How I Saved the Cup Final

I’ve got a bit of an embarrassing problem.  I’ve gone and fallen madly in love with a football fan.

Well, you understand, I didn’t know she was a football fan.  Not at first, anyway.  It wasn’t as if she’d walked up to me wearing a bicoloured scarf and chanting slogans.  After all, in the circumstances it would have looked a bit out of place if she had.  It was my very first space job after I graduated, looking after the robots on the Moscow, the second biggest freighter in the Terran Merchant Navy.  Big ship, lots of robots, and you can imagine I was kept pretty busy.  We were on the Sirius run to start with, which gets pretty boring after a while because it’s a fairly short trip, but at least the fact that we weren’t in space for too long meant I had plenty of time to do what I had to do.  But I’d only been on the Moscow a few weeks when the powers that be decided to send us out to Rigel with a consignment of building materials for the new colony.  Rigel!  At the sort of speed the Moscow could do, I knew that was going to be at least three months.  I wasn’t at all sure I was ready for this.

So there I was, sitting in the rec room with a cup of synthetic cocoa out of the dispenser and wondering why it was that the human race could build robots capable of all kinds of complicated tasks like nursing and navigating, but they still couldn’t get synthetic cocoa to taste like the real thing… and all of a sudden, she walked in.  Well, she didn’t exactly walk.  More sort of undulated.  I’d always thought I liked skinny girls before I saw this one, and I’d never believed in love at first sight either.  But I realised I was staring at her so hard that if I didn’t pull my chin up pretty fast I was going to get it covered in imitation cocoa, even though she wasn’t skinny.  Not that she was fat either, you understand.  She was more… how shall I put this?… large but perfectly formed.  Especially up front.  Um.  You get the picture.

She gave me this odd sort of look, and then such a knowing smile I could feel myself going red.  I’ve never been very good with women, to be honest.  Most of them don’t seem to want to talk about robots, but I’m not great at talking about anything else.  They always say things like, “Oh, Taw, don’t you know any small talk?”  That always stumps me.  I mean, I’ve always thought small talk meant things like the weather, and you just don’t get any in space.  But this one actually walked straight over to me and sat down opposite.  I started to panic.  I didn’t want to make an even worse fool of myself than I knew I was doing already.

“Hi,” she said.  “My name’s Chalmyreth.  I’m the new pilot.  How about you?”

“Er.  I’m Taw.  Robotics expert.  What happened to old Holson?”

She grinned.  “Still here.  We’re going to Rigel, remember?  You need more than one pilot and a robot for a trip of that length.  How long have you been in space?”

“Not long,” I admitted.  “About three weeks, actually.  We’ve just been doing the Sirius run so far.”

“Oh, well, that explains it.  What’s that you’re drinking?”

“Synthetic cocoa.  I’ll get you one if you like,” I offered gallantly.  “Only you probably won’t, because it’s pretty awful.  Shall I get you something else instead?”

She laughed musically.  “I’ll try the synthetic coffee, then.  Thank you.  That’ll probably be awful too, but at least it should be fairly predictably awful.  With the cocoa, you never quite know.”

I stood up, with a certain amount of difficulty caused by the fact that my knees seemed to have suddenly turned to jelly.  She had long dark wavy hair that cascaded softly around her shoulders, and her eyes were such a striking green that either she was wearing tinted contact lenses or she had Varlan ancestry somewhere along the line.  And her voice was… well, I’ve never really been the poetic type, but it was like waterfalls.  Or honey.  Or something.  Anyway, I didn’t want to think too hard about what it was currently doing to me, just in case I fell over.

“I’m glad I’ve bumped into you,” she purred, as I went to fetch her coffee.  “I’ve just run a check on the navigator and it’s playing up a bit.  Keeps slightly mislocating the Galactic centre.  I was going to call you out after the break, but since you’re here…”

“No problem,” I assured her earnestly, silently grateful for the navigator’s unexpected malfunction.  It had never given any trouble on the Sirius run.  “I’ll be along straight away, as soon as we’ve finished our drinks.”

“That’s very sweet of you, Taw.”  She smiled brilliantly.  “It’s nice to work with a robotics expert who’s so co-operative.  On the last ship I was on, there was a dreadful surly old curmudgeon who seemed to think he owned the place.”

“I had a tutor like that at university,” I said, risking a little smile.  “People like that are usually the ones who like to keep everyone else in the dark, because they’re the expert, but I don’t see it like that.  I’d be more than happy to explain to you a bit about how the navigator works.”

