Still the Champ
It was a strange fight. Half of the audience showered the ring with the loudest of boos. The other half celebrated the entertainment on offer with shrill cheers. That show of derision was not aimed at the Earth champion. They understood the situation. The organizers, the promoters, were the real villains. Bobby Locke was doing all he could. But, for all his boxing skills, the contest was already into the eighth round and Locke was so far behind on points, he could only win by knockout. To do that, one of his fists would have to make contact with the jaw of his opponent. Such a result was looking increasingly unlikely.
"I can't even hit the guy," he said to Cho, his second, after the bell rang and he retreated to his corner.
Cho was fresh out of instructions. All the advice he had given after the previous seven rounds proved to be nothing more than wasted breath. Even Richie Shawcross, Bobby's normally garrulous manager, was mute.
"Left. Duck. Half pace back. Cross. Then left to the stomach. Right to the stomach."
For those eight rounds, Cho's soft but insistent voice pumped like pistons in Bobby's brain. But it was doing him no good. His opponent was just too quick, too elusive. Like Bobby's idol, Muhammad Ali, world champion way back in the 1960s. Only green.
The worst of it was that Sa Ling had no problem finding various body parts of Bobby. True, he had two extra arms but that was part of the deal when it came to interplanetary pugilism. Such matters as weight and reach were deemed irrelevant. A fighter had to deal with whatever such advantages his adversary brought with him into the ring. And Bobby was confronted by a creature whose reaction speed would put lightning to shame.
The ninth round was no different than all that had come before. Bobby tried to hammer Sa Ling with a powerful series of jabs. But just as his fist was about to hit its target, the alien was suddenly two feet to the right, five to the left or, a couple of times, right behind him. With every swish of knuckle hitting nothing but air, the Ceruleans in the stands shrieked with glee.
As he had done in every other round, Sa Ling took advantage of those moments when Bobby's frustration led to a sudden lack of concentration. The Cerulean landed a series of his own, ten slaps to the cheekbone in succession. Bobby didn't need to look at the trio of judges. They'd be scoring for Sa Ling. It didn't matter to them that his opponent's hardest punch was the equivalent of being tapped on the shoulder. Points were all that counted. Without a KO, Bobby Locke would be defeated by a previously unheard of margin.
And so it proved. By the end of the twelfth and final round, a humiliated Bobby slumped into his chair at the corner of the ring. Cho handed him a towel. Richie could do nothing but shake his head. The locals quickly headed for the exits. Not one man, woman or child did anything to disguise their disgust.
The ref called for the two fighters to return to center ring then raised Sa Ling's hand in the air. The Cerulean had won handily. The cheer of his supporters was like ten thousand organ pipes at highest pitch. Sa Ling waved to his followers and the resultant noise almost cracked the windows of the stadium.
"Sa Ling chera!" they shouted. "Sa Ling chera!"
Bobby had been in his dressing room for ten minutes, and the outburst of Cerulean joy had still not abated. The fans had traveled a long way to see this. It didn't matter to them that the fight had been so one-sided. They obviously preferred it that way.
"I've had enough of this game," Bobby said.
Cho toweled down the few droplets of sweat from his fighter's chest. Richie lit an e-cigar but failed to stick it in his mouth as he paced back and forth.
"None of that talk," Richie snapped. "In case you didn't notice, the fight was a sellout."
"So who's going to pay good money to see me in another fight?"
"You want to know who? Ceruleans, that's who. Don't you get it? They love this shit. Skinny green-skinned runt, Sa Ling, puts it all over on Earth hotshot, Bobby Locke. We can fill the stadium with those big-headed freaks. They got lots of money. The purse for a rematch would be astronomical."
"As long as you get your share," snarled Bobby. "But you're not the one being embarrassed out there."
"Maybe it's not such a good idea," said Cho.
"You're paid to get my boy ready for a fight," Richie said to the trainer. "Not to have an opinion." He turned to his fighter. "Look, it's nothing to do with you personally. There's nobody on this planet that can lay a finger on one of those guys. You're the best around and look what happened. And the great thing is Ceruleans don't care whether the bout is a cakewalk as long as their guy wins. They love to feel superior. We all do."
Bobby turned toward the poster on the wall. It was a huge picture of Muhammad Ali. Bobby had seen holograms of all his fights. Ali was the greatest of all time.
"Ali didn't have to fight aliens," he said.
"And if he fought Sa Ling," said Richie, "it would have been the same result."
"It really was the sweet science in those days," Bobby moaned. "What I would give to be in the ring with Ali. It wouldn't matter to me if he knocked me out cold in the first round. Richie, that guy was beautiful to behold."
