While Jake Moonrath attempts to penetrate the Central Authority Buildings in New York City, his sister Life Sample is attending a beer pitching competition – the most unpredictable, heavily sponsored and highly profitable sport still played – entirely by One Lifers – in today’s United States. But Life Sample has important business to conduct with a visitor from Grassy Butte, North Dakota – the mysterious Jean Stays. Could Jean – or Life Sample – be linked to the One Life Army? Read on.
At the same moment Jake entered the Central Authority Buildings, his sister Life Sample, known as Sam and christened Rose, withdrew a beer bottle from a cool-box filled with ice.
‘Are we ready yet, Sam?’ Mark Time was an immensely tall, solid One Lifer of Native American origin. He looked at the bottle in Life Sample’s hand.
‘Any moment now.’ Life Sample gestured towards the tepees from which the other competitors were emerging. ‘Wait until everyone’s here.’
‘That bottle has my name on it.’
Life Sample smiled up at him. ‘Sure it does.’
Mark Time nodded. ‘If I win, I’ll donate the prize money to the Santa Monica appeal.’
‘That’s a lot of cash.’
‘Sure. But I got all I need already.’
‘Tax efficient, huh?’
The big man shrugged. ‘So I’m a tax avoidance specialist. What do you expect?’
Life Sample watched him trudge off to join the other players. They were nearly all here, now. White-haired Tempus Fuggit, owner of the One Life Experimental Helicopter Company, had the build to make progress in a scrum: he’d been a college football player in his student days, before the sport was banned by the government on health grounds. Next to him was Spectral Way, who ran a chain of whole food bakeries from his retreat at the One Lifer encampment. With his thick glasses and short legs, he had never been successful at the beer-pitching, but entered the competition every few weeks “simply”, as he said, “for the thrill”.
Near the edge of the group stood Jean Stays, the One Life Trust analyst who sometimes flew in from Grassy Butte for the competition. For the beer-pitching she changed out of her business suit into combat trousers and a sleeveless T-shirt which showed off her slim build and brown skin. Her black hair hung in twin pigtails, secured with camouflage-effect rubber bands. Her slender build and black-framed spectacles made others underestimate her as a competitor in the contest. But Jean, a German who before becoming a One Lifer had been named Ulrike Hams, had surprising talents. Life Sample knew that when Jean put her mind to it, she was an unstoppable force.
In total, there were over thirty competitors. Each had paid ten thousand dollars to take part.
The beer bottle in Life Sample’s hand was refreshingly cold. She looked beyond the crowd of players and spectators to the holocams waiting to broadcast the event. One Lifer beer-pitching attracted huge audiences because it was harder to predict results than in major sports leagues, where the elite players had been ensconced at the top for decades. With beer-pitching there were always new players coming up and old ones retiring. There was also a good chance of violence or physical injury, both anathema to normal citizens but a matter of indifference or even pride to One Lifers and great for ratings. The result was a flood of sponsorship, with the networks multiplying fifty-fold the prize money the competitors put forward.
Today the stakes were higher. At the last moment a mystery donor had offered to double the total prize money again, in return for a private meeting with Life Sample. She’d accepted the offer without hesitation. That was how she always made decisions: it was a One Lifer axiom that gut instinct was the sister of wisdom. But what did the mystery sponsor want to talk about? That, she thought, would depend on how much he knew about her. That was why she’d called Jean Stays down from Grassy Butte to take part in today’s beer-pitching.
Life Sample took a step forward.
‘All right!’ she shouted to the assembled crowd. ‘Get ready for the pitch!’
The spectators fell silent. There was an outbreak of jostling amongst the players in the centre of the pack; in an instant, fists were flying. Life Sample saw Jean Stays watching intently from the edge of the group. The sky was pale blue. Around the limit of the clearing, an unbroken wall of maize formed the horizon in every direction.
Life Sample threw the bottle from one hand to the other.
‘Are you ready?’ she yelled.
‘Ready!’ the crowd responded.
‘Are you steady?’
There was an outburst of responses.
‘Just throw it!’
She lowered her arm. Then, with a mighty effort, she hurled the bottle up into the air, as high as she could. It spun and sparkled in the prairie sunshine.
The players roared as they surged towards where they thought the bottle would land, with one exception. Strange Daze, the virtuoso violinist, was high on something as usual. The little woman had not moved with the pack but was jumping up and down clapping her hands in the air. It was almost as if she were applauding the crowd of yelling, brightly-dressed competitors.
‘Out my way.’ Mark Time was wading into the melee, two metres ten and solid.
‘Hey,’ Tempus Fuggit yelled as Mark Time pushed him aside. ‘Take it easy.’
Mark’s elbow caught him in the face and Tempus went down like a flour sack. Broken nose, Life Sample thought.
High above the crowd, the bottle was still climbing. It seemed to hesitate before tumbling down. The crowd had coalesced into a cone of outstretched hands, with Mark Time at its apex. His big banana fingers clawed the air as the bottle fell.
There was a scamper of rushing feet. A lithe figure was running, scaling the side of the cone, climbing literally onto Mark Time’s back and snatching the bottle out of the air. It was a woman with twin black pigtails. For a moment she held the bottle aloft, grinning wildly, then disappeared from view as Mark Time swatted her from his back.
Jean Stays rolled twice across the dusty grass, then jumped up. She tugged at one of her pigtails.
‘I think that the prize is mine.’
Life Sample strode across the field, conscious of the cams following her every move. She held out her arms to Jean and embraced her.
‘Congratulations. Will you donate the prize to Santa Monica?’
‘Of course.’ The winner frowned. ‘How could I not?’
‘And do you really want that beer?’
‘It is true. I’m not that thirsty, actually.’ The brown-skinned woman looked around. Medics were already treating several competitors at the first aid tent. Mark Time and the remaining able-bodied players seemed mesmerised by the bottle.
‘Throw it,’ Life Sample said. Then she leaned forward, as if to kiss the other woman. ‘I need to see you,’ she said. ‘In private.’
‘I am ready.’ Jean took a step back. Then she smiled at the other players, glanced at the cams, and weighed the bottle in her hand.
‘WHO WANTS MY BEER?’ she shouted.
Already the bottle was arcing through the air. Fights broke out as competitors surged towards it. The spectators broke into spontaneous applause.
Outside a nearby tepee, Life Sample held open the flap.
‘We need to talk urgently,’ she said to Jean Stays. ‘It’s about the One Life Army.’
[Excerpt ends][Next excerpt]
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