A Good Match by Martha Hipley

June 2024 | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine

Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
20 min readJun 30, 2024

“You look like someone who enjoys a good match.”

Bobson was desperately avoiding eye contact with the man next to him at the bar, a man who had chosen, out of all the open seats in the otherwise empty lounge, to sit on the stool directly next to his. Even worse, he had already inched the stool closer to say, “Just want to see the game, don’t mind me,” as he gestured to the projection smeared behind the endless rows of bottles behind the counter. All Bobson wanted, after a shit cycle on the clock and another shitty fight with his latest lover, was to have a few rounds alone before beginning the loop all over again. One of the few pleasures of his third-cycle shift was that the station’s primary lounge was nearly always empty when he was released. He hoped the man had taken the hint. Maybe not.

“Have you ever watched a booly match? I tell you, we’re in for something special today,” he continued. Bobson finally gave him a proper look. He was a tediously typical Dervid wanderer, someone who made a career of flitting in and out of stations like this one, pushing a deal on someone and then moving on as soon as the deal soured. His charismatic face transcended speciesist beauty standards — big, bright eyes, wide omnivore teeth, laugh lines on his leathery skin that was nearly the same color of the cheap Earth wine he was swinging in front of Bobson’s face in a cheap, unbreakable goblet.

“No. I’m not much for sports,” replied Bobson. He eyed his glass of amethyst liquor and made a mental calculation. He had splurged on the good stuff and couldn’t yet bring himself to chug it down and escape. Nor could he stand to walk away from four hundred kotals of decent booze.

“Wesry,” said the man, holding out a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Bobson,” he replied as he reluctantly shook. Here was another red flag — the Dervid clearly delighted in imitating as many multicultural tics as possible.

“Funny that I’m the one drinking something from your Earth,” said Wesry, swinging his glass past Bobson’s face for a second time. Bobson wondered if he’d ordered the wine in an attempt to ingratiate himself. He wouldn’t be surprised. After his time on the station he’d seen every scam. “Anyway, after the cycle I spent on Ranya I haven’t been able to pass up the chance to see a good game of booly, even at this hour. It’s funny the things you get attached to in my line of work.”

Bobson nodded.

“Not that the work itself is that interesting,” he continued. “I had a nice little contract with one of the cobalt mines on the South Continent, but what I really love is getting to immerse myself. You don’t really know a place until you’ve lived there for a full climate cycle, you know? But I’m sure you understand. You must be a bit of an adventurer yourself to be stationed all the way out here.”

Bobson snorted. There was nothing adventurous about being six years deep into a ten-year engineering contract on such a remote station, a contract he had signed because it seemed like the least risky way to stow away some cash and keep himself out of the line of fire of the ongoing territorial disputes back on his side of the galaxy. He had hoped that the universe would be a better place by the time he was finished and he’d have the means to settle down somewhere nicer. He had hoped he might even be married. But the “police actions” and “diplomatic interventions” were as endless as the universe itself, the money in the bank had long stopped feeling like an achievement, and the romantic and sexual pickings were slim outside of the main transit loops.

“Have you met a Ranyan before? They don’t travel much,” Wesry continued.

“I have, actually.” Bobson thought of Lil, the ambitious young mechanic who had taken a short-term contract on the station during his third year. She was bright, with a friendly face and a talent for zipping through the service tubes around the station better than anyone else in Systems Maintenance. She was also smaller than he expected when he first glanced at the transfer notice — funny to assume an insectoid race would be bigger than the average Earthling. He supposed, after some digging through an old academic database, that it had more to do with some kind of deep phobia, all those Cold War films about giant mutant fauna destroying Earth cities, a divine punishment for unleashing nuclear waste, his prejudice as much of an ancient relic as his desire to get married. They got along well, but Lil never got along with the station. She was suited for the work itself but not for the endless artificial light and the lonely hours. She missed hiking in the hills outside of her hometown, a mid-sized city on Ranya’s North Continent. She missed her friends, she missed her family, she missed going to the theater to see one of Ranya’s elaborate historical operas. She would write long messages to her loved ones and recite back the gossip from their replies to Bobson during every shift they shared. She was clever enough to know that if she wanted the kind of life that Bobson thought he was chasing, she’d be better off back home, opening up a repair shop downtown where she could surround herself with friends and hobbies. After her year was up, she didn’t renew.

