The Practice Field

A story by Keith Croes

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The chute stopped silently, as silently and smoothly as it would at its designated level. But the strobing emergency light let Frank Thornton know what it feels like to be in hot water and on thin ice at the same time. Two clichés with the same operative principle, he marveled. He’d be poached wearing ice skates. He couldn’t be late for practice. Not on a hard day. Not again.

The chute opened automatically at the nearest level, Level 22 according to the map indicator on the curving wall of the chute, only four levels short of the Eagles clubhouse. He peered briefly out into the dark street and exited, leaving the entrance gaping brightly behind him like the last open cafe after a long night out.

There was no pedestrian belt here so he walked quickly and soon found himself trotting in growing amazement. The place was deserted. An empty level. It was incomprehensible, so he concentrated instead on the smooth movement of his muscles. He figured that the 116th Street chute must be six blocks in this direction, farther than he’d actually run on a flat surface in years. He smiled. He could feel the sweat coming beneath his warm-up suit.

In some obscure past the broad avenue had probably been a nice, middle-class district whose fortunes sank as the city grew over it. It reminded Frank of his old neighborhood on the South Side, Level 56. No pedestrian belts there, either, just the same padded carpeting that would probably last into the next millenium, but with people everywhere, mostly reactor workers and their families – their sons and daughters who played and fought and loved in those noisy intersecting metal caverns. And he had been one of the noisiest and strongest, the wild Thornton boy fathers warned their daughters about. Everyone knew him. Perhaps that’s why Frank felt oddly safe as he ran.

He had every right to feel otherwise. The city had long ago shut off the utilities here, Frank guessed, leaving only a smattering of widely spaced lights down the street ceilings. The carpeting was a patchwork of objects and shadows, something that just can’t occur in the populated areas where the robot sweepers wander and violations of disposal ordinances are captured on police cameras. If anyone lived there, they’d probably developed a unique set of survival skills. But then, so had Frank.

When the city switched from the reactors to solar, Level 56 could have met the same fate, Frank thought. He hadn’t been back to the old neighborhood in years, since he’d helped move his parents out. Now he heard that Level 56 had been accorded the seemingly random honor of becoming a trendy place to live. A whole section of it had been converted to a hydroponics farm and the city had revamped a warehouse to accommodate a branch of the art museum and an entertainment center, which was tied into the city’s cultural computer network for sports, symphony orchestra and theatrical production simulations. His old friends, if any remained on the level, could watch him now on the deep screen.

That’s the way it was in the city. Although the superclasses still floated to the top – the 80s and 90s – there were pockets of affluence up and down the maze. Most of the nouveau riche were now ensconcing themselves in the lower levels. Frank took great pride in living at Ground, the only level without a number. Where it all started.

But there were dozens of levels he’d never seen and his life now was divided mainly between Ground and Level 26. He’d never been to Level 22. He’d never seen an empty level. And he’d never, ever had a chute fail on him.

Frank saw the sign for the 116th Street chute in the distance and picked up his pace. For some reason his feet felt strange, the roiling motion of his soles and the pumping of his ankles just slightly misaligned against the springy floor. And it was more than that: his knees and hips, his torso and arms responded to the miscue, causing his body to feel like music slightly off-key. He wasn’t doing it right. His jaw set as he searched for the rhythm and worry flashed up his spine – the same worry he’d felt for the last few weeks.

A boy ran from 116th Street into the avenue in front of him and Frank stopped in a crouch. The kid was naked, running forward but twisted backward with his arms outstretched. Frank recognized immediately that the boy was catching something. A football sailed in an arc that nearly scraped the street ceiling and landed neatly in the boy’s arms. Yelling an incoherent tattoo, he turned quickly and loped back across the avenue.

Frank crept to the corner. He could see the silhouettes of eight or ten boys down the dim street and hear their laughing chatter as they divided into two sides for a kick-off. The chute was directly across the street from him and he ran in as soon as he heard the thump of the ball against a bare foot. On the way to Level 26 he tried to make his hands assume the shape.

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Chick Keates, the offensive coach, shot a frown 20 yards across the clubhouse and caught Frank working on a sheepish grin, then waved and shouted loud enough for anyone to hear who wasn’t suspended in a Unigym: “Not that one! You used that one last time!”

Frank walked to another empty machine and climbed in, noticing that the rest of the team was just ending the warm-ups of the practice program. He lowered himself into the girdle, strapped his feet to the two field sensors and snapped padded rings around his ankles and above and below each knee. Reaching up, he pulled the torso-shoulder yoke into position, slipping both arms through the harness and into the molded sleeves. He adjusted the gloves hastily, hoping to be able to start the program before the coach ended his stroll across the room. No such luck.

“I’ll see you in my office when you’re done,” Chick barked into the Unigym’s right entrance. Frank stretched forward and gripped the edge of the helmet, drawing it toward him.

“Coach, you’re not going to believe it!”

“You’re probably right, unless it has anything to do with something blonde that smells good.” The coach stuck his head in. There was a scowl on it.

“My chute from Ground failed. It just stopped four levels down. I had to catch another one.”

A wail went up from the Unigym directly on Frank’s left and he watched Chick’s face tighten. Two trainers ran toward the Unigym from across the room.

“Who is it?” Frank asked.

“Peterson, I think.” The coach disappeared and reappeared on the left hurrying toward the two men who were extricating Peterson from his harness. It was Wednesday, a hard day. Monday, Wednesday and Friday were hard days, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday were soft days. On Sunday the team gathered in the clubhouse to watch the game. That was the season. People got hurt in football, especially on hard days. Frank would never forget the game against San Francisco when the Forty-Niner’s quarterback had his femur folded in half by a diving tackle from the side – a startlingly realistic simulation complete with the sound of snapping bone. Of course, the leg had been broken by the Unigym sometime during the previous week in a clubhouse thousands of miles away. But Frank was thankful he hadn’t been watching it on deep screen.

He pulled the helmet over his head, locked the chin bar in place and pressed a gloved finger against the green button on the control panel. With the familiar sensation of being lifted into position at the center of the structure, he watched the snowy picture on the helmet’s visor solidify into the playing field, a space larger than most people would ever see in reality, certainly none of the millions who lived in the city. Such a place simply didn’t exist except in simulation. For most people the experience was found only within the deep screens of the entertainment centers. And in this part of the world, most of them would be there to watch the Eagles.

Inside the Unigym he could go anywhere on the field. He could run, walk, jump or fall down and feel every bit of it. The program, including three 10-minute rest periods, would last four hours and would take him through warm-up exercises, heavy exercises, practice drills and play patterns before ending with 15 minutes of game simulation. Friday’s program would last three and a half hours with 30 minutes of game time. On soft days the team did an hour of light exercises and a 30-minute aerobics workout.

The Unigym directed practice sessions using a male voice the boys called “the captain.” By the time the picture cleared in Frank’s helmet the Unigym had identified Frank and set an individualized program in motion. Other players would be generated for drills, play patterns and games – the rules stipulated that all players must be simulations of current eligible team members – but Frank started his stretches alone on the field with the captain talking clearly and firmly and then counting down the toe touches, deep knee bends, sit-ups and push-ups.

