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“One for the Team” by MCM

Halftime made the sad reality even more depressing: the Reds were losing by nearly one hundred points, and eleven minutes in, coach Phua had a heart attack. Literally.

“Should we forfeit?” asked Bayim, nose still bloodied from an earlier hit.

“We can’t forfeit a semifinal match,” argued Toff, icing a nasty hit of her own. “That’d be the end of our careers.”

“We ain’t got careers if we can’t get our hands on a single doxy in 45 minutes,” sighed Eardley. “It’s still only three players on that team, right?”

Bayim laughed, but not in a happy way. He threw his punt – like a cricket bat wrapped in thick padding – on the ground, kicked it under a bench. It barely fit, it was so battered by abuse. He grabbed an ice pack for his nose, winced when it touched.

“Has anyone even seen a doxy yet?” he asked.

None of them had. Doxies were fist-sized spherical robots, different colours signifying different point values, that raced around the field, dipping in and out of underground tubes to evade capture. Finding one, catching it, and getting it to your “inbox” was hard enough when the pitch was fresh. When it was raining and muddy like today’s match? Utter hell.

“Fellows, I have good news and I have bad news,” said Sanjit, the assistant coach. “Coach Phua is going to be OK. He is in surgery, but they found the glitch in his heart, so he will be fine.”

“What’s the good news?” Toff said with a grin, which no one returned.

“The bad news,” Sanjit said, checking his tablet and gnashing his teeth, “is that I think I know how to win this.”

“That don’t sound too bad to me,” said Eardley. “Whatcha got cookin’, doc?”

Sanjit set down the tablet and picked up a fresh punt. He punched the Reds logo, which was a pretty fair interpretation of how the game had been going so far. “A doxy is worth between five and ten points,” he said.

“If we can find one,” said Bayim.

“And get it to the inbox,” said Toff.

Sanjit seemed quieted by this. Eardley sighed. “Thanks for Popball 101, doc.”

Sanjit stirred back to life: “Every hit you take over 35 g’s is worth three points.”

“Which is the only reason we’ve got fifty points, and not zero,” said Bayim, tossing the ice pack and getting a new one that dripped less. “And I bet the Lightbacks are kicking themselves for giving us anything at all.”

“Bet they’re glad they didn’t start a riot with that blinder to Toff,” laughed Eardley.

“The last thing we need is a riot,” Bayim said. “Fans set foot on the green, and the game gets called, and we lose, a hundred points back.”

“Still,” Toff said, dreamily, “a riot…”

“Two minutes!” called one of the ref assistants from the door.

“Fellows,” said Sanjit, as forcefully as he dared, “work with me, please. Every time you take a hit, it is worth three points.”

Toff spat into the ice bucket, tied back a braid of hair, and slid on her helmet. “I get what you’re saying, Sanjit, but even if I call one of their mothers a monkey-licking mongoose, there’s no way they’re gonna pick a fight. And no fight’s big enough to clear a hundred-point deficit.”

“And b’sides,” said Eardley, “every time they hit us, it costs ’em a point, too. It just ain’t gonna work. Who d’ya reckon’s gonna hit us? Ourselves?”

All three players looked up at the same time.

***

Nairobi in April was a giant bucket of bureaucratic suck. Drought management policies required daily cloud priming, which invariably led to three-hour deluges in the early afternoon. The Popball World Cup insisted all storms wrap up by game time (an immovable schedule set by foreign broadcast partners) so local officials tried priming the clouds four hours earlier.

Unfortunately, climate management was not a point-and-click science, so usually all they accomplished was to give the clouds four more hours to percolate. In the end, the downpours were longer and more violent. Happily, though, they tended to vanish just around halftime, replaced by the usual sweltering heat. Dressing for a day in the stands was a pain in the ass.

The rain and the turf had made an unwieldy mess that was impossible to play on, and less fun to watch. Thankfully, the World Cup had a plan for every occasion: the field had been “conditioned” at halftime, with dehumidifier pellets sprayed around liberally… which meant the unwieldy mud had become unforgiving, brickish terrain. Whatever softness survived was quickly baked by the sun. It hurt just looking at it.

