The Protectorate

23 Jan

The Protectorate

Chapter One

 

Jon-Su’s printer pinged loudly, alerting him to an incoming file. The boxlike machine whirred to life, clicking and zipping as it followed the dictates of the Wi-Fi-received instructions. He smelled the slight acrid odor of burnt plastic towards the end of the process. A second ding and zip indicated the task was complete as a brightly-colored credit card-sized object slowly emerged from one of the slots in the printer to rest in a small wire basket.

Jon-Su allowed the card to cool before he scooped it up and examined it.

It was his ticket to the Survive-a-Bowl! He was going!

He tried to contain himself, but found it impossible not to jump about in his compartment, springing from the couch to a chair and finally out onto his porch.

“YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, not caring who he awoke or disturbed or bothered. A few lights came on in other compartments, and one or two “Shaddups!” and “F—K You’s” filtered out into the night air.

It was raining and cold, but Jon-Su held in his hand the dream of his young lifetime.

He came back into his compartment and sat down, examining the card more closely.

On one side was the red, white and blue insignia of the National Survive-a-Ball League in the background, with a collage of team logos in the foreground. 2045 Survive-a-Bowl ran across the width in large black block letters, with February 25, 8:00 PM in parentheses underneath.

Jon-Su’s name was printed across the bottom starting from the
left corner, followed by a long 12-digit number. On the reverse side was a small square gold chip embedded in a white background. Along the right was a rectangular area bordered with a thin black line.

The words “Not valid without finger impression” were printed underneath the box.

Jon-Su quickly placed the card on his coffee table with the white side up. He carefully lined up his right thumb in the rectangle, and rolled it from left to right. Within seconds his thumbprint appeared in light gray lines.

In tiny, illegible type were instructions and rules plus a scan bar at the very bottom. He scanned the bar with his Palmtone, and the text appeared on the screen. He rarely read through stuff like this, but where the Protectorate was involved, it was a wise move. Satisfied he understood all of the legal ins and outs, he tapped the edge of the card twice on the coffee table, and the front side glowed momentarily before returning to its regular color. His identification was verified, and his card was now active.

What were the odds? A million — no! — a billion to one, he bet. He could look up the exact number, of course, but he was too excited.
Almost like the odds of his state’s Survive-a-Ball team making it to the championship! What a year! What an incredible year!

Jon-Su added his winning a ticket to growing evidence he was being groomed and separated out by the Protectorate. Or so others had tried to tell him so, but he abashedly denied the chances.

“They’ve got their eye on you!” his friends would say.

“Why me? Why would the Protectorate cull me out among the billions?”

The ticket was proof his stock with the Protectorate had undoubtedly increased. No one could steal the ticket, given the thumbprint identification, although he had heard of people severing the thumbs of winners in the early bowl years. The fix was heat sensors, which had to register between a narrow range of 96.9 and 99.2 degrees. A severed thumb, even if you pack it in one of those pocket hand warmers, would not likely alight within the 2.3 degree variance.

It was too much to ponder. And entertaining the thought merely caused him to lose much-needed sleep. He couldn’t afford that.

The Bowl was three weeks away. Everything was included: travel, accommodations, and meals. Even getting to meet the team and the coaches were part of the deal! A special jersey and a ball cap. And a date with one of the team’s cheerleaders! Since Jon-Su had not opted to transgender yet and was still male, he relished the thought of an intimate evening with one of the girls. He hoped it would be with Chloe, on whom he had fixated when he first saw her online video.

“Hi! I’m Chloe! When I auditioned to be a Crushers Girl. I thought, ‘I have to win!’ Perhaps, if the Crushers go all the way to the Survive-a-Bowl this season, you and I will get to go all the way, too!”

Everything she said was bright and perky, yet laced with a come hither look, just like the girls in online porn.

“God! It’s ALL GOOD!” he shouted in his head.

During the next few days he received dozens of communiques covering everything about the event. He drove down to The Men’s Den to pick up travel clothing preselected and already paid for. He interviewed with local and regional media shortly after, his outfits dictated for each interview, as would be everything he wore throughout the event. The Protectorate left no detail to chance.
Jon-Su’s friends messaged him continuously.

“Saw you on the six o’clock news! Wow! Can I touch you? Who is your private dresser?” He delighted in all the attention. “I could get used to this!”

He left for New Orleans from Charlotte a week prior to the championship, a two-day slow and easy ride on the Southern Air Rail luxury train. He had his own sleeping berth, his own valet — food, drink, and any and all distractions one could wish for. The train could actually travel at above 250 mph, but The Protectorate obviously wanted to milk the occasion as much as possible. It stopped at various places along the way to pick up more winners, to the accompaniment of fanfare and much ado at every station.

Once arrived, he joined ninety-nine other winners in a flurry of bowl events, including riding on one of two winner floats in the Survive-a-Bowl Parade. One float featured the Carolina fans, and the other the Boston fans. He toured the Survive-a-Dome and was shown the luxury suite where he and the other would watch the game, over 1700 feet from the field. It was equipped with surround-sound and twenty-five huge flat screens so finely pixelated you swore you were inches from the action.

For added peace of mind, the suite was accessible through security-guarded elevators. Passageways tunneled under the parking flats led to awaiting armored transports. There was no chance any of these one hundred winners was going to be exposed to the post-game melee.

Two months earlier Jon-Su bought two scalped tickets in the cheap seats for the last game of the season, immediately behind his Carolina team. The Crushers cut through the opposing team, slicing through defensive players to score multiple times, killing the opponent offensive line — stopping any scoring opportunity dead in its tracks.

When the melee began at game’s end, Jon-Su and his date scrambled through the panicked throngs and barely managed to get to the parking flats unscathed. Many were not so lucky.

Even though being picked was reported to be pure chance, everyone knew those lucky few culled out of millions had more than luck going for them. Why else would they later be elevated in terms of work and living status? Why would they be more equal than others? How that designation came about was still not known, although much speculation quietly passed between bar-goers and in coffee clutches.