“Would you, Taw?” she asked, sounding genuinely interested.  “That would be lovely!”

I suppose I should really have known.  Women just aren’t interested in how robots work, apart from the ones who go into robotics themselves, who generally aren’t women at all from my point of view be-cause everything is a lot simpler if you treat them as honorary men.  But, by the time I discovered what she actually was interested in, not to mention the fact that the navigator was really working perfectly all right, I wasn’t too worried about that.

It was a wonderful evening.  And, you know, she didn’t mention football even once.  How in space was I supposed to know?

* * * * *

I must admit, I’d been very slightly worried at first.  After all, it was three months to Rigel and three months back, give or take the odd few days, and so far I hadn’t managed to hang on to a girlfriend any longer than three weeks.  That’s just about all right on a planet, where there’s plenty of room to get away from people, but one thing about being in space is that it does rather throw people together.  I didn’t fancy five months or more of Chal and me trying to avoid each other on a freighter, even one the size of the Moscow.  But as time went on, things just seemed to get better and better, except for the football.  She seemed to have the idea that all men automatically understood it.  The trouble is, I don’t.

Still, nobody’s perfect, and in all other respects I had absolutely no complaints.  I was just amazed that she seemed to be so content to put up with me.  I mean, I’m not exactly bad-looking, but there were fifteen other available young men on that ship, sixteen if you counted Vijmar, who wasn’t actually supposed to be available on account of the fact that he was married with two kids, but he tended to take the attitude that what his wife didn’t know about wouldn’t do her any harm.  A girl like Chal could have had her choice of any of them.  But she’d chosen me, and I must admit I did get a tiny bit smug about it when I caught the envious glances.  It’s not often I’ve been envied for my girlfriend.  Come to think of it, it’s not often I’ve been envied for anything much, even my brains.  I’m the sort of guy that people shake their heads sadly over when they think he’s not listening.  “Poor old Taw,” they say.  “Brain like a buzzsaw, but socially he just hasn’t got it.”  I don’t know what it is they think I haven’t got.  I mean, I’m perfectly capable of making all the conversation I need.  It generally goes, “Hallo, can you tell me what’s wrong with this robot, then?”  Then they tell me and I say, “Oh, I see.  Well, it’s probably the such-and-such, and if we have the part in stock it should take about so long to fix.”  I mean, that’s all clear enough, isn’t it?  I’m sure people wouldn’t want me to stand there waffling.

We were on the homeward voyage, about a month from Earth, when she first mentioned the Cup Final.

“Taw,” she said, “it’s the Galactic Cup Final on Rehen in six weeks’ time.  I’ve just been offered two tickets over the comnet by a friend who can’t go.  Isn’t that wonderful?”  Her green eyes – absolutely natural, not contact lenses – sparkled with excitement.

“Um,” I replied.  “Six weeks?  But it’ll take a month to get back to Earth, and then we have to get to Rehen…”

“We can do it,” she assured me.  “Listen, I’m a pilot, right?  That means I can get cheap fares on passenger flights.  And that means we can afford to take the express shuttle to Rehen.  After all, we’ll have a month’s leave once we get back to Earth.  We can do it, no problem.”

“Er… Rehen,” I said doubtfully.  “Isn’t that the place where they have all the electrical storms all the time?”

“Yes, it is, but there are force shields over everything.  It’s perfectly safe, or people wouldn’t be living there, would they?  Anyway, don’t you want to see the Cup Final or something?  It only happens once every twenty years, and there’s an Earth team in it this time, as you know.”

“Oh… yes, of course,” I replied vaguely, trying frantically to remember which Earth team it actually was.  I felt sure she’d mentioned it at some point, and had a strong suspicion that I would lose marks if I made it obvious that I had no idea.

“I mean, normally I wouldn’t even think of cheering on Italy, but this is different,” she continued, and I breathed a silent prayer of relief.  “They’re representing Earth, after all, since they won the World Cup – you do understand that, don’t you, Taw?”

I nodded vigorously.  “Oh, yes, of course.  So we’re, er, going?”  I instinctively felt I didn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter.

“Yes.  The tickets will be waiting for us at the spaceport when we get back to Earth, and I can sort out the travel arrangements over the comnet.  Oh, Taw, won’t it be wonderful?”

“Wonderful,” I echoed stupidly.  “Er… do I need a rattle?”

She gave me one of her odd looks.  “Darling, what century are you in at the moment?”

“Sorry.  I’d just vaguely heard about football rattles, that’s all.”

