By K. Mark Hoover, illustration by Frank Wu
7 May 2001
Part 1 of 2
Building a starship requires a multi-layered industrialized infrastructure. Building a crew for a starship demands the same careful attention to technological (and psychological) detail.
--Slugball: Dissecting the Game, Ivan Zhdanov, 2051
A half hour after midnight, Aleksander and another man I didn't recognize unlocked the door to my cell.
At this late stage of the game, when the slugball is about to be Zoned and you have what's considered a zero chance to make any further progress, the DataSphere yanks you off the field of play. My average had tanked when Korb's team snatched me in Bern after hitting my crew. Konstantin Korb, my opposite, intended to make sure his squad didn't lose the slugball again before he Zoned it. That's why Aleksander was here -- towing a two-meter slab of muscle as backup.
Not that I was concerned for myself, you understand. I knew the rules of the game, and I understood that I was going to be sent to my death by them. What I didn't like was failing my daughter, Christina. Now she wouldn't be on the Starwind, wouldn't have a chance to start over on a new world.
"Stand up." Aleksander: a man of few words. "Show me your wrists."
I did so, sullenly. He checked my steeltape handcuffs, making sure the ratchets were still locked tight.
The muscle, a wiry man with Asian features, pressed the barrel of a needlegun in the hollow at the back of my neck until my head tipped forward.
"Don't move," he said. Good advice. The barrel was flared open to fire all eight flechettes at once.
Aleksander ran his hands over me with clinical detachment. Our eyes met, locked in frozen hostility.
"Is she still clean?" the Asian asked. When Aleksander nodded, the Asian stepped back away, keeping the gun pointed at me. He wiped his face with a soggy handkerchief. Couldn't be nerves: a person doesn't reach this strategic round of slugball with a shaky nervous system like that. Probably a Viper junkie. Not here to win berths, but to scratch that gorilla on his back. Well, it takes all kinds.
I decided to prick his confidence. "Not too long ago we put horrors like you in solitary confinement and welded the lock shut. Thank God for slugball, huh?"
He looked at me with eyes the color of lead.
"Don't make trouble, Irina," Aleksander intervened. "You're out of it. You know the protocol."
They marched me upstairs to an unfamiliar part of the mansion Korb pretentiously called his Citadel. Unfamiliar, because he had unearthed my AI mole and brain-knifed it before it could squirt the architectural blueprints to my datafile. That was before he went after my crew.
It was a complete kill, professionally done. A textbook move. Zhdanov would have been proud.
A robot Arbiter met us on the landing. Watching. Scoring. It was the first one I'd seen in several hours. Not unusual; they don't have to be everywhere to know what's going on, since they link directly into the DataSphere, and can even access our own personal viewpoints.
We passed a mullioned window. The outside security lights were switched off. The grounds were dark and a full moon brooded behind scudding clouds. Korb's Citadel was perched on a promontory of Bürgenstock Mountain, affording a breathtaking view of Lake Lucerne below and other mountains in the distance.
I was shown to a large reception room decorated with a mattecloud sofa, a couple of straight-backed chairs, and a parquet floor. Double sliding glass doors opened onto a helipad where a ducted-fan craft crouched -- a black wasp on steroids. It was an Augusta, with VTOL capability, retractable landing gear, and stealth skin that soaked up radar.
A second Arbiter haunted the background.
Konstantin Korb watched as I was marched in, his face ghostly white in the gloam. The global AI running the DataSphere wasn't interested in physical beauty when culling applicants -- I mean, look at me. Korb was an albino, but he had merits much more valuable than looks.
Korb had the slugball securely nestled in a carry-sling under his left armpit. He also sported a needlegun shoved cowboy-fashion through his belt laces. "Good evening, Ms. Tal." A Rottweiler at his side yawned.
The white of his smile brightened noticeably. Well, he had reason enough to be jolly: he had the slugball.
And that was finis to any chance Christina had to be one of the ten thousand coldsleep passengers on Starwind.
