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?"
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."
now it's extinct, just like the kings," said the pilot. "No one plays
it where I'm from."
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?"
from Earth, born and bred," said the pilot. "Chicago."
think that's horse racing," said Ferrett.
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?"
scratched his chin. "Horse racing is the sport of kings. I'm pretty
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."
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'."
why golf?" asked the pilot. "And why him?"
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
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.
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.
never heard of an alien playing golf before. Even though they totally should,"
Randy added, mostly for the pilot's benefit.
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.
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.
most common result is a draw. Everyone's happy, no one's pride is wounded, and
the negotiations can proceed in earnest."
thought it over. "And so, our side chose golf."
take this the wrong way," said the pilot, "but it seems to me the
diplomatic corps are a bunch of idiots."
that your professional opinion as a glorified cab driver?" asked Ferrett
pilot bristled, but Randy cut him off. "Far be it from me to agree with
this guy, but seriously, why golf?"
of you has seen a Taneer before, have you?" asked Ferrett.
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."
a klee-gon?" asked the pilot.
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
like you should have gone with curling," said the pilot.
still play curling in Chicago?" asked Randy.
pilot shrugged. "They don't play curling anywhere. Just like golf, it's
become obsolete since someone invented the superior sport of watching paint
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."
athlete. Ha!" said the pilot.
up and drive," said Randy.
* * *
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.
soon as the bay doors opened, Ferrett grabbed his bag and got out, without
saying goodbye to the pilot.
buddy," said Randy as he picked up his own hastily packed duffel.
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?"
smiled back and exited the shuttle. A car with extra-large wheels for off-road
driving was waiting outside.
waved him over. "Come on. There's the unarmed combat bout the Taneers
chose as their sport, and then you tee off."
today? I was hoping to play the course a few times, rest up… I'm not even
dressed for a game!"
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.”
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.
rummaged through his duffel for the change of clothes. "Two sets of
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."
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?"
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."
buttoned his shirt and dug through his bag for pants and sneakers. "This
doesn't seem sporting," he said.
and the driver both guffawed. "Welcome to politics," said Ferrett.
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.
how primitive are these guys?" asked Randy.
make fine ground troops," said Ferrett.
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
nodded. "Well worth the trouble of bringing you and Mr. Wozinsky here.
That's the fighter."
noted the empty huts and abandoned roads. "Where are the natives?"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brad Wozinsky," said Ferrett. "Navy MMA league regional champion, two
and a Taneer faced each other in the center of the arena, waiting for the
signal to begin.
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.
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
gasped. Some of the humans around him turned away. They appeared disturbed and
revolted, but not surprised.
is this?" Randy grabbed Ferrett by the shirt collars. "It was over,
the alien had already won. Why did he have to murder him?"
spoke, his voice barely audible over the noise. "It's how things are done
here. Every Taneeri challenge is to the death."
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
caught up to him, grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. "Where
do you think you're going?"
didn't sign up for this," said Randy.
literally did," said Ferrett. "You signed waivers."
volunteered to play a game. Not to have my neck snapped by a brute."
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
pictured himself trying to snap a Taneer's neck at the eighteenth hole and the
nausea returned in earnest.
* * *
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.
he was playing for his life.
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.
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.
said Ferrett. He carried the second golf bag.
crowd parted and let them through to the teeing ground.
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.
that… a kilt?" asked Randy.
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 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.
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
luck. Skill. Best warrior wins." The Taneer spoke in a strange, grating
but intelligible voice. "Call me Ishmael."
words when study human speech. Like how words sound. Like name. Use name when
wondered at how well the Taneer could understand his language, despite the
basic sentence structure he used. Moby Dick wasn't exactly an early
play first," said Ishmael.
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
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.
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
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
smiled. Despite the physical advantages, his opponent was still a beginner.
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.
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.
may not have the skill, thought Randy, but he sure has a golfer's temper.
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
took him two more strokes to sink the ball.
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.
rounded the bend, saw the third hole and said, "What the hell?"
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.
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
a couple of minutes, he approached Randy with the look of a surgeon who had
amputated the wrong leg.
do know the difference between golf and mini-golf, right?" said Randy.
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."
what do we do about it?"
don't want to mess with the game in progress, especially since you're winning.
Can you make this work?"
But I don't like it."
don't have to like it, Randy. You just have to win."
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
that there was no more prey on the sand the worm slithered underground.
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
Randy panted. "Thanks."
offered his hand and helped the human up.
did you do that?" asked Randy.
said nothing, but looked quizzically at his opponent.
did you help me? You're losing the game. And, given the stakes…" Randy
contemplated this, or tried to find the right words. "Unfair victory is an
unfilled victory," he said.
blinked. "You mean hollow. An unfair victory is hollow."
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.
you," Randy said again.
* * *
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,
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?
they'd killed Wozinsky. But Randy, a ringer, was condemning Ishmael to death as
quit," said Randy. "I won't be party to this any longer."
ever-present smile vanished.
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
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
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.
* * *
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.
saluted Randy with the extended fist gesture. "Good game," he said.
swallowed the knot in his throat. "Good game," he managed.
kneeled on one knee in front another Taneer, and presented his neck.
looked at him.
about the scorecards?"
scorecard must be signed after every round of the tournament, or the player is
disqualified," said Randy.
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."
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."
said Ferrett. "You've clearly won, regardless of technicality."
is full of technicalities," said Randy. "What's the point of
competing if you don't abide by all of the sport's rules?"
Taneers huddled. "A rematch is acceptable," said one of them.
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."
means the negotiations may proceed in the meantime," said Ferrett.
is unusual," said one of the Taneers. "We must discuss this."
They walked away.
frowned at Randy again and ran after them.
* * *
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."
just couldn't have his death on my conscience," said Randy. "Glad
everything worked out."
wouldn't say everything." Ferrett grinned in a way that made Randy
do you mean?"
Taneers weren't happy about the Schrödinger's victory bullcrap you made up, so
we had to sweeten the deal."
waited for the axe to drop.
seem to actually like golf," said Ferrett. "So we traded you to
you're assigned to the diplomatic mission here, long-term. But your actual
assignment is to be the bogeys' golf instructor."
relaxed a little. Teaching super-strong, possibly violent aliens to play golf
was a hazardous occupation, but not as hazardous as fighting the war.
grin widened. "For seventeen years, of course. Then you get to have your
knew the diplomat thought he was punishing him, but seventeen years was a long
time. Hopefully, the war would be over long before then.
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