“Sixteen and cocky is a stupid way to die!” Kregger taunted Deacon. “You’ll be a two-word headline: Splaaatter ball!”
“Eighteen and forgotten is better?” Deacon shot back. “Who knows, Kregger. Keep playing it safe like that and maybe next time you’ll come in third!”
“At least I’ll live long enough to have kids.” Deacon chuckled at that. Kregger was an idiot. No one would ever have his kids.
Not that Deacon expected to live long enough to have any of his own. If you come from the wrong place, the wrong money (or no money), going out in a big splash might be the best you could hope for, one moment of feeling glorious and righteous.
Growing up around the susting communities made for an easy way to achieve that: Slaughter ball! Slaughter ball wasn’t about killing. It was, in Deacon’s mind, about staring down death longer than your opponents could, so they let you win.
Deacon had just out stared Kregger in a shallow water time trial for their next slaughter ball race.
Based on the results, Kregger would get one of the middle posts, Deacon a coveted outside post.
Deacon just hoped the next race would come soon.
Returning his tomb to it’s cradle, Deacon powered it down and towelled off the excess water that had invariably run in when he’d popped the hatch. Strapping and securing the small, transparent ball, Deacon kept an eye on Kregger.
There just weren’t a lot of people that Deacon did trust. Kregger certainly wasn’t one of them. There was his mom, … and Jeshnit, and … yeah, well, no one else.
Kregger was leaning against the portal, waiting for Deacon, not out of friendship, but distrust. They’d leave together. Deacon had hoped to get some time tweaking his lanyard, but Kregger’s grumblings and repeated, “Come on. Hurry up!” pushed Deacon to rush his warm down.
– – –
Slaughter ball wasn’t an official sport, wasn’t sanctioned or monitored by any regulatory body. It was an amateur rite of passage perpetuated by the sons (and lately, daughters) of the susting farmers of the hydroponic harvesting yards.
No one ever got rich working the hydroponic harvesting yards. It was where people falling through the cracks ended up. A susting worker had a career expectance of about twenty years, twenty-five if you were lucky. There were very few old time susters, and none with all their limbs. If the sust didn’t get you, the sea creatures or your co-worker’s stupidity would.
As the saying goes: It ain’t no place to raise a family.
But families happened anyway, and children took their places in the line when it was their time. The younger ones watched as the older ones died. Then they stepped up. Each generation held to the slim hope that they would be the ones to break the cycle. Each generation became jaded as the fatalities grew. Each generation passed without count or notice.
Over the past forty years, the susting farmers of Melakka had slowly developed a sense of community, a pride of achievement. Now there were heroes, names passed down to the next generation. With each running, slaughter ball’s popularity grew within the community and eventually outside of it as well.
It was an underwater race, with each competitor locked into a fragile, transparent sphere – a slaughter ball tomb – salvaged from some of the older susting harvesters. Players were identified by the colour of their outfits. Inside each tomb, was a “lanyard,” a gun-shaped tool that fired an anchor beam for a maximum of five seconds. Then it needed to recharge before firing again.
Only a direct hit on a keel would anchor your sphere, and then you could change your direction by twisting or yanking on the lanyard.
The course was unstable, often changing even in the middle of a race. That there could be rapidly moving debris was just another part of the thrill. Posted along what could be expected to be the best paths, there were “keels,” large inverted teardrop-shaped balls of wood, that could be used to help you navigate.
The first to get around all the keels and through the course won. There weren’t a lot of other rules.
If, no, when tombs collided, they’d sometimes crack or shatter, and the drivers would die; taking along breathing apparatus wasn’t against the rules, but it was considered bad sportsmanship.
You could win by being the fastest. Char Osbaldistan was the speed champ. She was so accurate with her lanyard that if you hadn’t fouled her up by the first keel, she was gone. She’d won five of the last seven events she’d raced in. But she didn’t race much any more, and had moved away. Rumour was that she’d gotten better offers, better uses for her talents.