"You killed and maimed a lot of people, Korb. Some were innocent. Remember Toronto and that razor-vine your assassin tried to use on me? Clumsy bastard snared a twelve-year-old girl instead. Now she's trying to learn how to apply makeup with her feet."
Not that the DataSphere cared. Collateral damage to the surrounding population was considered acceptable, as long as our survival skills were proven valid in the process. Ordinary people didn't mind all that much either, really, if the excitement level was maintained and the body count didn't get too high. We're all voyeurs in one sense or another, and everyone's looking for their quarter hour of fame. I guess when you come right down to it, not much has changed since the Mad Times when people went to racetracks on the off chance they'd see a wreck, and maybe some innocent bystanders killed to cap off a perfect afternoon.
"Hey, I still think we should do this bitch now, just to be sure." Richards, a lanky, dark-skinned man dressed in an orange flight suit, jerked a thumb in my direction. He used to be a Mexican bush pilot running passion dust across the Rio Grande before the DataSphere decided his germ plasm might be worth preserving.
"No," Korb said. "I want her returned safely to her side."
Made sense. Captured players could be sold back to their own Consortium, or returned for agents lost in the field, and Korb knew I'd be taken care of -- permanently -- by my own people. Less messy for him that way.
Korb palmed the lock on the glass doors. Richards strolled out to the Augusta and climbed into the cockpit. A console light in the cabin illuminated his face when the AI copilot recognized him.
Korb told Aleksander, "A man in Zurich will meet you at Kloten Airport. Aeroflot is standing by to fly Ms. Tal back to Moscow, to meet whatever fate her country has prepared for her, following the exchange."
I'd be lucky to get sleepdeath. Brain-knifed, my consciousness would be sucked down into the Core of the DataSphere. Endit.
One of the largest Russian Consortiums had counted on me to reserve a cryonic section on the starship for their intelligentsia. Not physical bodies, not open berths, only germ plasm slots that might or might not be used to broaden the gene pool once the starship reached its destination. But if you're keeping score, it all counts towards genetic immortality. . . .
Outside, Richards fired up the engines. The whine of the compressors screeched like nails on a blackboard, sending a shiver down my spine. It was the sound of Christina's future ending.
I'd Zoned two slugballs in a career spanning five years. Pretty good run, but three is the magic number you need to win berths for the Consortium backing you. Oh, my Consortium would get other chances, but I'd be long gone by then.
The fans on the Augusta whirled at speed.
"Have a pleasant journey, Irina," Korb waved. "The Core won't be too bad. Your consciousness will be there for anyone willing to access it . . . even your daughter."
I shrugged my indifference.
He turned. "Aleksander, if there's any trouble during the flight, kill Ms. Tal immediately. We'll forgo the exchange, if necessary."
Aleksander motioned for me. I started, caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Something black had whipped across the night and occluded the moon for a fraction of a second. I think I was the only one who saw it, other than an Arbiter near the door. Before I could identify it, we were hit.
The actinic light of a magnesium flash-bang preceded the focused concussion by a fraction of a second. I had turned my head to shield my eyes but residual glare still destroyed my peripheral vision.
I glanced over my shoulder, cocked my leg and executed an ushiro geri before the second flash-bang hit us. The reverse kick caught Aleksander completely off guard, shattering his collarbone. He tumbled backwards. I didn't wait to see where he landed, because the glass doors were exploding inward; I threw myself to the floor.
Korb folded his arms over his face, screaming in breathless jerks. The bright flash of the flare bomb had burst directly into his light-sensitive eyes.
Glass showered over everyone. The Arbiters stood there, impassive as always, scoring.
A bullet streaked through the room, shattering crockery. Another. The bullets had seeker-noses and were programmed to hit our biometric outlines. I think the one meant for me caught the Asian muscle by mistake, ripping a gobbet of flesh and bone from the center of his neck.
Despite the pain he was in, Korb had the presence of mind to act swiftly. He pointed at me and commanded, "Oberon -- kill!" Then he lurched for the doorway and the helipad, groping blindly, his hands webbed in blood from glass cuts.
