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* * *

by Seanan McGuire

“Never give up, never give in, and when

the upper hand is ours, may we have the ability to handle the win with the dignity that we absorbed the loss.”

—Doug Williams,

Most Valuable Player, Super Bowl XXII, 1986

Seanan McGuire is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, all published within the last five years, which may explain why some people believe that she does not actually sleep. Her work has been translated into several languages, and resulted in her receiving a record five Hugo Award nominations on the 2013 ballot. When not writing, Seanan spends her time reading, watching terrible horror movies and too much television, visiting Disney parks, and rating haunted corn mazes. You can keep up with her at

Seanan herein gives us a look at a futuristic take on an extreme sport: roller derby.

* * *

“Derby dudes, derby dames, and derby delights, what we’re seeing here tonight may be the match of the century!” The announcer’s voice howled through the speakers and was displayed on the screens studded around the arena, the auto-transcriber rendering it instantly into subtitles. Half the crowd wore earbuds, listening to one of the two dozen languages—both human and non—that were receiving the simultaneous translation. On the track, ten girls zoomed past at ludicrous speeds, their actions tracked and broken down by the programmed referees. For most, they were distinguishable only by the colors that they wore. The skaters in red were the Martian Marauders, currently at the top of the league in both victories and penalties. The skaters in black and purple were Charon’s Angels, bottom of the league in every sense of the word. They trained mostly on their home moon, using gravity simulators that had to strain to match the pull of Earth standard. Since Earth gravity was enforced across the entire Sol System Banked Track Roller Derby League, they were always a little awkward when they hit the track, and while they skated with enthusiasm, all the enthusiasm in the galaxy didn’t make up for skill.

But that had been at the start of the season, eleven solar months past. The Angels had been skating under standard gravity generators for that entire time, save for a few exhibition games, half of which had been held under higher than standard gravity. (Low grav made for faster skaters, more impressive apex jumps, and stunts that were otherwise impossible. High grav meant a higher risk factor, a better chance of seeing blood on the track, and an even higher chance of career-ending injury. The people who ran the league had been petitioning to increase the standard gravity for the past two years, claiming that it would increase the exhibition value of the matches without increasing the athleticism. The skaters had been protesting for almost as long. For the time being, the needle didn’t move.)

Training skaters under low gravity gave them grace and incomparable finesse. Conditioning them under standard or higher gravity reduced the number of broken bones even as it gave them power and strength without dulling their skill. The Martian Marauders had been the favorites to win this match, but the Charon’s Angels were stealing every jam they got their hands on, leaving their top-rated rivals in the dust. As the audience watched, breathless, the jammer for the Angels whipped around the curve of the track one more time, using her momentum to sling her past the pack.

Very few of the observers saw the minute nod she offered to the jammer for the Marauders. Their attention was elsewhere, on the pack, on the scrimmage, on the way she held her shoulders like a sword as she cut through her opponents.

Everyone in the auditorium saw the opposing jammer extend her foot, hook it around the Angel’s ankle, and bring her crashing to the floor. The speakers reproduced the sound of the fallen jammer’s neck snapping perfectly, with no loss of fidelity. The subtitles printed the word “snap” in a dozen languages before they cut off. The sign-language interpreters in the VIP sections made breaking motions with their hands before they stopped, looking sickened by what they had just done.

“Oh my God,” whispered an announcer. “I think she’s—”

The transmission cut off.

Silence fell.

The teams were herded into their respective locker rooms—euphemistically called “dressing rooms” by everyone who had never strapped on a pair of skates—and summarily locked in by brightly smiling androids with the arena logo branded across their foreheads. “For your own safety, please do not attempt to leave your dressing room while we are reviewing recent events,” said the androids, in voices as bland and pleasant as their smiles. “A local representative of Galactic Health and Safety will be with you soon. Please enjoy an assortment of complimentary snacks and beverages.”

Then the androids were gone, and the skaters—ten Martian Marauders, nine Charon’s Angels—were left alone, with only a thin wall separating them.

“Are we being watched?” asked the captain of the Marauders. She was tall and lean, Earth-born and Mars-raised, with the sort of face that could launch a thousand ships, and the sort of snarl that could sink them. She skated under the name “H.G. Welts,” and no one could say that it was inaccurate.

“Checking now,” said one of their jammers—Kay Boom—as she sat down on the locker room floor and scrolled through the screens on her tablet. “Doesn’t look like it. All the systems are tied up with reviewing those last thirty seconds of play. I think they’re trying to prove that it was an accident.”

