In which men become images, and big things turn small!
Just as he’d offered, Oso procured tickets to the game for them. Oddly, though, the normally self-composed granddad appeared agitated as they stood in line at the stadium, a strange brunette he’d introduced as Myra balancing her stiletto-enhanced height on his arm. She was maybe ten years older than Stephanie. If that. Still, Stephanie eyed her with interest rather than any kind of ill will. Where had he found her since the last time she’d met with him? There’d been no Myra then. Or at least, not that she’d been aware of.
They stood outside the entrance gate of what once had been Arroyo del Oso park, and was now an enclosed stadium called Del Oso. The stadium still had the Arroyo del Oso’s original walking trail surrounding it, where frumpy women attempted to walk or unwittingly run off their pounds while listening to the silence, as the stadium was silent throughout much of the year.
They unwittingly ran because of the refugees from the local Minä camp. This particular Minä camp was located on the Del Oso golf course, where it had become, over time, part of the course’s level of difficulty. Golf itself was extraordinarily difficult, as it had adopted bionimals—tiny robotic animals—when balls became security risks. But bionimals were unwieldy to hit with the new and improved bamboo supported foam sticks. Del Oso golf course, fitting with its name, used hundreds of bionomic Teddy bears that liked to grab onto and cling to the bamboo sticks instead of being hit by them.
By law, these bionimals were not allowed to be wired with the traditional pain censors that Minäs had. Because they were part biological and part nanotube mesh, just as Minäs were, it was considered inhumane to cause them pain. So rather than go backwards in mankind’s evolution away from playing with inherently risky spherical objects, the golf class of bionimals were wired with pre-deadened pain censors.
Indeed, golf had become a great sporting event, with bonding between man and beast. Men would choose their favorite bionimals, and the favorites would smugly go out to play the game, while the less desirable bears were left behind. It was par for the course.
The less desirable bears often snuck out to play, however. It was difficult to contain these cute and cuddly creatures. They knew where the Minä camp was, and they’d run there, dragging broken or unused bamboo foam sticks with them, to play with their android counterparts. Inevitably, the Minäs and bears would take their sport outside the rolling green of the course and find sport in targeting the women who walked along the trail. To avoid being hit with wild swinging bears, the women would run away. The Minäs and bears, being mimics, would run after them.
The walking trail, then, was silent for much of the year, the silence punctuated with shrill screams as middle-aged women took to running to avoid being whacked. The surprise factor turned out to be good for muscle fitness, and that in itself made the trail a popular exercise spot. One local woman named Angelica had been featured in the Fitness Utopian Quotient Journal for losing nearly a hundred pounds after becoming a popular target for Minäs and bears. Although the article had meant to be emotive, discussing the plight of refugees, reject bears, and the female victims who were assaulted by them, many people suggested that Angelica had brought on her own victimhood by wearing neon shirts with targets printed on them.
She insisted it was a fashion statement and had not been intentional. She sued the Del Oso golf course and won one-point-five million dollars, which she used toward a trans-android surgery. Stephanie knew all this because she had done an expose on the woman and her struggles with being born a female human with the mind of a male Minä. She was a nice enough woman, for a money grubber—nice, but misunderstood. As part of Stephanie’s research, she had even played a round of golf and visited the Minä camp.
Those were the good old days. No, really, they were. Those were the days when she could do exposes as well as writing bylines. Now, she spent all her spare time outside of bylines with her granddad. This was a good thing, a connection with the past and all that. It was a good thing. She sighed tiredly and smiled as she felt Mark take her hand. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Granddad, what’s the matter? Why are you acting nervous?” she asked.
Before he could answer, a scream split the late afternoon air. A woman, chased by no fewer than three Minäs with bears on their shoulders and sticks in their hands, ran past. Devon, who had been absently bouncing a red ball, perked up his head and tried to run off after his fellow Minäs, but Oso grabbed his arm and held him fast.
Oso clenched his jaw. “I’m not nervous. I’m never nervous. Impatient would be a better word. If you write about this in your little book, make sure you choose your vocabulary appropriately.”
Myra laughed. Stephanie just looked at her granddad, unsure how to respond. For what she could read of human emotions, and she did believe she had a knack for it, nervous was the appropriate term.
They had arrived early to be at the top of the line when the gates were open. Stephanie soon understood why they had arrived early and why, perhaps, her granddad was nervous. As the line formed behind them, composed of the conspicuously rich, their whispering of the Beñat name became like a wave formation behind them. Oso was here. Oso Beñat, the man himself. The despised. The loved. The man who, as an octogenarian, could make young women swoon and intellectual women melt into fatuous blobs.
