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Monuments of Flesh and Stone

Author’s Note:

This was written around a painting by Hugo winner Frank Wu. Everyone else saw two humanoid aliens reaching their arms up for a low-hanging world. Me, I saw two guys going for a basketball. There was a tiny man lying on a blanket in the background, and a humanoid female pushing a grocery cart (even Frank couldn’t tell me why)—and I incorporated them into the story as well. And, oddly enough, I took it all seriously.

Plutarch sure as hell wasn’t much of a planet. It resembled a war zone, except that nobody had fought a war, not in its entire history.

In fact, nobody had done much of anything. I know; I had to bone up on the place before I arrived there.

In the whole history of planet, not a single resident had ever sold a book. Or a story. Or a poem. Not one had ever become a professional actor, either on stage or in holos. None of them had ever composed a piece of music. If any of them had ever made a scientific or medical breakthrough, no one had recorded it. Of course they had their share of local politicians, but not one of them had ever gone on to higher office off the planet. It was just a peaceful, forgotten little world, out on the edge of the Democracy, five-sixths of the way to the sparsely-populated Outer Frontier.

There wasn’t a single thing to distinguish it—except for the statue.

It had been created by the Denebian sculptor Mixswan, who had stuff on display on half a hundred worlds. I don’t know how they afforded him (or was he an it?); the whole population must have chipped in.

Mixswan didn’t exactly do non-representational art, but the figures didn’t look like the Men or Canphorites they were supposed to be. They appeared gold and spiky, all angles rather than muscles. One of them—it looked like it might have been the biggest—had broken and eroded over the centuries, and the bottom half was totally gone, while another was missing its head. Still, the statue instantly caught the eye —and I’ll never know how Mixswan managed to keep that ball in the air.

It was the most impressive sight on Plutarch. Hell, it was the only impressive sight. I’d heard about it—after all, it was the only thing on Plutarch anyone ever talked about—and since I was here on business, I figured I’d better let the locals see me admiring it.

So I looked at it, and looked at it, and wondered what the hell kind of world would commission a statue to commemorate a defeat. I mean, if I ever celebrated a loss, I’d be looking for a new job the next day and no doubt about it. And yet Plutarch had created no statues, no edifices of any type to mark a triumph in this, a victory in that, a breakthrough in something else. Just the one statue that must have put them in debt for years, maybe decades given Mixswan’s reputation. It didn’t make any sense.

A woman with a pushcart walked over to me. I’d seen hundreds of different shopping carts in my life—anti-grav, self-propelled, able to select items off a shelf and grab them with artificial hands, even some that could morph into a flyer or a boat to take the owner home when he or she was done shopping—but this was the first I’d ever seen where the owner actually had to use his own strength to push the damned thing.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before,” she said. “Welcome to Plutarch.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I just arrived a few hours ago.”

“Have you come to admire our monument?”

“No, I have business here,” I said. “But I find your monument very interesting.”

She nodded. “It depicts the greatest moment in our history.”

“I’ve read about it.”

“You can see it, if you like. Every shop sells the holo.”

“Maybe I’ll buy one,” I said.

“I hope you enjoy your stay,” she said. “You have come at a lovely time of year.”

I hadn’t noticed anything particularly lovely about the time or the planet.

“The corn is just starting to come up out past the edge of the city,” she continued. “If you open your window at night, you can hear it growing.”

I gave her a look that said I was a little long in the tooth for fairy tales.

“It’s true,” she said. “It will grow eight or ten inches a night for the next week. It grows so quickly that you can hear the leaves flutter.”

“I’ll listen for it,” I told her.

“Will you be here long?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Possibly you can help me. Do you know where I can find Damika Drake?”

She frowned. “He’ll be in school until midafternoon.” She paused. “I knew you were here for him.” She stared at me long and hard. “Leave him alone.”

“I’m not here to do him any harm,” I said. “Quite the contrary. I …”

“We need him more than you do,” she said and began laboriously pushing her cart away.

I figured I’d walk toward the city center. It was the only city left on the planet, maybe the only one Plutarch ever had, and I knew the school had to be there. I circled the statue and found a road that would take me there. Sitting next to the road was an old beggar, seated on the ground, holding out a cup with a few coins in it and a misspelled sign saying “Desstitut” right next to him.

“Hello, old man,” I said. “Doesn’t it get warm sitting out here in the sun?”

“My cross-country racing days are over,” he said with a wry grin. “Course, they only lasted about ten minutes. Got some alms for the poor?”

“What the hell is an alm?”

He shrugged. “Beats me,” he admitted. “I read it somewhere.”

“Will credits do?”

“To coin a phrase, beggars can’t be choosers.”

