A Whole New Game

“I knew I was in trouble. Heimlich was bearing down on me like a torpedo, and reinforcements could never reach me in time.” Ludwig Krauss paused to let the gravity of the tale sink in. “I ducked below Heimlich’s line of momentum and was able to send him spinning with a shoulder check, while limiting my own recoil to the one permissible pace. But recall that I was playing Fusilier, and had already passed the ball three times on the sortie, so I was under increased positioning restrictions. I was rooted now on that spot and had no legal pass.” In illustration, Krauss palmed the überball he was holding and looked from side to side as if for valid receivers. He found none, unsurprisingly, since he and his two listeners were sitting in their clinic’s otherwise-empty waiting room, having closed early for once on a Starday afternoon.

Leah reached out and batted the leather sphere upward from her husband’s grip, meeting far less resistance than the dastardly Heimlich might have, had he tried such a thing. She caught it with her other hand. “Wait, let me see if I’ve got this. You couldn’t pass because you were inside the deflector’s ellipse and had more than two men downfield of you? Why not bounce it off Heimlich’s head, and let your side catch it on the rebound?” She brandished the ball as if to hurl it at her brother Michael’s skull, but of course did not throw it. Michael’s recovery from his head wound two years before had been nothing short of astounding, but ‘Never concuss a brain-injured patient with an überball’ was among the first things taught in medical school. Or so Leah assumed, having no actual medical degree.

“You are oversimplifying the function of the deflector’s ellipse,” Krauss answered. “You must picture lines extending from the major and minor axes, dividing the field into four…” He trailed off with a frown. Not only were the Celdans failing to focus on this crucial point, but they both seemed to be holding back laughter! “In any event,” he recovered, “I would have no time to wait for my teammates to move into position Rommel, Captain of the Black-and-Gold, feinted a check to put Gödel off balance and cut toward me at full clip!” Leah nudged Michael, and they both assumed suitably shocked expressions at this news.

“I was momentarily bewildered, as you might imagine, by this unorthodox tactic. Rommel’s move was not strictly illegal, but it left the Black-and-Gold midfield dangerously imbalanced. And then it struck me: his actions could mean only one thing.” Krauss paused dramatically. “He was setting up a false-surge gambit!”

“The FIEND!” shouted Leah and Michael simultaneously. They looked at each other, both surprised by the echo, then broke up laughing “The worst kind of gambit!” managed Leah between gusts of laughter.

“It may seem a laughable strategem,” admitted Krauss, choosing to misjudge the target of their mirth, “but if anyone could pull off, it was Rommel. It was imperative that I keep both him and Heimlich clear of the ball.” He looked around for the ball to illustrate his point, but Michael and Leah had moved further apart and were tossing it back and forth.

“Rommel’s nonstandard positioning left him little protection under the rules,” he reminded them. “I could meet him with any check I liked. HOWEVER,” — here he raised a finger in caution — “If I recoiled even a single pace, the ball would be forfeit, and Rommel’s current position would define the anchoring arc for their countersortie…an unacceptable edge for the Black-and-Gold.”

Michael and Leah were throwing the ball more vigorously now, ricocheting it off the floor and ceiling. Leah lunged for an errant throw and managed to keep hold of the ball, though her momentum carried her a couple of steps after the catch. “Traveling,” her brother chided her with a grin. “Ya dirty Traveler.”

“Nope,” she countered. “I’m playing Sapper, I’m outside any of the primary ellipses, it’s scoreless, and no sortie has yet lasted longer than three minutes.”

Krauss nodded approval. These were the precise circumstances under which a Sapper might legally take an extra pace with the ball. Though the gloating manner in which Leah was now sticking her tongue out at her brother would have earned her a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“What about Rommel?” Michael reminded him. “Did he false-surge your skinny Kreigerian arse?”

“Knowing he had me pinned,” Krauss answered, “he came in low for a leg check. I had no time to reason out a response, so in desperation I leapt straight upward.” Krauss’s voice rose in triumph. “And somehow, I cleared him!”

Michael let a low incoming throw rebound from his knee, sending it over his sister’s head. Leah made a jump for it but was barely able to graze the ball with her fingers, deflecting it neatly out the open window. “I was aiming for that window,” she asserted unconvincingly.

Michael pressed his point: “But even if Rommel missed his check, they could cop you for traveling, right?”

“So Rommel believed,” said Krauss, and allowed himself a thin smirk. “But only if my motion resulted in actual progress along the field in any direction. I had noted the spot where I left the turf, and though it led to an awkward landing — my left anterior talofibular ligament would never be quite the same — I managed to plant both feet back on that precise spot. I was dreadfully off-balance, but with Rommel’s position now outfield of my own, the Löwengarde variant rules were in effect, making Gödel a valid receiver. I managed to send the ball in his direction just before I lost my balance entirely, along with any remaining dignity, and sprawled headlong to the turf.”

“But you won?” asked Michael impatiently.

