Blitz Kings Minder
by David Castlewitz
The train chugged north, and the Chicago Kings partied in the club car, celebrating their victory with cheers and foot stomping and chest bumps. Highlights of their recent blitzball game played in a loop on the three flat screens mounted on the walls.
Darby stood at a small round table at the edge of the packed car. As a minder, she took care of the players. She kept track of them, found them when they went AWOL, and handled any trouble with local authorities. Though she chided herself for being a glorified babysitter, she liked what her high salary provided, especially the luxurious apartment along a picturesque riverfront at the edge of Chicago’s city limits.
A pair of blitzball players nearly crashed into her as they mimed a winning play, pretending to sprint towards the goal, one husky player blocking imaginary opponents while the other ducked and acted out a zigzag pattern. On screen, a player tossed a virtual ball over an opponent’s head to a teammate who raised his gloved hand and snagged the holographic projection out of the air.
Beer sloshed over the rims of frosted mugs and poured from the narrow mouths of plastic bottles. Players bounced on bionic feet, as though landing on arena turf after jumping from a thirty-foot high platform. When a bare-chested player mimicked stuffing a virtual ball into a goal, he elicited throaty cheers and wild clapping from the onlookers, and a waitress brought him a beer accompanied by a sloppy kiss on the mouth.
Darby decided she’d had enough of the mayhem when eight players lined up, four on four, and charged one another from one side of the swaying club car to the other, meeting in the middle, the sound of steel-reinforced fists striking machined shoulders pounding against her ears.
When she slipped out of the club car, she left her two assistants to watch the players and tamp down any flare-ups. Assistants had to do something, she told herself, reasoning with her inner sense of duty. She’d had enough of the havoc, the stink, and the racket. Enough of celebrating cyborgs.
The swaying motion made stepping from one train car to the other a challenge. She held the sides of the ribbed coupling linking the cars, her legs stretched across the thin space between them. Swiftly, she pulled herself forward, one hand on a door’s handlebar, which she cranked counterclockwise before stepping into a railway carriage where fellow travelers sat reading or watching flat-screen handhelds or just peering out the window at the dark countryside.
Arnie McLeish followed behind her, two cans of beer in his blazer’s pockets, tie askew and the tails of his white shirt sticking out the back of his dark trousers. He didn’t look like the man in charge. He looked more like one of the blitzball players partying in the club car, except he didn’t have their physique. Or artificial limbs. Or brain implants.
Darby cringed when Arnie touched her. She’d started the relationship with her supervisor weeks earlier, first with hints and then with aggressive advances, as though she really wanted to pursue him. What she did want — but didn’t get — was solace from a recent love gone wrong. When Irene moved out, Darby sensed a loss she couldn’t replace. Why she chose Arnie as a replacement, she couldn’t say.
Now he joined her in this quiet carriage, the one sandwiched between the blitzball players’ party haven and the baggage car. The lounge car’s seats were wide and squishy. Darby sat by a window, scrunching her small, muscular body into a tight knot, her heels on the edge of the seat and her arms around her knees. The tips of her toes tingled inside her soft slippers and her skin tight black body suit rippled at her knees.
Arnie plopped down next to her. “Not checking on the defectives?” he asked.
“I checked them before I drank too much,” Darby said. Outside, bleak shadows passed in the dark. Old farmsteads and empty malls, the remnants of a once-rich countryside.
“We’ve got four hours until we hit Chicago,” Arnie said.
Darby didn’t like how he nudged her side. “Do you really think we can keep this up?” she countered.
“Is that a double-entendre?” Arnie quipped. “Come on. We’ve got adjoining berths with a connecting door.”
“You’re my supervisor, Arnie. How smart is it to let this become a thing?”
Arnie threw his arms across his chest. One of the beer cans in his jacket pocket popped out and fell to the floor. It rolled under the seats. Arnie sputtered, as though he meant to curse and couldn’t find the right words.