You could win by being the boldest. Sedge Black was the boldest. He’d thread the smallest gap to get ahead. He’d even swung around the outside of a keel once, taking the two-seventy angle instead of the ninety, getting a slingshot back into the race at a hell of a high velocity. That was the only time that he’d beaten Osbaldistan. But since she’d left, he did have three more victories under his belt.
Or you could win by being the craziest. Deacon Carver preferred the latter. Others called his technique reckless, but he didn’t have a high collision rate. He did, however, cause a lot of other players to collide with each other as they tried to get out of his way. So far Deacon hadn’t won any of the eleven races that he’d participated in, but he’d won a couple of heats. And he’d been working on Sedge’s slingshot technique, a lot.
– – –
The media in Bahru, the capital of Melakka, had started following slaughter ball, first in small-print columns of sport results collected from around the planet and the empire, then with small recaps of races.
Finally they’d done a profile of a slaughter ball winner. He’d died the very next race, which cemented the press’s attention.
Eventually, they found Char Osbaldistan and turned her into a media darling, the epitome of the oppressed susters: noble of spirit, brave beyond redemption, and damned good at what she did.
Char got a lot of attention, and by Melakka standards, she became famous. But she was nineteen, more than a little too old for the game. So she started running the gauntlet less often, and eventually she escaped.
Deacon Carver, on the other hand, sent daily updates of his practice schedule to every reporter who had ever filed a slaughter ball story. The only thing he wanted was to see his name in print before he died. He was about to turn seventeen, he knew that time was running out for him too.
Slaughter ball races only run when susting can’t be done, when the current is at its heaviest, most erratic. When exactly the current would become unworkable was always an open question. It was a matter of when the natural dam at Gredring would collapse, a semi-annual event, and allow the flow of thicker sleewater to run through the susting grounds. There was little notice of when it would start, but once it ran, everyone knew that it would only run for six or maybe seven hours.
So slaughter ball drivers had to always be ready. There were obvious down times, the months following a damburst, while the natural dam rebuilt itself and interrupted the flow of sleewater until the pressure again beat down the living organism that comprised the dam.
Even when the dam was strongest, the sleewater never quite went away, it always seeped through, always made the current needed for the susts to grow. The mixture of sleewater and seawater were key to sust survival, and sust farming.
Sust farming itself was dangerous. Susts were lethal to humans in their living form, electrical currents ripped through their willowy leaves. The bark of the sinuous branches made pharmaceutical companies rich in its processed form.
So humans farmed in the irregular current, trading off safety for money, wearing just enough gear to keep alive without hindering farming activities, as long as everything went right.
When something went wrong, a twisted current pushed you into a sust tangle, or a predator evaded detection and attacked you, your gear wouldn’t save you.
The floating community of Sust Aggregate Community 7 wasn’t particularly more profitable than any other community, but a fluke of geography had made it the base for slaughter ball. The best course was under the community. It also made it the home of some of the best slaughter ball drivers. But even slaughter ball drivers have to make a living sust farming, and even slaughter ball drivers aren’t immune to predators.
– – –
The warning alarm went off during Deacon’s sleep cycle. He shot out of bed and grabbed a pair of shorts before he hit the door button and broke into a run for the nearest dive platform. Divers would be doing quick assents to escape whichever predator had triggered the alarm. Deacon, and all off-duty sust farmers would converge at the diving platform, help clear the crowds, sort farmers into hyperbaric chambers, and generally try to save as many coworkers as possible.
More experienced divers would be manning weapons stations to try to keep the predator away from the diving platform and the floating community in general.
It was a frantic fifteen minutes, as they got people onboard until there was no one left waiting. Initial head counts showed three missing. There was always hope that they’d found cover somewhere, waiting it out as the community defences tried to flush out the predator and clear a safe passage. But there was also another possibility.
“Blood in the water,” Deacon heard someone shout, as he moved between his assigned hyperbaric chambers, taking attendance through the comms units, helping to discover who among them was missing.
