I ALMOST MISSED SEEING Duane Chapman die.
I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that I was running late for the “special exhibition game experience” that I was supposed to be having along with my mother and father. The North American Hilketa League really really really wanted my dad to be a minority investor in the league’s upcoming Washington, D.C., franchise, and thought wooing him in a luxury skybox would do the trick.
I was doubtful about this—Dad knew his way around skyboxes, as both a former NBA player and current real estate billionaire, and didn’t see them as anything particularly special—but I did know that my flatmates, Hilketa fans all, were glowing green with envy that I was attending the game. This had been literally the case with the twins, Justin and Justine, who for the last three days had set the LED piping of their threep to pulse green at me anytime I walked past them. I thought that was overdoing it, personally.
I had left the house in time to make it to the start of the game, but public transportation had other plans for me. I spent the first half of the game in a tube, surrounded by increasingly agitated passengers.
Where are you, my mother had texted me, once the game had started.
Stuck on the Metro, I sent back. The train stopped fifteen minutes ago. We’re all looking at each other deciding who to eat first.
I think you’re safe, she replied.
Don’t be too sure, I sent. I can see some of them sizing up my threep to part it out for battery power.
Well, if you survive, try to hurry up, Mom texted. Your father is being swarmed by German businessmen and I’m being condescended to by PR flacks. I know you won’t want to miss any of that.
I hear there’s a game going on too, I sent back.
A what now? she replied.
Eventually the train decided to move again, and ten minutes after that I was heading into the stadium, threading my way through other Metro stoppage victims, rushing to see the second half of the game. Some of them were in Boston Bays white and blue, others were wearing the Toronto Snowbirds purple and gray. The rest were wearing Washington Redhawks burgundy and gold, because this is Washington, D.C., and why wouldn’t they.
“I can help you,” a gate attendant said to me, waving me over. She had very little traffic because most of the attendees were already in the stadium. I flashed my ticket code onto my chest monitor and she scanned it.
“Skybox, very nice,” she said. “You know where you’re going?”
I nodded. “I’ve been here before.”
The attendant was about to respond when there was a commotion behind us. I looked over and saw a small clot of protesters chanting and waving signs. HILKETA DISCRIMINATES, read one of the signs. LET US PLAY TOO, read another one. EVEN THE BASQUE DON’T LIKE HILKETA, read a third. The protesters were being shuffled off by stadium security, and they weren’t happy about it.
“I don’t even get that sign,” she said to me, as they were being hustled away.
“The Basque one.” She pronounced the word “baskee.” “The other ones I get. All the Hilketa players are Hadens and these guys”—she waved at the protesters, none of whom were Hadens—“don’t like that. But what does that other sign even mean?”
“The word ‘Hilketa’ comes from the Basque language,” I said. “It means ‘murder.’ Some Basque people don’t like that it’s used. They think it makes them look bad.”
“I don’t know. I’m not Basque.”
“Everyone’s got a word for murder,” the attendant said.
I nodded at that and looked back at the retreating protesters. Some of them saw me and started chanting more forcefully. Apparently they were under the impression that because I was a Haden, their grievances were my fault. A couple of them had glasses on and were looking at me in the fixed sort of way that indicated they were either storing an image of me or trying to call up my public information.
Well, this was a new threep and I didn’t keep my information public when I wasn’t working, so good luck, there, guys. I thanked the gate attendant and headed in.
The particular skybox I was going to was a large one, designed to fit a few dozen people, a buffet, and a full-service bar. It was basically a hotel conference room with a view of a sporting field.
I glanced around, looking for my parents. I found Dad first, and this was not entirely surprising. As a former NBA player, he towered above most other people in most rooms. And as Marcus Shane, one of the most famous humans in the world, he was generally thronged.
As he was here—two concentric rings of admirers arrayed themselves around him, holding drinks and looking up at him raptly as he related some story or another. Dad’s natural habitat, in other words.
He waved when he saw me but didn’t wave for me to come over. I knew what that meant. He was working. A few of the people who were thronging him glanced over to see who he had waved at, but seeing only an anonymous threep, they turned their attention back to Dad. That was fine by me.
