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Head On
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Head On

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Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor, 2018
Series: Lock In: Book 2

0. Unlocked
1. Lock In
2. Head On

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Near-Future
Robots/Androids
Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic
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Synopsis

In the standalone follow-up to Lock In, chilling near-future SF is combined with the thrill of a gritty cop procedural, snappy dialogue and technological speculation on the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent's head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are "threeps," robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden's Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth -- and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.


Excerpt

The Death of Duane Chapman

The journeyman Hilketa athlete was looking to make an impression in his final game. But then he did something unexpected. He died.

By Cary Wise
SPECIAL TO THE HILKETA NEWS

By the time Duane Chapman died on the Hilketa field, his head had already been torn off twice.

Having it torn off for the third time was unusual, even for Hilketa, in which the point of the game is to rip the head off a selected opponent and then toss or carry it through a goal at the end of the field. The computer operated by the officials in the game operations room - improvised for this exhibition game between the Boston Bays and the Toronto Snowbirds in an appropriated stadium luxury skybox - was supposed to select randomly from the defending players on the field who would be the "goat" for the current play: the player whose head the offense would try to remove while the remaining defense players fought them off, with their bodies and with game-approved weapons. With eleven players on each side, it was unusual for any one player to get goat duty more than once or twice a game.

But the operative word here is "random." Sometimes, just by the roll of the electronic dice, a player can be chosen as goat three times in one game. Later examination of the game computer showed it hadn't been tampered with. It selected Chapman, once, twice, three times, entirely randomly.

Nor had it chosen poorly. Chapman was not the franchise player for the Boston Bays - that honor belonged to Kim Silva, who had just signed a five-year, $83-million contract with the Northeast Division leaders - nor was he recognized as a key specialist, like Wesley Griffith, who was known to make the lumbering tank threeps he specialized in look like limber scout models during critical plays.

What Chapman was, however, was arguably the Bays' best utility fielder; a jack of all positions and threep body models, even if master of none. "You can put him anywhere and in any body model and he'll get the job done," Bays manager David Pena said, at the evening's postgame press conference. "He's the guy you think of when you think of the phrase 'team player.'"

Chapman had also developed a reputation over his three seasons in the North American Hilketa League of being a wily goat - one who could run down the four-minute clock of the "capo" portion of the play, limiting the number of points opposing teams could get from taking his head. This sort of strategic play-making could be frustrating for fans who had come to see blood - fake blood, but blood nonetheless - but for a canny manager like Pena, this talent played into his ability to stymie opponents, forcing them into errors and bad field strategy.

This much was apparent the first time Chapman was the goat, four plays into the first half. The Bays' Silva started the game with a bang by taking Snowbirds goat Toby Warner's head in the first minute and then spearheading a blitzkrieg into Toronto territory in the "coda" portion of the play, running through the outside goal in only thirty-seven seconds for a ten-point push.

The Snowbirds answered strongly, decapitating the Bays' Gerard Mathis in two minutes, but the three-minute-forty-eight-second scrum in the coda and the resulting inside goal throw-in netted Toronto only six points. Although the Birds smothered the Bays in the next capo, keeping Nat Guzman's head on her shoulders, they still needed five points to take the lead.

When Chapman was chosen as goat the next play, he and Pena didn't let that happen. Instead Chapman, centrally located on the field, faded back toward the Bays' goal and Pena ordered what the history-loving manager likes to call an "Agincourt," funneling the Snowbirds into a gauntlet to get at their quarry.

The Bays' Laurie Hampton and Ouida Kimbrough used the crossbows to snipe out Conception Rayburn and Elroy Gil, two of Toronto's best headtakers, and the rest of the Bays kept the Snowbirds engaged in a melee, leaving Chapman, piloting a general threep, to easily outrun Brendon Soares and September Vigil, piloting tanks. By the time Soares finally pried Chapman's head off, the capo period had ground down to nothing, giving Chapman a small victory.

Chapman wouldn't be so lucky in his second session as goat, in the first play of the second half. This time Rayburn, who later admitted being furious at having been sniped earlier, grabbed a sword rather than his more favored hammer, snuck past Jalisa Acevedo's tank and Donnell Mesa's warrior, and dove straight for Chapman, snapping off his head in a near record twenty seconds from the start of the capo. Forty seconds later Rayburn risked an upper goal; Chapman's head sailed through the hoop and the Snowbirds had scored the maximum possible eighteen points, putting them comfortably into the lead.

