Originally published in “Claw The Way to Victory.” I generally don't like sports, but in school I was pretty good at floor hockey. What would be different about sports nonhumans play? Handling the "ball" using only the mouth would be interesting. I'd like to know the workout routine the players use to train those muscles. Discus players would probably look ridiculous to human eyes, but in a society of humanized animals, it would symbolize something else entirely. The game itself would certainly serve a different purpose, too.
I like to examine how society would be different in a nonhuman
setting. Ideas that would be abhorrent in a human context but make
perfect sense outside of it are some of the most satisfying stories I
by James L. Steele
Eighteen players jogged onto the field. Nine of them wore red and grey uniforms, the players a mix of three canines, four felines, and two reptiles. The logo on their shirts depicted a hurricane moving the continents out of its way. The Force.
The nine on the other team were all wolves. The logo on their black and yellow jerseys was an image of a salivating, canine muzzle snapping shut. The Pack.
The two teams met in the center of the field with the referees: two squirrels, one horse, one sheep, and one elk. The teams stood in opposing lines, facing one another, meeting each other’s eyes. Nobody on either team was under three hundred pounds, and they wore no pads or helmets.
One wolf in a black and yellow jersey, labeled 24 Rett, stood in line with his team, sizing up the cougar across from him. The feline was grinning at him, licking his lips. Greg growled, hopefully not loud enough for the refs to hear. He didn’t want to mess up on his first pro game.
The head referee had switched on his microphone and addressed the stadium packed with one-hundred-thousand spectators.
“Welcome, everyone, to Barnett stadium! Once again, it is Discus season!”
The stadium roared and cheered. Greg broke his eye contact from the cougar and observed them, probably looking like a real rookie on camera. It was his first time in a stadium this large.
“Back from training in the deep south, where the weather is hot and there is no rest for the weary, The Force!”
The team wearing red and grey postured in ways according to their species: some howled, others roared, others opened their mouths and hissed at the opposing team, who stood still and waited ceremoniously for their turn. Greg could barely keep his composure.
Five years in little leagues, twelve years on school teams, four years playing college level, and it actually happened. He had been recruited into one of the most exclusive pro Discus teams in the National Discus League. The Pack only recruited wolves, which meant he wasn’t just playing Discus anymore. He was part of history. This was his childhood wet dream come true.
The equine referee now broadly gestured at Greg’s team. “And back from training in the far north, where the only shelter you’ll find from the elements is under your fur, The Pack!”
Now The Force stood at attention, and The Pack postured and howled together at the same pitch, making a sound that was audible even over the cheers and roars of the spectators.
The equine referee turned to all sides of the stadium. “Welcome to the season-opening game!”
Greg observed the crowd again. Canines, avians, equines, felines, rodents, ursines, and every other genus was in the packed stadium. Millions more watched by high-definition broadcast.
The referee continued the introductions, getting the spectators worked up. The stadium was full of energy, and it fed the players. Right now, Greg felt like he could tear a hole in the walls of this place. It took everything he had to stop himself from drooling in anticipation.
Greg grinned, feeling giddy as a puppy. He had been training hard for months, loving every minute of it, packing on forty pounds of muscle, building his chest, neck, and jaws. He’d been told bodybuilders envied his jaw muscles, and he would probably get some kind of endorsement deal for that alone, but first he had to prove he could play. He wasn’t in doubt about that anymore.
The equine switched off his mic and walked up and down the gap between the two teams.
“All right, you animals, here are the rules. Blood happens, and claws and teeth are okay, but no intentional wounds above the shoulders. Do not use the coin as a weapon against another player. Do not use the stadium walls as a weapon against another player. Do not...”
The players pretended to listen. Everybody knew the rules, but NDL policy stated the rules must be stated at the start of every game. This whole time the players stared at each other, making subtle gestures of the ears, muzzle, tail, and any other part of the body they could get away with. Everyone had to stay still for this part, but they could make subtle taunts.
The cougar was licking his nose, raising one lip and flashing a single fang at Greg. The cougar’s jersey label read 67 Agani. Greg countered by biting down on an imaginary coin, flexing his jaw muscles, showing them off. If Agani noticed, he didn’t show it.
Finally the referee retreated to the sidelines, and out of the team entrance walked the emcee, carrying the coin.
As soon as he saw it, Greg drooled. Everyone on his team did. He’d learned to associate the sight and smell of that disc with pleasure and accomplishment, and already he wanted to run up to that fox, knock her down, and clamp his teeth on it.
The master of ceremonies this game was the state governor. The fox wore formal attire, a blouse and skirt. Greg wasn’t sure how she was able to lift the coin without toppling over; she didn’t look like she had an ounce of muscle on her. She was downright comical walking with that thing.
Governor Shields stopped at the sideline next to the referee and waved to the crowd. The equine addressed the stadium again. “Tossing the coin into play this game, Governor Paula Shields!”
The stadium cheered. Greg heard a few jerks booing. Greg couldn’t take his eyes off the coin, which was covered in sponsor logos that would become illegible by the time the game was over.
Governor Shields waved to the crowd a few more times, then held the disc close to her blouse and cast. Greg was surprised she could throw it any distance at all. The disc sailed between both teams, flipped halfway over, and hit the ground rolling.
The coin was in play.