“Oh, good. Here, take this,” someone said, and shoved a glass at me.
I looked up and saw a middle-aged suit. “Pardon me?” I said.
“I’m done with this,” he said, waggling the glass.
The man peered at my threep. “You’re catering, yes?”
“Not really.” I considered flashing my FBI identity information at the suit and then enjoying the fumbling that would follow. Before I could, someone in a white blouse and an apron appeared. “Let me take that,” he said, taking the suit’s glass.
The suit grunted. “And bring me another. Jack and Coke.” He walked off in the direction of Dad.
“Sorry about that,” the catering staffer said.
“Not your fault.” I looked around the room. “Interesting, though.”
“A skybox full of non-Hadens, here for a game played by Hadens, and the first thing that dude does when he sees a threep is hand over his drink glass.” I nodded to the glass the caterer had in his hand.
“I better go get him another one,” the caterer said.
“Do. Try not to spit in it.” The caterer grinned and walked off.
I walked over to the glass wall partitioning the inside of the skybox from its balcony and went through the door there, going to the balcony railing and taking in the roar of the spectators. If the size of the crowd was any indication, the league wasn’t wrong to want to expand into Washington. The stadium was jammed to the upper decks.
“I still don’t know what’s going on,” a man said, next to me, to another man standing next to him.
“It’s not complicated,” the second man said, and pointed at the field, to a threep whose head was ringed with flashing, blinking red lights. “That threep’s the goat. That’s the player the other team wants to rip the head off of. They try to take his head, while his team tries to keep him from having his head ripped off.”
“And when the head is taken, they try to punt it through the goalposts.”
“Punt it, toss it, or carry it through, yes.”
“And everyone has swords and hammers and bats—”
“They have those because that shit’s just fun.”
The first man stopped to consider this. “Why ‘goat’?”
The second man began to expound on this, but I went back inside to find Mom.
Who I found in the seats facing toward the field, drink in hand, smiling tightly while some young and overenthusiastic dude chatted her up. I recognized the smile as the one Mom used as an alternative to murdering someone. I went over to her, to save her from the overenthusiastic dude, and to save the overenthusiastic dude from her.
“Chris, finally,” Mom said as I came up. I bent over to receive a peck on the cheek. She turned, acknowledging her seatmate. “This is Marvin Stephens. He’s with the league’s PR department.”
Stephens stood and held out a hand for me. I shook it. “A thrill to meet you, Chris,” he said. “I’m a big fan.”
“I didn’t know FBI agents had fans,” I said.
“Oh, well, not of your FBI work,” Stephens said, and then produced a slightly startled look. He was worried he’d made a faux pas. “I mean, I’m sure your FBI work is good.”
“Thank you,” I said, dryly.
“I meant when you were younger.”
“Ah, you meant when I was famous for being famous.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.” Stephens’s startled look was back. “I mean, you were a symbol for Hadens everywhere.”
I thought about poking at Stephens a little bit more, and finding out just how many permutations of his startled look I could get out of him. But it wouldn’t have been nice.
And anyway, he wasn’t wrong. When I was young, I was a symbol for Hadens everywhere, the poster child for an entire group of humans, all locked into their bodies by a disease and using machines and neural networks to get through the world, just like I did, and do. Being a poster child was a nice gig, until it wasn’t. Which is why I stopped doing it and went to work for the FBI instead.
I could have explained this all to Stephens, who was still standing there, looking increasingly worried that he’d just stepped in it. Stephens was just trying to be complimentary, just like lots of other people who unintentionally blurted out a reminder I currently resided in the “where are they now” category of fame and then thought it was a bad thing, instead of something I hoped for and planned to happen.
But that would have taken time and it would have meant having a long conversation of the sort that didn’t mix well with a sporting event.
“I was,” I said. “Thank you for noticing.”
Stephens relaxed and sat back down.
“Marvin was explaining the game of Hilketa to me,” Mom said, waving toward the field, on which the Bays and the Snowbirds were currently going after each other with melee weapons. “In detail.”
“It’s an amazing game,” Stephens said to me. “Are you a fan?”
