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* * *


  - This is Alex, - said the one behind Anton's left shoulder.

   Alex was a seven foot tall, lanky guy in a faded yellow T-shirt with a "9" on the front.

  - And this is Ludowik.

   Ludowik was sitting on a rock in the shadow of a crooked fence. His thin-framed glasses kept sliding down his nose and he would occasionally throw his head back to return them to their proper position. Anton could not stop looking at these glasses - it was like his eyes were glued to them. Ludowik chuckled and winked at him through his muddy specs, and that chuckle and that wink sent shivers down Anton's spine.

  - ...And this is the ball.

  The orange ball jumped up with a ring, and Anton caught it automatically. Felt the bumps on the rubber - a familiar feeling which immediately reminded him of something comfortable. Something from the good old days.

  - Alex plays for Ludowik, and you will play for me, - the one who stood behind Anton finally came out into the light. Lifted his head and looked up at the sky, squinting:

  - Man, it's hot today... ok, let's go.

  They called him Mel, and he was kind of short - at least compared to Anton and Alex. He wore an orange T-shirt with a turquoise and yellow drawing on his chest: two pears and an unnaturally blue plum. His jeans were rolled up to his ankles, exposing huge white sneakers.

  - This is our court. Like it?

  The court was completely covered with snow. The snow, about finger-deep, was icy and hard, and that was annoying, because the sun, invisible, but not any less forgiving for it, burned from above. Yet the snow stayed.

  - There, kids, - smiled Mel, and his smile somehow made Anton feel a little calmer. Warm up, take some shots, Ludowik and I will watch. Come on, Antosha, don't be shy.

  There is nothing stranger than playing basketball on packed snow. His sneakers would slip a bit here and there; gangling Alex allowed Anton to bounce the ball around, make a run or two, take a few free-throws - and then they stood in the middle, facing each other.

  Alex tried to steal the ball, and succeeded almost immediately. And went for the ring - Anton couldn't keep up with him; a shot - and the ball was beating in the net. Alex smiled nervously, then, for some reason, glanced back at Ludowik and Mel sitting there quietly in the shadows.

  - Come on, let's go again...

  They circled around the court, quickly forgetting about the snow beneath their feet and the invisible sun overhead. Alex was most likely a pro; Anton was ready to stop the game, quit, give up.

  At some point Alex's face came really close, Anton smelled his sweat and heard a mumbled phrase:

  - You are skimping... Play the game! Can't you see he is watching? Work it, bitch! That made Anton angry. He opened Alex up with a fake, finally stole the ball, darted across the frozen field, his skills, his reflexes, his love of the Game returning to him with every bounce.

  He even had a second to feel surprised.

  Heavy breath behind him; Anton spun around, passed Alex and shot the ball - like dropping an apple into a basket. The orange sphere slid through the net as if covered with butter.

  A few claps came from the direction of the spectators. Anton turned: Mel was applauding. Ludowik was grinning, his glasses glistening in the sun.

  - Good, - said Alex. His hair stuck to his temples, frozen at the tips. - Let's go again...

  And they played again. Alex scored twice, Anton three times, once practically from mid-field. And every time Alex's face came next to his, Anton heard a mumbled:

  - Play... Don't goof off...

  Finally the ball bounced off Alex's knee and rolled right towards the spectators. Ludowik stopped it with the tip of his shoe, looked at Mel, then back at Anton and Alex.

  - Go ahead, guys, - said Mel. - Anton, meet your teammates.

  Alex went ahead, Anton followed. They came round the wooden fence; Anton could barely resist looking back at Mel and Ludowik, still sitting there in the striped shadows of the loosely fitted fence boards.

  Alex licked his lips.

  - You… you are good. Just don't goof off. There was this one guy before you… Bottom line - always go all the way. Got it?

  - I was going all the way, - said Anton. - I just...

  - No one cares, - said Alex. - Here, at least, you got lucky - so take advantage of it…. You pro?

  - No, - said Anton. - Didn't have enough time.

  - Mel never picks non-pros, - said Alex. - Guess you are real hot stuff. Good for you… Just don't sweat it and you'll be fine. It really isn't that bad, if you can get used to it.