Today might be the day, Frank thought, but he couldn’t afford to worry about it. He was 34 years old and maybe his turn was due. But he felt as strong as he’d ever been. And he surely couldn’t afford to worry about it in the Unigym. He knew that every movement, every heartbeat was recorded. And that the accumulation of his efforts this week would appear on the screen as a starting running back for the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday when they linked computers with the Dallas Cowboys. And who knew what the Unigym was picking up? Maybe it smelled out fear. Maybe it was more likely to injure those who were afraid of getting injured.

Although the detail provided by the Unigym’s simulator, especially in the players faces, was not broadcast quality, Frank could recognize everyone on the field when they appeared for game action. Peterson was missing.

The first play was always the same: first down at the offense’s 20 yard line. If the offense lost possession or scored, it was back to the 20. Five minutes before the end of the program, the ball would start at first down on the defense’s 20 yard line, returning there on a touchdown or lost possession. The last three plays were all from the 5.

The defense mimicked the Cowboy’s zones and Frank knew that Bolton, the quarterback, would work short passes on him, as he had dropped three last Sunday against Washington. He had also missed a couple of blocks. The first two plays were handoffs to Harris with Frank taking a pounding as his blocker on end runarounds.

The Unigym provided a low-key soundtrack of footfalls, grunts and banging bodies, but usually the only voice was the captain’s, which called the plays and the count on the snap from center, acted as the referee, answered questions and made suggestions. Occasionally Chick Keates would chime in with some pithy observation from his perch in the control room. With third and short yardage, the captain called for the option pass that would take Frank a few yards over the line of scrimmage. Harris went in motion to the right on the count, cut left on the snap and sprinted long; Frank angled out to the left and turned. The ball hit his midriff and stuck. Vaughan, a defensive linebacker, barreled toward him from the right and Frank brought his head down and his knees up, stepping high downfield. Vaughan looped one hand around Frank’s thigh and spun off. Frank broke two more tackles on his way to the end zone.

“First time I get my hands on the ball today and six points,” Frank yelled at the captain. Then he looked at the ball in his hands. It wasn’t really there, he thought. Just sensors and simulation. He tossed it lightly straight up and caught it several times, watching its flight closely. It seemed to travel either a little too slow or a little too fast. He couldn’t tell which.

*’Ball is with the offense at its own 20, first down,” the captain intoned. The ball disappeared with the rest of the scene and Frank stood behind the offensive line. As the captain called out the play, Frank stamped the ground several times.

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“Good job today, Thornton, but we do have a problem here.” In the game simulation Frank had scored twice on the long drives, twice more on drives from the defense’s 20 yard line and gone into the end zone all three plays from the 5. Chick leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head, not quite as miffed as he had been earlier. He knew he’d have to work himself up a little to make his point.

“Do you feel lucky?” he asked.

Frank squinted. “What do you mean?”

“Do you realize how lucky you are to be a professional athlete?”

“Look, Chick, my chute failed. I had to run six blocks to catch another one.”

“This isn’t the first time. You’ve been late two hard days and a soft day in the last month.” Chick hesitated. ‘You ran?”

“I… There wasn’t any belt. I…I walked fast.”

“Well, isn’t that the damnedest.” He leaned forward. “It’s your whole attitude, Frank. We’re here to play football!” Chick watched Frank begin to respond, stop, then adopt a strange knowingness, like someone who was about to quit. It worried him. He scratched both sides of his head, annoying his frizzy, thin sandy-white hair. “It’s affecting your performance. You’re nowhere this year. Nowhere! You were our weak spot against Washington.” He paused. “You’ve given this team a lot, Frank, but we’ve given you a lot, too. Norm is starting to use your name and the words trade and waiver in the same sentence.” He hadn’t wanted to tell Frank that and he stood uncomfortably and began pacing behind his desk.

“I know, I know,” Frank said quickly. “I watch the sports shows. I read my mail. Geeze, I’d rather open letters from my ex-wife’s attorneys.” Chick laughed. “Really. I open them first.”

Chick sat down again, realizing that he was no longer mad, which made him mad.

Frank leaned forward. “Chick, maybe there’s something wrong with the Unigyms.”

Chick shook his head. “That’s why you use a different one each day – to isolate any that might be giving aberrant readings.”

“No, I mean all of them. Maybe they’re just fundamentally flawed somehow in the way they prepare us for football.”

“Those things are football. Have been for 50 years.”

“They just seem a little…off, you know?” Frank paused and looked at the door, eager to go. The rest of the team had already showered and a few were drifting out of the clubhouse. “How’s Peterson?”

“Not bad. Just a sprain. He’ll miss St. Louis but might be back for Miami,” Chick said.

That was good news for Peterson and for Frank. Peterson was a first-team offensive guard. Frank enjoyed the sight of Peterson chugging in front of him through the middle.

Frank waited an instant to see if his lecture was over. Chick was biting on his lower lip and staring at the ceiling, so Frank rose and walked to the door, then stopped and turned. “When’s the last time you saw a real football, Chick?”

Chick didn’t understand the question at first and pretended to think about it. It took a few seconds. “A real football? I’d say 30 years ago. I think they still make them for kids, though.” He pointed. “Hey, Frank. Be on time. OK?”

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Frank slowed at 120th Street and fell over into some push-ups. He did them slowly, feeling his chest tighten and his triceps work. He noticed the difference at 40. Up to 40 they were good. The last 10 were bad. The difference was in the amount of strength needed throughout the stroke – the bend and extension of the arms. On the padded carpeting of Level 22, every inch of the push-up seemed to exact its own unique toll. In the Unigym the forces were smoothed out somehow. In the Unigym he could do 100 good ones.

The same held true for sit-ups and toe touches and squat thrusts. Even stretching exercises felt different. Hadn’t anyone else noticed this? Frank walked slowly and with increasing wariness along the edge of the avenue between 120th and 119th next to the sealed apartments, trying to slow his breathing and the rushing heartbeats in his ears, listening for any sound of the boys.

He was only a few yards away from the corner of 116th Street when he heard them and he stretched out on the carpeting with his head poking around the corner. They were playing full-tackle hard but quietly, their bodies slick with sweat. They weren’t entirely naked, Frank saw, but wore jock straps. The carpeting was cleared off for about 50 yards down the street with debris pushed back along both sides. There were 10 of them, five to a team, lining up against each other at their midfield. The offense was working toward him with one of the largest boys playing quarterback.

Even in the scattered light Frank could see the definition of their barrel chests and muscled abdomens. These were the sons of heavy-planet workers, all black-haired and bull strong. He’d heard about some problems with these workers emigrating from their mined-out planets and settling illegally in the frigid wastelands outside the cities. Coming home to less than open arms.

