By the time we reached the hatch at the top of the ladder, we were climbing using only our arms and only touching every few rungs to keep us propelled upward. Before entering the now open hatch, Skinny Dude opened a cubby, drew out two long staffs and propelled them ahead of us. Once he and I had followed them, the hatch was closed, leaving only him and me in the huge empty space that could only be the center of the station.
I’ve seen these puzzles where there is a collection of about ten sticks all at different angles held in place by strings laced across the ends of the sticks; in the center was a glass ball. The point of the puzzle was to remove the ball by sliding the sticks in the right direction along the strings. I felt like we were inside that ball but there was no glass between the girders and us.
As soon as my eyes had assessed my surroundings and had come back to him, he spoke. “You’re going to fight me for the right to exist on my strip and only I will decide when the fight is over.” He launched one of the staffs at me.
I recognized the move and deflected it without loosing the staff in this weightlessness. I hadn’t pitted myself against Master Larak and learned nothing in all those months. Skinny Dude might be better at the ‘no gravity’ thing, but I did know how to handle a staff. It looked like he was going to use a style I wasn’t familiar with though.
For my friends and my teachers, a staff had simply been an over long club, but I didn’t have the weight to do quite the same thing and had been forced to modify my style accordingly. My hands could therefore be most anywhere on a staff, but seldom directly in the center.
With a deft kick off one of the girders, my adversary launched at me with a vicious swing. It was supposed to connect with my head. I wasn’t entirely successful in twisting out of the way, and though he missed my head by no more than a hair, the other end of his staff connected with my shin. I’m certain that if the blow had landed under gravity, my leg would be broken; it felt like it was broken anyway; jeans weren’t the protection my leathers were.
I learned something from that as well as my own counter attack. Being in the center of his staff, his attack was much more balanced and controlled. Mine, on the other hand, was slower and I was propelled away by the force of my own swing, which of course missed entirely. I learn quickly though. I adjusted my grip on my staff and kicked myself back into the center of the chamber.
By the time the fight was over, I had a royal shiner with a cut at the end of my eyebrow that was bleeding freely and leaving drops of blood floating around. I had a chipped tooth and a loose tooth, a split lip that was adding to the red blobs in the air. I also had three broken fingers on my left hand, at least a couple broken ribs and a broken shinbone. That might sound pretty bad, but my opponent was wracked up every bit as bad. I don’t think I broke any fingers or his leg, but I know I broke some ribs at least twice and he had a nasty gash on the side of his head right over what could well be a concussion. I just left him and his staffs floating there and made my way to the first hatch I could find. I was rather proud of myself; I hadn’t used any magic, though I was tempted to at least give myself some stability, but I really didn’t want an unfair advantage since it seems that I had strength on him already and skill than he expected.
When I finally made it out onto the strip again, I was greeted by a scream, which brought security guards within moments (I guess I must look quite a sight by now with blood running all down my front). They took me to the infirmary where they patched me up with stitches, straps and splints; my shinbone was only bruised and skinned.
The station governor came to see me while I was getting my stitches (he managed to miss them setting my fingers) and asked me what had happened, and then, almost in the same breath, he told me. He knew about Skinny Dude and his gang; all I did was confirm what he already knew and tell him that I had been the winner.
He seemed a little surprised about that. It seems that Skinny Dude was his son and he had been caught at this too many times. The governor told me that he would reimburse us for our entire stay here and pay for our flight if we wouldn’t report it. I was in no little pain; the drugs they had given me for the pain weren’t competing too well with my magic, so I just told him he could talk to my dad about that.
Needless to say, my parents were in a right tizzy when the governor brought me back to our rooms. What they said or agreed on, I have no idea; I went directly to my room to lie down. I share a room with Georgy and Pip, and Georgy was watching a movie when I came in.
He glanced up and then did a double take. “My god, what happened to you?”
“I ran afoul of the governor’s son and won,” I muttered through my swollen mouth. I went to my bed and flopped down on it. Oh man, that was a mistake - take my advice, if you ever get beat up, don’t ‘flop’ anywhere, not even at one-fifth gravity.