  Anton looked around. About thirty feet off to the side he saw two small groups of guys, of the type whose heads usually tower above the crowd. Four in yellow T's and four in green. One of them, with a shaved head, held a green shirt in his hands.

  - Hey, - said the shaved one. - This one's yours.

  - Anton, - said Anton, putting out his hand.

  - Vova, - said the shaved one.

  They all had sweaty palms. And strong, honest handshakes.

  - Arthur...

  - Igor...

  - Kostya...

  Alex nodded to his team, and they followed suit:

  - Oleg...

  - Slavik...

  - Another Slavik...

  - Dima...

  They all stood there, fidgeting, watching as Anton took off his white tee and put on the green one, smelling of... what?

  - So… we will be playing together, - said Vova, with noticeable awkwardness.

  - Yep, - said Anton.

  - Who did you play for?

  - "Zenith", youth team...

  - What do you mean youth?

  - Just that... Didn't have time to go pro...

  The guys in green looked at one another.

  - He is very good, - said Alex. - Mel accepted him, remember?

  - Right, - Vova agreed instantly. Anton sensed relief in his voice.

  - Let's go, - said Alex. - It's time.

  Anton felt like only a minute has passed since Ludowik said "Go ahead, guys"...

  Ludowik and Mel were still sitting where they left them. In the shadows, under the fence.

  - Ready? - Mel smiled. He had a kind, sincere smile; Anton immediately felt better, smiled back timidly:

  - But we… what about practice? Combinations?

  - We will be playing with players, not combinations, - said Mel seriously. - I will be helping you guys, Ludowik - them. No fouls, no rough play, listen to the whistle, you'll figure out the rest, - and Mel nodded, indicating that the time for talk has passed.

  - You play offense with me, - whispered Vova.

  - But we haven't practiced, - Anton offered gingerly.

  Vova frowned:

  - Just keep your eyes open. I'll go forward and pull your defender, then overhead pass to you, and you dunk it...

  Ludowik pursed his lips and whistled sharply. The ball shot up; Ludowik's team rushed into offense, quick, tight. For a second Anton froze; Vova pushed him from behind, screamed something vulgar, and Anton "turned on": saw the ball bouncing off the snow under the wide palm of the yellow number "5", then saw Alex waiting for a pass, then saw the whole game - all the little wheels and gears, ready to click, connect, and - here we go - the whole mechanism of the opponent's team comes into motion, and here is Alex going for the net, and Kostya and Igor defending it...

  The shot failed. Kostya intercepted, passed to Igor, who passed to Arthur; Anton was being covered by a defender with a number "6" on his chest, Anton couldn't remember his name. He had to get rid of him as soon as possible; Vova was waiting for a pass, and Arthur passed him the ball, but Alex - it was Alex! - jumped up and intercepted, and sped towards the net, dancing, avoiding the defenders, then passed the ball to one of his teammates, got it back, jumped up again...

  Out of the corner of his eye Anton saw Mel swing his arm. A round stone the size of a chicken egg hit Alex on the back of the head; the ball deflected off the rim. Alex fell, throwing his long ropy arms forward.

  - Zero-zero, - said Mel calmly.

  Anton was already next to Alex and saw his eyes roll back into focus. Anton offered his hand, but Alex stood up on his own, with an effort. Straightened up, tossed the stone off the court with the tip of his sneaker. Carefully touched the back of his head.

  - Don't just stand there! - he snapped at Anton. - Play!

  Anton looked back at Mel in bewilderment.

  - Play, Antosha, - said Mel softly. - No big deal.

  Anton looked around, trying to find the eyes of his teammates. Some looked away. Some smirked.

  The ball was back in the game. Almost immediately the opposite team executed a good combination, setting up one of the Slaviks for a shot, but he missed.

  The game is the game; despite the shock and the ringing in the ears Anton was slowly regaining his feel for the court, the ball, the team. He began to understand Vova, mentally completing combinations in his head; he got into a struggle for the ball, won it and made a solid pass to Kostya, got a pass back and passed it off again, to Vova. Vova dashed forward once again, he finally managed to pull off Anton's defender, Anton opened up, Vova passed, and for the first time since the beginning of the game Anton felt a real rush. He flew up for the dunk...

  He had time to see the ball fall into the net. And right then, with a delay, he felt pain: from Anton's shoulder protruded a small dart, like a sewing pin with a little silk wig on its head.

