Blitz Kings Minder
by David Castlewitz
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Darby stared at the tears in the man’s large eyes. Tears that didn’t fall because he’d been conditioned not to cry, just as she, as a teenaged girl, learned from her parents not to cry when hurt or disappointed or frightened. Successful people, her father claimed, didn’t weep when things went wrong.
The door to the baggage car opened and a cone of light invaded the dimly lit room. Arnie McLeish stood with a hand on the edge of the heavy steel door. “What’re you doing in here? Darby? You locked the door. What’s—”
The cyborg rushed him and knocked him aside.
“Idiot,” Darby shouted, and ran to the open door. The cyborg bolted into the lounge car, eliciting screams, startled expressions, half-shouted questions and mute, open-mouthed complaints.
The cyborg flexed his arms, knees bent, the muscles in his body bulging, his square face red. “Stay out of my way. All of you.”
Darby hoped no one had a weapon. She hoped the two minders she’d left in the club car hadn’t brought pistols. But the train’s police were armed and there’d be three watching out for trouble where the players partied.
“Be smart for once, Darby,” Arnie barked. “You can’t take him on with no gun or nothing.”
She shook off Arnie’s hand and sprinted forward, out of the baggage car and into the lounge. She slipped on the smooth floor, her soft slippers making her lose her footing. She grabbed hold of a seat’s upright back, then gripped a pole standing between floor and ceiling.
Arnie’s warnings rang in her ears. She needed her Handy. She needed a weapon. “I can’t let them kill him,” she said.
She hugged the door to the coupling between the lounge and club cars. The swaying put her off-balance. She leaned into the door and slid it aside. Then she plunged into the club car, where the party raged, with loud voices filling the air, the sound from the TV monitors blaring.
The defective cyborg had blended with the celebration, disappearing into the sea of celebrating players. Some of the cyborgs had donned paper napkins shaped like helmets. The monitors showed a solitary figure run up an incline to a thirty-foot tall platform set in the middle of the field. Opponents chased him. He jumped and rolled. A round ball of sparking virtual bands of light fell from his grip and then petered out with an audible “pop.”
The players groaned, evidently reliving a part of the game they’d rather forget. A moment later, a field referee launched a new projection, and the ensuing scrimmage to keep the ball in the air erupted into wrestling and kicking until one player emerged with the ball tucked against his ribs.
The party roared its approval like a single entity, beer cans and bottles in the air, arms pumping up and down, contents spilling.
Three transit cops patrolled on a perimeter catwalk above the club car. Darby saw her two young co-workers, Greene and Treacher, standing next to a round table loaded with empty beer bottles. Waitresses dressed in skimpy costumes maneuvered through the sea of bodies, the tufts of fur on their buttocks evoking images of sex-ready animals. Male waiters with white-painted faces and yellow horns glued to their temples reminded Darby of satyrs.
The women in the room — many of them picked up in St. Louis as paid companions — laughed and drank and flirted, some with one another. Darby focused on the men, anxious to find the defective who’d escaped her. When fingers played at her shoulders, she wrenched them off. When the stink of beer and liquor wafted over her, she held her breath, or ducked her head, or opened her small mouth slightly so she could breathe without any odors irritating her nostrils.
She pushed on. She looked for that telltale stitched-up wound on the defect’s head. She spotted a gloved hand. The type of glove worn for playing the game, a prosthetic, meant to be as much a part of the player as his elbow or solenoid-enhanced kneecap. The glove had a built-in holographic projector for emitting a virtual blitzball.
Bodies intervened between her and her quarry, which she still couldn’t spot. The mass clogging the car closed in front of her, leaving her on the outside, near the door where she’d entered.
Arnie burst into view, on the periphery of her vision. He handed her a utility belt, which she strapped around her waist, glad for the feel of the heavy handheld scope, her Handy, clinging in its holster and bouncing against her hip. She felt for the pistol on her right and pressed the “ready” button to charge its internal magazine. The railgun’s rings tingled as they focused energy from the battery.