“I did once see one in the International Museum of Sport,” she replied.

And to think I’d been planning to take her off for a quiet few weeks’ camping in England when we got back, maybe taking in the History of Robotics exhibition in Birmingham.  Still, if she’d got the tickets, she’d got the tickets.  I suppose it might have been a great deal worse…

* * * * *

I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life.  This was the first time I’d been inside a stadium of any sort, let alone one capable of hosting a Galactic Cup Final, and I really had not been prepared for it.  The match hadn’t even kicked off yet, and the noise was absolutely deafening.  We were sitting among a crowd of supporters wearing the colours of both Italy and Earth, the better-off ones in colourful costumes and extravagant headdresses, the less well-off simply draped in flags or wearing replica shirts.  For the first time in my life, I felt disturbingly conspicuous in the plain black I’ve always worn.  Chal, however, looked completely at home; she was handy with a sewing machine, as well as all her other skills, and she had made herself a long robe in the Earth colours of sky blue, white and gold.  I listened distractedly as she explained that the gravity on this planet was as near as it was possible to get to exactly halfway between that of Earth and that of Falghor, the fifth planet of Fomalhaut, which was where the opposing team came from.  The Falghorian fans were sitting on the other side of the huge stadium, making just as much noise as the Terrans.  You probably know Falghor is one of the oldest colonies in the Galaxy, since Fomalhaut is so close to Earth, but until you see a Falghorian – which you never do on Earth, at least not without a special gravity suit – you tend to forget that the planet’s gravity is hardly more than that of Mars.  From a distance, they look like long thin stretched humans, and I suppose that’s about what they are.

I must admit, I’d never really thought about the problems of interplanetary sport until now, but when Chal started explaining it all to me I realised that it wasn’t anything like as simple as you’d think.  Before the colonisation of space, apparently, the match officials had generally been human, which was a weird thought.  After all, I may not know a lot about football but I did occasionally get called in to fix a referee that wasn’t working while I was at university.  But once you had a lot of planets with different gravitational fields – sometimes quite wildly different, as was the case between Earth and Falghor – you had to start adapting the rules to make allowances for the fact that a player under a higher gravity than he was used to would tire faster and not be able to kick the ball as far, even allowing for the additional training that teams would get in these circumstances, and a player under a lower gravity would find that the opposite was true.  Then you had to contend with things like subtle differences in the compositions of planetary atmospheres; no problem regarding Falghor – the colony there is completely enclosed because the gravity just isn’t enough to support an Earthlike atmosphere otherwise, so the composition of the air inside the geodesic domes is identical to that of Earth – but there are plenty of planets with Earthlike gravity but slightly more oxygen in the air, or slightly more carbon dioxide, or whatever, and that does have an effect on sporting performance, especially at the highest level.  Oh, and temperature to some extent, though that doesn’t matter quite as much because there aren’t any planets which are habitable outside the temperature range you get on Earth, because that’s the range the human race has evolved to cope with.  There are hotter and colder planets, and I suppose we may do some more evolving in the future so we can live on the bits of those which are currently uninhabitable, but at the moment it doesn’t affect football, apparently.  Well, not much.

So, as Chal explained to me, what all that means in practice is that if you’ve got Terran teams playing on Earth then you can stick to the same size of pitch, distance the opposition has to retreat for a free kick, and so on, but if you have two Terran teams playing under, say, a lower gravity (which it usually is – there are one or two inhabited planets with higher gravity than Earth, but not many) then you’ve got to increase all the distances.  And once you get two teams from different planets playing each other, you’re into higher mathematics just to work out how to be absolutely fair to both teams.  Not only that, you’ve got to allow for things like the fact that, in this case, the Falghorians would have had special training to compensate for the higher gravity under which they were going to have to play, and just to add to the fun they’d got a naturalised guy from Murihal – that’s Betelgeuse 4 to those who don’t know – in the central midfield.  Murihal’s one of those planets I mentioned that has a gravity higher than Earth’s, and you could tell just by looking at this fellow when they all ran out onto the pitch.  He was about half the height of any of the Falghorians, and he’d got muscles on his muscles.  He didn’t so much run out as sort of bound.  Ever seen someone running inside the Mars dome?  Right.  Like that.

That’s why the match officials are always robots.  Well, it may be obvious to you, especially if you’re keen on football, but I didn’t know that.  It never occurred to me that you’d want to use anything else.  I mean, what human being in their right mind would want to run around on the pitch following a game of football and trying to get all the decisions right?  They’d be bound to get some of them wrong, and then they’d end up with maybe fifty thousand people all shouting at them at once.  It’d be enough to make even the toughest character want to go away and hide under the bed.