"Unless somebody invents a time machine, that's never going to happen. Now let's get you showered and dressed and back home safely tucked away in bed while I go talk to the promoters."
Richie was about to leave when there was a loud knock at the door.
"I don't want to talk to any reporters," said Bobby adamantly.
"Don't worry. I'll send them away." Richie opened the door to a young man of thin build, a mop of untidy brown hair and thick horn rims that covered half his face. One skinny arm was held out before him in anticipation of a handshake.
"You're Mr. Shawcross."
"You think I don't know this?"
"I'm Jules Mannheim."
Richie didn't offer his own hand for that shake.
"You're not from the papers."
"Oh no. I'm still in college," said Jules. "I'm doing post-grad work at the Technology Institute."
"So what can we do for you?"
Richie was about to close the door in the young man's face.
"I can help your man beat that alien."
Jules said it so matter-of-factly that Richie, despite his better judgment, decided to give the kid a moment of his precious time.
"So you're some kind of genius trainer," sneered Richie.
"No. Not at all. I write computer programs."
"You hear that, Bobby," shouted Richie. "Julio here wants you to fight a computer."
"My name is Jules and you have me all wrong. I can write a program that will help Mr. Locke beat the alien."
Richie believed none of what he was hearing but he invited Jules in anyway. The fact that he most certainly was not from the press was a definite point in the young man's favor.
"Now I haven't even looked at a computer in years," said Richie, "so you could tell me anything and I'd believe it but Bobby here, I do know, spends time searching the universal-web for the dope on all his favorite old fighters. Like that guy, for instance."
He pointed to the poster of Ali.
"I don't suppose you've ever heard of Muhammad Ali," Richie continued.
"No, I haven't. But Mr. Locke, I was in the front row at tonight's fight."
"Well there's no getting your money refunded," said Bobby.
"That's not it at all. It was my first boxing match actually. It was somewhat too visceral for my tastes but I did see certain possibilities - logical possibilities - in all that ducking and weaving."
"Do go on," said Bobby sarcastically.
"From what I can work out, the object is that when you swing a punch you expect to make contact with the other fighter."
"You got it in one," said Bobby.
"But tonight, against Sa Ling, despite all your best efforts - I assume those were your best efforts - you couldn't lay a hand on him."
"That's 'Bobby Locke Stunk The Place Out' in newspaper headlines," said Bobby.
"Yes but you didn't make allowances for your opponent being alien. You were fighting as if that was someone from the East Russian Federation in the ring with you. And Sa Ling is not just any alien. He's a Cerulean. I have studied many alien races and the Cerulean, like the dolphin, comes naturally equipped with a kind of sonar facility. He's constantly sending out signals to his surrounds and receiving answers back. He can sense an approach of anything solid in all directions at once. And he can react to that at virtually incalculable speed. Of course, I can calculate it but that's another story. The point is that he's designed to be one or more steps ahead of everything you throw at him. Of course, you have nothing in the least bit like these extraordinary powers. You're just a slow-footed Earthling."
"Hey, listen four eyes, I beat a lot of good fighters in my time. I didn't get to be champ by slapping a few bums around."
"Let me put it this way, Mr. Locke, I will write a program in which I will incorporate every piece of data available on Sa Ling as well as what I have of you and work out a logarithm by which your right hook can land on the alien's jaw and send him 'to the canvas' as you fighters apparently say."
"It sounds crazy," said Richie.
"Not so fast. You say you can come up with a plan for me to hit this guy. Just one shot, that's all I need. One uppercut to that feeble green jaw and he's out for days."
"Technology really is the answer to your dilemma, Mr. Locke."
"Hey enough with this Mr. Locke crap. Just call me Bobby."
"Wow!" exclaimed Jules.
"I told you he was something special," said Bobby.
The two men sat together in a back room at the Bobby Locke training camp glued to the action before them. The hologram fights that held them in such awe were over four hundred years old but that didn't seem to bother either man. To them, the Ali-Liston fight was happening in the here and now.
"Just look at Ali - he was called Clay then. That guy Liston doesn't stand a chance. Liston's the heavyweight champion of Earth. And you can get odds of seven to one about the challenger. Crazy, huh?"
Jules couldn't help but agree. He'd been chugging away all morning on his program as, in a nearby ring, Bobby had worked out with various sparring partners. Now, they were very much enjoying a little down time.
"You can't write something that would make me move like him?"
Jules made no reply.
"No I guess not. I figure Ali could take out Sa Ling, no mistake. This was nineteen sixty three. Can you believe it? Man hadn't even gone to the moon yet. It's been all downhill for boxing since then, let me tell you. I was born too late, that's my problem."