First, the obvious: Caucasian Christians had a distinct advantage. While there were the “token” winners from various ethnic groups and religions, they never resurfaced with improved status. Nor did their families.

It was also thought that heritage was part and parcel to Protectorate preference, as winners who with Germanic or Scandinavian roots appeared to comprise nearly all the group. Blue eyes, blonde hair and fair skin was all but the rule of the day. Nothing could be substantiated, since all family trees and ancestral documentation had been outlawed twenty-five years ago. Not that it would make a difference. No one dared or cared enough to challenge the hierarchy by snooping or blowing whistles. Especially not the media, which
had long ago lost its journalistic integrity for a more entertaining and positive-slanted presentation of “news.”

In his New Orleans hotel garden suite, high atop the Orleans Auberge, Jon-Su grew increasingly excited. Below the slick wet streets of the famous French Quarter sparkled in the night, brightly peopled by hordes of costumed vacationers awaiting the opening kick-off of the Survive-a-Bowl. It was a festival he would never forget.

The bell to his suite rang and drew him from his reverie. A bellhop rolled a cart filled with French delicacies and aperitifs. The bellhop quickly and expertly parked the cart next to a small table and two chairs preset with fine linen and china and crystal next to the large bay door that presented the city view. Jon-Su handed his bowl card to the bellhop, who swiped it through a reader he kept in his pocket, said Merci, then quickly exited, pulling the door closed gently.

Any ambivalence about the symbolism and reality of the games gave way to his anticipation. How many others were so very lucky in that regard? Nothing is for free, he argued mentally. But why shouldn’t he enjoy the moment?

The room bell rang again, and Jon-Su opened the door. Standing in the hallway was a beautiful woman, cloaked in a full-length white ermine stole and looking incredibly stunning.

“Chloe!” he whispered.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

Camden Newsome sank back into the stainless steel tub, adjusting his ear pommes so that he was in the veritable middle of the orchestra as it played. It was his favorite piece: Adagio for Strings. When he was younger and less jaded, his choice of music was more current, filled with beat and syncopation and moog-created sounds. Now, the slow, sad strains of music played on traditional instruments reminded him of the field of play, where teammate after teammate, friend after friend, had fallen. Over the five years of his career, he had changed from the cocky and brash new hero to the wise protective leader of his team.

His body looked and felt older as well. Now there was little distinction between the dark tattoos that covered most of his shoulders and arms and torso from the various scars of the games. Multiple surgical tracks crossed each of this knees — permanent remnants of repaired ligaments, menisci and shattered bones. The transition from his own skin to the synthetic covering of the prosthetic left forearm — an injury that threatened his continued career in survive-a-ball, and the future of his family.

But Newsome knew how to persevere and survive. He had known hard times from childhood. Nothing came easy. His mother implored him to take another pathway, but he saw survive-a-ball as his ticket out. Not that he wasn’t bright. No quarterback in this game is stupid. None that are alive, that is.

“You play smart and you live to play another day!” his high school coach preached to his team what seemed a hundred years before.

Three factors combined in the typical survive-a-bowl player: Physical ability, skill, and intelligence. He remembered a teacher in high school trying to answer such a question a student posed.

“Ms. McGivens, why doesn’t everyone become a survive-a-ball player? There’s so much money!”

McGivens drew a Venn diagram on the white board comprised of three large oval petals which overlappedand converged in the middle — like the center of a flower. She labeled the petals talent, ability, and intelligence. Then she drew a wobbly circle around the petals, and wrote, LUCK.

“Most of us have some of these parts in varying degrees — physical ability, special skills, and intelligence. I’m not so endowed in the physical ability area, but I make up for it in the skills and intelligence areas. Those people who play survive-a-ball have a lot of physical ability and skill, but perhaps not-so-much intelligence. After all, why would you willingly play survive-a-ball if you are smart?”

The class laughed.

“But, Ms. McGivens, are you saying that if you play survive-a-ball you are not intelligent?” Newsome asked, clearly endowed at an early age with physical ability and skills.

“Of course not. See, Camden, you are one of the exceptional athletes that combines better-than-average portions of each of these.”

“So, would it be a smart thing for me to think about a career in survive-a-ball? Or would you consider me stupid to have that as a goal?”

“First, the odds of someone making it to the professional levels are not in anyone’s favor. Only a few high school survive-a-ball players make it to the college level. Only a handful of them go on to the professional ranks. That’s true in basketball, tennis, golf as well.”
“Yeah, but at least in survive-a-ball you have a lot of turnover that you don’t in the other sports. Your competition becomes the next guy down.”

“Turnover is a risk in everything,” she returned matter-of-factly. “But frankly speaking, I would definitely advise you to have a goal other than survive-a-ball as a career. The reality is …” and she tapped the word LUCK, “…This is the most important and determining factor in survive-a-ball.”

Newsome slid in the tub so that the iced water was chin-level. He thought often about what his teacher had said, “Luck.” And, as everyone knows, even the most skilled and intelligent run out of luck in the end.

He wondered if he should have tried something else. What about business? What about a normal nine-to-five occupation where he clocked in and out with regularity; where he and his family were more concerned about mowing the lawn or washing the car or planning a trip to the beach? But he knew his chances of that were slim to none. He didn’t have the right attributes. He wasn’t light-skinned enough. His ancestors weren’t Europeans. Everyone he knew of his ilk managed to reach only so far in business, despite their abilities and intelligence. He was better off on the physical field of competition, regardless. Plus, despite the probable consequences, he loved the game.

He dipped his head under the cold water, feeling its iciness numb his skin and brain. Maybe he could induce a stroke and he wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore. Breaking the surface and gasping, he knew that somehow the game was worth it. To his mother and wife and children. They would not have to worry when he finally fell from the ranks of elite survive-a-ball athletes and was inevitably a turnover casualty.