“Well, then you know that their sexual dimorphism is quite interesting, it gives the sport a unique flavor,” said Wesry. For a moment, Bobson was relieved to be pulled from his thoughts.

“I only knew one. A female. We didn’t really talk about that kind of stuff.”

“But you know that the very idea of female and male is a slippery thing for the Ranyans, correct?” Bobson didn’t but nodded, assuming Wesry was already reciting off a script and that his responses mattered little. “Of course they’re born as one or the other, typically in an even ratio under prosperity, but their biological sex is quite malleable. Really their whole bodies are very malleable, much more than yours or mine.” Wesry paused and frowned. “They don’t generally like your terms for male and female, in fact. Their terms translate to something more like giver and holder, and the whole idea is siloed to the very act of reproduction. I learned a bit of Rayan in my time there, enough to get a good restaurant recommendation!” Wesry laughed at his own joke and gulped the last of his wine. He signaled to the bartender for another. “Let me get you another as well.” Bobson shrugged. The bartender poured.

“Anyway, their morphology is very susceptible to their outer conditions. There are obviously broad regional variations in color and size and ornamentation, according to the local biome.”

“Makes sense,” said Bobson, even though he found it strange to think of Lil, who had delighted in the printed copy of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare that he had procured for her as a parting gift, as a creature that lived in a biome.

“But most interestingly, they have evolved with the ability to develop both ‘male’ and ‘female’ reproductive organs at any point in life.” Bobson rolled his eyes as the Dervid imitated that Earthling gesture of skepticism around the words male and female, flicking his purple digits into little hooks. “In prehistoric times, nearly all of a given populace might convert to male genitalia during times of famine as the male reproductive process consumes much fewer resources and allows for the development of larger muscle mass. And in times of feast, the opposite occurred. This culminated in a culture that was quite egalitarian, even during the era that would most conform to your planet’s Medieval period. That is to say, you can’t base rule of law on a patriarchy if your king might become a queen!” He laughed again at himself. “These days most couples make a strategic choice of who should be the giver and who should be the holder when they reproduce, and then they consume the appropriate hormonal pills for the duration of inception and gestation.”

“So what does this have to do with the game?” Bobson asked.

“Well.” Wesry took a deep breath. “While there is a booly league that trades in all the kind of transpeciest nonsense that has ruined most professional sports, we’re about to watch a match of the Intercontinental Tradition League, in my opinion the only pure sporting league in the galaxy.” Wesry took a deep gulp and signaled to the bartender again. “Another round. Put it all on my tab.” He turned to look Bobson straight in the eyes. “Fancy a bet?”

Here it was, here was the scam. Bobson nodded as the bartender poured another two fingers of his drink of choice. For all Bobson knew, the broadcast might be a week old, the bartender could be part of the set up. “I don’t really bet on sports, especially ones I don’t understand.”

“Lucky for you!” Wesry winked. “We still have some time before the match begins. Let me catch you up to speed so you can make an educated decision.” He gestured to the projection where the broadcast was finally transitioning from the typical talking heads of a sports pre-show to footage of an empty pitch surrounded by teeming bleachers. “Tonight is the tie-breaker finale for the World Booly Series.”

“How convenient.” Bobson sighed. At least this was better than being back in his bunk, sleeping on a travel bed on the unit’s floor to avoid contact with his latest romantic failure.

“First up, we have our reigning champions, the East Vonya Valiants. You know how East Vonya is. All money and flash. They buy the best players every year, they’ll even pay the exorbitant migration fees for talent from other continents. If you’re from the Western Subcontinent and want a chance at a first-class life, your best bet is to get drafted from the East Vonya seed camps in Merrnl.”

