Barry Palmer expected Earth League Stadium to be massive, but nothing prepared him for its actual scale until he stood at its main entrance for the first time.
‘Make sure you have nothing metallic on you,’ a blue-skinned android worker says. Its voice sounds like a late-twentieth-century daytime game show host. ‘We wouldn't want to have to disintegrate you on your first day—would we?’
Disintegrate! Barry can’t stop staring at the android’s moss-green eyes. The two-metre humanoid’s face, feet and hands are sky blue; its torso, arms and legs are midnight blue. The lines of its body are simple, in contrast with the intricate detail of its slightly oversized head, hands and feet. Its face appears to shimmer, settling into a friendly disposition. Barry relaxes slightly.
‘No… er…nothing like that.’ Barry can’t even remember ever seeing anything made of metal.
The lone figure standing in front of the mountainous entry of Earth League Stadium suddenly breaks into a broad smile, exposing a perfect line of translucent teeth. ‘Great!’ The android points to a white human-sized doorway. ‘Go through the white door on the right, and take the white travelator to the white zone.’ Barry stumbles on his own feet, trying to pay attention. ‘And, do not get off the travelator.’
Regaining his balance, Barry says, ‘Or you will disintegrate me?’
The blue human-like robot motions Barry to go through the metallic gateway. Barry holds his breath and wonders what it would be like to disintegrate. ‘Take care, Barry Palmer.’ The tall android waves enthusiastically.
Barry enters a dark alcove and sees a tunnel entrance with a white travelator directly ahead.
‘Mr Palmer,’ Barry recognises that voice, weren’t you just outside?
‘Blue robot dude?’ The tall android glides gracefully next to him.
‘Not quite,’ the android says, ‘same model, different role.’ Widening its green eyes, the blue-skinned worker adjusts its facial expression and projects a caring disposition. ‘It’s OK, Barry.’ ‘I have all your data—we all do.’ What data… Barry and the android walk side by side towards the travelator.
‘Can I ask a question,’ Barry says.
‘Of course.’ The android motions Barry to step onto the stationary white surface of the dormant travelator. ‘I’m part of the “candidate welcoming team”, and my number one job is to answer your questions.’
‘Well,’ Barry says, ‘I’m not sure exactly how to put this... what I mean is….’
‘Go on,’ the android says, ‘you can ask me anything!’
Well… What exactly am I doing here?’
‘Doing?’ The android’s high-resolution facial features appear smooth and relaxed.
‘Yah!—Doing!’ The travelator moves slowly into the tunnel and seems to descend slightly.
‘Well...’ the android chooses its words, ‘you do have some unique qualities.’
Barry remembers first hearing about the League’s interest in his ‘unique qualities’ at about twelve years of age. Like most young people from his outback town, Barry was a keen sportsperson. He excelled at all physical sports requiring dexterity and spatial awareness.
‘Qualities that the International Oneball League considers… erm… valuable.’ The android’s facial expression appears sympathetic.
‘Valuable!’ They have been travelling for a couple of minutes. ‘Valuable for what?’ They are definitely below ground and seem to be heading outside the stadium towards its centre.
‘For Oneball, of course!’ The android slinks past Barry as they approach another white platform. ‘The greatest game on Earth!’ The lanky blue humanoid pauses with jazz hands. Barry loves Oneball. Everyone does; he just doesn’t know what a country boy like him could offer a mega-corporation like the Earth Oneball League. They both step onto the white platform.
‘You can pretty much do whatever you want—for now—Barry Palmer.’ The android opens its arms expansively. They walk across the platform. ‘The only thing you cannot do—for now—is you can’t go into the gold zone.’ The android raises its index finger. ‘The gold zone is reserved for stakeholders directly connected to the game, which you will be if you accept our offer.’ The android points its finger at Barry. ‘Until then—please remain in the white zone, do you understand?’
‘Or you will disintegrate me?’
‘Meantime… You have a stadium to explore.’ The android places a lanyard around Barry’s neck. ‘This pass will get you into all the white zones.’ Barry isn’t used to having something on him all the time. He spent most of his life running around in shorts or naked. ‘You will be monitored—of course.’
‘Of course.’ In case you want to disintegrate me. Barry and the android walk side-by-side off the platform and through another white door, which reads “WORLD’S LARGEST TURF FARM”.
‘Is it real?’ Barry is on his hands and knees, scrunching thick green grass in his hands. He is in what appears to be an underground field, stretching beyond his vision.
‘As real as anything.’ The android says.
‘It smells like harvest time.’ Barry inhales deeply. He remembers the giant machines that came once a year, extracting every bush, plant, and blade of grass available. ‘It reminds me of home.’