Both teams charged one another and dove for it. The tiger on The Force bent down, opened his mouth, and snatched it up in his jaws. He ran for the opposite goal, muscular arms shoving a couple wolves out of the way. All around him players rammed one another, raking each other with claws across the shoulders and legs and chest. Greg chased the tiger.
A wolf from The Pack leaped onto the tiger, hugged him around the arms, and took him down to the turf, rolling, snarling, and howling. The tiger’s mouth popped open and the coin rolled. Greg had been running parallel to the tiger and veered to snatch it.
The cougar dashed up from the other side and bent over the coin. Greg growled, flashed his teeth, and rammed the feline on the shoulder. He reached down and snapped the coin up in his jaws, never slowing down for a moment.
He didn’t know why they called it a coin. It was an oblate disc the diameter of his head, and it weighed thirty pounds. Greg barley felt it in his jaws as he tore down the opposite end of the field. He ran with his arms close to his body to make it harder for anyone to latch onto him with their jaws or hands.
Around him, wolves collided with other canines and felines and reptiles. Claws swiped chests, dogs fell to the turf, and felines dropped and rolled. Greg veered away from a knot of approaching canines. He had the feeling he’d held onto the coin for long enough, so he wound up his neck and pitched the coin through the air. One feline leaped into the air and tried to intercept, but missed, and the coin came down. One of his fellow wolves leaped in the air and caught the coin in his teeth, neck muscles bulging from the strain.
The action flowed away from Greg. Players caught up to one another, tackled each other, traded blows, separated, and ran after the coin again.
Something solid and feline slammed into Greg, knocking him down to the turf muzzle-first. His training had conditioned him to turn his head to the side so he wouldn’t break his muzzle, and he landed with the weight of a built cougar on top of him.
A feline growl rumbled in Greg’s ears. The wolf rolled over and shoved the cat off him. He leaped to his feet, crouched, and squared off with the cat. The cat continued licking his nose, loving his rookie scent. Nobody did things like this to him in the college games and it caught Greg by surprise, but the reaction was surprisingly natural.
Greg charged. Agani faked right, but Greg didn’t fall for it. He plowed straight into the cat’s chest, hugging him around the waist, and took him down. Claws gouged into Greg’s back, ripping his jersey and gouging his skin. Greg howled. His first instinct was to go for the face, but he had to hold back. He raised a leg and dragged his claws against whatever flesh his foot was near. The cat snarled, raking his claws across Greg’s back again.
Felines had an advantage over canines in how sharp their claws were. A canine’s claws were meant to grip the turf while running, not to claw opponents. Agani had Greg right where he wanted him.
Greg rolled off Agani, dragging his own claws across his chest. He heard fabric ripping, and the wolf felt a little twinge of pride. He sniffed the air and found the coin. It was in a reptile’s mouth, coming straight for them. He glanced at the scoreboard and saw neither The Pack nor The Force had scored yet. Greg tore across the field, straight for the reptile. Just above his own heartbeat, he heard the stadium cheering.
Every member of each team bled from somewhere. The smell of blood ignited something in Greg. He didn’t understand it. Something about being in a group, fur matted with blood, made him wild with excitement. It’s what got him into this sport, and it’s what paid his way through college.
Black and yellow collided with red and grey. Reptiles, felines, and canines singled Greg out and tried to cause some kind of injury to take him out of the game. Sometimes he slashed them with his claws, sometimes he tackled, and sometimes he merely squared off with them, posturing and snarling and sometimes drooling.
He knew it would happen. As the rookie, they would of course be all over him. He was ready. Greg was three hundred and forty pounds of canine. He could lift one-twenty with his jaws alone, and not many canines could top that. Eventually, eight of the players on The Force realized Greg was no rookie to push around, and finally left him alone.
Only Agani remained. He was always around. Whenever Greg got the coin, the cougar was there, slamming into him, knocking him down, stealing it and his chance to score the first goal of the game.
A packmate tackled one of The Force’s canines and sent the coin rolling across the field. Greg was there. He bent down, snatched it up in his jaws, and bolted for the goal. This time, he did not pass to someone running ahead of him. There were too many others around, too much interference. He clamped his jaws tighter and ran as erratically as possible.
Agani tackled him from the side, throwing Greg to the turf and lying on top of him. The coin popped out of his mouth and rolled. Agani licked the inside of Greg’s ear and growled. Greg growled and shoved Agani off with one arm. The cat stumbled away, still licking his nose at Greg. The wolf wanted to rip that smile off Agani’s face.
They took off running after the coin at the same time, keeping stride. Greg tried to lose the cougar, but the cat stayed with him. The wolf growled the whole way, letting the scent of the coin push his endurance to its limit.
One of his packmates snatched up the coin and ran for the goal line. Greg followed, cougar right beside him, knocking down everyone who came near him. He body-slammed the tiger as he tried to pursue, knocked down one of the reptiles, and kept pace. Greg kept everyone off his packmate except one. He couldn’t shake the cougar. The cat matched him move for move and kept pace. Agani didn’t even seem interested in the coin, only in staying with Greg.
A wolf in red and grey charged up the side with the cougar and slammed into Greg’s packmate. The coin flew from his mouth and rolled. Greg dashed by the fight, bent low, opened his mouth, and grabbed the coin. Agani tackled Greg from behind. The wolf crashed to the ground, cougar rolling behind him. Greg did not let go of the coin.