I flipped a couple of Democracy credits into his cup.

“Thanks, Mister,” he said. “You’re here for Damika Drake, aren’t you?”


“Figgers,” he said. “Only two reasons for anyone to come to Plutarch. The statue and the Drake kid. I saw you looking at the statue, and you’re still here, so it got to be for the kid.”

“It is,” I said. “Can you tell me anything about him?”

“Not much,” he replied. “I can tell you about the statue, though.”

“I’ve heard about it.”

“Not from an insider,” he said.

I tossed him another couple of credits. “Okay, let’s hear it.”

“I’ve love to,” he said, “but my throat just dried up.”

“I assume a glass of water won’t open it up,” I suggested.

He grinned. “I’m allergic to water. Better make it beer.”

“Okay,” I said, helping him to his feet. “Lead the way.”

He made a beeline for a broken-down building about two hundred feet away. The place was dimly-lit, with one squeaky fan hanging down from the ceiling and spinning slowly. There was a human bartender—the place obviously couldn’t afford a robot—and we sat down on a couple of well-used stools at the bar.

“A couple of long ones,” said the beggar. “My friend is buying.”

The bartender looked at me. “You new here?”

“Just passing through,” I said, slapping some money on the bar.

“That’s what they all say,” replied the bartender. “Especially if they’ve got any money.”

“I was just about to tell him about the game,” said the beggar.

“He doesn’t look like he cares,” said the bartender.

“I’m interested,” I said.

“Then I’d better stick around, just in case old Jeremy here messes up the details.”

He brought out three beers, one for each of us.

“It was 421 years ago,” began Jeremy the beggar. “Nobody’s ever heard of Plutarch—”

“He means the planet, not the man,” put in the bartender.

“He knows that,” said Jeremy irritably. “Anyway, we were just a little backwater world with nothing special to our name.”

“Except Damika,” said the bartender.

“I’m coming to that,” said Jeremy. “We just had one thing out of the ordinary, one thing that made Plutarch special. We had a young man named Damika.” He paused wistfully. “They say he could fly, that he moved so fast the human eye couldn’t follow him.”

“They say a lot of things,” added the bartender. “He was just a man.”

“He had to be more than that,” said Jeremy doggedly. “Anyway, we entered a team in the Sector basketball tournament. There were forty-eight teams entered, only nineteen of them human. Bookmakers were giving fifty-to-one against us in any game, and three-thousand-to-one against our winning the whole thing.”

“But you won,” I said.

He nodded. “Damika averaged 63 points and 22 rebounds a game. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Even legends from the Earthbound days like Milt the Stilt and Johnny Magic never performed at that level. Suddenly people knew who we were. We had tourists coming to watch us practice before the Quinellus Cluster championships, and even better, we had investors. All because of the basketball team.”

“All because of one young man, actually,” said the bartender.

“He must have been something to see, this Damika,” I said.

“They say he jumped so high and stayed in the air so long that textbooks had to rewrite the law of gravity.”

“It’s a nice bedtime story,” said the bartender. “He was the best. There’s no sense trying to making him into anything more than that.”

“Anyway,” continued Jeremy, “we were huge underdogs, but we won the Quinellus tournament—and then we went up against the Canphor VI team for the championship of the Democracy. They say more people watched that game than any sporting event in history. Think of it! For one night, two hundred billion people knew where Plutarch was! Hell, if Damika had said he wanted to be king, he’d have gotten it by acclamation.”

“But he was supposed to be a modest, decent young man,” said the bartender. “All he wanted was to bring some reflected glory to the planet.”

“We were big underdogs again,” said Jeremy. “We were giving up seven or eight inches and maybe fifty pounds of muscle per player. But you can see it for yourself if you buy the holo. The Canphorites got off to a big lead, because they double- and triple-teamed Damika. We were playing on McCallister II, which was supposed to be a neutral world, but its gravity was about a hundred and ten percent Standard, and it wore on our lighter players more than on the Canphorites. They were winning 52-38 at the half, and everyone thought it was over.”

“Damned near was,” agreed the bartender.

“But then Damika just took over the game,” said Jeremy, his emaciated face lighting up with excitement and pride some four centuries after the fact. “He did things no one had ever seen before, things no one has seen since, and he single-handedly brought us back from the abyss.”

“He scored 45 points in the second half,” added the bartender. “No one had seen anything like that, not then, not ever. The people who’d spent their savings flying in from Plutarch were screaming and cheering him on, and he didn’t let them down.”

“He tied it with a basket at the final buzzer,” continued Jeremy, “and then the game went into overtime. We were down one point with ten seconds to go, but we got the ball into Damika’s hands, and we knew that he wouldn’t let us down.”

