L a m i a

Well, you think of an illustration for a picture like this...

A speculative fiction story

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'Don't say anything, just keep smiling,' Van was saying, although he himself had hardly stopped talking during the last hour.

They were in a large, hangar-like building which seemed to serve the function of an immigration office. Jem couldn't think why they needed such a place; there were few enough visitors to Lamia these days.

The Lamian immigration officers were silently and patiently going through their luggage and documents. Every now and again one of them would hold something up to Van in a mute request for explanation.

'It's just a gumshield.' Van tried to mime its purpose. 'But then you've got to have a proper mouth for one of those,' he added, as an aside to Jem.

Jem was very tired of Van's heavy wit. He was tired of Van's company. Two months was a long time to spend in the company of any one man, especially a sardonic creature like his trainer, as Van still called himself. It was hard to believe that they had been good friends in younger and better days.

He wondered if it was really all worthwhile, despite the generous purse and expenses. But then, did he have a choice? He had nowhere else to go, and his debts were mounting daily. On the way to the hotel, Van voiced thoughts which could have been Jem's own:

'You're at the end of the line. You know that, don't you? That's why we've come here to this Godforsaken planet. You may have had something once, number one contender and all - could have been champ even - but now you're just a punch bag for the young up-and-coming kids. And now you're going to be a punch bag for these things, too'. Van waved his arm as if to include all Lamians in that definition.

Jem wanted to hit back in some way. But Van always got the better of him in these exchanges. Besides, his trainer was right: he was finished. He was here just for the money, and because he was the only boxer the promoter could persuade to take the fight. Boxing was out of fashion, outlawed even in some zones, and pay days were getting fewer and further between. This would be the last, that was for sure, no matter what. He saw Van out of the corner of his eye, grinning. He rounded on him:

'Just remember that you're getting paid for this, too. At least I sweat for my money!'

- 0 -

The fight date was postponed, and then postponed again. Even Van was subdued by the delay and uncertainty, which did at least make him easier to live with. Jem did his training thoroughly enough, or at least as thoroughly as he did anything these days.

Van tried to find Jem a sparring partner, but the Lamians would have none of it. Indeed, their only contacts with the Lamians, apart from purely functional ones, were two visits by the local television company. These were odd affairs, consisting of a stilted interview and a brief session in the ring in front of an ancient two-dimensional camera of European origin. The best part of this was that Van had to get in the ring with him - Jem made sure that Van knew that his left still carried the old power.

The rest of the time they spent as unwilling tourists. Not that there was much to see: Lamia seemed to be a smaller, dirtier, more primitive version of Earth. But one thing that Jem did like was the Central Park. The main feature of this was a large ornamental pond, filled with countless frog-like creatures, which performed incredibly acrobatic feats in efforts to coax scraps of food from the Lamians. He and Van drifted towards the pond to watch the frogoids every day, despite Van's revulsion for Lamians, especially for Lamians in large numbers.

One day at the pond, just after the fight's second postponement, Jem was surprised to hear Van wax philosophical about Lamia:

'You know, this place must have been a hell of a disappointment for them.'

'Them?'

'Oh, dreamers, scientists, explorers. All the fools who looked up at the stars and thought they'd find the answers out there. And what did they find? This!'

'This isn't the only planet they found.'

'Yes, but there was no life at all on most of them. And what about those where they did find life? They were either wild, hostile places or else so far out of tune with our way of thinking that we might as well not have bothered. These Lamians are supposed to be our nearest cousins.' As if in comment, Van spat violently.

'If they're supposed to be so much like us, why don't we have more to do with them?' asked Jem.

'It wasn't me who said that they're like us. Anyway, it's they who don't want to have much to do with us. They've more or less closed the planet down to outsiders over the last fifty years. I'm surprised that they wanted you to come. But then I suppose they didn't exactly want you.'

Jem was reassured by this last, characteristic remark. It had been disconcerting to hear Van in what was for him a thoughtful mood. And it did make him wonder again just what he was doing here on this drab, unwelcoming world.

- 0 -

If Jem and Van had any doubts about the popularity of boxing here, they lost them when they entered the arena. It was vast, bigger even than Grand Alaska Stadium, and it was packed solid with Lamians. They were sitting in tight, orderly rows, just the way you'd expect Lamians to sit. They were oddly quiet, just a few low-pitched twitters and tweets coming from them, but there was a discernible feeling of expectancy and excitement about the arena. Jem had not thought such things to exist on Lamia.

He moved easily in the corner, enjoying the big fight atmosphere for the first time in years. For a moment he almost forgot that the crowd had the pale, expressionless faces of Lamians. Van, too, had at last clicked into gear, and was going through the same preliminaries and murmuring the same reassuring words as he had in the days when Jem had been a hot young contender.

There was no official announcement. Instead the referee, looking ridiculous in a gold bow-tie, simply motioned Jem and his opponent to the centre of the ring. Jem was warmed to hear Van call softly over his shoulder:

'Go to it, champ!'

