And here it was, Judgement Day. Twelve people were hastily trying to change all at once inside the tiny, stuffy locker room. In zero-G this combination of circumstances usually meant a knee-and-elbow-bruising feast, but the fact that all of us were experienced zero-G-workers allowed us to save the more serious bruising for later.

Both teams eyed each other, and the asiari didn’t seem too impressed. We, on the other hand, were impressed indeed. The asiari were in a remarkably good shape, and were more used to zero-g than we had expected.

Danso pointed through our vidlenses to two of the female asiari who were either sisters or a couple, both of them slightly older than the male half of the team. It took me a moment to figure out what exactly he wanted us to see. Their bodies — quite handsome bodies, by the way — were covered with tiny, round, almost invisible scars, just a little lighter than the rest of their skin. The scars were almost symmetrical and their positions appeared identical on both of the asiari. Most of the markings were on their backs, running down on both sides of the spine, and the rest were distributed all over their bodies, most marking big muscle groups.

I looked at the rest of their teammates with somewhat more care, thinking hard about what the hell that was supposed to mean. My gaze stopped at Kainda, the team leader. She wasn’t nearly as big and impressive as for example Ayana, but something told me that I’d rather not be in her way when the crap hit the fan. She was a lot taller than me, probably a meter eighty, rather muscular, and her breasts seemed not to have found much opportunity for growth — as in both the other girls, by the way — which, I’d heard, indicated a lot of physical work starting from too young an age. It didn’t harm their looks a bit, though.

She, too, had the curious pattern of scars, absent in the three of her younger-male-teammates — but hers were really difficult to recognize, possibly because she was quite a bit darker than the other two women on her team.

Kainda’s earlobes were covered in metal rings, and her entire hair was concentrated into a thin strip running from almost between her eyebrows all the way to her neck, all woven into an enormous number of tiny braids, falling down towards one side, almost reaching her left lobe, and seemingly glued into place. The rest of her head was neatly polished. That was a stark contrast to her teammates who all wore the same haircut — a few days’ worth of hair growth, at most — not pretty, but the most practical choice in zero-G imaginable — which was probably the reason for Kainda’s glue, or whatever it was that she used.

The expression on her face didn’t leave any doubts about what she thought about the match — she seemed to be convinced that the entire thing was completely superfluous and beneath her dignity.

Gimbya also seemed to be examining the scars thoughtfully. I wondered what it was she thought — she didn’t seem happy in the least.

“Ready?,” asked Danso finally, after noticing the lack of motion in the room, except for our eyeballs.

“Sure, mhanga,” was Kainda’s reply. Casually, she pushed herself away from the wall with her left hand, and hovered backwards through the door, where she smacked the doorframe with the other hand to turn around, stopping the rotation by brushing her finger tips on the walls of the little hallway that lead to the playing hall.

That match was certainly promising to be a lot of fun.

The amount of watch requests was overwhelming. It looked like half the Residence decided to watch the match, and there even were some representatives of other Residences present, wishing to redistribute. I asked for an estimate of how many people they wanted to distribute to, and let the computer handle the rest of the negotiations — even if those guys lied to lower the price, there still were too damn many spectators to deal with that by hand. And then there were the deals of the other players, as well. Basically, it was an electronic auction, in which the computer would determine the best bid so that not too many people wanting to watch one specific player ended up running off to a cheaper one, and every player got the bid that he deserved. In the end the spectators would pay an average based on the time they spent watching one player or another. And at least in our team a sixths of every player’s ips earned at any given time trickled to the poor guy who was responsible for watching the goal, since he was in the least interesting position possible. Without computer help, all of it would have been a nightmare.

This time, the guy needing the ip infusion was Chisulo, who was taking position in the goal at one of the hall’s ends. The rest of us was neatly arranged on the walls around him, except for Danso. He was standing on a wall in the middle of the hall, eye to eye with Kainda, who pulled a face that probably was supposed to demonstrate superiority, but I had a hard time not to laugh.

After a short countdown the computer opened a hatch in the wall above them, and a heavy ball, shaped pretty much like the hall itself, floated slowly in their direction.