After a quick check to be sure the field was clear of obvious obstructions, the fifteen linesmen came in with fifteen doxies, set them down, and kicked them into play. One by the one, the doxies lit up, jittered left and right as they got their bearings, and then raced for the nearest tube. The crowd roared every time one of them hopped above-ground, did a showy spin in the air, and then disappeared again.

The teams made their way back onto the field: the Lightbacks ran in as presumptive champions, basking in the cheers from their numerous fans. The Reds, by comparison, looked like they were ready to keel over at any second. All except one.

Toff strode into the arena, holding her hand up high, three fingers out – the sign for her regular season club, the Tridents – and nodded to the stands. They reacted with a piercing call, and it energized her even more, until she was hopping up and down to the sound. She re-joined her teammates with broad grin on her face.

“You done panderin’?” Eardley asked.

“Hey, I’ll let you tap hometown pride when we make a stop in… where you from? Hell, is it?”

“Come on, guys, focus,” said Bayim, ushering them into a huddle. “Eardley, you sit on the inbox. Toff and I will do our best to stay out of your way.”

“Now hold on a second,” said Eardley. “This plan needs some oomph, don’t it? Ain’t no way I should get left out. You need someone who can take a hit.”

“What, I can’t because I’m a girl?” sneered Toff.

“Not you, darlin’. I’m worried about him.”

Bayim was about to argue, but the ref was calling to start the game. “We need someone fast enough to catch a doxy and get it in the inbox,” Bayim said. “I can’t see past my nose, and Toff’s cheekbone looks broken.”

“Can’t even tell,” Toff said, poking it with her finger, and not reacting as little bits of something moved inside.

“Stick to the inbox,” Bayim said. “If one of us goes down for the count, then you can leave. But we need you on–”

The whistle blew and the stadium went even more wild than before. The Lightbacks moved deftly through the field, staking their ground. A few seconds later, their captain snagged a doxy out of the air, as if by magic. He held it over his head triumphantly, and started running for the bright blue funnel that was the Lightback inbox.

Eardley had a clear shot and he took it: he swung his punt low and knocked the legs right out from under the rival captain. The guy hit the ground with an audible whomp, and the doxy got loose and rolled for cover.

Eardley laughed and pumped his fist, until he saw the scoreboard flash an update: -1 to the Reds for the hit; +3 to the Lightbacks for the hit; another +3 to the Lightbacks for the landing. The Reds were now down by another seven, and their fans roared with disapproval. Eardley stopped laughing, winced to his teammates, and kept running for their inbox.

“You ready?” Bayim asked Toff, limbering up in the midfield. “I don’t want to–”

She hit him in the head with her punt, and he tumbled into the dirt. The crowd – the entire crowd – suddenly hushed, as she looked to the scoreboard. A moment later, an update: -1 to the Reds for the hit, and… +3 to the Reds for the hit! The gap closed by two!

The Reds fans were understandably conflicted about how to react to it all.

“Avoid the head,” Bayim said, getting to his feet. “This won’t work if we’re unconscious.”

“I know, I’ve just always wanted to do that to you,” Toff said with a grin. “Your turn. Do your best, little man.”

“OK, be ready!” Bayim said, wound back, and hit her in the shoulder pad.

The scoreboard took a moment, then said: -1 to the Reds for the hit… and nothing else.

“You’re too weak,” Toff grumbled. “If you don’t do it at 35 g’s, all we get is a penalty. Do it again! Do it right this time!”

Bayim got a better grip on his punt, backed up a few steps, and then really leaned into the swing. Toff’s shoulder took a huge blow, and she stumbled, but didn’t fall. She cricked her arm and stood up straight as the scoreboard registered the hit, and the bonus. Two points closer.

“This is gonna be a fun night,” she said.

***

Don and Raj had never had so much dead air in their fifteen years of covering sports. They stared at the screen, mouths hanging open, and just said… nothing. The crowd had returned to cheering, but not like before. It was an awkward kind of jubilation now. Very awkward.