“I alerted the transit police,” Arnie roared, his voice loud enough to overcome the noise in the car. As he spoke, the three cops on the catwalk simultaneously leaned their mouths close to the communicators attached to their shoulder pads.
“I’ll take care of him,” Darby said. “He’s my responsibility.” She sucked in a breath. She told herself she didn’t fear any cyborg. They’d never hurt her. She’d never let them, not mentally at least, and not physically, either. She had her pistol, which propelled an explosive pellet at 200 feet per second, and she’d use it.
When Arnie put a restraining hand on her shoulder, she peeled his fingers away and stepped out of reach. She pulled the Handy from its place on her belt and flipped the “ON” switch. The screen at the back of the scope sizzled with black-and-white lines scampering across the glass. The ready-light glowed bright amber at the base of the monitor’s screen. When the color changed to green, competing parcels of data bounced like marbles on the screen.
Darby watched her teammates, Greene and Treacher, leave the small table where they’d stood watching the party. She wondered if they’d come to help her; she would, if the situation were reversed.
When they disappeared from view, she realized they’d taken refuge somewhere, perhaps alongside Arnie. She didn’t blame her supervisor for not wading in, for not having a Handy of his own or a short-range pistol. He manned a desk, pushed icons around on a screen. Arnie didn’t go into the field. She wondered if he ever had and suddenly realized that she didn’t know him very well.
She knew Irene better. She preferred Irene.
She shook her head to clear her mind. She didn’t need these competing thoughts. She needed to concentrate on the job in front of her. Find the defective cyborg in this sea of sweating, stinking blitzball players. Find him, latch onto him, return him to the baggage car. Or kill him on the spot.
A quick sweep of the crowd brought a mass of dancing circles onto the Handy’s view screen. The figures twitched and hit one another. All were white with green stripes. None represented a defective.
Darby wondered if the cyborg had been put in that casket for some reason other than the stated one. Maybe he wasn’t defective. That wound on the side of his head meant nothing. He didn’t act as if he’d lost control of his limbs. He didn’t slur his words. He wasn’t catatonic. All his faculties were intact, including the spring in his step and the quickness of his mind.
A white circle with a thin red band bobbed in the center of the screen, amid the glowing green orbs. She made eye contact with the nearby cyborgs. She thought she heard the nickname someone once gave her. They called her “Mighty Mite,” because of her compact body and her muscular arms and legs, she assumed.
She stepped forward, forcing the cyborgs in front of her to part, to make way. She adjusted the range of the scope in her hand, narrowing the focus and extending the beam. The scope’s forward section dipped. It was awkward to hold the Handy steady.
Darby gripped the handle tightly, her hand aching from the effort. With her free hand she pulled back on a latch alongside the scoping mechanism, cocking the leash, a nine-foot long cable that would give her better control over the cyborg if she snagged him.
Someone bumped her and she pushed him off with her free left hand while maintaining her grip on the Handy. Fewer green-striped circles appeared near her quarry. Fewer voices flew around the room. The drinking and cheering and singing stopped. No sound came from any of the three large screen monitors showing the recent blitzball game.
The defective cyborg stood apart from everyone now, a beer bottle in his hand. The wound at the side of his head oozed blood. His shirt had been torn off. By him? Someone? Without it, his other injuries were more apparent. A gash in his right shoulder revealed tiny nylon gears and plastic bolts. His left arm lacked the artificial skin that ran from shoulder to the crook in the arm. Repairs were needed, which warranted putting him in a casket to be shipped home rather than letting him ruin himself with this riotous behavior.
Darby tried to send a signal to the defect’s brain implant. To calm him. Two tall women sprouted on either side of her, both in tight-fitting red jackets with med-tech insignia — a snake twinned around a staff — on their breast pockets.
“I’ve got this,” Darby growled at them.
“It’s gotta get back in its box,” one said.
