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Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator, and anthologist from Brooklyn, NY. He's the winner of the 2014 WSFA Award. Over ninety of his short stories have been published to date, including seven at Galaxy's Edge.

GOLF TO THE DEATH
by
Alex Shvartsman

"Golf, eh?" the shuttle pilot asked without turning away from his controls. "That's the one with the little white ball that isn't ping pong?"

"That's not a very flattering comparison," said Randy Moreno. "Golf is a noble sport with a long and storied history. I'll have you know it's been called the sport of kings."

"And now it's extinct, just like the kings," said the pilot. "No one plays it where I'm from."

"Oh yeah?" Randy tried his best to look down his nose at the pilot, which wasn't particularly effective as the man faced away from him. "And what backward colony world is that?"

"I'm from Earth, born and bred," said the pilot. "Chicago."

"I think that's horse racing," said Ferrett.

Randy turned to his diplomatic corps handler.  He never quite figured out whether Ferrett was his name or a nickname, and the diplomat wasn't forthcoming on the subject. "What's that?"

Ferrett scratched his chin. "Horse racing is the sport of kings. I'm pretty sure."

"Aren't you supposed to be on my side?" asked Randy. "If golf wasn't important, you wouldn’t be flying me god-knows-where to play it against god-knows-who."

"That may be." Ferrett held up an index finger. "But I feel compelled to correct you when you're wrong. For your own good, of course. And, in that spirit, it's 'god-knows-whom'."

"Nitpicker," said Randy.

"So, why golf?" asked the pilot. "And why him?"

Two weeks out of basic training, Randy was petty officer third class, the lowest of the low on the navy totem pole. He was summoned to the captain's office and asked to volunteer for a diplomatic mission that would involve playing golf against aliens. Even a freshly-minted navy recruit knew better than to volunteer for anything, ever, but the prospect of playing his favorite sport seemed infinitely better than the alternative. It was only a matter of time until his ship was sent to the front lines. Randy would rather play golf with the Devil himself, using hot pokers for clubs, than be thrown into that meat grinder.

"We need someone to play against a Taneer, and Grouchy here happens to be the best golf player we could find on short notice," said Ferrett.

Randy was an excellent player. He might have gone pro if he hadn't been conscripted. But he hadn't expected that skill set to pay off in the navy.

"I've never heard of an alien playing golf before. Even though they totally should," Randy added, mostly for the pilot's benefit.

"We're trying to get the Taneers to join our side in the war," said Ferrett, "but we hit a snag. Theirs is a rigid and ritual-based warrior society. Happens a lot with the species evolved from carnivores, rather than omnivores like us." Ferrett's face lit up. Alien cultures must've been as exciting to him as playing eighteen holes was to Randy. "There's a ritual when it comes to opening any sort of negotiations. The parties must designate champions to compete in a pair of one-on-one sporting events, with one challenge chosen by each side.

"If the entreating side wins both contests, it has a huge edge in the negotiations. The other side will pretty much assent to any reasonable requests. If, on the other hand, they lose both times, the talks are over before they begin.

"The most common result is a draw. Everyone's happy, no one's pride is wounded, and the negotiations can proceed in earnest."

Randy thought it over. "And so, our side chose golf."

"Yup."

"Don't take this the wrong way," said the pilot, "but it seems to me the diplomatic corps are a bunch of idiots."

"Is that your professional opinion as a glorified cab driver?" asked Ferrett cloyingly.

The pilot bristled, but Randy cut him off. "Far be it from me to agree with this guy, but seriously, why golf?"

"Neither of you has seen a Taneer before, have you?" asked Ferrett.

They hadn't.

"They look like shaved gorillas, except they're eight feet tall, can bench press four hundred pounds, and have great reflexes. Basically, they're a mix of Spartans and Klingons, with a healthy dose of bulldog thrown in for good measure."

"What's a klee-gon?" asked the pilot.