One more game. The penultimate challenge. The goal of every survive-a-ball player. That was something. How many others could say they made it to the Survive-a-Bowl? Perhaps he could retire. As long as the Crushers won, that is. Still, even if they lost, there would be compensation for his wife and family. The irony was retirement was never encouraged, and as players aged, if injury didn’t do them in, their ability to survive exponentially decreased after the age of 28. And Newsome was 26. The statistical clock ticked for everybody.
He learned in history class that the old government once provided the elderly with something called social security. Which, so he understood, was a monthly stipend to help with living expenses. Throughout their working lives, people paid into a fund supposedly untouchable that paid out to seniors age 70 and up — at least in the beginning. The problem was the government couldn’t help dipping into that cookie jar over and over. Then rules changed so workers had to be older to receive what they considered an entitlement. By the time the fund was completely drained, workers had to be age 80 to receive anything. Most died before reaching the mark.

Now there were no stipends. No guarantees. Other than through the National Survive-a-Ball League. Of course, you had to play ball to get the money. Hence the reason no one retired from the game. Who could afford to? While not at a level with those favored by the Protectorate, at least his family was spared a life in the compartments, and they enjoyed some of the amenities of a higher level of living. There were no other common professional sports athletes who fared better than survive-a-ball athletes. Period. The league was a multi-trillion dollar enterprise, and called the shots where the other common sports were concerned as well. The lines were definitely blurred.

Of course, the above-common professional athletes fared incredibly well. Those sports were individual sports — golf, tennis, swimming and skiing. Injuries were limited to sprains and pulled muscles. Except skiing. They were sports the financially elite had access to as kids.

In the latter part of the 20th century, and into the early 2000s, some of those barriers separating common athletes from elite sports were breached. But only occasionally, and while those who managed to cross the barriers were heroes to their own kind, their success threated the status quo.

The old National Football League was an example how things changed when a sport caved to the demands and pressures of its athletes. Concerns over head trauma crippled the NFL. Players grew more concerned and outspoken over safety and longevity than they were satisfying the league and the fans with the kind of brutal play that ignored personal injury. It diluted play to the extent spectators no longer wanted to go to an arena and pay hundreds of dollars for what came to be considered little more than powder-puff football.

If he survived to retirement, Newsome decided he would write the penultimate exposé of the demise of the NFL, and the subsequent rise of survive-a-ball. The Rise and Fall of the NFL, he would title it. He knew it would never be published. The Protectorate guarded closely anything in print or digital format. Still, it offered him mental  escape to think about its contents. The technical science of invading and monitoring thought was still a decade away, according to the science prognosticators. Rumor was it was currently in use. “Invading” and “monitoring” were his choice of words for what was to come. The Protectorate claimed the developing technology was part of the country’s national security defense. It would be used to make sure the country never feared the infiltration of extremist groups and the devastation that fear wrought decades earlier.

Newsome planned to spend his last day before the next two days isolated and protected from the hub-bub. Tomorrow was the last day of team prep for the game, and would flash by quickly, like every other day before Game Day. The only difference was this was The Game game day. He would attempt to bury that fact under music, reading and rest. He knew that would not be easy.

“Know how to turn water into gold?” his dad asked him once before a game.

“How?”

“Take a round wooden bowl and fill it halfway with water. Then take a wooden spoon, and stir the water counter-clockwise.”

“That’s it?”

“One more thing.”

“What?”

“Do NOT think about pink elephants.”

Ah! There’s a catch to everything, he thought. Although once he did try the experiment, and, as his father predicted, Newsome knew he could not NOT think about pink elephants.

Newsome pulled himself slowly out of the tub of water and stepped gingerly onto the rubber-matted floor. He grabbed a folded towel with his synthetic hand and marveled at the technology which allowed him to feel the texture and softness of the towel as he wiped his brown body dry.

The Adagio faded, and the theme music from Glory began, the haunting voices of the Harlem Boys Choir moving and merging and filling Newsome’s head as he dressed quietly in the locker room. There were a few other teammates preparing themselves mentally as well. No one looked at the other. All had sucked themselves into tiny beings, hoping their springing to life would coincide with the battle on Sunday. Till then, no thinking allowed. Till then, no emotions other than rage and determination could be evidenced.

Newsome increased the volume of the music on his ear pomme, walked out of the locker room and stepped onto the rail cart that would shuttle him to his hotel. Only one more interruptive event on his schedule before all-out focus on the game — meeting the ticket winners.

* * * * *

Chapter Three

Red Carne sat back in his large leather chair. His office was walled on three sides with white boards covered in multi-colored diagrams, words, players’ names and more. He noticed in the corner of one of the boards the doodle drawing of a nose, eyes, and fingers, as if a person was peeking around the edge of the board.

“Kilroy was here!” was written in a bubble above the drawing.

Carne smiled. He remembered simpler times when coaching was a matter of X’s and O’s, meeting with his offensive and defensive staff, finding out who was able to play and who was not, and finalizing a game plan.

That was when it was football. Now it was survive-a-ball. The not-so-logical “progression to the next level of professional sports” that The Protectorate made it out to be.

Next level of brutality one notch below war. But he had to admit the changes in the game and its rules had certainly pumped new life into a dying sport.

Dying sport. Ironic, that.

The National Survive-a-Ball League eclipsed the revenues of the defunct NFL by trillions. It was the sport that generated so much in the way of income that its CEO held a seat as a member of the President’s cabinet. So influential was his voice that no other cabinet member dared to contradict the NSBL. Nor did the President, for that matter.

Here he sat on the verge of his first Survive-a-Bowl. Carne looked about the room and wondered at it all. Were he a man of integrity and principle, he would have long ago quit. He constantly questioned whether he had ever had integrity or principles. He wife whispered to him in bed he was the most principled man she knew whenever he started to beat himself up over the matter.

“Just shows the kind of men you must run around with.” And she would punch him in the arm.