“Chris was more into video games growing up,” Mom said.
“Hilketa is a video game too,” Stephens said. “In fact, the NAHL sponsors several virtual leagues to help train our athletes and to find new talent. Hadens and non-Hadens both.”
“I ran into some non-Hadens protesting outside,” I noted. “They didn’t seem to feel they were well represented in the league.”
“Well, there’s a skill gap,” Stephens said. “Non-Hadens still lag behind in piloting threeps. It’s a reaction-time thing.”
“That’s the official response, anyway.” Stephens got that startled look again. He realized what he’d said and how he’d said it. I wondered how long he’d been in his job. “I mean, it is the reason. It’s not just an excuse. The NAHL is open to qualified athletes regardless of Haden status.”
“Good to know.”
“It’s just that piloting threeps is tricky. You know…” He motioned to me, or more accurately, my threep. “Without a neural network, getting around in a Personal Transport requires a lot of skill and attention.” Stephens pointed out toward the field, to a Toronto tank threep that was pounding the hell out of a Bays player with its fists, to cheers. “When I started this job, they put me in a VR getup and had me try to pilot a tank threep around an open field, so I could get a feel for how the players did their job.”
“How did you do?” I asked.
“I walked it into a wall,” Stephens admitted. “Several times. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. So it doesn’t surprise me that we don’t have non-Hadens playing the game at a professional level yet. It’s the one place Hadens have the advantage over the rest of us.” The startled look returned. “Well, I mean, not the only place.…”
Mom glanced over at me on that one and then tinkled the ice in her glass at Stephens. “Would you be a dear and top off my drink for me,” she said, and Stephens practically fell over himself to grab the glass and extricate himself from the situation.
“He seems nice,” I said, watching as he sprinted toward the bartender.
“He’s clueless,” Mom said. “I’m sure he was assigned to me because he was the only apparatchik the league could spare to babysit the spouse of the man they wanted to extract money from.” She motioned with her head to Dad, who’d grown another ring of admirers. “I’m sure they thought he’d be relatively harmless.”
“Do they not know who you are?” I asked.
“They know I’m Marcus’ wife.” Mom did a hand movement that was her rather more elegant version of a shrug. “If they missed out on what else I am, that’s their problem.”
Mom, that is, Jacqueline Oxford Shane, on the board of Shane Enterprises, executive vice president of the National Haden Family Association, ferocious fund-raiser, and scion of one of Virginia’s oldest and most politically connected families, who dated the current vice president before she met and married Dad. Rumor was the VP still regretted ever letting her go. I didn’t regret it. I wouldn’t be here if she’d stayed with him.
I tilted my head at Dad. “So how’s he holding up, anyway?”
“He’s fine,” Mom said. “He’s doing his thing.”
“His ‘special exhibition game experience’ is apparently being mobbed by international businesspeople.”
“You didn’t think we were invited to this because the league was trying to impress your dad, did you?” Mom said. She waved at the businesspeople. “We were invited so he could impress them.”
“Does that mean Dad is going to invest in the new franchise?” I asked.
Mom did her shrug wave again. “We’re looking at the numbers.”
“How are they?”
Before Mom could respond, two gentlemen appeared, gave slight bows, and then one spoke in Japanese.
“Mr. Fukuyama apologizes for the intrusion, and wishes to know if you are a player in the Hilketa game,” the second man said, clearly the translator.
I had known what Mr. Fukuyama said because my onboard translator had given me a translation as soon as it recognized Fukuyama was not speaking English at me.
I stood and gave a small bow. “Please tell Mr. Fukuyama that I regret that I am not.”
“This robot is not a player,” the translator told Fukuyama, in Japanese.
“Damn it,” Fukuyama said. “I was promised that I would get to meet players on this trip. Why they think I will invest in an Asian Hilketa league when they can’t even show me the goods is beyond me.”
“Perhaps you will meet a player after the game, sir,” the translator said.
“I better.” Fukuyama nodded his head at me. “Get this robot’s autograph anyway. I promised my grandson I would get one from a player.”
“But this is not a player,” the translator said.
“My grandson won’t know the difference.”
