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Octagla 1: Slingshot Play © Gingezel 2014
A Space Sport Novel
Competing chants rose, those from the home planet Pendrae dominating as portals opened at opposing sides of the Octagla court and the teams jetted in fast. You could hardly think as the crowd sounds from the planetary arenas selected by vote around the galaxy were linked in to the space station Octagla court and contributed to the din.
Coach Isley ignored his team setting up the intricate pattern that would take them past each of the eight sides of the court. His whole attention was on Pendrae United. If anyone could spoil their chances of taking the Galactic championship three seasons in a row, it was Pendrae United. They had beaten Pendrae United in the seventh game of the seven-game finals for the last two years, and Pendrae United were bitterly determined that would not happen again.
This set of three games would largely determine that. Tamara was in the number one slot, Pendrae United in third. If they took two out of these three games, they would be the top team in the playoffs because their last three games were against Ennup 10. Ennup 10 was strong this year, but on a good night Tarell could hold them to one or two goals. And Roban knew every soft spot that their goalie had. He would run the score up high enough in the first ten minutes that Tarell wouldn’t need that good night.
First though, they had to beat Pendrae United. Isley’s eyes ran over the opposing team once more. They looked ready, hungry, and as fit as they had ever been. His eyes came to rest on Jaik, the undisputed star of the league. Mean and dirty Jaik, Pendrae United’s inside left winger. The man who could single handedly spoil their chances. How was Jaik looking tonight? Isley looked for the signs he knew so well, not only as a coach but as a former player, a member of the Galactic Octagla Hall of Fame.
Isley still looked like a player. He had the standard winger’s build, just slightly above mid height and not heavy-boned. His weight was only up a kilo and a half from when he played inner right, and his muscles were still rock hard. He hadn’t lost his eye or coordination either. Isley knew he could still pass a ball exactly to the center of the net of any player’s stick, no matter what their position was, and that his accuracy for shots on goal was as good as a lot of the journeymen in the league. He knew he’d lost the edge on his timing though. And he winced every time he tried to imagine what it would feel like to wake up at his age after taking the pounding each of his players took every night they were in the court.
No one had ever taken the Galactic Octagla championship three times running. Isley nervously licked his bottom lip and stroked his chin, his hand moving on to first his tidy mustache, then his thinning blond hair. He remembered that no one had done this every practice, every game, every waking moment. Still, if there was a team that could achieve the three-peat it was this team.
Isley shifted his attention to Tamara, each team member now twisting and swirling, taking full advantage of being weightless. Their routine was a little touch that a ballet choreographer had taught them. It invariably impressed the fans and got sissy catcalls from the other teams. The guys were used to the insults though. Being taunted by the other players for the fact that their team was owned by Marti Panasi, a fashion designing grandmother, was part of playing for Tamara. Marti had taken the team in a relatively civilized divorce. Her husband had taken the tropical resort. Isley still couldn’t figure that one.
Marti’s designer instincts showed in the team’s new uniforms as well. This year’s gleaming green and black were a somber counterpoint to Pendrae’s iridescent orange and red. Isley liked the new colors. They had a hard edge.
The teams came to land in a parallel lines on the surface arbitrarily called the floor of the Octagla court. Microphones picked up and amplified the thud as the boots hit, then adhered to the surface.
“Heading the lineup for Tamara is their center and team captain, Daron.”
Isley watched as Daron stepped forward to boos from the Pendrae United fans, cheers from the Tamara fans, and calls of ‘Superstud!’ from female fans from either planet. Daron was obviously in one of his better moods. He gave the crowd an easy smile and negligently waved his Octagla stick over his head with the same easy grace his passes had. Then he removed his helmet so the fans could see his face and repeated the wave. He had black hair, fair skin, and what women who were connoisseurs of such things called bedroom eyes.
Nearing twenty five, Daron was a small man, compact and muscular. You had to be to succeed as an Octagla center. You also had to have the kind of coordination that let you place a shot precisely on the ten centimeter by ten centimeter portion of the goal you wanted to hit from any of the eight sides of the Octagla court or anywhere in the free space in between. And you had to have the kind of strength that made sure that shot hit the net with a velocity of at least one hundred and fifty kilometers per hour. But mostly you had to have nerve.