“Uh huh,” said Bobson as he sipped his fresh drink.

“And then, the challengers, the Polinny Pounders. It’s a story as old as sports: the working class upstarts from the ex-industrial city. Polinny has never been the same since the grain riots last century. They’re scrappy, they’re local, they’re — you might say — ‘the salt of the Earth’.” He laughed.

“I know Polinny,” said Bobson. Lil was from Polinny, but she was not the type to care about sports. The Polinny he knew was painted in his mind through her tales of the local art spaces, the open-air markets with the delicacies she craved, the parks where she had lounged with her friends as a student. He had always imagined Polinny as a place worth missing and not somewhere that would “never be the same.” He had told Lil he would visit her someday, though someday was never until his contract was up.

“Wonderful! You might, then, know that while they started this season off with a bang, they’ve ended with a whimper and barely won their division. Has their luck finally run out?” Two teams began to walk out onto a large, circular pitch, dressed in uniforms that were a mix of hard armored pieces and bright fabric. Each wore a helmet with transparent shells over their large yellow eyes. Bobson had grown used to Lil’s mantid form in her year on the station, he had no trouble seeing her as a colleague and friend. Covered in bits of synthetic fabric and plastic pads, these Ranyans looked nothing like people to him.

“Don’t worry, we still have plenty of time to catch you up,” continued Wesry. “The game moves so quickly that they really have to pad out the event to make it worth the ticket price. They always do quite a bit of preamble, especially during the playoffs. That’s the next thing we should cover, actually. Booly’s roots are in Ranya’s colonial history. The gameplay is essentially a military exercise — a millennia ago this was how young Ranyans trained to overthrow their Vontek overlords. It’s guerrilla roleplay at its heart, and they always make a fuss about honoring the slain and the trauma of slavery and all that before they begin. You think they’d be over it after a thousand years, but you know how sentimental Ranyans are.”

“Sure,” said Bobson. He eyed the players as the camera scrolled past them. Some were as compact as Lil, others were nearly double her size. While their uniforms and padding were largely the same, some held long, curved paddles in their forelegs. “So how is it played?”

“Well. The rules are as open as the rules of war, but the ITL tends to converge on a gameplay style that maximizes the enjoyment for both spectator and player. Teams generally consist of fourteen players, half givers and half holders. Fourteen is more or less the optimal number for the game to be dynamic and easy to watch. Any less and it’s too slow, any more and it’s too hard to keep track of who’s who. Funnily the ‘male’ players tend to play as holders and vice versa.” Wesry flicked his fingers again.

“You can see that there are two large pits and a pile of boulders, spaced evenly around the edges of the pitch? These are our goals and our scoring mechanism. When the match starts, each team’s holders will rush from the center of the pitch to those boulders and will attempt to move as many as possible into their designated pit, which can also be used as a trench or recovery area. You can see that the boulders come in different sizes and shapes, and the final score is determined by total weight rather than number or mass. Very straightforward.”

“So what do the givers do?”

“This is where it gets interesting! You’ve noticed that each team has some players who are real bruisers — these are the holders. The givers are the smaller ones with those paddles. It’s hard to see in these wide shots, but you’ll notice when the match starts that the pitch is dotted with bools, a fungus that is native to almost all of Ranya.” Wesry turned away from the screen to pull up an image of a bool on his palm display. “They’re roughly the size of an Earthling softball and very aerodynamic. They’re also extremely dense and extremely toxic. While the holders are fighting over their rocks, the givers dash around the pitch, punting bools at the opposite team. A good giver can send one flying at over two hundred kilometers per hour.” Wesry winked at Bobson as if to highlight his ability to translate into Earth units. “A flying bool is powerful enough to break a bone or an exoskeleton, hence the body armor, but they also release toxic spores that are capable of temporarily paralyzing a healthy Ranyan for anywhere from a few moments to a few minutes. The goal of the givers is the unending task of stalling the opposing team’s holders long enough to give their own holders a fighting chance. Beyond the bools, no physical contact between the two teams is allowed.”

