Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright (c) 1995 by Aaron Allston
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by David Mattingly
First printing, May 1995
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Typeset by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America
Harris came up off his jumping foot and brought the same leg up before him in extension—a flying side kick straight out of tournament demonstrations. The huge man felt like Jell-O, but he still fell over backwards. Harris hit the ground hard, too, but scrambled up instantly. "Gaby?"
The bag the man had dropped said, "Harris?" and her arm stretched out of it.
The old man said, "Mine." He stepped out of the way. "Phipps, I need this young man removed. Adonis, get up."
"Gaby, get the hell out of here!"
The third man pulled something from under his armpit. Harris felt fear clutching at him, but he charged and side-kicked just as Phipps got his revolver out into the open. The kick connected, knocking the man clean off his feet.
Harris almost grinned. From the opening bell to the knockout, one point five seconds. Not bad for a drunk loser. He bent over, grabbed Phipps' revolver, and swung it around to aim at the others.
The huge man's gloved hand clamped down on the barrel and yanked. The gun fired into nothingness and the huge man flung it off into the darkness. With his free hand, he pulled his hat away from his head and looked down at Harris. Moonlight illuminated his face.
His skin, cinnamon brown, hung in packed layers of wrinkles like earthworms laid lengthwise. No mouth or ears were discernible, but there were eyes, animal's eyes, set deep in. Harris took an involuntary step back, looking for the seam that proved this was a mask.
But the mouth opened. It was too large and too wide to belong to any human. No man or woman possessed a forest of sharklike teeth like those. It twisted into a smile.
The Smile mocked him.
Galatea in 2-D
The Smile mocked him.
It was Sonny Walters' smile, sweat-dewed in the middle of the man's hardwood-brown face. It wasn't a friendly smile. It promised pain.
Harris Greene advanced anyway, his gloved hands high, his body constantly moving. Walters, with the longer reach, could afford to stand back and fight at distance; Harris had to play the aggressor, constantly closing.
Harris started the round with a snapkick to Walters' ribcage. Walters brought his left arm down to take the shot just above the elbow. Harris stepped in close, threw a right jab at the same ribs, then spun around counter-clockwise.
Harris Greene's patented Spinning Backfist. He should have come out of the spin with his left fist slamming into Walters' blocking forearm or, better yet, his unprotected head. But instead he unloaded the blow into empty air, the Smile somehow magically transported just beyond his reach. The exertion kept Harris spinning a fraction of a turn too far, leaving him out of position.
Walters' right hook came up out of nowhere and took Harris on the point of his jaw. The blow rocked his head and he staggered a half-step back.
It didn't really hurt, but bright little lights appeared in his vision, tiny fireflies dancing in front of him; he ignored them and kept moving backwards, buying time to recover.
But his feet wouldn't cooperate. His back and head slammed into the canvas before he ever felt off balance. The crowd roared its approval.
They hadn't yelled for Harris once during the match. He could smell the stink of their sweat, stronger than his own odor or Walters', and for a moment he hated them—beer-chugging, screaming, sweating, cousin-fondling morons who should have been at home with their families but instead came to cheer while Harris Greene took a beating.
Already they counted him a loser. They were just waiting for him to prove them right.
Harris rolled up to a kneeling position and waited. The dancing stars began to fade. When the referee's count reached seven, he stood. He forced his features back into his war-face, all glowering eyes and sullen expression, just as he'd practiced a hundred times for the mirror, but he was no longer sure who he was doing it for. The referee got out from between the two men and signaled for them to resume.
Harris forced himself to move forward again, straight for the Smile.
Miles away, on Manhattan, Carlo Salvanelli sat in a cardboard box.
It was a good box. Twelve weeks ago it had held a brand-new Whirlpool refrigerator, Model #ED25DQ, almond-colored with water and ice dispensers right there in the freezer door. It had stood resolutely upright after the workmen unloaded it; as soon as the workmen had turned their backs, Carlo had grabbed the box from just inside the delivery dock and made off with it.
Carlo didn't know how far past seventy years old he was, but he was in good shape: lean, with all his own teeth, still graceful, health good in spite of the way he lived. He was certainly sound enough to run off with a refrigerator box and be safely away before the workmen came back.
Now the box sat lengthwise up against the alley wall. The alley was an even bigger stroke of luck than the box; the manager of the apartments behind him let him stay there, even gave him the combination to the gate that blocked the alley mouth, just for hauling a little trash and mopping a few floors.
Between the new box and the sheltered alley, this had been a better winter than the last one. Maybe the new year would give him a job, a real home.
Someone rapped on the end of the box.
Carlo jolted in surprise. His hearing was keen. Had Mr. Montague come out through the alley door of his building, had someone come in through the creaking gate at the alley end, Carlo would have heard it. But there had been no sound.
At a loss, he called, "Come in."
The visitor pulled open the box flaps and probed around with a flashlight beam that caught and blinded Carlo. Then the visitor turned the light on himself.
He was a silver-haired man, Carlo's age. That was the only similarity between them; in contrast to Carlo's tattered, unwashed jeans and flannel shirt, this man wore an elegant silk suit, a long coat of lined black leather, a red scarf, a new fedora—nobody wore fedoras anymore. No one but old men.