Barking and yelping as its paws skittered on broken glass, the Rottweiler gathered itself and leapt at me. I met the attack with my manacled hands, catching the animal by its leather collar and front leg. I redirected its fierce momentum over my head and into the doorjamb. The seventy-kilogram dog struck the steel frame with a terrific crash and fell limp to the floor with a broken neck.
An Arbiter turned in my direction, showing signs of life for the first time. "Irina Tal. Field of play open. Forty-eight percent audience." That last was the percentage of fans plugged into the DataSphere following me. Korb, with the slugball, probably had the majority.
But I hardly acknowledged the reprieve. All I wanted was the slugball and Korb, who was scrambling into the Augusta to make his escape.
I lunged for the opening in the wall. An unfamiliar fanner thundered by overhead. Richards, inside the Augusta, was bringing his machine up off the helipad. A second unfamiliar fanner, painted black and grey, thundered past, and the Lexan bubble of the Augusta starred. A dying Richards slammed the collective forward as Teflon-tipped bullets ripped him open. His machine folded into the side of the Citadel, snapping rotors in their housing. Korb rolled out of the crumpling fuselage. The fanner tore itself to shreds in a violent gyration of death. Gas cells ruptured, spilling fuel on hot metal, and a white and orange fireball bloomed in the night like an oriental flower.
Korb scrabbled across the landing pad on all fours to escape the conflagration. He saw me pelting after him and tugged at his waistband. I hit the tarmac and flattened as his needlegun puffed twice. A flechette slapped near my head and spanged off into the night. Despite being half-blind, Korb crawled over the security railing of the landing pad and jumped from sight.
The heat from the burning wreckage was becoming intense. I peered over the plaswood railing, but it was too dark to see anything. Without thinking, I grabbed the top of the rail with my manacled hands and vaulted into the blackness--
--and hit cold flagstones, rolling awkwardly because a gun had started up again. A flare popped overhead and drifted, a tiny sun oscillating beneath its parachute. I crabbed sideways into the shifting angular shadows and hid behind patio furniture to catch my breath.
A new machine fanned in for a landing: a French Simone III, camouflaged for night action. The fanner hovered a meter off the lawn. Six figures bailed out and opened up with automatic weapons. Their sighting mechanisms were likely linked to IR sensors. I was going to have to move after all.
The fanner veered off in a sharp vector to escape the hail of defensive fire coming from the grounds and windows of the Citadel: Korb's guards giving him covering fire to escape with the slugball and run it to Zone. I was grateful; it gave me a chance to get clear, too.
A second Simone III fanned in over the nearby treetops and deposited its strike team. I recognized the icon emblazoned on the fuselage. Wasserman was making a last-ditch effort to recover the slugball before Korb Zoned it. His squad scattered for cover while the fanner quickly lifted away from the Citadel. A bank of searchlights fixed at the nose of the machine probed the house and grounds, spotlighting one of Korb's people zigzagging across the manicured lawn. Gunfire cut her down.
More flares skewered the sky. I made my way around the side of the house, away from the firefight, and found an open window someone had kicked in. The sill was wet where bloody hands had clawed a body over. Struggling, I gripped the window frame so my handcuffed hands wouldn't slip, and fell through, landing on my shoulder.
Kitchen. I picked through racked utensils and cookware, taking a sturdy chopping knife.
Korb could be anywhere inside the mansion -- the Citadel. I wished again that my AI mole had magicked the layout for the place. Creeping through an ornate dining room, I came upon a staircase. The ormolu bannister was smeared with blood. I bounded up two flights of stairs to the top floor, stopping in a long hallway with potted aspidistra at either end.
Sneaking down the hall, I listened at every door, then found another stairway with helical stairs spiraling down to a completely different section of the house. I took them, warily.
Watery light led me toward two recessed doors, one of them half open. A light from a small desk lamp spilled across the carpet, along with hushed voices. I edged one eye around the doorway, snapped my head back, took a long shallow breath to ease my thudding heart.