There was a tremendous thunderclap right overhead, and the whole stadium was momentarily illuminated by the eerie light of the accompanying flash of lightning.  I’m glad I wasn’t the only person who jumped, but Chal was absolutely unconcerned.  She’d been here before.

“You don’t have to jump out of your skin like that,” she said, teasingly.  “There’s a force shield, you know.”

“Yes, I do know, but it’s still a bit alarming when you’re not used to it,” I admitted, a little abashed.

“Oh, by the time the match gets under way you’ll be too engrossed to worry about it,” she promised.  “The way they work the force shields here is very clever.  They actually absorb the energy from the lightning bolts, and that goes into powering the shields themselves.  Any left over is fed into the planetary grid.  They had to feed energy into the shields in the first place to get them started, like priming a pump, but now they’re up there’s a net energy profit.  Neat, don’t you think?”

Another thunderbolt crashed down above the stadium, and now that I looked more closely I could see, just for an instant, the lines of lightning criss-crossing across the shield and fading into its structure, like rivers going in reverse.  It was clever, and I started wondering whether the same principle could be applied to transport robotics on a planet like this.  It was one thing to do it with a stationary force shield over a stadium or even a city sector, but could the same trick be achieved with a shielded moving vehicle?  It was intriguing, and I really wished I had my styloscreen handy so I could work out the mathematics of it.

Chal’s voice cut into my thoughts, and I noticed suddenly that everyone else was standing up.  I stood up quickly too as she spoke, not wanting to draw attention to myself.  “We’re going to have the anthems now,” she said.

There were a lot of anthems.  First of all we had the Rehennian planetary anthem, then that of Earth, and then that of Falghor.  Then we had the national anthem of Uzlada, which was apparently the country we were in, followed by that of New Liechtenstein, which was where the Falghorian team came from, followed by that of Italy.  I was just starting to think that if we had any more I was going to start feeling dizzy, especially since the Uzladan one had sounded about as musical to me as a cat I used to know who used to like singing along when his owner played the sonophone, but at last the referee rolled out solemnly into the middle of the pitch and raised two of its arms to signal the two captains forward.

I was still thinking about the force shield, but I knew if I didn’t at least try to take an interest in the match Chal would notice, so to show willing I had a look at the programme to see who the two captains actually were.  The Italian was a big central defender called Paolo Riccio; he had blond hair, which I must admit I didn’t normally associate with Italians, but the programme said he was from Biella, right up in the north of the country, at the foot of the Alps.  The New Liechtensteiner was called Kaldo Lumethes, and he was the goalkeeper.  He towered over Riccio but looked as though he’d snap in half at the middle.  That obviously explained why one of the goals was slightly higher and narrower than the other.  The match officials must have calculated that, although the Earth goalkeeper could of course jump higher, this was more than compensated for by the Falghorian’s massive height advantage.  On the other hand, the Earth players could shoot from further out…  It was the sort of thing that gave you a headache just thinking about it.

“What are they doing now?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re tossing a coin to see who’s going to start at which end,” Chal explained.

“But the pitch is biased to make it fair!” I protested.  “I mean, the goals are different and everything.”

“Yes, I know.  It’s obvious the Terrans are going to start at this end and the Falghorians are going to start at the other end.  But the toss is traditional.  It’s just that it’s always been done.”  She paused.  “These days they use a special coin with two heads.”

I shook my head.  This just confirmed my long-standing suspicion that football was a bit of a silly game, really.  However, the toss duly and solemnly took place, the two captains shook hands, and then they led their teams off to the appropriate ends to take up their positions.  I pressed a few keys on the programme for the real-time animated display.  This showed a series of numbered dots moving around a simulated pitch, so that those who didn’t know the players well or couldn’t see their numbers clearly from a distance could identify who was doing what.  The programme was a bit of a primitive thing – it didn’t even have voice control on it – but, after all, what do you expect for five credits?  Besides, I suppose trying to use voice control in a stadium like this would have been a bit like trying to put up a tent in a hurricane.