The rich, always displaying themselves in public as enlightened philanthropists, wanted nothing to do with Oso Beñat, while in private, they were quite happy to drink his bourbon and hint at devious world domination plots.
The modern day internet was full of world domination stories, which ranged from campaigns to destroy Oso to conspiracies about Oso’s backroom dealings with the world elite. Stephanie knew because she’d read all about it—in her private time, of course, since it wasn’t allowed for League members.
A woman with a purple beehive jostled against Oso as though it were an accident. Oso ignored her. The lanky man with Purple Beehive glared at their group, narrowing his eyes at Devon, who had resumed jumping up and down. Meanwhile, the screaming jogger was rounding the trail loop again, the Minäs still chasing her.
“What idiot brings their Minä to a game?” lanky man muttered to no one in particular.
Well, no wonder he was in a bad mood. He was a rich dupe with an unattractive wife. Stephanie was startled at her own thoughts. It was as if her granddad’s voice had entered her consciousness.
“Do you leave yours with a babysitter?” she retorted.
“Pardon?” the man coldly said, his bloodless lips pressed into a thin line.
“Do you leave your Minä with a babysitter? Because my grandfather wouldn’t do that. He treats his like a son.”
“I don’t have a Minä, young lady. The technology is inhumane.” At that point, the man’s eyes darted to Oso’s tall figure. Clearly, the man, who was no more than fifty, was nevertheless afraid of an octogenarian.
“There should be a law against them,” Purple Beehive said.
Unexpectedly, Devon threw his ball at her and whooped and jumped up and down a few times.
The woman screamed. “B-b-bomb!”
In an instant, security surrounded them, very real explosives pointed in their direction. Devon tried to fetch his ball, which had rolled under a very frightened couple’s feet. The couple appeared frozen to the pavement in shock, the look on their faces understanding that certain death was near.
“Call off your Minä!” a security officer in full military armor shouted.
“Devon,” Oso said. “I told you not to bring the ball. No, you may not fetch it. We’ll let the security officers do that.”
Devon hung his head, but mercifully remained frozen in place in mimicry of the line of people behind them. Meanwhile, several security officers circled in closer and closer to the ball, their weapons pointed at it. Stephanie, who was also standing stock still, couldn’t help but to move the muscles of her forehead into a confused wrinkle. Pretending for a moment that the ball was actually a bomb, Stephanie wondered why threatening its inanimate self with different types of explosives would be effective. But what did she know of warfare? Maybe this was the way it worked.
Eventually, one officer was close enough to use an extended robo arm to reach out from a safe distance with a materials detection reader, which he pressed lightly against the red ball. He then retracted his arm and studied the reading.
“Rubber,” he said. “Hollow. Non explosive. This may be a real ball, ladies and gentlemen. It will be immediately confiscated and the gates will proceed to open. The game will not be delayed.”
A collective sigh of relief filled the air. However, the people near the front of the line still appeared frozen and petrified. Clearly, they weren’t sure if they should move while the ball was still in the vicinity, albeit in the security officer’s pocket.
“We’ll let it go this time,” the gate security officer said to no one in particular, as his gaze was glazed and distant. “Single file, please. Shoes off. Bags open.”
Mark and Stephanie separated, pulling off their shoes. This was the usual routine, occurring in courthouses, schools, airports, bus terminals—everywhere that could be considered public. As reporters, they were used to the treatment. Stephanie was immediately frisked and groped between the legs, as was Mark, before they were given back their shoes. Neither of them had brought bags. Oso did not remove his shoes, but walked through the gate, pulling Devon and Myra with him. Nobody attempted to stop him, as the stadium and nearby athletic fields wouldn’t exist without his patronage.
Mark’s face was redder than usual. He appeared livid. “He grabbed my junk. That man grabbed my junk and kept his hand there for thirty seconds. They never do that at the courthouse.”
“Calm down, son,” Oso said. “In the future, don’t obey. It’s as simple as that. Those that obey are pussies.”
In fact, speaking of, a woman giggled high and loud as a guard groped her.
“They have guns. Some fights are losing propositions for those of us who aren’t billionaires,” Mark said.
Oso snorted. “Those guns aren’t real. This stadium has been privately owned for ten years. They aren’t allowed to have real guns. I’d be surprised if they turned out to be paint guns. Not that paint guns wouldn’t scare the living daylights out of every woman here wearing a $5000 dress.”
“I took off my shoes for fake guns?”
Oso squeezed Mark’s shoulder in consolation.