For a middle-aged man, Darby thought, Arnie acted like a college kid way too often. She preferred sterner stuff. Irene had been stern, and capable of harsh words when she got angry. Irene never struggled for something to say.
“I’m being smart,” Darby said after another moment of staring at Arnie’s soft cheeks. The temptation to push an errant curl of blonde hair away from the side of his face made her lift a hand. She stopped herself. She ran her fingers across the top of her head. The bristles at the back of her scalp told her she’d need to shave soon.
When Arnie grabbed her wrist, Darby pushed him off the seat, the spring inside her releasing its energy. He plopped into the aisle and she scooted sideways. Her short strides took her to the locked baggage car, leaving Arnie looking dazed. Later, she knew, he’d come to her with his head down, eyes weepy. She didn’t like that. She wished she’d never pretended that she did.
She studied the keypad on the locked door in front of her. Old-fashioned mechanical buttons stared back, the numbers, zero through nine, printed in faded black ink. They clicked when she pressed them. With the door unlocked, she entered the narrow coupling joining the lounge to the baggage car. She left the door ajar so she wouldn’t have to struggle with the inside keypad, which was mounted high up. She’d need to stand on something to reach it.
Cool air swirled around her ears. No environmental controls in here. Overhead, in a wire cage, a light bulb glowed. She waved at the ceiling sensor and the light increased, casting a dull glow across the room jammed full of freight.
Tall, round canisters, thick black trunks with steel-reinforced corners, and assorted luggage ranging in quality from high-end leather to thrifty cardboard and plastic surrounded Darby. Sturdy straps held everything in place, the odd-sized bags inside a secure net, the uniformly built canisters held down by braided bands of steel, and the trunks clamped to the corrugated metal floor.
The five defective cyborgs, casualties of that afternoon’s game, occupied a distant corner. Tucked away. Out of sight. But not forgotten. The company wouldn’t leave valuable players, even these damaged ones, to rot in a railway car. Crushed heads, splintered bones, damaged brain implants: all could be repaired.
Two caskets stacked one atop the other were bolted by a thick cable to one wall. Two more hugged the other wall. A green indicator light pulsed in a narrow window, the bright color signaling an OK status.
The cyborgs in the coffins breathed, expelled carbon dioxide, and sweated while they slept. Up close, Darby took note of the small view screen that provided other information, such as defecation status, purity of the air, extent of perspiration, naturalness of sleep. A tap on the screen enlarged the readout, the numbers and letters and other symbols popping up as holographic projections.
A fifth casket sat on the floor at an angle, its green indicator bar not dancing left to right in the narrow screen. The viewing monitor was blank and the casket’s lid was ajar.
Darby reacted, her left hand going for the handheld scope, a Handy, usually in her utility belt, just behind her hip. But she didn’t have it with her. She hadn’t prepared for a problem. With a Handy, she could look into the cyborg’s mind, get a grasp on its mental status and physical condition. The unit would let her signal for help if needed, as well as send calming signals to a brain implant. Using its built-in leash, she’d easily steer the errant cyborg back into the casket.
How did it get loose? she wondered as she examined the edges of the open box. A defective lock for a defective blitzball player? She grumbled, half annoyed and half laughing at the irony.
The casket’s soft interior lining felt warm to her touch. Wet, too. Whichever defective had occupied the box had just made his escape. How damaged could he be if he had managed to get loose?
She calmed herself and looked around at the dimly lit car. She knew what to do. A plan came to mind within seconds of realizing her situation. Retreat to the door, and then out of the baggage car. Then to her room, rifle through her ready bag, and return dressed for combat, her pistol in hand and fully charged, a twelve-round clip in the handle, another two clips in her belt.
One or two explosive pellets would do the job. They’d disable the seven-foot cyborg, nullify the strength in his artificial arms and legs, and render him useless. Another shot would kill him. She’d done it before. In her six years with the League, she’d been forced to kill three times. When wedged into a corner, she took action before she got ripped apart.
