From the author: This story will be included in THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT from Fairwood Press. Available for preorder now in a signed, numbered, limited edition, hardbound release in November, 2020. At https://www.fairwoodpress.com/catalog/item/7650566/10433169.htm
Arien never considered playing football for Wells High to be real football even though the senses were accounted for: the concession stand oozed popcorn and hotdog odors; the home crowd roared at good plays and moaned for poor ones. The opposing players’ stentorian breathing when they took their stance filled his ears. The helmet squeezed his head. Of course, he tasted the mouth piece’s hard plastic; it was the only part of the game that was real. Despite the vividness of those senses, the grass beneath his fingers didn’t feel grassy. All his hands sensed was hard or soft, warm or cold. No detail. No texture.
Also, he missed cheerleaders, mostly Margo. It wasn’t that they weren’t tshere; they were, stunningly beautiful, energetic, spirited, rousing the fans with intricate stacks and clever cheers, but as soon as the game ended, the field flicked out, and he was alone in his room, wearing his port gear. The cheerleaders were gone, including Margo.
The experience didn’t satisfy him.
But after tonight’s game, this could change.
Wells archrival, West Kimono High, owned the same six-and-two record, and the game would settle the league championship, but, more importantly two of West Kimono’s players, Broncho Martinez, an offensive lineman, and Bernardino Li-Chen, an option back, lived within sixty miles, while Wells’ quarterback, Harmon Byers lived in Sante Fe, only forty miles from Albuquerque where Arien lived.
What were the odds, Arien thought, that four players from two opposing high schools lived within commuting distance? West Kimono’s quarterback ported in from Fairbanks. He threw passes to a pair of wide receivers, one who connected in Buenos Aires, and the other played from Sydney.
Arien’s senior class was spread over the globe, and were sim-students at Wells because their learning styles matched the teacher’s techniques. They ported to classes in the morning, studied all day; then the athletes practiced, squaring off against virtual opponents for a couple of sweaty, afternoon hours.
Their proximity was rare, almost amazing, and out of that unique circumstance, the plot was born.
Harmon, who looked like a quarterback, classically chiseled cheek bones, long, smooth muscles bulging in his upper arms, always in his letter jacket, sat behind Arien in their Information Exploration class, a boring study of how and where to find problem related data. The assignments mostly consisted of scavenger hunts for obscure facts: How was the Maine sunk? What were religious reactions to the discovery of Martian lichens? Miss Davenport said for the umpteenth time, “Finding information defines the modern thinker.”
Harmon whispered in Arien’s ear, “Are we ready?”
Of course, he wasn’t really whispering in Arien’s ear. Harmon sat in his port room at his home forty miles away whispering into Arien’s virtual simulacrum.
Arien checked Miss Davenport. She lectured unperturbed. Harmon’s “whisper” would register on her monitors–teachers received way more information about their students in a virtual classroom than they did in an old-fashioned one–but she still needed to pay attention, and Harmon’s question was too vague to trip alarms.
Miss Davenport said, “What would be a productive sub-search routine to run if you wanted to know a foreign visitor’s cultural differences while you made your initial introductions?”
After a pause, Martin, who sat to Arien’s left put up his hand.
Arien moaned. Martin always answered questions, or asked them, or initiated discussion, or prompted debate, or looked interested, or otherwise kept the class moving. He was a Turing, an AI student. Most of the first week of school Arien spent discovering the Turings. Every class had at least a couple of them, digital shills who made the classes lively when the real students were sluggish.
After Martin answered, Miss Davenport moved on to another topic. Arien leaned across the aisle and said, “How’d you do on the test yesterday, Turing?”
Martin smiled–Arien thought he detected a nanosecond delay in the programming; the smile showed up a shade late–and said, “My name’s Martin. Ninty-two percent. How’d you do?”
Arien considered lying, just for the reaction. If he said sixty-percent, for example, the Turing would know that was twenty-five points low, and instead of whatever canned reaction the higher score would produce (“That’s a great grade, Arien!” Fake smile.). The AI would have to decide how to respond to the lie, all the time behaving as if it didn’t know it had been lied to. However, Arien knew the prank would get him a session in counseling inside of a couple of days where they’d poke and prod him about his self esteem.
“I did O.K.”
“That’s great, Arien.” Fake smile.