As soon as the stadium stopped spinning, Greg stood up and found the goal line. Before he could take a step, Agani clamped his jaws on the other side of the coin and pulled. The cougar had a powerful grip, but Greg was not intimidated. He pulled back and anchored himself into the ground with his claws. Now Greg had the advantage. His packmates fought The Force, keeping them off him while he played tug-of-war for the coin.
Greg was so close to Agani, he saw his reflection in the cat’s eyes. The cougar pulled. Greg pulled back. They spun in circles, snarling and bleeding from various places on their bodies. They raised their arms at the same time and clamped fists, trying to push each other away. The cat was strong, but so was Greg.
The stadium cheered, some chanting his name, and Greg let their cheers and screams feed his muscles. He snarled louder. He pushed harder. He dug his feet into the soil.
The feline suddenly twisted. Greg fell to the ground, still holding onto the coin. Their eyes were still locked, their scents mixed in his nose. The cat wrenched his neck again, and the coin slipped out of Greg’s teeth. Greg snarled and rolled to his feet, chasing the cat’s tail to the goal line.
His other packmates were busy taking out the other members of The Force. Now it was just Greg and Agani. Greg hated the cat’s scent. He hated the cat’s ugly pink nose. He hated his face, and that short, yellow fur. The feline was all that stood between him and the goal, and he had Greg’s coin. It was up to him to keep Agani from scoring a goal, and Greg would not blow this chance on his first pro game.
The cheers and stomps and howls and screeches of the audience filled his muscles and quickened his legs. He closed in on the cougar. He caught up to the tail. Greg reached out, wrapped his arms around the cat’s waist, and twisted to the side. He and the cat fell, rolled, and twisted together.
The cat was a threat, and he had to keep this threat from coming back and stealing their coin again. Greg opened his mouth and lunged for Agani’s throat. The cat didn’t scream; he merely went still. Greg felt relief. He stood up, followed his nose to where the coin rested, picked it up in his jaws, turned, and ran across the field to the goal. The stadium became thunder.
Greg crossed the line and stood at the goal, arms at his side, holding the coin in his muzzle, turning to all sides of the stadium. His first game in the professional league, and the first goal of the game was his—the first goal of the season. He lived it up. He tossed the coin in the air and caught it in his teeth again and again. The stadium cheered louder each time.
Greg turned down field. Both teams were gathered around Agani. The cat wasn’t moving. The front of his throat was missing. Greg just now realized he had swallowed something while he ran to the goal. His muzzle dropped open. The coin fell from it and plopped on the grass between his paws. A bloody mouth-print covered some of the sponsor logos.
Both teams were glaring at him. Greg glared back. He swallowed again, tasting feline blood.
“In your own words,” said the suited fox sitting on the other hotel bed, “tell us what was going through your mind when it happened.”
“I don’t... I just... He had the coin. It felt like the best way to stop him from coming back and taking it from me again.”
“In your own words,” said the suited bear leaning against the table, “what led up to the incident?”
“Like I told the last two guys, he had the coin. He’d been on my tail the whole game. It didn’t feel like just a coin anymore. It was my pack’s and he kept taking it. "
“Can you be more specific?” asked the suited badger sitting on the chair by the window.
“I don’t know what else to say. I wanted to stop him from coming back. I didn’t even know I was killing him; I just had to stop him.”
“In your view,” said the suited mouse sitting on the bed next to Greg, “do you feel you had no choice?”
“I told you. I told the last dozen people who came in here the same story. Why don’t you talk to them?”
“I need to hear it from you.”
“I had to take him out. Keep him from coming back. It was my coin. I was tired of him taking it from us.”
“From your point of view,” said the suited wolf with white fur standing by the window, “why did you feel he needed to die?”
“For the love of God, please stop asking me! How many more of you are there?”
“I’ve answered enough of your questions! I killed him! You think I feel good about that? I threw up twice before you came in!”
It was four o’clock at night, and Greg was alone at last. After the incident, five National Discus League people escorted him to this hotel room and he had not been allowed to leave since.
He had killed someone. He meant to do it. Thinking back on all the people who had questioned him, he wondered if he had made a mistake owning up to that. He wondered if he should have contacted a lawyer first. Greg clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. He tried to sleep.
His body spontaneously began shaking and he couldn’t seem to control his diaphragm. This happened a couple times every hour since the questioning began.
He tried not to think about that cat. He tried not to think about his jaws around his neck, tearing it out. Greg hadn’t even realized he had done it. He remembered feeling no resistance. It took zero force to end that cougar’s life, and that scared him as much as his future did.
He had several more attacks. They were more frequent now that he was alone.
Greg rose from the bed and swung his legs over the side, resting his arms on his thighs. He had no appetite, couldn’t even hold down water, and hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning. Greg was completely numb all over.
He turned his head sideways to the TV on the opposite wall. This hotel was nothing fancy, a simple double-occupancy room, so the screen was fairly small. He knew what he would see if he turned it on, and he dreaded what the news reports would be.
He reached for the remote and turned on the screen. The TV was already on a news station, and Greg saw it. The Moment. He shivered, and as soon as he was about to change the channel, the video cut off and the sports commentary resumed.
“Well, one thing we have to understand,” began the panther. Greg recognized him. He was a former player, retired years ago, and now his job was to fill air time between the games. “We weren’t there. We weren’t in the moment, in that particular moment, in his circumstances. Who are we to judge?”