Down on the field, Toff sent Bayim flying onto his back for the second time in a row. The impact looked awful.

“That’s…” Don said, pulling his tie open, “that’s another five points for the Reds.”

“Five points,” echoed Raj, shaking his head. “You really have to wonder how much more of this they can take, Don.”

“Well absolutely,” said Don, wincing as another blow fell. “And you have to wonder how much more of this Popball can take. Seems like a clear violation of the rules, don’t you think?”

“The double-penalty system certainly wasn’t made for stunts like this,” said Raj. “It’s ironic that the big rule enhancement, meant to clean up the sport, might be misused in the dirtiest trick I’ve ever seen.”

“Ditto, Raj, ditto. It’s just… ouch!”

On the field, Bayim was having trouble getting to his feet again. He held out his hand to Toff, as if asking her to stop, and leaned on his own punt for support. Toff twirled her punt around in her hand, and then looked out to the audience, hand to her ear.

It started as a faint sound, but then grew in volume and intensity. “Punt him! Punt him! Punt him!” Bayim looked up in shock as the sound crossed into sheer blistering cacophony.

Toff did a dramatic bow, then glanced back at her teammate. He barely had time to react before she knocked his punt out from under him, then caught him in the chest with an upswing, spinning him clear off his feet, and onto his back.

The crowd went insane.

Toff pumped her arms over her head in triumph, three fingers out, and did a little dance around Bayim, who, despite seeming dazed and winded and in incredible pain… was smiling.

“Well the fans seem to like it, but I still don’t know if it’s kosher,” said Raj. “The way the league reacts to change, I don’t think this is getting fixed any time soon. The finals might end up looking like a gladiator match, more than a world-class Popball game.”

“Well at least one team out there is playing the sport we love,” said Don. “A couple of close calls with the doxies, but so far the Lightbacks seem a little off their game.”

“Hard not to be,” laughed Raj.

“And there’s poor old Eardley, just standing by his inbox, not moving a muscle.”

“Hiding, more like.”

“Wonder what he’s thinking right now?”

***

“This is a stupid plan, and you’re a stupid, stupid little man for dreamin’ it up!” Eardley snarled at Sanjit, who was standing in the penalty zone clutching his tablet close.

“Keep your eyes open,” Sanjit called. “We still need doxies.”

“Then I should go get one, shouldn’t I?”

“No, no you are better off here,” said Sanjit.

“And just how likely is it that a doxy’s just gonna pop out of a tube in front’a me, huh?”

Sanjit checked his tablet. “Before the half is over? About 43%,” he said.

“Yeah, I’m outta here,” said Eardley, and ran back into the field.

The scoreboard announced another update: +5 to the Lightbacks! They’d found a doxy and caught it, the lucky bastards. The gap was only 33 now, but when he looked over at his teammates, it was clear Bayim wouldn’t make it for another 16 rounds against a punt.

“Idiots,” Eardley grumbled, and charged after a nearby doxy.

The shiny yellow sphere ducked into a tube and disappeared, which is what always happened. Eardley didn’t worry about that, what he worried about was where the thing would show up next. The underground tubes were hard to predict: a few years back, some people had tried to figure them out, but it just prompted the league to have the tubes re-randomize their positions every 10 minutes.

The downside was that guessing exits based on intuition and experience was impossible. On the other hand, to make the randomizer technically feasible, the tubes had to be much shorter in length… so if you stayed put just long enough…

The yellow doxy popped out of the ground to Eardley’s left. He ran for it, hand out, and –

Something hit him hard on the back, and he slammed into the ground with a heavy thud. He wheezed, looked over his shoulder, and saw Toff standing there with her punt.

“What the hell?” he coughed, getting to his knees.

“Bayim blacked out,” she said. “Can’t kick him when he’s down. I tried. Didn’t work.”

“I almost had a doxy!” Eardley snapped, back on his feet again.

“Wasn’t worth it,” she said, then whacked his arm, hard. “Yellow doxy’s only worth five. I just got us seven.”