Korb hadn't turned on a lamp after all. The glow was from the slugball sitting alone and unprotected on a cherry-wood escritoire.
In slugball, winning is everything. Coming in second only means you're the first to lose.
"You have to get out of here, sir."
Through a crack in the doorway I saw Korb snap back, "I'm aware of that. Are you hurt?"
"My collarbone is broken." There was no hint of discomfort in Aleksander's voice. "Irina Tal is still alive, I presume?"
"Yes. I shot at her, but missed. Smell that? Smoke."
"The house is burning in the back, second story. Sir, with Richards dead, shouldn't you use the tunnel to the funicular?"
A telecomp pinged and Korb snatched the receiver. "Korb. How many? Right. Well, good luck." He hung up and said to Aleksander, "Bundespolizei just broke through the main gate. Seems we've been causing too much damage working out this last scenario and they want to put a stop to it."
I had been afraid that might happen. Korb had killed too many innocents in Bern getting the slugball away from me. Now the local police were arresting everybody, trying to interfere with the contest. The DataSphere might let them do it, too, if we couldn't get this ball Zoned. The only problem was, I didn't know when or where the Zone would open up -- it was randomly determined by the 'Sphere. The last information anybody had was that it would be somewhere near Bürgenstock Mountain, which is a pretty big area to cover. Oh well, nothing in slugball is ever supposed to be easy.
Korb asked Aleksander, "Are you armed? Then go to the radio room and make sure the Shutdown code was transmitted to the relay stations. Then do what you can to get out."
"What are you planning to do?"
"Zone the slugball. What else? I'll take the boat from the funicular."
Aleksander trotted out of Korb's office, pistol in hand. I shadowed him, using furniture and doorways as cover. He turned down a narrow flight of carpeted stairs. I didn't like leaving the slugball unattended, but I needed my hands freed, and a weapon other than a knife for distance work.
Aleksander had barely descended two steps when I used the bannister to pivot my body, ramming my feet into his spine. He pitched down the stairs, the gas-charged gun clattering out of his hand. I jumped after him, cupped my hands under his chin and placed one knee between his thin shoulder blades for leverage. Afterwards, I checked his hands, found what I needed, and unlocked my handcuffs using one of his finger-keys.
I massaged my wrists. Aleksander's eyes were glassing over but there was still some weird reflective glow from the conjunctivae. I swept up his gun, an eight-shot Makarov with a flared barrel, and rocketed back up the stairs, free.
Christina still had that chance.
The enormous house was filling with acrid smoke when I reached the empty office. No Arbiters in sight, either. That meant the action had moved on, leaving me behind. I tried to think what to do next. Korb had said something about a tunnel -- and a funicular to a boathouse.
I bolted out of the house and ran around the back of the Citadel. The rear of the mansion was a crackling inferno. Wasserman's command DFC was parked on the ground. Police sirens wailed in the distance. Wasserman wanted the slugball, too, but was kept busy holding the cops at bay so his own people could operate, while at the same time securing the landing area.
Leaving me free to do my thing.
I ran over to a group of sheds beyond a shallow garden pool. Someone saw me -- a running figure flitting through the shadows -- and fired warning shots. Flechettes stitched the ground at my feet, kicking up wet sod. I tipped over a large outdoor picnic table and got behind it before they could get a spotlight on me.
"Irina!" Lew Wasserman called in his loud, gravelly voice. "Wait, I want to talk to you!"
I hurtled on towards the first building. All its doors were locked. I went to the next one, hoping against hope.
I tried to convince myself I wasn't wasting my time taking this long shot. A funicular -- a cable railway -- and a boathouse. There were two ways to get off the crown of Bürgenstock. One could drive down to Stanstadt, or take a public funicular to Kehrsiten -- and in Kehrsiten there were docks for lake steamers.
Which begged the question: Would Korb have a tunnel from his Citadel to Kehrsiten? No, he wasn't that reckless. He would never depend on public transportation for the slugball.
Which meant he had his own funicular, and his own boathouse at the bottom of Bürgenstock Mountain.