During the pre-fight instructions, oddly but very practically given on a voice-recorder held by the referee, Jem fixed his gaze firmly on the ring canvas. He had never anyway been one for the eyeball-to-eyeball stuff which had been a feature of boxing for two hundred years past, but tonight he particularly didn't want to look at his opponent. He was too busy trying to still the whirlpool of his emotions.

For the first time since his arrival on Lamia, he realised that he was not fighting just to pay the rent. Tonight he, Jem Baxter, a thirty-four year old professional boxer whose licence had been withdrawn in two zones on medical grounds, was carrying the honour of his race upon his shoulders.

The referee signalled them to box, and for the first time Jem had a proper look at his opponent. He was not much different from any other Lamian he'd seen. A bit bigger, maybe. And, as the only Lamian he'd seen stripped to the waist, he could appreciate the sinewy musculature.

A left jab flicked lightly against his cheek. Time to get on with the job ...

- 0 -

Back on his stool, Jem enjoyed Van's ministrations.

'That's it boy. Good steady round. Feel him out first.'

'He doesn't hit very hard. Neat reflexes though. I haven't caught him cleanly yet,' said Jem.

'Time you did then. Try the old blitz in the second.'

At the bell, or fractionally before it, Jem rushed across the ring and whipped over a big right at the Lamian just as he was leaving his corner. His punched scythed through the air, almost wrenching his shoulder with the force. His efforts were rewarded by two quick counter punches from the Lamian, not devastating but hurtful enough. Never mind, he had asked for that.

In the next few rounds, he tucked up behind a high guard, and tried to pick his punches. Only a few got through, and never with any real power. The Lamian was never quite where he should have been when Jem threw the big ones. And always the counter punches came, sometimes in twos, sometimes in threes, always sharp enough to make him think carefully before launching the next attack.

'You're blowing it,' said Van in the interval after the sixth round. 'You might as well lie down. You've earned your money.'

'This round,' mumbled Jem through puffed lips. 'If I can catch him cleanly he'll go, I know it'

'If you can catch him.'

Jem poured heart and soul into the seventh round. He didn't throw so many punches, but those he did were all haymakers. His arms were aching with the strain, but not once did he land effectively on his opponent. The Lamian's counters were coming more quickly and hurtfully, and towards the end of the round, Jem's eyebrow was split by a sharp left jab.

'You've had it,' hissed Van, back in the corner. 'The referee ought to stop it. I'm pulling you out.'

'Not yet - please.'

'But it's useless. It's almost as if he knows what you're going to do next.'

Through swollen eyes, Jem looked across at his tormentor. As he did, so, the Lamian glanced up to meet his gaze.

'That's it! I see it now. He does know what I'm going to do next! These people must have some kind of telepathy.'

'More reason for getting you out of here.'

'But now I know what to do'.

'One more round,' warned Van. 'And if you don't walk away from here tonight, don't blame me.'

Jem circled the Lamian, keeping his guard up and trying not to think of throwing a punch. The Lamian made no move to attack. Jem knew what he must do.

He tried to fill his mind with images from a vintage cartoon film, a favourite of his. It was a film about a cat and mouse and their violent but hilarious encounters. Trying to blend thought and cartoon action, he swung a text-book left hook at his opponent.

The Lamian pulled back, but not quite quickly enough. The blow landed with force enough to make him stagger a little. For a moment Jem thought he saw him blink, although he knew that the Lamian eye was lidless.

Feeling victory within his grasp Jem, with his animated allies, followed up the attack. But this time it didn't work. His punches fell short, and the reply came in a cluster of stinging blows which left him gasping. He retreated, feeling his own strength ebbing away fast. The cumulative effect of the Lamian's punches, and the thousands more he had taken over many years previously, were taking their toll.

Dazed, his thoughts drifted to the chain of events which had brought him here. He thought of the flight from Earth and wished himself back home. He thought of the strange sights he had seen on this planet, of his conversation with Van in the park, and of the antics of the frogoids they had watched there.

Then he became aware of the Lamian before him. For a brief moment he could read confusion in the alien's eyes. He held images of the odd amphibious creatures in his consciousness, and tried to imagine them in their thousands, hopping and crawling all around the ring and arena. The Lamian trembled discernibly.

Jem seized the moment. Stepping in quickly, he brought a heavy right up toward his opponents chest and felt the sensation of the punch travel satisfyingly up his arm. A livid mark quickly appeared on the Lamian's body, and the small round mouth flopped open.

Now Jem thought of nothing but victory. Two more punches and the Lamian sank to his knees. Jem himself fell back on the ropes, utterly spent. The twittering from the crowd, which had grown ever louder in this last round, had now become a continuous droning.

The referee quickly buckled the metal belt around Jem's waist, supporting him as he did so. Van, looking every one of his sixty-three years, wept openly in the corner. Jem's vision was cloudy and he knew that before long he would be joining his beaten opponent on the canvas.

He did not care. He was Champion of the World.

#

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