By popular demand (a couple readers whom I know to be popular people), this wraps up the story. Shabbat Shalom, all.
With Real Estate gone, the Hacksters had only one potential savior, Mullen. But they didn’t go to him much and it became clear to Dana – he got the ball only when he wanted it. The game stayed on the ground. Mullen ran his routes silently; Dana defensed him cautiously. He caught a few short passes near the sidelines, then stepped quickly out of bounds, even when he could have scored easily. He did just enough to keep the Hacksters offense alive. The Cyborgians lacked even that. The score remained as it was when the half had ended, thirteen to seven, Cyborgians. The game went flat.
“Hey, goddess,” Mullen called as the third quarter expired. “How’s the studying going?”
“Say again that last?”
“What have you learned about the difference between authority ethics and virtue ethics? It’s going to be on Portly’s test, you know.”
“OK, Mullen,” she said irritably as she took off her helmet. “You’ve got me stumpified.”
“But we’ve been studying this together. You should have figured it out by now.”
“Just this. It’s the Jews against the Greeks. Late antiquity stuff. That’s where it started, and the human race has been at it ever since.”
“Given to cosmic generalizations, are we?”
“Judgmental, too. You can’t be fully human and not judge. Not on this. Goddesses expect answers. So do babes. So do the rest of us, from time to time.”
“Thank, you, goddess. Also, babe. Authority versus integrity. Authority ethics start with the commandments and rules. Virtue ethics start with the self. Authority ethics tell you what to do and want, and how to do it and want it, until there’s no part of life that doesn’t have a rule or a prohibition attached. Virtue ethics tell you how to create your own life, but don’t tell you what that life should be. The goals of authority ethics are victory, success, order, hierarchy, salvation. Theirs. The goal of virtue ethics is happiness. Your own. Authority ethics demand obedience, submission. Virtue ethics require independence and wisdom. Your own. OK, that’ll get you through the midterm.”
He shrugged and turned away. “As for living it . . .”
“Mullen . . .”
He turned back.
“So, Dana . . . how you like me now, babe?”
“I like you, Mullen,” she said to herself. “I like you a lot.”
“One more quarter, babe. Or is it goddess? Jewish goddess who doesn’t much care for the rules? Or do you?”
“What’s this Jewish to you?” she asked, repeating her question, annoyed at herself, annoyed at him, annoyed at the need to keep asking.
“Family name used to be Malinovsky. Long time ago. Not much talked about. I retain some curiosity.”
“So you are . . .”
“Me? I’m just me. And you?”
“Don’t evade. One way or another, before it’s all over, you’ll have to choose. Good luck, goddess.” He looked down. “The Goddess of the Final Play, perhaps?”
She had no answer to give him.
Everyone was tiring. The game would go to the team that lost second. Five minutes into the quarter, far from Dana on the other side of the field, Mullen caught an eight-yard slant pass, then exploded past everyone. Game tied. The Hacksters made the point-after kick and for the first time led, fourteen to thirteen. A one-point lead.
The Cyborgian offense did nothing but burn time off the clock. Dana and Jack stood on the sidelines. “No mistakes,” Jack kept muttering to himself. “No mistakes this late in the game . . . oh, Jesus.”
The Cyborgians were preparing to punt. Mullen casually walked onto the field and took position to receive the kick. Twenty seconds later, he crossed the goal line, untouched. Twenty to thirteen, then the point-after kick. Good.
Twenty-one to thirteen. Hacksters up by eight. The game was slipping away. As the Cyborgian offense prepared to take the field, Jack Delaney joined them, said something, then stepped off. Two plays later, the Cyborgians scored.
“What did you say to them?” Dana asked.
“Not much. Just asked if they were ready to let some pretty-boy Adonis classics major beat us all by his self.”
Dana cringed. Delaney noticed and smiled.
“Why the grin, Jack?”
“Because,” he said, looking out at the field, “he gets through to you.”
Cyborgian point-after, good. Twenty-one to twenty. Hacksters up by one. Five minutes to play.
As the Hackster offense came out loudly, Mullen seemed suddenly subdued, intent on something going on within. On the first play, not running hard, he stumbled. He fell, then got up carefully. He limped.
“Problem, Adonis?” Dana asked, surprised at both the name she called him and the edge of cruelty in her voice.
Mullen showed no reaction.
“Ankle. Not too bad. Helps me to attain a higher level of virtue.”
“You really ought to pay more attention in class. The rules say the purpose of the game is to win. Wisdom and happiness can tell you something else entirely.”
“You’re even crazier than I thought.”
“We’ll discuss it after the next play.”
On the next play, Mullen ran long. Dana let him get by her. But the pass was short and as Mullen returned to the ball, she sensed that this time she had the advantage of position and could intercept. She went high, accepting that Mullen would hit her as she had him, while in the air. His impact would likely knock the ball loose. He would force her to fumble and probably just run over her, scoop the ball off the ground and score again.
Dana pulled in the ball. Mullen came on, then up. He wrapped his arms around her and brought her gently to the ground, his hands on the ball to help her cradle it, protecting it for her. Then he covered her body with his own and absorbed the force of a late pile-on.
