I was catching ball, building Tina’s arm for her high school softball team. I’d sent one down to land with a satisfying smack in her glove; her return felt like I’d been hit by a wet tissue.
“C’mon Tina, you throw like a chick.”
She hurled her mitt at me, a much better effort; but she’d cheated, walked halfway to me when she threw it.
“Sexist pig, misogynist.”
I didn’t have a chance to glare back before the screen door closed. Most people don’t hold my degree in modern Elvis highly but it got me started in football and taught me to research. Five minutes later when I finished with Wikipedia I was gutted; I grabbed a beer and settled onto the couch.
Christina walked in.
“Hey hon, am I a …” looking to my cell “negative male stereotype exhibiting gender specific biases to a child and or spouse?”
She gave me one of her ‘Rohit you’re an idiot but I love you’ looks. Before she could speak Tina stomped through the lounge, slammed the front door behind her.
* * *
Coach Silk’s eyes bored a hole in the wall.
“They weren’t hungry enough.”
Beneath Dave Yancy’s image of calm and peace was blind panic, locked in a room with team owner and head coach playing blame and fire.
Todd Carter ground his cigarette out on the carpet.
“I don’t give a toss about hungry or not, they get paid for results and there’s only one result that counts. Same for you two.”
“We did everything. Maybe next year, last season —”
“Last season ends at the final whistle Silk. Our sponsors couldn’t care less who came second.”
“Like Dave says, nothing matches the ache going into a final when you’ve never won.”
“So how long until they’re hungry again Yancy?”
“Never. Only thing you can do is drop them, pick up rookies and hope.”
“The hell you say! I didn’t buy a psych to tell me to go commit team hari-kiri. You know how much the broken contracts alone would cost?”
“Now if we could clone them ”
“Don’t be stupid Silk.”
“Seriously, I know they do it with dogs, why not?”
“’Cause I can’t wait twenty years! I just want them to forget it all and win.”
“I’m not sure they’ve changed the laws on brainwashing Mister Carter.”
Todd Carter stood, jabbed a nicotine stained finger at them.
“You get one more season. I’ve sunk too much into this lot for anything but results so you do what you have to do. Win it, you stay on. Lose it you’re both history, this team and any other. Understand?”
They both nodded glumly to the closing door.
“He can do that?”
Coach Silk pulled out a bottle and two glasses.
“You might go back but I’ve got nothing after this.”
“I’ll probably spend the rest of my life teaching first year arts students.”
“If the carrot didn’t work there’s always the stick, something harder, more direct. I know some people, not very nice people, but they … .”
“What? Are you talking about physical violence?”
“Yes, no, I mean maybe. It’s not the doing, just the threat of it that’s all.”
“Is it worth it?”
“How much’s your contract?”
“And the rest. Sponsorships, freebies, perks. Two more years would set me up, I’ll be damned if I’ll let it go.”
“I agree, but threats don’t work. It’s the same problem, they meet a team that wants it more and it’s over. How much do you think Mister Carter’s willing to give?”
“Anything, you know what he’s like.”
“Ok, just give me a few days. I might have something.”
* * *
Christina stood arms folded, raised eyebrows.
“What did you do this time?”
I told her.
“You can’t bring the locker room home.”
“But it still comes out. One day no-one’s going to remember you as the big football hero or cut you any slack. Then there’s big trouble.”
“But I do the right thing, just like I’m told.”
“It’s not enough. Remember last week?”
I couldn’t forget, it ruined the post season party. Walking into the hotel lobby I held the door open for Christina, being a gentleman just as my grandma taught me. Elsie behind her is the owner’s daughter so I wait to let her through but she just stands there glaring. I’m smiling but my mind’s screaming, I’ve got the door and it’s her duty out of politeness to go through. A crowd’s banking up waiting for her to move, another around Christina wondering what’s going on. We’re like this for a bit then my patience wears out.
“I’m no-one’s property and I don’t need a Neanderthal jock waiting on me.”
I threw the door closed but I misjudged, the door swung both ways. It caught her face knocking her out cold with a bloodied nose. Not the sort of publicity I wanted and not the way to enter contract negotiations.
“Ok hon but I still keep trying.”
“You can’t just keep trying, you have to start doing.”
“For a start think like our daughter, imagine what it’s like on the receiving end. You know, like coach says, get into your opponent’s head.”
* * *
Dr. Kamen leant back.
“You’re serious David?”
“You know DARPA wouldn’t even touch the theory.”
“Of course. But I read the lab reports.”
“And the ethics committee killed it off.”
“But it should work.”
“It does, that’s the problem.”
“I thought the problem was you don’t know.”
“It’s not a case of don’t, it’s can’t. It’s banned.”
“But you’ve kept the lab test model.”
“You’ve got what I want, I’ve got what you can’t get.”
“Test subjects. Sixty over one, maybe two years.”
“You know I can’t tell you. Just believe me, they’re volunteers and I’ll be supervising.”