"An obscure cultural reference," said Ferrett. "Point is, they're stronger, faster, and better coordinated than our top athletes. We needed a sport where physical prowess doesn't provide an overwhelming advantage, and where an experienced player is likely to defeat a stronger, faster opponent."

"Sounds like you should have gone with curling," said the pilot.

"They still play curling in Chicago?" asked Randy.

The pilot shrugged. "They don't play curling anywhere. Just like golf, it's become obsolete since someone invented the superior sport of watching paint dry."

"We'd considered a variety of sports," said Ferrett. "It had to be a one-on-one competition, so no curling. Taneers wouldn't call chess a sport, no matter how much we'd like that. And we had to come up with something quickly, which meant using an athlete from a diplomatic mission or a ship within a few hours' traveling distance of their planet."

"An athlete. Ha!" said the pilot.

"Shut up and drive," said Randy.

* * *

The steppe where they landed was covered with sparse, dry grass. Randy nodded to himself; this region of the planet seemed like a fine place to play golf. The air smelled a little funny, and the sky was of a strange, purplish hue, but the temperature and winds were mild, and the gravity felt close to Earth standard. He could work with this.

As soon as the bay doors opened, Ferrett grabbed his bag and got out, without saying goodbye to the pilot.

"Thanks, buddy," said Randy as he picked up his own hastily packed duffel.

"Hey, man," said the pilot. Randy braced himself for another insult, but the older man's lips stretched into a thin smile. "Good luck, all right?"

Randy smiled back and exited the shuttle. A car with extra-large wheels for off-road driving was waiting outside.

Ferrett waved him over. "Come on. There's the unarmed combat bout the Taneers chose as their sport, and then you tee off."

"What, today? I was hoping to play the course a few times, rest up… I'm not even dressed for a game!"

"You can change in the car and rest your eyes until we get there. Sorry if you aren't used to doing things on the fly, but extra prep time is a luxury rarely found in the diplomatic corps.”

Ferrett took the seat next to the driver, and Randy climbed into the back. On the seat next to him were two sets of golf clubs. Randy recognized the brand. They weren't top-of-the-line, but they would do.

Randy rummaged through his duffel for the change of clothes. "Two sets of clubs?"

"One for you, one for your opponent," the driver said. "We had to move heaven and earth to find golf equipment in this sector. If you're the superstitious kind and want to chant any sort of voodoo stuff over your set--or the other guy's--now is the time."

"I'm not superstitious," said Randy as he pulled his navy-issue T-shirt over his head and replaced it with a comfortable, loose cotton shirt. He eyed the clubs. "Do I have time to take a few practice swings, at least?"

"Sorry," said Ferrett. "But look at it this way: neither does your opponent. The alien will have never seen a club before the game; that's one of the reasons we rushed everything. They're arrogant enough to accept these terms, and we figured we'd give you every advantage possible."

Randy buttoned his shirt and dug through his bag for pants and sneakers. "This doesn't seem sporting," he said.

Ferrett and the driver both guffawed. "Welcome to politics," said Ferrett.

The car drove past mud huts. Exotic-looking birds and animals grazed behind low wooden fences. There were no signs of electricity or machinery of any kind.

"Just how primitive are these guys?" asked Randy.

"They'll make fine ground troops," said Ferrett.

"And they come cheap," said the driver. "If we can get past their idiotic ritual, we're talking the buying-Manhattan-from-the-Indians sort of bargain."

Ferrett nodded. "Well worth the trouble of bringing you and Mr. Wozinsky here. That's the fighter."

Randy noted the empty huts and abandoned roads. "Where are the natives?"

"At the arena," said Ferrett. "It's not every day they get to see a challenge, and a challenge against extraterrestrials, at that." He pointed ahead. "Speaking of which."

As the car raced forward, the black dot Ferrett was pointing at resolved into a large crowd of aliens. The car parked and the crowd parted to let them through.