Once Jennifer and he had taken a trip to Mexico after the football season. He was exhausted from the long, nerve-fraying nine months, and was glad to go where the only references to sport would be fùtbol, not football. They decided to tour the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, a three-hour drive from their hotel on the Mexican Riviera.

“Three hours — no, six hours away from the pool and relaxation!” He was not happy. He was content to sit in the shade of one of the many poolside bars, sipping Margaritas and Mai Tais and listening to Mariachi. But he owed Jennifer time and consolation for her patience over the years. He had grown gray and paunchy along the sidelines of whatever team he was currently coaching as she dutifully stood by. In the past 30 years they had moved sixteen times for his profession.

“You’ll love it. I promise,” she said of the day trip.

Not only did he not like the drive, which was hot and bumpy and dusty, he also did not like the blistering heat when they reached their destinations. If he was going to go look at crumbling stone buildings, why couldn’t it be in Athens or Rome? Why out in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula, for God’s sake?

As much as he was prepared to hate everything about the outing, at least the Dos Equis was plentiful and cold. And, he had to admit, some of the ancient architecture was impressive, having been constructed nearly two thousand years earlier.

And then the ball field.

“What the hell is that?” Jennifer was embarrassed by how loud he was, and how the others in their small tour group turned to look at Carne.

“That, Señor, is the Mayan equivalent of a football stadium.”

“Fùtbol? Is that what you mean? Soccer?”

“No, Señor. Your American football. Except in this game you do not use your hands.”

“That’s soccer, not football.”

“I beg to differ. In its brutality. The game is today called ōllamaliztli.”

Carne tried to repeat the word, but tres Dos Equis got in the way, and he could only blather something that sounded close to what the guide said.

“Yes. We know by the artwork and hieroglyphics this sport was very deadly. The ball itself could injure or kill a player. And guess what?”

The group leaned in and said, in unison, “What?”

“The winning captain cut out the heart of the losing captain,” he said, and everyone grimaced. Except Carne, who offered up “So I guess these guys really had their hearts in the game!”

Groan.

Going back Jennifer drove the rental. Carne cracked open two more beers along the way. The windows were rolled down because the air conditioning didn’t work. He hung his arm out the window holding his beer, swooping up and down with the force of the wind.

“And I thought I was going to get away from football on this trip.”

“I suppose we’d have to go somewhere like Antarctica for that.”

“Naw. We’d run into little penguins playing their version of football. We’re cursed.”

And so it seemed. Now here he was, two days before the game of a lifetime — if you could call it that. Not the same game he started out to coach. The NFL had folded, to be replaced by the NSBL. Remnants of the old game, sure — but drastically different. Boldly and blatantly brutal. Just the medicine the doctor ordered for turnaround success. And there was no doubt the new version had stimulated incredible interest. After all, who goes to a hockey game for anything but the fights? And why the skyrocketing popularity of MMA fighting except for the gashed noses and swelled eye sockets? Like the draw of the bull fights in Spain? Or the gladiator competitions in the Colosseum in Ancient Rome?

Unlike the Mayan warriors of old, Carne’s heart was no longer in the game. It took more from him than he could give. It depleted him and left him emotionally and spiritually exhausted — not to mention physically spent. He was frankly amazed he hadn’t keeled over on the sidelines years ago, frothing at the mouth and jerking spasmodically until his heart stopped. Like how the legendary Ben Beaufort died when still coaching in the NFL. That’s the way to go out! Sudden. Quick. Clean.

He looked out the large glass wall of his office and noted Camden Newsome, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, leaving the locker room. He hoped his quarterback would turn to look his way so he could motion him to chat a while. What they would talk about, Carne had no idea. Maybe just sit and look at each other and nod understandingly. Like two football bobble heads. Maybe break out his bottle of unopened Evan Williams bourbon — a Christmas gift from Elton Charles, his stalwart offensive center.

But then Camden was pretty much a teetotaler. And a stickler for the rules, even though this game could be Newsome’s last. Since he was team captain, he had to set an example, he would probably say. Everything the young man did, even down to stepping forward and taking the mantel of Captain, was how he led the team. In spite of the possible end, he chose to stand out front.

Pity. Carne thought the warm burn of the shared precious bourbon would knit the two for all time. Perhaps bridge the color gap between them.

Newsome didn’t turn, however, and continued out of the building, pulling his hood up over his head.

Nice kid. Wish things had been different for him — and for all the guys for that matter. And for me. And for Jennifer.

He cracked open the bottle of Evan Williams and pulled a shot glass from the desk, pouring it nearly full with the rich amber liquid. He could smell it three feet away. Carefully he drew the glass to his lips, trembling a bit at the very last and spilling a few drops into his lap.

He sipped. It burned and warmed.

Ah! So that’s what the top-shelf stuff tastes like. Only you couldn’t get Evan Williams bourbon at retail. You had to buy it at the distillery. You had to go there.

Then he remembered: the gathering of the ticket winners. A command performance.

Damn!

Instead of draining the remaining bourbon from his glass, Carne carefully poured the small amount back into the bottle. At $2700 a bottle, it was liquid gold.

He put the bottle and the glass back into a desk drawer and stood, grabbing his car coat and fedora from the coatrack as he left the office, switching off the lights. As he shut the door, he purposefully resisted turning back to look at the now-empty office, and continued out of the locker room and building where his stretch limo and driver awaited.

Two more days, he thought to himself.

* * * * *

Chapter Four

It didn’t matter what the weather was like. Over 150 thousand spectators filtered into the New Orleans Survive-a-Dome during the last six-hours before kickoff. The venue was the largest of its kind in North America. Its narrow sliding roof opening was agap, in spite of the cold and the rain. Gigantic blowers attached to the opening kept even torrential rain from entering the stadium, providing perfect humidity, temperatures and other conditions. No team, no player, no coach, no fan could ever suggest had the weather only been different, so would have been the game outcome.