The boys were playing by rules that Frank recognized with a longing jolt. At the snap the defense had to count to three before rushing the quarterback. Offensive players could hold their ground to block or sprint out for a pass. Everyone was an eligible receiver. Between plays the offense would gather together. Huddle, Frank thought. He waited until the offense huddled and the defense faced away from him to scurry across the street and take a position at the opposite corner near the chute.

The last time Frank saw a real football was about 20 years ago when his grandfather gave him one that had been worn shiny. He couldn’t remember having it after entering high school where he had the chance to try out his first Unigym. What a challenge that had been – to master the Unigym. Chick had said it: football was the Unigym. As he watched the quarterback fade to pass, Frank found his hands cupping in front of his chest.

Frank had played football in the streets just as these boys were playing, had smacked against the carpeting just as hard. But it was rare to find a street where people weren’t coming and going in a city that knew no night or day. Private and working lives were infinitely flexible. The city was never still and boys who caused problems were quickly shooed away. Besides, football was played in a Unigym. Boys who threw missiles around the crowded corridors were truants and delinquents. But Frank had played – with his grandfather’s football and the half-size plastic toys they call footballs.

The boys were lined up a few yards from the corner and Frank watched as if he were watching football for the first time. The goal line was apparently the avenue. Frank could see the intensity in their faces. The sharpness of the picture burned his eyes.

The quarterback took the snap and backpedaled, cocking the ball up to his ear with his right hand and signaling wildly with his left. Only one boy remained behind to block and the other three scrambled zigzag patterns of their own design in the avenue. Two defenders reached the end of their three-count at the line of scrimmage and charged, sending the quarterback scampering toward the far side. He turned the corner with the ball under his left arm, his head down and his right arm locked ramrod straight, knocking one tackler out of the way and dragging two others with him into the avenue. They laughed in a heap and untangled themselves, looking back and forth between the corners of the intersection to measure the advance. Frank ducked his head into the shadow. It was an obvious touchdown.

The boys on offense hugged and slapped each other and any defensive player who happened in their way. Frank waited for them to amble chattering back for the kickoff and slipped into the chute. He had left for practice an hour early. Barring a crush of autograph seekers he would get to the clubhouse in plenty of time.

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The Eagles wore their green-and-white dress warm-up suits on game day. The team had just installed the deep screen that year, but the game center was much the same, an auditorium built on several sloping levels with the players occupying the seats down front. The coaches, including head coach Norm Jaffe, sat at the control panel behind them with seating for VIPs and special guests on the right and left. Relatives, friends and acquaintances took up the rear. The Eagles cheerleaders, the Liberty Belles, pranced in two groups on each side of the stage.

The first team had the front row. Frank made it a point to line up next to Randall Peterson, who was swinging around the clubhouse on crutches. The team entered the room to a round of applause and the lively chanting of the Liberty Belles.

“I had a dream last night,” Peterson told Frank as they sat. “We’re going to win this one.”

“We better. I’m starting to fear for my life. Norm Jaffe’s Eagles – have they kissed the playoffs goodbye? Geeze, we’ve got 13 more games.”

“Yeah, and a two-and-five record.” Peterson shrugged and tucked his crutches to the side. “We’re going to win this one, though. The captain told me so.”

Frank laughed. It wasn’t unusual for players to dream of the captain, to give the Unigym’s voice a face. Blacks usually dreamed he was black, whites dreamed he was white. “He’s black, isn’t he?” Frank asked.

“Damn right.”

At 1:30 Norm Jaffe walked onstage. Turning, Frank caught Chick Keates’ eye and flashed a victory sign.

“We’ve played well this week,” Norm said and the crowd applauded politely. “We’ve had one injury to a key player, but I’m glad to say that Randall Peterson should be back in two weeks to play against Miami.” More applause.

“The players have done their part. Now it’s up to the coaches – and the computers.” He signaled to the rear of the auditorium and the stadium reached out behind him. Newcomers in the audience gasped, as they always did.

The central League computers went to work, sucking the feed from Philadelphia and Dallas and spitting the game to the network, which sent it on to thousands of deep and flat screens in the two cities and millions of televisions throughout the country. The opposing coaches called plays and made substitutions from identical control panels while network announcers called the action live, though the announcers couldn’t be heard in the game centers of the teams’ clubhouses. Referees were built into the program and enforced the most current League rules. The lighting and viewing angles selected by the computers were optimal. Professional football had the highest production values in the entertainment industry. The simulated sights and sounds were perfect.

The first half lasted an hour, with Dallas leading Philadelphia 14-10. Frank had scored the Eagles’ touchdown on a 40-yard romp late in the first quarter and had gained more yards in the half than he’d tallied in any half of any game of the season. Peterson hadn’t yet been hurt. He and Frank talked during the l5-minute intermission, idly watching the Liberty Belles dance to the music of a popular rock group on the deep screen.

Frank scored two more touchdowns in the second half and racked up almost 50 yards. Peterson was injured in the third quarter on a routine running play trying to plow a path for Frank up the middle.

The Eagles’ defense held solid and Dallas went down to Philadelphia 34-14. Frank gained a total of 121 yards in the game.

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The team ate in the clubhouse restaurant, a meal of beef tips in a tangy sauce – different and good – pasta and green beans, then watched highlights of the day’s game. Chick spoke on the offense’s performance, his counterpart, Art Nussbarger, analyzed the defense, and Norm gave his usual parting soliloquy, which always managed to be both optimistic and merciless. The gathering broke up at 9 o’clock with Norm’s reminder about the l0-o’clock curfew. As was his custom Sunday nights during the season, Frank sat naked in his living room to watch the 11-o’clock news, sipping on a vitamin-protein drink. The news itself was usually just a background noise to the bruising replays going on in his head as he waited for the sports reports, but suddenly the words took on meaning. The logo, UPMC, hung over the announcer’s left shoulder.

“…of several planets in the UT117 system, where the United Planetary Mining Corporation has laid off two hundred thousand workers,” the announcer was saying. “Company officials last week acknowledged the disappearance of three superspace transports, which could have brought as many as ten thousand workers to Earth. Officials at the Department of Immigration today announced stepped-up efforts to apprehend and return the workers to the company’s headquarters planet.”

The picture changed to a neatly coifed woman standing behind a bank of microphones. A caption identified her as Anita Sustern, a U.S. Department of Immigration official. Her voice was nasal. “These people are here illegally. Most of them, especially the younger ones, have never even been to Earth. They are on long-term contracts with United Planetary and have not filed for immigration through any channels, let alone proper channels, and we will treat them like any other illegal immigrants. A special task force has been set up, and we will be working with federal and state law enforcement agencies to return these people to UPMC as quickly as possible.”

Frank sighed and sank back into the cushions.

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He knew his body needed the soft days to recuperate, so Frank planned his workouts on level 22 accordingly. He developed an hour-and-a-half routine for hard days; on soft days he’d just jog the six blocks between 122nd and 116th Streets. He kept a towel near both chutes, as he could take either one to Level 26, and worked out dressed only in a jock strap and running shoes so that he wouldn’t show up sweaty at the clubhouse. He’d never heard of anyone in football attempting his own exercise program. He sensed a risk about it – maybe from the Unigym. But he also sensed his body responding to the exercise in a way it never had to the Unigym.