The Turings were unfailingly chipper in class. Also, they never went out for football.
Margo sat in the front, a row to his left. She wore her cheerleading uniform today, taking careful notes in her perfectly formed script. She’d shown him her notebook once after he’d missed a day sick, each “i” dotted with a heart. Her head rested on her hand, and long, wavy red curls spilled down her arm. Rather than take his own notes, he studied her shoulders, the way she held herself tilted a bit to the side, her cheek’s roundness.
He wished he could meet her for real, but he wasn’t even sure where she lived. Her snail-mail address was an international post office box, which just meant the mail was forwarded elsewhere. Most people chose to keep their home addresses unlisted.
They’d gone to the virtual Homecoming together, which hardly counted. Parents and the school monitored the dances closely, and other than dancing, and a chaste hug at the end of the evening, they’d barely touched. It wasn’t worth it. Although the port-suit was good for football’s heavy impacts, a caress left something to be desired.
After class, they met in the promenade. Theoretically, conversations out of the room weren’t monitored, but Arien, like most of the kids, didn’t believe that. Comments were elliptic.
“Are you still going to do it?” Margo asked. She had a musical voice. Arien thought it sounded like a pipe organ, a small one, each note ascending through golden tubes. Sometimes they’d meet in study hall, and he’d ask her to read his notes back to him, just so he could hear her speak.
“It’s a once in a lifetime chance,” said Arien. The passage between classes was airy and wide. Students strolled or gathered in small groups. Wells High adopted a classic Greek look this year–last year had been ivy league Victorian--so the walks were marble, and tall colonnades flanked doors into classrooms. The administrators at Wells reveled in digital remodeling. The teachers were the same way. Last week Davenport’s class met in saw grass covered sand dunes with the ocean pounding away in the background. This week she’d gone to a kind of a post-Disney, pseudo-dental office burnished chrome and porcelain motif room under twenty-foot tall ceilings.
Margo held her books close to her chest, arms crossed over them, her expression serious. “Will the place work?” She’d suggested the site weeks earlier, when he’d told her about the plan.
Arien nodded. “There’s enough light. The grass is flat. I lined out yard-markers a couple days ago. The ground up chalk worked just like you said it would.”
She said, “What if you . . . you know?”
He knew she meant to say, “What if you get caught?” a phrase that would surely alert a monitor.
They were at the door to his next class, Advanced Placement World History. “There would be a price to be paid. We won’t get . . . you know.” He thought about consequences. How many rules had he broken already? There was the stolen equipment, of course, and the lying to his parents about where he was going. The worst, though, the ones that might really get them were the quarantine violations.
“It’s just too paranoid,” Arien said angrily. “I don’t think I’m going to get the flu or a cold or something from everyone I meet. You know they used to play football in front of big crowds. A hundred-thousand real people in the same stadium, and they didn’t all get sick from each other.”
Margo looked panicked for a second, then recovered. “Thanks. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Maybe I can use that idea in my paper on archaic practices.”
“Yeah,” said Arien lamely. “Anything I can do to help.” He kicked himself mentally for almost blurting out the plan.
She turned and started to walk away, then stopped. “I wish I could go,” she said. “It’d be nice to spend some time with you.”
Pressure constricted Arien’s chest. She really liked him! He said, for the invisible monitor’s benefit, “Well, study hard and you can get into this class too.”
Coach practiced the new plays that afternoon, but they walked through the formations without hitting. On defense, Arien lined up to the left of the nose guard. For West Kimono, Coach had put in several twist plays where Arien switched places with the nose guard or the defensive end after the snap. Mostly Wells ran slants on defense, and the extra steps threw Arien’s timing off.
Arien took his stance, almost helmet to helmet with the offensive tackle. On this twist he was supposed to go around the nose guard and into the hole between the other team’s center and guard. They repeated the play a half-dozen times.
Football’s a thinking man’s sport, thought Arien. While he trotted around the nose guard, his heads-up display scrolled fundamental instructions. “Remember, a stalemate means the offensive lineman won. NO ARM TACKLES! Listen to the linebacker for the defense.” The scrolling was endless, as were Coach’s canned speeches playing in his ear, and Coach’s real-time comments. A diagram appeared in front of him, showing where he was supposed to go and where he was now. His position glowed red.
