Chapter One, Chapter Two

The Coach

It starts with an egg. In the same way that we all start with an egg.

The man in the white coat holds the egg in his hand, as he has done thousands of times before, and he injects it with the contents of the syringe. 

Then he puts the egg in the machine, which surges the egg with electricity. The men then places the egg in the plasma tank, and he waits.

It grows, rapidly. The hormones in the plasma accelerate the process exponentially, sacrificing beauty for speed. The mass in the plasma starts to spasm, the beginnings of a mouth attempt to cough, but produce only slow-moving bubbles. The man in the white coat presses a button.

The plasma drains from the tank. The glass door of the tank opens, and the form sputters out. Its back quivers as it takes its first breaths, as it feels the cold air against what will soon be its skin.

The shape starts to make noises now, first a grunt, then a moan, then what sounds like an attempt at words.

It can sit now. The man in the white coat drapes a towel over the form, as he knows from experience that it’s about to start experiencing modesty. The form clutches the towel against itself, thankful for the warmth and the privacy, but also exploring the new sensation of touch against the soft fabric.

It has eyes now. A nose, a mouth. Its features are finally settling into the outline of a human face. It looks to the man in the white coat. Its eyes, just able to convey feeling, alternate between confusion, curiosity, fear, and pain.

“Why… am… I…” it pleads to the man.

The man pulls out a bottle. He shakes it, and the rattle from the pills inside distracts the form. The form’s eyes focus on the bottle, and it sees the word INSPIRATOL

The man removes a pill from the bottle and feeds it to the form. After swallowing, the form smiles.

“Be… a… goldfish…”

The form’s face finishes becoming human, with a mustache as its final feature. 

The music plays. “YEEEEAAAAAH, It might be all that you get…”

The Captain

As it does every morning, at the exact same time, a vertical chamber opens automatically. A thick fog emerges, but disperses quickly, revealing the Captain.

The Captain steps out of the chamber, his 6’4, 180-pound frame covered in nothing but black, tightly fitting boxer briefs. He walks toward the bed, where two people sleep serenely, warmed by each other’s embrace, deeply satisfied from the night before. The Captain is drawn to beautiful things. Men, women, it doesn’t matter.

The Captain walks to a cupboard, from which he removes two paper bags. He examines the contents of each. A split of champagne, a gift card to an upscale boutique, a trial period at an exclusive gym, and a photo of the Captain himself. The Captain glances to the bed and squints, recalling the previous night. He picks out a photograph from one of the bags and signs his name on the back. He puts the bag with the signed photograph on the right nightstand, the other on the left, and he leaves the room. 

The two will not be there when he returns, or ever again. The Captain is drawn to beautiful things, yes, but a thing loses some of its beauty when it loses its mystery.

In the kitchen, he opens the refrigerator to reveal rows and rows of identical eggs. Not eggs though, not really. Biodegradable ovoid shells encasing nutritional purees that compose the entirety of his diet. He removes one from the fridge, pours the puree into a skillet, and throws the shell through the composte chute.

He shuffles the skillet above the stovetop for a few moments. The stove isn’t on. He is not cooking the puree. The puree can’t, in fact, be cooked. But he understands that this is a normal thing, what the others do. They put their breakfast in a skillet and move it around on top of the stove.

Once he is satisfied, he tips an edge of the skillet into his mouth and drinks the puree in a single gulp.

When he arrives at the Jeff Berding Memorial Training Center, the Captain is greeted by the Coach. The Coach says something the Captain doesn’t understand, about Diane Keaton, or Diane Sawyer, or Diahann Carroll, or maybe Carol Channing. The Captain nods, knowing that the Coach simply wants to be acknowledged and that doing so is the quickest way out of the encounter. 

After the Coach leaves, the Captain approaches the nearest analyst.

“I don’t like this one.”

“They’re all the same,” the analyst responds.

“Not this one. There’s something… off. I don’t think I was even supposed to understand the reference he made. I think the point was just for me to understand that he was making a reference, which isn’t a joke, or really anything at all.”

“Hmm.” The analyst starts to walk away, but the Captain stops him.

“What do we need them for anyway? You people run all the numbers. All we have to do is learn the statistics, listen to the instructions in the earpiece, and maintain peak physical condition. It’s been decades since a ‘coach’ served any purpose.”

The analyst sighs. He’s tired of constantly having expository conversations with people about information they both already know, as if there’s some unseen third party listening who needs everything explained, but he understands that this is how people talk.

“The fans like him. They think he’s charming.”

“But,” the Captain responded, “don’t you think it upstages everything we go through? I mean, I sleep in a cryogenic chamber that halts the aging process for 12 hours a day just to double the length of my career, and you analysts spend thousands of hours analyzing field position, the physics of a soccer ball, and a million other factors to remove even the slightest uncertainty from what happens out there. The entire game is just an algorithm played out over 90 minutes. Shouldn’t that work and sacrifice be what fans appreciate?”

The analyst really is tired of having conversations with people going over information that they already know, but rather than voice that objection, he just shrugs.

“You need the illusion of that human element, I guess, so fans have something they can connect to.”

The Practice

During training, the team splits up into two teams of 11 for a full-sided scrimmages. There is no ball. The players do not interact. Each of them wears a smartwatch, which projects an image of a game when held in front of the player’s face. The men hear instruction from the tablet through an earpiece.

