There was a noble silence hovering above the scorched sands of the desert paradise. The silence was not unusual. It was always silent the day before the Atone Games. The irony of the silence was surpassed only by the strong stench of hundreds upon thousands of freshly stewed animal bones.
“I heard the sound of a harp,” whispered Coltrane.
“First of all. Every team is 20 miles apart. Those are the rules. Nobody would risk being that stupid at this stage. Second of all, it would be a waste of time to even try and make one. Nobody would be that stupid. And third of all…Okay, I don’t have a third, but there’s no way you heard a harp sound, old man,” Tek was agitated to have to respond, but he knew better than to let Coltrane’s comments go unanswered.
“That’s the problem. You all listen too much with your ears. If someone can make a harp, they are light years away from being stupid.” Coltrane stared off into the desert. “We need to add more Emu bones if we have any left.”
Tek walked out of the garage and toward three large, extended trailers. Thick vegetation covered the outside of the trailers. The inside of the trailers was lined with hides from a mix of various possum breeds. The smell was pungent but effective. It was Coltrane’s special touch to manipulate the scents by using possum. Most people used cowhide if they knew what they were doing. Using rodents was not only expensive but risky and unpredictable. For Coltrane, the risk was the best part of the game.
Tek walked into the middle of the three trailers. There was a brief rustling of feathers and then a short shriek. He wrapped up the carcass as thoroughly as he could. Before exiting the trailer, he scanned the dessert just like his grandfather taught him to during his training. He couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. His family, more than most, needed his team to place in the top 7. He looked up, then left twice. He looked right and then looked down. He would follow the pattern in reverse by looking down, left, right twice, and then up. Tek was as skilled as he was deliberate and smooth. He was an asset to any team, but particularly this one.
An all-male team, gathered in the garage to work on removing the meat from the bones and separating the good bones from the weak bones. This had to be done before doing the delicate, intense work of making their Kanglings. Every player had a family recipe to make their Kangling and to let another person know the secret could compromise the safety of not only the family but an entire region. Peeking out of their individual teepees inside of the garage occasionally to either get some “fresh” air or to vomit, the men worked for 15 hours straight. They would clean, carve, shape, smooth, and test their Kanglings while trying to produce as little sound as possible. They trusted nobody, not even their teammates. After all, teammates were only as reliable as their odds of winning or whatever type of deal their family had to make to get them to the games.
Coltrane had no family which made him both more trustworthy and less trustworthy at the same time.
“Tek.” A call came in through his earpiece. “Mom wanted me to remind you that you have a two-year contract. Nobody expects your team to win. Just learn this year and come home in one piece.” His little sister tried to sound calm and reassuring.
“Why would you call and tell me that? If we don’t place in the top 7, then I have nothing to come home to anyway. If I have to die in order for our team to place, then I’m ready to die. I didn’t come here just to learn. I did all the learning I needed to do back home.”
“Well, mama told me to tell you those words directly. Tek, the patrol came by this morning. I think they need your team to lose. I think they are trying to get to you through mama. I heard them saying if you’re anything like grandpa, you might surprise us all,” his sister sounded proud. “Anyway, I’ll be ready to navigate tomorrow. I need to get some sleep,” Kezzie kissed her heart-shaped locket, opened it, and placed one drop of egg yolk inside.
Tek saw the heart-shaped locket around his neck glow immediately. The locket held each player’s courage, vision, stamina, and special skill. Only the player and the navigator could open their linked lockets with a kiss. Very few knew how to master their own lockets, not to mention some else's locket. Learning to master your locket is a lifetime journey of trial error, meticulous tracking, and intuition. A scared Indigenous saying guided the learning: Nature’s beasts preserve your hearts while nature’s sounds can break them. The logic and purpose of the heart-shaped locket's energy was a sacred mystery. “She should be here. She’s better than us all. Maybe I should just learn this year and spend next year training her.”
“Okay. Lights out! We have an early morning, men. Let your Kanglings purify in the air and get a good night’s rest. You’ll need it,“ Coltrane felt good about this year’s team.