“He held on,” Mark said. “I feel violated.”
“Being sports editor has its advantages. Name the guard when you write about this event. I assume you noticed the name on his tag.”
“Yes, Jordan Haught. What if he sues the paper for libel?”
“That’s precisely why I employ the best lawyer in the nation, Mark. Now lighten up. This place has the most god awful expensive champagne known to man, but I have a flask of Booker’s—two flasks, to be precise.” He pulled one flask from his hip pocket and handed it to Mark. “Take a drink and get ready for the show.”
Mark stared at the flask, admiration writ large in his eyes. “This is so beautiful,” he said, as he ran his thumb over the pewter bottle engraved with a simple bear.
“The bourbon is even more beautiful. Stop getting your fingerprints all over it and take a healthy drink.”
Mark did so. He closed his eyes. “That is not what I’m used to drinking,” he whispered.
“No, it isn’t. Myra, Devon, Stephanie? Shall we enter the stadium proper?”
Their group of five entered into what appeared to be a traditional sports stadium, as Stephanie had seen in photographs. It was enormous, with graduated seating, food stands, manicure stations, and waiters in tuxes hawking organic, ethnically sourced, Toulousain peanuts roasted in artisanal small batches. There were a number of people in classic evening wear already lingering at the food stands, holding champagne glasses and micro-hotdog sushi boxes.
“Wow, I think I should have eaten earlier. I can’t mix with these people.”
“Don’t worry, my dear. I wouldn’t want you to. I have ways and means,” Oso said.
“Yeah, I know you have money, but…”
He clapped her on the back. He had gone from nervous to jovial as soon as they’d entered through the gates. “Money that I don’t propose to waste on button sized dishes that cost $1000. I’m having my favorite chef deliver us food.”
They made their way to their seats, which were quite high up in the stadium. Stephanie swallowed. The view made her dizzy.
“Why are we up so high?” she asked. “I feel woozy.”
“Ah, sit down, darlin’. We’re up this high because I want Mark to have the aerial view. And, here, there’s no reason, a good dose of Booker’s won’t help you, too.” He handed her the flask.
“Really? By the way you handed it to Mark, I thought it was a manly ritual.”
He nudged her with his elbow. “I’m sure Mark will like you better when you’re not so uptight.”
She scowled a little and took a tiny sip. It burned her mouth.
“Come on,” her granddad urged.
She looked up at Mark, who was smiling. She tried again, took a deeper drink that made her hack. She downed one more just to prove she could. By the time the food was delivered—by her granddad’s favorite top chef—she was not merely sick at the height, but euphoric, too. She dipped into the sandwich handed to her, after spreading the sauce from its little cup all over the top of the meat.
“Yow!” she hollered, as her nose hairs were singed.
“That’s some good horseradish,” her granddad said.
Mark looked at the sauce skeptically, but eventually tried just a little on the tip of his sandwich. “What is this piece of heaven you’ve brought us?” he asked.
“That, son, is a prime rib sandwich.”
With her belly full, and her head spinning, Stephanie watched the beginnings of the game, the rules of which she only understood from what she’d learned from her granddad yesterday. However, the game wasn’t starting as they’d started it on the green. It was starting as every professional televised game started: with the players doing their signature dances. It was fascinating entertainment. In real time, the audience of purple-haired types clapped and stomped thunderously for their favorite dancers.
One man, who appeared to be stepdancing with an outer pair of Irish tiger underwear, suddenly tore off his shirt and slid to his knees, though the turf prevented the dance move’s completion. Still, the audience roared their approval, and then roared some more as various clothing items were ripped off and thrown to the crowd amid hip gyrations and leap-cross-steps. By the end of the dance ritual, the team players were left wearing nothing but sturdy sports underwear and bow ties. One team wore green bow ties, the other orange.
Stephanie wasn’t surprised exactly. Okay, maybe a little. What she saw on TV, though like in spirit, was a little more subdued. And truth be told, she’d never seen so many grown men in underwear before. For some reason, she didn’t find them attractive at all. But, again, she assumed it was her lack of understanding for sports. Mark, no doubt, understood. She glanced at him and saw his mouth hanging open in astonishment. Her granddad handed him the hip flask.
Eventually, the game commenced. The men ran to and fro, kicking at what appeared to be a spherical ball with a black and white pattern of hexagons and pentagons. From this perspective, it seemed a real ball. Stephanie was kind of surprised, especially when she considered the reactions to a much smaller rubber ball outside the stadium. Perhaps this ball was not threatening because the men were making goals in their underwear.