Danso jumped at it, just to receive a hard hit against his legs that sent him spinning, while Kainda used the wall, which she was still attached to with her adhesive shoes, to get rid of the impulse and then to jump by Danso towards the ball herself. Danso, meanwhile, had pulled in his legs and was rotating a lot faster than Kainda had anticipated. He straightened himself out right when she was almost level to him, and pushed with his feet against her shoulders, pushing himself towards the ball and reversing the direction of his spin, which he then used to kick the ball in our direction while Kainda was busy crashing into the wall underneath.

That was the signal for both of the teams — all of us except the goal keepers started running along the walls to catch the ball. Some of us tried it with the adhesive shoes, which allowed the direct way, but also slowed down the progress — the shoes tried to anticipate when to turn the adhesion off, but weren’t very good at it. Others — like me — turned the shoes off for the moment, and run in a spiral along the wall, using the wall’s curvature for traction. That allowed to control the movement a lot better, but it also made the way longer, and required a lot of practice.

When I saw Gimbya jumping directly at the ball, with a good chance of getting it, I widened my spiral slightly and run towards our opponents. Gimbya got the ball over her head, with her arms stretched out, which added a slight rotation to her trajectory, but she obviously had counted on that — she landed on the wall feet first, and after balancing herself out, threw the ball to Ayana, who at that point was running along the wall just a few meters away. Ay took the ball under her arm, and continued her run, towards one of the younger Asiari. The guy obviously had never seen us playing before, or he wouldn’t have made the mistake of stopping in Ayana’s path and trying to seize the ball. Ay’s elbow caught him on the helmet hard enough to rip his adhesion shoes from the wall, and he floated off towards Asiari’s goal, somersaulting backwards. That impulse transfer didn’t seem to slow Ayana down in the least.

Two other asiari run towards Ayana from both sides of the hall, with no adhesion. I was already behind them, but they didn’t seem to notice. My joy didn’t last long though — Kainda jumped from the opposite wall right between me and Ayana, preventing any attempts to the ball to me.

Ayana, though, didn’t even think about passing. She just held straight at Kainda, and I was almost sorry for the asiari team leader.

But the other two asiari positioned themselves between Ay and Kainda, and crouched. I sent her a quick warning, realizing that the two were the scarred girl couple from before, and that I had a distinctly bad feeling about that. Ayana seemed to know what she was doing though, and jumped off, intending on landing on the wall above me.

The couple imitated her jump, with an astonishing reaction time, slamming into her in midair — simultaneously. The hit must have been pretty bad, since one of the girls suddenly had the ball in her hand, and Ay certainly didn’t give it to her voluntarily. She fell towards her intended landing spot, while the couple landed several steps before me, and started spiraling in opposite directions towards our base.

The two worked completely in sync. When we tried to block one, she would pass the ball to her counterpart. When Zakiya tried to catch the ball during the pass, the pass target jumped towards the ball, grabbed the ball before Zakiya, used her as a reaction mass to get into exact same position as before, and continued as if nothing had happened. Gimbya tried to block one of them again, while Danso and I jumped towards our base to give Chis a hand — he certainly wouldn’t manage the two of them. But both of us were plucked out of the air by the remaining asiari, whose sole job at this point seemed to be to prevent us from taking part in the game. It was our fault though, we were concentrating too hard on the scary couple instead of watching our step.

Gimbya was stomped into the ground, and Chisulo tricked — he was certainly not up fighting both those girls.

It didn’t take long till they scored a second goal, and that was it for the first round of the game — it didn’t even take 30 minutes. While we tried to catch our breath — quite a feat in the increasingly smelly changing room — and bring our fluid balance back to normal, it wasn’t easy to ignore the arrogant smirks on asiari’s faces. Ay got it pretty bad indeed, her ribs hurt on every breath — but as far we could see, nothing was broken, and she insisted on continuing. I didn’t.

“If they continue like that, it’s another thirty minutes and we’re fucked,” stated Ayana placidly. “But we should at least try.”

“How the rat barf do they do that?” I asked quietly. Zakiya’s eyes seemed to be in a different world, probably, as always, in the world of data.

“Guys, it looks pretty grim. I think they’re wired”, she said after waking up from her trance.

“Aw come on, Zak — if they were McCormicks or Nguyen, maybe, but we’re talking Kumani here — who of us has the money for shit like that?” despite sounding unconvinced, Danso looked quite alarmed.