The reason was because every now and again the team would get itself into a tight spot where there was no way out except a fast goal. That meant a slingshot play. A slingshot play was very simple. Your two huge massive defensemen positioned themselves solidly on one of the walls. As you flew past they grabbed you and catapulted you with all of their force into the mid-court space. The trick was to give you enough additional velocity and torque that only they, and preferably your forwards, knew where you were going. Then with adroit use of your jet packs and proper screening from the forwards you positioned yourself.
Meanwhile the forwards were distracting the goalie and defense with deke-out moves, working the ball up the court between them. After all, only a fool would count on this really being a slingshot play. Usually they weren’t. At the last second there was a pass to you, and it had to be perfect, right to the end of your net so all you had to do was take your swing and release the ball. No time delays, no telegraphing. Instant goal.
Properly done with the right momentum, torque, and screening, the goalie didn’t have a chance on a slingshot play. The shot was taken so close to the goal that all he could do was to stand there and look stupid as the ball he never saw until the last second went right past him. Or if he was the fidgety type, move in the wrong direction and look even more stupid. Once in maybe a hundred times the goalie by sheer chance moved in the right direction and you hit him. Then everybody on his team got hysterical and jumped all over him and he got the MVP award for the game, not you. But you didn’t mind that, because both of you knew it was sheer luck and that he would spend the night with a bone-deep purple-green lump the size of a fist somewhere on his anatomy, seriously meditating on standing still the next time so you missed him.
But most of the time the goalie looked stupid. Octagla goalies did not like looking stupid. Their coaches did not like looking stupid. The team did not like looking stupid. You all knew there wasn’t a damn thing he could have done, but that wasn’t the point. You had to have actually played Octagla to know just how little the goalie could do in that situation.
Most of the sportscasters and almost all of the fans had never played Octagla. It was a sport of the rich elite. All they saw was some guy who made a fortune just standing there watching while the ball sailed past him into the goal. The goalie on the team half of them had bet hard earned credits on. Fans tended to get hostile about that kind of behavior. The game’s commissioners also tended to get very nosy if there were enough allegations of a fixed game.
This put a lot of pressure on the opposing defensemen during a slingshot play, and that was where the requirement for nerve by a center came in. The defensemen invariably opted for one of two simple solutions. A cross-check to the head or face, or a butt end to the groin. Anything else had the possibility of being ineffective. A nice clean check simply repositioned the center so it was the defenseman, not the goalie who looked stupid. Bad move if you were that defenseman.
Taking the center out too soon, cleanly or not, just meant the forwards would stop deking the goalie out and actually take a shot while you were out of position. Worse move as a defenseman. Not only did that make you look stupid, it really got the coach down on you. The only really safe route was to wait until the center had the ball in his stick, then deck him well enough that the shot went wild and careened around the walls. Then he looked stupid, not you. And the two really sure ways to deck him were the cross-check or the butt end.
Butt ends were illegal of course, and you got somewhere between five minutes in the penalty box and the rest of the season. Cross-checks were legal, but not deliberate checks to the head. That was an automatic season suspension. So whichever you tried, the trick was to only get the five minutes. This meant making it look like an honest mistake, a clean check that went wrong because you slightly misjudged the center’s momentum and torque. Any good defenseman mastered this art of deception by the time they were eighteen. They knew, the poor center knew, and the referees knew it was not an honest mistake. But it was a tradition to reward artistry. A really good show of innocence only got you five.
So to be an Octagla center you had to have the kind of nerve where you figured you could get that shot off a split-second before the defenseman hit you, so he would decide it wasn’t worth the penalty. If you didn’t, or he hit you anyway just for the hell of it, you had to laugh it off. Or deck the son-of-a-bitch. Either way, it gave you the kind of attitude that made the rest of the problems in life easy. Superstud had this attitude.
The polite applause due to an inductee into the Galactic Octagla Hall of Fame continued as Daron stepped back. He had been inducted last season after taking his second MVP award after the championship. As far as Isley was concerned Daron had fully earned the honor. He was the best center the league had seen since Torin, and he just kept getting better. Isley followed Daron’s look to the media booth. Hidi was there, right at the front. She was worth looking at, a tawny, glamorous, impeccably groomed blonde whose credentials as a celebrity reporter got her into the booth usually reserved for the sportscasters covering the game. Isley didn’t follow the celebrity gossip, but his wife did and she said Hidi was very good at her job. Isley liked her. She had the sort of resilience and determination that would have made him look at her twice if she had been a player at tryouts.
