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Smile When You Call Me That

By Marian Mendez
Page 3 of 4

After that, Vila kept his mouth shut about his private uneasiness. It grew into a revulsion, a horrible sick emptiness in his gut that made his life miserable before each bout. He didn't know what they were trying to make him forget, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. Consciously, he suffered only the sickness at the pit of his stomach, but in his dreams things came back to him. He learned to hate the nights. He had to rest for the fights though, so he smuggled in liquor and drank himself into a stupor when the dreams robbed him of too much sleep. It was better when he took naps during the day, curled up on the couch in the training room. Somehow the reassuring live presences of the other men kept the worst of the dreams at bay. The trainers complained after a while and, fearful that they would report him to Todd, Vila returned to his quarters, and his bottle.

The only one who cared enough to worry about Vila's wild mood swings, ranging from melancholy tears to towering rages, was Dolan. Even he found it impossible to get Vila to discuss the problem. The most Vila would say was that he had bad dreams, but he refused to get specific. He became ill simply in attempting to remember them.

Vila found that the sight or scent of blood would bring on an attack of nausea. He became a vegetarian because he could no longer even contemplate eating the expensive cuts of meat that Todd provided for the training table.

He became increasingly irritable. There was an overwhelming sense of anger in his dreams coupled with terror. He usually awoke screaming, certain that he was about to die, although he had no idea of the manner of his death.

Throughout it all, Todd watched Vila. He would come in to the training sessions, telling Vila he was doing fine and making Todd proud of him by his record in the ring. He authorized Vila for special privileges and even smiled indulgently when Vila lost his temper.

Todd soothed Vila when the Delta came to him begging for forgiveness after he belatedly realized that he'd shouted at the Alpha while caught in one of his temper tantrums. "You'll be all right, Vila. It simply takes time. It's harder for sensitive types. Your friend Dolan hasn't any problems, has he? You're just high- spirited."

"...Yes, sir," Vila said, without conviction.

Then Todd sold Dolan to another Alpha fight manager. Legally, of course, Dolan went to another employer of his own free will. In actual practice his choice was simple- go back to the Delta domes, or accept his new master.

"It's not like I was moving to another planet, Vila. We'll see each other around. We'll have to meet on our free time, that's all." Dolan tried to comfort Vila. He swung his shoulder pack onto his back by the strap. "Todd will send the rest of my things on to me, but I wanted you to have this." He tugged a thin gold band off his finger and gave it to Vila. "A ring is a symbol of forever- a circle without beginning or end. Our friendship is like that Vila. It'll never end."

Vila looked at the ring lying in his palm, still warm from Dolan's hand, then back at his friend. "I'll never forget you, Dolan."

* * * * * *

Vila waited in the ring for his opponent to enter. It was exactly like his dreams. He shivered. It was always cold in the arena. The hard ceramic floor and walls sucked body heat greedily from his bare skin. He glanced upward at the dark glass top of the circular room. //A circle- without beginning or end.// He shivered again. Vila hated the cold, hated standing naked in it so the spectators wouldn't miss the sight of a single drop of blood. //So much blood.// Vila remembered his dreams now, waking or sleeping, it made no difference. The conditioning was a tattered spider's web, too frail to conceal the true horror of Vila's existence.

He knew why the fighters were made to forget their matches. He knew where the ones went who didn't return. Not to hospital to recover and then back to the Delta domes, as the rest of them were told. No, their remains, probably labeled 'accident victim', were disposed of along with all the other trash the Alphas discarded every day, an unending cycle of use, ruin and toss aside.

//A circle never ends.// Vila was so sick of it that he would gladly have lain down in the ring and died, but the part of his conditioning that still held would not permit it. At the first thought of giving up, Todd's voice, so smooth and Alpha, so arrogant and commanding, dinned in his ear, "Vila, you must kill. This man is evil. He will kill you, Vila. You must kill, Vila. You don't want to die, Vila." Vila would do anything to stop that voice. Only one thing worked. So he did it, allowed the rage to take over while he huddled in the safe warm corner of his mind, watching two animals fight for their lives, knowing that one day he would be the one to fall, fall and stay down, forever.

//A circle is forever.// The door opened and Vila's opponent entered. Vila retreated to his hiding place, isolated from the warrior who controlled his body. As the bell tone sounded, the well- trained animal faced the enemy.

//No!// Vila tried to climb out of the hiding place to take command of his body, but the beast was in full fury. It brushed aside Vila's protests without effort. Vila was as much a spectator as the Alphas seated above the arena, only he'd paid far more dearly for the privilege. His opponent was good, nearly as good as Vila. He hoped to lose this time, wished for it with all his heart. The beast knew only survival. An interminable time later, it heard the second bell tone and obeyed, dropping the blood dabbled weight that hung from its paws to the hard cold floor.

"No!" Released from his spell by the same bell, Vila slipped to the floor beside the body. "No, Dolan, no!" Vila wept and hugged the broken thing that he had loved as a brother.

"I'm sorry to see you go, Vila," Todd sounded honestly saddened.

//Yes, I know. Sorry you won't be making any more credits off me.// Out loud, Vila replied, "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, too."

"Pity the treatments aren't effective on you any longer. Otherwise we could easily overcome this irrational fear of violence."