Darby didn’t like the look of the weapons the women carried. One held a scatter-shot that would impale the cyborg with electrifying stick-on tacks to render him helpless. She’d seen this used on recalcitrant prisoners when she served with the state police. The other wielded a three-foot long flexible club which she held at her side, the tip of her weapon scratching at the floor.
“I said,” Darby repeated, “I got this.”
“Get it back in its box or we’ll put it there.”
Darby sent a calm-signal. On-screen, a thin, light blue line crept towards the red-banded circle and surrounded it. It happened in an instant and she looked for its effect on the cyborg, whose eyes glistened with its unshed tears. He dropped the bottle of beer in his hand. The liquid gushed out, foam bubbling across the floor, the glass not breaking. The two med-techs raised their weapons.
“Come with me,” Darby whispered. A gentle voice had more force in situations of this nature, she’d been taught. She should urge, not demand. She should offer, not order.
“It’s not listening to you,” one of the techs said.
“He,” Darby corrected. “And he will listen to me.”
The tech with the wicked flexible club winced, her thick lips screwed up in an “O,” as though she’d been offended. Darby shot the other tech a withering stare. The only person insulted, she thought, was this cyborg, this injured player, who only wanted to be with his friends. Something had gone wrong with the mechanism that kept his casket locked, kept him asleep, kept him unawares. It wasn’t his fault that he woke up.
“I am going to leash you now,” Darby said. She ignored the techs. She ignored the transit police on the catwalk, each one — the original three had grown to seven — with rifles aimed at the defective cyborg.
Darby pressed the trigger that hurled the leash at the cyborg’s naked scalp. It struck him and he flinched, raised his hands for a second but then lowered them, just as he lowered his head. The end of the leash latched onto his skin, its sharp tips digging in for a firm grip. The view screen showed the red-banded circle solidifying, its interior turning yellow as a symbol of both the calming signal she’d sent and the fastening of the leash.
She pulled on the cocking device at the side of the Handy and gathered in the slack. The leash tightened.
“Coming?” Darby said, and backed off, tugging just slightly to force the cyborg to follow. She turned then, held the Handy so the leash fell across one shoulder. She pictured her now-docile quarry with his head down and hands at his sides, his bare feet taking each step as carefully as possible.
Someone cheered. Hand-clapping followed. Darby nodded to Arnie, silently asking him to slide open the door. When he did, she stepped into the coupling between the cars and shortened the leash. The cyborg followed her, his massive frame just a few feet behind her.
She walked down the center aisle in the adjacent car, past curious stares and startled looks, as well as a few angry and some frightened ones. She felt the cyborg’s breath on her bare neck. She told herself she had nothing to fear. He was a man, not a thing. An injured player, not a raving maniac.
Darby worked the combination lock, stepped across the coupling, and entered the baggage compartment. The light in the ceiling came to life when she waved at the sensor. Bright enough that she could find her way.
“Go on,” Darby said to the cyborg, leading him by the leash to the open box on the floor. She stood with the casket between herself and the cyborg. Looking down, she saw a nameplate.
The cyborg stepped slowly to the edge of the box.
“Please, Odin,” Darby said, using the player’s name and releasing the leash, which zipped back into its compartment at the base of the Handy.
“Odin do what told.”
Odin lay in the box, his arms across his chest, and Darby set the mechanism that would wrap the player in a sleep-inducing fog once she lowered the padded top. Pausing in her motions, she looked into Odin’s eyes. She wondered if he mentally basked in the memory of his friends celebrating all around him. Would he dream of giant arenas packed with fans hooting for victory?
She shut the lid. She looked back over her shoulder at Arnie standing in the doorway, a dim light bathing his boyish good looks. Maybe she’d give him another chance. Probably not. Maybe she’d chase after Irene and make her come back. Probably so. Maybe she’d look for someone entirely new, decidedly different. She had a lot of options, she thought. Far more than Odin and cyborgs like him.
Copyright © 2017 by David Castlewitz