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Smile When You Call Me That

By Marian Mendez
Page 2 of 4

"Here's the instigator, Todd, all the other boys agreed."

Vila attempted to appear pitiful. Being dangled by the scruff of his baggy tunic with his feet just scraping the floor made it effective, he thought. He wondered if the officer knew how he appreciated the help. After the number of times he'd been picked up on one petty offense or another he'd given up on appearing innocent and fallen back on pitiful. //Which only works if the man in charge has a heart. Not bloody likely.//

"Yes?" The man for whom Vila was being held on display waved the guard back. "Officer, this is the vicious man-eater who put four tough lads in hospital and held the other three at bay until you arrived?" He eyed Vila appraisingly. "I'd like to talk to the young man alone."

The uniformed man waited until a slim envelope appeared and changed hands. After glancing inside, he shook Vila and warned him, "Mind your manners, scum. This gentleman's an Alpha. You don't want to offend him." He released Vila and moved out of earshot, standing guard in the doorway.

//I've really put me foot in it this time.// Vila had never seen an Alpha in person, far less talked with one. //Let's see, now. Da always said, 'Keep yer head an' yer eyes an' yer voice down with the high grades. They like to think they're better'n us. 'f you argue th' point, they c'n prove it by killin' you. An' keep feedin' 'em sirs, can't never sir an Alpha too much. An' don't never speak before they ask you to.// He hung his head so far down that all he could see were the scuffed tops of his shoes. // Time to scrounge another pair.//

"It's a good act, boy, very realistic, but you needn't bother for my benefit."

Surprised by the kindly tone, Vila dared to look up. The Alpha was smiling, smiling at him! Vila's blood ran cold. He had heard about Alphas and the uses they had for young Deltas. Too late now to regret not having acted tough. //Best to play along an' escape first chance I get.// "Yes, sir. I mean, no sir." No innocent, even at twelve, Vila had attempted to avoid unwanted attention by disguising himself with filthy clothes and tangled, grimy hair. Apparently, it wasn't enough. //P'raps I should have gotten a scar or two. Would'a been easy, just don't duck so quick, but then I'da been a cinch to pick out of line-ups. Mebbe I'm wrong, anyway. Money like this man's got, he wouldn't have to scoop his own toys out of the Delta pits, he'd have flunkies to do that an' deliver 'em all washed an' pressed.//

"Take off your tunic, boy," the man's order was soft, but unmistakably an order.

Vila swallowed nervously and obeyed. He shivered as the man examined him, measuring the Delta's lean, wiry physique against some standard. Vila was grateful that the man allowed him to retain the rest of his clothes during the almost clinical survey.

"You'll do, boy. They tell me that you have accumulated enough charges to earn a two year sentence in a Correctional Facility. You do realize what the older inmates will do to you there?"

Vila's good sense took a leave of absence. He didn't want to play the Alpha's word games, just get the whole dirty business out in the open. He replied, "No worsen' what you want to do to me, 'cept they wouldn't look down their noses at me while they were doin' it."

The Alpha laughed. "You've spirit, lad. That's good. You misunderstand me, though. I am offering you employment, but not in that capacity. I own an establishment which trains fighters. I prefer to recruit raw talent, that I can mold into skilled professionals."

Vila was reluctant. It wasn't as bad as he'd feared, perhaps, but that still left considerable margin for misery.

"You'll have all the food you can eat, fine clothing, a room of your own. Why do you hesitate? An opportunity to better yourself..."

Forgetting his place again, Vila interrupted to ask, "Do ya' mean I'd get to go to school?" He'd enjoyed the meager schooling provided for Delta children, finding the mental stimulation exhilarating. The school was understaffed, over-pupiled and sadly lacking equipment, but he'd been happy there. His formal education had ended abruptly when his father ran afoul of the law and took them both into hiding.

"In a way. You could have tutorial programming and a computer link in your room. Whenever you aren't training, you could study whatever you choose. With my Alpha grade clearance, you could learn things these louts would never imagine." He glanced at the guard who was still watching them.