Hidi was as close as Daron came to having a regular girlfriend, but as far as Isley could figure Daron was more interested in keeping the nickname Superstud than he was in settling down. As a happily married man with almost grown children, Isley thought Daron was making a mistake this time. If he didn’t watch it, Hidi would be the one that got away that he regretted for the rest of his life. Tonight though she had to catch a flight shortly after the game, so Daron would be on the prowl again.
The rest of the team would be on strict curfew and get a lot of rest but Isley had given up trying to control Daron. It was a total waste of time. He sighed. He had tried early on. But when he called as part of the curfew checks, more often than not there had been a woman in Daron’s room. Depending on his mood Daron would laugh and say ‘So fine me’, or curse and say ‘So fine me’. But either way the woman had stayed. The next salary negotiation round, Daron had settled with the second-highest salary in a league with no salary cap, but he had been in a foul mood. Jaik had signed higher with Pendrae United. The following day Isley had received a lump payment for an amount equal to fining Daron every night for the next year. With it was a message saying ‘Stay off my back Isley unless I show up unfocussed!’ Daron never did, and Isley had stayed off his back. He suppressed a smile. Daron was still in a foul mood after every salary negotiation - Jaik was still the highest paid player in the league.
“And starting inside left wing is Roban.”
Roban stepped forward, looking exactly like what he was, a shy, clean-cut blond farm boy. Born and raised on Kytherial, a relatively new agrarian planet, he had learned Octagla playing in the newly established university level league. He had only played two years when a scout picked him up. Isley knew that as far as Roban was concerned, even though he’d more than earned the position, he shouldn’t be here with the pros.
Roban wasn’t a big winger. Compared to Daron, he had a bit more height, and his frame was slender not compact. That was all that was needed. The main demands on him in the Octagla court were agility and coordination, not sheer strength and nerve. Of course he could fire a ball into whatever ten centimeter by ten centimeter part of the goal he chose to as well as Daron could. Better in fact, because compared to the rest of what he was expected to do, taking a shot like that was dead easy. He and his counterparts on wing were the ones who passed the ball up the court. A stationary net with a goalie, however good he was, was nothing compared to hitting the very tip of a stick that was both traveling and often rotating at considerable velocity. You had to have superb coordination to do that, much less make it look easy.
The other demand was intelligence since Roban called the plays for his line. Octagla plays were complex, and games never went as planned. With eight walls as active playing surfaces plus all the space in between, executing the plays called for exceptional spatial analysis abilities, plus the agility to get into the right position in the right spot in space. Being the one calling the plays to adapt to the changing conditions in the game was even harder. Roban had it down to a fine art. This was in part natural ability, in part dedication and practice, and in part his secret weapon. When he wasn’t playing, Roban was analyzing simulations of the games with the help of his mathematician uncle, Barranb.
Isley watched as Roban removed his helmet, gave the crowd an apologetic smile, and got even more boos from the Pendrae United fans than Daron. With a nervous gesture he pushed a strand of his dark blond hair out of his plain face. Isley knew that the fact Roban was currently the top scorer in the league, three goals ahead of Daron and five ahead of Jaik, was totally unreal to him. It didn’t surprise Isley. Roban had some of the best moves Isley had ever seen and he was the calm thinker on the team. Nothing bothered him; he could plan the most complicated plays in a split second, he executed them even faster, and he never fought.
In fact, if they got the three-peat it would be because Roban was having his best year. His shattered hand was finally totally recovered, and since he had played left-handed while it recovered he was now ambidextrous – an advantage that largely accounted for his being top scorer.
Yes, with Roban recovered, this was the best team he had coached. As Roban stepped back to increasing boos, Isley scanned along the team. No doubt about it, they were the best. Isley had quite a few years of coaching experience to base this on. He had retired at age twenty-nine after achieving the league MVP award and being inducted into the Galactic Octagla Hall of Fame, something he had never imagined even in his wildest dreams.