I’d been slightly dreading the match itself, I must admit.  I’d never have even dreamed of going if it hadn’t been for Chal.  But, once it started, after a little while I discovered that I was actually quite enjoying it, even if it probably wasn’t for quite the same reasons as Chal was.  The animated display brought a whole new dimension to what would otherwise have been, let’s be honest, twenty-two humanoids and a robot with big wheels charging around a large patch of grass after a ball.  Every time a player committed a foul, the dot representing him on the display briefly changed colour; the Italians were playing in blue and were represented by blue dots, but if one of them fouled an opponent it went orange, whereas the New Liechtensteiners had a rather fetching lime and orange kit and were represented by lime green dots, which went purple following a foul.  A dot representing a player of either side who got a yellow card would turn yellow, and Chal assured me that if anyone got a red card his dot would turn red before it vanished from the pitch.  If a player went down injured, his dot would flash for as long as he was out of action, and if he scored a goal it would be circled briefly by a white halo, together with a short text message under the display to make it absolutely clear who had scored.  It soon became clear that the Italian left full-back, Mauro Mazzotti, and his counterpart on the New Liechtenstein right wing, Jybon Ghallendofy, were going to provide at least as much entertainment on the display as they were doing on the pitch.  There seemed to be a personal vendetta going on between those two, and by the time the game had been under way for ten minutes or so their numbered dots were going crazy, flashing and changing colour like a pair of disco lights trying to cope with Ivilcayan scuffle music.  What with that and the lightning, it was almost like a strobe show.

At least there was one player on the pitch who wasn’t difficult to identify even without the display, and that was the Italian captain Paolo Riccio, his blond head standing out like a beacon among his darker compatriots.  He seemed to be a particular favourite of Chal’s, too, because every time he was on the ball she yelled, “Forza, Paolo!” so loudly I wouldn’t have been surprised if he could actually hear her over the rest of the din.  After she’d done this a few times I thought I’d better give her a Look.  I know I’m not very good at Looks, but, honestly, I was supposed to be her boyfriend and I didn’t want anyone getting ideas that she’d got a thing for this guy.

“Are you all right?” she asked, all concern.  “You’re not getting one of those headaches, are you?”

I felt a bit put out.  It was all very well for her.  She could do Looks without even seeming to think about it.  I had to practise them in a mirror, and I still wasn’t quite sure about them.  “I’m not sure it gives the right impression, you cheering him on all the time,” I replied.  “I take it that’s what you’re doing?”

“Oh, yes,” she said cheerfully.  “Forza means ‘come on!’.  It’s from the old Italian language.  They still use it at matches.”

“Well, why are you shouting more for him than for any of the others?” I demanded.

“Because he’s their best player,” she explained, in the tones of one addressing an idiot.  “If he’s on form, the whole team plays well.  That’s one of the reasons they made him captain.  Can’t you see?”

I watched him thoughtfully for a little while.  “Um.  He’s a bit ungainly,” I ventured.

“Oh, for space’s sake, Taw, look at his feet, will you?  Will you just look at the way he controls the ball?  It’s poetry in motion!  Never mind the way his arms are flapping about.”

I obediently looked at his feet.  They were quite big, to go with the rest of him, and they were running around quite fast.

“Well, it’s too late now, isn’t it?” she sighed.  “Wait till he gets the ball again.  Then you’ll see what I mean.”

I waited, but there was currently a scramble going on in the New Liechtenstein goalmouth, and Riccio had stayed well back to mark their striker.  It didn’t seem likely that he was going to get the ball again for a little while.  I glanced rather furtively back to the display to see whether Mazzotti and Ghallendofy had killed each other yet.  They hadn’t, but Ghallendofy’s dot glowed briefly and shamefully purple, while Mazzotti, who was presumably the owner of the pair of legs I could see writhing on the edge of a ruck of players, possessed a dot that was flashing away like a beacon on the screen.  Another searing crack of thunder, complete with an impressive display of forked lightning, added to the special effects.  Whether or not it was for the right reasons, this was certainly going to be a match to remember.

I didn’t know how right I was.  Just as the referee was wheeling itself rapidly over to the errant Ghallendofy, probably to issue him with a yellow card to match the one Mazzotti had already managed to pick up, it suddenly fizzled and spluttered to an undignified halt.  There was an audible gasp from the crowd.  I glanced at the linesrobots, and saw that they too had stopped, one of them in the very act of raising its flag for a foul on the far side.  The flag dropped out of its inert hand and lay there sadly on the touchline.

“Don’t tell me, Chal,” I said.  “Let me guess.  The match officials are powered off the shield by remote control, am I right?”