“You like this a little too much,” he said, as she wound up for another blow.

“It’s like I found my calling,” she said, then knocked his legs out from under him. He hit the ground again, and saw stars. “We’re eight down, man,” she said. “You ready to take one for the team?”

He looked up just in time to see a punt screaming toward Toff’s back. She didn’t know it was coming, and didn’t expect it: the impact sent her clean off her feet, spinning like a mid-air somersault until she crashed into the uneven turf, face-first. Her legs flopped limply to the ground a few seconds later. She was out cold. Or worse.

Eardley got to his knees as the captain of the Lightbacks strode in, spinning his punt over his shoulder. “No more tricks, mate,” he said. “It’s just you and us.”

There was a very long moment where it really did feel like it was just him versus the Lightbacks. The silence was intense, making every camera snap echo in his concussed skull. He tried to stand, but his body was just too tired, too shell-shocked. He blinked in slow motion.

And then the riot began.

Tridents!” came the call from the stands, and the seats became a sea of amorphous bodies, all swarming to the field. The security teams rushed in with stun sticks, but it was like stopping a tsunami with a pocket umbrella; the rampage was moving too fast from all sides.

Eardley checked the scoreboard frantically: they were one point down, with only two minutes left to play. But the second fans set foot on the turf, the game would be called. Whoever was ahead would win. And they were still one down.

The Lightbacks, realizing they were now Nairobi’s public enemy number one, were running for cover.

Eardley looked at Sanjit, who seemed transfixed by… by a yellow doxy! It was slipping into a tube right next to the inbox. It would have to pop back out nearby. Eardley took off.

The ground was still impossible, but he just didn’t care. His boots crushed the dried mud with every step. Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw the crowds surging towards the field, being pushed back by helpless men in blue security jackets. He had no time left. No time!

When he saw the flash of yellow to his right, he nearly cried. It was too far off to reach, at the speed he was going. He couldn’t turn in time, he couldn’t stop… the doxy was going to flutter through the air, and then disappear again, and all he would be able to do was watch.

It was over. The game was over.

But as the doxy emerged from the tube, it bumped into a wedge of dried mud. The velocity of the sphere and the angle of the mud were just enough to change its trajectory: instead of going straight up, it veered back and to the left…

… right into Eardley’s path. His heart went into overdrive and his legs pumped like mad, throwing him forward until his fingers wrapped around the side of the ball, gripping it tight. He fell into a roll, tumbling through the mud, but he never took his eyes off the prize. He wound his arm back and pounded the doxy into the inbox, with only half a second to spare.

“You make nothing easy,” sighed Sanjit, right before the crowds swarmed them.

***

“I woke up on a sea of win,” said Toff with a broad smile and two black eyes. She leaned against the locker room wall, hot towel hanging over her shoulder, and licked the blood from her lip. “Ain’t no town like Nairobi, boys.”

Bayim was having his arms x-rayed by a pair of hyperventilating doctors, and struggled against the neck brace they had him in. He sighed, painfully. “I don’t think I’m awake yet. I’m pretty sure I’m not awake yet.”

Eardley had an ice pack on his face, fierce scrapes on his arms and legs, but couldn’t stop grinning. “I’m gettin’ MVP this year for sure.”

In came the camera crews and in came the reporters. At the front of the pack were Don and Raj, doing their best not to grimace at the situation, but doing a very bad job of it.

“So,” said Raj, rushing over to Toff, who promptly spit a tooth onto the floor at his feet. “You three look like hell, and you’re facing the reigning champions, in the finals, in four short days. Are you scared?”

Toff laughed, held the mike close. “Nah, man. Let ’em come. We are gonna kick our ass.

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About the Author

MCM likes hitting computers until words come out. Some of those words turn into TV shows, like his series “RollBots” and the upcoming “Shutterbugs”. Other words turn into books, like the livewritten novels Typhoon and Fission Chips. On Facebook, his words turn into cat photos, as if by magic. He lives in Ottawa, Canada, with his wife and two daughters, who are sick of hearing him smash his keyboard all night.

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