For the most part, the games were always the same. After the last pure Indigenous being was killed, nature began to rapidly decline everywhere except one place on earth. In that one place, every resource possible appeared in abundance for three days. Through the Global Agreement of 2045, every federation on the planet is allowed to send three teams of 7 players to play in a sacred Indigenous game that combines elements of soccer, basketball, American football, Wicca, and chess. The top 7 teams at the end of the games get a ration of resources to take back to their region. The top 3 teams are allowed to take up to 3 years' worth of resources back. The top team is automatically invited back the following year. Local governments, through local tournaments, determine the best players from their towns to represent them in the Large Village competitions. Large Village winners then make deals to get onto the Regional Teams. Regional Team Rosters are supposed to be a secret, and teammates meet each other for the first time the two days before the Atone Bowl begins.
Tek’s grandfather was the only player to be on a first-place Regional team twice. The second time he won without any teammates left. They said it was his special Kangling that won it. He claimed before he died that it was the navigator to his heart necklace that was the true hero. Nobody knows where that navigator is, but at least Tek and Kezzie learned how to make his Kangling.
Rise and shine gentleman. Tek was convinced that he just went to sleep an hour ago. Coltrane added an urgent charge to his voice. He needed to get them to the stadium early to test out their Kanglings and game plan for whichever opponents showed up. Coltrane could tell from the mix of odors that they might have a good chance this year as long as he could identify which players on his team were playing to win, playing to learn, or playing to sabotage. He enjoyed the challenge.
All teams began to arrive at the stadium. Every player is glaring at the other looking for any clue that would give them an edge. What animals did they use to make their Kangling? What sounds could they produce and what secrets are they hiding for the families? When it comes to the game of Creeballing, half the game is outthinking your opponent and the other half is not letting them know how you did it.
“Okay gentleman. Looks like they gave us a pretty nice garage this year.” Coltrane scanned the team to see who might be responsible for such good accommodations. He caught someone smirking faintly and took note. “Our first opponent is coming through on the board and by the looks of it, they are mostly females out of Region 12. Anybody got any experience with that region?”
The guy who smirked spoke up. “I do. I have a sister who used to live there. Swine scents can get to them, but I don’t know what sounds drain their heart lockets.”
“Where is your sister now and why did she leave?”
“She’s dead. She died here last year.”
“So you want revenge against the team that beat her or to avenge her death in honor?”
“I play to win the game, that’s all I’ve ever done.”
Coltrane stared at him for a good 30 seconds and decided on the strategy. “Tek, since we don’t have any pig left, mix a batch of boar meat, emu, and lizard as quickly as possible and give each player their thermos.”
“Sir.” Tek seemed confused.
“We only have 12 minutes left to get ready, have you forgotten how to mix already, or are you waiting on your grandpa to show up and mix it for you?”
“I’ll have it done in about 3 minutes”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Tek. Are you going to take that from him?”
“Kezzie, not now. I need you to focus.”
“If he says something else about grandpa,…”
“Kezzie…..not now “
Tek got the batch to the players in less than 2 minutes. They filled their thermos, dipped their heart lockets in the vat and also their Kanglings.
Each one took turns playing different sounds showing what their Kanglings could do. Two players nearly passed out when their heart lockets cracked. The man with a smirk yelled that one of the Kanglings must be made out of human bone to have cracked his locket. Before a referee was able to come on screen, Coltrane played a sound on his Kangling that rendered the man with a smirk catatonic.
Coltrane looked at Tek and said, “That’s why I chose not to use our pig meat. Get his uniform and put it on. See if you can match the sounds on his Kangling. Have your navigator be on the lookout for his sister on the other team”
“Tek, how do we know we can trust him?”
“We don’t, but we have no choice for now.”
“Gentleman. Your regions are depending on you. For some of you, it's the lives of your families. I know your stories. Some of you are from the underclass and we will need to learn from what you know. Some of you are from the intra-class and some of you are from the government. Forget what your regions told you before you came here. We are all one. I know what you can do and I know what you can’t do. When I tell you to execute a move out there, execute the move. Ask me why, after the match. Your navigator is not your game coach. I am. Their job is to keep you alive so I can make you into a legend!”
They all cheered in unison.
An enormous gate from their garage opened and they walked through it for their first match together.