“Arien! Get to your mark! If you’re not there on time, they have an alley my grandmother could run through!” bellowed Coach.
After practice, Arien carefully disconnected himself from the portage. He put the helmet on its peg, pulled off the gloves, unzipped the sleeves, stepped from the pants and hung the suit on a hanger. The porting equipment filled one corner of the room. Arien’s parents believed in waiting until technology was proven, so he didn’t have one of the new units that was no bigger than a wastebasket. Regardless of the size, the ports worked the same way, transmitting data to the gloves, suit and helmet, creating any sensory environment. Within the outfit, he could run, swim, free fall, climb mountains, and hunt tigers, but mostly he went to school and played football.
It isn’t real football, he thought, as he dragged the box from under his bed. His parents were locked in their offices, but still, they might come out for some reason, so sweat beaded on his forehead as he carried it down the hallway to the garage. It wasn’t until he’d locked it in the trunk and returned to his room that he could breathe easily.
At their pre-game dinner, Mom said, “I don’t see why he has to go to the musical revue.”
Arien fought the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s not a ‘musical revue.’ It’s a retro-concert. The musicians play their own instruments, and you promised.”
Dad said between bites, “We did wild things when we were kids, dear. He has a bio-mask. He’ll be perfectly safe. You do have your mask, don’t you?”
Arien nodded. “It’s a state of the art concert hall. They said all the air will be filtered and irradiated four times an hour. It’s safe.”
Mom looked doubtful. “Won’t you be too tired after your game?”
Dad said, “He’ll be fine. After we win, he’ll have earned a little relaxation.”
With any luck, Arien thought, he might be able to make the concert too. It was the concert that gave him the co-conspirators’ addresses. He had ported to a chat room about it, a pleasant oak-shelved music library with deep-pillowed couches. Harmon was there, and Harmon had seen Bernardino and Broncho earlier. They all wanted to see the concert, and the plan was born.
After dinner, Arien showered. The suit seemed more responsive when he was clean, and the pounding water cleared his head. If Wells beat West Kimono, they’d qualify for regionals, but he had a hard time concentrating on the game. He thought about the box in the car. It wasn’t too late to chicken out.
The first defensive play off scrimmage convinced him he wouldn’t.
As always, the stadium smelled appropriately grassy; the concession stand oozed popcorn odor; the home crowd roared appreciatively at good plays and moaned for poor ones, and opposing players’ stentorian breathing when they took their stance filled his ears. It was exactly the same as the last game he’d played. The virtual playing field never changed, was absolutely regular. Shadows never varied (They played under the lights). Weather conditions always within parameters.
The West Kimono kickoff man returned the kick to their own twenty-five. Arien trotted in with the defensive unit. The linebacker called one of the twist plays they’d practiced. Arien put weight on his hand, ready to dash right on the snap (careful not to lean right or look right so as to give away the stunt). Their quarterback started his cadence. The ball moved. Arien jerked right. Drove around the nose guard. Turned toward the quarterback who’d backed to pass. Open ground. No protection for him. The twist worked! Arien plunged forward, already counting the QB sack on his stats. A hit from the side, and he was flattened.
They’d anticipated the twist and set up trap blocks. Arien stared through his face guard. The West Kimono man pointed at him. “Got ya’,” he said.
The hit was a surprise, and his side ached where the shoulder pads drove into him, but it didn’t hurt anymore than any other hit. Arien pushed himself up, pulled grass out of his face guard. Another shortcoming in virtual football was the game had become risk free. No chance for real injury. The port suits gauged the strength of the blow and the ability of the athlete to absorb it. A couple of years ago there’d been a scandal in high school ball because a player actually broke a leg. For weeks officials suspended the schedule as they investigated. Eventually it came out that the boy had an undiagnosed calcium deficiency. The game was deemed safe once again, and play resumed.
Well done trap blocks made a defensive lineman’s life miserable. West Kimono mixed their blocking routine, sometimes taking him straight on, sometimes double-teaming, and every third or forth play, letting him through for a blindside. He didn’t lay a hand on a runner in the backfield or even hurry the quarterback until almost halftime when he side-stepped a blocker, lowered his head, and buried it in the quarterback’s ribs. They whistled him for spearing.