By the end of the first week he’d cleared a path through the littered avenue. When he broke a personal rushing record in a victory over St. Louis that Sunday he began to feel he was on to something.

The boys hadn’t played Friday or Saturday of that week and Frank was relieved to see them on Monday. He had it timed so that he could watch them for 10 or 15 minutes. They missed again Tuesday. On Wednesday they were back and Frank took his position at the corner near the chute. They were playing with as much intensity as ever, trying to keep the laughter and shouting to a minimum. Frank had toweled off and donned his warm-up suit and was tucked silently into the shadows when a long kick-off coming his way up the street took a sideways bounce and ended up rocking back and forth an arm’s length away. He could hear the boys coming. He picked it up and stood.

It was a real football. He watched it in his hands as he stepped out into the street and held it as if to pass, the tips of his fingers just overlapping the stitching. The boys froze in weird positions and Frank tucked the ball into his right armpit and ran, weaving his way through them down the street. They made no attempt to stop him, but when he touched the ball down across the opposite goal line, which he took to be the corner of the next block, he turned in time to see the big kid smiling, the one who had been playing quarterback that first day.

He ran again, making a point to zip by each one of them, back to the corner by the chute. Pivoting, he fired a pass toward the big kid, but the ball fell short, took a straight bounce and into the boy’s hands. “You need practice, mister,” the boy said, returning a waist-high spiral that bounced off Frank’s hands.

“What’s your name?”

“Magno.”

“You’re right, Magno,” Frank grinned. “See you tomorrow. You can teach me. You can all teach me.” The rest looked at Magno, who nodded. Frank picked up the ball, squeezed it, lobbed it to the nearest boy and slipped into the chute.

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The next day they just threw the ball around and talked. By Saturday they had figured out that the best combination with Frank playing was four against seven with Frank one of the four. They weren’t big enough or fast enough to tackle Frank or catch him, so he played lightly, enjoying the feeling of his hands on the ball as much as anything else. For the first time since banging around the busy streets of Level 56, Frank was not only playing with a real football, but he was really playing football. On Level 22, it became a game again.

With Peterson back in his starting position, the Eagles beat Miami 45-21 that Sunday. Frank broke 180 yards and a club rushing record.

The boys hadn’t wanted to play on Monday, so Frank huffed through his work-out in the silence near the 120th Street chute, then headed up to Level 26 and the clubhouse. After practice Chick called him into his office, where two strangers waited along with Norm Jaffe. Norm spoke first.

“Frank, this is Bruce Spivey and Hunter Stokes.” The men shook hands. “They’re with the League administration. They’d like to do some tests on you.”

Spivey spoke next with a New York accent. The Eagles were playing the Giants that Sunday. “Terrific game yesterday, by the way. Frank, we’re a little concerned about your Unigym readings. They’re unusually high, unusual enough that the League would like to exercise its right to conduct drug testing.”

“They have that right, Frank,” Norm said quickly.

“Sure,” Frank shrugged. “When?”

“Right here. Right now,” said Spivey. “In the doctor’s office.”

“Fine. Let’s go.” Frank rubbed a towel over his hair and the men filed out into the hallway. “How high are they?” he wondered.

“Funny you should ask.” It was Stokes speaking in a squeaky but equally New York voice. “Most players reach their peak physical output at 26 or 27, then drop slowly for a few years until they are…” He paused.

“About my age?”

“Yeah. And then they really start to drop. Right now, according to your history, you’re matching your highest readings.”

“Twenty-six?”

“Yeah, 26, 27. Never seen anything like it.”

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Frank fought for air at the bottom of a pile of tacklers with the ball like a fist poking into his solar plexus. Near tears, he searched through a forest of calves toward the sideline, where he saw the captain, a black man, propped on crutches. It was Peterson, hazy in the distance, wearing the striped uniform of a referee.

“No, no! You’re doing it all wrong, Frank!”

He dropped one crutch and, brandishing the other like a club, advanced menacingly toward Frank, who struggled to his knees. As if to pacify the oncoming black man, Frank held out the ball, which turned to dust in his hand.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Peterson raged, his face a black-and-white smear of flaring nostrils and drawn teeth. “You’re killing us all! You’re doing it all wrong!”

His chest still constricted in a burning knot, Frank hugged himself and leaned over, pressing his helmet against the playing field. The first blow landed across his shoulders and he yelped, tucking himself into a near fetal position. They kept coming, striking him with debilitating force in the side, on his arms and legs and hips, lifting him off the ground and sending him sailing several yards.

He sensed the imminence of death. “I’m doing it right,” he bellowed, and again, “I’m doing it right!” The playing field was getting spongier until it no longer existed and Frank was suspended in space, but the blows kept coming, inflicted on him from nowhere.”

“I’m doing it right,” he cried. “I’m doing it right, you fucking robot!” He woke up screaming it.

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Leaving enough time on the days the boys were playing to stop and join them, Frank continued his workout schedule on Level 22. They played hard but said little. Magno had tried asking Frank about the city once, but Frank just shook his head.

Frank saw no other choice but to stick to his program. The readings were part of his history. The Unigyms knew every movement he had ever made within them and if he backed off now, purposely eased up during practice, they would surely detect it. So he wrapped himself inside a Unigym each day, tried to empty his mind of any shred of Level 22, and played as hard as he could. Even more than the fear of being injured, he was beginning to feel the need to share his discovery with the team. The Unigyms were flawed. He could only hope that the knowledge didn’t get him crippled. Or worse.

With their win against Miami, the Eagles were 5-5 and the season was half over. The following Sunday they defeated the Giants 38-0 and Frank’s return to the Pro Bowl became a foregone conclusion. A week later Denver went down to the Eagles 34-21.

The Monday after the Denver game Frank turned the corner at 116th Street and the pass was more than halfway there, a fast spiral he snagged three inches from his face. Magno whinnied with his arms on his bare hips in front of a crowd of raven-black heads. The street was full of people, old men in frayed overalls, women in print dresses slapping their naked children into silence, and several young men Frank didn’t recognize, men who watched Frank with their huge arms crossed and shoulders as wide as goal posts. Like Frank, they were dressed only in jock straps. Frank had been carrying his warm-up suit in his right hand even as he caught the pass, and he now slowly moved the ball and the Eagles-green clothing in front of himself so that he was somewhat covered.

“What’s going on, Magno?” he asked. Laughter bubbled through the crowd. Babies bawled.

“Today we’re going to give you some competition, Frank Thornton, halfback for the Philadelphia Eagles,” Magno shouted. The other boys crowded around Frank and pushed at him from all sides, laughing and taunting. Frank knew all their names: Pundy, Whippet, Twister, Mallet Head, Ralph, Thern, Sitgo, Budda and Pit Man. “We have a television two weeks now and you beat New York good. Yesterday you beat all over Denver. So you must play the official team of the United Planetary Mining Corporation, formerly of Reba, the fifth planet of the star UT117, and now temporary residents of Level 22…” Magno swung his arm at the massive brutes behind him. “The Level 22 Miners!”