The translator reached into a suit pocket and produced a small notebook and a pen. “Please, an autograph?” he asked, in English.
“Of course,” I said, taking the pen and signing the notebook with it, adding “I am not a Hilketa player” in English below the signature. I closed the notebook and handed it and the pen back to the translator. He and Fukuyama bowed and departed.
“You’re famous,” Mom joked to me.
“It’s a step up from when I came into the skybox and someone shoved a drink glass in my hand.”
“Who did that?”
“That one—” I pointed to the suit, now in the outer ring of my father’s admirers.
“Oh, him,” Mom said. “I’ve met him. Smarmy little jerk.”
“You were talking about the league numbers before we got interrupted,” I reminded her, to get her off the topic of the smarmy suit. “You were about to tell me how they were.”
“Ah, that good,” I said.
“The NAHL likes to call itself the fastest-growing major sport in North America, but all the other major sports are decades old, so that’s just marketing,” Mom said. “Hilketa’s attendance and merchandising are growing but the league spends a lot. Your father has questions about the value proposition of investing in a franchise.”
“You mean, you have questions about it.”
“We both have questions about it,” Mom said. “The league just doesn’t appear to realize your father and I talk to each other.”
“That’s going to end well.”
“We’ll see.” Mom looked up at me as if she suddenly remembered something. “Where’s Leslie?” she asked. “I thought she was thinking of coming with you.”
“She’s busy,” I said. “Leslie” in this case was Leslie Vann, my partner at the FBI, where we were part of the Haden affairs division.
“She’s busy? Doing what?”
“Avoiding sunlight. It’s a Sunday, Mom.”
Mom snorted, delicately, at this. “Leslie needs fewer late nights, Chris.”
“I’ll let her know you’ve volunteered to be her life coach.”
“I just might take the job. Leslie is lovely”—and here I did an internal smirk, because in the year I’d been partnered with Vann, “lovely” was an adjective used about her exactly once, right now—“but she’s aimless.”
“She likes aimless.”
“Yes, well. If it makes her happy, I suppose. Look, here comes the problem child again.” She pointed to Stephens, who returned with Mom’s glass.
A roar went up from the stands. Not because Mom got her drink, but because on the field, Duane Chapman’s head was ripped clean off.
Mom grimaced. “I hate when that happens.”
“The player is fine,” Stephens assured her. “It looks violent, but that’s a threep body. The player and his actual head are as safe as can be. He’s a Haden, after all.”
My mother looked at Stephens, blankly and silently.
“Which, uh, you knew,” Stephens said, awkwardly.
Mom continued to stare blankly at Stephens.
“You know, I’m going to check in with my boss to see if she needs me for anything,” he said, and sprinted off again.
Mom watched him go, and then returned her attention to the game, where Duane Chapman’s headless threep sprawled on the Hilketa playing field. Meanwhile his head, carried off by the opposing team, was making its way down the pitch, one threep-crushing meter at a time.
“It disturbs me to see a headless threep body on the field,” she said. “It makes me think about you.”
“None of my threeps ever lost its head,” I said.
“There was that time you rode your bike out in front of that truck,” Mom pointed out. “When you were eight.”
“In that case it was less my threep losing its head than it was it hitting a truck and disintegrating and losing everything.”
“That’s my point,” Mom said. “Threep bodies aren’t designed to have body parts removed.”
I pointed to the field, where the Snowbirds and the Bays were literally going after each other with swords and war hammers. “Those threep bodies are,” I said. “Decapitations and severed limbs add to the drama of the game.”
As if to accentuate the point, one of the Snowbirds slashed viciously at a Bay, whose arm lopped right off. The Bay responded by bringing a mallet down on the Snowbird’s threep skull. Then both of the players ran off in the direction of Duane Chapman’s head. The entire exchange brought more cheers from the crowd.
Mom grimaced again. “I’m not sure I like this game very much.”
“All my flatmates do,” I said. “When they found out I was coming to the game they plotted about how to kill me and take my ticket. They’re fans.”
“But you don’t like it very much, do you?” Mom asked. “You shrugged when Stephens asked you if you were a fan. And I don’t remember you being much for it growing up.”