“Good fucking luck with that.” Rae Badbury was lying on one of the benches, eyes closed, hands clenched together and pressed against the base of her solar plexus. She had been in that position since they had entered the room. None of the others dared to go anywhere near her. They all knew that they could have drawn the short straw and been the one to deliver the killing blow, and while they might be glad that it hadn’t been their skate around the opposing jammer’s ankle, that didn’t mean they weren’t sorry for their colleague and teammate.

The fact that she had done it to save them all was almost irrelevant. She was never going to skate again. For a woman like her, who had done the things she’d done for the sake of the game, that was a fate worse than death.

“We’re clear,” said Kay, finally looking up. “No sniffers, no trackers, no microphones.”

“Good,” said H.G. “Get O’Speed on the line.”

Kay nodded and bent back over her tablet.

The Marauders followed the classic derby pattern: each skater had her own “derby name,” a carefully constructed if sometimes labored pun that could be related back to the red planet that was their home. Most of them had legally changed their names after they were accepted onto the planetary team. It wasn’t required, but it was strongly encouraged by management, as it was “less confusing for the fans” if they had only one identity. The skaters recognized the suggestion for what it was—one more way to control them, to keep them from ever considering the lure of a life off the track—but they did it anyway. Anything to be able to skate. Anything to be able to move, in a solar system where safety concerns and regulations had made the population more and more sedentary. If you weren’t an athlete, bonded and cosseted and insured, there were very few options open to you. Machines and in-home fitness centers kept the population in better shape than ever. They just had nowhere left to go.

The Angels, on the other hand, were more tightly funded and controlled by their planetary government, and as such had been encouraged to have a more cohesive team identity. All of them skated under an “O” name. The team captain was Angel O’Speed. Her second in command was Angel O’Pain.

The jammer who had died, neck broken, on the track, was Angel O’Death. She had chosen the name herself when she started skating, some five years back. It was hard not to wonder, now, whether she had seen this coming. Rae had been chosen by lottery, after all.

O’Death had volunteered.

Kay’s tablet beeped twice before a window opened, showing the pale, anxious face of Angel O’Speed. The captain of the Angels didn’t wait for hellos before she got down to business: “Is everyone okay over there? Have there been any arrests?”

“Not yet, but there probably will be.” H.G. leaned over and plucked the tablet out of Kay’s unresisting hands. The rest of the Marauders moved a little closer, all save for Rae, who didn’t move. She didn’t need to hear what came next. She was the one who was going to have to live it. H.G. cast a worried glance in her direction before looking back to the tablet and saying, “They’ve locked us in.”

“Us, too,” said O’Speed. “I think they’re trying to figure out how to respond to this without looking like they’re insensitive, but also without making it seem like it’s anything other than an isolated incident. They don’t want to attract too much attention.”

“They never do,” said Rae bitterly.

“What happens if they find a way to cover this up?” asked H.G. “You don’t have another skater who wants to die, and I don’t have another skater who wants to be a killer. We can’t pull this stunt again.”

“We won’t have to,” said O’Speed. “We chose this match because the planetary government of Pluto is here. They’re not going to like losing a skater. O’Death was young, and pretty, and only two years from retirement. They were counting on her genes.”

Getting people to settle on Pluto was difficult under the best of circumstances. It was a vital way station for colonists heading out into the greater galaxy, one last place to refuel and resupply and drop off anyone whose nerves had proven unsuited to the voyage. Not many people changed their minds once they had secured a berth on a colony ship, but it happened often enough that measures had to be taken to ensure that people who didn’t want to leave the solar system didn’t wind up stranded a hundred light years and a few decades away. Pluto could not be allowed to shut down. At the same time, it was small, and cramped, and the gravity was weak enough to make most people uncomfortable; there would never be an atmosphere, never be open spaces or healthy farms or any of the things that settlers on Mars or Europa could enjoy. So Pluto had stopped encouraging settlement, and started rewarding reproduction.

Children born on Pluto tended to stay on Pluto, unable to cope with the higher gravities or open skies of other human colonies. Children born on Pluto thought that all the things which made it so unappealing to settlers were normal; the way things were supposed to be. Even women who had no interest in childbearing were expected to donate their eggs and their genetic material to the cause of building a stable long-term population. All the members of the planetary roller derby team had subsidized their equipment and training with promises of future children. They would make themselves celebrities for their home world, and then they would settle down and help secure Pluto’s future.