With careful back steps, toe then heel, she made her way past the stacks of baggage, hands at her sides, palms down, fingers extended, as though to give her balance, as though she walked a high wire above a deep chasm.
Gleaming blue eyes stopped her. They appeared from behind corrugated metal crates piled one atop the other and kept in place by leather bands pulled taut from floor to ceiling. The eyes moved and she saw hands — actually, gloves — at the edge of the topmost crate.
What now? If she turned to run, she might make it to the door, which she’d left ajar. Or the cyborg might leap ahead and get there before her. If he made it out of the baggage car...
Deep breaths came and went. She forced herself to look grim and determined, deliberate and angry. She’d dealt with things like this, if not this particular situation, many times in the past. During her four years with the state police, a job she’d taken immediately after college, she’d faced men and women armed with a variety of weapons. They had come at her with knives and clubs, with gunpowder-type pistols and shotguns, and even with a sword, once.
How fast could this cyborg move? A defective, yes, she said to herself. What part? The implants? A leg or an arm? She hadn’t checked each individual player being shipped home in the coffins. Put to sleep, they’d be measured and assessed by technicians more competent to understand their condition than she’d ever be.
She ran for the door. The sound of something crashing to the floor erupted behind her. When she looked back, she saw a seven-footer scrambling from atop a falling down stack of packing crates. He leapt at her, arms extended and gloved hands clawing the air.
Keep him in here, she told herself. She couldn’t exit the car and shut the door behind her without chancing the cyborg’s escape. He’d barrel into her and knock her aside. He’d get into the lounge. Nor could she leave the door ajar while taking refuge behind the luggage and barrels and crates lining either side of the baggage car.
Calm deliberation filled Darby at that moment. Making decisions when panicked didn’t work.
She pulled the door to the lounge car shut. The lock clicked. The cyborg rammed her just then, and she curled into a ball and rolled away. She squirmed between two tall cylinders. She knocked down a pile of suitcases. The cyborg tripped, flailing, arms like rubber hoses fighting the air.
Darby sucked in a deep breath. The cyborg sat on his haunches. He still wore his player’s uniform, a dark colored pair of tight shorts and a jersey with “KINGS” emblazoned across the front.
“Go back to your box,” Darby said. “We’ll be in Chicago soon. There’s doctors to take care of you.”
The cyborg spat at her. “You locked the door.”
“You don’t want to go out there,” Darby said.
“I have friends out there.”
Darby blinked, taken aback by the cyborg’s soft tone of voice, the way his eyelids fluttered, and how he relaxed his thick shoulders and then sat back on his butt. His bare feet bore black-and-blue marks, as though the tiny bones were broken.
She’d seen blitzball players leap over opponents, scramble up steep inclines to the playing field’s second level, and then jump thirty feet down, landing to the cheers of the crowd and the confusion of their adversaries. It obviously took a toll.
“Did we win?” the cyborg asked. “I blacked out.”
“I got hit,” the cyborg said, and touched the left side of his head. Black stitches kept a cut closed. But no bandage. No massive swelling, either. Players got banged around all the time. It didn’t send them to the defect list. Half the men drinking and play-punching one another, re-enacting the game and singing team songs had bruises worse than this cyborg’s.
“Go back in your box and rest,” Darby said, her voice fluttering.
If she had her Handy, a quick glance at its monitor would tell her what was going on in his brain. “Do you know why they put you on the defect list?” she asked, hoping to put him mentally off-balance.
He cocked his head to one side. His large mouth moved, but no words came, his rubbery lips working back and forth, lubricated with spittle. Then he shrugged.
“Tell me,” he said.
“I don’t know. I’m just a minder, not a doctor or a med-tech. If you get in your box, I’ll get someone to reset your environment so you can go back to sleep. Maybe they’ll know what’s wrong with you.”
The cyborg snorted. “What’s wrong is twenty years playing this game.” He held his hands out, palms up. Ugly plastic gloves adhered to his skin, the tight elastic at the wrists digging in. It didn’t look natural.
Copyright © 2017 by David Castlewitz