As the team filed into the locker room for half time, Arien looked for Margo. The cheering squad knelt on the sidelines, waiting for the band to play. No Margo. He wondered if she was sick.
Coach prepped them on defensive adjustments, adding two new alignments to their heads up displays. Arien studied them. Pretty routine stuff. He supposed the game was exciting, the teams were tied at seventeen points each, but he was counting off the minutes until the end. The four players were supposed to meet an hour after the last snap. They’d have maybe an hour before heading to the concert. Would they show up?
Arien fidgeted on the bench. He didn’t dare display the driving route. Coach would see he wasn’t paying attention. Dutifully, he scrolled through the new plays. The band started their next song. Coach huddled them in the middle of the room. “Wells, Wells, Wells,” they chanted.
The second half went their way. Arien flushed the West Kimono quarterback out of the pocket on their first possession, and the Wells safety ran the interception back for a touchdown. But time passed slowly. Arien kept checking the game clock.
Wells won. The crowd went crazy, and Arien ported home before anyone congratulated him. He peeled the suit off and headed for the garage.
“Good game, son. Enjoy the concert,” called Dad as Arien passed his room. Dad held his port helmet in his hands. Mom still wore hers. “Go, Wells! Go, Wells!” she yelled, still at the stadium.
Arien punched the destination into the autopilot, and the car pulled away from their house. A projected map showed his progress as he moved through the neighborhoods. Arien liked to keep the windows transparent. The few cars he passed were opaqued. A light rain fell. Maybe they won’t come, he thought. His stomach tightened. Arien had the greatest distance to cover, seventy miles. If everything went well on his end, he’d hit the super-way and make the trip in under thirty-minutes. The others lived closer to the field.
The car turned into a retirement community. Lots of individual cottages with real windows, some with lights behind their curtains, then back into a newer area where the buildings crowded the streets, their unbroken faces as dark as the night sky behind them. Arien rubbed his arms briskly. He was only minutes away from the field, a long and wide grassy stretch at the back of a cemetery. He chewed his lip. If everyone showed up, they’d have maybe an hour. It had taken him about an hour to line the field, and he hadn’t seen anyone. The tombstones at that end were all more than a hundred years old, so there were no visitors, but light poles circled the area and lined the path. They’d be able to see.
Under the cemetery entrance. Up the winding path through trees and crypts. Over a rise and into the older grounds. Some stones leaned, their names nearly worn away. They were the influenza stones. Thousands of them the same size and shape. The city left the field as a reminder–most victims were cremated, but these were buried, and the stones served as a monument.
Three cars were already parked when Arien pulled up. A skinny boy wearing a jacket looked up from his car’s trunk and waved. Arien’s motor turned off, and he climbed from the car. For a moment he considered putting on his bio-mask, but decided against it. If they were going to play, they might as well breathe on each other too. The boy looked familiar, but barely. He was baby-faced, and his wrists were thin. Arien guessed he might weigh a hundred-and-thirty pounds.
Arien said, “Harmon?” Rain drizzled down. He wished he’d brought a hat.
“Is that you, Arien?” the boy said. “Wow. I thought you were bigger.” He pulled a set of shoulder pads and a helmet out of the trunk. “Did you bring the ball?”
Arien blushed. He’d tweaked his simulacra over the past few years to reflect what he wanted to be. After all, he played on the defensive line. It wouldn’t do for him to appear unintimidating. But Harmon was a god in the classroom, a quarterback god, and this boy didn’t look like he could toss a ball twenty yards.
Harmon said, “Broncho and Bernardino are here already. I don’t know if we want to go through with this.”
Arien opened his trunk. From the box he extracted his own shoulder pads, helmet and a ball, all ordered from an e-collectibles site. “Come on. We’ve gone this far. Don’t you want to know what real hitting is like?”
Harmon swallowed nervously. “It’s not that. Have you seen Bernardino?”
“Sure,” Arien said. Then he thought about how he’d “seen” Harmon. The Bernardino he knew from the games was a lithe option back. Solid, quick footed. Soft hands that never fumbled. Arien had tackled him twice during the game, once for a fifteen-yard loss.
A chubby kid wearing shoulder pads that were too big for him, carrying his helmet in one hand and an umbrella in the other came around the cars. “Hi, guys,” he said. “Is this Arien? I thought you were bigger.”