  Fighting the darkness before his eyes, Anton pulled out the dart. There was little blood, and it clotted immediately.

  Someone was applauding. The ball rolled off the court.

  - Two-nothing, - said Mel, satisfied. - Splendid, Tosha.

  Anton looked about in confusion.

  - Play, - said Vova quickly.

  Anton looked at Mel, not comprehending.

  - Forget about that scratch, - said Mel. - You scored! We are up, two-zero. What do you say we extend the advantage?

  The game began again, but Anton could no longer understand it. He was just a spectator. He saw the "yellows" scramble for the net, saw the "greens" defend feverishly, saw Vova scream at Igor. Saw Oleg rush forward, jump up for a 3-pointer but instead make a nice pass to Alex, who managed to shake his cover. Alex flew up above the net - and at that second a metal sphere, a ball bearing from some giant wheel, hit him in the temple.

  The ball rolled around the rim, but didn't make it in, and fell to the outside; someone - Ludowik! - cursed, disappointed.

  - Still two-nothing, - announced Mel with satisfaction.

  Alex rose from the icy snow. Looked about blindly. Glanced over Anton, but didn't see him.

  - Ball back in the game, - said Mel. - What's wrong, Tosha?

  Anton said nothing. He watched Alex stumble across the court - still blindly. As if darkness still clouded his sight.

  - What's wrong, Anton? The game is on...

  - But I can't, not like this, - said Anton.

  Ludowik grinned. Jerked his head back, tossing his spectacles back into place. Shook his long, lacklustre hair.

  Mel raised his eyebrows:

  - No "buts". Like your mommy told you when you were little, when you wouldn't eat your cereal.

  The word "mommy" was like the sound of metal scratching across the glass. Anton twitched; Mel was smiling meekly, looking into his eyes.

  Then Anton wanted to hide - again. Hide from that look, from the word "mommy", from everything. He picked up the ball; somewhere inside he heard a voice, reminding him that he could hide in the game. He suddenly yearned to put that orange ball into the net, yearned greatly, like one would sometimes yearn to scratch an itchy mosquito bite.

  Onward. The ball pounding against the frozen snow. Vova caught on immediately - he is a great playmaker, Vova. A pass, another pass, a fake; a lunge, a spin, a jump...

  Something hit Anton from behind. He stumbled and fell, stretched out on the snow; he couldn't feel his body and couldn't possibly see his back, but somehow he knew that right in the middle of it was the handle of a heavy throwing knife, that this was the end, that it's not fair, that it's low, and yet that the cruel game is finally over, at least...

  - Four-nothing, - said a voice, far and above.

  - It's just the beginning, - replied another voice.

  - It's a good beginning…. See, Lu, I was right.

  - Let's keep going...

  - Let's keep going...

  - ...oing...

  Anton closed his eyes, waiting for the annoying echoing in his ears to settle down. For a complete silence.

  - Stop laying around! - he felt the tip of a shoe poke him gently in the ribs. - Get up...

  And Anton felt the knife - woosh! - come out of his back.

  - Come on, come on… Get up.

  They grabbed him by the shirt and pulled up; he realized that he can once again move his arms and legs. He felt dull pain in his back, like after a good smack with the shaft of a shovel. He had that happen once, a long time ago, his neighbor got upset over a picked off cherry tree and...

  Neighbor? Cherries?

  He got up onto his hands and knees. Then squatted; Ludowik was standing next to him, wiping the knife on his pants, his eyes, scoffing, but not unkind, glistening from behind his muddy glasses:

  - Mel made a good choice… You are persistent. Keep going?

  - Now? - asked Anton quietly. And heard how pathetic the question came out.

  - What do you think, let him rest? - Mel's voice came from somewhere far off.

  Anton forced himself up.

  - All right, - sneered Ludowik. - Hit the showers, guys.


* * *


  The walls of the shower room were covered with white tile. In a few places the tiles fell off, leaving dark squares of concrete; the ceiling was lined with heavy water drops and the shower - a plastic head mounted onto a tall metal pipe - was churning out a wide stream of really, really hot water. Anton tried turning the knobs, but in vain - the temperature could not be controlled.