“I can’t be seen near it, you’d be on your own.”
“Of course. So?”
“How much? Name your price.”
Dr. Kamen steepled her fingers, pursed her lips.
“All of it. Baselines, changes, reversions, the lot.”
“Everything from when it gets picked up to when it gets handed back?”
“Plus two other things.”
“One. You delete your copies when done. One data set only, the one you give to me. Two. No one publishes but me.”
“You’ve got a deal.”
* * *
“What’s it for Dave?”
“Performance analysis Anita, measures and records it all for later. Plus it’s a sweat band.”
She twirled it around.
“Seems like a strange idea on finals day.”
“Perhaps but there’s next season to think of.”
She slipped it on, pulled her ponytail out.
“Guess it makes the sponsor happy too.”
“Nothing like a happy corporate. Just make sure the rest of the girls put theirs on.”
“Is it coming through?”
Coach Silk lifted his head.
“Twelve channels clear. Will this be enough?”
“Should be, they’re keen but bound to lose. Netball’s a brutal sport.”
“How many’s that with the soccer?”
“Forty six. Enough for the run on squads but I think we’ll mix and match, cover them all.”
A crash of bodies thrown together onto teak followed by whistles and shouts floated across.
* * *
“It’s motivational Levin so you’ll put it on and smile.”
“No need to get stuffy coach, it’s just a question.”
“Like I care. Suck it up and do it, Mister Carter’s orders. It’s just a sweat band for the new sponsor.”
“No one’s going to see it under the helmet.”
“Mister Carter and I will each time you take it off, so keep it on. Now get out there and pretend you’re a pro.”
Coach Silk shook his head as the last one trotted out.
“Idiots. You ready?”
Dave looked at his tablet.
“They’re all coming in clear, all good.”
“You still think it will work? All we got were the girls, you don’t think it’s a problem?”
“No, emotion is emotion. Anyway I’ll just build up bit by bit during each pre-season game. Today we monitor the squad and just hit Levin with it, see what it does.”
They let the data roll in for the first quarter. Start of the second Dave dialed it in, punched up the gain.
Funny, he’d never shown any signs of religion before but now he was down on the turf on both knees, head bowed and back shaking in fervent prayer. Coach Silk was beside himself.
“What are you doing Levin? You crying? Get to your feet asshole and play the goddamn game!”
Dave looked down, realized he’d maxed the anxiety channel. He hurriedly cut back the feed. Rohit stood, shook himself and looked around sheepishly.
* * *
It seemed to work but wasn’t enough. The burning ache still didn’t exist. Dave set up a feedback loop, drove the team to the depths of despair and frustration and then channeled their own reactions and feelings back into them. It nearly worked. Second in the pre-season comp but should’ve been first.
“It’s not enough.”
“It isn’t getting in deep, it just skims over the top.”
Rohit trotted up.
“Nearly got ‘em coach.”
“Yeah Levin, close but no banana. How you feeling?”
“Disappointed, but hey, we’re the champs.”
Coach Silk stared as he disappeared down the tunnel.
“As long as they still know they’ve done it we’re stuck.”
“Can’t wipe it. It’s like a habit, you never kill it off you just put another on top. Maybe a long drip feed, trickle it into them night and day could do it.”
“How? They can’t wear sweat bands twenty four seven.”
“Don’t need to. The receiver in the band’s half the size of a grain of rice. When’s the next physical?”
“Whenever you want. Why?”
* * *
Coach Silk called the last one in.
“Sit here Levin, look straight ahead, chin on the strap.”
“What’s this coach?”
“Blood sample and vitamin shot.”
Dave swabbed Rohit’s temple.
“There? It’s usually the arm.”
“Special shots, new type.”
“But in my head?”
“You the doctor Levin or is it Doctor Yancy?”
“Doctor Yancy of course —”
“So shut it and stay still.”
Ten seconds later it was over, Dave placing a band aid over the spot.
“Leave it for two days, no booze tonight. Get out of here and close the door behind you.”
Coach Silk looked over Dave’s shoulder.
“That’s the last. All ok?”
Dave pointed to the cluster of dots on the screen, then at the solitary one that was Rohit moving to the others.
“All fifty eight working perfectly.”
“Sure I can’t keep an eye on them? Save me a lot of trouble.”
“I told you, they can’t know.”
* * *
“When does it start?”
Dave made a few adjustments before closing the tablet.
“All done. I’ll need a safe.”
“You’re not keeping it?”
“No, I want the controller stored separately from the main machine.”
“Just in case?”
Coach Silk pulled aside a few books to expose a tumbler and handle.
Dave placed the tablet under a small pile of manila folders. Coach Silk closed the safe and replaced the books.
“Won’t need it again until end of season.”
* * *
“Don’t know how you did it Silk but you did.”
Todd Carter was in his element playing the exuberant owner of a superbowl championship squad. Everyone loves a winner and nobody was winning more than his team.
“Don’t forget Dave Yancy.”