The visitor smiled reassuringly at Carlo. "May I come in?"
"I—of course." Carlo squirmed. He'd never had a visitor to a box that served him as home, and the visitor's elegance reminded him pointedly of the shabbiness of his clothes, of his few belongings. He knew he smelled bad, and he was suddenly embarrassed.
The visitor slid in and sat, like Carlo, tinker-style with his back to the side of the box against the alley wall. He took a moment to pull the box flaps closed. "I apologize for visiting you under these circumstances. But I'm used to seizing opportunities where I find them." His pronunciation was precise, his accent a little odd; German, perhaps. Carlo couldn't tell; his own speech was still heavily flavored, and English was sometimes hard for him. "I'm looking for some men to do some work for me. Special men. I think you're one of them. Tell me, are you currently employed?"
Carlo shook his head and waved a hand at the sleeping bag and backpack that made up his possessions. "I am between employments."
"Good. I mean, that's good for me. Tell me, uh—"
"Carlo. Carlo Salvanelli."
"One of the Salvanelli. Of course. Tell me, Carlo, do you like the outdoors? Forests, trees?"
Carlo beamed. "Yes, very much. I am a city boy, but I love the country."
"And do you remember much about the old country?"
Carlo hesitated. "I came to America very young."
"Not too young. Your accent is very pronounced." The visitor leaned forward and his voice became low, conspiratorial. "And we're not talking about Italy, either. Are we?"
Carlo looked at his visitor, at the man's eager, encouraging expression, and hesitated before shaking his head. "Italy, no."
"Symaithia, I'd say, to judge from your accent."
Carlo's eyes widened. "Yes, Symaithia. But the doctors, they said it was all imagination, that I should stop thinking about it. How you know about Symaithia?"
"The doctors were wrong. Poor Carlo. I imagine no one took you seriously. It must have been impossible to keep a job, to make friends." The visitor shifted, drawing even closer. "Tell me, Carlo, this is very important. Have you ever met anyone like yourself? From the old country? Not just Symaithia. Anywhere."
"Oh, no. Never." Carlo started as a tear dropped from his cheek onto his hand; shamed, he reached up to dry his eyes. "All my life, I think that the doctors are right. That I must have been in an accident, hurt my head, dreamed everything about the old country. You are real? You are not some new dream?" He looked up again into his visitor's sympathetic eyes.
"I'm no dream." The visitor reached into one of his coat pockets and brought out something dark and glinting. "Carlo, I think you're just exactly the man I want, but I need to know one more thing. Can you handle one of these?"
Carlo looked down at the gleaming metal object in his visitor's hands. "A gun? Yes, of course. I fought for America in World War Two. I need gloves. Why will I need to use a gun?"
The visitor smiled again. "Come to think of it, you won't." He aimed and pulled the trigger.
The blast hammered Carlo's ears and fire tore through his chest.
For a moment he could not move. He just stared uncomprehendingly at his visitor. Then he looked down at the hole over his heart.
Blood pooled slowly out of the hole. A hole in his best shirt . . . it was so hard to get bloodstains out of clothes, and there would be the hole to sew up. And another in the back of the shirt, where he felt more wetness and pain.
He looked at the man with the gun. "Why you do this?"
"Hush." The visitor brought the barrel of the automatic to within an inch of Carlo's forehead and fired again.
The old man looked down at the body of Carlo Salvanelli. Satisfied that no life remained, he wriggled back out of the box and stood.
His two men waited a few yards off. Phipps, the small one, a mere four inches above six feet, stood in the alley's patch of moonlight. The big one kept back in the shadows.
Phipps stepped forward, looming solicitously over the old man. "You okay?"
"Of course. I enjoy doing this sort of thing from time to time. Good for the constitution." The elderly gentleman pocketed his gun, then reached up to straighten Phipps' collar. "Though we should leave now. You just can't count on the police not to come. Now, you're sure about this other one?"
The small one nodded. "I had the meter out and on her for four or five minutes. She's a good, strong signal. But as far as I've been able to determine, she really was born here."
"Then I don't think she'll join poor Carlo right away. I may need to send her home for study first."
The three moved away down the alley, leaving Carlo Salvanelli alone in the box that served him as home.
Harris Greene sat on the stool in his corner and concentrated on keeping his war-face on. It wasn't easy; dizziness and weariness tugged at him, and Zeb was talking. Talking and talking.
"Dammit, Harris, you're being too predictable. The same combinations over and over. Mix it up more. He's onto your backfist; forget about it. Work on his gut. I think he's still hurting from the Helberson fight. And watch out when you close with him. When you make the transition between your range and his, in or out, that's when he's nailing you."
Harris accepted a mouthful of water from the trainer's bottle, then swallowed it instead of spitting. He stared for a long moment at the PKC banner on the auditorium wall, at the crowd that had shouted for his blood just a few minutes ago, and he turned to look at Zeb. "I'm going to lose," he said.
Zeb Watson stared back at him, hard-eyed. Black, bearded, intense, he'd once been a fighter and could still project the attitude. His gaze was like a knife raking at Harris' face. "No, you're not. You can take him. You have more than he does. Just do what I say and