Excerpt from Divine Play, pp. 481-485
Alex stopped by the Lashers’ locker room at halftime. Russ Behr came in soon after, and his red eyes opened wider. He took off his flat-topped helmet and flipped it. The spikes on the crown stuck to the magnetized bench. He slipped off the metapolymer full-face mask and laid it there as well. “Je-zuz!” he proclaimed. “You’re spost to be out.”
“I am out.” He sat astride the bench, facing Behr, and around him were rows of transparent cylindric lockers and metal benches, white light from coffin canisters in the wire-strung ceiling, and fumes of sweat and piss and cologne. He rotated his right knee as it started throbbing. New cartilage formed rapidly at the fractures for molyfreaks like him, but new bone took at least two weeks to grow back―five more days of this. He took his usual doses of analgesics and stimulants, but still the knee pestered him, like some loud little man in the stands that won’t let up. He craved more pain meds and speed, but popping pills would amuse Behr too much.
Behr sank onto the bench, perpendicular to Alex, and grunted, “You seen this shit?”
“I heard about it.” He couldn’t bear to watch when he wasn’t playing.
Behr nudged a spot on the convex “glass” inner wall of his locker, and the play appeared. Behr nudged it again, and the scene was twinned outside the locker in 360 degrees.
Ridgebacks had the ball on Lashers’ 12. Third and five. A scrimmage line of gold-suited Lashers (left) and purple-suited Ridgebacks on the silver grid. Steel wire over the shoulder pads, brass-knuckle gloves, spikes jutting from helmets, boots, and kneepads. Microchip loops made the numbers flash on their backs and chests. The scene revolved so the billions at their home 3VAKs [3-D Video-Audio-Kineteo receivers] could see “all the action.” The hundred thousand fans in the stands were jiggling multicolored beads.
Spiked ball snapped to Ridgebacks’ quarrel, Ross Theddick, who stopped it in his magnetized gloves. After a single step, Alex recognized the 4/8 power play. Left offending tackle, tight end, right offending
guard, and fallback charging left toward the eight-hole in formation, with Theddick scurrying behind them. Ridgebacks had the style of a bulldozer, but knowing the moves didn’t prevent them. He saw the rods sliding out of the glove cuffs of the left offending tackle and right offending guard. Cy Burntick, the Lashers’ left defensive end, bullied in, hit the Ridgebacks’ shock batons, and fell back, gibbering in a seizure. The Lashers’ left defensive tackle, Lyan Semblie, and middle laneblocker (Behr) also got blocked and shocked. Theddick vaulted over the pileup and slammed the ball down onto the meshwork. 42K-21K, Ridgebacks.
“I knew it!” Behr yelled. “Fucking dick wands! Why didn’t they call it?”
“They don’t call it when we pull the same shit. The fans love it when something illegal’s snuck in. Especially if someone dies. Where is everybody?”
“Oh, Vollig started in on them with the scriptural verses right in the tunnel. I ducked out an exit. Dumbshits know it’s comin’, but they just submit to it.”
“They couldn’t all dodge it.”
The Lashers jumbled in, babbling, the clear plastic face masks tilted up so the air could find their sweaty faces. They rested on benches, popping pills and chugging bottled water, or got undressed and sat in intervallic, tubular healing chambers, the anesthetizing mist engulfing them.
“Strabs!” said Anna Laudy, the center. “I thought you’d be in a full-body cast!”
“Hey, Alex,” said Randy Malchick, the right wired receiver, “did the bad man scare you?”
“How you doin’, Cy?” Alex asked Burntick as he limped in; his arrowhead face—short hair, sharp chin, and aquiline nose—was as dull and gray as it would ever get.
“Of course, you are,” said Eubie Gross, the fallback, “you’re a molyboy!”
Cy smiled. “A freak, you mean. Same as you.”
“Don’t worry,” counseled Theo Durant, the right guard, “we’re gonna stomp that pile o’ shit Mackidaw.”
Alex’s knee started to throb again. Homer Mackidaw, the Ridgebacks’ laneblocker, had tackled Alex and in the pileup got his right leg between two hand compression disks that broke most of the bones. “Mackidaw? “It was a LOTTA [Left Offending Tackle ] and ROGUE [Right Offending Guard] that went after Cy.”
“No, for what Mackidaw did to Telly,” Cy murmured, tilting down his head.
“What happened to Telly?”
“Take a look.” Behr forwarded to the last play of the quarter. Lashers had just gotten a “blocking below waist” call. Even as the ref curved his arms near his groin to signal the call, the Lashers went rigid, gritting their teeth as the electric charge went through the grid at their feet. Some tried hopping or rhythmically alternating feet to ameliorate sensations of a hammer pounding the skull and hot grease sizzling the legs. They could have lost ten yards, but the refs elected to run some charges through
them. The crowd screamed and howled; they loved to watch the players “dance.” Silvie Belljar, the Lashers’ right safety, passed out and collapsed, and the crowd roared.