"Yes, sir. I suppose I got allergic or something. It's a shame, sir, but I enjoyed it while it lasted." Vila lied with a straight face. The Alpha would never know that Vila had broken through the induced amnesia. //Maybe you don't care what I think of you, but if I were to spread stories in the Delta domes, you'd find it a damn sight harder to pick up fools to die for you. If I were braver, I'd tell the world...but I'm not. What's the use of fighting, anyway. Nothing's going to change the system. The top man is always right.//

Vila clung gratefully to the label 'coward' that his old stable mates hung on him after he refused to go into the arena again. // Better a live coward than a dead hero.//

Todd had been harder to convince, but after the psych machines assessed Vila's nausea at the sight of blood as unfeigned, the Alpha admitted that his favorite had been ruined for the ring. He offered Vila a place in the common barracks with the other trainers, but wasn't surprised when the Delta turned it down.

"Once you've been a hero, you can't go back to the ranks again, can you, Vila?" Todd smiled sympathetically.

"It isn't that, sir," Vila said. "I'd just like to make a fresh start." //Somewhere as far from here as possible.//

Even with credits in his pocket, Vila was unwelcome in the Delta domes. Nobody recognized him, and nobody wanted to get too friendly with an outsider. A few months of drinking and spending money freely on casual acquaintances, hoping to buy acceptance, if not popularity, wiped out his savings. Then Vila learned what it was truly to be outcast.

* * * * * *

//Can't get a job without experience. Can't get experience without a job. Could live on the dole, but I can't stomach the filthy flophouses and the disgusting slops they serve to those on the general ration card.// Vila slouched further and muttered to himself. He was wandering aimlessly in the back ways, which were even dingier that the normal Delta warren. He was in a dark and hopeless mood and it seemed fitting to make the surroundings match. There were muggers and youth gangs out on the streets, but Vila didn't care. He was no longer the pampered pet Delta. He'd almost welcome a fight to relieve his long as there wasn't any blood.

Muffled curses and cries of pain drew his attention. //Shall I stick my nose in where it doesn't belong? Hell with it, I've troubles enough of my own.// Nevertheless, he paused at the entrance to the alley where the noises originated. //Always were too curious for your own good, Vila me lad.// The alley was a stub of a dead-end street, filled with empty cartons - deliveries to the bars whose back doors opened onto it. It stank of garbage and half-digested booze with a pungent addition made by generations of Deltas too unsteady on their feet to find a public urinal. There were also rats, rustling in the shadows. //I'm not that curious,// Vila decided and turned aside.

A distinctly feminine squeal of pain tugged him back to hover at the mouth of the alley. //Stupid. Woman can take care of herself as well as a man, probably better. But she did sound hurt. Maybe I could just make a bit of noise and scare them off.// He saw the backs of the muggers gathered around someone they'd trapped at the end of the alley. //Look like boys. How brave can they be, to beat on a woman?// "Hey," he yelled, "leave her alone."

The knot of people loosened, giving Vila a view of a battered woman with a bloody mouth and rapidly swelling eye. She clung with grim determination to a shapeless carrysack.

Vila's queasiness at the sight of the blood turned to outrage when one of the young men took advantage of the distraction to seize the carrysack. "Give that back," Vila shouted, taking a quick couple of strides into the alley.

"Mind your own business. The bitch asked for it." The leader of the group approached Vila. He was at that dangerous age for a Delta, old enough to have fully realized his lower than dirt status and young enough not to have been ground down into dull acceptance. A lot of Deltas that age ran in packs, venting their rage in petty crime. Some of them went too far and died at the hands of the security patrols or in gang wars.

//He's not going to back down,// Vila realized. The long bared knife in the gang leader's hand was proof of that. //At least it looks clean.// There wasn't any graceful way out of this. Vila found his body instinctively falling into a wary crouch. //No. I refuse to let the conditioning make me kill. Never again. If I have to kill this boy, at least I'll do it as a man, not a machine.// He forced his shoulders to slump, transforming the defensive position into a cringing abasement. "I didn't mean any harm," he said, pitching his voice high and querulous. "Just don't know why we can't be friendly, like. After all, that's a pretty girl there, seems a shame to mark her up and all."

The gang leader tossed the knife from hand to hand in a flashy show of bravado that would have had him disarmed and dead in the ring in a matter of seconds. "I don't feel friendly. Mebbe I should practice on you before I get to her. I want her to last a long time." He swiped the knife at Vila.

Automatically, Vila assessed the young man's form. He was pitifully balanced and the temptation to take the knife away from him and show him how it should be used was great. Torn between his training and his reluctance to hurt the boy, Vila's evasion was not quite quick enough. The knife missed his ribs, catching his left arm instead, in a shallow slash extending from elbow to wrist. The damage was minor; the blood impressive. Already upset by the violence, Vila's stomach revolted. The leader swore and jumped back, too late to avoid being splattered with the remains of Vila's most recent meal.

Behind them there was a commotion; shouts followed by the crackle of blaster fire. Vila was fully occupied with his wounded arm and his outraged gut. He noticed the feet rushing past him and curled away from the rush, hoping he wouldn't be trampled.

"Hey, they're gone. You gonna stay there all day?"

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