And speaking of goals, every time one was made, attempted, or deflected, Devon shot up from his seat and did his usual whooping and cheering. And every time he did, the people of the stadium, in their evening clothes and opera glances, turned to stare at their little group. It was odd how subdued they were now that there was a game on, rather than a lot of men ripping off their clothes and dancing.
Even Emmett the halftime clown wasn’t entertaining compared to the male strippers. Emmett the halftime clown. She was tumbling with the cheerleaders, and it wasn’t even halftime.
“Granddad, that’s Javi’s commitment ex.”
“The clown. She’s Javi’s commitment ex. She’s a national star, and here she is, cheering for a game in Albuquerque.”
Mark rubbed his face. “By Javi, you mean your brother?”
“Yes, Javi my brother. I don’t know any other Javis.”
“You were holding out on me again, or what, Stephanie? How come you never told me your brother was committed to the halftime clown? I could have interviewed her a long time ago. I didn’t know it was a her. Hard to tell in those clown clothes.”
“She’s an androgyne, and I don’t really know her,” Stephanie calmly explained. Or she tried to stay calm. “Javi doesn’t like us interfering with his life.” By life, she meant, virtual reality beta sports game tester. For a few weeks, he’d lost track of what was real and what was virtually real and had thought Emmett was a virtual clown. That was the only reason he’d committed himself to her.
The next time the hip flask was pulled out—this time a leather one that emerged from the opposite hip—Stephanie grabbed it and poured some of the oh-so-smooth, yet fiery liquid down her throat. She didn’t know if she could understand what was going on if she remained sober. Just when that second shot hit her stomach, it happened. The event. Stop action. One of the players was frozen in midair, kicking the ball. And then he reversed, and he kicked it all over again and hovered in the air, his leg powerfully extended, the ball in a perfectly arced trajectory. Devon was so excited, he couldn’t contain himself. When he leapt up to shout, there was a wet spot on his pants.
“He’s defying gravity?” Stephanie said, her voice squeaky from exertion.
“Sure, darlin’, that’s what’s going on. Very good interpretation.” Her granddad patted her knee.
“Oh my God,” Mark said. “They’re all holograms. All of them.”
“At least the ones defying gravity are,” Oso said in his low, yet somehow charming growl. “They have to have some real sweat drenched men to greet their fans at the end of the game.”
Mark’s face fell. “Not just the balls, but some of the players are shams, too.”
Oso didn’t hand him a flask this time. “Why so glum, Mark? You already knew this.”
He shrugged. “I guess as sports editor, I hoped for a good game. Not a conspiracy, proved or disproved. Just a good game. I don’t know what this is, but it’s not that.”
“Stick it out to the end, and I’ll introduce you to one of the players. A real player, not a hologram.”
“Will he still be in his underwear?” Mark pitifully asked. “Because I really don’t want to interview a man wearing nothing but underwear and a bow tie.”
“Nor do I,” Stephanie added.
Oso nodded and sighed. “You two give me hope.”
Myra, silent up to that moment, suddenly piped up, “I’ll do it. I wouldn’t mind meeting one of those men in underwear. Preferably the one up in the air. He’s amazing.”
They all just eyed the poor glossy brunette. Nobody dared breathe a dumb brunette joke, which had become all too common. But Stephanie couldn’t help it. Her brain reeled off a few select ones, even if her mouth didn’t. It didn’t altogether matter that she herself was a brunette. Brunettes, as a general group, were tiresomely stupid. Two brunettes fell down a hole. One said, “It’s dark in here isn’t it?” The other replied, “I don’t know, I can’t see.”
And soon, she couldn’t see, either, as she laid her head on Mark’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Granddad’s liquor was potent, and the game had worn her out. Stepdance. Stop action. Men in underwear who defied gravity. It was too much for her poor head. Mark put his arm around her shoulders and held her tight. She woke to him shaking her and telling her it was time to interview a player named Toby Mann.
“Your granddad’s got it all set up.”
She felt like a bear that had been woken from an unseasonal hibernation caused by red meat and alcohol. A bear. God, no. Now she was thinking of herself in terms of her granddad. And grandma. The realization took her by surprise in her just-waking, theta-wave mental state. It suddenly dawned on her that Bernadette meant little bear. How was this possible? She was the descendant of a family of bears.
“Come on, sleepyhead.” Mark tugged her to a standing position and guided her up the bleacher steps.
When they reached Toby Mann, he was already being interviewed by an official reporter, that is, not a JOI belonging to the League. While on the field, he’d had his hair drawn back in a ponytail. Now it was down, flowing around his carefully made-up face. He was wearing more makeup than Stephanie, but that was to be expected, as the game had become a kind of theater.