“Clear shot, clear shot, clear shot!” A comms voice overrode all channels, even as it faded, there was the echoy twang sound of a lancer firing underwater. “Hit! Hit! Hit!”
“Confirmed, confirmed, confirmed! Predator has been hit! Repeat, predator has been hit.” Like everyone else, Deacon was looking at the speaker and counted. He got to five before he felt the faint whump of the lancer charge exploding in its target.
The shared feeling of accomplishment at killing the predator was quickly swept aside by the grim reminder that there was blood in the water. Someone wasn’t coming home, and in Deacon’s hands was part of the answer as to who.
“Last, as usual!” Kregger nudged Deacon. “Not like it’s life or death or anything.”
“Gimme me that, you lazy scab!” The emergency manager grabbed the clipboard from Deacon’s hands, a continuous stream of disparaging comments about Deacon’s work ethic flowed from his mouth.
A quick check against master lists, and three names stood unaccounted for. As per procedure, Deacon and the others took those names back to the chambers and asked if any of them were present in the chamber. In each case, the answer was a bitter ‘no.’
When he’d returned with his negatives, Deacon, who had never bothered to train for the Rescue and Recovery team, was dismissed, sent back to his quarters.
When he got to his small quarters, no more than a dining room with a sleep alcove, Jeshnit was there, still there. Deacon had forgotten her presence when the alarm sounded. She had a warm drink waiting for him.
“Well, everything OK?”
“No,” His face probably told her before his words. “Three missing. Blood in the water.” Jeshnit crossed herself upon hearing that.
“Sedge Black is one of them,” Deacon added, sounding forlorn.
“You barely know Sedge, and for sure he doesn’t like you. Why the drama over him?”
“I don’t know… I guess… I’ve gotta beat someone. What’s the point of winning a slaughter ball race if Sedge isn’t in it? Char’s long gone. Who’s left to beat? Kregger?”
“You’re kidding right? Three people may be dead, and you’re worried about your racing reputation?” A news blip flashed red on the wall monitor. They both looked. It was an eslem eel that had attacked the farmers. There was one fatality that day, a new farmer named Klari. Sedge and another farmer, Trink, had made it safely to cover on the sea floor below and were now ascending at a proper, slow pace, escorted by armed divers.
Jeshnit turned an accusing eye toward Deacon, “Happy?”
To which he sheepishly nodded.
He was happy.
“You can’t slingshot.” Jeshnit was adamant in her conviction.
“Sure I can. Anyone can,” Deacon countered.
“I don’t mean it’s against the rules, I mean you’re not good enough.” She was exasperated by Deacon’s foolhardiness. He was almost seventeen. It was time for him to settle down and have kids, and if he wouldn’t then she needed to find someone who would. This stupidity had to stop, reason had to prevail, or she had to leave.
“Haha… No one is good enough until they are. You don’t get better by not doing.”
“No Deacon, but you do get dead by doing.” She sat in front of him and started stroking his hair.
“Look, the guys your age, they’re either married with kids or dead. It’s time for you to decide: which path are you going to follow?”
Deacon had known that this was coming, it wasn’t the first time Jeshnit had breached the topic, but he didn’t have an answer, and no answer, in his own mind, was no commitment. He just wasn’t there yet.
He met her gaze, and the biggest, longest, and last argument of their relationship started. It took almost an hour, but it ended with her leaving, and him feeling both angry and, somehow, free.
He looked at the wall monitor. Twenty minutes until shift, not enough time to sleep, but maybe enough for a shower. He grabbed his kit and headed for the communal bathroom, Jeshnit no longer on his mind.
It had been months since the last collapse of the dam. Deacon was starting to get antsy about when the next slaughter ball race would be. He kept his tomb in perfect shape, polishing and polishing until his arms ached, always ready to go within two hours’ notice, the time it would take to charge the batteries. With each polish, he dreamed of how he’d spend his winnings, what upgrades he’d make to ensure that he kept winning…
When the warning came, Deacon was underwater, hauling mature sust stalks toward the collector bin. He quickened his pace, got his cargo in just in time for the gate, and rode up on a slow line, decompressing properly as he did. He spent the whole forty minute ride up planning his slaughter ball strategy. It was to be Sedge’s last race, the reigning champion and sentimental favourite.