She looked at me with real admiration.  “You certainly are,” she replied.  “You’re not as stupid as you look, are you?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to take this, but I decided to explain anyway.  “For some reason, something must have gone wrong with the shield so that it didn’t shunt off enough power straight away to the planetary grid,” I theorised.  “So there was a surge when that last bolt hit, and it’s blown all the officials simultaneously.  What happens now?  Do they have back-up robots?”

“That’s what the fourth official is normally for,” replied Chal slowly.  “But that’ll have blown too, if the other three have.  I don’t know, to be honest.  This has never happened before, but then there’s never been a major final played on this planet before.  It all has to do with the gravity, like I said.”

The game had, naturally, stopped.  The players were all milling around on the pitch, looking uncertain.  One of the Falghorians wandered up to the referee and tapped it on the chest.  It’s amazing how many people still think that’s what you do to get a robot to work properly again.  If it were as simple as that, people like me would all be out of a job.

The roar of the crowd had died down to a buzz of uneasy conversation.  You could tell everyone else was wondering what would happen too, whether the match would have to be abandoned and replayed on a different planet, or the match officials could be repaired in time, or some other robots could be brought in from elsewhere.  I could have told them the third option wasn’t on.  People think you can just push a cartridge into a robot and completely reprogram it from being, say, a miner to being a referee, simply because you can get add-on cartridges for house robots to get them to do extra tasks.  It doesn’t work like that.  There’s a world of difference between programming a menial robot to do the ironing and totally reconfiguring one of the more advanced models to do something it wasn’t originally set up to do.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can do that sort of thing, but it’s likely to take at least a couple of weeks, and that’s Earth time.  You wouldn’t get several thousand excitable football fans sitting in a stadium for that long, not even if you could sort out all the catering.

Half a dozen roboticians appeared on the pitch, waved the players off towards the tunnel, and then began to examine the stricken robots.  It wasn’t possible to see the expressions on their faces from where we were sitting, but I’ve been around enough robotics people to know when the prognosis isn’t looking good.  Chal gave me an anxious look.  “Do you think they’ll manage to repair them?” she asked.

“Looks doubtful,” I replied.  “And even if they can, they’ll all go again if the problem with the shield isn’t fixed as well.”  As if to illustrate my point, there was another impressive clap of thunder over the stadium.  On most planets life was supposed to have originated in the oceans, but on this one there was so much electricity crashing around that I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it had started off in mid-air and immediately dropped to the ground to save itself from being toasted.

“There are fail-safes built into the shields on this planet,” she told me.  “That means that even when they go wrong, they don’t actually break down.”

“Yes, well, if people are going to power robots, of all things, off an arrangement like this, then a power surge is pretty nearly as bad,” I replied.  “Robots are sensitive to that sort of thing.  Even worse than computers, because they’ve got moving parts…”

I broke off as a pleasant female voice with a pronounced Rehennian accent suddenly rang out over the tannoy.  Well, I say a Rehennian accent, but thinking about it I suppose it was probably Uzladan; then again, I don’t know how significant the regional variations between accents are on Rehen.  Most of the colonies aren’t like Earth in that respect.  They’ve generally got their own accent which is descended from one or more Earth ones, but there isn’t much variation even between different countries on the same planet, let alone different regions.  Anyway, whatever the accent was, she was asking for a robotics expert.  Urgently.

“Go on!” urged Chal, trying to push me out of my seat.  “I know you’re good at your job.”

“Me?  Hey, no!” I protested, embarrassed.  “I don’t suppose I’m any better than those six down there.”

“Don’t be so sure.  You want to know what I overheard the captain saying about you?”

“Oh, I know he thinks I’m pretty useful, but he’s one of those that believes in positive encouragement for crew members.  He’d find something nice to say about me if I didn’t know my R-space from my L-bend.”

“That’s why I think you ought to know what he says behind your back,” replied Chal firmly.  “He was talking to Holson.  Said you were a bit odd, but you were a genius.  I bet he doesn’t say that about everyone.”

“I’m not odd,” I demurred.  “I’m just a bit… well… selectively gifted.”

She turned on me the full brilliance of her warmest smile.  “Taw, I love you just the way you are,” she assured me.  “Go on.  Get down there.  I know you can do it.  Anyway, you’ll be famous.”

“But I don’t want to be famous…!” I began.  It was too late.  She’d already grabbed my hand firmly and was dragging me through the rows of seats.  I tried to resist to start with, but you know I mentioned she was, well, a little on the statuesque side?  Well, I’m… er… not, exactly.  I don’t know why I’m still so thin.  It’s not as if I don’t eat like a grumthub, after all.  Anyway, it didn’t take me too long to realise that it was going to look far less embarrassing if I just followed gracefully, or at any rate as gracefully as I knew how to look when I was being dragged at top speed down a lot of steps by a drop dead gorgeous woman who was about twice my size, or at least probably looked it.

