Slugball

By K. Mark Hoover, illustration by Frank Wu

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

Only people who have proven the value of their survival skills (read: genes) can be allowed to colonize the stars. Therefore, an ultimate proving ground is needed. This is why we have the game.
--Slugball: Dissecting the Game, Ivan Zhdanov, 2051

We plunged into blackness. Icy wind whipped tears from my eyes and blurred my vision. The grumble of the generator faded above, letting other sounds intrude: the squealing whine of the rollers sliding down the guide rails, cables straining with an unnerving twang, the metal car rattling and shaking. The smell of burnished metal, grease, and oil was also strong, along with more intangible odors like scrub brush and patches of lichen growing along the cliff's outcroppings.

If I turned my head I could make out red and green running lights from pleasure boats and lake steamers crawling across the black sheet of Lake Lucerne. Pilatus reared like a giant on the horizon, his snow crown glowing brilliantly under the full October moon.

The runners clicked over the first support pylons.

Arm

I closed my eyes and rested my cheek against the cold honeycombed metal. Despite my homemade gloves, the metal ripped at the joints of my fingers and my right foot (slick with sweat) kept slipping free.

We hit the second series of support pylons with a bone-jarring clatter. Then the third.

I made myself look down. We weren't even halfway and my muscles were loading up fast with lactic acid. What if I fell? Could I grab a handhold on the way down? No, the face on this side of the mountain was too sheer. . . .

(you're going to fall)

Fourth set of pylons. I slipped, almost fell. A frightened sob bubbled deep in my throat. Embarrassing, really.

(you're going to die)

My mind sifted ideas that were substantively little more than broken, crazy fragments. Kill Korb. Lean around the bottom of the car and shoot him from the side. No, my movement would joggle the car and let him know something was up. Then empty the magazine into the floor and hope to God you hit him. Afterwards, maybe you can climb inside. Do it now, before it's too late.

I fumbled for my gun -- and dropped it. I heard it clatter against the rocks, lost forever in the night.

A loud rumbling rushed out of the black depths below. This was it. Death. I pressed my face into the wire to stifle a scream. Blood dripped from my hands into my eyes and nostrils. I can't--

(christina, i'm sorry)

The second car rumbled past, the noise diminishing rapidly. I wiped my face, sheened with sweat, on my shoulder. Think, you crazy broad, and listen. That was the second car, the one coming up from the bottom. You're halfway down!

I swallowed a thick ball of panic. Every second brings you closer to the ground. You can't let go; you can never give up. You're a slugballer, satiating the blood lust and giving emotional gratification to millions of people around the world. They're linked into you, connected through the DataSphere, living your life vicariously to give their own moribund existence meaning. Coliseum.

Pylons. Raw pain in my fingers.

Christina is depending on you, too. The Starwind is the only future humanity has left. If you don't win a coldsleep berth on that starship she'll be condemned to live the rest of her life on Earth -- and you know what that'll be like. Natural resources gone. Air and water poisoned. Put too many rats in a cage and they start eating one another. No different with humans, despite what we'd all like to think. A coldsleep berth has to be won, and the only way to do that is Zone the slugball.

And if you win, everybody wins. Not only Christina; the people backing you will have proved their worth by being smart enough to put you into the field to represent them and the population segment they're responsible for. Slugball isn't all physical. Intelligence and business-savvy is a factor, too, otherwise the space colony will never survive.

Forget about the fact you can't go with her. Pastoralis -- funny name for a world with dilute nitric acid oceans -- is a colony for the young. Forty-one is much too old to go to Tau Ceti, but Christina can carry your DNA there because she's part of you and always will be. That's how genetics works. That's why we screw and have children. That's why if you win, she gets to go.

Yer a slugballer, fer Gawd's sake, so get your head out of your butt and act like one!

The pool of light from the boat dock grew to the size of a child's thumperball. Close, but not close enough.

Freezing wind tore at my hair and clothes. Korb moved in the cage above me. Was he enjoying the view, thinking how he was going to Zone the slugball and win germ-plasm slots for the Brazilian Consortium backing him?

The funicular terminal below was connected by a narrow jetty to a white frame boathouse. A boat was tied to the wharf, exhaust bubbling at the stern.

How deep was that water? We were up against the side of Bürgenstock, not out over the lake itself. If I fell, I would smash, either on the funicular terminal or the jetty.

Hand

But I had to do something because my hands and feet kept slipping. Can I swing out and arc far enough to hit water? Okay, say I did. Would I survive the impact?

(no, and i don't have the strength to do that so let's just hang on and hope we can think of something else)

But there was nothing else. This was it. This was what slugball came down to, one way or another. Call it what you like, it's what the DataSphere tested for time and time again.

I slipped my legs free, my hands like iron bands around the crossbrace. I swung out and back again to build up momentum.

