Have you ever wanted to be a soccer ball? If you have, you’re probably crazy since those things get hit around a lot. But that’s basically what Mechon (meck-in) Ball is. There are two people on each team. One is in a big robot—the mech—about four meters tall. The other person is inside a metal ball with just enough room to sit inside. The mech hits the ball and the person in the ball maneuvers to try to get into the other goal, at the same time as the other team is doing the same thing. It’s pretty much the best game in the world.
And today, I’m in the ball.
“Put the wings out,” Alicia says over the radio. I push both green buttons on top of the control sticks and a wing icon lights up on my screen. The wings are a great way to glide if you need to change directions or get a bit of a boost, but you have to be careful. If they snag on something, or worse, if the other team’s mech grabs them, they can snap off or get damaged.
“Looks good,” Alicia says. Alicia is my partner, the one inside the mech. “Are you good with the rail grab?”
“I’ve got this,” I say, trying not to sound grumpy. Or nervous.
Alicia won the Mechon Ball championship for our district last year. Her partner Max got really sick after that and has been in the hospital ever since. And that’s why I got assigned to play with Alicia. I’ve watched Mechon Ball my whole life. I’ve even played a bit before this. I’ve never really won though.
“Roo Crew, you ready?” the referee asks over the radio. Alicia and I both reply yes. Our logo is a robotic kangaroo. I think Max drew it.
On my screen, I see the other team enter the area. They’re called the Stingers and their logo is a wasp skewering a mechon ball with its sting. It’s pretty cool although now I’m the one in the ball. The mech is holding their ball at the far end of the arena, just like Alicia in our mech is holding our ball—and me—in her hand.
The arena is a wide oval with the goals at either end. Running down the middle of the floor and ceiling are two metal rails. They’re meant as obstacles for the mechs but also as boosts for the balls. There is a gripper on the top and bottom of each ball that you can use to grab the rail and get extra power to blast into the goal super fast. It’s not an easy maneuver though.
I hear a chime in my helmet and the game is on. Alicia lobs me along the curved edge of the arena. The Stingers’ mech throws their own ball and then turns to intercept me. I flick out the wings for a second, trying to dip under its outstretched arm. It’s a good move but I don’t get down far enough, and I feel the ball get bounced back towards Alicia. It’s a foul to grab the other team’s ball so the mechs can only hit it away.
“Stabilize!” Alicia shouts. I’m trying but the other mech put a spin on me. I get the ball righted just as it reaches Alicia, and immediately I’m batted back. I’m just across the half-line when Alicia yells “Watch out!”
There is a crunch and suddenly I’m heading towards the floor. The ball is cushioned and internally stabilized so I’m not in any danger but I can feel the impact as the ball smacks into the floor.
“Watch your sides!” Alicia shouts. Now I realize that the other mech had thrown its ball in a curve to hit my ball right on top, forcing it to the floor.
“Dead ball,” the referee says, as if it’s not obvious. I’m sure the Stingers are celebrating. A dead ball is when one of the balls is motionless on the floor. The balls don’t have rockets in them or any way to move, so there’s nothing I can do until Alicia comes to pick me up. But while she does that, the goal is wide open. It’s almost a guaranteed goal for the other side.
Max wouldn’t have made that mistake, I’m sure. It’s almost worse that Alicia isn’t yelling at me now. I see on the reverse camera that she is starting out towards me. The Stingers wait until Alicia bends down to get me before throwing their ball. Alicia leaps for it, batting it back and immediately bending to scoop me up. By the time she has me, the other mech has caught its ball and is whipping it back over. Alicia is too far forward to stop it now. She throws me towards it in a last effort to stop it.
It’s my chance to make up for my mistake. The other ball is moving fast. I’m flying back parallel to it. I flick out my right wing for a second. It’s a risky move since it’s between me and the other ball but it’s enough to send me over that way. I crash into the other ball right in front of our goal, knocking it away.
But I’m moving too erratically now to stop.
“Stabilize!” Alicia shouts in my ear, but I can’t. Nothing’s responding. The next second I’m through our goal and suspended in the magnetic trap inside.
“Own-goal,” the referee says. It’s four points for the Stingers. Not as bad as the ten points they would have gotten if they’d scored but still.
All last season, Max never once scored an own-goal.
“If you don’t stabilize immediately, you don’t have control,” Alicia says. She’s trying to stay calm but I can hear the frustration in her voice.
“I know,” I say. “I was trying.” She doesn’t reply.
The game continues. Alicia is brilliant on defense and while the Stingers try every maneuver they can think of, she’s always there with plenty of time to spare. As long as she doesn’t have to come get a dead ball, there’s not much danger of their scoring.
The problem is, I can’t score either. I can’t find a way around the other mech. I only catch the rail once but it’s when the opposing mech is standing right by it so my super power-up speed only gives me a greater boost when he knocks me back to our end.
Games are thirty minutes long and by the 27-minute mark, the score is 4-0 for the Stingers. It’s starting to look like they will win because of my own-goal.
Alicia calls time-out and catches me out of the air as I’m rebounded back.
“I’ve got an idea,” she says. “Let try the Head Bounce Play.”
Last year, this was the Roo Crew’s signature move. It involved throwing the ball in an arch as fast as possible at the other mech’s head. Even if the other mech batted you away, as long as you hit at a certain height, the ball tended to be deflected up, right towards the ceiling rail. If the ball could catch it, it was a straight shot into the other goal, and if you did it right, it all happened too fast for the other mech to react. It was also insanely hard to pull off. Alicia told me that Max had come up with the idea.
“You really think I can do it?” I ask Alicia.
“Yeah, I think so,” she says. Then, undercutting her confidence in me, “Anyway, we’re losing, so might as well give it a shot.”
Play is back on, and Alicia winds up and hurls me. I flip out the wings to curve around towards the other mech. I look ahead and see that the Stingers haven’t thrown their ball. The mech is holding it raised in both hands, waiting to use it as a hammer on me.
They knew we were going to do this. Of course; it’s the Roo Crew’s famous move and naturally Alicia would try it when she was desperate. There’s no way it can work now.
But I’m moving too fast to change course. Two seconds later, I’m in range and the Stingers’ mech brings their ball down, smashing into the top of my ball and sending me hurtling to the floor. Somehow, I get it stabilized, just as I hit the floor.
In less than a second, I’m going to be a dead ball. Barely thinking what I’m doing, I hit the button to extend the lower rail grabber. The little arm shoots out as I rebound off the floor. It gives me just enough push to send me higher off the floor, just up to the level of the floor rail.
I hit the stabilizer again and again, sending me into a spin. It’s enough to keep me in the air half a second longer and I’m facing backward as I feel the lower rail grabber catch. I’m pushed forward in my seat as my ball rockets down the rail towards the Stingers’ goal, but I’m looking backwards at our mech.
“Yes!” Alicia shouts. I see her raise the mech’s arms and actually jump up and down. Then I pass through the goal and feel myself being grabbed by the magnetic field.
“What was that?” she asks. “That was insane. Did you even mean to do that?”
“Sure,” I say, laughing with the adrenaline. “I call it the Floor Bounce. I just came up with it.”
“Awesome job,” she says, laughing. Awesome. It’s the first time she has said that to me.