“Well, no. The match was a scoreless tie. But the point is…”

SCORELESS TIE!” roared Michael. “Ludwig you daft bastard, you put us through that whole story for a scoreless tie?”

“Do I complain when you drone on about your latest Nine-Card Switch hand against some brainless merchant?” shot back Krauss.

“Card games and brainless rich men are what keeps this place afloat!”

Both men looked to Leah for a tie-breaking vote, but she was paying no attention, looking out the window with a broad grin.

Krauss knew fully well that the window looked over a rather uninteresting vacant lot. Curiosity overcame the drive to outargue his brother-in-law, and he joined Leah at the window. Outside were a dozen or so of the Celdan travelers who constantly came and went from the little clinic. Children and adults alike were shouting enthusiastically as they hurled the wayward uberball about the weed-grown lot.

“They’re doing it wrong,” muttered Krauss. “They are just tossing the ball at random. There, look at the backfield; no one is even covering their…” Leah was tying up her skirt to free her legs for running. Krauss sighed. “You are not actually listening, are you, love?”

“Not even a little,” she agreed cheerfully. “I’m going to play übercomplicatedball.” She leaned toward Krauss and kissed him, then swung herself over the windowsill and dropped to the ground outside. Michael followed her seconds later, leaving Krauss to watch the game disapprovingly from the window.

None of the players showed any position discipline, or indeed any awareness of which position they were meant to be playing. Leah caught a pass from Sean the Tinker, pivoted, and shot the ball over to Wee Dan. The trio began moving downfield while executing a competent enough series of passes. The Murphy twins harried them from both sides, though, while Michael swooped from midfield to intercept. “Luck of the twins, my skinny Kreigerian arse,” growled Krauss. He vaulted over the windowsill himself. That same talofibular ligament flared with pain on landing, but Krauss ignored it and sprinted for the field. “Leah!” he shouted. “Retrolateral pass is legal in that zone. I’m open!!”.

The last vestiges of daylight were fading when old Herr Reinhardt shuffled onto the road alongside the field. Michael shouted a greeting, and Reinhardt waved back with his left (and only) arm. Wilhelm Reinhardt had been unfortunate enough to lose his right arm not in battle, but in a drunken boating accident. The Imperial Navy had discarded him as useless, with none of the honors (or pensions) that a battle wound would have won him. He scratched out a living as a courier now.

“Überball!” he exclaimed heartily. “Who’s ahead?”

The Murphy lass shrugged. “Don’t think anyone’s keeping score,” she said. Her twin brother added, “Leah’s been playing for both sides, anyway.”

“I know better than to ask you lot,” snorted the delivery man. “Doktor Krauss, who is ahead?”

“Five marks to four, their advantage,” answered Krauss at once. And what ought to be over thirty positioning flags, he added inwardly, but opted to keep that thought private. Instead he asked, “Any deliveries tonight, or just a friendly visit?”

“You’ve got another letter from that Victorian doctor.” From most Imperial citizens, the words might have a ring of accusation. Herr Reinhardt, though, had been a staunch ally of the Clinic ever since collapsing on their doorstep last winter, with a serious case of aspiration pneumonia. He’d had no money, of course, but treating him had paid off manyfold. A reliable courier who could keep quiet about foreign entanglements was a valuable asset.

Krauss reached for the letter, but Leah was faster. She opened the envelope with her thumbnail and unfolded the letter in the glow of a nearby gaslight. Krauss moved closer to read over her left shoulder, while Michael did the same from the right.

“Chesterfield thinks the concept is viable,” said Krauss, at the same time that Leah marveled, “He doesn’t think we’re crazy.”

“He can think you both are off your nut, for all I care,” grinned Michael. “He’s found us funding. Wait here; I’ll break out the good whiskey.”

Leah looked over at the puzzled messenger. “Join us in a toast, Wilhelm? I think we may be real scientists now.”

Michael headed indoors in search of whiskey, while the other two finished reading the letter. Leah smiled at the end. “Interesting postscript from Henry’s daughter. She seems like a bright lass. I wish I could spend some time with them both in person.”

It took Michael little time to return with a bottle and a set of shot glasses. Krauss waited until four drinks had been poured, then raised his to offer a toast. “To my brilliant wife, my too-damned-clever brother-in-law, and to absent colleagues in every nation.”

Michael answered the toast with his own: “Let those who love us, love us. Let those who hate us, hate us. And let us hate no man until we have walked a mile in his shoes. ‘Cause then we’re a mile away from the bastard, and we have his shoes!”

“To Project Miach,” said Leah simply. The name had come from an old Celdan storyteller, and after hearing the tale, Krauss had to admit it was a fitting one.

They drank. The Celdan whiskey burned Krauss’s throat, and he could see Reinhardt’s eyes widen as well, but the two Travelers were unfazed. “So let’s get to work,” said Leah. “It’s a whole new game now.”

A Whole New Game

World of Gears PabloIchiban Krauss