December 20, 2022

Death is the Referee

by Katlina Sommerberg

“Stopping now isn’t an option, because my choices are a revitalization vat or a coffin. Gimmicks either die on the court or shelve themselves into a cryopod.”

I am one of four genemodded clones jogging onto the court. All three opponents wear black jerseys, proof they all survived a previous season. I’m the novice — stepped out of the vat this morning — the designated Gimmick of the game, wearing white to enhance the crowd’s entertainment for my eventual injuries or, as many in the audience have betted on, my death.

When a human dies, it’s a tragedy; when we die, it’s entertainment:  our dying game becomes a season’s highlight.

Ostrich, the tallest opponent, fistbumps his chest and shrieks at the crowd as if he’s oblivious to the bulletproof barrier. The inhuman sound warbling from his throat sends the crowd into a frenzy; he sounds more ostrich than human, feeding the lie that our animal DNA defines us. The others yell too, and I hesitate before I add my bleat, because I would still yearn to win this game if I wasn’t a genemoded clone.

Hippo’s honks fade into a wide yawn. His jaw stretches until I think it’s dislocated, then widens. Like he could bite my head off and swallow it whole, horns and all. Hippos lack the natural weapons of a predator — the MBA outlawed genemods from carnivorous animals after last season ended in a bloodbath — but he’s a legendary grappler because of his bulk and short legs.

Ostrich stands as far from his goal as he’s allowed. Clearly, he’s sticking with the strategy which best matches his digitigrade, long legs:  reckless offense, ignoring his own goal entirely. Ironically the opposite of how a real ostrich would protect its eggs. Hippo and Armadillo are bulkier, more defensive than me — and veterans like Ostrich — so Ostrich’ll sprint for the ball and throw it at my goal.

The buzzer squawks, vibrating the waxed hardwood under my cloven feet. The crowd cheers as quickly as Ostrich reacts. He lunges to intercept the thirty kilogram ball falling from the ceiling and catches it before the buzzer silences.

A fraction of the crowd cheers. The volume difference means Ostrich is not a fan favorite, likely because he’s not a brawler and the crowd finds his playstyle — shattering knees, hips, or other bones with a precise throw — scummy, because the audience craves the intimate violence of bloody victory marking the winner and the loser, not the dispassionate efficiency of a sniper.

Ostrich eyes Armadillo and Hippo, but both are defensive and more likely to catch the ball than let it slip by them. No, Ostrich is ignoring me because I’m his target.

The goals are smaller than hockey nets, so guarding would be simple if we played in teams. Simple, not easy, because the trick is blocking without injury. I squat and hold my arms tight to my body, so Ostrich can’t land an easy wrist-breaker. Better to let him score — plus two points for him, minus one for me — than cripple myself for the rest of the match. I’m tempted to abandon mine; my mods are cloven hooves and ram horns, shit-tier for defense and too gimmicky for above average offense.

Ostrich grips the ball in a two-handed throw, pulling it back as he stares down Hippo, but Hippo stands relaxed as if he’s superior to us all. Armadillo hunches over, his natural plates slide in place, and he hunkers over his goal in flawless defense.

Ostrich’s body coils. His gangly ostrich limbs fold up for maximum buildup of force. I blink; he’s uncoiled, turned, and locked his sights on the gap behind my left shoulder. My arms are too low to block a high shot; I should’ve known the projectile build wouldn’t be limited to shooting through the larger gaps around my legs.

His inhuman eyes meet mine; his body slows, like he’s hesitating, and his gray eyes beg me to dodge. I’m pissed at his pity. I don’t need charity from a veteran player, especially not one built to run from confrontation instead of fighting like a baller. I’m not a coward like him. And I’m going to prove to the whole crowd my horns aren’t ornamental; they’re a threat.

Impulsively, I lunge left.

The ball thwacks into the crown of my head — a perfect block — and the crowd roars. The ball bounces high in a vertical trajectory. My skull and neck throb. Concussion, most likely. I shake my head, trying to clear the brain fog.

I reach out to catch the falling ball, but Hippo slams into my shoulder. I slide back to defend my goal, but he plucks the ball out of the air and runs for it, charging for Ostrich’s goal.

Nobody intercepts him.

While Hippo has the ball, I muscle in on the drop zone, pushing Ostrich to the outside. He’s taller than me, but his hollow bones are fragile and a stray kick of my hooves could ruin his whole game, so he backs off. I doubt this’ll work once he figures out my range and abilities, but he’ll never take me seriously if I can’t steal the ball.

A child bouncing in her parent’s lap joins the crowd’s answering cheer. Despite the thick glass between the players and the audience, the noise hurts my ears.

“Two points to Hippo! Minus one to Ostrich!” the announcer yells over the screams.

The ceiling door slides open. The ball drops.