Lashers were at the Ridgebacks’ 40. Telly Mnottom was the quarrel. Telly’s arm was swift and true, but he was too easily unnerved. Just past Anna Laudy, the Lashers’ center, Mackidaw was watching him. The face mask seemed too small for his massive head―he looked like a giant in a kid’s Halloween costume. You could see the muscles of his jaw working, enhancing the hate, the eyes white in the eyeholes as his pupils rolled up and dead black when they rolled back. The primers were working, all right. On Monday Night Fiteball, Homer had promised to grind up every quarrelback until the end of the season.
Alex knew Telly wouldn’t risk a running play; he stood seven meters behind Anna. They ran a recycled shotgun as Randy Malchick dodged the right cornerback and did a ninety-degree turn. Both Lasher offending guards and tackles moved in to protect Telly as he looked off, preparing to blast it to Randy at the two-hole.
Mackidaw was the strongest and most agile defensive lineman in the league, and the bloodthirstiest fucker as well. Lately he’d been on heavy doses of Rapid Accelerant. The Lashers’ team docs had predicted he couldn’t take any more RA without stroking or busting arteries, but apparently he could. He got to Telly in seconds, battering the linemen aside and then knocking Telly down and punching him until the plastic face mask broke and he could sink his spikes into Telly’s skull. The sack was a minute old and the refs were screaming into their whistles, but Mackidaw kept on; even when the Ridgebacks lifted him off, he still stomped Telly several times with his boots. The crowd screamed in raucous ecstasy.
Alex felt the rage in him, moving extra oxygen through his blood, spurring hormones from his glands, agitating muscles―receiving, once again, in his memory, the old man’s anger, Werther’s grip on his shoulder, the fingers curling into skin and muscle, seeking soft tissue. “How is he?”
“Brain dead,” said Gideon Bach, the left wired receiver.
“They’ll have to replace it,” said Anna.
“If he can get off life support,” added Eubie.
“Who’s playing?” Alex asked.
“Well, Cy―unless . . .” said Theo.
“I’m out,” Cy informed them, slapping a towel onto the bench. “Doc took me out for a concussion.” He prodded his skull, above his hairline. “Another one.”
“Then me,” answered Maury Gretta, nestled in the steam of a healing chamber; his voice emerged from the translucent speaker in the door. Maury was a third-stringer. The others grimaced.
“Gimme your jersey,” Alex said.
Cy’s slit eyes got round. “Are you nuts? Coach’ll know. Everybody’ll know.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Behr said. “You’ll lose that leg if he gets at it again.”
Alex sighed and turned to Maury. “Gimme an extra jersey, Maury. Please?”
“He runs off; you run on,” Anna nodded.
“You’ll get suspended, you know,” Maury warned him. “Indefinitely.”
“I just want one play,” Alex said. “I don’t care about afterward.”
As the Lashers went into a huddle, Maury called time-out, pointing to his helmet, as if his audio had gone out. He vanished into the piebald wall of humans at the sidelines, and Alex emerged. He was more compact than Maury, but the jerseys shrink-wrapped to fit.
Alex slowed his hustle a little, adjusting to the thrumming and the heat from the grid and the startling movements of players under the ultraviolet sky of the dome. It should be unnoticeable, after all these years of playing. But ground level, up close, everything was magnified. His knee was numb from painkillers and speed, but he could sense the ache, like an insect sinking its chelae into him.
The crowd recognized him right off and was chanting, “Stra-bis! Stra-bis! Stra-bis!” He noticed something glowing in his periphery: Vollig had appeared in holo form, asking Klaus Loop, one of the offending coaches, what was going on, and Klaus was shouting earnestly. Mackidaw, pacing and flexing and swiveling his huge torso, smirked at him from five meters away.
Anna snapped the ball, and Alex dropped back behind Eubie while Eubie charged up the middle and Gideon did a forty-five degree toward the six-hole. Alex tried to look off, but Mackidaw drove through Anna and the guards before they could breathe. Mackidaw was on him so fast Alex thought he was nailed, but blindly fired off the pass to Gideon. Mackidaw crouched low, but he crouched lower, clamping onto Mackidaw’s ankles. Mackidaw fell forward along Alex’s back. Alex straightened, dragging and then boosting Mackidaw in the air, launching him upside-down. No way a human could lift 180 kilos of Mackidaw plus equipment, much less flip him overhead,by reaching behind. But he was a wound-up, revved-up, drugged-up, pissed-off little molyboy, designed to exceed mechanization, like John Henry outdigging a steam shovel.Alex caught Mackidaw’s ankles again as he plunged headfirst, flailing his limbs and howling. Alex raised him up and slammed him down like a posthole digger. The spikes on Mackidaw’s helmet bent from the impact as his cervix cracked and his brain swung wildly in his skull, before it ceased all processing. Mackidaw’s body lay facedown on the grid. And the crowd cried.