“So why bother to be up at this hour to watch booly and not any other sport they screen in the lounge? Doesn’t sound much different than any number of national pastimes.”

“Ah ha! You’ve already forgotten! The Ranyan morphology! I’m an honest businessman, and what sport is honest these days? Even your Earth Olympics gave up centuries ago on policing synthetic enhancements. When athletes have an endless gray market of performance enhancers to choose from that no governing body could police, who among them would play fair?”

“Sure, but what makes booly different?” Bobson finished his drink and signaled himself for another.

“The Ranyan malleability! That very same adaptation that allows Ranyans to swap genitals to survive hardships also gives the game a fascinating twist. By abstaining from all ingestion, the Ranyan body begins to digest itself.”

“What’s special about that? My body can burn its fat stores if I eat less.” asked Bobson.

“Because the Ranyan process essentially ferments their very insides to great psychedelic effect. Imagine if just before a game of football some trivial percentage of your innards turned to psilocybin! Ranyan athletes, at least the athletes of the ITL, never bother with synthetic enhancements because they only need a carefully timed fast to produce their own. It’s a very meticulous process — they fast just enough to experience the pain relief, the hyper awareness, the euphoria of the drug without risking injury.”

Bobson scrutinized the screen as the camera scrolled once again past the players. He knew enough to know that the players’ compound eyes would tell him nothing about their mental state. He had spent many breaks in the lounge with Lil, sharing some substance or other. The only noticeable difference was that Lil had seemed happier when intoxicated than she ever did otherwise during her year of service, a common occupational hazard in the boonies. The athletes all stared into the middle distance with a warrior’s severity. “So what, you’re saying they’re all high as a satellite?”

“Precisely! Now, how’s about a bet?”

“How much are we talking?” asked Bobson before emptying his glass. This time, the bartender refilled both glasses without asking.

“You’d prefer kotals, yes? How does twenty million sound?”

How did twenty million sound? It sounded like half a plot of land, a real plot of land with real soil somewhere decontaminated enough to grow things. It sounded like nearly all of Bobson’s savings after six miserable years on the station. “Now you’re the one who’s high,” he laughed.

“My only vice is Earthling wine!” said Wesry while raising his open palms. “That and betting on booly. I’ll give you the first choice — you can pick whichever team you’d like.”

“That sounds like a stupid way to bet,” said Bobson. “What kind of gambler doesn’t care which team he bets on?”

“A gambler who believes that booly is the last remaining sport where any honest athlete can win!”

Bobson’s head spun. He normally tapped out after one or two drinks and no longer remembered how many he had downed. He also couldn’t quite remember how he had ended up in the lounge, how he had ended up living and working on the station at all. What was twenty million kotals to a man without friends, a man whose lover hated him, a man who hated himself? He took a long sip. “Okay. I’ll bet on the Pounders.”

“Deal,” said Wesry, nearly shrieking with glee. “You’ll enjoy this. I promise.”

The endless parade of flag waving and speeches came to an end. “Would you turn up the audio?” Wesry asked the bartender, who finally seemed interested in their conversation now that money was involved. “As you can see, we won’t be bothering anyone else.” He swept an arm past the empty room.

“No problem,” he replied as he fiddled beneath the counter.

“Here we are, moments before the final game of this cycle’s World Booly Series,” an announcer drawled over the roar of the crowd. “Looks like the entire ‘City of Hills’ has turned out for tonight’s match.” Bobson squinted and eyed the bleachers at the mention of Polinny’s nickname. Would Lil be there just out of civic pride? Would she be watching from home with her friends and a pile of food? “The Pounders look eager to break the tie on their home turf tonight, but the question remains — has Sleve Andressl’s foreleg recovered from last week’s upset in New Vonya?” A camera zoomed in on a player who could only be Andressl, rotating her left forearm gently in a circle to swing her paddle through the air. Beneath her uniform, Bobson could see that she shared Lil’s same dappled pink coloring. Bobson recognized the symbol on the front and back of her thorax as the Ranyan equivalent of the number seven. She nodded her head in a slow rhythm with the stomps and yells from the bleachers.