In postgame interviews with media, Rayburn said that Chapman had been yelling about the pain of his threep's head being severed. "I didn't pay any mind," he said. "I thought he was trying to distract me, like you do when you're the goat. And anyway, being the goat's supposed to hurt. It's why we leave pain on."

What Rayburn said here is important. North American Hilketa League rules require all players to retain some pain sensitivity in their threeps - rules require at least 5 percent of standard receptivity, and most players tune their game threeps into the 5 to 10 percent range. The argument here is that maintaining some pain receptivity - even at a level below what would register as truly painful - keeps the players rooted in reality, and reminds them that their threeps are not invulnerable to physical damage, and are expensive to maintain and repair.

When Chapman's head came back to his threep after the play, the first thing he did was walk over to Pena and report an anomaly with his body. Pena referred him to Royce Siegel, the Bays' sideline technical support lead.

"He said he was feeling more pain than usual," Siegel told the press in the conference after the game. "I did a diagnostic on the threep and there was nothing that showed up as a problem." Siegel then pinged Alton Ortiz, Chapman's care provider, who was watching over his body in Philadelphia. (Chapman, unlike most of his teammates, did not have his body travel to events, due to autoimmune issues. He piloted his threep remotely using dedicated connections to minimize lag.) Ortiz reported nothing unusual on his end. Chapman returned to the field for the next play, on offense.

When asked why he didn't sub out Chapman after he reported playing in increasing pain, Pena said, simply, "He didn't ask."

Why didn't he ask? There are several possible reasons. The first is that Chapman, like many journeyman athletes, had performance bonuses he was aiming for to pad out his standard contractual rate. Although this was an exhibition game, and its stats wouldn't go to the season records, they would go to Chapman's contractual quotas. He was getting an early start at a salary increase, in other words.

The second reason was why the Bays and the Snowbirds were playing in the capital in the first place: The NAHL was expanding into Washington, D.C., as well as Philadelphia, Austin, and Kansas City, and would have an expansion draft at the end of the season. For a player like Chapman, an expansion draft could be a chance to move up into a key role at one of the new teams. The Washington game had the entire NAHL brass at it, along with several potential new franchise owners and investors, including Washington, D.C., favorite son Marcus Shane, as well as their prospective management and coaching teams. Chapman might have thought that staying in the game was the best way to come to their attention and make an argument for being in their expansion draft selections.

And then there's the third reason, as Kim Silva said, after the game: "You play through the pain. Always."

This is a mantra for every athlete in every sport, of course. But it's even more so for the athletes of Hilketa. They know they are both more and less than your average athlete - they are also Hadens, that small percentage of citizens whose bodies are inactive while their minds move freely through the world, both in the online venue of the Agora and in the offline world, through which they navigate in their threeps.

It's these threeps - machines designed arguably better and more efficiently than human bodies - that have led many, including non-Haden professional athletes, to state that Hilketa athletes aren't athletes at all, but something along the lines of glorified video game players.

This naturally rankles Hilketa players, the game's fans, and many Hadens. At the minimum, if NASCAR drivers can be considered athletes, so too can Hilketa players. But ask any Hilketa athlete and they will tell you that there's physicality to the sport. Even if their bodies are immobile, the effort required to pilot their threeps for the ninety minutes of each game (not to mention practices and other related work) takes a physical and mental toll. They work hard. They feel aches and fatigue. And when the hits come hard and fast, they feel the pain. Real pain, for real athletes.

But they know how many people would deny that pain is real. So they play through, more than they might otherwise, more than non-Haden athletes might, to make the point.

For some or all of these reasons, Chapman went back onto the field.

Seasoned observers of the game could see right away that there was something going on with Chapman. ESPN commentator Rochelle Webb pointed out how he started to hang back on the Bays' next offensive drive. "Chapman's keeping to the backfield, which isn't where you usually see him," she commented. Washington Post's Hilketa reporter Dave Miller noted on the site's live simulcast that Chapman picked up the crossbow as his weapon for the play. "He's done that maybe three or four other times in his career," Miller noted, "probably because he can't hit the broadside of a barn." Miller was right; Chapman shot his bolt at the Birds' Sonia Sparks and missed her by a country mile.

