Top of the Game
Saturday, September 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EDT
For Dylan, Kiefer and Lleyton
I spun in a fast, uncontrolled circle, my mouth guard half-out, my visor cracked, and my own blood floating in front of me in a spray of perfectly round orbs.
Gloved hands pulled the heavy, black rubber ball out of my grip, and the other player pushed off of me, turning my spin into a plummet, straight toward the curved ice wall.
I blinked away the haze and disorientation that follows any good hit, and the roar of the crowd—piped in from stadiums across the galaxy where fans watched us on screens taller than houses—hit my ears like a hammer.
They were chanting my name.
I kicked hard, reigniting the rockets on my skates. It would be too late to avoid colliding with the wall, but maybe I could keep from breaking my legs.
I hit with a crunch, and impact screamed up my bones. My skates shrieked across the ice. I pushed off, aimed directly back toward the action. My knees would punish me later, but the crowd loved it.
My uniform had sealed over the worst of the slash across my shoulder, but my forehead was still leaking blood in a trail of red blobs. The crowd loved that, too.
I was moving fast—faster than was safe, faster than most players could manage. I stripped the ball from the desperately thin, clumsy-handed rookie who'd stolen it from me, turned in midflight—a move no fresh-from-planetside twerp would dare—and raced back toward the other team's goalie.
Amanda Burgess glared up at me. She was one of the only players who'd been up here longer than me. She was good. A grin stretched across my face. I'd left the rest of both of our teams behind. It was between her and me.
She grinned back. Like a wolf. Or a shark. I feinted left, moved right, kicked my left leg to flare its rocket to full power, and spun around her. Pain flared in my injured shoulder. Amanda slammed into me, but it was too late. The ball was away, flying straight toward the hoop that she'd been guarding.
She swore, and I whooped in triumph as the ball sailed straight through. The lights flashed, then went out. The crowd was cut off in mid-roar. We floated in perfect darkness, perfect silence. Till Amanda muttered, "Nice shot, Perez. But you know, that kid's probably gonna starve, now."
The team nurse scowled as she sewed me up. "Two inches to the right, and you'd have bled out in there."
I shrugged, and she growled at me to keep still. Two inches wasn't the closest it'd ever been.
I tried not to see the rookie's face behind my eyelids. Where did Amanda get off, spouting crap like that?
The nurse washed and bandaged my forehead.
And where did I get off, feeling sympathy for the kid? He'd almost killed me out there.
I'd come up here over a decade ago, an undercover reporter looking for an exposé about the dangers of extreme space-based sport. And I'd fallen in love with it. Sure, things were crooked. If you didn't win, didn't get the fans' notice, you had a hard time getting access to medical aid, decent equipment, and food.
But I almost always won, even in the beginning. I'd never been as hungry as the kid looked.
The perks of being a star are nice. Private room in the spinning section, private shower that never runs out of hot water. Millions of adoring fans, plenty of them women willing to pay to hook up with me on virtual. One even came to visit once, for the "full zero-G experience."
But that's not why I stayed, why I dropped contact with my editor and my family.
I stayed for the game.
I'd never felt alive, living the life I left behind. That life had been about striving—always reaching for the dreams that stayed just out of reach. Here, on the station—and in the game—I do what I want. Take the things I want. And I keep them. Because I can.
"Sooner or later, this game is going to kill you," the nurse said. "You know that, right?"
I nodded. Of course I knew. It killed all of us, eventually.
But it was better than retiring.
I sent the losing team food. Dehydrated shit, nothing great. I could have afforded better. But doing it made me feel good.
Amanda came to my door the next day. She looked strange without her uniform and pads. I wondered if she had as many scars as I did.
"That was unexpected," she said.
I shrugged. "They'll still die if they can't make it on their own."
She shrugged. "Still, it was good of you. A kindness. I wanted to say thanks. Most of them are sweet kids."
"Why not thank me by doing it yourself next time? I'm sure you can afford it."
She laughed. "I can afford better. And you could have, too."
I shrugged. "Don't want to spoil them."
She nodded, slowly. "Maybe I will. Maybe it'll be your team, next time."
"Want to come in?" I asked. "Have a drink or two?"
She looked startled for a second, then her shark grin spread across her face. "Sure. Why not?"
I led her inside. Maybe we'd end up comparing scars.
It was nice to win without anyone else losing.