I approached an unlocked door in an unmarked gardening shed. A naked lightbulb oscillated from its cord inside -- as if it had been turned on in a hurry.
I jumped inside the shed, gun ready. An Arbiter standing in the corner scored me. Shelves of paint and turpentine and the foul odor of compost stunk up the place. Shovels and rakes were propped against a wall. A brand new lock lay on the floor. I circled the cramped shed. My foot kicked something. I pulled up a paint-splattered tarpaulin, revealing a plaswood trap door. I had my hand on the door handle and was about to yank it open when I paused. Something wasn't right; this was becoming too easy. --And slugball is anything but that.
I found a rake and used its handle to lift the trapdoor while lying flat on the floor. That's when I triggered the bomb.
It wasn't more than a grenade, but it would have killed or maimed me if I hadn't suspected something of the sort.
The Arbiter scored the variation. "Player Tal. Initiative. Tenacity. Sixty percent lock."
Up until now, the lock was on Korb. But I had gained viewership by taking risks and keeping contact with him.
Look, the Romans had their coliseums and their Christian-munching lions; we have slugball. Competition for fame and glory is innate in the neurological makeup of the human animal, don't tell me it isn't. We competed for food and sex on the African savannah, now we do it to win coldsleep passages to ensure our future. Radio and television (interconnected through central transmission nodes) back in the Twen beamed sporting contests all over the world. Today, we have the DataSphere -- full sensorial reality jacked directly into the cortex, via protein-sheathed wetware in the brain's sulci. Fans shift from one player to another, record and watch the action from multiple viewpoints, or download edited loops sold by the World Gaming League. It comes down to the same thing: watching humans bust other humans up for laugh and sport.
I eased down into the rectangular opening, ears ringing from the explosion.
The tunnel wasn't much wider than my shoulders. Every twenty meters or so a cubelight burned in the plascrete ceiling. A man in the distance pushed up from the ground, grabbed his side, and stumbled on. He appeared to be bleeding from a large plaswood splinter thrown by the explosion.
I allowed myself the luxury of a chuckle. Korb hadn't expected me to be here so soon after he'd armed the booby-trap. The corridor had acted like a focusing tube. Too bad it hadn't killed him outright; the blast had dissipated much too quickly. Still, if he were badly wounded he might do me a favor and bleed to death.
The sound of my running feet echoed. He slid into a stoop and fired his needlegun.
I hugged the wall. Flechettes stung my neck and thigh, but he was a long ways off and their energy was spent. I raised my Makarov, prepared to return fire, but he was sprinting again and the distance was too much for my gun.
We'd come well over two hundred meters when he smashed the last bioluminescent cube at the end of the tunnel with his gun butt. I heard a bang. Another trapdoor leading out?
I ran lightly forward on the balls of my feet, trailing my gun hand along the wall, groping in the semi-dark. I reached the end, made out a set of plascrete fairings set in the wall used as ladder rungs. I hesitated. Korb might be waiting to ambush me with another grenade. But in slugball, it's the second-guessing that'll kill you every time. I climbed the rungs, wedged my shoulder under the trapdoor and shoved -- hard.
Frantic, I pushed on the opposite side of the door: it swung open and crashed against the inside of a pillbox. I scrambled out, feeling seven ways the fool. I had been pushing at the hinges of an unlocked door.
I emerged from the pillbox, catching a glimpse of my quarry's thick body weaving among the dense fir and gnarled pine that grew wild here. He was using an overgrown nature trail that appeared to curve away from the lake. I kept running straight, hoping to shortcut him through the undergrowth, maybe find the funicular before he followed the winding trail around. Branches whipped across my face. All of a sudden I saw yellow light gleaming through the Swiss pine like a will-o'-the-wisp on my right. I ran flat out towards it through the bracken and trees. The light intensified as the belt of trees thinned onto tarmac.
An ancient sodium-vapor lamp spilled a pool of light onto a funicular terminal at the edge of a small clearing. A chain-link fence topped with razor wire encircled the terminal.
