Part One: All in the Same Gang
After twenty-three First Earth centuries of isolation, we who live on Fifth Earth were rediscovered, and we found out what was the germ of truth in the myth of First Earth, humanity’s native world. The mythical League of Eight Worlds had really existed, consisting of First Earth and the seven worlds colonized from it. Fifth Earth had indeed been a member of the League. However, an alien species had blockaded the wormholes, preventing any spacecraft but their own from passing through it. This isolated the Eight Worlds from each other. The eight colonized planets underwent technical and social regression. On Fifth Earth, this calamity was remembered as the Sundering of the Worlds, a punishment sent by the Infinite to sinful humanity. Moreover, efforts to terraform Fifth Earth had indifferent results, resulting in the extinction of many of the First Earth animals and the death of many colonists, including some with highly necessary technical skills. Our planet regressed by far the most into the past. The first hundred Standard Years of isolation were enough to plunge us into an early Iron Age despotism, the Kingdom of Danallo, built upon slave labor of subjugated peoples. The scientific method was forgotten. Beasts of burden provided energy. Information was processed with a quill pen. The rusting artifacts of First Earth technology were worshiped as sacred relics. The other peoples of the League were remembered with fear as ’the sky demons.’
Since that time, Fifth Earth history has reenacted with some variations the history of First Earth. During twenty-three Standard Centuries of isolation, we passed through slavery, theocracy, feudalism, formation of rival nation-states, and industrialization. In Danallo, the oldest of the states, the form of government passed from Kingdom to Republic to an Empire without an Emperor. The Empire flourished in an age of violence, tyranny, and wastage of life unparalleled in our history, though not in that of First Earth.
-Danallian Encyclopedia, Fifth Earth: Ancient History
The score was tied. Less than a minute remained on the clock. Peb dribbled the ball downcourt and saw Narkeedi ahead of her, poised to spring at the goal. Zel was climbing to her feet at the opposite wall of the court. Thirty feet away, Peb could see Zel’s mouth bleeding. Peb pumped the ball toward Narkeedi. As it shot from Peb’s fingers, a blow smacked her in the left kidney. She went sprawling on the hardwood floor.
"Too bad, shorty!" an unseen male voice jeered from the stands.
Peb leaped to her feet. Her eyes, fixed on the loose ball, took in two images. The ball caroming off the side wall of the court. Fendi and other fans pounding the other side of the wall with their fists.
"Go get her, Peb! Bash her, Peb!" Fendi shouted.
The ball bounced off the end wall near the goal, but high off the floor. Narkeedi sprang for it. It bounced off her fingertips. She scrambled for it. So did a short, heavily-muscled Invader with 4 on the back of her padded halter.
The fans were roaring, "Avengers! Avengers! Avengers!"
"Invaders! Invaders! Invaders!" For an instant, the ball hesitated between Number Four’s fingers. Narkeedi slammed a hand down, knocking it to the floor. Narkeedi caught it on the bounce, and charged for the hoop.
We’ve won, Peb thought. She glanced at the scoring module high overhead.
Thirty-eight seconds, but time enough! Tall, fast Narkeedi was the team’s best shooter. Zel’s jaw was red with blood. She charged toward Number Four. Two other Invaders were converging on Zel. So was Peb. It was three against three now. Each team had two players in the penalty box.
Number Four spun to meet Zel just below the hoop. Zel slammed a forearm into the Invader’s chin. Number Four rocked on her feet. Then she counterpunched to Zel’s bloody mouth. Zel smashed a knee into Number Four’s gut. The husky Invader doubled over. With both fists, Zel struck an uppercut to the falling chin. All these hits were legal. Only the breasts were off limits.
Avenger fans were ecstatic. "Bash her, Zel! Stomp her face!"
Narkeedi stepped off to make the lay-up as Number Four was falling backwards. Narkeedi stumbled over her, and both collapsed in a heap. The Invaders’ fans laughed and hooted.
"Good work, NarkeedI!"
"Nice job, NarkeedI!"
The ball ricocheted off the rim of the hoop, then bounced off the floor toward Peb. She snatched for it and caught it.
"Shoot, Peb! Shoot! Shoot!"
Number Four lurched to her feet and charged toward Peb. Narkeedi was close behind her. Peb moved to sneak the ball past Number Four to Narkeedi. Before she could let it go, Number Four planted an elbow in Narkeedi’s face. Narkeedi fell backwards. Her helmeted head bounced off the court wall. She collapsed on her back. For an instant, Peb’s eyes froze on Narkeedi. Her teammate lay still. No more substitutions, no more time-outs, flashed through Peb’s mind. Suddenly, an enormous fist bashed Peb’s face. Peb spun toward the floor. Someone snatched the ball from her.
"Avengers! Avengers! Come on, Avengers!"
Peb hit wood. Once more she felt pain in her left kidney.
"Have a nice sleep, Shorty!" Above Peb’s head, fists and feet were striking human flesh.
"Invaders! Invaders! Invaders!"
Zel was under attack from three sides. She kicked Invader Number Seven in the crotch. Number Seven fell on her side, doubled up and fighting for breath. Zel traded several hits with Invaders Number Four and Eight.
"Atta girl, Zel! Stomp her ass!" Fendi shouted.
Peb was rising to her feet. Lanky big-footed Number Eight gave Zel a swift kick in the guts. The blow threw Zel on top of Peb, knocking the wind out of her.
"Too bad, Zel! Better luck next season!"
We just lost, Peb thought.
Number Eight was dribbling the ball up the court.
"Invaders! Invaders! Invaders!"
"Go get ’em, Zel!" bellowed Fendi. "Get up and kill ’em." Crouched, gasping, and holding her belly, Zel got up. She had two bleeding cuts on her lower lip. A red drop fell off her chin.
"Invaders! Invaders! Invvaders!"
Breathless, Peb struggled to her feet. Number Eight leaped and tossed the winning goal through the hoop. When the klaxon sounded seconds later, the roar nearly drowned it out. The Avengers had just lost the Quarter Finals. Girls’ High School Number 984 was out of the tournament.
"Ee-yah! Invaders! Ee-yah! Invaders! Ee-yah! Invaders!"
Zel said something inaudible between her gasps but her lips formed the words, sister fuckers. Over the din, Peb could hear the defiant chanting of loyal Avengers’ fans.
"Nar-kee-dI! Nar-kee-dI! Nar-kee-dI!"
"Good work, Peb! Nice job, Zel! We’re all proud of you!" Fendi shouted amidst the tumult.
Peb and Zel walked over to Narkeedi just as their fallen teammate sat up. They helped her to her feet. "I’m all right," said Narkeedi. "Just got a sore head, that’s all." Zel unstrapped Narkeedi’s helmet and pulled it off, revealing the bleeding scalp.
Peb’s side still ached. I need a hot bath.