“You’re Broncho?” Arien almost said, “I thought you’d be more fit,” but he bit his tongue. “Nice to meet you. Did you have trouble getting out?”
“Naw. Coach chewed on us for a while about losing, but he got disgusted early and dismissed the team. You really took us to town in the second half.”
“You guys played a good game,” said Arien. “Where’s Bernardino?”
The other boys didn’t say anything. Then Harmon pointed across the field. “Warming up.”
In the darkness beyond where Arien had marked the sideline, a shadow moved. Then Bernardino stepped into the light.
He was huge! Six-and-a-half feet tall. Two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. Shoulders too wide for pads. “Hello, guys,” he said, his voice a well-tuned avalanche.
“Wow,” said Arien.
“Yeah, I thought so too,” said Harmon. “I want him on my team.”
“Sorry, boys. He plays with me,” said Broncho.
“Wow.” Arien had studied the old football films. Seen pictures of the greats. Bernardino looked bigger and stronger. He moved like he was barely containing an explosion.
“I apologize my simulacrum looks differently. The league handicapped me so I could play the game.”
“They can do that?” said Arien. He felt like he’d discovered a new sin.
Harmon said, “Yeah, it’s a parity thing. My dad knows all about it. He used to be on the high school activities board. Player’s skills are augmented or limited so no one feels bad about being understrengthed or slow.”
Arien shook his head. “Sheesh. Well, who would have guessed that? Let’s play anyway. If we don’t get started, the opportunity will be gone.”
Bernardino grinned and picked up the ball. It disappeared in his hand. “We will kick off.”
Arien helped Harmon into his pads. Then they trotted to the field’s far end. Harmon said he’d take the kick. Arien would block. He looked up. The rain continued, the drops suddenly appearing in the light to splatter on his face.
This is the way it should be, he thought. No crowd. No virtual concession stand. Beyond the sidelines, rows and rows of tombstones glistened under the lights. The pads felt good on his shoulders, even if they didn’t quite fit. They were weighty and sturdy and real.
In the mist, fifty yards away, Broncho looked like a midget standing next to Bernardino.
“Go ahead,” said Arien.
Harmon raised his hand above his head, then dropped it. Bernardino kicked. The ball sailed out of sight as Arien charged forward. Special teams. His job was to give Harmon a clear path. His legs drummed. Rain tapped against his helmet, and a glorious rush of feelings consumed him. I’m playing ball, he thought. Real ball!
A dark mass moved down the field toward him. A tackler. Get him! thought Arien, his consciousness now reduced to instinct. Stop the tackler. Protect the ball carrier. He changed his angle, all his practice coming into the forefront. Even without a heads-up display, he envisioned the lines forming on the field. Bernardino converging on the ball. Harmon cutting behind Arien for protection. Broncho following the lead tackler, swinging to one side to drive Harmon away from the open area. Hit him low, thought Arien..
In the back of his mind, Arien analyzed the situation. Bernardino led the charge, his long legs chewing up distance. Broncho lagged behind. If he could engage Bernardino for an instant, he might be able to break the block and also take on the second defender. They would score a touchdown on the kick! There were only two men between them and the goal. Arien took on two players all the time during games.
For an instance, the scene was poised and beautiful. No virtual set pieces. No synthesized crowd urging them on. No simulacra. Real air. Real grass. Real inertia. Arien saw it as a painting, a grim look set in his features, shoulders hunched for the block; Bernardino getting ready to juke left or right around him. This was better than his imagination. Then the scene continued, Arien swooping forward, waiting for Bernardino to commit to one side or the other. Another stride. Bernardino grew, came closer, details focused: a button on his shirt, a string flapping on his pads.
He didn’t juke.
The world went black.
Sometime later the world was still black. Arien’s back felt wet.
“Do you think he’s O.K.?” someone said.
Arien considered his position. For a while he thought the port-suit had fizzled out. Soon the screen would flicker and he’d be back in the classroom or at practice. He waited. A light patter of sound caught his attention. “What is that?” he thought.
“Maybe he’s dead.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” said a deep voice.
Arien thought, “It’s rain. I’m hearing rain. Why can’t I see?” Slowly he raised his arms. The right one ached from the shoulder to the elbow. His hands met a smooth surface in front of his face. He turned it, and above the face-guard Bernardino, Harmon and Broncho’s concerned expressions floated.