“I liked basketball better.”
“As you should,” Mom said. “Basketball’s done very well for our family. But that’s not the question.”
I paused and tried to frame an answer.
The long version of which would be:
I have Haden’s syndrome. I contracted it when I was so young that I have no memory of not ever having it. Having Haden’s syndrome means you are locked into your body—your brain works fine but your body doesn’t. Haden’s affects about 1 percent of the global population and about four and a half million people in the United States: roughly the population of Kentucky, in other words.
You can’t keep the population of Kentucky trapped in their own heads—especially when one of the victims of the syndrome was Margaret Haden, the then first lady, for whom the disease is named. So the United States and other countries funded a “moon shot” program of technologies, including implantable neural networks to let Hadens communicate, an online universe called “the Agora” to give us a place to exist as a community, and android-like “Personal Transports,” better known as “threeps,” that let us walk around and interact with non-Hadens on a near equal basis.
I say “near equal basis” because, you know. People are people. Regrettably, many of them aren’t going to treat someone who looks like a robot exactly the way they’d treat a person who looks like a standard-issue human. See Mr. Smarmy Suit handing me a glass the second I walked through the door as an example of that.
Not only that, but threep bodies are literally machines. Despite the fact they’re generally rated to operate within the usual human range of strength and agility, threeps in sports are generally a no-go. Have a co-worker in a threep for your office softball team? Fine. Playing shortstop for the Nationals? Not going to work. Yes, there were lawsuits. Turns out, in the eyes of the law, threeps are not the same as human bodies. They’re cars, basically.
So here’s Hilketa. It’s an actual sport, designed to be played by people operating threeps—which meant Haden athletes. And it’s a popular sport, even (and, actually, especially) with non-Hadens, which means the Hadens who play the sport have become bona fide celebrities outside of Haden circles. In just a decade since its inception, the NAHL fields twenty-eight teams in four divisions across the United States and Canada, averages 15,000 spectators a game in the regular season, 95 percent of whom are non-Hadens, and has athletes earning millions and becoming posters on kids’ walls. That matters, for Hadens and for everyone who cares about them.
Of course, I thought as I watched Duane Chapman’s head sail through the goalposts, giving the Snowbirds eight points, the reason Hilketa is so popular is that the players score points through simulated decapitation, and go after each other with melee weapons. It’s team gladiatorial combat, on a football field, with a nerdy scoring system. It’s all the violence every other team sport wishes it could have, but can’t, because people would actually die.
In doing so, it makes the players something other than fully human. And that matters too, for Hadens and everyone who cares about them.
Basically, Hilketa is both representation and alienation for Hadens.
So: It’s complicated.
Well, for a Haden. For non-Hadens, it’s just cool to see threeps pull off each other’s heads.
“It’s okay,” is what I finally told my mom.
She nodded, took a sip of her drink, and then motioned toward the field. “What’s going on down there?” she asked. Now that the play was done, Duane Chapman’s headless threep was being loaded onto a cart and sent off the field. From the Bays sideline, another threep came in for the next play.
Before I could answer, I got an internal ping from Tony Wilton, one of my roommates. “Are you at the stadium?” Tony asked me.
“Yes. In a VIP suite.”
“I hate you.”
“You should pity me. It’s mostly filled with corporate suits.”
“Your life fascinates me. Be that as it may, you should access the stadium Haden feed if you can.”
“Because there’s something really weird happening with Duane Chapman. We’re watching the pay-per-view Haden feed. One minute he’s there and the next he’s not.”
“He was taken off the field. His threep was, anyway.”
“Right. But player stats and vitals are supposed to be live for the whole game whether they’re on the field or not. All the other player S&Vs are live but his. People are talking about it. I want to know if it’s just a glitch in the feed we’re getting.”
“I’ll check,” I said. “Let me get back to you.” I disconnected and turned back to Mom, who had noticed the pause.
“Everything all right?” she asked.
“I have to check something,” I said. “Give me a second.” She nodded.
I opened up the Haden view of the game.
The game field, previously green and blank, exploded with data.