A fox on the other side of the table spoke up. He wasn’t a player, but he was an expert on the game. “I agree. I agree. And another thing to remember is it’s important for a Discus player to be tough. You gotta look it, you gotta smell it, you gotta play it. If you don’t have all of those things, your career is going down.”
The deer beside him nodded. “Right, just look at Johnny Xan. Fifteen years in the game, then he starts going soft, and what happens? He has to retire.”
The fourth member of the round table commentary now spoke up. He was an old horse, and had been commentating on sports for longer than any of these other guys. “I remember when Xan started. He was a lot like Greg Rett as a rookie. Very insecure, very reserved. He toughened up quick, earned the other players’ respect. If you wanna do well at this game, you gotta earn the respect. You’re not gonna do that by showing weakness.”
The commentators around the table nodded.
It went to commercial, and Greg changed the channel. A feline reporter was on the screen.
“Mister Madison, thank you for joining us. I want to start by asking you what, in your opinion, is the NDL’s best course of action against rookie Greg Rett?”
The screen cut to the wolf being interviewed. He was this network’s resident sports commentary generator, so it was no surprise or trouble that he should join this reporter for an interview.
“Well, Dolly, I have to say, the best course for the NDL is first to let everyone’s nerves cool down first. All right? That’s step one. Step two: remember, this is Discus. It’s a full-contact sport with claws and teeth. You got players over three hundred pounds tossing a coin that weighs enough to cause a concussion. You have to expect things like this to happen.”
“So, in your opinion, this is expected?”
“I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone. Greg is a player, like any other. If not him, it would have been someone else.”
Greg switched channels. He dropped into the middle of a debate with another round table of commentators and reporters and experts. He didn’t recognize these people, and they were talking so fast the camera cut to a different person every nine seconds.
“I don’t know if you remember Bob Erras,” one of the wolves said, “but he did basically the same thing. He made sure the other players knew he meant business, that he was tough and didn’t take crap from anybody. Greg Rett has done that. He’s done it!”
The camera cut to a feline. “You’re right. If you wanna do well at Discus, you have to show you’re tough enough to take whatever the other team gives you, and then give it back double.”
“Number twenty-four is a powerful player,” said a rabbit with brown fur. “I think we all agree on that. He’s a powerful player. He’s shown that. He’s going places.”
“It’s Discus!” someone else said, and the camera cut to him, a coyote. “You get into something like this, you know what the risks are. We’ve been playing this game for hundreds of years—it predates the government of this nation, for crying out loud! Everyone knows the rules. Everyone knows how it’s played. Everyone knows the risks. If you can’t accept the risks, get out!”
Greg changed the channel. Yet another news program, but this wasn’t a sports commentator talking. This was a political pundit, a black wolf with some grey under the muzzle.
"—ould be no charges brought. Really, there shouldn’t be. What charges could they bring against Rett? Playing Discus? Give me a break. This is the nature of the game. People are going to get hurt, and there is risk of serious injury.”
Greg changed another channel, mouth agape. Now a possum was on screen, talking into the camera.
"—there’s any question that Greg Rett is not just another ‘flash in the pan’ rookie, that question is out the window. He’s a serious player. We know it now. It’s a rough game. I used to play it. I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard on that field, and you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s gonna push you to do some extreme things, but that’s the game.”
Greg’s mouth was practically in his lap. He changed the channel.
“I’ve never seen a player like Rett before, and I’ve been covering NDL games for twenty years. He’s got what it takes. He’s got everything to do very well at this game.”
Greg clicked the channel button.
“Some people are tossing the ‘m’-word,” said a tigress on the screen, “and I don’t blame them. I’ve seen the footage of the Moment. I know what happened, but to call it murder is going a little far. I don’t think any charges should be brought against him. He’s a good player, and he’s a wonderful person; I’ve met him.”
Greg had never met this feline before, and he wondered who she was and why she would say they had met. He set the remote down on the bed and stood up, feeling weak in the knees, thighs, shins, and ankles. He wanted to meet up with the rest of The Pack. They had to be in hotel rooms of their own, and they were probably all on this same floor. He needed somebody to talk to. Greg walked to the door, opened it, and walked out.
A scaly arm reached in front of him, halting the wolf. Greg turned to either side. A lizard and a wolf, both almost as large as he was, stood at the door.
“Sorry, Mr. Rett,” said the reptile. “NDL says you stay in your room tonight.”
“Confined to your room while the investigation is pending.”
“I just wanna met the rest of The Pack.”
“Can’t let you leave,” the wolf said.
“Are you the police?” asked Greg.
“We’re with the NDL.”
“Oh. All right. Makes sense.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rett.”
Greg stepped back into his room and shut the door. More commentary came from the TV.
“Some people are proposing this is murder, Mr. Josh. What is your take on that?”
Greg had walked back to his bed and sat facing the screen. A raccoon appeared on camera.
“It’s a little premature to call it murder. There are plenty of circumstances. I just heard a report that concluded Agani, number sixty-seven, was the aggressor. He wouldn’t leave Rett alone, and Rett retaliated the only way he could within the confines of the game.”
Greg’s mouth fell open and he almost screamed. He changed the channel instead, and landed on another channel with another group around a table giving commentary.