“They are asiari. Military. They are rented by people who needs fighting power. Good fighting power, if they want to compete with people like the Diné or the Nguyen security. Do you have any idea how much money you can earn with that?” Zakiya looked as if at least she did.

“But they are just kids — why should anyone…”

Danso was trying hard to ignore the obvious. “Danso, she’s right. Look at us — we are “just kids” too, and we’re drudging in the asteroids for how many years now already? Do you think all that muscle bulk comes from training for the z-ball? And the two broads are seventeen or eighteen for sure — grown out, safe for body adornments of all sorts.”

“Sonuvarat…So how are we supposed to play against frigging robots?” asked Ay grimly.

“Hmm, I think we still can have a fair fight” Zakiya’s grin was slightly disconcerting.

“How?” — was the first word of Gimbya’s during the entire conversation. I was surprised by how weak she sounded. The confrontation with the asiari seemed to have some weird effect on her.

“Easy — machine against machine.”

Right at the beginning of the second round Kainda managed to get the ball from Danso. That should have been our end, except for Zakiya’s little magic. Her tactics program conjured a web of lines in front of our eyes — possible moves and possible replies, vectors and forces. Slightly more information than we had for shoveling of dirt, but not quite enough to distract us from playing. Zakiya certainly earned her name.

One of the first discoveries that we made was that the “cyber-couple” was predictable, which basically allowed us to counteract their synchronicity. One of them alone wasn’t a serious threat to our team — Ayana was quite able to block one of them or even to take away the ball if somebody, for example Zakiya, distracted the other — which probably brought Zak a number of painful bruises each time she did that. But that meant that the way was as good as free for the rest of us — Zakiya’s system gave us enough warning so nobody suddenly jumped one of us, and so Gimbya, Danso and I managed to get the ball into their goal. Gimbya tried to avoid Kainda as good as possible, since she already found out that the asiari’s wired reflexes were faster than hers — and since she was smaller than them, force alone didn’t do it either.

Instead she enjoyed sweeping Kainda’s male teammates from the field. It seemed, she loved to hurt the asiari, and they seemed to answer it just as ardently — or at least to try. Whenever she really was in trouble, she would pass the ball to Danso or me. And so the asiari found out that it isn’t easy to block an opponent with just three people, if he — or the ball — could move in any of the six directions.

After we finished the second round — in about 40 minutes, and with a score of two to zero in our favor — the expressions on asiari’s faces changed markedly. They whispered to each other and looked slightly unfocussed, which probably meant a lot of text and picture data flowing.

We needed to win. Even if asiari would demand a return match — and they surely would, they were far too good to just give up the champion position, and even if they won the next time around — still, we would have been champions, we would have beaten the strongest team. That was a fair goal, and we only needed to score two more points, and after our second round it looked entirely possible.

We forgot something — there were three of them. The synchronicity game that Faizah and Njeri (that was what the cybertwins were called, according to the assist display, without which we certainly wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, especially in their z-ball-gear) demonstrated so perfectly during the first round, they could do together with Kainda. We weren’t quite prepared for that. Only Ayana, Danso and I were able to match those monster girls’ strength in any way — and Chis, but he had to guard the goal. And Danso and me, counting on the second round’s tactics, went too far ahead to be able to help Ayana in time.

Whomever of the three Ayana managed to block, the other two went through. Chis was strong enough to counter one of them with ease, but lacked the speed to fend off two of them and the ball.

“OK, guys, listen carefully,” sent Danso to us after the asiari had scored the inevitable goal and he was about to assume his position in front of Kainda again. He talked fast on a channel to our whole team. “There is definitely no more room for error. Zak — go keep the goal. If they throw from a distance, you’ll do fine, and if they get to the goal we’re screwed anyway. Give us all the data you can. I’ll keep Kainda in check, since she’s right here to start with. Chis, keep Njeri busy — try to make her pass the ball to someone else. Ayana, you have Faizah all for you. Gim, take the ball when you see it, and get it over to their goal. If there is too much trouble around, give it to Gue. Gue, go get ’em! Be as good as with that bot!”

I took a good look at the field. The big guy at their base, Yera, was faster than Chis, but also smaller and not quite as strong, I could trick him with ease. The other two weren’t really bad players, but they would probably renew their acquaintance with Gimbya, and if they tried to stop me, Gim would manage to put the ball into the goal. This could work — and Zak’s program agreed with me on that.