A succession of human diplomats shook Randy's hand and introduced themselves. "You're just in time," he was told. "They're about to begin." And, "Thank you for volunteering. You're a brave soul to take on one of these brutes." He promptly forgot everyone's names; he wasn't good with names anyway, and he couldn't help focusing on the aliens standing only a few feet away.

The adult Taneers were seven to eight feet tall, their children almost as big as Randy's five-foot-nine frame. Ferrett's description of them as hairless apes seemed rather astute. Their skin was gray, and they wore gray clothing, making the crowd appear monotone.

Suddenly the background noise among the Taneers spiked. Randy looked around and spotted a Taneer-sized human. He was nearly seven feet tall and twice as wide as Randy. His arms and legs were thick with muscle.

"That's Brad Wozinsky," said Ferrett. "Navy MMA league regional champion, two years running."

Wozinsky and a Taneer faced each other in the center of the arena, waiting for the signal to begin.

The fight lasted all of ten seconds. The Taneer landed three lightning-fast blows in a row, aiming for Wozinsky's face and neck. On the fourth punch the MMA champion collapsed onto the ground.

The Taneer picked up his human opponent. Wozinsky struggled weakly in the alien's grip. The alien said something, the sound lost in the howls of the crowd. Then he grabbed hold of Wozinsky's head with both hands, twisted and released. Wozinsky's lifeless body crumpled, his neck broken, his head turned at an impossible angle.

Randy gasped. Some of the humans around him turned away. They appeared disturbed and revolted, but not surprised.

"What is this?" Randy grabbed Ferrett by the shirt collars. "It was over, the alien had already won. Why did he have to murder him?"

Ferrett spoke, his voice barely audible over the noise. "It's how things are done here. Every Taneeri challenge is to the death."

Randy stared at Ferrett, then at the lifeless body of the marine, then at Ferrett again, fighting the nausea in the pit of his stomach the entire time. When he finally managed to form words, he said, "Hell no," and walked toward the car.

Ferrett caught up to him, grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. "Where do you think you're going?"

"I didn't sign up for this," said Randy.

"You literally did," said Ferrett. "You signed waivers."

"I volunteered to play a game. Not to have my neck snapped by a brute."

Ferrett folded his arms. "You listen to me, Randy. You're part of the diplomatic corps now. You'll do what you're told, or be court martialed for treason and executed by firing squad. We tell you to play golf, you play. We tell you to walk barefoot into a fire, you salute and march right in." Ferrett relaxed slightly. "Besides, it's not like you're going to lose. It will be one of the bogeys getting their neck snapped. Go get them, man. For Wozinsky."

Randy pictured himself trying to snap a Taneer's neck at the eighteenth hole and the nausea returned in earnest.

* * *

The grass on the Taneer-built golf course was yellow, sickly and sun parched--not like the genetically enhanced and well-kept grounds back home. Randy thought he could make it work. No sense worrying about some turf variance when he was playing an unfamiliar course, with never-before-used clubs, on a world with slightly higher gravity than he was accustomed to.

And he was playing for his life.

"No golf cart, sorry." Ferrett pulled the bag of clubs out of the back seat. "No caddies, either. Goes against their idea of one-on-one competition. Hope you're in shape." He handed the bag to Randy.

Randy hefted the bag. He guessed thirty to thirty-five pounds, give or take. Carrying that around for four hours could be strenuous, but he had carried more for longer in basic training.

"Come," said Ferrett. He carried the second golf bag.

The crowd parted and let them through to the teeing ground.

The Taneer waiting for them was dressed in the same gray garb as the rest, except his lower legs were bare and the cloth covering his upper legs featured a checkered pattern. He accepted the golf bag from Ferrett.

"Is that… a kilt?" asked Randy.

Ferrett stared at the alien with a bemused expression and turned to make sure they were out of earshot of the other humans. "Seems so. I don't know what our diplomats have been telling the natives about golf, but one thing is for sure: the corps didn't assign their best and brightest to this dirtball." He nudged Randy forward.

