was nothing like this. Everything here was real, clean and bigger than life, no synthetics, no sir, not here. Johnny wondered what he wouldn’t do for part of this action.

“Try this, Son, made with my very own hands.” Big looked out from under thick, broad eyebrows and handed Payback a drink.

Johnny gulped it down. It took his breath away.

“That’s strong stuff, Boy. My drinks aren’t watered down.

Johnny put his empty glass on a mahogany coffee table, inlaid with ivory, bone and jade. “Want another?” Big asked.

“No, thanks,” Payback said with resolve. “Business first….”

The over-sized promoter sipped his concoction. “Ready to talk business?”

Johnny settled into an overstuffed chair and tried to maintain his cool. He felt like a farm boy come to the city for the first time. “That’s why you invited me, isn’t it?” His tongue moved as though tied in knots.

“We need youngsters of your caliber to support this enterprise after Doom is gone.”

“What do you mean? Doom’s not going anywhere. He’s been king-of-the-hill for thirty years. Nobody can touch him. He’ll be around forever!”

“That’s the problem, Son. Outsiders are getting suspicious. We can’t have a sixty or seventy year-old belt holder, nor can we infiltrate all the other continents at once. Perhaps in five or six years years…. By then our dearly departed Doctor will be a wrestling legend–the greatest icon in wrestling history.”

“What are you saying?”

“The Doctor as we know him must go away, but he’ll return under another identity and assume the heavy-weight title by proxy.”

“What do you have in mind for me?”

Big laughed. “We’d like you to become a heavyweight with a franchise of your own: Europe, Asia, Australia, Greenland, North America.”

Johnny looked at the promoter quizzically. “Is Atlantis spoken for?”

“The Beast will run his stable in Atlantis. Doom, under his new identity, will remain in Africa. If you sign on now, you’ll get an early pick. When we’re established, we’ll run our empire from ten new thriving centers around the globe.”

Johnny recalled the girl in front of the Doomdome and her warning.

“Where did Atlantis come from?” Johnny asked. “I read about The Beast, but I figured it was just hype for some promo.”

“Atlantis rose from beneath the ocean fifteen years ago. The seismic activity generated by nuclear weapons raised it. And yes, it was the first time anyone had ever seen The Beast.”

Johnny’s head began to swim. He was sure he was hearing the truth, but Big emitted wave after wave of strange vibrations, and they distorted Johnny’s perceptions. “So what I read about The Beast is straight stuff?”

“That depends on what you read, Johnny. Some say The Beast was banished to Atlantis millennia ago, that he waited beneath the waters and rode the continent back to the surface. I don’t put much stock in such stories, but they’re good for PR….” Big shook his head, “But in this day and age, I guess anything is possible.”

Johnny leaned within two feet of Big and studied his eyes. The man looked back with a painted, expressionless smile.

“What’s this ‘mark of evil’ people speak of?” Johnny asked.

Big’s belly-laugh filled the room. “I’m not religious, Johnny, don’t have a clue what your ‘mark of evil’ is, though I’ve heard the phrase before. We just need your signature.” Big pulled out a legal contract as thick as the recently framed African constitution.

“Why so much paper?” Payback asked.

“It’s legal mumbo jumbo about your activities, security clauses, usual nonsense. As long as you keep your nose reasonably clean and avoid incidents with the local establishment, you should be fine.”

The moment Johnny nodded, a loud buzzing ripped his world. Big looked at an image on his wrist view-phone and walked to the corner of the room. “Yes… Yes… I understand. It needs to be addressed immediately. I’ll be there, of course.”

He turned to Johnny. “Sorry, My Boy, but an urgent matter has come up.” He pressed a button on the bar console, and a group of women entered. “My staff will attend your needs, and I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

Before Johnny could open his mouth, his host had slipped away, and a bevy of women flocked over him. “Freshen your drink?” a large-busted blond asked, a wisp of invitation in her voice.

Payback shook his head. “I’ll wait for Mr. Big.”

She handed him a refill. “He won’t be back tonight. Last time he went on a call like that, he was gone for days. In the meantime, one of us will be glad to put you up.”

“Better than a Dutch treat!” Payback mused with a smile.

Women rushed him like prostitutes around the only customer in a brothel. His life in Europe had been dull, but during his short stay in Africa, he’d seen excitement, power, money, women, respect, the best life had to offer. He threw back his head with the notion he deserved it. The Netherlands had been safe, tidy, and, and very, very boring…. It was time to venture out.

His head floated like a hot air balloon. He looked down at the room as it spiraled in a fog. He could barely make out his image among all those women. Here, people appreciated him for what he was and who he could become.

* * * * * *

When Johnny woke, a hundred little men jack hammered at the base of his skull. “Damn, where in the hell am I?” he complained.

“Huh?” a voice responded from the other side of the bed.

Payback looked over at the attendant who had tucked the padding around his crotch before the match.

“Hey, Lover Boy? You were magnificent.”

Payback tried to remember…. He attempted to focus on her image, but her appearance kept changing. Not until he rubbed his lids with his knuckles did the picture normalize.

He checked the digital on the clock–6:12 A.M. and hit his head with the palm of his hand. “Ow, shit!” Digging through the toilet kit on his night stand, Johnny found a bottle of Deadheads. He popped half a dozen then punched up the news on the info-monitor.

DR. DOOM MYSTERIOUSLY DISAPPEARS — The wrestling mogul left his palace yesterday to extend a personal challenge to Preacher Man but never reached his rival’s home. Rumors of foul play were put to rest when Beelzebub Big, Doom’s personal agent and world-famous promoter, alibied for the Preacher at his Saint Mary St. address. Preacher, whose longstanding dispute with Doom was well documented, signed a five year contract with Big Enterprises. If the Doctor cannot be located by month’s end, Preacher Man will be declared CWN’s new heavyweight champion by default.

Johnny bolted to his feet, instantly awake. “Mother, this isn’t happening! What has Doom done? What kind of mess have I gotten myself into?”

He heard the shower, saw steam billowing from the crack beneath the bathroom door as he punched up the sports, the news of Doom and Preacher appeared again, along with another headline that caught his eye.

BIG SIGNS PAYBACK — Promising middleweight contender, Johnny Payback, a European import comes to Africa and joins Big Enterprises….

“What the….”

Centered on the desk, Johnny noticed a large folder with the seal of Big Enterprises. Inside the envelope was a document with his own signature at the bottom. Payback studied the small print. “The World Wrestling Federation mark will be imprinted on the forehead and right hand of the party of the second part, signifying communal ownership of all assets: technological, psychical, physical and metaphysical, as witnessed by the party of the first part, Beelzebub Big.”

“What is this?”

Johnny tried to focus on the shaved area of his right wrist. With each blink his hand looked different. The fifth time he focused he found what he was looking for. Tattooed on pale skin, just above his claw, he saw the number–666. “Whaa? NO! End-times aren’t supposed to begin like this….” he grumbled.

Rushing across the room, he overturned the bed and desk and crashed through the bathroom door with part of the frame still in his hands. Jezebel peered around the edge of the shower curtain. Her fanged mouth open in a grin.

Johnny wiped the steamy full-length mirror, and a gargoyle-like creature with seven heads and ten horns stared back at him. It stood on the feet of a bear with two pairs of folded wings, the body of a serpent, heads of leopards, mouths of lions. On each of its seven foreheads, the number–666. He blinked again, saw himself as human, wiped the mirror a second time, and the creature reappeared.

“My god!” Johnny cried. “What have I become? I should have read that stupid book!”

Payback jerked the mirror off the wall and hugged it to him. The room filled with a thousand shards of solid light.

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