Not Angel O’Death. The organ harvesters might recover her ovaries and hence her eggs, but the laws against posthumous reproduction would keep them from being used for anything which might result in viable human embryos. She was lost, and so were the children her planet so dearly needed. The planetary government would react with all force and fury. They could do nothing else.

“That just guarantees the far colonies for Rae,” snapped H.G. “That wasn’t the deal. This is supposed to change things, not get my best jammer deported.”

Rae didn’t say anything. It was obvious that she was listening, but she seemed to be shutting down with each passing second, disconnecting further and further from the scene around her.

“They can’t just shove her onto a prison ship without doing a full investigation into the circumstances around O’Death’s, well, death,” said O’Speed. “Our courts wouldn’t allow it, even if the Earth courts would. It’s going to bring out the reality of what’s going on with the league. Three other matches are happening this month, and each of them has a skater who’s agreed to die, and another who’s agreed to commit murder. We’re going to change the system. Sacrifices must be made.”

“I hope you’re right.” H.G. Welts looked across the locker room to Rae Badbury, who still wasn’t moving. “I really, genuinely do.”

The human race spread through the solar system like bread mold: slowly at first, feeling out its options, and then in a great, unstoppable tide. It cropped up everywhere, from the orbital platforms circling Mercury to the cold, still satellites that floated just past Pluto. The conditions under which humanity thrived changed from world to world, moon to moon, until “Earth-average” was no longer the norm, but was instead an outdated and unattainable standard. Fashion models from Luna stood almost seven feet in height, with long, graceful limbs concealing brittle bones. Asteroid miners grew squat and strong, seemingly crafted out of the ore they worked to extract. Arthur C. Clarke once famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic. As humanity remade the solar system in its own image, the solar system responded by remaking humanity in the image of all the fantasy worlds of Earth: Venusian mermaids who swam, heavily modified and genetically engineered, through the poisonous seas; Martian dryads whose skin performed photosynthesis in natural light, allowing every citizen to participate in the terraforming of their world. The impossible was possible. The Golden Age of Man had begun.

Progress always costs. The sports of Earth were an early, if unexpected, casualty. They had rules. They had regulations. They had safety committees in place to keep the players from being endangered unnecessarily. They had pay structures and cheerleaders and auxiliary committees, and somehow all those things—those important, essential things—made it difficult for the world’s pastimes to spread with the world’s people. Baseball didn’t work on low-gravity worlds, not when the rules were so difficult to modify. Football on Europa or in orbit around Neptune would be a sea of fatalities, unavoidable and tragic.

Progress always costs. The people must be entertained.

The groups that had made their fortunes promoting sports on Earth began looking, frantically, for something universal; something that could be marketed to all worlds and all people, without the fear of regulations shutting it down in the middle of the first match. Gymnastics had many of the same issues as baseball. Horseback riding required horses, which were notorious for doing poorly in zero-G. Swimming required water. One by one, the team and solo sports of the world were considered and rejected, thrown aside as requiring too much red tape.

And then a young marketing executive came in with a home-burned disk of women in fishnet stockings, whipping one another around a circular track with steeply banked sides. It was fast. It was occasionally vicious. It was, according to the rules and regulations that defined such things, not a sport. Roller derby had never completed the process of filing for recognition by the various sporting organizations; the players and team organizers had seen the red tape coming and had skated smoothly aside, choosing a lack of regulations and safety requirements over the sweet promise of potential fame. There were virtually no rules defining what was or was not appropriate, apart from the shape of the teams, the curvature of the tracks. It was perfect.

The first all-system roller derby match had been skated six months later, an exhibition match between the Terran Earthshakers and the Luna Lunartics. Two skaters had broken bones. Three had lost teeth. And a system-wide passion had been born, as people remembered why they enjoyed blood sports so much in the first place. Within five years, every planet and satellite in the system had their own sponsored roller derby team, each with their own theme and uniform and merchandising. The Sol System Banked Track Roller Derby League got their cut. The people got their entertainment. The skaters got to be stars. Everything was perfect, for a while. Everything was wonderful.

Until the gravity began creeping up, and the number of broken bones began to rise. Until the lower-gravity teams discovered that the money for better grav gennies was drying up, because the League didn’t want to sponsor something that could reduce injuries on the track. Until it became apparent that the small print in their contracts and the careful avoidance of the word “sport” was not about protecting their freedom to skate; it was about protecting the League’s freedom to kill them with impunity. They assumed all risk when they took to the track, after all. When they got hurt, it was no one’s fault but their own. As for the fact that they were bound by unbreakable contracts, well . . . that was their fault, too. They should have read more carefully before they signed.