“You sound like you were there,” I commented.

“I wish I’d been,” replied Jeremy. “Ten seconds from galactic glory!”

“Or galactic obscurity,” said the bartender.

Jeremy nodded. “Damika drove to the basket, and two hundred billion people knew he was going to leap four feet in the air and stuff the ball through the hoop—and then it happened.”

“I read about it.”

“That’s the part I hate to watch,” said the bartender.

“Everyone hates to watch it,” said Jeremy. “One of the Canphorites gave him an elbow just as he was about to take off. He fell, and even on the holo you can hear that crack! when his ankle broke. It sounded like a rifle shot.”

“He pulled himself up onto one leg to hop off the court,” said the bartender, “and the Canphorite coach began screaming that the tournament rules said that if a fouled player could stand on his own power, he had to take his own free throws. There was nothing about having to stand on two feet. You could see the bone sticking out through the skin, but Damika tried to take the free throws himself. His eyes were glazed, his whole body was shaking from the effort just to keep from falling down, he missed both shots, and that was that.”

“He never got rid of the limp,” said Jeremy, “and he never played again. We didn’t have much of a team without him, and in more than four centuries we’ve never made it as far as the quarter-finals of the Sector tournament.”

“The tourists stopped coming …” said the bartender.

“The investors stopped investing …” said Jeremy.

“And we were nothing again, just the way we’d been before Damika.”

“Still, for one shining moment, we were somebody. People from halfway across the galaxy knew about us. Dozens of holo crews landed on Plutarch to interview us.” Jeremy paused. “We knew we were never going to reach such heights again, so we took our planetary treasury and hired the best sculptor in the Democracy to commemorate the moment that Damika grabbed the last rebound in regulation time and scored with two seconds left on the clock.”

“You haven’t kept it up very well,” I said.

“It’s four hundred years old,” said Jeremy. “It costs money to keep it up.”

“And our citizens desert us as fast as they can,” said the bartender. “We had almost half a million inhabitants when Damika played against Canphor. We’ve got about sixty thousand now, maybe a little less.”

“He’s here for Damika Drake,” said Jeremy.

“Big surprise,” said the bartender. “Why else would anyone come to Plutarch?”

“I couldn’t help noticing the similarity in names,” I said.

“Three-quarters of the boys born on Plutarch are called Damika,” said Jeremy. “Every parent hopes their Damika will one to restore our former glory.”

“As if it lasted for more than a month,” said the bartender dryly.

“You gonna take Damika Drake away?” asked Jeremy.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve got to talk to him, see what he can do first.”

“I never even asked,” said Jeremy. “Who do you coach for?”

“The Sagamore Hill Chargers, out of Roosevelt III.”

“I’ve heard of them,” said the bartender. “You made the semi-finals out in the Albion Cluster last year, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re probably one good player away from a title. I did a little research, and I think the Drake kid might be the answer.”

“Well, you did your research more carefully than anyone else,” said Jeremy. “We’re so far off the beaten track, you’re the only one who’s shown up to recruit him.”

“Have you seen him play?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jeremy. “He’s good, but he’s not what you need to put you over the top.”

“Kid needs more muscle, and he telegraphs his passes,” offered the bartender.

“He’s not much from more than twenty feet out, either,” added Jeremy.

“You make it sound like a wasted trip,” I said.

“I hate to tell you, but it is,” said Jeremy.

“As long as I’m here, I might as well take a look, just to justify my expense account,” I said.

They exchanged looks. The bartender started rubbing the totally clean surface of the bar with a cloth. “Up to you,” he said at last. “But don’t say you weren’t warned.”

“This was my idea,” I said. “You’re off the hook.” I turned to Jeremy. “You want to point out the school to me?”

“Walk out the door, and it’s two blocks down on your left,” he said. “It’s mostly empty these days, but back when the real Damika was around, we used to fill just about every desk in every room.”

I thanked him, left a tip on the bar, and walked out of the tavern. I turned left, walked two blocks, and since I was looking ahead at the school I almost tripped over a drunk who was sleeping it off at the edge of the sidewalk. (It had been a slidewalk, but I suspected the mechanism hadn’t worked in a couple of centuries.)

“Excuse me,” I said as he grunted in surprise. “Are you all right?”

“I will be,” he said, getting unsteadily to his feet. “My own fault for not going all the way home last night.”

“Maybe you’d better head for home now,” I said. “Better late than never.”

“No, it’s almost practice time.”

“What are you practicing?” I asked.

“Not me,” he said. “Them.”


“The team,” he said. “It’s the only pleasure I get these days.”

“So you’re a fan,” I said.

He spat on the ground. “I couldn’t care less about basketball.”