Reluctantly, Randy approached the alien. He was a little shorter than the others, but his muscular frame still towered over Randy. The alien tilted his head slightly and gave Randy a long, evaluating look.

"Umm, hi," said Randy, realizing that his opponent would likely not understand him. "I'm Randy. I'd wish you luck, but under the circumstances…" He shrugged.

"No luck. Skill. Best warrior wins." The Taneer spoke in a strange, grating but intelligible voice. "Call me Ishmael."

Randy blinked. "Seriously?"

"Learn words when study human speech. Like how words sound. Like name. Use name when speak human."

Randy wondered at how well the Taneer could understand his language, despite the basic sentence structure he used. Moby Dick wasn't exactly an early reader book.

"You play first," said Ishmael.

Randy looked ahead to the first hole in the distance. It seemed awfully far away--definitely a par five course. He withdrew the driver from the bag and set up the ball in the tee box. Ishmael watched carefully as he took a few practice swings, then hit the ball, sending it half way toward the green. Randy smiled. The shot was about as good as he could expect. The crowd howled in what he thought was approval, but quickly realized it was because Ishamel's turn was up next.

The alien had paid careful attention. He copied Randy's stance, and also swung the club several times. Then he sent the ball soaring, all the way across what must have been five hundred yards, landing it near the edge of the green.

Randy winced. The shot was way better than an amateur--let alone someone who had never held a club before--should have been able to muster. He tried to tell himself that the alien's natural ability wouldn't be enough to trump his skill and experience, but all he could think of was Wozinsky's corpse back in the arena.

Randy's next shot placed the ball firmly on the green. The Taneer observed and again imitated his stance and swing. He made the mistake of using the three wood just as Randy had, however, instead of choosing a putter, and overshot by a good amount.

Randy smiled. Despite the physical advantages, his opponent was still a beginner.

As expected, the alien's real difficulty was with the precision putting. It took Randy eight strokes to complete the first hole. Three over par would have been embarrassing back home, but not unreasonable considering his lack of recent practice and the unusual conditions.

Ishmael fared far worse. When the ball rolled past its target on his eleventh stroke, the Taneer roared in frustration and flung his putter toward the little white flag that mocked him as it flapped in the breeze.

He may not have the skill, thought Randy, but he sure has a golfer's temper.

This was when most amateur golfers went on tilt. Their play deteriorated further until there was hardly any point to continue. But those golfers weren't playing for their lives. Instead of tilting, Ishmael sat down cross-legged on the grass, closed his eyes, and remained still for close to a minute. Randy didn’t know whether he was meditating, praying, or merely resting, but tension drained from Ishmael's face and his oversized muscles relaxed. Ishmael rose looking like he was in total control, and studied the path between the ball and the hole.

It took him two more strokes to sink the ball.

Randy widened the lead on the second hole, but he gained fewer strokes on his opponent that he had previously. Ishmael was a quick learner and fierce competitor. While Randy managed to play the hole at par this time, Ishmael only went over by two.

Randy rounded the bend, saw the third hole and said, "What the hell?"

The hole was encased by a basket-like fence woven from twigs. There was an opening the size of a melon cut out from the side of the basket. In front of it hung a contraption made from wooden planks which looked suspiciously like four windmill blades. They rotated at a steady pace, hand-cranked via a lever manned by a Taneer.

"What the actual hell?" repeated Ferrett when he saw what Randy saw. "Hang on." He retreated and got into an animated discussion with some of the other diplomats. 

After a couple of minutes, he approached Randy with the look of a surgeon who had amputated the wrong leg.

"You do know the difference between golf and mini-golf, right?" said Randy.

"I do," said Ferrett. He pointed at the diplomats clustered behind him. "They don't. Those idiots decided the vague notions they had about the sport based on pop culture references were sufficient because, and I quote, 'The bogeys won't know any better'. When I file my report, heads are going to roll." He caught the look in Randy's eye. "Sorry. Too soon."

"So what do we do about it?"

"We don't want to mess with the game in progress, especially since you're winning. Can you make this work?"