“You defied government regulations to be yourself?” the reporter was asking him.
“Yes,” Mann said. “Yes. I knew in my heart that I’d always been a six-year-old Minä child and could be nothing else. It was the way I was wired from the time I was a little girl.”
“Mr. Mann, can you tell us honestly, did you or did you not undergo an illegal lobotomy?”
“No, much to my frustration. The few doctors who are willing to put their reputations at risk are booked up until the end of the year. My appointment is months off.”
“That must be difficult for you.”
Mann let out a broken cry before tears flowed down his cheeks. “You don’t know. Until you’ve been trapped in skin that isn’t who you are inside, you couldn’t know. These doctors who bring us hope are being castigated, punished. This needs to stop.”
“They are very brave,” the reporter said. “As are you. You’re brave to continue to get up each day, knowing you aren’t the person God made you to be. But Mr. Mann—may I call you Mr.?”
“For now, yes, for that is how I’ve been known all these years.”
“And what will you be called after your lobotomy?”
“Tabitha is the name that is written in my soul. Miss Tabby Mann.”
Mark’s hand was twitching; Stephanie could feel the twitching, as it caused him to clench and unclench her hand.
“You okay?” she whispered.
“No.” He cleared his throat, pushed his way forward while dragging her with him, and interrupted the interview with a loud authoritative voice. “Maybe you want to change your identity because you feel like a fraud.”
Toby Mann was clearly startled by the interruption. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”
“I’m Mark Anderson, sports editor at the Albuquerque Daily. I had an appointment to meet with you.”
“I don’t feel like a fraud. Why would I feel like a fraud?”
“Because you play a fraudulent game of soccer.”
“Football,” Mann corrected. “I don’t play a fraudulent game. I went through a harrowing process of interviews and tryouts for this position. I made it against all odds and am here today, playing by the rules of the game. I didn’t invent the rules, Mr.—I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
“Mark Anderson, local sports editor. You don’t argue like a little girl, let alone a Minä. You’re a fraud in more than one way.”
Mann put his hands to his face and cowered. “Mommy,” he said in a tiny voice. He clapped his hands and whooped. “Please don’t hurt me. I need a lobotomy.”
Devon clapped his hands and whooped in mimicry.
“I’m not going to…” Mark’s face fell. “Why would I hurt you?”
And then his face turned a peculiar shade of furious as he stomped off, pulling Stephanie with him. The rest of the crew followed. Oso chuckled.
Unexpectedly, Mark turned on him. “You knew that was going to happen. You knew! Why did you set that up? I’m a serious journalist, not a fraud like everybody else in this place. Why did you mock me like that? And that man. Why did you want me to mock that poor man?”
Oso stopped Mark with his cane. “For a start, I didn’t know that was going to happen. I had no idea Toby Mann was a…whatever he is. I wanted you to get the full scoop. That’s why I set it up, not to mock you or him. Don’t take your disillusionment out on me.”
“You created this mess. All of it. Society has been mentally ill since you created mankind in your own image. Like you’re God or something.”
Oso’s eyes were intense as they held Mark’s gaze. “I agree. I messed up. May God have mercy on my soul.”
The air around them went silent, as though every sound of the champagne drinking crowd had been sucked up into a vortex, except for Myra and Devon’s noise. They were, for no explainable reason, playing a hand-clapping game. Down, down baby, down by the roller coaster…
Stephanie shook her head. “That’s not true. My granddad didn’t cause this. I’ve studied history. The new sports came out when he was a child. Long before Minäs.”
“I’m not going to erase my responsibility,” Oso said.
“Fine, Granddad. Whatever. But you didn’t cause that man’s problems. I’ve been reading conspiracy theories. The government may be putting drugs in the water supply. According to some, they’ve been doing it for more than fifty years.”
While Oso looked at her kindly, the look coming from Mark was one that could only be described as disdainful.
“You don’t actually believe that, do you, Stephanie?” Mark asked.
“You, the king of sports conspiracies, have the nerve to look down on me?”
“I never wanted to believe in those conspiracies,” he spat. “I wasn’t trying to give anyone an out with them. I was just seeing things I wished I wasn’t seeing.”
“All right. Enough,” Oso said. “We should go home and relax. This has clearly been a traumatic experience for all of us.”
Stephanie looked over at Myra and Devon and watched them as they playfully laughed and clapped, and then back at her granddad, who appeared entirely unruffled. Well, it had been traumatic for some of them, anyway.