Jon-Su initially toyed with the idea of waiting until the last half-hour before going to the stadium. For him there were no lines, no delays, no security checks, no body scans — nothing to impede him gliding from his hotel to the luxury suite. But he wanted the full sensational array of the event. He had already recorded so much by device and with his mind — why waste one iota of the pre-game pageantry and anticipation?

He also wanted to claim his seat, and ply himself with shrimp, escargot, Foie gras, Baluga caviar and Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998 champagne. He didn’t particularly like the taste of the hors d’oeuvres, but he figured what the heck? When in Rome. Who else did he know that had dined on such delicacies? What friend or coworker had sipped nearly 50- year-old champagne worth $8,000 a bottle? Regardless of his anticipated status with The Protectorate, he wanted every taste, scent, sound and touch of this to embed into his very soul. You really never know, after all. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jon-Su flitted about the large suite, introducing himself to other winners for the umpteenth time and getting their contact information. Chatter was filled with where one lived and what one did for a living. His answers were slyly evasive.

“Oh, you know I can’t tell you that! Suffice it to say it’s for one of the hierarchical departments.” Over the last three days he had become quite adept at parsing out his own interpretations of a variety of subjects. After all, the water department was critical to the city’s operation and function; and being a line inspector was integral to the success of that system.

“Income? I’m in line now for a significant wealth-infusion as well as a new post that recognizes and rewards my contributions. Sky’s the limit, you know!”

None of what he said was exactly false. And after a couple of Tulip glasses of champagne, he was less cautious of what others might think of his responses. He esteemed himself and his answers to be curiously enigmatic. And in the week since he landed in New Orleans, he had met no one from his home town, nor anyone he even vaguely knew, or vice versa. So who really cared what he said or implied?

A sleek woman of around Jon-Su’s age approached him and smiled. She was dressed in a satin dress that clung to her breasts and hips, and she was obviously attracted to him.

“Jon-Su, do you think we could watch the game together?”

Her name was Mar-Lance, and he had met her on the float during the parade where they cuddled together against the cold night air and talked. That had led to nothing, but this was the last night. Their swan song, so to speak. Who knew the possibilities? And, thanks to Chloe, he was no longer a virgin, and longed to share what he learned from her that incredible night.

“Yes, sure!”

He led her to the seat he had reserved for himself, and indicated she sit in the next seat. A small oval table top, large enough for two, separated the two. The suite was filling up with winners, and the large screens depicted what was happening on the field below. Jon- Su and Mar-Lance chatted mindlessly, picking at their hors d’ oeuvres.

——

Camden Newsome looked at himself in his locker mirror, adjusting parts of his clean, colorful uniform. He looked nice. In a few hours he would not look so nice. Nor would his uniform. The crisp teal and white fabric would be stained green from the grass, and splotched red from blood — either his own or from a teammate, or the opposition.

He had changed the music on his ear pommes to the classical We Will Rock You by Abba. His head bobbed and he twisted and turned to the bam-bam-bam beat. Other team members were tuned in to the same song, and mouthed out the lyrics to themselves, bobbing and twisting to the music as well.

A slap on his right shoulder pad swung Newsome around to face his favorite receiver, Jericho Olsten, a huge tight end with big hands and a bigger heart.

“Let’s do this, Camden!”

The two warriors wrapped each other in their long arms, broke apart, and began waving and clapping their hands above their heads to the beat of the song. They were joined by other team members who were ready to do battle. Arms hooked arms, and a wide circle of uniformed soldiers swayed to Abba’s call to duty.

A digital clock on the wall counted down the time remaining before the kick-off of the ultimate game of survival.

“Seventy-five minutes and counting!” Newsome shouted, taking off his ear pommes and standing straight. His team members followed suite.

“Everything we have done this year has led us to this moment! We have lost many along the way, and God how I wish they were here with us to experience this.”

“Amen!”

“Every man here knows his job and what must be done to come away with this victory.”

“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!”

The transformation from man to beast had begun.

“This game is ours to win, and ours to lose — and we will not — will NOT lose!”

“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!”

The thoughts and fears of each man faded as the team collectively reached deeply into its primordial and ancestral pool. Any semblance of civilized thought was buried in anger and a welling sense of self-preservation.

“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!”

Muscles and jaws tensed. Eyes narrowed.

“There IS no choice BUT VICTORY! We will secure our place in HISTORY tonight by WHATEVER means need be! We are no longer individual players! We are a team!”

Newsome raised his right hand above his head, and the team crowded close together, each man stretching to touch their captain.

“We are . . .”

“THE CRUSHERS!”

Like bellowing apes, the armored soldiers pounded their chests and each other, chest- slamming and jumping into a frenzied vanguard.
“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! UH! UH! UH! UH! ” The wild beast had replaced the man of reason.

——-

Red Carne and his coaching staff watched as the beast blew open the double doors of the locker room and poured down the large tunnel that led to the field. On either side were members of the media, filming the eruption, camera flashes exploding in the faces of the unperturbable athletes. An ocean-like sound grew louder and louder as the mob approached the final opening, slowing and bunching together.

Carne walked briskly, as did his crew.

“Damn! This would be an ideal spot for a coronary!”

Finally the players erupted from the tunnel onto the field. The expanse of the filled stadium was mind-boggling. Overhead, lights everywhere. The bright green of the field. The colorful thousands upon thousands in the stands, waving banners and flags; blowing plastic horns; shouting and screaming to the tops of their lungs. Cameras, cameras and more cameras.

It was something to behold. In spite of what was coming, the NSBL knew how to put on a show, he had to give them that.
The field was lined with military soldiers who had stretched a huge American flag that covered the entire field. An announcer blasted over the stadium PA:

“Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and girls! And all those viewing from around the world … Welcome to the twenty-fifth Survive-a-Bowl from New Orleans, Louisiana, pitting the Survive-a-Ball champions of the National League — from Charlotte, North Carolina — the Carolina Ca-rush-ers —!”