Black eyes stared at Frank from craggy-outpost heads on bodies that were mountains. The men were shorter than Frank, but then so was Peterson. “Wait a second, you little twerp. I just wanted to play with you guys for fun.” Frank had reached Magno and he leaned over and whispered. “Magno, I play football in a machine. It’s not… look, we promised to keep this a secret.”

“You didn’t tell us who you were! It was a secret too good for keeping, Franko. I saw you on television. I told one person,” Magno hissed, “one person,” then tugged Frank’s arm toward one of the men. “Besides, we are all friends. We all love football. We all have fun. This is my brother, Army.” The man called Army stretched out a hand and smiled coolly. Frank grimaced at the grip.

“We’ve already picked sides. Shirts and skins,” Magno yelled.

“Shirts and skins,” the crowd chanted.

“Nine to a side. Frank and Army will quarterback. I’m with Frank. So is Ralph, Thern, Twister and Budda. We’re skins. The rest of you downfield,” Magno waved. The other boys, Army and three of the big men scrambled for their shirts.

“Can’t we be shirts?” Frank complained as he watched the miners trot down the street toward the corner by the chute. The big men’s strides appeared to Frank to be about five yards long. Three of the hulks kept their bulging torsos bare and ambled over toward him.

“They’re the Miners?” Frank thumbed downfield. Everyone nodded. “Well, what’s our name?”

“The 116th Street Stars,” Magno announced.

“Okay, Stars,” Frank said, looking past his teammates at the crowd. Several black-haired women giggled in his direction. “I’m at least wearing my warm-up pants. And I’m not much of a damn quarterback.” Frank glanced at the muscled wall forming downfield. The street had been picked clean.

The men played with the same passion as the boys, which didn’t surprise Frank, but he was immediately taken by their unspoken, good-natured strategy. They let the boys play a game within a game, giving them a chance to run and catch and score. One on one, though, they walloped each other up and down the street, bringing cries of delight from the onlookers scattered across the carpeting beyond both end zones. Several families had fired up portable stoves and Frank could smell something cooking. It was a community picnic, he realized, probably the first one they’d had on this planet. They would have loved Level 56 in the old days, he thought. They would have fit right in.

The miners large and small moved with practiced grace and Frank knew they had done this many times, that they probably grew up playing football in double gravity in caverns miles below the surface of Reba. After bouncing off the carpeting four or five times under one or another of the big tacklers, he developed the queer certainty that they were taking it easy on him. In this game he was one of the boys.

With the Stars trailing 18 to 25, Frank whispered something in Magno’s ear and the boy called all to attention. “Franko’s got to go to practice.” Frank nodded and the players and crowd shared a groan. “Time for one more series – big guys only.”

“What?” Frank demanded. The boys ran to opposite ends of the block and the men eyed Frank for his reaction. The Stars had the ball at midfield and the man playing center, whose name was Chowder, tossed it from one hand to the other.

“Should we flip for the kick-off?” Frank asked.

Army answered in a soft voice. “No, take it from there, Franko.” Frank smiled and motioned for his three teammates to huddle, but Army held up a hand. “Wait.” Sticking both pinkies in the corners of his mouth, he loosed a sharp whistle and five more men from each end of the block – a total of ten more of the big miners – approached the group at midfield. “Nine to a side, like Magno said.” All the miners nodded and smiled at each other while the noise from the crowd rose a notch.

“I…I don’t know about this,” Frank stammered.

“One series.” Army said it with a flat, unquestionable authority. “No delay on the defensive rush. Now we play football.”

Frank took the snap from Chowder and backpedaled. Tanker and Jack, his two other original teammates, were to sprint out several yards and hook around for the pass. Neither made it through the line. A blitzing Army slipped a block and Frank watched him come like a missile, launching himself at least five yards through the air, locking his thick arms around Frank’s shoulders and dropping the Eagle flat on his back with his mouth inches from Frank’s face.

“We play good, huh?” Frank nodded furiously. “We fight even better. You tell no one about us. No one. Or we find you.”

The man’s breath smelled like sausage, but Frank realized that it didn’t smell bad, that in fact it smelled good.

“I promised Magno and I promise you. And I have yet to break that promise.”

In the huddle, Frank scanned the faces. “Who wants to be quarterback?” Gazes seemed to land on Tanker, who nodded. “Okay, Tanker. Fake a quick pass to the right and hand off to me. I’ll come around behind you from the right and I’m going left. Think you guys can give me some blocking around the corner?”

They nodded. One said, “We’ll put the biggest guys on the left.”

“No, no, Spread out. Don’t give anything away. Jack, you go out for a pass on the right and draw the fake. OK?” Jack nodded. “I want to see you guys on the left do to them what they did to Tanker and Jack last play.” There were some snickers and Frank looked at Tanker. “Well?”

Tanker shrugged. “On three.”

The huddle broke with a clap and Tanker settled in behind Chowder, barking it out: “Hut one!”

Frank watched Army in the secondary point at Jack and push one of the miners to his left, then settle back to his right.

“Hut!”

Frank took his mark at Tanker’s right, determined not to look over at the quarterback until the last instant.

“Hut!” Tanker took the snap, dropped three steps back and cocked a beautiful fake. When he wheeled around Frank brushed by and was gone.

The men at the corner had muscled the defenders backward and Frank was across the line of scrimmage and into the secondary in a heartbeat. The secondary was Army. To Frank’s left were walls and doorways, to his right Army bore down, closing the gap quickly. In the split second before their collision, Frank planted himself. Army latched his left arm around Frank’s waist, spun in front of him and lost his grip as Frank broke to the right. A pounding pursuer got a hand on him just short of the goal line but Frank knew he was over when he went down.

The Unigym had no audio simulation of crowd noises. Every touchdown of his career had been made in silence or in the muted crunch of play action. And except for the boys – and now, the men – no one had ever hugged him or patted him on the back after a touchdown. The sound of it, the feel of it, made him close his eyes and inhale deeply, as if the moment had a smell, as if the smell of it would stay with him forever.

The only way to score the extra point after touchdown on 116th Street was to take it into the end zone. Frank asked to play quarterback and the Stars broke from the huddle with a clap. Chowder flashed a grin at Frank in light that was so bad he almost missed it. Then came the ball. Frank’s fingertips found the stitching and his receivers ran into the end zone, each one waving, weaving, waving. Frank hit Jack at the corner with a wobbly toss just as one of the Miners drilled him to the carpeting.

“Tie ballgame,” he heard Magno shout, “25-25. All right, Franko. Where’s his towel. Somebody get his towel. He’s got to go to practice.”

Frank shook 50 hands and said a hundred thank-yous while pulling on his warm-up jacket in the middle of the avenue near the chute. Two young women fed him a steaming hot dog. Tanker, Jack and Chowder stood and smiled shyly as the door closed and he heard Magno saying something about sudden death overtime.