When they were done immersing themselves in fights from the past, the two huddled together in Jules's makeshift computer command center. Richie purposely stayed away from his protégé and the techno wiz. He didn't want to be embarrassed by concepts he could not understand. Cho tried to make sense of it all in the beginning but now he too made himself scarce when it came time for Jules to display his charts and diagrams.
Bobby was no genius either in such matters but he was willing, at least, to follow Jules's calculations when it involved himself.
Jules preceded his demonstrations with "It's not a hundred percent perfected yet." But Bobby liked what he was seeing. The young techie was not just illustrating his ideas with numbers or characters. That was a real-looking Bobby Locke on the screen and a just-as-real-looking Sa Ling. And they were in the center of a computer-generated boxing ring.
"Both simulations have been fed with every known property of both you, Bobby and the Cerulean. I can maneuver both fighters to anywhere in the ring and in any position relative to his opponent. Now look at this."
With Jules's simple hand wave, the two replicates began to fight. Bobby moved from side to side then followed that up with his favorite combination of punches. None came close to hitting Sa Ling. The boxer watched the proceedings with great dismay.
"This is from the fight. Not pretty, huh?"
"Let me slow it down," continued Jules.
At super slow motion, Bobby could follow the arc of his favorite uppercut millimeter by millimeter. It was on a direct path for that green chin. There seemed no way that he could miss. But, at the last moment, when there should have been a lovely demonstration of glove crashing into jawbone, the alien was suddenly a meter to the right of where Bobby was aiming.
"Had your opponent been human, he'd have ended up with body sprawled on canvas and brains floating somewhere in Bode's galaxy."
"Yeah, well he wasn't."
"That's because a Cerulean instinctively sends out those signals I told you about. They can calculate such things as mass, threat, distance, point of anticipated contact, all in an instant. And in that same instant, they compute the safest place for the Cerulean to be and yet stay inside the ring. The alien moves there. It all happens in less than a blink of an eye."
"So you're saying there's no way of landing one on this guy?"
"That's one way of looking at it."
"Oh mighty Ali," Bobby sighed. "Why can't it just be mano-a-mano like back in the golden age?"
"But I do believe there's a way you can hit him."
"So tell me."
There was more than a hint of disbelief in Bobby's voice. Seeing passages of the fight again, especially in slow motion, did nothing to boost the fighter's confidence.
"What you have to do is curb your natural instincts."
"So I don't try to smash that green piece of shit back to where he came from?"
"It's your strategy, your patterns. They're all wrong for trying to box with a Cerulean. You're predictable. Two jabs at the chest, two slaps on the cheek and then the uppercut to the jaw."
"It worked against Tiger Moran."
"My research tells me he was not an alien."
"A gorilla. Does that count?"
"Look at this."
Jules waved his hands over his computer and another simulation appeared. It was Bobby and Sa Ling in the ring but both fighters were purely Jules's creation this time. The Bobby figure moved into action. He began with the two jabs, the slaps as before and they all missed. But then, he pivoted slightly to the right and swung his famed uppercut at a forty-five degree angle to his previous punches. It missed the Sa Ling simulation by a whisker.
"Almost had him there."
"You see where this is going?"
"You have to unlearn, that's the secret. Develop new instincts. You know that jaw of his is not going to be where you expect. So you have to aim it where you don't think it will be."
"Oh yeah. That's great. I swing haymakers in all directions at once. I spin around and then I take off like a helicopter and smash into the ceiling."
"What I'm working on is a program that will calculate, based on all the known data, the exact point where your fist needs to be to make contact with Sa Ling's jaw."
"Sounds like I'm going to need a computer in the ring with me."
"Not at all. You'll see, Bobby, you'll see."
Certainly what Jules finally came up with looked convincing. His diagrams were like dance patterns.
"First you swing to the left," Bobby couldn't help singing, "then take three steps to the right and you . . ."
Cho and Richie also gave the plan the once over. Both were befuddled.
"So what you're telling me, Einstein," said Richie with more than a touch of sarcasm, "is that all my boy's got to do is put his feet where you say, swing in that direction indicated and that green bastard is dead meat. He's swallowing canvas."
"I think so."
"That's not what we want to hear."
"You have to understand," said Jules, "this is all new territory. If Bobby was fighting another human being then it would be much easier."
"If he was fighting another human being, we wouldn't need you," said Richie.
"You see there's a constant in my program that I call the 'I' factor."
"So Bobby's going to smack Sa Ling in the eye?"
"No. The 'I' is for impossibility. There's something inherent in the makeup of the Cerulean that makes it impossible for him to be touched by something that he doesn't want touching him."