The announcer paused for the anticipated responses to die down throughout the stadium. All the while, the Crushers raced onto the field, soaking everything in.

“— and the American League champs — from Foxboro, Massachusetts, the New England Co-man-dos!”

Confetti burst from pouches preset over the stands while fireworks on either end of the field arced into the air and exploded in dozens of colors and design.

From a giant glistening bulb suspended from the very center of the roof, a beam of light streaked to the surface of the American flag as all other stadium lights went dim.

“And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, I proudly introduce the 48th President of the United States, Barton Double-yew Trum-pet —!”

Within the beam colors and shapes began to swirl and take shape until the hologram of President Trumpet finally focused. Dapper, well-dressed and coiffed, the ultimate politician held out his hands to quiet the noise of the crowd, except there was no noise to quiet. The entire stadium barely buzzed.

“My dear fellow Americans, tonight’s survive-a-ball contest represents how far our country has advanced since the decades of confusion, and is now the ultimate symbol of the greatness and the power of the United States to the rest of the world!

“Each one of you has played an integral role in reestablishing the US to its rightful position of world leader! We are the richest, the most influential and powerful country of all time! And the safest!

“Please join me in celebration of this hallmark moment by singing our National Anthem.”

Trumpet cleared his throat, and began to sing. The stadium obediently, yet quietly, followed along.

“Oh-ho say can you see …”

At the song’s end, fireworks spewed again at either end of the field. The holograph beamed back up into the silver ball, which rose high into the darkness behind the stadium lights.

As the epic atmosphere washed over him, Carne began to think of “Alice and Wonderland,” and the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the inevitable demise of the oysters.

Yes, the time has come. The time has finally, truly come.

* * * * *

Chapter Five

Dodge Dempsey adjusted his bright red necktie, and smoothed his well-oiled hair toward the back of his head with his hands. After decades of calling the play-by-play for the Survive-a-Bowls, he still had it. At least in his own mind. His co-anchor primped as well, dabbing last-minute splotches of make-up, and batting her long lashes into a small mirror she held in her hand. While extravagantly beautiful, Marla Mintz was a consummate sports caster. She had risen through the ranks the old-fashioned way: starting at the bottom and diligently working her way up, breaking through the glass ceiling three years earlier. This was her first Survive-a-Bowl, but there was no lack of confidence in her demeanor or performance.

“Five seconds!” called someone behind the cameras and bright lights shining onto the duo.

The PBS sports anthem swelled and a finger pointed at Mintz as the light on the camera directly in front of her turned a bright red. Mintz looked into the camera.

“Welcome everyone to the 29th Survive-a-Bowl here in New Orleans! I’m Marla Mintz with my co-anchor Dodge Dempsey. For the next five hours the sports team at PBS will bring you not only the game of games, but everything you wanted to know about the coaches, players, and, yes, the fans!”

Camera 2 picked up on Dempsey from his left, with Mintz in the background. He flashed his famous Dempsey grin.

“That’s right, Marla. As our viewers have come to expect from the Protectorate Broadcast System, you’ll see all the gory glory up-close and personal. The game will kick off shortly, but first let’s see how these two Survive-a-Ball organizations managed to make their way through the season to tonight’s event!”

Canned stories cued up about the Carolina Crushers and their team abridged their season in filmed and reported highlights.

Camera 1 on Mintz.

“Tonight we have the brash youth of Carolina quarterback Camden Newsome pitted against the very successful New England leader, Thorn Brandon, who is vying for his fifth Survive-a-Bowl championship ring!”

Break to Dempsey.

“That’s right, Marla! This is the first year of the rule change giving the captain of the winning team the choice of the melee. Unlike years past when the mandatory game end ceremony was conducted, this year the victorious captain can choose.”

Marla broke in.

“And it’s a very controversial rule change, Dodge.”

“Yes it is. And reminiscent of the various rules against hits in the head and blind-siding that — let’s face it — were the demise of the old NFL.”

“Well, it may actually add a bit more tension at game’s end, don’t you think?”

“What I think is that Commissioner Rob Godwell is going to steer this ship onto the reef, metaphorically. The last really outstanding rule change was the added scoring at the end of the game. That’s nail-biting! When the game ends, and the score is 17 to 24, that additional scoring can completely reverse the outcome!”

“Let’s run down what the added scoring entails, Dodge.

“A point for holding the offensive team to three plays and out goes to the defense.

“A point for any play over 20 yards goes to the offense.

“A point each for a recovered turnover, which includes fumbles and interceptions.

“A point over and above the regular points scored for a TD run-back on a kickoff or punt.

“A point for blocked punts, field goals or extra points.
Camera on Dempsey.

“Two weeks ago the Carolina Crushers trailed the Arizona Rattlers in the final score, and ended up winning the game with eight more points added. Such excitement!

Back to Mintz.

“Then, of course, the team with the ball can, at any time, invoke the pendulum throw, and the game ends immediately regardless of the score. Obviously it can only be called once, because either way, the result is final. A win if the throw is good, or a loss if the throw misses. No Survive-a-Bowl championship has ever been decided by a pendulum throw.”

“We are ready for the coin toss, as the twenty-fifth Survive-a-Bowl is about to get underway!”

The game see-sawed back and forth in the first half, both offenses stymied by strong defenses. Players were taken off the field with injuries ranging from minor to critical. Replay on those injury-resulting plays were close and detailed, utilizing slow-motion to its maximum value. Where bones were revealed or blood spewed effusively, there was no editing out of the gore. It was, after all, why people wanted to see the sport, and the pundits who thirty-five years ago introduced the sport were absolutely correct.

Only two scores occurred in the first half: field goals for both teams. The score was knotted at 3 to 3.

As with the old NFL, every aspect of the Survive-a-Bowl was geared for entertainment. The half-time spectacle was no different. It took three minutes for the field in the huge bowl arena to morph into a huge ocean scene. Mateena, the dominant female entertainer of the day, rode down a single elevator-like platform as her band members did the same from other areas above the water.