I braced myself and chose a target spot where I was relatively safe from Kainda. Should I get noticed by one of the other girls on my way, I would take some fire away from Ay or Chis. That wouldn’t even be bad, I just should get the hell on my feet in time to help Gimbya…

The ball dropped out, and Kainda jumped to get it — just to get grabbed by the feet by Danso, who used her as a reaction mass by throwing her back where she came from, floating towards the ball himself. He didn’t manage to jump off himself, because Kainda’s pull was strong enough to rip his shoes off the wall, but all he wanted was to be at the ball before Kainda anyway.

He waited just long enough for Kainda to jump at him, before he threw the ball towards Ayana, who was running towards the middle of the hall — rather unhurriedly, to give Chis a chance to catch up. She caught the ball and continued towards the monster couple who were positioning themselves for an attack. When the collision seemed inevitable, she passed the ball to Chis, who was wheezing heavily trying to come level with Ay on the opposite wall of the hall, and whose shoes clicked rather suspiciously loud under the strain. Meanwhile I had landed about halfway between Ayana and the enemy goal and was busy trying to evade the remaining two asiari and to bring myself into a good position for a pass.

The cybercouple turned to Chisulo, in an attempt to make his life more complicated. They would’ve achieved their goal, if Ayana hadn’t grabbed one of them by her pants when the two jumped off. The cybergirl tried to come free, and Ay let her — giving her just enough additional impulse to let her drift uselessly in midair, while Ayana herself slowly drifted towards Chis. Somebody would probably have to come to that girl’s rescue. The microgravity, static electricity and air currents would let her drift to the wall eventually — but for now, she was out of the loop.

Her colleague was very busy trying to take the ball away from Chis. The little skirmish ended with her bitching very loudly, while drifting very slowly towards our goal, giving Chisulo enough time to pass the ball to Gimbya. She had stayed behind in our space until that moment, but now jumped off, straight towards the enemy goal. Dan, on the other hand, seemed to have had trouble with Kainda — he was floating in the middle of the playspace with a stoic expression on his face, arms folded on his chest, and Kainda was on her way to Gim.

Luckily for Gimbya, Kainda never arrived, since I had intercepted her about half way, and used her as a springboard. It was most probably less than pleasant for Kainda, but it sent me at a useful angle towards their base — and, more importantly, it sent her back into Danso’s arms, which would give him a chance to help himself out of his rather useless position.

The two male asiari, who had been mainly chasing me around until now, but weren’t good enough to catch up, tried hurriedly to intercept Gimbya instead, but made the mistake of jumping at her at the same time. Zak’s program would have told them to leave at least one of them blocking me instead, but they didn’t have it.

I landed just far enough from the asiari’s goal to be out of the keeper’s reach, with my back to him, watching him through Zak’s lenses. Gimbya threw the ball at me, before sending both of the poor unsuspecting asiari into a cheerful-looking and quite fast spin using a couple of well targeted kicks at their legs. I hoped for them — and for the rest of us — that they had good control of their stomachs: we still had one round to go, and we all would be better off without having to watch out for little floating balls of nasty-smelling liquids, surrounding whatever their breakfast had been.

I jumped backwards, so that the nose of the goalie was at my shoulder’s height when I caught the ball. The impulse from the ball pushed my torso towards the keeper, who was friendly enough to hold me, while I put the ball behind me, and behind his head, right into the goal.

“We aren’t done yet!” warned us Danso when we were repositioning ourselves for the last round. As if we didn’t know. It was round three, and we were even — whoever made the next point, would be the winner of the match.

This time he decided to just step on Kainda’s feet while she was busy jumping off. That lifted both of them off the floor, a lot slower the Kainda had intended, and Danso tried to push himself off her shoulders with his arms. This time, however, she held herself on his waist, and therefore both of them reached the ball drifting slowly and fighting each other. When finally one of them caught the ball, it flew towards Kainda’s team, and strangely enough it was one of the guys who took it, and started running in our direction. It was hardly possible to announce a feint more clearly than that.