"So what are you telling me? This setup of yours is not going to work?"
"Maybe. But we can't discount the 'C' factor."
Richie threw up his hands in exasperation. Bobby looked puzzled. Cho's face was blank and his tongue mute.
"It's the certainty factor," Jules continued. "The certainty that if Bobby follows the program's instructions his fist and the jaw of Sa Ling will, for the briefest amount of time, arrive at the very same spot simultaneously."
"That's all it takes?" Bobby asked. "All I have to do is hit that guy once and he's done for?"
"Exactly," replied Jules.
But Richie was still flummoxed.
"So what you're saying is that it's certain that Bobby will do the impossible."
"In layman's terms, yes."
Richie could take no more. He left the room shaking his head. Cho followed. Bobby stayed behind hoping to see some more Ali holograms. But Jules barely acknowledged the fighter's presence. He spent a half hour fixated on his spread of diagrams. He ran his simulations over and over. Bobby finally gave up and retired to a couch for a nap.
Once away from Jules, Richie's mood brightened. In his mind, the fight would be as much of a one-sided farce as the first one. But the arena would be packed. There'd be a big payday for both boxers. And, of course, for both managers. It wasn't the fight game that the true fans so cherished. But it was business, a lucrative business. The phrase "certain impossibility" kept running through his mind. Maybe it could go on a tee-shirt. He couldn't help laughing loudly. Cho had no idea what the manager found funny but he chuckled along with Richie anyhow.
The arena was packed as it had been for the first fight between Earth champion Bobby Locke and the Pride of Cerulea, Sa Ling. Only this time, the stands were a veritable sea of green faces. There was not one ticket-paying local in the stadium. The newspapers had called the rematch a joke. But, of course, the Ceruleans weren't complaining. A close contest was of no interest to them. They wanted to see Bobby Locke made a fool of once again.
The prior week's training had certainly been intense. But it wasn't the usual road work, punching bag or rope holograms that prepared Bobby for this encounter. Day after day, Jules had become the fighter's personal choreographer. The routine they worked on was physically punishing but Jules was determined to get Bobby into a state where everything he did was automatic. He had worked the old Bobby Locke style out of his system. Its replacement, day by day, hour by hour, was getting where it needed to be.
"It's all instinct, Bobby," he'd say. "That's how it is for Sa Ling. That's how it has to be for you."
Each time Jules drilled him with this maxim, Bobby nodded his head more assuredly than before. He was beginning to feel confident. Jules may still have had his doubts about how his program would work in a live situation, but even he found it difficult to resist Bobby's new enthusiasm.
"I'm going to break that green freak's face," he told anybody willing to listen. "You just watch me. First round, I reckon."
The fighters were introduced to the crowd and then they retired to their corners. Cho stood by as Jules gave Bobby final instructions.
"The key is to know when you and Sa Ling are in the exact position relative to each other that we rehearsed. From there, just go into your routine. This will work."
As the bell rang, Jules followed, whispering, "it'll have to work."
He'd performed so many simulations both on computer monitor and via hologram. Each time it seemed as if he'd attained the result he was looking for. Bobby's mockup fist and Sa Ling's replicated chin continued to arrive at the same point instantaneously. But, even as the two fighters began with their ritual dance around each other, his program kept throwing out strange warning messages.
"It is impossible for an Earthling to hit a Cerulean if he doesn't wish to be hit," was the one that continued to bother him.
But it was always followed up by "Contact has been made."
He couldn't explain the incongruity of the two statements and the computer was being no help. He was ninety-nine percent convinced that, if Bobby reacted the way he was supposed to, he would hit Sa Ling. But it was that one percent that bothered him.
"Maybe the computer needs to see this work as much as I do," he said to himself.
The bell rang for the end of round one. It had been a dull affair, more like a waltz than a battle. Sa Ling had seemed reluctant to move in on Bobby and tickle his face with some of those Cerulean taps. And Bobby was doing his best to let his mind go, as Jules had instructed, and allow those new reflexes to take over.
Nothing was said to him as he sat in the corner stool. Cho watched with his fingers crossed. Richie was seeing nothing but dollar signs. Jules was staring, once again, at that dreaded message on his hand-held processor. He resisted the urge to smash it against the floor.
The bell rang for round two. Sa Ling became more aggressive and moved in on Bobby immediately, struck him on all parts of the face and body. The crowd shrieked though Bobby barely felt any of the blows. But he could hear the voices of the judges in the background scoring clean hits into their handhelds. Bobby waited for his moment, but it didn't come in that round. Nor the next.