GradRed separator

That day in the Unigym the players did not look even remotely human. Except for the different colored jerseys of the offense and defense, Frank had difficulty telling them apart.

“Can’t you fix the reception on this thing?”

“The simulation is within normal range, Frank, and so is your vision,” said the captain. “The offense has the ball at its own 20. Second down and ten. Forty-two right. Let’s go.”

Frank walked up behind Bolton, who was squatting behind center, and kicked the quarterback in the butt, sending him sprawling off-side.

“Illegal procedure, offense, number 31. Fifteen-yard penalty.”

“Captain, I felt that against my foot because the Unigym stopped my motion at the precise point in space where the simulated border of Bolton’s ass began, and the Unigym calculated the exact effect such a force would have had on Bolton and moved him off-side. I believe the penalty should go against the Unigym.”

“I hear you talking, Frank, and I think maybe it’s time for a break,” said the captain.

“Frank, what the hell’s the matter with you.” It was Chick’s voice. “Get the hell in here.”

Frank entered the control room adjacent to the coaches’ offices. Chick was seated on his stool, talking red-faced at a monitor. “Look, Thornton hasn’t had erasure all season. Now, your records must be incorrect, little lady. Can I speak to your supervisor.”

A hold screen replaced a young, frowning female. The screen read, “Thank you for calling the National Football League. A representative will be with you momentarily.” Chick glared at Frank. “Have you had any erasures this year?” Frank shrugged.

The hold screen changed to a distracted bald man. “What’s the problem, Chick?”

“Harry, your girl is telling me I can’t get erasure on Frank Thornton. He hasn’t had one yet this season.” Harry gazed to the side and pushed some buttons.

“I don’t know. I don’t see any problem. Maybe she keyed in Fran Thorton of the Bengals.” He punched some more buttons. “Yeah, he’s got his ten minutes already. Go ahead, Chick, what’re the readings?”

Chick sighed. “Fourteen-thirteen and 20 seconds to 14:14 even Eastern, Unigym number 18766, Thornton – T-H-O-R-N-T-O-N – Francis J., number 31, Philadelphia Eagles.”

Harry looked up. “Today?”

“Yep.”

More button-punching. “It’s gone, Chick.”

“Thanks, Harry. ‘Bye.”

The two sat quietly for a minute in Chick’s office.

“Frank, they’re talking Super Bowl out there,” Chick said finally. Frank nodded at the floor. “But we’ve got a long way to go, starting with San Diego this Sunday. Then Washington again, Phoenix, and the rest of our schedule is the toughest in the League. You’re having the best season of your career. If you have a problem, tell me now. This is no time to start messing up.”

Frank gave a deep sigh and Chick shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“You know, no one really knows how the Unigyms decide when to injure players,” Chick said. “Personally, I believe that some players are just more prone to injury. And some of the stresses of the game go beyond what the body can endure. But some people think the Unigyms take other factors into account – even attitudes and emotions And what if a defensive lineman sacks the simulation of a quarterback, I mean sacks him hard enough to hurt him? Is the real quarterback more likely to get hurt? No one knows. Do the simulated players hold grudges and get even with real players? No one knows. Some people would say that shit like you pulled with Bolton is taking a big chance. Know what I mean?”

“I don’t believe that.” Frank stared straight ahead and jumped when Chick slapped the desk.

“Well, what the hell do you believe?”

“I agree with you. I think people get injured in football because football is a rough sport. The Unigym’s designers programmed the machine to simulate all the forces of football, football the way it used to be played – in a stadium with real players. They neglected to put in a safety, an upper limit to the forces that could be applied by the machine. Maybe they couldn’t put in a safety. Maybe it was an all-or-nothing thing at the time. And I agree with you that some people are more prone to injury – and part of that is attitude. But that’s not my problem. I know what I can do and I know the limits of the Unigym. The designers neglected more than just a safety. They neglected to tell us how to use them. Or maybe it’s just been forgotten. Lost in history. Or maybe it was never known. I may get injured, all right, but not because I kicked Bolton or had pancakes for breakfast or like the color yellow. I may get hurt because I’m a football player.”

Chick transferred his stare from Frank to the ceiling. “You sure are doing something right. I’ve been watching you for eight years and you’ve never been better. Right now I’d say you’re the best running back in pro football. I don’t know what it is, but when you run onto the field each Sunday, you seem more…real than anyone else. And when you play, it’s like..it’s like everyone else on the field is a ghost. No one can stop you.”

Frank laughed.

“I’ve been on the line with assholes from the League right up to the League president, sometimes twice a day, for the past two weeks trying to explain your Unigym readings. Frank, what the hell is going on?”

Frank laughed again. “Maybe it’s something I ate. Look, Chick, I can’t tell you. Not yet. I’ve been waiting to see if the Unigyms would hurt me. But they haven’t. And damn it, I don’t think they will. Football might, but the Unigyms won’t. Not for no reason, not for doing what I’m doing.” He held the seat of the chair between his legs. “You’ve got to understand that. The whole team has got to understand that. The Unigyms are not going to hurt us for doing what I’m doing. And if everyone does it, there’ll be no stopping us, at least not until the other teams catch on, which they will, eventually. But we may get a year or two jump on them.”

“You’re talking in riddles and I don’t like it.”

Frank stood and walked to the door. “You don’t have any choice. I have a few things to take care of. For one, we need more room than we have in the clubhouse. But you might start by having everyone do warm-ups outside the Unigyms.”

“What?”

“Is it against League regulations?”

“What?”

Frank pulled the door shut on one of the most puzzled expressions he’d ever seen on a human face.

GradRed separator

Drew Carter, an old friend of Frank’s, worked in the city’s computer center.

“What?” he asked.

“I’m looking for a place to run,” Frank repeated at the monitor. He sat in the living room wearing gym shorts he had pulled on for the occasion. The canister of vitamin-protein drink on the coffee table in front of him had shrunk to half its original size to surround the remaining liquid. “I need about a four-block area of the city – abandoned. Can’t you plug into the city computers from home?”

His friend looked irked. “Sure. Sure I can.” He peered quizzically from the screen. “Don’t you guys play in a simulation sensor?”

“Yeah, a Unigym. They broke down.”

“They did? I didn’t know they could do that.”

“A four-block area?”

Drew turned and fiddled with something. “Hmm,” he said and looked back out from the screen. “I don’t know what to ask it.”

“Abandoned blocks?”

“No.” He snorted in disgust. “You’re lucky you’re a football player. Let’s see…we can’t use tax rolls. All kinds of churches own tax-exempt property that wouldn’t show up.”

“Electricity?”

“No. Residential electricity has been free since we went to solar.”

“How about usage?”

“We don’t keep records any more. No need.”

“How about hook-ups?”

“It’s hooked up everywhere. If you need it, it’s there.”

“How about…?”

“Water.”

“Yeah, how about water?”

“Good idea. It’s turned off…well, it’s not turned off anywhere. We started melting snow when we went solar. You want to beat a bill? Don’t pay your city water. No one will ever try to collect. No one cares.”

“Who doesn’t pay?”