Deacon had every intent of raining on his parade.
The keels were set, the tombs and lanyards powered up. Usually there were eight competitors, but this time there were only six, and only two mattered to Deacon; himself and Sedge. Deacon was stationed on the left edge of the dump ramp, Sedge second from the right, with a few on either side of him.
As the countdown to drop started, Deacon found himself staring through the tombs at Sedge’s bright blue headscarf and jacket.
I wonder what he’s thinking.
At five Deacon tore his eyes off the competition and started positioning his controls. At one Deacon felt a slight bump on his side. His nearest competitor, yellow in colour, had locked a lanyard onto him… What the …?
At zero, the ramp dumped, and the tombs dropped, but Deacon’s tomb was connected to the next one, and they lost momentum as they hit the current. The lanyard turned off, freeing him, but it was too late, the four remaining tombs had a five-length lead. It would take a miracle for Deacon to win now. Bastards!
Deacon felt for the current, sensing that it was deeper than him. He lanyarded his yellow opponent, and swung down, inversely pushing the other up, away from the current. Deacon let go almost immediately, using less than a second of power – a five second recharge penalty that he could easily absorb as he felt out this current. He felt the push of the sleewater and tumbled once before righting, the ballast in the bottom of his tomb working with gravity. As he spun, he looked to ensure that he was now out of range of his dastardly opponent.
Ahead, he thought he was gaining distance on the four remaining tombs, slightly above him. The keels pulsed red among the bluish discharge of the sust. First keel ahead and down. Deacon watched as they all lanyarded it, swinging down and right, towards a second keel that Deacon couldn’t see yet. Deacon followed their lead, biding his time. He knew that he could probably have swung wide on that keel, but there was so much sust in the area that he probably would have lost speed instead of gaining.
Now he was in the same current as all the others, he would neither gain nor lose ground until the next keel. He deciphered the colours ahead of him. Sedge in blue, another in flourescent green, a bright pink one, and one that was some unsportsmanlike dark brown. That’d be Kregger, an old-timer who never amounted to anything, and who thought that wearing dark colours made him cool. Deacon was in bright orange, and there was the yellow competitor somewhere behind him.
Deacon contemplated doing what had been done to him, a lanyard shot on Sedge would pull Sedge out of the group. Deacon wouldn’t overtake him, but the other three would. Still, that didn’t seem fair to Deacon, so he held off.
Instead, he needed to outsmart these guys. There were only four keels on this course, and they were approaching the second. As the four tombs ahead of him jockeyed for the best shot at keel two, they started nudging each other, not enough to be fatal, but enough to slow them down.
Deacon aimed for the bottommost point of the keel, below the paths the others appeared to be taking and held his lanyard steady, waiting to get close enough. Just as he was going to fire, another lanyard beam hit the same spot.
Sedge’s tomb slid down below the others and began his turn. Deacon fired anyway. Damn Sedge for the same idea and execution, but still, Deacon got a cut on the remaining three tombs.
He was still behind Sedge heading for keel three, but he was slightly ahead of the rest.
Incrementally, he knew, he could win this, as long as the course was long enough. He just had to act before Sedge, be a bit bolder than him. Even as he locked onto keel three, he also saw that keel four and the finish line were very close.
Damn, it was a short course.
The current took a bounce down and back up, and now the fourth keel was ahead but slightly above them. The purple glow of the finish line was too close. A quick glance showed that no one else would be close enough to matter, it was a two man race.
He knew what he’d do in Sedge’s place, fire his lanyard toward the bottom quarter, not leaving Deacon enough room to come under him. Deacon needed a second strategy, a plan that would give him speed enough to win and defeat Sedge’s strategy… a sling shot!