The clever men who controlled the revenue streams sat in their safe offices and boardrooms, congratulating each other for a loophole well found, a moneymaker well exploited. What they forgot was that no matter how far humanity spread, it always remained essentially, at its core, human. Humans, when trapped, fight back. Humans find a way.

The door of the locker room unsealed, allowing two of the arena androids to stroll blithely inside, followed closely by a representative of the League. All but one of the Marauders turned to watch them come. Only H.G. Welts bothered to stand. As their captain, she couldn’t be as cold as the rest of them, even when she wanted to.

Rae Badbury was still lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling. She didn’t move. She didn’t even blink.

“Hello, ladies,” said the representative from the League. He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortably around the room. Like many of the men who made life-or-death decisions on the behalf of the skaters, he didn’t actually enjoy standing in their presence. They looked too real when seen like this, too physical and human. They smelled of blood and sweat, both fresh and rancid, soaked into their protective gear until it became an almost physical thing. They could have been his daughters, and he despised them for that. Didn’t they know that toys were meant to remain at a distance, where decent people wouldn’t have to think about what they represented?

“Hello,” said H.G. Welts.

“I’m sure you’re all very concerned about what happened on the track today. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m afraid the young woman who fell did not survive her injuries. She was from a very low-grav world. Her bones weren’t equipped to handle the impact under normal conditions.”

None of the skaters said anything. They just stared at him, silent as snakes, and waited.

The man from the League cleared his throat. “After reviewing the tapes, we have determined that Rae Badbury acted within the normal scope of play. While this was a tragic accident, and we will strive to avoid such things in the future, we cannot at this time levy any punishments against the teams involved. We are very sorry for the loss suffered by Charon’s Angels, and will be making a donation to the memorial planned for their fallen skater. We are very sorry for any distress suffered by the Martian Marauders. As per your contracts with the Sol System Banked Track Roller Derby League, you will be expected to resume play with thirty seconds remaining on the jam clock. You have half an hour to collect yourselves and touch up your makeup before you will be needed on the track. Failure to appear will result in penalties, and may negatively impact your earnings from this season.” The man from the League forced a smile. He had a great deal of practice at presenting emotions he didn’t feel; any onlooker would have taken it for genuine. “Let’s get ready to roller derby!”

Then he was gone, ushered quickly out by the androids, who were there for his protection more than anything else. Silence fell in the locker room.

Kay spoke first, asking, in a very small voice, “Do we really have to skate?”

“We do,” said H.G. grimly. “We all do.”

The Martian Marauders went on to defeat the Charon’s Angels, two hundred and seventeen points to a hundred and twelve. All the fight had gone out of the Pluto team after the death of their jammer, while Rae Badbury—who had been allowed to return to the track after sitting out three penalty circuits, that being the apparent cost of a human life—skated like a woman possessed, racking up points with every circuit around the track. No one seemed willing to get in her way, and only the mascara that trickled down her cheeks betrayed the fact that she was crying.

Three days later, in an exhibition game between the Venusian Love Goddesses and the Lunar Jailer Scouts, a blocker named Salome went over the rail, shattering three vertebrae and breaking her neck. The League declared it an accident. No penalties were applied.

Two weeks after that, a Jovian skater from the Thunderthighs turned and began skating the wrong way during a pack scrimmage. No one cleared a path for her. She died when her larynx was crushed. The League declared it a case of temporary disorientation brought on by the differences in oxygen levels between Io and the orbital platform where the match was being held. No penalties were applied. But people were beginning to talk. Three dead skaters in under a month was difficult to overlook, no matter how many bright banners and flash sales the League dangled as a distraction.

The last game of the season approached, between the Jailer Scouts and Martian Marauders. The solar system held its breath, waiting to see what would happen. The skaters put on their fishnets like armor and their lipstick like it would somehow protect them from the dangers ahead. They had agreed to this course of action. They had decided, as a group, that this was the only choice they had remaining to them. But that didn’t make it easy, and it didn’t make it right.

Twenty women skated out onto the track when the first bell rang, the Marauders in red, the Scouts in white-and-colored parodies of the “sailor suits” popularized by late twentieth-century anime. H.G. Welts led the Marauders. Sailor Boom led the Scouts. Neither of them made eye contact with the other. That, perhaps, should have been the first hint that something was terribly wrong. Both captains were known for taking their positions extremely seriously, and for insisting on good sportsmanship and fair play from their skaters—two attributes that the women had always gone out of their way to embody.