‘It’s the most significant continuous growth of turf anywhere on Earth!’ The lanky android says. Barry pushes his open hands into the soft grass.’ He flips over and lays on his back and remembers his childhood, growing up on the cannabis farm in South West Australia. Always great days, surfing in the morning and recreational hunting and fishing in the afternoon. ‘Just another example of the incredible benefits the Earth Oneball League brings to the local population.’ The android breaks into one of its exaggerated smiles. Its green eyes pulse. ‘The stadium brought jobs and wealth to the entire region.’ The android makes a sweeping gesture to indicate it meant everything and beyond. Barry doubts the artificial human is as sincere as it appears.
‘To be honest,’ Barry says, ‘I was surprised when the League first said they had a potential job for me.’ Barry stands up and wipes the excess grass off his hands and legs. ‘I wasn’t sure what I had that anyone would want.’
‘When opportunity knocks!’ The smiling blue android waits for Barry to finish clearing the blades of grass from the rest of his body.
‘Most people never get a job—these days.’ Barry straightens his soft hemp shorts and plucks some wayward grass from his leather sandals.
‘No need,’ the android replies, ‘after all, this is the “Age of Automation”!’
‘Still,’ says Barry, ‘our tiny town doesn’t get much news from the outside world—not much good news anyway.’
‘Come, follow me.’ The blue android and Barry head towards a lone white disc surrounded by the lush green of the sub-stadium meadow. ‘The turf is used on the main Battle Arena, directly above us.’ The android points upwards. Barry takes in the vastness of greenery and the smell of farmed flora. ‘We are currently on sub-ground level one or “SG1” as it’s known.’ The ground is firm but soft beneath Barry’s feet. ‘There are several levels underneath the arena, including the main transport station on level ten, where the first fans arrive via the mag-levitation network system.’ Barry calculates that the stadium could be bigger below ground than it is above.
‘Why does anyone still come to watch the games live?’ Barry and the android reach the white disc and step onto it. The disc pulses and comes to life.
‘The thrill of the game… the unexpected event… the celebration of sport!’ The wide-eyed human and the tall thin android gently float towards the thirty-metre high ceiling.
‘I never thought everything would be so big!’ The disc elevating Barry, and the android begins to slow. The android seems uninterested. Barry stretches his vision to try and see the edge. ‘So you’re tellin’ me... Earth League built a stadium, in the middle of the desert, to seat a million people so a team of giant athletes can play Oneball here?’
‘Two teams!’ The android says, ‘and, we host a game every week for one of those teams. It’s a pretty hectic season.’ Barry calculates twelve teams in total, including the two local teams, which means there is a game every week for twenty-two weeks a year.
The disc somehow floats effortlessly through the ceiling and settles on a large platform marked ‘Section 6 Level G’. Barry moves closer to the centre of the disc as the air around him warms.
‘Wow!’ Barry and his android companion emerge at the edge of the playing arena, where the stadium stands begin. Barry spins around slowly, taking in the engineering magnificence that is Earth League Stadium.
‘This is section six on the ground floor.’ The android holds up six digits on two hands. ‘Think six o’clock on a clock face.’ Barry is pretty sure he knows where this is going.
‘So this is the southern section?’ Barry says.’
‘Exactly!’ The blue android beams with pride.
‘Wow!’ Barry looks carefully at the capsule containing the seat, ‘so you’re tellin’ me that everyone gets to sit in one of these?’
‘Well, not everyone,’ the android replies, ‘there are a lucky few who can afford to share a space to watch the game, but most people sit in their pod.’ Barry is building a picture of the stadium in his mind. He is calculating about one third the size of Uluru on the surface, and who knows down below.
The android somehow communicates with the surroundings, and a silver portal appears in front of them. Barry has never seen this level of technology before. The android gestures Barry to follow him through a silver portal.
‘Silver is for those fans that want that little bit extra and have the means to be able to afford it!’ The android says as if anticipating Barry’s next question. ‘If you join the Oneball family, you will be expected to “interact” with these fans sometimes….’ Interact!
Exiting the Silver portal, Barry finds himself in what seems like a high roller casino environment, with luxurious seating, and most impressively, a 10-metre floor to ceiling window overlooking the Northern Goal square.
‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ The android sidles up to Barry, who stands with his hands on his hips, taking in the stadium from a vantage point customarily reserved for the richest of the wealthiest. He stares out of the floor to ceiling window of an executive box, the exclusive section of the Northern Stand. The laconic farm-boy from Wooditchup country in South West Australia wonders who could have thought up a game that required an arena this big. ‘Come, I want to show you something.’ The android motions Barry to follow. They take the silver lift down to the first floor, and the android ushers Barry onto a gold travelator.