“I’m a little confused,” I said. “I thought you said …”

“Basketball is where we fell from our exalted position,” he said. “It’s the only way we’ll ever recapture it.”

“There are lots of ways,” I said. I’m a coach. I know. The world doesn’t change because you win or lose a game except that their world did.

“Not for Plutarch,” he said. “You know, every time a baby boy is born, people gather around it and try to see if he could possibly be the One.”

“The one?” I repeated.

“The One who will lead us back to glory.”

“What makes you so sure it’s got to be a basketball player?” I asked. “Why not some other sport?”

“Football, murderball, baseball, prongball, they all have bigger teams and take more equipment. Look at us. We’re lucky to field a basketball team.”

“Well, let’s go take a look at them,” I said, and we walked off toward a playground on the side of the school.

A few minutes later classes were let out, and about two hundred kids left the building and headed off for their homes. But about twenty stuck around the court to watch, and after another five minutes ten young men came out in shorts and t-shirts. Their coach immediately divided them into two teams—but not with five on a side. One side—the shirts—had seven players; the other—the skins—had only three.

There was one kid on the skins I couldn’t take my eyes off of. The scrimmage hadn’t started, but he moved with such an animal grace, carried himself with such confidence, I knew he had to be Damika Drake.

The coach gave the ball to the shirts, and they began bringing it down the court. Drake jumped into a passing lane at the last second, intercepted a pass, dribbled the length of the court, and took off like a helicopter. He couldn’t have stood much more than six feet, but he had a vertical leap of better than forty-five inches. I’d never seen anything like it.

Next time the shirts came down the court they kept the ball away from Drake, finally shot it up, and missed. His head was higher than the rim when he grabbed the rebound. He fired an outlet pass to a teammate who waited for him to catch up, then fed him the ball near half-court and he put it up from there. Drained it, as if it was something he did every day (and for all I knew, he did.)

The kid was everywhere. I wasn’t keeping official score, but in the ten minutes I watched I think he grabbed eight rebounds, blocked five shots, picked up four assists, and scored twenty-three points.

And I was thinking: Sure, Jeremy, the kid’s not ready for the big time. Sure, bartender, he can’t shoot and he can’t jump and he probably can’t move to his left. Sure, guys. I’m just wasting my time coming here to recruit him.

And then, on a hunch, I looked around the playground and saw maybe two dozen adults had stopped by to watch Damika Drake through the fence. Ten or twelve more were looking out from the windows of a nearby decrepit apartment building.

I suddenly realized that most of them were looking at me. And their faces didn’t say, Can he be the One? No, it was He is the One, our last chance, our only chance. Please don’t take him away from us. We’ve waited four hundred years for him. We’ll make him happy, we’ll treat him like a king, hell, we’ll make him king if he asks us to … but leave him here. All you need is a player. We need a savior.

I didn’t have to watch the rest of the practice. This kid was everything he was cracked up to be, and more. I’m surprised I couldn’t see wings on his back, given the way he flew to the bucket. He’d missed two shots the whole time I was watching him, which meant he hit at better than a 90% rate. The kid who led our conference last year was a 52% shooter, and everyone thought that was phenomenal.

But that kid’s planet was flush with gold and plutonium deposits, it had some of the best farmland in the sector, and it was the banking center for a dozen nearby worlds. They were proud of him, but if he vanished tomorrow, life there wouldn’t miss a beat. No one was asking him to bring back the self-respect that had been missing for four hundred years. If adults watched him practice, it was because they were fans of the game, and no other reason. He didn’t come from an almost-deserted school on an almost-deserted planet with an almost-proud history that was cut short ten seconds before it came to fruition.

As I took an aircar back to the spaceport, past the derelict buildings, the forgotten dreams, the dashed hopes of a world, I felt my options disappearing one by one. They were gone by the time I reached the tiny spaceport and contacted my school’s athletic director via the subspace radio.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

“Easy trip,” I replied. “I should be home tomorrow.”

“So what about this kid?”

“He’s okay in the bush leagues,” I said, “but he’s not what we’re after.”

“Ah, well, I suppose it was worth the trip. On your way back, stop off at Odysseus in the Iliad system. They’ve got a seven-footer there who’s supposed to be pretty hot stuff. Greenveldt’s after him, but he hasn’t committed to them yet.”

“Will do,” I said, and signed off.

I turned and looked back at the decaying city.

Okay, I thought, I’m giving you your future, at the cost of some of my own. You damned well better make the most of it.

That’s a hell of a burden to put on any kid. Still, he’s got the right name for it. Maybe I’ll see him again, in the finals if we get that far. There’s no question that he’ll be waiting for us there.

Him and a forgotten world.


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