“And here comes the chief referee with the starting signal onto the pitch,” the announcer continued. There was a loud pop and a single flare shot up into the city’s night sky. “And they’re off!” The players scattered, both teams’ holders racing to the pile of boulders while the givers distributed themselves on the pitch in clearly planned formations. Bobson followed the number seven to a point a few meters from the Valiants’ goal, Andressl swaying calmly in anticipation.

Near the pile, the holders worked quickly with careful strategies. One, who was lankier than the rest, picked up a single, medium-sized rock and began to sprint with it to the Pounders’ goal. Two larger holders from the Valiants committed to carrying an enormous one together. All of them had paused for a moment to assess the pile before making their choices and weaving out onto the pitch.

The lanky runner was the first to fall. He was strides from the Pounders’ goal when a Valiant giver cradled a bool on the end of her paddle before slinging it perfectly into his thorax. It made contact centimeters below his head. A loud thwap rang out over the noise of the crowd as the spores plumed up around his face and he slumped to the ground. “Now that’s gonna sting tomorrow,” said a second announcer.”

“You bet, Dug. She got him good with that one. He’ll be out at least a few minutes. A rough start for Riye Truk and for the Pounders. And here comes Smorin with a surprise pivot.” A Valiant holder dropped his own boulder a few meters from their goal and sprinted across the pitch to retrieve Truk’s abandoned stone from beside his limp body. Here was a bit of strategy, Bobson realized through his drunken haze. It was just as important to move the stones away from your opponents’ goal as it was to move them towards your own. Smorin raced across the pitch, dodging both the flying bools and the other holders to toss Truk’s stone into the pit and then double back for his own first choice. “And we have our first score of the night, a double play,” said the first announcer.

“Where the hell was Andressl?” asked the second. “She’s gotta do better than that if the Pounders are taking home a trophy tonight.”

“Indeed, Dug. Indeed.”

Maybe the two holders sharing the large stone had calculated that the opening chaos of the match would be enough to allow them some progress with such a high-scoring load. Instead, they only made it halfway towards their goal before a bool smacked into one’s side, sending him falling to his right as the remaining holder careened to his left with a stone that was too large for one player. A third holder crashed into him, and plastic crunched as the second stone collided with body armor. Both announcers groaned. All three holders found themselves tangled on the ground, but only the one who had been hit with the bool stayed down for more than a moment. The other two carried on with the large stone, limping slightly after the collision.

The cameras whipped and zoomed across the pitch. Bobson found it hard to focus on anything, both from the booze and from the speed of the sport itself. He continued to drink, too anxious to even notice as the bartender silently refilled his glass. He felt lost in the sea of movement. “How can you even tell who’s winning?” he asked.

“You can’t. Well, you can’t. The announcers can, the players can, a good spectator can. I have my best guess,” said Wesry with a smile. “When the stones have all been placed, they’ll make a big ceremony out of weighing them. The Southern Continental X-League now hides a platform scale at the bottom of each pit so they can display the weights in real time, but the Intercontinental Tradition League is more, well, traditional.” Bobson nodded and looked again for the number seven or a flash of pink exoskeleton.

As if he could read Bobson’s thoughts, the second announcer began to seek her out as well. “And where is Andressl in all this mess? Voted Player of the Year in the postseason and now she’s nowhere to be found when her team needs her.” A camera finally caught her in frame and zoomed in.

“Looks like she fasted a little too long, Dug,” replied the first. Andressl bounced from side to side on the tips of her four walking legs, her face tilted to the sky, her left forearm making huge arcs in the air with her paddle. A Valiant holder noticed her daze and began to run towards her, as though calculating that the safest place to be might be next to a giver who was already out of the game. Andressl swayed closer to the Valiant pit and then spun around abruptly, slamming into the holder. Both crashed to the ground.