“Way to go, Goddess of the Final Play,” he said as they rose. “You’ve saved your team. For the moment.”
“Not Jewish goddess?”
“Jews don’t have goddesses. Or am I wrong on that one, too?”
Dana said nothing, just stared at him in fear, not physical fear, until he turned away and limped off. Eight plays later, the Cyborgians settled for a field goal. Twenty-three to twenty-one. Cyborgians ahead by two. Hacksters’ ball, four minutes to go. A field goal could win it for them.
The Hacksters pounded on, picking up modest yardage. The clock ran down. With a minute to go, it was first down on the Cyborgians thirty-eight. A few more yards, a few more seconds, one swing of their kicker’s leg – they would take the victory by a single point.
“You all right?” asked Dana as the Hacksters picked up two yards on the ground and Mullen worked his ankle back and forth.
“I’m fine. Quarterback’s got an arm like Jell-O. Frustrating. Doubt if he’s got more than one good toss left in him. There goes the passing game. You can stand down for a bit. I’ll be blocking for our running backs.”
Behind Mullen’s blocking, the Hacksters picked up ten yards on two plays and, with fourteen seconds left, the crucial first down. Three chances to get those final few yards to easy field goal range.
The Hackster quarterback took the snap, then lobbed a short screen pass to a wide receiver, who made the classic mistake of trying to run before he had complete control of the ball. He dropped it behind him. Nine seconds later, a Hackster lineman recovered for a loss of nearly fifteen yards. Final time-out, Hacksters. Five seconds left, now well out of field goal range, no time to run the ball, no time for anything except one final, desperate play.
Jack summoned the defensive huddle. They all joined hands.
“OK, guys, one more play and we put this one in the books. Two possibilities here. Either they throw to Mullen or it’s Hail Mary time. If it’s to Mullen, everybody get to Dana as fast as you can. If it’s Hail Mary . . . well, just go with their flow and enjoy the chaos. Break.”
The sound of their clap was weary and hard. Dana felt a hand take hers again.
“Look, Dana . . . if the pass is to Mullen, you’ll have plenty of back-up. If it’s Hail Mary . . .”
“I’ll see you there.”
The Cyborgian defenders formed up and waited for the Hacksters to complete their huddle. Their clap as they broke sounded like the splintering of steel. Dana took her position and felt a tear of frustration at the terror within her. She turned her face away from the offense settling in for the play, then forced herself to look back.
The play began. Mullen headed toward her at full power, straight to the end zone. Dana knew she could never keep up. Nor could her teammates. As Mullen sped by, she put out one foot to trip him. Her cleat caught his bad ankle. He stumbled briefly but ran on. An official noticed. Players of both teams began to form a malignant mass in the end zone. Dana realized that the play was never meant for Mullen at all. It was Hail Mary, and he was going to join in with the rest.
Dana ran toward the crowd, suddenly hobbled by the toes that had taken the force of contact with Mullen as she’d tried to trip him. Ten yards from the end zone and its violence, she looked back. The ball was in the air. But the pass was short. It would not reach them. She guessed its likely landing point, somewhere between her and the mass of pounding human flesh. She began to position herself to intercept, then saw Mullen break from the crowd and run toward her. Others were running behind him.
Dana no longer had to go to the Hail Mary. The Hail Mary was coming to her.
She turned to face the ball and prepared to leap. Whatever happened behind her, happened. Whatever caught her or hit her, happened. But as she went up, she realized that she’d misjudged the ball. Then, in an instant of acid inner humiliation, of going from stoic courage to all-too-clear cowardice and shame, she realized that she’d made no accidental mistake. She wanted the ball to go by her, to land far away among men who would then have no reason to harm her. And the game would be done.
Then impact found her. It was Mullen, grasping her from behind. But he wasn’t bringing her down. He leapt, and was taking her skyward. Her arms reached up for the ball. She glimpsed the official, watching. She stretched her arms as far as she could, then saw the official reaching for his yellow flag. Perhaps he thought Mullen was interfering with her. Or perhaps he was responding to the foul she’d committed. Or to both. Or to something else entirely. Then she remembered.
The game cannot end on a penalty.
If she caught the ball and somehow brought it down in her possession, Jack would decline the penalty and the Cyborgians would win. If she caught the ball, then dropped it and no one recovered before it went out of bounds, the result would be the same. Or if someone did recover . . .
The ball was now closing upon them. The game might go on, if she also drew an interference flag against Mullen’s interference. Offsetting penalties. True, but only if the official was flagging Mullen. And if he decided that the ball was catchable. But if the official was about to flag her for tripping, a penalty no matter what the ball did . . . and somewhere else, other things were being done and maybe other penalties assessed . . .
She heard the shouting of the men behind them. She heard the collisions of helmets and pads. She heard someone curse in pain.
The game cannot end on a penalty.
She felt Mullen’s breath on her neck. She twisted around, away from the ball. He eased his grasp and helped her.
Too many rules.
She lowered her arms and embraced him.
The ball floated by them. It had not been catchable. The official threw his flag. Dana and Mullen remained suspended an instant longer. Then they began their descent, tight in each other’s arms, both wondering how different the world would be upon their return and knowing, of a surety, why.