“We’re getting new information now,” said a wolf with dull red fur, “and I think it’s obvious what’s going on. They’re trying to pin this on Rett. Of course they are. Rett is the rookie in this: first pro game, first goal, first everything.”
The camera cut to a bear. His subtitle identified him as a political commentator. “There’s a lot of pressure to succeed, and I’ll bet Rett felt that. So here comes Agani, harassing him, going after nobody else, trying to put the rookie in his place.”
Now someone else, a rabbit, another political commentator, chimed in. “If Rett wants to advance his career, he needs to break out of that.”
The people around the table started arguing, talking over each other, but they weren’t arguing with one another. They argued with some unseen presence, the presence that wanted to accuse Greg Rett of murder.
“Agani started this,” said the rodent. “Rett ended it. Any investigating body has to consider it.”
Greg hadn’t closed his mouth in several minutes. A scream stuck in Greg’s throat.
It was all over the morning news. Every show had someone covering the story, and at least a dozen more commentating on the reporting. A few proposed this was horrific and Greg Rett should be charged with murder, but then the round table discussion began and those ideas were disassembled.
The pattern became so predictable Greg started timing it. A reporter would do a story on the incident, then the commentary began. Pundits began shooting down the whole murder thing, saying it just wasn’t feasible to bring murder into this. Agani was clearly the aggressor, and Rett was clearly defending himself. The opposing opinion shut up, and the news continued. It took between three and nine minutes every time.
Greg stared at the TV. He was sure this was a dream. They saw the video. There was no denying it. He killed Agani in full view of the country; he meant to do it; he was happy when he did it, and that should be it, yet people were coming to his defense.
His cell phone was with his gym bag, so he couldn’t call his girlfriend back at home. The NDL wouldn’t let her travel with him until after the first season, for some reason, so he really was isolated. He had tried the hotel’s phone, wishing he could call his girlfriend, parents, coach, the other players—somebody, but the phone did not work. Room service brought him food, and the guards allowed it to pass after inspecting it, but Greg couldn’t stomach very much. He still vomited once in a while, and still dropped in fits of breathless convulsions at random moments.
The day passed. Greg kept the TV on this news channel. Even when he wasn’t watching it, he listened, and the commentary was always the same. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to feel. On one hand, he was a murderer. On the other hand, he just wanted to play the game. He didn’t intend to kill Agani. It just happened. Several times he picked up the phone receiver, hoping for a different result, but it was dead every time.
Around two o’clock in the afternoon, the door unlocked and opened. Whoever it was hadn’t knocked, and he had a key to his room, just like the others. It was another bear dressed in a fine suit. Greg rolled his eyes.
“Mr. Rett,” said the bear, “I need to ask you a few questions.”
“What else? Look, I’m not talking to anybody else unless I get a lawyer. Can you help me get in touch with one? I don’t know this city and the phone is dead.”
“Phone has been cut off.” His eyes wandered, settling on the TV. “Can’t have outside communications while the investigation is pending.”
“Look, I get it, all right? I’m here for murder. Don’t want me talking to anybody I shouldn’t. I get it. But why can’t I see The Pack? And who are you?”
“If you cooperate, Mr. Rett, no lawyers will be needed.”
“Help me clarify something. How did you feel about Agani always going after you?”
“How do you think I felt!”
The bear smiled crookedly. “I’ve never played. Help me understand, please.”
“So now you want to know about that? It’s all the press is talking about.”
“For very good reason. Now please, Mr. Rett. Tell me about how Agani treated you during the game.”
It was another day of answering questions from a never-ending procession of suit-wearing people. Greg threw up less, and his interviewers were more patient when he had a panic attack.
Two NDL people guided Greg to a seat. Dozens of reporters and cameras and lights stared at him. Before Greg was a microphone, and he pulled it closer, adjusted the stand, and cleared his throat.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming. As all of you know by now, yes, it is true. I am responsible for the loss of player sixty-seven on The Force, Aaron Agani. This incident has kept me up every night since the day it happened. I deeply regret any suffering I have caused, and I apologize to the fans, and to the friends and family of Aaron Agani. What happened on the field two weeks ago was unacceptable. I was not myself, and I promise I will be back on the field with the rest of The Pack in no time, a wolf forever changed by what has happened. I will now take a few questions.”
Greg had been instructed to call on the grey rat on his left. He did so.
“Mr. Rett,” said the rat, “is it true you have no clear memory of the incident?”
“As I told investigators,” Greg said, making sure to use a voice that was not his own. He wanted everyone to know he was reading from a script. He’d spent two whole days memorizing it, and these questions were part of his speech. “I was not myself that day, and as a result, my memory of that day is skewed, but still accurate. I remember what I did, and I regret what happened, and I am sorry.”
Next he was to call on the coyote in the rear, and he did.
“How relieved are you to hear that the family of Aaron Agani, as well as the state, has declined to press charges?”
Greg wanted to answer that question. He really did want to tell them he was flabbergasted nobody was pursuing the ‘m’-word. He wanted to ask the reporters if any of them knew why, but Greg caught the eye of every NDL person in attendance, and he stuck to the script.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Aaron Agani. I know they have endured hardship much greater than I have. I believe they want to move on as much as I do.”
Greg called on the next person, a lioness in the front row.
“What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to stay in the game, and if so, how will this incident change your life?”