Vila came to an impulsive decision. //Prob'ly regret it, but 'ell, gotta take chances in this life.// "Yes, sir. I'd like that very much, sir."

* * * * *

"Dear Todd, you must introduce me to your protege." The young woman resting her delicate white hand on Vila's master's arm gazed at the Delta with wide-set pale green eyes.

Vila smiled, returning the girl's avid stare with a bright grin that was only half-feigned. Todd's 'meet the fighters' parties were always well attended by thrill-seeking Alphas. Vila had learned how to tell the serious invitations from the teases. Young, good looking, well spoken Deltas fascinated the higher grades. They thought of Vila as a trained animal and he kept his opinions of them to himself. When the snobbery got too much, he could relax with his friends among Todd's other fighters. //Life is good to me. I'm not going to spoil it because some feather-headed Alphette wants to go slumming. Oh, I may bed her, she's pretty enough, but I know how to stay in my place even then.// Vila bowed gallantly to the young lady after the introductions, carefully filing her name for future reference. //Embarrassing isn't the word for it, if you use the wrong name just as things get interesting.//

He led the young lady onto the dance floor, while making polite conversation. He had a dozen different personalities, one for any conceivable circumstance. It amused him to play the bumptious fool with those who expected all Deltas to be hardened killers. Sometimes he'd be the wistful innocent, confused and adrift. He seldom showed his intellectual side. His old Da had been right; Alphas resented a Delta claiming equality. So Vila clowned and performed magic tricks and pinched the girls while pretending to be so drunk that no one took his antics seriously.

His master, Todd, encouraged Vila in his deceptions. The Delta's ability to convince people that he was utterly harmless, stupid and clumsy enhanced his value. Todd had won many a long odds wager on Vila when the bettor refused to believe that the grinning fool had any chance of defeating the hulking brute opposing the Delta. Besides, Vila livened up his parties. Todd had a reputation as a host to uphold. He smiled in an avuncular fashion on Vila and the green-eyed girl.

In the interval between dances, Vila met his best friend, Dolan, at the punch bowl. They were fetching drinks for their respective ladies.

"Mine's prettier," Dolan whispered to Vila.

Vila passed his artless gaze mildly over the woman awaiting Dolan. "I dunno," he said after a moment's thought. "Hair that color can't be real."

"Yes, it is." Dolan waved to the platinum blonde. "All of it."

"Well, mine has better legs." Vila returned to his girl and spent the rest of the evening recounting amusing anecdotes that might not have happened to him, but ought to have. Despite her long legs and peridot-hued eyes, the girl was unable to tempt Vila to desert the party with her. He had a fight scheduled for the next morning. Todd would be displeased if Vila didn't get his full quota of sleep. Besides, there was always the afternoon, as Vila told her.

Vila had fallen into a comfortable routine in the six years he had been in Todd's stable. At first, Vila had exercised and trained, engaging in nothing more dangerous than sparring matches with other boys his own size. He picked up far fewer bruises than in his days on the street. As he grew older, sparring matches gave way to timed contests. The winner was determined by points, the loser humbled, but not greatly hurt.

When he graduated to the ring, he was bolstered by conditioning sessions to smooth over the natural fear of combat. The early conditioning was mild, only a few minutes of indoctrination and confidence builders at a time, liberally laced with broad hints about the loyalty he owed Todd. It didn't hurt and Vila soon ceased to wonder what the machines and drugs and whispered voices were doing to him.

Todd followed Vila's career closely. Vila was superior, intellectually, to the rest of Todd's string. Privately, he speculated that Vila could have made Alpha status if he had the proper education. Not wanting to lose a promising employee, Todd never mentioned this to Vila.