"Yeah. But I don't like it."

"You don't have to like it, Randy. You just have to win."

* * *

On the ninth hole, Randy managed to land the ball in one of the hazards. It rested in the bunker. He took several careful steps down the gentle slope of bluish-white sand and tried to work out his best strategy for the next swing.

He was far enough ahead where losing a stroke to a hazard wasn't a huge concern. The alien sun was pleasantly warm against his skin and a gentle breeze caressed his hair. Despite the high stakes, Randy found himself enjoying the game.

He planted his feet firmly and took aim, but before he could take a swing tentacles shot out from under the sand, wound themselves around his right foot, and pulled. He fell backward, and pushed away with his arms and feet, but the tentacles held firm. Each was as thick as a baby's arm. The sand in front of him twisted and shook as something large rose toward the surface.

Randy screamed.

The beast that emerged from the sand looked like a giant worm. Its thick tube-like body towered over Randy for a moment, its eyeless face focused on him like a venomous snake about to strike. The worm opened a circular mouth and its head moved toward Randy in what looked like a slow-motion lunge.

Ishmael rushed past him with a three iron. Wielding it like a great sword he swung mightily at the worm's head. He swung again and again, beating the head back.

The creature growled and its tentacles released Randy, who crawled off the sand on all fours. From the safety of the grass he watched the tentacles reemerge and try to grab at Ishmael's feet, but the alien was ready. He jumped over them, delivered another blow to the worm's head, then retreated onto the grass next to Randy.

Sensing that there was no more prey on the sand the worm slithered underground.

"Are you well?" Ishmael asked. He was calm, as though he didn't just nearly recreate the scene of Laocoön fighting the snakes. He wasn't even breathing hard.

"Fine." Randy panted. "Thanks."

Ishmael offered his hand and helped the human up.

"Why did you do that?" asked Randy.

Ishmael said nothing, but looked quizzically at his opponent.

"Why did you help me? You're losing the game. And, given the stakes…" Randy trailed off.

Ishmael contemplated this, or tried to find the right words. "Unfair victory is an unfilled victory," he said.

Randy blinked. "You mean hollow. An unfair victory is hollow."

Ishmael nodded, a gesture that left Randy wondering whether similar body language for assent existed among the Taneers or if Ishmael was an even more perceptive student of the humans than he previously suspected.

"Thank you," Randy said again.

* * *

Ferrett had nothing but meaningless apologies and excuses to offer. "Taneers are savages," he told Randy. "No wonder they interpreted the term 'hazards' literally. You’re doing great. Just stay on the fairway from now on, okay?"

Randy wondered who the savages were. Was it Taneers like Ishmael who, despite his primitive ways, could read Melville months after encountering humans and was capable of doing the honorable thing even if it would likely cost him his life? Or was it the humans who had no qualms with doing everything they could to rig the contest and drag the Taneers into a bloody interstellar war?

Yes, they'd killed Wozinsky. But Randy, a ringer, was condemning Ishmael to death as well.

"I quit," said Randy. "I won't be party to this any longer."

Ferrett's ever-present smile vanished.

"You don't get to quit, Private. Do you want to die instead of him?" He pointed at Ishmael, who waited patiently to resume the game, his face a picture of serenity. "I don't like what we're doing any more than you do, but we've got no choice. The way the war's going we need every bit of help we can find, and if that means sending an occasional good man--or good alien--to their death, we will grit our teeth and learn to live with it, for the sake of humanity."

Randy was sure Ferrett meant business. He liked Ishmael, but wasn't brave like him. Wasn't prepared to give up his own life in order to save his opponent's. And he had his duty. How many human soldiers might die if this treaty wasn't negotiated?

His shoulders slumped, Randy returned to the golf course. He continued to play, even as Ishmael's words stayed with him: An unfair victory is hollow.

* * *

It was a landslide. Ishmael was a fast learner and given a few months of rigorous training he might have had a chance against Randy but when he finally putted the ball into the eighteenth hole, he was behind by twenty-three strokes.