Rolling his tomb slightly to the right, Deacon lined up his shot. He saw Sedge’s lanyard connect with the keel exactly where he’d expected. That committed Sedge to his strategy. Now for Deacon’s.
It took three quick firings to perfect a sling shot; the first to pull you out of the current, the second the start you on your new course, the third and longest to fling you back into the current at your new trajectory.
Deacon’s first shot hit the outside of the keel, above Sedge’s. It didn’t matter, they weren’t going to collide when they were going opposite sides of the keel. He quickly flexed once and released, setting his second shot a little above and further around the outside of the keel. Another flex, release and the third shot, same latitude on the keel, but further around.
A sharp, sustained tug on that lanyard, and Deacon released.
He re-entered the sleewater current with a jarring thump, and rocketed forward, his tomb hitting the side of Sedge’s. There was a sharp ringing noise, but it didn’t linger, which probably meant that the tombs were both still intact.
They were at the finish line: a beep in Deacon’s ear indicating that he had crossed. He looked around quickly. Both his and Sedge’s tombs had been caught in the nets and were being pulled toward the landing ramp. He couldn’t tell which one was further in front. It didn’t help that the tombs both slipped down the netting, obscuring their initial points of impact.
Deacon cracked his tomb’s hatch and jumped out. There was already a crowd around Sedge, some slapping him on the back, but Deacon hadn’t seen any results yet. They seemed to think that Sedge had won, but Deacon wasn’t ready to concede.
Sedge glared at him through the well-wishers, as the overhead screen showed the finish. It had been close, but Deacon’s tomb had clearly been a few centimetres ahead when they reached the line.
The crowd hushed as the screen presented Deacon’s profile as the winner. The same group that had crowded around Sedge pointedly did not come over and congratulate Deacon. They simply dispersed, bottles of victory ale hastily re-corked.
When they finally loaded the last tombs onto the ramp, Deacon went over to confront the yellow racer, a first-timer named JayJay, for nearly costing him the race. The kid didn’t care, he was bouncing off the deck for having simply survived his first slaughter ball race. And of course,
Sedge and the other racers, the same people who wouldn’t acknowledge Deacon, came over to congratulate JayJay on the finish.
Deacon immediately broke away and lodged a protest against JayJay, but to no avail. No one died and the outcome of the race was not affected by JayJay’s actions, so the judge’s instant verdict was that no response was needed.
Deacon shook his head. Damn right a response was needed. He had to settle for punching JayJay in the face. That shut the brat up. Bloodied his mouth, too.
Approaching the podium, the winner’s podium, not the participant’s podium that he usually stood on, Deacon felt insulted, frustrated, unappreciated. He’d won. Fairly. In spite of foul play.
Losers, he thought as he walked past the second and third place finishers, Sedge and Hartley. He stood tall, as tall as he could given his height, and accepted the medal. He held it aloft, shaking it victoriously, to muted applause.
A frown creased his brows.
He’d never heard such a quiet acknowledgement of a new champion. People even seemed to be shushing others who started cheering. Screw ’em, he thought, as he stepped off the podium. Sore losers.
He saw Jeshnit in the crowd, tried to get to her, but she was gone before he could reach her.
Deacon’s alarm went off, and the national news broadcast filled his room, already in progress.
An angry man was speaking. “…this attempt by the Tripartite Alliance to take over the Non-Aligned Territories will not stand.”
The newscaster’s much calmer visage filled the screen. “We’ll keep you posted on developments related to this story. And finally, some local news. A slaughter ball race was run under Sust Aggregate Community 7 last night. Defending champion Sedge Farline was barely defeated by the newcomer Deanna Carver. Some racing irregularities were reported, but the result stands. Miss Carver was not available for comment, and we are told that she has retired from slaughter ball racing. Now for corrections from yesterday’s newscasts…”
What? Deacon looked at the screen perplexed. Retired? She? What?
Deacon’s second alarm, the five minutes to check-in warning brought him back to the present. He grabbed his coveralls and bounced out into the hallway. He could call the news station on the way. He got on the tram, squeezed past an old lady into a seat in a corner, and placed his call.