The jam buzzer sounded. Five women from each team lined up, bending forward and tensing as they prepared to skate. The buzzer sounded again to begin the jam.

No one moved.

The timer was ticking down, precious seconds bleeding away into the past, where they could never be reclaimed, and no one moved. Someone in the control booth hit the buzzer again, in case there had been a speaker malfunction. Still no one moved. Half the skaters were crying, and some would look at the footage later and comment cynically on how strange it was that none of them had invested in waterproof mascara; it was almost like they wanted their tears to be as visible to the cameras as possible. And how the cameras loved those tears!

“It looks like our girls are observing a moment of silence for their fallen comrades,” gushed the announcer excitedly. “This is a remarkable, touching moment of solidarity and strength—and look, they’re running out the first jam. No points will be scored. To tell you the truth, I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about it. So many good skaters have been lost this season. It’s a miracle these girls are still willing to strap on their skates.”

The buzzer rang as the first jam ended with no points scored; no one had budged. As was traditional, once the jam was over, the skaters rotated, a new jammer taking the place of the old, new blockers falling into the positions in the pack. The buzzer rang again.

No one moved.

“This is . . . all right, honoring a fallen comrade is a wonderful thing, but this is getting to be a bit much,” said the announcer, sounding deeply confused. “The players are refusing to move. This is a violation of League rules, and may result in penalties if they don’t skate soon. Derby fans, I don’t know what to tell you. This is unprecedented.”

The buzzer rang again. Men from the League flooded the track, making beelines for the team captains and beginning to speak to them in low, tight voices. The camera tracked their every move, hungry for spectacle of whatever kind they could grab. The captains didn’t say anything. They just stood there, stoic, silent, still crying, until the men went away. The skaters took their places on the track. The buzzer rang for the start of the third jam. This time, there was motion; this time, all ten skaters began to move at once, skating forward with a smooth serenity that bore no resemblance to the usual scrimmage that kicked off a jam. No one said anything, not even the announcers.

Then the first member of the pack pulled a piece of paper out of her shirt and unfolded it, sliding smoothly to a stop as she held it up for the cameras to see. The skaters were all scanned for weapons and electronics before they came out on the track: there had been incidents, high-rated but disruptive, of skaters sneaking muscle stimulators, micro-Tasers, and other contraband onto the track. Sportsmanship wasn’t as important as the show when the cameras were rolling, and the lack of it could sometimes be held up like a banner, one more reminder that roller derby was a performance, an art piece, and not a sport. Not something that should be regulated. Still, the people in charge wanted things to run as smoothly as possible, and so they checked for contraband.

But they never thought to check for pieces of paper. The skater who had stopped was holding up a large picture of Angel O’Death, smiling shyly for the still camera that had snapped her image. The video feed zoomed in on the text below the picture, magnifying it until everyone in the arena knew what it said:

angel o’ death—career roller derby—three broken ribs, one kidney transplant—no pension—no protection—no future

Another skater slid to a stop. This one held a picture of Salome from the Venusian Love Goddesses, her shoulders thrown back and her breasts thrust toward the lens.

salome—career roller derby—broken arm, broken leg, punctured lung, six dental implants—no pension—no protection—no future

Ten skaters. Nine posters, each with a face and a list of small, sad, simple facts. The last to stop was Sailor Doom, whose sign read, simply, roller derby is a sport. protect your players. regulate us.

“Regulate,” chanted the players, both on and off the track. “Regulate! REGULATE!

The people loved a show, no matter what shape it took. With a roar, the rest of the arena took up the chant, shouting it to the rafters. All over the system, people joined in, yelling at their televisions, at their computers, at their tablets. On simulcast and livestream, they shouted, and for a moment, the race of man was united over a single cause: the regulation of roller derby.

The players stood, stone-faced and unflinching, before the representatives of the planetary governments.

“There were better ways.”

“There were not.”

“You made yourselves into murderers to make a point.”

“The deaths were already occurring. We just gave them meaning.”

“You could have gone through proper channels.”

“We tried. The people who stood to profit off our deaths wouldn’t allow it.”

In the end, there was only one question left to ask: “Do you really want to be regulated as a sport? You’ll lose much of your freedom. Much of your flexibility.”

“We’ll get to keep our lives,” said Sailor Doom, who represented all the skaters of her team, and beyond. “That’s worth it.”

The regulations defining roller derby on a pan-planetary basis went into effect that solar year. In arenas and warehouses all over inhabited space, the buzzers rang, and the skaters raced on.

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