‘Gold is for everyone associated with the game’, the android says, ‘if you have access to the gold travelators, you are in the circle.
‘Of gold?’ Barry says.
They are travelling around the outer edge of the stadium, and after a short time, they stop at a station located in the East section of the stadium.
‘We’re here.’ Barry and the android step off the gold travelator and onto a gold rectangular platform. ‘Follow me.’ The android leads Barry through a series of doors marked “Gold Only” and finally arrives at the Eastern entrance to the playing arena. The ground is shaking a little—thud, thud, thud.
‘What’s that?’ says Barry.
‘That,’ says the android, ‘is why we are all here!’
A rectangular space appears in the wall in front of Barry and the blue android. Fresh air comes gushing in. The thudding sound is louder and getting closer. The wind is hot and dry. Barry follows the blue android through the rectangular gateway and into the natural warmth of the outside world. Barry welcomes the heat.
‘Stay on this side of the glittery line.’ Barry is struggling to take his eyes from the giant black cyborg running towards him. He can see the soles of its one-metre feet as they pound the turf in huge strides.
‘That’s Jesus,’ says the android.
‘Jee—Zazz.’ Barry has never felt smaller in his whole life.
‘The fans love Jesus.’
‘How fast you reckon it’s running?’ Barry is counting the strides with his fingers and calculating the distance travelled.
‘At this moment, 135.63 kph, or around 37 meters per second,’ the android says.
‘That’s pretty fast.’
‘He’s got a lot of ground to cover.’ Barry and the blue android watch the enormous shiny black cyborg go through its paces. The android explains to Barry that visible components of the cyborg athlete only represent about 2/3rds of the player and that inside is a human athlete. ‘Would you like to meet him?’
Barry and the android step on a circular gold platform and rise to the upper level of what appears to be a repair bay for the Oneball players. The ground level is about two metres high; and has various robots, androids, and drones ready to investigate anything that arrives in the dock. Barry watches as the blue android somehow communicates with the bounding black cyborg and gets it to wave in acknowledgment that it’s coming into dock.
‘You might want to stand back a little Barry—just behind the glittery line.’ This time Barry sees the glittery line. It looks like white lava oozing through a firehose-width transparent tube. Barry takes a couple of steps back as he notices the sprinting cyborg tracking directly at them and running like a sprinter.
After about three or four more giant steps, the six-metre cyborg leaps ten metres high and thirty metres long and lands in the docking bay next to Barry and the android. Robotic clamps lock around the cyborg’s legs, and the torso opens from the centre outwards. Barry stares in amusement.
‘G’day mate,’ a dark-skinned fella says as he steps out of the lifeless cyborg. Barry turns towards the blue android, which is just looking on like a star-struck teenager. The exposed cyborg interior is an intricate display of technology and tubes with similar effects as the glittery lines all around the gold zones. ‘My name is Jerry, but I’m better known as Jesus.’ Barry stares in silence. He is processing a six-foot person inside a twenty-foot cyborg moving around with speed and grace. Yet in front of him is a limp piece of machinery and an aging jock.
‘My name`s Barry. People call me Baz.’
‘Well, Baz...’ Directly behind Jerry, the Cyborg’s hi-tech exoskeleton attracts dozens of robotic drones buzzing around; occasionally, they land and poke something into its black surface layer.
‘They will soon be calling you—Jesus—if you want.’ Jerry stands tall with arms like a crucifix, dozens of smaller drones swarm for a closer look.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at that thing!’ Jerry gestures at the six-metre cyborg behind him. ‘It’s a robot suit.’ Barry looks at the giant statue-like cyborg, then at the blue android, and finally back at Jerry.
‘So!’ One of the drones places a robe on Jerry. ‘The cyborg needs a new symbiote.’ Barry looks back at the blue android, who is nodding along with Jerry. ‘I’ve been doing this for ten years, and my contract is up, and I’ve had enough.’ Jerry steps into some fleece looking slippers. Barry looks back at the Android.
‘Is this why I’m here?’
‘Don’t get shitty with the droid; they’re just doing what they are told.’ Jerry motions Barry to follow him onto a gold disc. ‘Don’t be fooled, Baz. The glitz and glamour of Oneball is just a business, and Jesus….’ Jerry points at the lifeless cyborg shell, ‘is the goose that lays the golden egg… Everyone loves Jesus.’
‘So what makes you think I can do this?’ Barry says.
‘Oh, that has nothing to do with me.’ Jerry accepts a glass of vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream served over ice from a mobile bartending drone. ‘That is to do with the recruitment team.’ Jerry takes a sip of his White Russian. ‘Fuck! That’s just what I needed.’ Barry has dozens of questions buzzing around his brain.