“I do intend to keep playing. During this investigation, my coach and my agent have told me I show great promise as a Discus player and they want me to continue. I will forever carry this burden with me, knowing I am responsible for the end of another player’s career. It will give me new appreciation for what I have.”
Greg called on the last person, a white wolf.
“We have heard you and Mr. Agani were college rivals. Is there any truth to that rumor?”
“Aaron Agani and I never met prior to this game. I knew him only as a member of the opposite team. I will always remember his name now, deeply regretting I will never have the chance to know him better. That’s all the time I have tonight. Thanks to all of you for your questions and your patience during this investigation.”
Greg stood up. Camera flashes went off, news cameras following every twitch of his muscles as he walked to the door, escorted by his two NDL suits.
“The Pack took one of their players!” said the announcer as computer animated versions of The Force ran across the screen.
They were cartoonish in that their upper bodies were enormous while their legs were tiny. The Force lined up on one side of the screen, and computer-animated wolves gathered on the other side, facing The Force. A computer-animated, cartoonishly-proportioned Greg Rett jumped at them and took down Aaron Agami. The cartoon cougar’s eyes x-ed out, and he collapsed between the two teams. Greg Rett’s animated character roared at the forth wall, turned, and flashed his teeth at The Force, who swiped claws and snapped jaws at the empty air between them.
“Now The Force is out for vengeance! Will The Force avenge their fallen teammate? Can anyone stop Greg Rett’s power? Find out in the ultimate rematch next month! Presented by—"
Greg had his hand over his muzzle, breathless. He changed the channel to another round table news commentary show featuring political analysts, sports commentators, and journalists. A tiger was talking.
“Number twenty-four is gonna knock ‘em dead! Even before he killed that cougar, he showed he’s unstoppable! When the rematch happens, The Force is gonna know he don’t screw around! He’s somebody to fear, and now The Force doesn’t know how to deal with him.”
“Right,” someone else said. “They know what they’re up against. Greg Rett’s value is up now. Did you see they raised his salary? This dog is amazing! Not only can he play, he is intimidating. I can’t wait to see The Force try to avenge Agani’s death.”
Greg changed the channel, wondering if they did raise his salary. This station interviewed people on the street about him.
A fat wolf on the sidewalk was talking into a microphone. “I love Greg Rett! Powerful wolf! He showed ‘em what he’s made of!”
Another person on the street, a deer. “It’s not fair how the media handled this. People are trying to blame him for something he didn’t do. You know, he was just playing the game.”
And another person, a mouse. “He ain’t no rookie no more. Nobody will touch him after this. The Pack is unstoppable again! Go Pack!”
Greg felt another panic attack rising.
There was a knock on his door. Greg set the remote down and opened the door. A fox stood between the two guards, wearing very professional, formal clothing that must have made her uncomfortably hot. It took Greg a moment to recognize her. Governor Paula Shields.
“Hello, Mr. Rett,” she said. “May I come in?”
“Uh, of course.” He turned to the side and opened the door the rest of the way. The fox walked in, looked around the room, glanced at the TV, picked up the remote from the bed, and switched it off. Greg closed the door and walked to the other bed.
“I’m surprised to see you,” he said. “I didn’t think politicians were interested in anyone like me.”
“A tragedy happened in my state, while I was in the building.” She turned and faced him now, still holding the remote. “I felt obligated to stick around and help if I could.”
She smiled. “Tonight is your last night in this room. The team moves on to the next game scheduled, which will be the rematch. I’m sure you have some questions before you go.”
For the first time in two weeks, Greg felt like someone was listening to him. He sat down on the bed, facing her.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m confused. You know what happened, don’t you?”
“Can you tell me...?” He swallowed. He’d been told over and over not to use the word, so it stuck in his throat now. “I murdered that cougar. I meant to do it. I killed him in full view of the country, and the world. Why haven’t I been arrested? Why am I not going to trial? Why is everyone talking about a rematch like this was just part of the game?”
“How much do you know about the National Discus League?”
“Um... It was founded about a century ago by a wolf named Quincy Barnett. Couldn’t make it in politics, so he started the sport.”
“Do you know anything about Mr. Barnett’s political career?”
“Didn’t he try to push for cleaner water, and his bill was killed or something?”
“That’s about as far as most people get with the NDL. You majored in history, correct?”
“What was crime like a century ago?”
“Teachers told me it was horrible back then. Carnivores preyed on the herbivores in the cities. Being so close to together...”
“Modern society made predation obsolete. People didn’t need to hunt and kill anymore, but they did it for centuries after we became civilized.”
“Yeah, I remember that. But things got better.”
“I suggest you dig a little deeper into the NDL. You’ll find Aaron Agani was not the first death in NDL history.”
“You aren’t the first person to cause the death of another player. The NDL handles these incidents internally, without the need for law enforcement to get involved.”
Greg sat with his mouth wide for a moment. “What?”
“Think about it, Greg. Were any of the people who interviewed you police officers? Were the guards outside your door police officers?”
“Who were they?”
“Specialists, Greg. Specialists. They watch the rookies closely.”
“Watch for what?”
“It’s almost always the rookies. The pro-level game feels much different than the college level, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s a lot more aggressive.”
“There’s a reason for that.”
She smiled, then turned to the blank TV screen.
“Ms. Shields,” Greg said. “What the hell is going on?”
She sat down on the bed, faced Greg directly, still holding the remote.
