The coach nudged the token toward the east and smiled.
His rosewood table dominated the windowless office in the bowls of the stadium. The skeletal metal shelves that served as the only furnishing were packed with game film—VHS, the coach insisted, though he rarely watched them himself. Let the helpers use their methods, he thought, and I’ll stick with mine.
His method was the elaborate, gold-inlayed map he was now poring over with an expectant grin.
Jay stumbled in, disoriented—as he always was—by the lack of natural light.
The helpers muttered amongst themselves about the room, with its bare concrete walls and exposed copper piping that leaked in the winter. Squeezes the city for hundreds of millions, they would say, and we live without electricity like it’s the goddamn seventeenth century.
The coach, however, preferred it this way. Mornings like this, tracing the outlines of the states with his ring finger in the candlelight, were when games were won.
Jay broke the stillness with an incomprehensible run-on of words, a jumbled gurgle that had something to do with offensive schemes.
“Easy, now. Breathe. Take your time,” the coach soothed. He liked Jay, despite himself. Plenty of flaws and little taste for the art of war, but the enthusiasm of an innocent.
The image of a golden retriever bounding for a tennis ball in blinding sunlight crept into the coach’s mind.
Plus, he reassured himself, we have little to worry about this week.
“Jay. Jay,” the coach interrupted him as the words continued vomiting from his mouth. “I know whatever you drew up is going to be perfect. I’m sure that I’m going to love it,” he asserted with a pat on the shoulder. “No need to go over the details. We’ll get to those later.”
Jay smiled broadly, a toothless grin that puffed his cheeks, satiated. He backed out the way he came, bulling over a collapsible chair on his way out.
The Lakesmen, the coach knew, were ready to surrender. Trading your most valuable piece for the promise of a vague future gain?
He shook his head, but a small part of him respected the move. It appealed to his cunning, that trait that defined him, seeped out of every pore. The heathen masses might not like the transaction, but it was calculated. Burn it down and start fresh. It’s not as if they’ve had the strength to mount an uprising in decades, anyway.
Though the two forces shared a common territory, there had never been much true animosity. An occasional skirmish would break out, but those most often resembled a pair of dirt-faced boys wrestling over the last piece of bread.
Still, the coach needed to be careful. Overconfidence was a temptation he had succumbed to in the past—never again.
My well-laid plans had gone to shit last Sunday, remember? The coach detested profanity, the vulgarity of it, but that really was the lone way of putting it. Only the heroics of his defensive unit prevented certain defeat. Sloppiness had put them in a hole, forced them to rely on basic instinct instead of the calculated detachment he preferred.
The victory had nevertheless vaulted him to the top of the pile, and it was a strong one, a possibly defining one come the winter campaign. Cheer up.
The Steel Empire was crumbling, he was sure of that.
The once proud dynasty had lorded over him for years. He could still picture it in his mind all these years later, the fall of his greatest leader. Tendons snapping under the weight. Carson later returned to the field of battle, but the experience had changed him, damaged beyond repair.
After years of patiently waiting for the opening, the coach had lowered the deathblow himself. He had suffocated the Empire with his advanced guard. There was no answer for the power and speed off the flanks. He had cut off the supply, and it was only a matter of time now.
Still, he had waited another week to be sure. 0-3.
He had shown remarkable restraint in holding off this far: He swept his right hand low over the table, sending pieces crashing to the floor. A sneer of unmistakable triumph.
In their spot, at the confluence of the Three Rivers, he placed a hand-carved token, the most intimidating of them all. AJ the Conqueror.
He felt a jolt of determination run up his arms from his balled fists. The coach savored moments like this.
The Steel Empire shattered, he turned his attention north.
The Lakesmen force was puny, barely large enough to even warrant the attention. Still, it was their turn. They were in the palm of his hand, ready to be squashed.
The coach picked up the token and set it next to The Lake, just outside the city limits. He turned AJ inward, the dark walnut shimmering in the flickering candlelight.
The game plan was ready. Victory is assured.
Matt Pentz is a sports writer for The Daily News in Longview, Washington. He will be writing more Striped Fiction throughout the season. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattpentz.
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