“Well, that’s one way to stop a score.”

“Indeed, Dug. Indeed. Looks like the refs are ruling that one as incidental.”

As the holder scrambled to his feet with his stone still clutched to his thorax, Andressl seemed to snap from her trance into some wilder state. Her posture became more animal, her forearms shaking with energy as she stood. She quickly scooped a nearby bool up in her paddle and hurled it at the holder. It smacked into the side of his helmet and sent him falling again. He lay still. Bobson wondered if it was from the spores or from a concussion.

Andressl turned and zigzagged across the pitch, hurling bools into holders as she went. No camera could move fast enough to cover each throw, but the thwap of each impact rang out across the stadium. The crowd, at least those dressed in the Pounders’ blue and white, began to heave and hum as a single organism. The bleachers vibrated as they stomped and cheered. This was it! This was the moment! Bobson’s heart pounded, his knuckles white around his empty glass.

In what seemed like a breath, she had coursed across the pitch, taking down every Valiant holder. Her holder teammates stumbled to take advantage of the opportunity, forming an impromptu assembly line to toss the spread of abandoned stones into their goal. “I’ve never seen a field like this!” shouted the first announcer. The second remained speechless. Bobson stood up, nearly falling off his stool, leaning over the counter as though he might pass through the projection and into the stadium.

Andressl looped back around, slamming second and third bools into any holder who was beginning to stir.

Then it ended.

A camera pinned tight to Andressl’s face caught the first shift of her maniac glee into anguish. She swung the paddle one final, perfect time, and the force of it carried beyond her, pulling against the seam that connected her forearm to her thorax until the joint split open and a yellowy fluid gushed down the side of her uniform. The forearm slapped limply across her thorax and then hung at her side, now barely connected to her body. The paddle fell to the ground, and Andressl fell to her knees, howling with pain. Just as her teammate tossed the last stone into their pit, the crowd fell silent.

“It happens,” said Wesry with a shrug. “A side effect of the fasting. Too much and it can damage the stability of their exoskeletons, particularly their joints. It’s always a pity to see an athlete go down in their prime. At least the match is over anyway.” Bobson sat back on his stool in silence. The bartender turned down the volume to a whisper.

The scoring was swift, maybe faster than it would have been if the match hadn’t ended in tragedy. A crew of stadium officials hauled each pile of rocks up and out of the pits via tarps that had lined their bottoms. The tarps were then hauled to a large scale that had been rolled to the center of the pitch, and one by one each pile was measured. Bobson didn’t recognize the unit symbol next to the final numbers, but somehow the Valiants had won, 471 to 468. The bartender cut the transmission.

“Well, I’m an honest man, and I expect you’re an honest man too,” said Wesry. He took Bobson’s left wrist in his left hand and pressed their left palms together. “I’ve passed you my account details. Whenever you have the time, whenever you get over this hangover, send over the money. What did we decide on? Twenty million?” As he stood up, the bartender passed him a touchpad to confirm payment for his tab. “I’m leaving the station in a few hours, so I don’t expect we’ll cross paths again. But lovely to share such a match with you. Truly once-in-a-lifetime.” Wesry nodded as if tipping a hat and walked out of the lounge.


When he awoke, Bobson didn’t remember the walk back to his bunk and laying out on the travel bed, but he remembered everything else. As he rolled to one side to sit up, he checked his palm display. The last message, sent from an anonymized device, was the ID string of a banking account. He opened his own account. Just enough to pay out the debt, buy out his contract, and book transit somewhere new. He sent three credit transfers. He messaged Lil.


Originally published in the June 2024 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.

Martha Hipley is a writer, artist, and filmmaker from Balti-
more, Maryland, who lives and works in Mexico City. When
not working, she enjoys training as a triathlete and boxer
and exploring flea markets.