In fact, the fight was well into the tenth round and his position vis-a-vis the alien had not once replicated the test runs. Sa Ling was always a millimeter to the right or the left or a fraction too close or too far. Richie and Cho had already given up on the contest. Jules was in a state of near panic. His computer system continued to digest the match as it played out. And every time it came up with the exact same required positioning and the series of punches needed to make contact from there. But success in theory was always followed up by that same disclaimer. "A Cerulean cannot be hit."
Through all those rounds, Bobby had not even raised a glove. He moved like a blind man feeling his way in a room as he tried to plant his feet in the right spot. He kept repeating to himself his favorite mantra of his idol, Muhammad Ali. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." It wasn't helping with the fight but it did make the time pass more enjoyably at least.
Strangely, as the contest entered the eleventh round, even the celebrations of the alien audience were not as exuberant. The roof was no longer in danger of being raised. They were still enjoying the sight of the Earthling being embarrassed but not with the same fervor as in the early rounds. Most wanted the humiliation over so they could cheer their champion as the referee raised one of his arms.
In that brief recess between the tenth and eleventh rounds, Jules had whispered to Bobby, "This is the round. I can feel it."
He could feel nothing of the sort. But as Bobby waded out into the center of the ring to resume the one-sided battle, Jules's monitor began to go crazy. It appeared to be sensing as reality what Jules had merely thrown out there in hope.
No one in the crowd was prepared for what happened next. The referee and judges continued to do their job but with no enthusiasm. They couldn't wait until it was all over and they could depart the arena.
Jules's computer was going haywire. And Bobby's nerve-ends suddenly began to perk up like rabbit ears. There was something about how he and Sa Ling were positioned, and there was a strange look in the alien's eye that he hadn't seen before. Was it fear? Did the alien sense that this Earthling whom he'd toyed with through almost two complete fights was about to unleash something unexpected?
Bobby threw out a couple of jabs in the direction of Sa Ling's chest. His opponent stepped aside. They missed easily. He tried a couple of slaps to the face. They too were wide of their target. But then, to the shock of every onlooker bar Jules, he turned slightly to his left and wound up for the biggest, meanest uppercut in his entire repertoire. As he did so, he spun suddenly to his right. His fist swung hard and true at the chin of a stunned Sa Ling.
Jules held his breath in anticipation of an almighty cheer from his own constricted throat. In his palm, the hand-held also seemed to hold its breath as well. But then, with contact imminent, it began throwing out a rapid blur of conflicting messages. Fist on target. Can't miss. Cerulean cannot be hit. Fist on target. Can't miss. Cerulean cannot be hit.
All present were suddenly stupefied by an enormous cracking sound and then a deafening boom louder than a spaceship exploding. When the crowd, the boxers' entourage, and the judges all had recovered their senses enough to glance back at the ring, they were astonished by what they saw. Sa Ling stood there, hands at his side, his face frozen in shock. The referee roamed the canvas, head lowered, eyes darting off in all directions like someone looking for a lost dog. But as for Bobby Locke, he had completely disappeared.
"Ain't I beautiful?" the voice kept jabbering in Bobby's ear. "Just look at me. Ain't I beautiful?"
Bobby opened his eyes, struggled to regain his bearings. He was still in the ring but what struck him most was the intense smell of smoke. This was odd because cigarettes and cigars and their like were completely unknown on Cerulea. He stared through the haze at the crowd. Not a green face in sight.
And then he caught a glimpse of his opponent. He wasn't green, nor did he have two extra limbs. The other man's skin was a light brown, the color of coffee. His arms were long and muscular. The face was confident and handsome.
"Ain't I pretty?" he said as he moved in on Bobby.
The pain that was in Bobby's immediate future was the last thing on his mind. He was in the ring with his idol, Muhammad Ali. This was his vision of heaven. The knockout blow, when it came, didn't send him off to dreamland. He was already there.
Richie and Cho sat together silently in their fighter's dressing room. The trainer was glum but the manager was resigned to the fact that there'd be no more big paydays. Still, with no one around to collect Bobby's share of the prize, he could stuff his pockets with more than his usual forty percent. It would be enough to support a comfortable lifestyle for many years hence.
The silence was interrupted by fierce pounding on the door.
"I didn't think the papers sent any reporters," said Richie as he got up to answer it.
It was Jules calling on them and he was almost apoplectic with excitement. His handheld whirred like a helicopter blade over his head as he exclaimed, "Richie! Cho! It's that old irresistible force versus immovable object paradox. Don't you get it? Bobby's punch couldn't miss. Sa Ling's jaw was unhittable. Ergo, the two fighters could not logically exist in the same moment in time. One of them had to go. This time it was Bobby. The next . . . who knows? Gentlemen, I believe I have invented time travel!"