She took her seat at the round, wooden table and placed her elbow upon the vinyl pad. Gawking people of every financial tier surrounded her in the basement of a disreputable bar with rotten lighting. As she stared down her opponent, she flexed her fingers and thumb.
The man across from her looked like the plume of smoke after a volcanic eruption. Huge—pervasive—but shapeless. His hands, though … they were the biggest she’d ever seen. He could probably engulf her entire head in one of those things ….
An averaged sized woman, Hannah Cane had been winning tournaments for months. She eased her way onto the scene but quickly dominated with such efficiency that those who cared about the sport nicknamed her “The Machine.” She may have been the smallest competitor, but her intellect, improvisation, and unrelenting willpower put her over the top time and again.
The men didn’t understand how she did it. Most of them were former premier athletes. Once upon a time, some were even professional arm wrestlers. Injury, in one way or another, ruined their hopes and dreams. Their thumbs proved the only part of their body still pain-free. As athletes, they admired “The Machine’s” passion and brains, but those attributes shouldn’t have matched the fact that their thumbs were unilaterally bigger and exponentially stronger than her thumb.
Though clandestine, the underground thumb wrestling competitions paid well. The crowds loved to see their former sports idols up close and, to be honest, a little desperate. The audience betted big, and so the competitors won big. Hannah actually lived off her earnings. After she won the next match, she would be set for months.
The massive creature across from her had once been a lineman in the NFL—Virgil Dunn. He played for the Patriots. No one told her this; she recognized him. She remembered the game in which he got his arm torn out of its socket. Until her own injury, it had been the most gruesome thing she’d ever seen. The television cameras cut away as soon as it happened, but because she wielded a flag on the sidelines, she got an up close and personal view.
“Hey,” she said to him. “I’m Anna.” Of course, her name was not “Anna,” it was Hannah. She couldn’t risk using her legal name anymore.
“I don’t care about your name,” he growled.
The referee approached, which prompted the crowd to grow silent. He leveled both competitor’s hands, made them lock fingers, and then personally lifted the individual thumbs.
As Hannah expected, nothing struck the referee as unusual.
“Let’s a have clean match,” the referee said. “Remember, winner takes all. Must hold the opponent’s thumb down for a three-count. This is not a ‘best-of.’ Again, winner takes the purse upon the first pin.”
“Good luck, Virgil,” Hannah said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the promoter droned into his microphone, “now is the final moment to place your bets! The match begins in ten seconds. If you’d like to place a final bet, I have assistants throughout the establishment. Are you ready, ref?”
“Ready!” the referee shouted. “Wrestlers!” he yelled. “Get ready!”
The referee paused a moment until both competitors nodded at him. He then shouted, “One! … Two! …Three! … Four! I declare a thumb war!”
Hannah studied the specs for weeks before she started tinkering with the prosthetic. With a degree in mechanical engineering and a searing rage at the indignity she suffered, it took all of her patience to review the apparatus thoroughly before attempting any sort of customization.
The doctors taught her the basics regarding the new appendage. They told her everything she needed to know in order to use it to its fullest potential; they gave her a list of items to troubleshoot should any malfunctions occur; they drilled her on how to keep the port clean for the thumb’s remote uplink to her brain. Though the titanium rod connecting the thumb to her hand could possibly get contaminated, the port leading to her somatosensory cortex posed the greatest likelihood of infection.
Once she felt as though she understood the device, she detached it from the rod, peeled back the synthetic skin, popped out the imitation muscle, and then got to work on the motors.
Her commanding officer warned her against doing any such thing—he knew her well. In private, he told her that the Marines were happy to pay for the experimental prosthetic, but if she altered it in any way, they were no longer responsible for the cost of upkeep—a price that would surpass millions of dollars during the course of her life.
She connected both the thumb and the remote sensor to her computer, picked up her tool as best she could with only four fingers, and then stared at the largest motor housed in the thumb’s base. It measured only ¼ of an inch. The motors in the middle and tip of the thumb were even smaller. Limitless opportunities abounded for her to screw this up in no time at all. The minute she touched those motors, the United States government was financially off the hook.
She whispered her favorite motto: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome,” before getting to work.
Hannah utilized her routine strategy against Virgil. She first avoided any contact at all with his thumb. This went on for several minutes. She learned early on that the longer she made a match last, the higher the bets tended to be at the next match. The audience grew to trust that she would always give them an exciting, lengthy bout, and so they placed their bets confidently.
Next, she let Virgil pin just the tip of her thumb in such a way that the slightest squirm would set her free. The crowd loved these escapes, and it typically bolstered her opponent’s confidence. She didn’t necessarily need them overconfident—she needed no mental advantage to secure a victory. The heartbreak in their eyes after being sure they had her beat, though … it never failed to make her heart flutter.
The crowd’s enthusiasm for the partial pins usually dictated how long she would let it go on. Once it seemed they tired of it, she would move the match into its third phase. This involved allowing her competitor three or four pins that would get all the way to the two-count before finally pinning him herself for the impossible win.