I jump for it, and the thirty kilogram weight slams into my chest. The breath leaves my lungs, but I wrap my arms around the ball and land, knees bent to guard against Ostrich’s counter—

But he jumps to my left. A second ball? It’s a possibility. Rare. I can’t worry about my own goal; I pivot and sprint.

“Two points to Ostrich! Minus one to Ram!”

I run. The ball restricts my breathing as I hold it tight to my body, minimizing the drain on my back and arms while guarding against steals. I’ve got to hurry and score before the ball drains too much of my stamina, but Armadillo’s guarding his goal and Hippo’s heavy strides clunk behind me.

My heartrate pounds, drowning out the crowd. But I’m not playing for their applause.

This is what I was made for, even if they made me poorly — not my fault, but my burden to shuck off. I’ll prove everyone wrong. I’ll succeed, I’ll win, I’ll go down as the first gimmick to win a match. No, win a season!

Ostrich’s goal is on the other side of the court. I sprint, outspeeding Hippo.

My hoof steps on the paint, and I hurl the ball inside the unguarded goal. My left shoulder shrieks. I held the damned weight too long before releasing, but it’s not a serious injury.

The thirty kilogram ball drops like a stone — throwing it is harder than I thought — before it reaches the goal. Would’ve been easy to block, but it rolls between the posts and disappears down the chute.

“Two points to Ram! Minus one to Ostrich!”

Thunderous applause drowns out the squeaking sneakers and the ball drop’s mechanics. They’re cheering for a modern gladiator genemodded to fill the underdog niche, and I hate them for their willful ignorance.

Yet I raise my arms and drink in their approval.

My stomach drops when the cheers die. I want to stay in this moment, but it’s already passed. I understand the veterans now; I’ll play again and again for the dopamine kick. Nothing else compares. Maybe these humans know greater joy in their lives off the spectator’s bench, but there is nothing else I want more than to score.

The applause roars to life again; no, louder, with whistles and rabid yells. I know it’s not because of me, and I try grinding out their cheers by grinding my teeth. I hate myself more than the crowd for jealously craving the spotlight.

“Two points to Hippo! Minus one to Ostrich!”

As I turn, the buzzer shrieks thrice in rapid succession. I hesitate; anything more than one buzz signals a timeout. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to move, until Hippo and Armadillo run back to their goals.

I trot back to mine, passing where Ostrich slumps against a panel of bulletproof glass, holding one foot completely off the ground. His knee bends the wrong way — strangely more normal than his uninjured digitigrade leg. He’s not looking at the injury, but at the medic team running to the court’s entrance.

“First knockout of the game goes to Hippo!” The announcer is barely intelligible over the roaring crowd. “Let’s get that on slowmo. Will Ostrich’s knee ever be the same?”

Ostrich throws his head back and laughs. I’m strangely fascinated. Is he delirious? Pissed his injury will be a national obsession for a week or he lost the game? Or is he amused that the announcer’s talking out of his ass, because he’ll be in a revitalization vat until he heals (or rots if they forget to take him out)? He catches my eye and laughs harder — he’s still laughing as the medics carry him out on a stretcher.

The buzzer squawks.

I sprint toward the ball drop; Armadillo and Hippo’s sneakers shriek as they take off at the same second. With Ostrich out of the game, it’s anyone’s guess who’s faster. My digitigrade legs are shorter than Armadillo’s, but I’m accelerating faster.

I reach the paint first. Eye on the mechanism, I leap and grab the ball, watching for a second ball, because a mechanical error could give me four points. Anticipation chokes my lungs.

But the trapdoor slides back into place. I squeeze the ball to my chest until my diaphragm complains, and land.

Armadillo slams into me at a full sprint; his natural armor tears the skin off my tricep. He grabs for the ball, but I spin from his body slam and run without considering the direction.

Blood trails down from my arm, wets my jersey, and the crowd howls like baboons in a blood frenzy. The announcer quips. I tune them out and listen for Hippo and Armadillo’s shoes. They’re on my heels; I accelerate faster than them, but now they’re closing the gap.

I’m three steps towards Ostrich’s goal before I realize I’m running the wrong way. Scoring in a removed player’s goal will earn me two negative points. So I adjust my grip on the ball, cradling it with my good hand like it’s my baby and holding my injured right arm out for balance.

I turn tighter than I thought I would. One hoof skids on the waxed floor. I nearly fall on my ass, but I find my footing and charge.

The closest goal is Hippo’s. And with his genemods and one point lead on me, he’ll risk everything to defend.

But it’s not over until I win. Stopping now isn’t an option, because my choices are a revitalization vat or a coffin. Gimmicks either die on the court or shelve themselves into a cryopod.

Hippo skids to a halt and trots backwards, his arms out and already positioned for a grab. He backs up until his back nearly touches a goal post. With so much of the goal obscured by his own body and my poor throwing accuracy, he’s forcing me to fight him at his strongest.

Behind me, Armadillo stands between the ball drop and his goal. I’m too far away and he’s too close for me to have a chance at making the goal. If I make the goal, Armadillo will have an opening to score in mine, but I can’t worry about my future opponent when Hippo is between me and my two points.