The iron gate was DNA-locked. One car of the funicular, a blue one, sat waiting. The second car would be at the bottom. When one ascended, the other, descending, counterbalanced. I spun at the sound of baying hounds from the far side of the patch of woods I had just crossed. Flashlights winked in and out between the trees, moving in a staggered line from east to west, strung out along the nature trail and moving cautiously. Bundespolizei.
Korb hadn't yet made it to the funicular. I wondered if he wasn't hurt worse than I suspected. Maybe that was why he took the nature trail. If he were really hurt he couldn't have easily made it through the undergrowth; my lacerated face and hands were testaments to its difficulty. Either way, he would have to avoid capture to Zone the slugball. Like me, he was a professional and would do whatever was needed to complete the game and win passage on the Starwind, because he had already Zoned twice and all he needed was one more.
The chain was partially slack. I wriggled my hips between the gate and post. The sound of police whistles and barking dogs urged me to hurry.
I wrenched open the door of the funicular car and examined the interior. Nothing fancy here. There was only room enough for two rows of three men to stand comfortably in a metal cage. A warped particle board covered the floor and an electrical box could be reached from the car to control the two cars. Off and on, up and down. I closed the door of the car.
I couldn't conceal myself inside the car; it was essentially an iron frame wrapped in an aluminum grid with a slanted roof of corrugated tin strips. There were no hiding places inside the terminal, either.
Clambering, I squeezed between the fence and the side of the car. A long drop yawned underneath. Two-fifty, maybe three hundred meters and most of that almost vertical along the sheer face of the cliff. One hell of a long way. I spied a pool of light at the base of the cliff. The boat dock. While I inspected the bottom of the cable car a mad plan germinated. High risk: great reward. I knew had to ambush Korb from an unexpected quarter. No matter how badly wounded he was, he would be alert for an ambush inside the terminal. In slugball, surprise is deadly and often a winning move.
I stuffed my gun inside my waistband.
I tested the aluminum grid and winced as the honeycombed metal cut into my fingers. I removed my shoes, stripped my socks and pulled them over my hands for makeshift gloves.
My mind raced. How long would it take the car to descend three hundred meters? Depended on the velocity, but just how fast would the damn thing drop?
How long could I hold on?
As my car descended, the other car would rise. What if someone inside the other car saw me? Someone coming up from the boathouse? But with the moon over my shoulder, this side of the mountain lay draped in black velvet. Good enough.
I tested my weight on the X-shaped crossbrace, searching for a good handhold in the heavy-gauge mesh. Less than a minute had passed since I penetrated the locked terminal. Where was Korb? Should I position myself now, or wait until I heard--
--the rattle of the chain slipping through the gate.
Without hesitation (or taking any more time to assess the danger) I swung out over the abyss, hooking my legs around the furthermost end of the crossbrace, which gave a little. The car swayed sickeningly as I clung like a fly hundreds of meters over the black waters of Lake Lucerne. Korb relocked the gate and disappeared from sight, hand pressed hard against his side, shirt and pants blood-soaked.
I heard rather than saw him approach the funicular. He picked up a telereceiver and buzzed the dock at the foot of the cliff. "I'm coming down. Prepare my boat."
The car jolted when he opened the door. The particle board creaked in my ear and I absolutely refused to look down.
The unexpected acceleration caught me completely off guard. I bit off a sharp cry as my muscles strained to accommodate themselves to the mad vibration of the car. The smell of hot shrieking metal.
We were moving.
Copyright © 2001 K. Mark Hoover
K. Mark Hoover is a writer living in Mississippi. He has published over a half dozen fiction and non-fiction articles and is the contest administrator for the Moonlight & Magnolia Fiction Writing Contest. The contest is open to new writers of genre fiction. He is married and has three children.
Frank Wu is a science fiction and fantasy illustrator living physically in the San Francisco Bay Area, but residing mentally in various diverse realms scattered throughout time and space. More of his works can be seen in his Strange Horizons gallery and at his Web site.