She wore black patent leather skin that revealed her ample breasts, hips and long legs. Against her dark face her long, thick hair was dyed electric white, and flowed wildly about her head in wind produced all about her. Her large cape, black on the outside and crimson on the reverse, flashed violently in the wind.

Her platform stopped above the waves of the arena ocean. Bolts of lightning, billows of steam, and loud cracks of thunder ripped through the air to the delight of everyone.

She sang her hit, “I Am the Man-killer,” the lyrics scrambling across the huge scoreboard.

I am the man-killer!
And I’ve come from my den to kill me a man!
I’m the man-killer!
I’ll tear into his flesh till he no longer stands!
Woo-woo!

Every spectator in the stadium, every viewer of the broadcast around the world sang along.

As she sang, two Viking warships entered the arena from its two opposite ends. Loud beats on huge drums were hammered on each vessel. A dozen men sat six to a side manning long oars extended out from the boats. Each large man was overly muscled, and stripped to the waste, body greased shiny. Each was shackled to his oar with thick iron cuffs.

Mateena worked her song sexually, tossing her arms wildly about as the warships approached each other. The beat of the ships matched the song. It rose and rose and rose, sweeping everyone into its vortex of rhythm and lust and devastation.

As the ships were about to touch, archers sprang up in each, aiming and loosing flaming arrows into the air towards their foes.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! blasted through the arena as rowers were struck the arrows, as archers fell into the water, and as each ship caught fire and burned quickly and hotly. Both ships sank quickly into the waters, trapped men screaming and disappearing with the crafts.

I AM A MAN-KIL-LER! Mateena belted out and held, the music frenzied and loud. And then a total blackout in the arena.

“Ladies and gentlemen . . . a warm hand for … Ma-teeee-na!”

The arena erupted in uncontrolled applause and screams. Tens of thousands of lighters were lit and waved about in the dark din. The NSBL had done their best. The halftime show was a heart-stopper in the best and worst sense of the word.

When the lights came back, there was no evidence of the ocean, the Viking ships, nor the carnage that had taken place. The only remnants were small clouds of smoke, still floating about above the field, and the acrid smell of burnt flesh.

——-

The second half started with double the scoring and more than the first. The New England Commandos took the kick-off and worked their way down the field for the first touchdown of the game. It took Thorn Brandon little time to pick apart the Carolina defense and score on a seven-yard touchdown toss to his favorite tight end, Bonner Bratkowski.

With the point-after-touchdown, the score was 10 to 3, New England.

Conner Dent pulled in the ensuing kickoff and wormed his way close to midfield, where Camden Newsome took over. Two running plays took the Crushers to the New England 30 yard line. On the next play, Newsome faked a handoff and rolled out to his right. Every receiver down field was covered, and a New England lineman was barreling toward him, fire in his eyes.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Newsome saw Jericho Olsten break the other way toward the end zone. Newsome planted his feet and turned Olsten’s direction, hurling the ball in a perfect spiral to the big hands of his teammate just before being slammed to the ground. He felt a rib crack under the weight of the lineman.

Touchdown!

So the game went. New England and then Carolina. Carolina and then New England. There was no lull in the cheers from the 150,000 spectators, especially not in the Red Zone, where the curve of the arena created a perfect amplifier of the noise.

Barked signals.

Grunts from the impact of bodies crashing into bodies.

The smell of grass and earth.

The shrill whistles bleating throughout the game.

Scantily clad cheerleaders.

Lights.

Lights.

Lights.

One minute, thirty-seconds remaining in the game.
Carolina down by 28 to 27, with New England on the Carolina thirty-five. The Crusher defense dugs in. Bloodied and bandaged fists stabbed into the field, readied for the next snap.

Hut!

The snap.

Brandon faked a handoff into the line and dropped back. The front lines grappled for position, clenching sleeves and arms and anything else to get an advantage. The defensive backfield shadowed the New England receivers, each knowing their man must not shake free.
Bratkowski slipped out into the flat, uncovered. Brandon threw. A defensive hand stabbed the night air and tipped the ball, altering its flight, sending it forward like a tumbling space capsule. Bratkowski reached back and scooped the ball, then turned down field.

A linebacker barely missed him. A cornerback spun him in another vein attempt, yet Bratkowski somehow stayed on his feet. The clock ticked down to 1:10 as he lunged — two defensive backs clinging to him. He stretched the ball out in mid-air, and floated over the goal line.

The score was 34 to 27, with 1:08 remaining in the game.

Amazingly, the New England kicker missed the extra point, which sailed right and just struck the upright.

The kickoff was unreturnable. It sailed into and out of the end zone.

Newsome and the offense took the field with 59 seconds to go 80 yards.

“Time out!” Newsome called, stepping back from underneath his center. He walked slowly to the sideline to Coach Carne.

“I want to invoke the Pendulum Throw, Coach.”

“Are you kidding? We’ve done this before, Cam! We’ve come back in the last minute to win a game. You have the ability to do it!”

“Not with the stakes so high.”

“The stakes are always high!”

“I make the throw, it’s a done deal. For another year, anyway. Sounds easy to me.”

But that was Camden talking. He and his coach knew better. If they lost the game in regulation, both he and Carne would face turnover. Plus his teammates could also suffer. If the pendulum throw was missed, he was the only player liable, and Coach Carne would not be in jeopardy. There was also the chance New England would be merciful. It was part of a very strange rule.

Carne stepped to the head referee and spoke to him. The referee looked up, surprised, said something, and Carne nodded.
The referee walked to the middle of the field, and threw a red flag to the ground. He turned on his mic and spoke hesitantly.

“The quarterback of the Carolina Panthers has invoked the Pendulum Throw. The game time is thus expired, and the scoreboard is nullified. All other scoring is also nullified. We will have a five-minute official time out while the pendulum is set up.” He blew his whistle, and trotted off to the group of officials now gathered at the side of the field.