“I can tell you this. The NDL is not just an industry built on a full-contact sport. It’s a public service.”
“Remember how you felt on the field? Imagine every carnivore in the country feeling that way on the street. If not for the NDL, Greg, there would be a lot more crime than there is today.”
Greg did not speak. Ms. Shields continued.
“People like you are worth protecting from certain laws because the net gain to the entire nation is so much higher. It’s why the NDL prefers to handle these cases internally. Have you been watching the news over the last week?”
“Yeah. They’re telling people I was harassed and felt the need to defend myself, and that I reacted properly! I’m the victim. They believe it. I’ve heard people saying they believe I did the right thing! I proved myself to the team, and now the league is turning it into a team rivalry!”
“The news media had its instructions.”
“Did you ever wonder why political commentators felt the need to comment on a sports event?”
Greg did not answer. His mind was locked. Why hadn’t he wondered that before?
“I presume you know about the history of Discus?” inquired the fox.
“A century ago, the teams wore pads and helmets, and everyone had a role. Some were offense, others were defense. It was far more strategy-oriented than it is today. Then things changed. It became a blood sport. Did you ever wonder why?”
“I knew it used to be that way. I read it was because the game wasn’t as popular that way.”
“Research the NDL. Not just statistics and players, but the actual history. Pay attention to who changed the rules, and why.”
She pulled out her phone.
“I should be going, but I have time for one more question.”
Greg thought of fifty at once. “Yeah. What would have happened had I gone off script at the press conference?”
“The NDL would have had to retire you, and you would have vanished from the public eye.”
She stood, straightened her skirt and blouse.
“One more thing. Watch the people who watch the game. Ask yourself why they watch. Ask yourself why you are paid so much money to play, and why you have done so well at it. It was great to meet you.” She held out her hand. Greg grabbed it out of habit and shook it. She smiled warmly. “I promise to check up on you before your next game. Thank you, Mr. Rett, for everything you do. I think you will be a very valuable player for many years to come. Be safe.”
She walked by him, opened the door, and left him alone.
Greg sat on the bed, trying to catch his breath.
Greg sat in the locker room, arms on his thighs, phone in hand. The rest of The Pack was in their jerseys and ready to play. So was Greg. On the screen between his knees was last weekend’s game, but not the game itself. His girlfriend had been sending him these files for the past few weeks. She had been a little puzzled by his request to record the audience for the games she hosted at her parents’ house. So now he had a side-row seat of all her friends and family gathered around the TV, pumping their fists and screaming at a game he couldn’t see. It was all he wanted to watch since the first video she sent him.
At first he wasn’t sure what he hoped to see, but the more he watched, the more obvious it was. Combined with his reading, it had been the most interesting month of his life.
When he had left the city, he finally met The Pack again. Something was different. They treated him like a member of The Pack, not just a rookie. Greg had tried to talk to them about what happened, but they shut him down every time. They knew, and they knew that now he knew. It was not something to discuss openly, and he was in on it, so he was one of them.
They took their bus to the next city. During the trip, Greg started poking around the net for information. He hadn’t searched long before he noticed something. There had been other deaths in the NDL. The most recent happened two years ago, while he was still a college player. He had watched that game with his family. He remembered the serious injury later resulting in death, but it never clicked that it was a pattern. Death only happened once every three years or so, far enough apart for the people to forget the previous one, so they appeared isolated and rare, a mere result of a dangerous sport, but they were not.
Most of the deaths were caused by rookies, and none of them had ever been charged with a crime. All of them played for years after the incident.
On the video, the people were on their feet, cheering the good plays, booing the bad plays. He couldn’t see what was happening on screen, but sometimes people pointed and shouted, which gave him just enough context.
Some of the carnivores drooled, snarled, and howled. The herbivores always seemed to root for whoever had the coin and was running towards the goal line. Game after game he saw it. He’d noticed when he was a puppy, and even joked about it in high school and college, but now it was more than just a running joke.
He had read up on the NDL. Most of the information about its history was generic and spotty, but there were a few tidbits here and there.
Until a century ago, Discus was not a contact sport. Then a wolf named Quincy Barnett introduced some changes, removing the protective pads and team roles. He took it from a strategic field sport to a full-contact blood sport, and the game took off. It became so popular, Barnett founded the NDL and created teams that played around the country to sold-out crowds.
Between barhopping with The Pack and chatting with his girlfriend online, he researched Quincy Barnett. He already knew Barnett was a politician, and prior to the creation of the NDL, he introduced multiple bills, such as adding chemicals to the municipal water to make it purer, broadcasting calming music in the city streets, and the creation of an institute of family planning.
That was as far as his schooling and casual reading took him, and he had been content knowing that much, as it seemed to explain the NDL well enough. Now Greg dug another layer down. Those chemicals Barnett proposed adding to the water were shown to have a sedative effect. The music he proposed broadcasting would have been sub-audible, and the speakers hidden from view and installed in secret. The family planning program involved screening welfare recipients for undesirable traits and forcing them to be rendered sterile in exchange for receiving aid.
Crime was widespread back then. Prey species lived in fear of predator species, and as cities grew in size, normal law enforcement methods did not seem to keep the peace anymore.
Barnett’s bills were defeated, and shortly thereafter he left politics and remade the game of Discus.
In the video, the carnivores stood and cheered. The herbivores cheered right alongside them. Greg had always joked civilization ended when the coin entered play. Now he knew it was the truth, and smiled.