As instructed, they run from position to position on the field, moving to the statistically best location based on each scenario projected by their watches. They do not touch each other, they do not interact with each other, and they certainly do not kick a ball. If they did any of those things, human error would be introduced, corrupting the entire process.

At the same time, the Coach rides an antique John Deere tractor in circles around the field, occasionally yelling encouragement at the players but mostly staring blankly ahead.

Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” plays, but only in the Coach’s mind.

The Coach

"Why do I say 'Be a goldfish'?"

The therapist adjusts in her seat. "Well, Coach, why do you think you say it?"

"I... don't know. It was just... in me."

"What do you mean by that?"

"'Be a goldfish.' Something just told me that that is a thing that I say."

The coach suddenly smiles, becomes more energetic.

"I guess some things you just know, like how to make lemonade or that Ross and Rachel were never a good couple, no matter how hard the writers tried to make us want them together."

The coach loses his smile, slumps in the chair. He starts to shiver.

"What am I?" he pleads.

The therapist makes a note, and then looks back to the Coach.

"You are a coach. You are a leader. You motivate men to be their best, and those men need you at your best."

"But, doc, how do I be my best?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"'Be a goldfish.' The thing that I say. I guess it's supposed to mean that you have a short memory, so you can perform without focusing on mistakes. But I looked it up - goldfish actually have a pretty long memory, up to five months."

The therapist places her notepad on the table and looks the Coach in the eyes.  "Go on."

"But I kept reading on goldfish ,and well, I learned that they grow to the size of the space they're given. So maybe, being a goldfish is more about just accepting the role you're assigned and not trying to color outside the lines. To just obey limits that you didn't have anything to do with setting in the first place.”

"And how does that make you feel?"

"It makes me feel like this whole thing isn't about identifying and fixing whatever is in here--"

The coach points to his head.

"Or here--"

The coach points to his heart. 

"But just about making me better at the thing that you've decided is my role."

The coach pauses. He smiles, and again becomes more energetic before continuing.

"Like when Michael Bay made Ben Affleck replace all of his teeth for Armageddon. Did anyone ask Ben if he thought his teeth were too small?"

The coach slumps back down.

"Why did I say that?" Tears begin to well in his eyes. He realizes how little control he has.

The therapist picks back up her notepad and makes a note. She grabs a bottle of INSPIRATOL from the table next to her and offers one to the Coach. The Coach hits the bottle away, knocking the pills to the floor.

The therapist leaves the pills on the floor, and she makes another note.

"Well, coach. That's it for today. You have certainly given me a lot to think about."

The coach nods, stands up, and leaves. The therapist walks over to her desk and pushes a button on her phone.

"This one's defective," she says calmly.

Outside of her door, she hears a scuffle, and then a "WHACK," like a bird hitting a newly cleaned glass door.

At the other side of the Training Center, the man in the white coat hangs up his phone. He walks to two neighboring freezers. Out of one, he removes a syringe. Out of the other, an egg.

**********

Back in 2020, Prentiss Foster was getting ready to attend his first meeting of The Decline after Bannerghazi. For a few days afterward, he expected the police to show up, or at least to hear news about a dead supporters’ group leader rumbling through the fanbase. But nothing.

He was sure, when he left the stadium, that the man was dead. He had hit his head hard against that Nippert bleacher – which, Prent reminded himself, would never have happened if they’d had safe standing. So when Prent received an email notifying him of the next Decline meeting, he assumed that the silence was the prelude to a confrontation. The calm before the storm.

On the way to Rhinegeist, the meeting location, Prent picked up Landon. Landon was in low spirits, even worse than Prent, and they hadn’t yet discussed what had happened. But now that they were going to have to account for themselves to the whole group, there was no avoiding the issue.

“Look, Landon, he gave us no choice.”

“Prent, it’s soccer. You could have just let it go.”

“I couldn’t and you know it.”

Landon fell silent for a moment before continuing, considering whether to say what he wanted to say. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “that things aren’t right. Like we took a wrong turn and everything just… just… went wrong.”

“Not that again,” Prent responded. “It was us or them. And I’m going to pick us every time, and you know you will too.”

“But is there an ‘us’ anymore? We just went rogue against the council, and it cost a man’s life. By breaking solidarity the one time, I worry that it just gets easier to break it again and again.”

Prent stopped the car. They were at the destination. But he wasn’t done with the conversation. He looked Landon square in the face.

“We don’t need to have solidarity with Columbus. If they can’t keep the team themselves, it’s not our job to save it for them. So we cut the deal with MLS – we support relocation, they put us in the league, and we keep Austin Crew as a rival.”

“I know all that,” Landon said, “but it just feels dirty.”

Prent turned off the car. After they got out, he turned to Landon.

“Table this conversation. We deal with the thing with the council now, and we can talk about the Crew as long as you want, whatever it takes for you to move on.”

Landon nodded.

As they walked up to Rhinegeist, Prent rehearsed again in his mind his prepared speech, knowing the stakes of what he was about to face.

But when they walked through the doorway, Prent saw someone that wasn’t supposed to be there. Battered and bruised, yes, but certainly not dead. Almost immediately upon entering the room, Prent found himself face to face with the richest person in Die Pridengard, or of any SG for that matter.

Tom Standish.*

(*NOTE: We don’t really expect you to follow these things all that closely, but just to be clear, Tom Standish is the grandfather of Brenner Standish, the budding rival to Jackie Foster for leadership in Die Pridengard in the future. So suffice to say, this is a big revelation, so feel free to give it a “WHOA.”) 

To Be Continued?