On a normal night, Chapman's lack of engagement might be the top story of the game - or at least enough of a reason for Pena to finally bite the bullet and take him off the field - but right around the time Chapman decided to loiter in the background, Silva made it clear why the Bays were paying a premium price for her, racking up twenty points in the next two offensive plays and single-handedly thwarting Elroy Gil's upper-goal attempt.

Almost no one was looking at Chapman during this remarkable run, and those who were confined their comments to asides, minor color commentary filling out the edges of a star turn.

And then Chapman became the goat for the third time.

At first it looked as if Chapman was doing what he always did when he was goat: ducking, weaving, evading, running the field to run down the clock.

Then the Post's Dave Miller saw it. "Chapman is calling a time-out? There are no time-outs in Hilketa."

"Chapman's putting his hands out at Rayburn," Webb said on ESPN, as the Toronto star bore down on him. "He looks like he's trying to say 'Don't hit me.'"

Rayburn didn't hit him. As Chapman scrambled backward from his grasp, he collided with September Vigil, one of Toronto's tanks.

With one massive tank arm, Vigil hugged Chapman's threep to her.

With the other, she reached down and tore off his head.

"I didn't know," Vigil said afterward, and anyone who doesn't believe threeps can convey emotion simply did not see Vigil in her personal rig, sitting there in obvious shock. "Duane screamed when I took his head, but we all scream when that happens. We're supposed to scream. You want to distract and confuse the other player. I thought he was trying to make me lose focus."

Vigil didn't lose focus. She tossed the head to Rayburn, who ran it in for eight points.

By this time Siegel knew something was wrong with Chapman. "I got a call from Alton, Duane's caregiver, telling me his heart rate and brain activity were all over the place," Siegel said. "I pulled up his physical stats on my glasses and confirmed it. Alton was yelling at me to disconnect him from the threep. He was convinced something was going haywire with it. But it wasn't the threep. Or if it was, I couldn't tell." Siegel pulled the plug on the threep anyway.

From the point of view of the spectators and other players, nothing special had happened. Players had been unplugged from their threeps before, when there were connection issues or major damage. A cart came onto the field during the reset and took the headless threep away to scattered applause. Pena called in Warren Meyer as a substitute for the remaining minutes of the game. There was nothing to suggest that 140 miles away Duane Chapman was suddenly fighting for his life.

It was a fight he would lose minutes before the end of the game, which the Bays would win, 58 to 41. Pena was informed by Alton Ortiz as the final seconds counted down.

After a game players normally head to the press zone for interviews almost immediately, pausing only to switch to their personal threeps. That didn't happen this time. Both the Bays and the Snowbirds were sent, still in their game threeps, to the home and visiting locker rooms, where Pena and Snowbirds manager Linda Patrick quietly informed their players of Chapman's death.

Nearly every Bays and Snowbirds player withdrew from the postgame press scrum, heading home stunned. Only Pena, Siegel, Silva, Rayburn, and Vigil remained to meet with reporters, who were now independently receiving reports about Chapman.

"We don't know what happened yet," Pena said, at the press conference, when asked how it was that Chapman died. He said it would take days or possibly weeks to figure out what caused an otherwise healthy Haden athlete to suddenly die. Washington police and medical examiners would look into it, as well as the FBI's desk for Haden affairs, and the league itself.

When Pena was asked how Chapman's death would affect the league, the manager looked at the reporter who asked the question like he was a bug. "At the moment, I couldn't give a damn about that," he said.

The right answer, but the question wasn't out of line. The Bays-Snowbirds exhibition game was meant to be a showcase for what has been the quickest-growing major sport in North America, with four new franchises up for grabs in the next year; representatives from China, Russia, and Germany attended with an eye toward creating one or more international leagues in Europe and Asia. What should have been a triumph for the league, including a star turn by Silva, the league's biggest draw, had now been overshadowed by the league's first athlete death.

As for Chapman, the journeyman player who had hoped for his star to rise, he has found his way into Hilketa's record books in another, more tragic, fashion.

"It's unbelievable," the visibly emotional Pena said, near the end of the press conference. "But it's also just like Duane. He gave everything to the game. Everything to the league. He never wanted to leave the field."

He never did. Until he left it forever.

Copyright © 2018 by John Scalzi


Reviews

Head On

- Thomcat
  (9/8/2018)

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