All of this information was out in the open. He and everyone else in the country simply chose to ignore it. Nobody wanted to see themselves this way. Greg sure didn’t. He still had panic attacks from time to time, still threw up when he thought of that day.
The sport of Discus glorified blood, and players who murdered other players. Greg was a murderer, and the people loved him for it. Even his girlfriend seemed more interested in him. Greg understood what was different: he was sexier since he had killed someone.
He imagined that reaction applied to all wolves, all over the country. They were only a century removed from that kind of behavior, and the founding of the NDL was the dividing line. The correlation was so obvious he wondered why nobody taught it in school, or even pointed it out before.
The carnivores loved the game because modern society removed the need to hunt, but it was still in their blood. The herbivores and the less aggressive carnivores loved Discus because the coin was the prey. They took joy in feeling that the predators hunted someone else. They survived. They got away.
The video paused and the phone rang. It was a number he didn’t recognize, but he answered.
“Mr. Rett,” said a voice on the other end. “Good, I caught you before the game began.”
“Governor Shields!” Greg said. “Nice to hear from you again.”
“How are you doing, Mr. Rett? Feeling better about the incident last month?”
“Yes, much. I took your advice and did my homework. You’re right. The NDL has a very interesting history.”
“What have you learned?”
Greg took a breath, condensing everything he had learned in the last month into just a few sentences. “That I’m in a real wolf pack, just like in ancient times when predators stalked prey and hunted the weak. But now, it’s organized, limited to a few volunteers. Two-hundred-million fans satisfy their desire to hunt and kill through us. Without us posturing and exaggerating our predatory nature on camera, there would be no society.”
“That’s a very interesting idea,” said the fox on the other end. “If it’s true, it would justify the ridiculous salaries of the NDL players, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah. It’s not just fame and glory, it’s hazardous duty pay. It also explains why I got a raise after killing someone. I became a valuable player.”
“The NDL was able to craft you quite an image because of the incident. Have you seen the cartoon Greg Rett?”
“Yes, he’s cute! Apparently I’m an unstoppable monster lusting after the blood of my enemies! I can’t believe the hype they’re putting on me. It’s not me. Not at all.”
“Feel free to play into it. The people want to see you this way. They want a monster. They want a killer.”
Greg sighed. “They do. I can be that... for them.”
“I’m glad to hear you say so. Everyone needs someone like you to look up to.”
“Thanks for your suggestions.”
“Things are a lot easier when the players know how to cooperate with NDL policy.”
“Speaking of that, I also learned the NDL doesn’t pay taxes, and it gets all sorts of grants from the government for stadium construction, maintenance, medical costs, retirement benefits, and a whole lot of other things.”
“Another interesting find.”
“How does nobody notice this? Why doesn’t anybody report on it?”
“People want to believe they are one thing. They simply ignore information that implies they may be something else.”
“I guess this technically makes me a government employee?”
“The NDL is a private enterprise, and it has been since Barnett founded it.”
“I get it. Is there anything else I should know?”
“Yes, try to keep a check on your bloodlust. If too many players receive injuries leading to death, it is much more difficult to keep the attention positive.”
Greg half-smiled. “Okay, I’ll wait a few seasons before taking out another cougar.”
“At least. And keep researching. You may discover more. For now, I look forward to seeing how The Force settles their rivalry with you.”
Greg laughed. “Who’s your money on?”
“It would be inappropriate for me to bet on anyone, but I can say my entire staff has their money on you.”
“You have a monster of a reputation.”
“I’ll try to live up to it.”
“I believe you’ll do well in the pro games, Greg. You may reach me at this number if you need to stay in touch. Don’t be put off if it goes to voicemail, and don’t abuse the privilege.”
“Wouldn’t think of it. Thanks again, governor.”
“Good luck, Mr. Rett.”
He didn’t resume the video after he ended the call. He didn’t need to see how it ended because it always ended the same way: the fans had satisfied their bloodlust, and carnivore and herbivore were now able to live together without fear. Both were ready to rejoin society as happy, productive, peaceful citizens. Chemicals in the water and subliminal radio broadcasts could not have been more effective.
He stood, set the phone in his locker, clicked the lock, and joined his team at the exit. His packmates slapped him on the shoulders, mouthed his neck. He clawed them down the arm, pulled their tails.
He felt it rising. The excitement, the rush, the lust for action. Just thinking about the coin made him drool. He almost repressed it, but he was a pro now. Drooling in anticipation of the hunt would help his reputation. The coach gestured them forward, and they ran through the tunnel together, no longer individuals, but a pack.
As soon as The Pack entered the field, the cheers went up. It was overcast but warm, and the stadium was packed. Greg glanced at the LED screen, and sure enough the camera was on him, zooming in on his muzzle. He lined up with the players and waited for The Force to take their places. The energy filled Greg up from head to tail and he let himself drool even more. The crowd only cheered louder. Some of them booed, and he ate that up, too.
The Force entered from the opposite tunnel. Nine players. They had replaced Aaron Agani with another cougar. Greg tried not to act relieved. Instead, he let the fiction take over and snarled at them as they lined up. The stadium roared as he did so.
When he first got into this, it was just a game. Now the stakes were so much higher, and he couldn’t wait for the coin to be in play again. He was ready to hunt.