“How could I? You two made a great team, just a shame he’s not around to see it.”
Thankfully it was set up before that drunk driver had taken him out; if it had happened a week or two earlier, before we had the drip feeds right, it would have been a different story.
“Gone but not forgotten.”
“It’s a great legacy. NFL champs, Superbowl. I’ve never seen any side as hungry.”
Carter turned at the doorway.
“Now all you’ve got to do is see it stays that way.”
* * *
Coach Silk sat pensively in his office, glass in one hand, tablet in the other. The plan had been to shut off the drip post season, start it up again later, but now he wasn’t so sure. What had Dave said? That was it, ‘They’ll never be as hungry again once they’ve done it’. Well they’d managed again, maybe that was a miracle, but Carter wanted a three-peat. And then probably another.
Perhaps I can push them harder. If I keep it up, keep feeding them over the off season that might help. Maybe I’ll just leave it on. He was about to put the tablet back when something caught his eye. To one side above a green bar showing five percent a single word glowed. Intensity. Dave had said a trickle and that’s what he’d meant. Always cautious, always just too timid, I knew he lacked killer instinct. With only the slightest hesitation Coach Silk slid the bar to one hundred, tapped accept and locked the tablet away.
* * *
She’s still weak, needs to fix it, work on delivery and technique. No daughter of mine’s gonna be a loser.
“Try this time.”
It comes in stronger with a little twist, not good enough.
“What’s that Tina? Another limp-wristed nothing from a loser. Put in some effort.”
I send back a real scorcher, it hits her in the kidneys doubling her over.
“And your fielding sucks.”
She slams her mitt into the ground, attracts a few stares.
“It’s just a fucking game!”
“Don’t start. Champs don’t give up, I’ve never given up, there’s nothing worse than losing.”
“This is. I don’t major in softball, it’s not important.”
“It doesn’t matter. You need to be the best in everything.”
“But not this.”
“Not anything. I’ve seen your grades.”
“Since when are As a problem?”
“Since you’re getting ninety-five percent. You’re a five percent failure. You don’t try hard enough, don’t reach. Like that idiot you’re going out with.”
“John? What about him?”
“Wimp, no muscle, and an arts student? And a B average. An idiot and a loser, and you’re one for going out with him.”
“At least I’m not like mom, chained to an idiot jock with a shit degree! You’ll be a has-been that never was in five years.”
It was only a gentle palm open tap but it left her flat out on the ground gazing icily at me. She stood then ran across the park into the street. She’s got to toughen up, get with the plan, push it harder. It’s Christina’s fault, she’s bought her up with her loopy friends and coddled her far too much.
* * *
It was working. Coach Silk always kept the gym open during off season. Without fail one or two would be there keeping in shape until, a week or two before officially called back, the rest of the squad would slink in. Here it was, barely three weeks into the off season and it was packed. An arm waved from a bench press.
“Hey coach, a hand?”
“Sure Levin, what?”
“Put another twenty pounds on.”
He shifted another anonymous lead weight onto the already serious pile.
“Making an effort this year?”
“Whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes.” replied fifty seven voices.
* * *
Christina found him rocking back and forth naked on the floor, knees clutched to his chest sobbing.
“I can’t do it, Tina can’t, she’s a failure like me.”
“That’s not right. You’re at the top now, she’s just starting to climb.”
“It’s easy for you, I can’t fail. There’s only winners and losers and I don’t want to be on the wrong side.”
“You’re not. You work hard, you always do. And Tina’s got time, she’ll fail like everyone else but she’ll get back up again, just like you do, that’s what counts.”
“No, no, there’s being first then everything else, that’s all that matters.”
“Well I’m not sure —”
“You just don’t remember, just don’t know what losing is like.”
* * *
“Good job Silk.”
Coach Silk looked at Todd Carter then back to the huddle of bodies midfield. While the receiving team stood in a circle screaming, the rest of the squad along the benches were fist pumping each other, yelling encouragement. There was a palpable nervous energy about them, a buzz that put him on edge.
“Maybe this year we’ll do well.”
“I’m counting on it.”
So am I. Rohit lifted his head up between yells, catching Coach Silk’s eye. It chilled him, equal parts fear, determination and fanaticism. He pushed it out of his head. It’s what I want, what we aimed for. He made his way over, last words before the first game.
“Ok morons, show me you’re not a waste of oxygen.”
They turned, ran to take their positions for the kickoff. Funny, when did the strips change to have hip bulges?
It was a poor kick off, Rohit catching it easily on the thirty yard line, the rest of the team forming a wedge behind him. He took one step back then sprinted forwards to meet the opposition, one arm tucking the ball to him, the other reaching to his hip. He closed to within five yards of the first defender, lifted his arm. A deafening crack rose above the cheering crowd. The defender fell, neat hole bored between his eyes. Rohit ran over him and on, two more shots ringing out behind him as two more defenders fell. They reached the in-goal, shocked spectators and opponents looking on in frozen silence as Rohit spiked the ball.