Vila used the computer tutorials eagerly, but in a scattershot fashion. One month he was absorbed in the poetry of the romantic age, the next in Xeno-biological treatises on inimical alien life forms. He also liked the neat way mathmatics dove-tailed, with each discipline leading to the next, more complex, field. Humanities were his favorites, however. He loved beautiful things, and had a magpie's instinct to collect and hoard them. He learned a great deal, but very little of that had practical applications.

Dolan studied with Vila for a time, but he hadn't the intense curiosity that the other possessed in such abundance. They had other interests in common and remained close friends. Belonging to the same trainer meant that they never fought each other in the arena, which probably helped to preserve their friendship. They were well suited in sparring bouts, as they were of an age and similar in height and build.

Dolan was handsome enough to draw his own share of ladies, with his thick black hair and intensely blue eyes. They habitually made a foursome, squiring their current conquests to public entertainments where they could lose themselves in the crowd and pretend to be Alphas.

"This is the life," Vila sighed. He and Dolan were seated in an Alpha eatery waiting for their dates to return from the ladies' room. Wise in the ways of young women, they had armed themselves with a large bottle and settled comfortably into a booth by a large window. The view was spectacular. It was a rare vantage point of the eternal building and re-building. The evening was kind to the city, turning the random glow of lights below into Oberon's faerie kingdom. None of the gay sparkling show belonged to Delta dwellings. The dim underbelly of the city was their domain. Without a benefactor like Todd, neither Vila nor Dolan could have imagined emerging from it. "Ever see anything so beautiful, Dolan?" Vila asked softly.

"A time or two." Dolan laughed. "Vila, you're getting drunk. Won't do, you know, to disappoint your date."

"Dolan." Vila frowned at his friend in mock dismay. "I have never disappointed a lady in my life."

"Oh, no? How about last week, when you didn't meet 'Tasha after your fight with that ugly red-headed giant?"

"Don't remember. Odd that I forgot a red-headed giant. Are you pulling my leg, Dolan?" Vila searched Dolan's blue eyes for the glint that always appeared when he was contemplating, or committing, mischief.

"No, I watched the fight. Todd had it piped into the locker room monitors. You were in good form, took him out in the third round. You seemed distracted before the fight when 'Tasha and I talked to you, though."

"I wondered why 'Tasha was miffed at me." Vila shook his head. "Can't understand how I could ignore such a lovely lady."

"She'll forgive you. I explained the pre-fight pep talk to her. I told her you weren't snubbing her, you just couldn't afford to be distracted before your fight."

"I didn't mind when I forgot the morale sessions, but not remembering what happens in the arena... I don't like it."

Dolan grinned. "You're just trying to cram too much into your pointy little head. So you don't remember the fights, big deal. 'Long as you win them. And as long as you don't forget me."

Vila laughed. "Never. You still owe me ten credits."

The memory lapses worsened, with entire days lost to Vila. It disturbed him sufficiently that he asked permission to skip the morale booster sessions. Todd squashed that idea flat.

"I've taken excellent care of you for a very long time, Vila. Now that you are getting the big money matches, I'm beginning to recoup my investment. I don't think it reasonable that you should deviate from the time-tested program that all my fighters honor. Are you dissatisfied with working for me?"

"Oh, no sir." Vila couldn't face returning to the drudgery of the Delta domes. Even if he wanted to, he knew he wouldn't fit in anymore. "It's just that I was worried that maybe the sessions were going wrong on me. I don't want to go crazy or become amnesiac or anything like that, sir."

Todd smiled. "You are responding properly, Vila. I like my men to be able to relax after a match, have a normal life outside the ring. You are happy here, aren't you? If not..."

Vila didn't like the slant of the conversation. Todd was not only an Alpha, he was master here. If he decided Vila was a troublemaker, he'd boot the Delta out so fast there'd be scorch marks on Vila's backside from friction.

"I love it here, sir," Vila swore . "If you say this won't hurt me, that's good enough for me."

"That's my boy." Todd slapped Vila genially on the back. "I foresee a bright future for both of us. On to bigger and better things."

Vila smiled, uncertainly.

* * * * * *

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