The car swayed violently and a rivet popped out of the crossbrace. Korb tumbled inside the metal cage, shouting incoherently, perhaps fearing the cable had fouled. I kicked forward one more time and let go, twisting acrobatically in midair. I plummeted thirty meters, cleared the jetty by half a meter and slammed into the black concrete water.

Water rushed into my mouth and yanked me back to consciousness. I kicked mud, trying to remember what I'd glimpsed on the way down.

I was underwater, ten meters from the stern of a 500-horsepower LightningCraft and its slowly spinning screws. The boathouse was to my left. There were three slips: two were empty, the third held a daysailer in drydock. The last thing I'd seen before hitting the water was a man coiling a rope on the jetty. Several Arbiters were also nearby.

A row of glowglobes behind the dockworker illuminated the slips and cast a glare over the surface of the water, hiding me as I slowly drifted towards the surface.

I pulled the knife from my belt laces. The man knelt under the guardrail, watching the receding ripples and bursting bubbles from my insane dive. Wondering what to do about it, maybe.

I reminded myself to correct for refraction.

Exploding out of the water, I grabbed the collar of his jumpsuit and pulled him under. After a brief struggle I pushed his corpse away, but I had lost my knife. I got a breath of air and swam back to the jetty.

Exhausted, I barely managed to haul myself out of the water the same instant the funicular squealed to a stop. Korb banged the door open and staggered out. A mixture of rage and disbelief rearranged his features.

"You . . . ?!"

"Hello, jerk."

The Arbiters shouted through their vocal screens: "Zone open!"

A fanner throbbed out over the water, its searchlight fingering the waves. It was the official fanner from the 'Sphere; I recognized its black and gold markings. A green laser from its nose formed a circle on the black water. Zone.

I had to move fast. The Zone would stay open for an indeterminate length of time -- not less than six minutes, not longer than eighteen -- before the DataSphere closed it down and moved it, maybe hundreds of meters away. They would do this five successive times, giving the final players a chance to put the slugball in its Cradle. But like me, Korb was surprised the Zone had opened so soon after we had moved the action to Bürgenstock, which meant the DataSphere had something else in mind entirely. A new wrinkle neither of us expected or had prepared for.

Korb could not have known exactly when or where the Zone would open. No slugballer ever did. That was always a random element, factored into the game as a control device to keep the players moving and test their survival capabilities. But as a general rule the DataSphere opened the Zone whenever the game reached a crucial point where the physical and psychological limits of the remaining combatants could be tested.

Korb raised his needlegun. I hit the water as his finger came down on the firing button. Flechettes drilled the water around me, leaving tiny helixes of bubbles. I dove to the bottom and crawled along the underside of the LightningCraft, remembering to keep clear of the screws. Near the stern, I quietly broke the surface and watched Korb.

Gun

Korb had gone straight for the boat, but slipped on the wet walkway where I had stood dripping lake water. He went down hard, grimacing painfully. His gun slipped from his hand, skittered across the weathered boards and plopped into the lake. He got up, slipped the loop of bowline from a piling, and jumped into the boat. He was untying the stern line when I came over the gunwale, fists flailing.

I imagined I could hear the millions of linked-on fans screaming with excitement. Christina, too. (Maybe I did. Sometimes we get a feedback signal through the 3V connection crystal.) The Arbiters had placed themselves to watch the action from relative angles and relay a high-definition broadcast to the DataSphere sensorium, but mostly people were linked through either Korb or me.

Korb blocked my seikan punch with a sweeping forearm. His fighting stance kept his wounded side from me. I feinted and drove a knife-handed shuto into his lower abdomen like a pile driver, crushing internal organs -- but it wasn't a killing blow. He lifted his knee and caught me under the chin, driving me back. I crashed against the boat's console, head reeling, grabbed the steering wheel and unconsciously pulled it to the right as I returned to my feet. The boat's nose edged away from the dock.

Korb's face was contorted in a mask of hatred and rage. He knew what I was after, and the fanner was out there marking the Zone. He was too close to winning coldsleep berths on that starship to let a redheaded fifty-five kilogram woman with knobby knees stop him. He came at me again.

I slammed a side kick into his thigh. He backfisted me and thudded a palmstrike into my side, cracking three ribs with a wet snap. I spun a crescent kick and hit the point of his chin with all of my remaining strength -- which wasn't much, but he lost his balance in the rocking boat and went over the stern, shrieking with terror.

While we fought, the boat had continued to twist from the dock, tied at the stern as it was. The props crushed him against the unyielding piling. His gurgling screams were horrifying, and I've heard my share, thank you. He thrashed savagely to fight off the twin screws tearing into him.

"Irina . . . help!"

I couldn't -- I was completely wiped out. I lay draped over the transom, mesmerized by his struggle. He reached up to seize the stern cleat. Corded muscles stood out in relief along his almost translucent forearm. His pinkish eyes bulged with horror as he tried to pull himself free. The water was a churning, bloody froth. His hand slipped and he went under, the white mask of his face disappearing under a swirl of bloody foam.