Of course, there was nothing “impossible” about it.
Her thumb, a prototype, looked and felt realistic in every way. The government would pay for it on behalf of the United State Marine Corps if Hannah agreed to be the test subject. After what happened, she considered it too good to be true. Of course, she obviously felt no obligation to the Marines or her government after the attack, and so she went underground the minute they turned their backs. They had a habit of doing that to her—turning their backs.
The prosthetic initially exerted the average amount of force consistent with a woman her size. The lab rats took into account her muscle mass, the length of the thumb—it involved a lot of calculations and calibrations. She quadrupled their settings. If she wanted to, she could thrust her thumb through a thin slab of concrete.
Pinning down anyone’s thumb offered no problem at all.
After beating Virgil, the crowd exploded. The promoter instantly handed her a cheap trophy and a lucrative check. Hannah flung the trophy at Virgil, tucked the check into her back pocket, and then started to weave her way through the crowd.
She noticed all of the cell phones recording her—a typical occurrence. This would necessitate the need to change her routine. If someone cared enough to study tape of her, they could figure out she’s doing the same thing every match. If suspected of cheating, this gravy train could come to an end.
“Hey!” Virgil yelled.
Hannah turned and faced him.
“You’re a fraud!”
Hannah responded to the three lieutenants cornering her, “I earned this fair and square, guys. No tricks. No alterations. No accommodations. I passed the course.” She tightened the towel around her.
“No way. There’s no way a woman could do it. They want the good publicity,” one of them said.
“Maybe,” Hannah agreed, “but I still passed the course. I’m going to be an infantry officer, and there’s nothing you boys can do about it.”
“The Marines have never had a female infantry officer,” another said.
“There’s a first time for everything,” Hannah replied. “If we’re being honest, you guys sound a little jealous. I take it you all didn’t pass.”
At the conclusion of her statement, one of the lieutenants shoved her against the wall. Hard. It didn’t hurt, but it told her they weren’t there only to talk.
“Look,” she said. “I just got out of the shower. I know I’m the only woman left, but this is still the female barracks. You guys can’t come in here without first announcing yourselves. You’ve broken protocol in a number of ways. I’m warning you—you need to leave. We can finish this in the field.”
“Maybe we should make sure you never make it to the field,” the other lieutenant said. “Be a shame if some kind of an injury got you discharged.”
Hannah narrowed her eyes before hissing, “Maybe you should stick your thumb up your ass.”
The lieutenant pulled out his knife as the other two pinned Hannah’s arms against the wall. Her towel came loose and fell to the floor.
“I think we’ll stick your thumb up your own ass,” he snarled.
The surrounding crowd silenced. Hannah sensed tension filling the air as Virgil approached her.
“I don’t know how you’re doing it,” Virgil said. “But you’re cheating.”
Hannah noticed a few guys she’d pinned in previous rounds appearing behind Virgil. It looked like they’d been comparing notes.
“It’s all in the technique, guys,” Hannah said.
“No woman—or man—has a thumb that strong,” Virgil replied.
“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?” Hannah said with a laugh.
The promoter got between them while outstretching his arms. He tried to make it look like he addressed the crowd, but everyone understood he actually spoke to the thumb wrestlers. He said, “Winner takes all, folks. No questions asked.”
“Oh, I’m asking questions, Jack,” Virgil seethed. “No way a little girl like this could out-muscle us.”
Hannah smirked before saying, “First of all—that’s belittling and I take offense. Secondly, I’m hardly out-muscling you. We’re talking about thumbs, here.”
“I want that money,” Virgil said. “And I’m going to split it with the other guys you cheated.”
The crowd collectively gasped. They were in for an even better show than they anticipated.
“No!” the promoter shouted. “This is not happening. The cops have looked the other way, but this could shut us down. No fighting—especially with a woman!”
Hannah walked up to the promoter, placed her hand on his shoulder, and said, “It’s cool, Jack. How about this, though? Let’s give the people a chance to place their bets. Winner takes fifty-percent of your profit.” She next turned to the spectators before thundering, “Sound good to you, folks?”
They roared their approval.
“What about it, Virgil?” Hannah asked. “Me against you and your two friends. Think you can take me?”
“Damn straight,” Virgil uttered.
“Jack?” Hannah asked the promoter. “You down? I hope you say ‘yes’—I could use the extra money.”
The promoter saw Hannah wink at him and his nerves disappeared. He’d never seen such confidence in a person. “What the hell? Let’s do it. Place your bets!”
Hannah immediately started loosening up. She jumped in place while jabbing her arms around. All the while, her discerning eye assessed the enemy.
To escape any suspicions, she’d have to avoid using the prosthetic.
Shouldn’t be a problem. After all, she took down three Marines without a thumb.
Copyright © 2018 by Scott William Foley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental to the story
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.