Finally, breathless and nursing a twisted ankle, I found myself right at the edge of the pitch.  Chal was explaining rapidly to a couple of stewards, and all I could think of was how badly I wanted to be somewhere else right now.  Just about anywhere else, in fact.  I couldn’t go out there!  They’d all be looking at me.  What if I couldn’t do anything?  I’d look the biggest prize idiot in the known Galaxy, that’s what would happen.

“Chal,” I murmured desperately.  “I want to go to the toilet.”

“You can go in a minute.”  It was the sort of tone that brooked no argument.  If I ever married her and we had children, they wouldn’t dare step out of line.  It was a really sobering thought.

“And my ankle’s giving me hell…”

“Well, one of the physios will have a painkilling injection.”  She turned back to one of the stewards.  “Taw’s twisted his ankle.  Could you tell one of the physios, please?”

The steward nodded, and hurried away while the other one helped Chal to lift me over the barrier.  It was quite clear I wasn’t going to have any say on the subject.  The steward put an arm round my waist to help support me, which he needn’t really have done because I could just about walk all right, but by this stage I felt it wasn’t a lot of use arguing about anything.  Just behind us, Chal vaulted over the barrier too and followed me like a mother hen.  Nobody had actually said she could come onto the pitch, but since she was with me I didn’t suppose anyone was going to bother arguing, and they didn’t.  This was probably just as well.  There was enough thunder and lightning about as it was, without anyone being unwise enough to get on the wrong side of Chal.

The Italian physio came running up, and reached us when we were about ten metres from the stricken referee.  He quickly examined my ankle, tutted in a way that I recognised – I’ve done it myself often enough when the visuals have gone wrong on a robot and the damn stupid thing has gone and walked into a wall and smashed an arm – and then inserted the needle so deftly I hardly even felt it.

“Thanks,” I said, a little awkwardly.

“No trouble, no trouble,” he replied.  “If you can mend the referee, it’ll be a privilege to help you.”

“If,” I echoed, hollowly.

“Of course you can!” insisted Chal, just behind me.  “Honestly, Taw, you do panic so.  How long will that take to work?” she asked the physio.

“It’s pretty fast.  He’ll be feeling better in a few minutes.  It’s not sprained or anything, just a nasty wrench.”

“Thanks,” I said again, not quite knowing what else to say.  Like I said, I’ve never been exactly up there among the leaders when it comes to conversation.  It’s not that I’ve got nothing to say.  It’s just that I don’t seem to need a lot of words to say it, and I’ve never got the hang of the art of padding.  I’m a lot better when I write things down, like this.  At least, I think I am.

By the time we got to the referee, my ankle was starting to feel a bit better, which was good because it meant I could concentrate a bit more.  I tried very hard not to think about the fact that there were tens of thousands of people in the stadium, all looking on.  If I unfocussed my eyes a bit and thought of them as one big blur, it helped a little.  And, of course, at least they couldn’t hear me.  That wasn’t much, but it was something.

I really, really did want to go to the toilet.  I hadn’t been making it up.

I swallowed.  “Er… hi,” I said to the two roboticians who were examining the referee.  “My name’s Taw Braley.  I’m the robotics expert on the Moscow, in the Terran Merchant Navy.  My girlfriend here thinks I may be able to help.”

“Feel free,” replied one of them, a slim woman with reddish hair tied into a very severe bun.  “We can’t even work out where the problem is.  We’ve been testing the circuitry, but can’t actually find any damage.”

“Could I borrow some tools?” I asked diffidently.  “And a micro-magnifier would be useful, if you’ve got one.”

The other robotician, a tall dark man who looked so muscular for a Rehennian that I suspected he might be a Terran immigrant, obligingly put a box of tools in front of me.  “If there’s anything else you need, we’ll see if we can get it for you,” he promised.  “But if the officials can’t be fixed, the match is going to have to be abandoned, and with it being a Cup Final there’ll be absolute hell to pay.”  He grimaced.  “And it’ll be our authorities who’ll have to pay it, most likely.”

“I’ll do what I can,” I assured him, though I didn’t feel at all confident.  It was one thing repairing a robot.  I repaired robots all the time.  It was quite another having to do it in front of all these people, and when so much depended on it.  I realised, to my horror, that my hands were starting to shake.