“Hmm, this is interesting.”

“What?”

“The mayor doesn’t pay. Gosh, a lot of people don’t pay.” He looked up. “You don’t pay.”

“Drew, where does your salary come from?”

“Taxes.”

“Those I pay. Can you tell me where I can find some open space or not?”

Drew pursed his lips. “You know, Frank, I can tell you where everyone is, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out a way to tell you where everyone isn’t.”

“Shit.”

“You didn’t need to dress up, you know,” Drew noted.

GradRed separator

The offensive team crowded into Chick Keates’ office before practice. Chick eyed Frank uneasily.

“We’re going to try something different today.” He was wringing his hands. “I want you to do your warm-up exercises outside of the Unigyms.”

The room filled with hoots and sarcastic laughter.

“Just do it! Now get out of here!”

Frank waited until the others had left. “That’s all I can do, Frank. Art handles the defense the way he sees fit. And I wouldn’t be doing this if Norm were here today. You better come up with something for me to tell him and quick.”

“I will, I will. Is this against League rules?”

“No.”

“How much time are we required to spend in the Unigyms each day?”

“An hour.”

“An hour?”

“Game readings are taken the last hour of the day. The rest is just for conditioning. I’ve learned more about these things in the last two days than I have in the last 25 years.”

“Thanks, Chick. You won’t regret it.”

“Did you find a place?”

“A place?”

“Yeah, a big place. You said we needed more room.” Chick was shaking.

“Yeah, almost. Almost.”

Bolton was straining through push-ups and breathlessly counting them down for the others when Frank walked out to the Unigyms. The defensive players stood dumb-struck next to their machines. Harris was struggling through number 39.

“How many of those can you do in the Unigym, Harris?” Frank shouted.

“A hundred, easy.” Harris could scarcely get the words out.

“All right, the rest of you athletes – ” Frank pointed at the defensive squad. ” – get down and give me a hundred.”

“Now, wait just a minute.” Art Nussbarger began a fast walk toward Frank. “These are my people. Just what kind of lame-brained idea is this?”

Chick strode from the doorway with his arms folded and stood next to Frank.

“Vaughan,” Frank yelled at the linebacker. “How many pushups can you do in the Unigym?”

“I can’t count that high.”

“I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you can do 75.”

“Out here?” Vaughan looked around with his palms up.

“Yes,” Frank laughed. “Out here. One thousand smackers.”

“Are we allowed to do that?”

Chick answered. “Yes. I looked it up. Nothing in the rules prevents us from working out outside the Unigyms.”

Art put his face close to Chick’s. “Now, wait a minute here. Does Norm know about this?”

“Shut up and watch, Art,” said Frank. “Do you want to get into this? Whaddaya say? A thousand dollars says your man Vaughan can’t do 75.”

Art turned and stared quietly as Carlton Vaughan, Pro Bowl defensive linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, embarrassed himself.

GradRed separator

Gloria began kissing her way down Frank’s chest when he stopped her and scrambled for the remote, turning up the volume of the newscast.

“Fraaaaank.”

“Sorry, babe. Just a minute.”

The picture showed police in puffy white cold-weather gear escorting a group of black-haired miners into one of the city’s portals at Ground. Frank knew of one or two such portals within a thousand yards of his apartment. Snow lashed through the opening, the brightness from the outside causing the camera to lose contrast off and on as it followed the figures into the corridor. Frank could see the drawn faces of men, women and children as they filed by.

“…as many as ten thousand such workers to Earth. Philadelphia police commissioner Alan Foster says that 52 miners have been apprehended outside the city. Foster says that no miners have gained unauthorized access to the city, nor would such access be possible.”

Frank snorted. Gloria frowned.

“In a new wrinkle to the story, the Justice Department expressed questions about the manner in which those layoffs were handled.”

The picture changed to a bland-looking woman identified as the U.S. attorney general. Frank had never seen her that he could recall, although he vaguely recognized her name.

“We have asked the United Planetary Mining Corporation, a U.S. corporation based on the planet Tyldos, to provide evidence to us on how these workers were released. We believe that many of these people may not have been afforded options as provided by their contracts. If this is true, we would consider those contracts null and void.”

The square-jawed announcer filled the screen.

“Fraaaaank.”

“Shhhhh.”

“….a spokesperson from the Department of Immigration responded to this development by saying that the new information would be taken into consideration, and that if the miners can find employment and sponsors, they may well be allowed to stay here – at least for the time being. Efforts to apprehend them, however, will continue.”

Frank switched the set off with a whoop of glee, then settled back and held Gloria’s chin in his hand. The telephone beeped an incoming call.

“Fraaaank.”

Frank punched in the audio. “Hello.”

“What, no picture?” It was Drew.

“It’s late, Drew. What’s up?”

“It took some doing, but I found you a place to run. And I mean one place. I had to do most of this manually, I’ll have you know, comparing police camera locations with maps of the city. It took me hours.”

“I appreciate it, buddy. Where is it?”

“Look up. It’s just about directly above you, from 114th to 122nd Streets on Level 22. It’s even sealed off, except for the chutes, probably. There was an accident about 30 years ago. I looked it up. The outer skin of the city tore off – this was when the area was next to the outer skin – and by the time repairs were made, people had found other places to live. At the time the city was expanding all over the place, so there was no shortage of housing and no reason to go back. They didn’t bother to unseal the streets. What an anomaly! I mean, this is the only abandoned part of the city larger than a broom closet. You could take the whole team up there and run.”

“Shit.”

“What?”

“I mean, I was hoping for someplace else.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s great news, Drew. Just great. I owe you.”

“Yeah, well, how about some deep screen tickets for San Diego?”

“You got ’em. There’s just one more thing.”

“Uh oh.”

“Don’t tell anyone about this for a month. Give me one month. Then you can tell anybody you want.”

“Hey, I’d go five, six weeks for you, pal.”

“Thanks.”

“Are we ready now?” Gloria wondered, and soon found that Frank was ready.

GradRed separator

Frank stepped from the chute and did some toe touches and deep knee bends. Leaving his warm-up suit on, he followed his path up the avenue. The boys were tossing the ball around at 116th Street, and Frank trotted up to Magno. “Take me to your leader, kid.”

Magno led him to the right off 116th Street down the small tube that ran parallel to the avenue. There was life here, but a frightened life, with figures pulling back into doorways and light falling from windows, then quickly dousing. Dark eyes and whispers followed their progress. Magno turned right again down an even smaller street when two miners stepped from the shadows. They held pulse guns to Frank’s head, which rolled back toward the ceiling.

“I come bearing gifts,” he noted.

Magno stamped his foot in exasperation. “He’s okay. He plays football for the Eagles. He wants to see my father. Now, back off.”

Army and a teenage girl sat on a couch in a clean but cluttered living room. An older man who wore scuffed bib overalls of a black synthetic material was stretched out in a recliner chair, reading a book. Army leaped to his feet and hissed at Magno.

“What are you doing, Magno?”