Arien pulled the helmet off. Rain fell straight down, tapping against his skin. “That was a heck of a hit.” He shut his eyes. “Did we score?”
“No,” said Harmon.
“He dropped the ball and ran the other way,” said Broncho.
“I’m sorry, Arien.” Bernardino crouched beside him. “Can you move your legs?”
Rain stroked his face, sending drops down his neck. He thought about it for a while before sliding his feet toward him. “Yeah.”
Bernardino looked so relieved that Arien nearly laughed, but breathing hurt, and he wasn’t sure that he hadn’t broken a rib.
“Maybe if I sat up,” said Arien. They bent to help him. He wrapped his arms around his knees. Nothing grated in his chest, so he decided the rib was whole, but it wouldn’t surprise him if he was bruised tomorrow.
In the rain, by the cemetery lights, the grass glistened. The ball rested in the middle, someone’s helmet upside down beside it. If Arien could preserve an image, that was the one he wanted. The rain, a helmet, a ball–an unevenly lined field and four warriors (three a little smaller than he’d pictured them). He smiled.
“Someone’s coming,” said Harmon. A car crested the hill and pulled next to theirs.
“Oh, jeeze,” said Broncho, “What if it’s one of our parents?”
The headlights winked out and the door opened. In the rain, Arien couldn’t tell who it was, but there was only one of them. He forced himself up, grimacing as he did.
The figure approached, wearing a bio-mask. It was a girl, a slender one in a rain coat. Arien didn’t recognize her. She was shorter than he was by a couple inches, and the rain dampened her thin red hair–strands stuck to her forehead. Her nose was narrow, and her eyes, above the mask, were dark.
“Arien?” she said, in a voice like a delicate pipe organ. “Did I miss your game?”
“Margo?” Arien said. He dropped his helmet.
“I did, didn’t I?” She put her hand to her mask, hesitated, then, looking at the other boys, removed it decisively. Her cheekbones were high, perhaps even a little sharp, and her chin wasn’t as round as it appeared in class, but now that he’d heard her voice, he could see the Margo he knew.
“Yeah, it wasn’t much of a contest.”
Harmon said, “We did a kick off, but I don’t think we’re going to run any more plays. Maybe we could catch?” Broncho and Bernardino nodded.
Arien rotated his shoulder to a chorus of sharp pains. “I’ll watch.”
The other boys trotted onto the field. Holding the ball, Harmon set them on a line, called a cadence, then yelled, “Hike!” He faded back and threw a tight spiral to Bernardino. Arien whistled appreciatively. Harmon might be small, but he had good technique.
From the corner of his eye Arien glanced at Margo standing at his shoulder. Caught her looking at him.
“Missed you at the game,” he said.
She scuffed the ground with her foot, and put her chin into her coat’s collar. “I’ve been on the super-way since breakfast. I really wanted to see . . . you know . . . you guys play. I live in Toronto.”
Broncho threw the ball this time. His wobbly pass didn’t reach Harmon, who dove to make the catch. He came up laughing. “Look, grass stains!” He held his forearms up for them to see.
“That’s a long way,” said Arien. He didn’t know what else to talk about. The Margo at school he could talk to for hours, but she wasn’t there actually. He was safe behind his digital image.
“Was it worth it . . . to play like this?”
Bernardino threw the next pass. It knocked Harmon off his feet.
Her voice was the same. He thought about her sitting in class, about walking with her in the courtyards between their rooms.
“Yeah, I’m glad we did it. I don’t need to do it again, though.”
The silence stretched uncomfortably. Finally, Arien said, “There’s a concert we’re all going to. Would you like to go?”
He could hear the smile in her voice without turning to see it. “Oh, I’d love to. That would be lovely.”
They didn’t move toward the cars. They watched the three other boys playing catch, yelling with joy in the rain.
After a while, Arien took a shaky breath, then reached out slowly, blindly from his side, until he touched her hand. They touched. She nestled her fingers between his. He could feel her palm’s silky texture, the fine strength in her hand and wrist. The rain had turned into a mist, and just before the boys quit throwing to each other to return to the cars, Arien, his heart careening in his chest, squeezed her hand.
She squeezed back.
This story originally appeared in Analog.