Ishmael saluted Randy with the extended fist gesture. "Good game," he said.

Randy swallowed the knot in his throat. "Good game," he managed.

Ishmael kneeled on one knee in front another Taneer, and presented his neck.

"Wait!" Randy shouted.

Everyone looked at him.

"What about the scorecards?"

"What?" asked Ferrett.

"A scorecard must be signed after every round of the tournament, or the player is disqualified," said Randy.

"The scorecards aren't necessary," said Ferrett through his teeth, shooting a venomous glare at Randy. "There were only two of you playing, and the representatives of both species observed and kept score."

"Rules are rules," said Randy. "Both of us should have been disqualified after the first round." He was fairly certain no one present, including Ferrett, would know the difference between a round and a hole. "As such, there will have to be a rematch."

"Unacceptable," said Ferrett. "You've clearly won, regardless of technicality."

"Golf is full of technicalities," said Randy. "What's the point of competing if you don't abide by all of the sport's rules?"

The Taneers huddled. "A rematch is acceptable," said one of them.

Ferrett groaned.

"Not so fast," said Randy. "According to the Augusta National rules, my victory stands until there's a rematch." He was making up rules as he went along, pressing for the desired outcome. "However, Ishmael and I are suspended from competitive play for continuing the game after being disqualified. Seventeen unauthorized holes, at a year each. It will be some time until either of us is permitted to play again."

"This means the negotiations may proceed in the meantime," said Ferrett.

"Absolutely," said Randy.

"This is unusual," said one of the Taneers. "We must discuss this." They walked away.

Ferrett frowned at Randy again and ran after them.

* * *

"We negotiated a treaty," said Ferrett. "And I should add you're very, very lucky. If the stunt you pulled to save your playmate had backfired, you'd be charged with treason."

"I just couldn't have his death on my conscience," said Randy. "Glad everything worked out."

"I wouldn't say everything." Ferrett grinned in a way that made Randy very uncomfortable.

"What do you mean?"

"The Taneers weren't happy about the Schrödinger's victory bullcrap you made up, so we had to sweeten the deal."

Randy waited for the axe to drop.

"They seem to actually like golf," said Ferrett. "So we traded you to them."

"You what?"

"Technically, you're assigned to the diplomatic mission here, long-term. But your actual assignment is to be the bogeys' golf instructor."

Randy relaxed a little. Teaching super-strong, possibly violent aliens to play golf was a hazardous occupation, but not as hazardous as fighting the war.

"For how long?"

Ferrett's grin widened. "For seventeen years, of course. Then you get to have your rematch."

Randy knew the diplomat thought he was punishing him, but seventeen years was a long time. Hopefully, the war would be over long before then.

"Fine." He pondered the legions of Taneer students taking their frustrations out on their equipment. "We're going to need golf clubs. Lots and lots of golf clubs."

Copyright © 2017 by Alex Shvartsman

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
BRAGGING RITES
by Samantha Murray

THE TRAGEDY OF THE DEAD
IS THAT THEY CANNOT CRY

by Sunil Patel

THE LOYAL ORDER OF BEASTS
by Kay Kenyon
YOU CAN ALWAYS
CHANGE THE PAST
by George Nikolopoulos
IT TAKES A SPECIAL-
SPECIAL PERSON

by Andrea G. Stewart

LOCKED ROOM
by Kevin J. Anderson

GOLF TO THE DEATH
by Alex Shvartsman

MY MONSTER CAN BEAT
UP YOUR MONSTER
by Brennan Harvey
THE OBSERVER
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
YOUR GRIEF IS
IMPORTANT TO US
by Yaroslav Barsukov
DO NOT CALL ME BENTO
by Tina Gower

IN THE GROUP
by Robert Silverberg

INTERVIEW
Mike Resnick
by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Double Star (Part 2)
Heinlein's First Hugo Winner
by Robert A. Heinlein

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford
Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2017. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.