‘So, let’s say for a minute I accept what you are saying and take the job as the cyborg pilot; what’s involved?’ Jerry takes another sip of his drink and grimaces a little.
‘Well, the hard work has been done… Once we found a compatible gene sample, that’s you….’ Jerry takes another swig of his creamy, alcoholic beverage and wipes his mouth. He points at Barry with the glass in his hand. ‘All that’s left— is to plug you in and see if it works. Plug me in!
‘Plug me in!’ Barry says, ‘like a torch?’
‘In some ways….’ Some ways!
‘Well, you will be its power source.’
‘Like a battery?’
Well, like a smart battery—you will also be its intellect!’
‘Like a computer?’
‘Hmm, yeah, kinda, but adding a human flavour.’
‘Well, Oneball is technically a team sport played between humans on a Battle Arena. It evolved into its current form to protect human athletes from getting injured or killed during games. Killed!
Barry watches another drone swap Jerry’s empty glass for a fresh one. Jerry cheers the flying barkeep.
‘And so we end up in robot suits’ Barry points at the exanimate cyborg.
‘And you want me to pilot it, or jockey it, or whatever it is you do with it?’
‘Pretty much.’ Barry takes another sip of his drink. ‘And one more thing, you’ll need to do a final test for compatibility. Test
And what do I get if I pass the test?
‘Well, for starters, you get to keep your sanity. Keep!
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Well, Baz.’ The old athlete puts his arm around the back of Barry’s neck and rests his hand on his shoulder. ‘I’m gonna be straight with you.’ Barry doesn’t like the sound of this. ‘When we first….’
‘Plug me in….’
‘Let’s say when we first pair you with Jesus:’ Pair! ‘We will soon know if it's gonna work.’ Barry is taking all this in. Jerry finishes his second drink and waves off his glass to an obedient flying bartender.
‘There is always risk Barry, without risk, legends are never created.’
‘So let’s say, I don’t go mad on entry, what then?
‘Well, that’s when it gets interesting.’ Barry is curious. ‘Let’s say you don’t go mad, and you can actually drive the cyborg, and you are any good at it… then you get to practice for a few months, and at some point, you will get subbed in for some game-time, and eventually a full game, and if you haven’t died by then:’ Died! ‘You become part of the Jesus dynasty and set you and your family up for the rest of your life!’
‘Died!’ Barry isn't letting Jerry slip that past.
‘It’s like this, Baz, there is a small chance that something could happen on the playing that could kill you, it’s not likely, but it has happened and will happen again.’ Barry never contemplated risking his life to play ball sports. ‘It used to be worse than it is now, the wild old days. These days, Symbs can play into our 60’s and beyond… but it does take its toll.’
‘It’s a lot to take in,’ Barry says.
‘It is.’ Jerry steps onto the gold transporter drone and takes a seat, and waves farewell. ‘Think it over, Barry, until then, be our guest, watch the opening game, get a sense of it. If you like it, take the test. If you don't, go home and forget about Oneball.’
‘Welcome sports fans everywhere to what promises to be a cracking start to the twenty-two ninety-nine season of Earth League’s Oneball.’ Barry Palmer finally finds his front-row seat and slides into a pod-like capsule that will be his vantage point for the next three hours. He listens to the live coverage via tiny mind buds connecting his brain to the stadium comms network. ‘My name is Dan Buckmaster, and joining me here today is Sherren Da Silva.’ What a view! Barry clips on his safety harness.
His pod-like chair is identical to the twenty others in the first row, and there are fifty rows behind him. Each pod hangs from a cord, like a spider sack. Earth League promises every fan an ultimate view of its 1300 metre battle arena, where 6-metre cyborg warriors with human symbiotes battle it out for unimaginable stakes. The stands are filling fast, as seat pods quickly fill the available spots. It reminds Barry of a swarm of ants somehow interweaving with each other and always knowing where to go.
Barry tunes his mind-buds into the visual commentary and can now see a giant holographic image of Dan Buckmaster and Sherren Da Silva floating in the middle of the massive arena. He has never been in a million person crowd before.
‘Welcome, Sherry!’ Dan Buckmaster is smiling exuberantly, ‘Tell me, Shez, does it get any better than this?’
‘Thanks—Bucky!’ Sherren says. ‘Can't you just feel that atmosphere?’ The hologram fades into a montage of aerial, ground and crowd views. Barry’s eyes widen as the players run onto the arena, there is a roar in his mind buds. A million fans emanate joy. He was pretty sure he was gonna take the test.