Even before the call connected he was aware that others were watching him, snickering, hiding smiles. This had to stop. He was the winner, where was the respect?
“News Central, how may I place your call?”
“I’d like to report an inaccuracy in a news story.”
“Yes sir, I’ll send you to Billing.”
“Billing?” he asked even as the call connected.
“Yes, this is Billing, how may I help you?” Deacon was aware that everyone around him could hear his side of the conversation, and those closest might even be able to hear both sides.
“I want to report an inaccurate story in your broadcast. Is this where I do that”
“Yes sir, which story?”
“The one about the slaughter ball race last night. You got the name and gender of the winner wrong.”
“Let me check.” As the line went on hold, The tram pulled into the next station. Sedge and Kregger boarded, as they often did. Deacon waved a distracted hand. They didn’t wave back, but the movement of boarding passengers pushed them back to his part of the tram.
The operator came on and read the transcript of the story to Deacon, then asked what the inaccuracies were. “The winner’s name was Deacon Carver – D-e-a-c-o-n space C-a-r-v-e-r.”
“No sir, the winner was a woman named Deanna Carver. That has been verified.”
“You didn’t verify it, because I’M THE WINNER! I KNOW MY NAME!” Deacon’s shout drew far too much attention on the tram. People were starting to get fidgety.
“I’m sorry,” there was a slight pause, “ma’am? What was your name?”
“Deacon Carver – D-e-a-c-o-n space C-a-r-v-e-r. And it’s not ma’am, it’s sir!” The old lady sitting opposite Deacon stood up and moved away. There was a pause as other passengers waited to see if anyone would sit there. Kregger did.
“I’m sorry ma’am we don’t have any record of you in Billing.”
“What’s Billing got to do with this?” Deacon’s exasperation was filling the whole tram now. “Why do you keep calling me ma’am?”
“You wanted to buy a correction to a news story, didn’t you?”
“No, I want you to do your job and tell the real news!” The young woman sitting next to Deacon got up, not wanting to be around that much vitriol. Sedge sat down beside Deacon, nudged him gently with his elbow. Deacon looked up.
“Ma’am, that’s not how it works…”
“Call me ma’am one more time–“
Kregger mouthed more than spoke the words, “Hang up. Call back.”
Deacon exhaled loudly. “Hold please,” he told the Billing Department.
What a mess, he shook his head. He took a moment to check that he wasn’t near his stop yet before turning his attention to the other two racers.
“What?” He looked back and forth between Kregger and Sedge.
“Think about the race last night, mate. Did you really deserve that win?” Sedge started calmly, but Kregger was having nothing to do with calm.
“You almost killed Sedge and Hartley.” Kregger shouted in Deacon’s face, spittle popping like fireworks in random directions. “That stupid split-swing move you did at the fourth keel sent Trarian flying off course. She almost hit an anchor. But all you’re worried about is your name in the press. Well, screw you and screw your vanity. We bought the media coverage of this race. They’ll never say your name correctly. Not unless you’re willing to spend all of the prize money on one newscast.”
“So,” Sedge cut in waving Kregger off, “You gotta ask yourself. What’s more important? Upgrading your tomb or hearing your name on the news?”
Deacon knew that he didn’t always control his anger well, but now he felt a rage he’d never felt before. They would never going to let him win again. He’d be marked. There’d always be a JayJay willing to break the rules just to win favour with the big boys. There was no way to win: Not in slaughter ball, not with Jeshnit, not in this mess: Not for Deacon.
The only question was what was the best way to lose.
“Hi, Billing?” He spoke into his earpiece, his eyes locked on Sedge, “I have two corrections to that story. First, the name is Deacon Carver – D-e-a-c-o-n space C-a-r-v-e-r and secondly, I am male. But the retirement part is true, you can keep that. I’m retiring as the first undefeated champ since Char Osbaldistan. Yes, I’ll pay.”