Isley had been a journeyman; a good journeyman, but a journeyman and he knew it. Then in the semifinals there had been a rash of injuries and he and three others had moved up to first string. It had been magic. They hadn’t been able to do a thing wrong, and they had taken the galactic championship in straight games. Isley, not a believer in magic, or luck other than the bad kind, had got out while the going was good and shown up the next year as assistant coach. A few years later he’d got the offer of Head Coach for Tamara, taken it and stayed. He and Marti got along.
“Ranga is starting as outer left wing.”
Ranga stepped forward, helmet already under his arm, chin up, tension evident in every line of his body. His arrogant hostile expression clearly said ‘I’m here. Does anyone want to make something of it?’.
Isley knew this was as much for the benefit of his teammates as the opposition, but Pendrae United wouldn’t take it that way, so Ranga was giving himself a rougher ride than he had to. That was nothing new though. Ranga had been doing that to himself ever since he came up as an underage rookie last year.
Isley had to admit that if he had one really high strung, difficult player, it was Ranga. The kid was good, better than good. Isley didn’t argue that. He wouldn’t have moved Ranga up to first string to play with Daron and Roban three games ago, and dropped his most seasoned veteran Larr back to second string if the kid wasn’t good. And the move had worked. Those three were a dream to watch.
But Ranga was too young. Isley was not sure he approved of the underage draft. Some of the lads were mature enough to handle it, but Ranga wasn’t. Still, what could he do? If they hadn’t drafted him, another team would have. And Tamara was at least Ranga’s home planet. That made him the darling of the home crowd, and meant he could see a bit more of his family. That latter was not a blessing in Isley’s eyes.
Isley was painfully aware that Ranga was drug lord Ghen Kulgalu’s only child. He felt terribly sorry for Ranga and had done what he could to shield him from negative publicity. So far, either his efforts or plain old-fashioned fear had worked. There hadn’t been a single comment from a sportscaster. It couldn’t last though. Kulgalu was written all over Ranga – the strong nose, the deep set eyes, the olive complexion, the full soft mouth, a mane of unruly brown hair that flowed out from under his helmet. Sooner or later, someone would say something, and Isley honestly didn’t know what would happen then.
Ranga half turned to the crowd, smiling and waving his stick as Daron had done, but less comfortably. He seemed to have taken Daron as a role model. Isley had no problems with this as long as it only applied to the Octagla court. Daron, besides being exceptionally talented, was as professional as they came.
As an off-the-court role model, Isley had reservations, and these weren’t only about the way Daron used women. With Daron, he worried about the woman getting hurt, but they never seemed to mind. They kept coming back for more. Ranga though was the type to get himself really messed up with a bad news woman and ruin his career.
However his main reservations included Daron’s retirement plans. Isley had been around on Tamara long enough to have heard all the hints and innuendos. Officially on retirement Daron would go to work in his father’s business, Soimvell Shipping, where his sister already worked. Unofficial word was that Soimvell Shipping handled all of the drugs Ghen claimed he didn’t produce. And even more unofficial word, the kind of warning you were given then told you never heard, was that Daron’s father was Ghen’s chief enforcer. If any of this was true, it wasn’t what Ranga needed since he was so obviously trying to escape that world.
Ranga got a very subdued reaction, a smatter of polite applause. Isley suspected the largely Pendrae United crowd figured Ranga’s move up to first string improved their team’s odds of winning. Well, he thought with a satisfied smile, they were going to see just how wrong that idea was.
Suddenly amongst the applause was a chant of “Ranga! Ranga!” It took Isley a moment to locate the source. It was a group of seven girls, aged sixteen to eighteen, and all very fashionably messy looking. The obligatory weightless unitards to modulate blood pressure were designer for these girls and brilliant colors. Over them they had shorts, little wrap tops, and the popular wide gemstone cuffs. The children of any of the space station staff couldn’t afford to dress like that. The girls had obviously come up as a group on one of their parents’ space yachts. Well, Ranga had the sort of broody good looks that really went over with girls in that age group. Isley transferred his attention back to Ranga. He had spotted the girls too, because his smile was real as he stepped back in line. He looked at Daron and Daron grinned and winked. Isley sighed. So there was a little off the court coaching going on. That was just what he needed.
Science fiction by the Canadian husband and wife scientist author team Donald S. Hall, PhD., and Judi Suni Hall, PhD.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously. The science fiction is set centuries in the future, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Snowfall on Zebra City sci fi art by Gingezel