I saw the second guy following the first, and they seemed to try the synchro-spiel this time. It didn’t quite work out, since Gimbya had cut him down before he even reached the middle of the hall, and passed the ball to Ay. Chis tried to keep the cybertwins off Ayana’s hide, but discovered that he wasn’t a match for the two of them at once, even without the ball. He ended up flying at quite a speed towards the wall above Ay’s head, while the twins were busy trying to take the ball away from Ayana. It didn’t look good, at all. If they succeeded, we were, err, finished. Meanwhile, I was busy floating towards Chis, having hoped for our plan to work — being no help to Ayana whatsoever.

Gimbya was busy evading the two guys to get herself clear for a pass, and Danso was still at, well, whatever that was that he and Kainda were doing to each other. It seemed, they were mainly busy trying to keep each other out of the game, and that was just as well — two of the girls were already bad enough.

Ay managed to pass the ball in the last moment — to me. The two asiari guys jumped off immediately, in a desperate attempt to get between me and the goal — there was no one else out there defending it except for their keeper. At the same time, both of the cybergals jumped straight at the spot where I was going to land — right on top of Chis. That would hurt, probably all four of us. Or maybe… “Chis? Can you toss me at the goal?” I whispered through the channel.

“Sure can…you sure?”

“Yaaah!” I yelled at him shortly before my anticipated landing on top of his head.

But he did. He caught my hips — I felt like I was being squished by a mining bot — and used my inertia to redirect me at the goal.

I learned how it felt being the ball: I hurt, and the goal was approaching really, really fast. I wondered how much of me would break when I landed. The same question must have been going through the cybergirls’ heads before they crashed into the floor where seconds ago Chisulo had been standing, who was now hovering backwards towards our own base, with Zakiya trying hard not to be landed on.

Both of the asiari-guys jumped towards me from the opposite walls of the hall, not quite synchronously, attempting to intercept. Instead of being caught — and had they arrived simultaneously, there wouldn’t have been much of a choice — I bounced of the first one with my feet, heading towards the other askari, grazing him with my back, shoulders first, which corrected my trajectory enough for me to be flying straight at their baffled-looking goalkeeper.

I tried to get my rotation back under control, so that I’d arrive feet first, but there wasn’t enough time — I crashed with one shoulder straight into the goalie’s belly, pushing him against the goal. He seemed to feel the same way I did just a couple of days ago, when I caught that damnable asteroid sample. My shoulder cracked sharply and started to hurt like something awful, but that wasn’t going to spoil my pleasure of smacking the ball against the green-painted wall right next to the face of the goalie turning roughly the same color as he was trying hard to catch his breath.

After the spectators’ congratulations — and the spectators themselves — slowly abated, we had the questionable pleasure of changing together with the grumpy-looking asiari, who obviously had just as many bruises as ourselves.

“Damn you, you’ve ruined asiari’s reputation in the entire isis-system! The team of the best fighters in the system loses against a bunch of wahanga!” Kainda was beside herself, but the words didn’t sound entirely sincere. I had a vague impression that her anger was at least as much about something else, that she didn’t mention.

“Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite as embarrassing to lose against us, if you stopped thinking of us as little digging animals” countered Danso.

If looks could kill, Danso would have been incinerated on the spot. “That was pure luck. Next time you will lose — in the second round!”

“We’ll see. But remember that next time it’s your challenge, and our choice of time. Let’s see how you fight against six rested Wachimbaji.

“That one sure wouldn’t be more rested” — she pointed at me with her chin, and grinned arrogantly. I turned to her and straightened out — and noticed that the entire rest of my team followed.

“Don’t you guys have enough bruises already?” asked Danso, it seemed, all of us.

“I’d just really like to know why the entire friggin’ Residence seems to know every pimple on my ass!” I growled, and looked into Kainda’s eyes with just as much venom.

Her eyes lost focus for a second, and her expression changed to that of slight embarrassment, and she turned back to her space suit. It seemed, somebody out there haven’t liked Kainda’s verbal misstep. I couldn’t resist a half-hearted grin, and went on putting on my scaphander as well.

Which was about the last thing I wanted to put on at the moment. The entire mishap lasted, with the pauses and all, less than two hours — one of the shortest z-ball games in my experience — but it would take yet another exciting half an hour in a pressure suit until I could finally celebrate my reunion with the dearly missed shower. I shuddered to think what Aya, Chis and Dan must have felt like. I could smell it, that was bad enough.

Continued in part 9, “Hidden Doors”

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