There was understandable confusion. A loud buzz ensued in the stands, with boos and one or two shouts of “Coward!” tossed out. Teammates tried to argue sense to Newsome, who shook his head and smiled broadly.

Invoking of the Pendulum Throw had never occurred in a Survive-a-bowl, and only three times during games over the past twenty-five years. Still, it had never been taken out of the rule book.

The sports anchors quickly backpedaled in their game coverage, trying to find highlights of past Pendulum Throws.

Mintz addressed the camera.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, this obscure rule has been used three times. Twice the throw was bad and missed. The captain of the team that invoked the throw had to shoulder the loss and was turned over. One throw was successful, and the opposition captain fell under the mercy of the winning captain. He could have chosen to allow the captain and coach to go free, and for the melee to be cancelled.

“He chose the no mercy.”

Very short videos and photos flashed onscreen quickly.
As the commentators continued, a large equilateral metal triangle descended slowly from above the field. Handlers positioned the triangle, which was then stabilized along the fifty yard line.

Camera on Dempsey.

“The triangle that supports the pendulum is exactly 160 feet long on each side. The pendulum, which swings from the topmost angle of the triangle, is 130 feet long. For all you math buffs out there, that’s 80 feet times the square root of three, right Marla?”

Cut to Marla.

“Not exactly, Dodge. You got the 80 correct and the square root of 3 is also right. The pendulum, however, is shorter than the triangle’s height. It swings on an arc where the lowest point is around 6 feet off the ground. The target at the end of the pendulum is six feet in diameter, and is made of polished brass.”

“Like a grandfather clock!”

“Yes, Dodge, like a grandfather clock.” Mintz was visibly irked at Dempsey’s interruption. “And a cutout in the center of the target is four feet in diameter.”

“That’s really not a big target, Marla.”

“No. It’s not, Dodge! Anyway, the pendulum moves at about fifteen miles an hour, and Newsome must stand with one foot touching the 25 yard line.”

“Wow! A 25 yard throw!”

“He can, Dodge, allow the pendulum to swing up to five times without making his throw. Once that has happened, he must throw the football. If he does not, he forfeits and loses the game. If he misses, he loses the game. If he manages to throw the ball through the opening, he wins.”

“Looks like the pendulum is just about ready, Marla. Let’s go down on the field with Terry Brandshaw.”

Cut to a smiling commentator who holds a mic in front of his face.

“Yes, Marla and Dodge, according to the head ref the pendulum is ready. Camden has been on the sidelines throwing. While the accuracy needed to throw a ball twenty-five yards would be next to impossible for most quarterbacks in the National Survive-a-Ball League, Newsome certainly has the equipment for success. Over the last six games of the season, Newsome has threaded the needle for 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. The man is very accurate!”

Cut back to Mintz.

“As well he will need to be. There’s Newsome coming out onto the field, football in hand. A referee is standing at the 25 yard line in the middle of the field. He shakes Newsome’s hand, and blows his whistle to start the pendulum swinging.”

A whirring sound from the drive motor attached to the pendulum axle increased in volume. The game clock ticked down from one minute. At zero, the pendulum was released from one side of the pyramid and began its arc. Its speed was controlled by the drive motor.

Woosh!

The pendulum made its first pass. Newsome studied its movement, trying to gage how much energy to put on his pass, when to let the ball go, and where to aim it. For the first time the entire night, the stadium was hushed.

Woosh!

The second pass of the pendulum along its arc. Newsome tilted his head back and looked into the bright lights above, then bowed as the pendulum made its third pass.

Woosh!

He dug his right foot into the lime of the 25 yard line. He could do this. The whole stadium hoped and believed the same — even the New England players.

You can do it! thought Red Carne.

Woosh!

You can do it! through Jon-Su from the luxury box, gripping his hands together tightly.

Woosh!

The last swing. The pendulum moved from Newsome’s right to the left. A more natural throw for him in leading the target. The pendulum arm hung on the last swing forever. Newsome’s thoughts raced, and slowed time and motion down. When the pendulum hit the vertical position, his arm was cocked, the football squeezed in his big hand. He stepped forward into the throw, tagged to the yard line with his other foot. He leaned forward will all his strength, and his arm catapulted the ball into a perfect spiral that arced toward an empty spot to the right where he judged ball and pendulum target would collide.

Epilogue

It was so close.

That’s what the commentators and teammates and Coach Carne and Jon-Su and everyone in the stadium said.

So very, very close. But close doesn’t count except in horseshoes and handgrenades, Dodge blurted out in the stunned silence.

The ball hit the inside edge of the cutout. It could as easily bounced through the hole. It could easily have been a spectacular finish.
Similarly, Thorn Brandon could have easily offered mercy, and spared Newsome turnover. But that would also have cancelled the melee. And if anything, Brandon was a company man, and knew a melee would compensate for New England winning the Survive- a-Bowl outright, and he his fifth ring in this fashion. The win was tainted. He and everyone else knew it. Also, he knew he would never have to face Camden Newsome again on the field of play. Being able to reduce the viable competition was, in survive-a-ball, part of the accepted strategy. Part of the game. The way the ball bounces.

Jon-Su turned to his new-found friend and extended his hand, which she took. The frenzy of the melee had begun, and there was nothing more to watch. If you’ve seen one melee, you’ve seen them all. She had agreed to stay over one more night. With him. So all was not a total loss.

Red Carne sat on the sideline bench, his head buried in his hands. Jericho Olsten tapped Carne on the shoulder

“C’mon, Coach — we gotta get outta here, and quick!”

Police in riot gear streamed onto the field where the fans had gathered around Newsome’s body. Everyone wanted a souvenir. A piece of his uniform. A lock of his hair. A fingernail.

Carne stood slowly, avoiding to look at the pandemonium taking place where Newsome had offered himself up. He trotted alongside Olsten and into the sanctuary of the dressing room.

THE END

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