  The guys stood there with their heads up, their foreheads facing the burning water. The shirts were off now, and Anton couldn't tell his team from the opponent's, Mel's players from Ludowik's.

  The shower room was big. There were enough showers for everyone. Accidentally - or not - Anton picked a stall right across from Alex's.

  Of all these guys Anton felt closest to Alex, an opponent. Perhaps because Alex was the first one he met?

  - Just get right under it, - said Alex, watching as Anton tried to cool the hot water in his hands. - You'll get used to it. It's not boiling or anything.

  - Really? - hesitated Anton.

  - Listen to me, - said Alex. - Just get right under.

  Anton listened. It was unbearable at first, but then - rather quickly - he indeed got used to it.

  - So why are you here? - asked Alex, looking at the wet ceiling. His cheeks were way too pale for someone standing under a hot shower.

  Anton decided to say nothing.

  - I was in the army, - said Alex. - I got … by these bastards... Doesn't matter. Basically, I was in the army. What about you?

  - I was never in the army, - said Anton. - I was in college...

  - A civilian? - exclaimed Alex. - Why then?

  Anton pretended not to hear.

  - I thought I'd like, get a break, or something, - said Alex pensively. - On account of those bastards. Turned out - nothing of the sort. Ludowik just needed a player. Would have gone in on standard charges otherwise...

  - What does that mean - on standard charges? - asked Anton.

  Alex shifted around under the hot water.

  - Who knows. I think it's worse than this, though… Much worse. That guy, who played with Mel before you - he is in on standard charges now.

  - What did you call me a bitch for? - asked Anton.

  Alex scowled at him:

  - You don't get it… If you kept playing like you played during those first ten minutes, you wouldn't be here right now. You'd be somewhere very different.

  The water gushed from the showers. The tiles glistened with a white radiance.

  - What's it to you? - asked Anton.

  Alex sighed:

  - People have to support one another...

  The others were talking nearby. Their voices created a strange, bird-like echo in the steamy room.

  - Yeah, - said Anton, just to break the silence.

  - Figure this, - said Alex, rubbing his hands over his shoulders. - Even if one of those bastards was in here… I'd wish him well. Honest to God.

  - What did he do? - asked Anton quietly. - The guy who played before me?

  - He goofed off, - said Alex grudgingly. - Or maybe he didn't. Maybe it was just the way he was. And he was a pro, too, international level... Mel said he didn't love the game. That means something - to love the Game... Take you - you scored twice today. And I, I goofed, twice. A couple of more goofs - and off I go on standard charges...

  - No, - said Anton quickly.

  Alex shrugged:

  - No... Because next time I won't goof.

  - How can you love this game? - whispered Anton.

  Alex smiled sadly:

  - The Game - it's just what it is... I've been in basketball since elementary school. Since first grade. Thought I'd be in it my whole life... But then came the army... I didn't make it in the army team... They had this bastard of a coach. So they let me go... Also on "standard charges", - Alex sighed. - So that's that... You... You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to - I am not prying or anything. Just making conversation, that's all...

  Anton bent backwards, trying to reach the middle of his back, the place where the knife was; there was nothing there. The skin felt completely smooth to the touch.

  - It's only seems brutal in the beginning, - said Alex. - Then you get used to it... The main thing is - don't think about anything. Take Vovka. Mel changes offenders like diapers... But Vovka holds on... You hold on too...

  The water rippled in the background.

  - What now? - asked Anton.

  - We play.

  - Again? What about...

  - There is no time - said Alex very sadly. - The worst thing is... There is no time here. No morning, no night... Nothing. There is the court and the showers. That's all. And a minute or two in the shade, when Ludowik allows it... But you have to ask Mel. And he is worse, I think.

  Anton remembered Ludowik, wiping the knife on his pants. Mel is worse?

Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Translated into English by Max Hrabrov

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Russian SF&F -> [Strugatsky Brothers] [Kir Bulychev] [Sergey Lukyanenko] [Henry Lion Oldie] [Vladimir Vasilyev] [Sviatoslav Loginov] [Lyubov and Yevgeny Lukin] [Vladislav Krapivin] [Vyacheslav Rybakov] [Alexander Tyurin] [Alexander Gromov] [Marina and Sergey Dyachenko]


© Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, 2000-2002.
© Max Hrabrov, translation into English, 2002

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