That wouldn’t do.  You needed a really steady hand to fiddle around with all that micro-circuitry.  I took a deep breath, picked up the magnifier, and started to get some kind of feel for the problem.  That would at least calm my nerves a little.  “What’s happening about the shield?” I asked.  “I assume it was that that originally malfunctioned?”

“That’s right,” replied the female robotician.  “There’s some technicians at work up there now.  Fixing that is going to be the easy bit.”

I nodded.  “Just as long as I know.  I wouldn’t want to fix the robots and then have them blow again.”

As I peered into the internal workings of the referee, I began to see what they’d meant.  The problem really was not at all obvious, apart from the inescapable fact that the robot clearly wasn’t going.  “I’m going to have to dismantle it partially, I’m afraid,” I said.  “Even if that helps me to see what’s wrong, it could be twenty minutes, half an hour.  Can the game be held up for that long?”

“It may have to be,” replied the male robotician.  “Technically, of course, whether or not the game is abandoned is the referee’s decision, but if neither the referee nor any of its officials is working, then there’s no actual provision for who is supposed to decide on that.  So I suppose you could say we’ve got a bit of leeway.”

“I suppose if it takes too long, it’ll have to be up to the stadium authorities,” mused Chal.  “But in the meantime, is there anything I can do to help?”

“Er, yes,” I replied.  “You could hold the magnifier for me just here.  I’m going to need both hands…”

* * * * *

Well, I did explain in the first draft exactly what was the matter with the robots, but when Chal saw it she made me take it all out because she said nobody except a robotician would understand a word of it.  “All anyone needs to know is that you managed to fix them,” she said.  Fair enough, but I did explain exactly what a D3536 did, just so that nobody would be confused.  That was the bit that had blown in all four of the robots, you see.  But Chal seemed to think they’d be confused anyway.  There’s just no pleasing some people, but because she’s Chal I took it out like she said.

Anyway, I did manage to fix them.  No reflection on the Rehennian roboticians; it’s not everyone who can repair a blown D3536, but if you can’t repair it you have to put a new one in and then reprogram the whole thing, and that takes ages.  I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure that the programming would still be all right, but it seemed to be fine for the rest of the match except that one of the linesrobots had a tendency to shoot off in reverse rather than bothering to turn round.  Still, it didn’t actually affect the way it was doing its job; all right, it was a little bit disconcerting the way it kept spinning its head round through a hundred and eighty degrees so it could see what was going on behind it, but at least it raised its flag when it was meant to, and that’s all you can ask of a linesrobot as far as I can see.

What was even better was that Italy eventually won the match two-nil, which meant Chal was over the moon, especially as Paolo Riccio came forward and scored the second goal.  And because Chal and I had prevented the match from being abandoned, they decided we were national heroes and probably even planetary ones, and so we got invited to the celebrations afterwards.  I’m not very good at parties, but Chal was absolutely in her element.  She got to hold the Galactic Cup and someone took a holocube shot of her with it, and the entire squad autographed the back of her robe, and she had a very long chat with Paolo Riccio about football tactics that I didn’t understand a word of, and I ended up sitting in a corner with a glass of rum and paleeth juice listening to the team mascot getting extremely drunk.  I’m not a heavy drinker myself, but I didn’t entirely blame him.  I think I’d have been inclined to drink too much as well if my job consisted of prancing around the football pitches of a hundred planets dressed up as a Roman eagle.

And that’s about all really, except to say that next time we’re on leave we’ve got a free luxury holiday in Tuscany to look forward to, and if Chal ever wants two tickets to watch the Azzurri (which is the nickname for the Italian team, by the way – she gave me a very funny look when she discovered I didn’t know that, but I’m sure I’m not the only one) then all she has to do is ask.  Right now we’re on our way to Deneb with a cargo of deep-frozen fish – well, they do have oceans on Deneb 3, but there’s nothing in them you’d want to look at, let alone actually consider eating – and for some reason I seem to be more popular now than I’ve ever been in my life.  All of a sudden everyone wants to talk to me, even big Dario Feltrinelli who wouldn’t even give me the time of day a few weeks ago.  In fact, especially big Dario, when I think about it.  You know he even bought me a drink yesterday?  Big Dario never buys anyone a drink.  Well, he does now, apparently.

The only trouble is, popularity does have its price.  I don’t think I’m ever going to manage to convince the rest of the crew that really, honestly, as a matter of fact, I’m still not at all interested in football…

 

 

Deo Gratias

10 May 2001

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