I charge, willing my legs to accelerate as fast as possible. If I push him into the goal and score, then I’ll earn four points and secure a lead. No time to think or care about the crowd; I focus on the sound of my hooves pummeling the court.

Hippo catches my horns, one in each hand. His feet slide back until the backs of his shoes collide with his goal.

The sudden stop jostles my spine and fuzzes my vision. The slightest twist to the left or right shoots painful jolts down my straining neck, so I can’t slip out of his grip. I hug the ball tighter. I could release one hand to grapple, but that’s favorable for him.

I grin. Chewing on my mouthguard, I drop my gaze to Armadillo’s feet. I pivot and raise my right hand off the ball.

Hippo takes the bait. He pushes me, twists my head to fuck with my balance.

I let a hoof slide, like he succeeded.

He releases his grip and reaches for the ball.

I lower my head, presenting my horns forward, and charge. He has to sidestep me to avoid the blow, but he doesn’t. I accelerate faster with my digitigrade legs; we’re both surprised.

I spear him. His flesh squelches, and I’m triumphant. No, not yet — he has too many points and genemod advantages, I can’t defeat him even if he’s injured.

My hands grab his shoulders. I’m yanking him forward while I push my head forward. The horn’s tip punctures his back; the lessening resistance propels my head into his chest.

His scream is exquisite, like the sound of the world unraveling, until the cacophonous crowd drowns his voice. I won. I will survive — and yell my truth to the crowd.

Neck straining, my jaw pops. I clench my eyes against the blood sliding down my face. The smells of the sport are gone, replaced by the sharpness of fresh blood. I see nothing. I taste my opponent’s death on my lips.

I run him through until my forehead squashes his pec. He slumps, and I shove the ball into his belly, pushing with my head and arms until I force him into his own goal.

“Four points to Ram! Minus one to Hippo!” The buzzer shrieks three times, signaling a medical intervention. “First double-pointer of the game goes to the Gimmick! Looks like Hippo will spend the rest of the season in the revitalization vat — if he lives.”

Hippo falls on his ass. Horn snagged on his flesh, my head follows. His ragged breaths in my ear are almost too soft to hear over the crowd’s hoots and claps, but the whistling from his chest rings.

The rage fades, leaving me blood-soaked and attached to a dying clone. With a sudden flip in consciousness, I realize I attempted to murder him — maybe he’s a dead man already and we just don’t know it — and my stomach lurches. I want to blame the steroids and synthetic testosterone in my veins, but the juice filling out my physique didn’t cause the muscle contractions that punctured his lung.

Every scream from the crowd’s bedlam hits me like a slap in the face. Why did I kill him for this empty reward?

I close my eyes and bite my tongue. I count multiples of three’s to steady myself. If I panic, I might rip my horn out, and doom him if he’s not already dead.

I could be in his place. Ostrich could’ve cracked my head open with a throw. Armadillo and Hippo both could’ve easily outmuscled me. But I went for the kill.

When the medic orders me to withdraw my horn, I’m frozen. Three orderlies pull me off him, and when they do, I finally breathe.

“The score’s five to zero, Ram in the lead by a landslide!” The announcer’s words elicit another cry from the audience, and I flinch. “Armadillo’s only chance for a comeback is a knockout! Pray for blood, this game is going down in history!”

I stand up; the crowd screams in delight. Their maniac faces grin at me through the transparent walls, thousands of eyes crawling over my skin. Millions more on the livestream. Judging my performance as worthy entertainment. I’ll never stop playing these games if I’m a crowd pleaser. Otherwise, I’ll rot in a vat.

I plant my hooves in front of my goal. If I can survive until time runs out, I’ll win without another showdown.

Armadillo is all fangs and bristles; I don’t think he’ll let me. His armored plates for skin pulse with his rapid breathing. His aggressive stance tells me he’ll run for the ball — or me — and fight.

An apology burns in my throat. But I bite my tongue. Even without the crowd baying for blood, I can’t talk to him. Players can’t talk during a game. What could I even say?

The buzzer squawks.

Armadillo charges, slower than me but fast enough to grab the falling ball before it hits the ground. As he draws closer, I hold out my arms defensively, but my body’s relaxed. My heart’s not in the game.

The fight’s drained out of me. I’m sick of the game; there’s no joy in hurting, killing other clones for the humans’ fickle approval. I won’t let them force me into a veteran’s jersey.

He raises the thirty kilogram ball over his head. He’s going to bash my skull.

I lower my hands.

I choose to die on the court.


* * *

About the Author

Katlina Sommerberg is living xyr best queer life in Portland. Previously a security engineer, xe left the industry after working in cryptocurrency and defense contracting. Unfortunately, hacking in real life is always boring or unethical, with no in-between. Xe has quadrice been honorably mentioned in the Writers of the Future Contest, and links to xyr published work is available at


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