Frank stood inside the doorway. Army wore beige shorts, white socks and a popular brand of athletic shoes, and filled out a stylish white short-sleeved shirt, looking for all the world like a first-round draft choice fresh from college. Frank smiled.

Army’s eyes swept downward for a second, then recaptured Frank’s. “You live at Ground near 121st. I’ve been there. I’ve seen you. I could have killed you many times.”

Frank shrugged. “I haven’t told anyone about you. But I’m going to. We’re going to. The Eagles need this practice field.”

Army stiffened.

“Millie, go to your room.” The older man spoke and sat forward in his chair, folding it into itself. The girl picked up a board game and carried it with its pieces intact back into the dining room, setting it carefully on the table. “Up,” the man said, and Frank listened to the quick footsteps on the stairs.

“My name’s Frank Thornton.”

“Sit.” The man motioned toward the couch. “I’m Bore. I have seniority here. Magno, upstairs.”

“No, uh, Mr. Bore, I’d like Magno to stay.” Frank sat on the couch.

“He wants to turn us in for his…practice field.” Still standing, Army shook his huge hand toward Frank.

“Sit. Both of you.” Bore nodded at Magno, then turned to Frank. “I am just Bore.”

Army sat on the only other chair in the room and Magno scurried over to the couch and plopped down beside Frank.

“Have you been watching the news?” Frank asked.

“They still look for us. They still hunt us,” Army said.

“They have evidence that United Planetary cheated you.”

Bore snorted. “So they catch us and send us back to be cheated some more.”

“Not necessarily. Not if you can find jobs and sponsors. The investigation will last a long time.”

“So you will give us all jobs, Frank Thornton?” Bore said.

“How many of you are there?”

Army glared at his father, but the man answered. “Thirty-eight miners, 139 people.”

“How many like Army – between 20 and 30 years old or so?”

Bore thought for a moment. “Twenty-five, 26. All families are allowed one male miner in that age range.”

“If there’s one thing about football, it’s democratic. The Eagles have more than a hundred men in minor league teams – no pun intended. If you tried out and showed you were better, damn right you’d have a job. You might take my job.” Frank tousled Magno’s black hair. “I think there’s some real talent here. And I know at least one family I’d be glad to sponsor.”

Army shook his head. “You play football in a machine? What makes you think we could play such a game?”

“I have a theory about that, Army. But there’s only one way to find out. Come with me, right now, and we’ll see what you can do. You don’t have any history, so you’ll have to initialize. It will be about a six-hour process before they have any useful readings. I’ll loan you a warm-up suit, if you can get your arms in it. The machine is called a Unigym.”

“I think you are a stinking liar. I think you want this practice field for the Eagles.”

Frank looked at the ceiling. “I could’ve had this practice field long ago simply by turning you folks in. Yes, I want this practice field. We need to bring 60 players down here, not to mention 30 or 40 trainers and coaches and assistants, and do what you did every day on Reba. We need to play football. And it will change the way football is played. It means everything to me. And it will mean everything to the Eagles. But if it doesn’t work out, Army, if you don’t have what it takes to be an Eagle, I won’t tell them where you live. You’ll come back down here and they’ll never know. And that’s part two of the promise that won’t be broken.”

Army shifted in his chair. “I have what it takes to be an Eagle.”

“We lived for two months outside.” Bore interrupted softly, peering from a handsome, squarish face under a wavy crop of black hair that boasted a few wild strands of white. “I will not take them back outside. We have nowhere else to go, Frank Thornton. Nowhere.”

Frank nodded and looked at Magno.

GradRed separator

Norm and Chick sat in Norm’s office and glanced quizzically from Magno, who held an age-polished football in his lap, to Army, who wore an Eagles warm-up suit and stood just inside the door, projecting the exact image Frank had hoped for – like a tackle looking for someplace to happen.

“Okay, Frank, what’s the big mystery?” Norm said.

“Are we allowed to work out any way we see fit, I mean, outside of the Unigyms?”

“Goddamn it, you sound like Chick,” Norm snapped. “Why should we? The Unigym is the most advanced exercise machine in the universe. You can do anything in a Unigym. Just why the hell should we?” His voice softened. “We’re required to put in a certain amount of time for readings.”

“An hour a day,” Chick chimed in. “And if for some reason the player is indisposed or unavailable – except for those on the disabled list, whose recordings are inadmissible until they receive a medical upgrade – the hour can be made up of an average of readings from the previous week factored by history. The Unigym does all of this automatically.”

Frank smiled. “Norm, would you say I’ve been doing a good job this year, I mean, especially the last few games?”

“You’ve…carried your weight.”

Frank nodded. That was Norm’s highest and rarest praise. “The Unigyms are fine, Norm, as far as they go. I don’t think they have to hurt us and I don’t think they were ever meant to be our only source of exercise. I’ve been working out. That’s the secret. I’ve been working out outside of the Unigyms.”

“Frank.” Norm shook his head. “Frank, no other team in the league does that. It just…isn’t done.”

“It will be. Because the better you play football – real football – the better you do in a Unigym. And the better shape you’re in, the less likely you are to get hurt in one. And since this entire team will soon be working out at a…a practice field I know of, it will be impossible to keep it a secret. There’s just one catch.”

Norm developed a pained expression.

Frank thumbed toward Army. “If he doesn’t make the team, there’s no practice field.”

“What kind of a joke is this?”

Frank groaned. “Why is it so hard to do people a favor? I’m not asking for charity here. That man is faster than me, that man is stronger than me, that man plays football like no one you’ve ever seen. And there are two dozen more where he came from. Put him in a Unigym and initialize him for defensive linebacker. If the readings don’t convince you, then we’ll muddle through the rest of the season as best we can. But no practice field. That’s the deal.”

“Just what the hell’s a practice field?”

“It’s the only place in the city where a hundred men can work up a sweat without knocking over baby carriages.”

Norm stood behind the desk, then sat again and poked at his intercom. “Art?”

“No, Mr. Jaffe, this is Scott. Art’s with the Unigyms.”

“Ask him to come in here, please. He’s got to initialize.. .a new man.”

“Well, that’s almost the deal,” Frank grinned after Norm released the button. “They all have to make the team. But believe me, you’ll want them all.”

Norm sank back in his executive chair.

“They don’t all have to be players, I guess. Some could be assistants and such. This gets a little complicated. You better get the lawyers on the line. And, oh, this is Magno and this is Army. They’ll be taking us to the Super Bowl. And boy, are they going to have good seats.”

Norm rose again and sat again. “Frank, you’re asking me to hire people I don’t know so that the team can do something I don’t know if it should do.” He cursed and pressed another button on the intercom. “Joyce, get McPherson, Dowling and Ruthven on the line. Ask for Bill McPherson. We need an immediate consultation. And this will be a conference call.”

He peered at the miner in the Eagles warm-up suit. “Army, huh? He sure looks like one. Frank, you better be right about this.”

“How many club records do I have to break?”

“Army, have a seat. You’re making me very nervous.”

“Magno, my name’s Chick Keates.” Chick leaned toward the grinning boy. “Is that a football?”

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