The slugball wobbled to the surface. Bruised and wet, muscles aching from oxygen-starvation, I wearily heaved myself to my feet. I dipped a net into the red water to fish the slugball out, dropped it in the carry-sling under my arm, zipped it up.

I tried untying the knot on the stern cleat but there was too much tension in the wet rope. I sawed it free and opened up the throttle. The boat sliced away from the dock like an arrow as I steered across the slight chop towards open water.

The Zone winked out of sight. The black and gold fanner moved up into the sky and disappeared. My heart hammering, I let the boat engine idle. Water slapped against the hull as I waited. The Zone re-opened towards the east. I powered up and raced for it again.

I guided the boat to the laser spot on the water, under the hovering fanner, and shut down the motor. I dove over the side -- to wash Korb's blood off me as much as anything -- and swam towards the freight sling. Somehow, I got my arms through and was lifted from the cold dead waters of Lake Lucerne.

A hand guiding the cable helped me inside the bay. Someone buckled me into a seat. I looked up to thank him, but when I saw who it was, and why I'd been restrained, I froze.

Lew Wasserman held the slugball's Cradle in his lap. Two of his bodyguards had shatterguns aimed at my head. The Final Arbiter stood by to rate the outcome.

"Your move, Irina." Wasserman pinned me with a flat basilisk stare. Moonlight limned a face etched by the bitter winds of his trade. "I lost a lot of good people to get here ahead of you." His dry tone informed me his two men were all that remained of his strike team.

I hadn't expected Wasserman's ambush because it's not allowed in the Rulebook, any more than tapping into the sensorium's broadcast to see what the other players are up to. I mean, you just can't hang around the Zone playing catch-me touch-me with your shadow while everybody else slugs it out. Berths have to be won. So that meant something else had happened, some factor I didn't yet know about. The wrinkle I had suspected earlier.

"When Korb was going down, the DataSphere activated Florio's squad," Wasserman said. "A fresh team right out of the blocks in Munich and backed by a brand new Chinese-Korean Consortium. They're going to be damnably hard to beat, but not if we go in together."

So that was why the DataSphere had allowed Wasserman to sit at the Zone and wait for me. Any other time he would have been brain-knifed for trying to cheat.

"Are you sure it's Florio?"

Wasserman nodded grimly.

I groaned. Florio had a brain like a block of ice and nerves of platinum wire. She'd already won an eighth of the total berths aboard the Starwind and had allotted herself one of the Command positions. She was that good and she was only nineteen. She and her genetic material -- and anybody smart enough to hook up with her -- were exactly what the DataSphere was looking for. The DataSphere was giving our respective Consortiums a chance to team up in order to make it a fair fight. Going solo against Florio would be suicidal.

"You know what I want, Irina," Wasserman growled. "One open berth doesn't mean all that much to me, but it's your call."

To help me make up my mind he clicked a studded panel on the Cradle's base. The pyramid opened with an electronic snick and the slugball under my arm started buzzing. We had thirty seconds before it detonated, releasing a quarter kiloton of energy from its central nuclear fuel matrix. From five to zero seconds nothing could stop the countdown. Not even an Arbiter.

Slugball

Everyone waited for my decision -- and I mean everyone, because I was getting a lot of feedback through the 3V crystal.

"I want to log the sleepberth before I Zone this thing."

"Agreed," Wasserman nodded. He could have had his men blow my head off and take the slugball for himself, but he'd only be awarded a quarter point for that move. This way, he'd be assured of a half and the North American Consortium backing him would continue to do so, giving him (and me) another chance to win more berths against Florio, that bitch.

I turned to the Final Arbiter. "Verify the trade."

The records were already in the DataSphere. In slugball, like the Boy Scouts, you prepare for every eventuality.

The Final Arbiter accessed the DataSphere and opened the file. "One berth: Starwind. Colonist: Christina Tal, female. Logged and confirmed."

Only then did I remove the slugball from my sling and drop it into the Cradle. The pyramid snapped closed; the mini-nuke was deactivated with nine seconds to go. The Final Arbiter announced the result.

"Player: Irina Tal. One hundred percent lock. Game Complete: Tied with Wasserman. Half point awarded to each team. Slugball: Zoned."

Wasserman's bodyguards lowered their shatterguns and released my webbing. Lew handed me something hot to drink and I accepted it, gratefully.

My point total was 2.5. I had brought the Russian Consortium that much closer to their goal; they would be happy enough because even I could get a half against Florio, with Wasserman's help.

And my Christina would be safe. Thank God, she would be going to Pastoralis.

The deck of the fanner tilted as we vectored north towards Munich for the final round.


In memory of Elleston Trevor, a.k.a. Adam Hall (1920-1995).

 

Copyright © 2001 K. Mark Hoover

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Mr. 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.