Data on the players, on the field, and on the sidelines. Data about the play currently being executed. Data about the field itself. Data about the stadium and attendance. Current data, historical data, projections based on data coming in real time, processed with AI and by viewer sentiment.
This view of the data, and the game itself, could be displayed from any angle, up to and including the first-person view from the players themselves. Thanks to the overwhelming number of cameras framing the game and the amount of data otherwise filling in and modeling any gaps the cameras missed, one could virtually walk the field while the game was afoot and plant one’s ass down in the very center of the action.
That’s the Haden view of the game.
To be clear, the Haden view was not accessible only to Hadens. Aside from being discriminatory, it would also be bad business for a sport whose fan base was massively skewed toward non-Hadens. People pay extra for the Haden view, and it would be stupid to limit access to 1 percent of the possible fan base. Even in the stands at the live event, the faces of non-Haden spectators glinted with the glasses streaming Haden view information into their eyeballs.
The reason it was called “Haden view” was that the user interface was designed with Hadens in mind—people so used to living in an alternate electronic reality that what seemed like mad chaotic data overload to non-Hadens was the Haden equivalent of a standard spreadsheet. Non-Hadens could use it and view it, but it wasn’t for them. They simply had to manage it as best they could.
Ironically this became a selling point for the Haden view. It seemed “exotic” to non-Hadens and made them feel like they were getting a glimpse into what it was like to be one of us, and to get access into the deeper areas of our life and experience.
And, well, sure. It was like that, exactly in the way going to Taco Bell is like living in a small village deep in Quintana Roo. But then, Taco Bell has thousands of locations, so you tell me.
In the Haden view, I pulled up the player stats and vitals for the Boston Bays.
Tony was right: All the data for every Bays player was there, in exhausting detail—every single possible in-game statistic, from meters run in the game to the amount of damage their threep had taken, and where, and how close they were to losing a limb or having their threep shut down entirely—to every conceivable bit of career or historical data, relevant or otherwise. Not to mention health data, including heartbeat and some limited neural activity.
Which might seem strange at first glance. Haden athletes play Hilketa in threeps, not with their physical bodies. But threeps have full sensory input and output. A Haden feels what their threep feels, and that’s going to have an effect on their brains. And like anyone else, Hadens are affected physically by their emotional states. Our hearts race when we’re in the middle of the action. Our brain activity spikes when we feel danger or anger. It’s all there for us.
And it was all there for every single player on the Boston Bays.
Except for Duane Chapman. His stats and vitals were nowhere to be found.
I scrubbed back several minutes to when I knew Chapman had been on the field. His player box was there but the data from it was gone. Someone had retroactively gone back and pulled all the data for Chapman out of the feed.
Which was stupid. Thousands of people would have been recording the game’s Haden view data for their personal use. They weren’t supposed to—“Data feeds provided by the North American Hilketa League are the exclusive property of the NAHL and may not be recorded or stored in any form or fashion without the express written consent of the NAHL and its governing bodies,” as the boilerplate read—but they did. Whatever the NAHL was trying to erase was almost certainly already being shared, in the Agora and other places online.
But they did it anyway. They had to be doing it for a reason.
I glanced over to where Dad was, surrounded by his throng, and saw a couple of the people there being grabbed by apparatchiks and pulled out of Dad’s adoring circles. I did a face recognition on a few. They were NAHL bigwigs.
One of them, leaning in to hear the apparatchik whispering in his ear, noticed me looking at him. He turned his back to me. A minute later he walked out the door, followed by several others.
“Uh-oh,” I said, out loud.
“What is it?” Mom asked, looking up at me.
“I think something really bad just happened on the field.”
“With the player who had his head torn off?”
“Yes,” I said. “His information was wiped off the Haden view feed and a bunch of NAHL executives just left the skybox.”
“That’s not good,” Mom said.
“I don’t know if it’s entirely legal,” I said.
“Leaving the skybox?”
“No.” I glanced at Mom to see if she was making a joke. She wasn’t, she was just trying to process what I was saying to her. “Removing data from the feed. If it was an official data stream for the league, they could be tampering with information they’re legally obliged to keep.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I might have to go to work,” I said, and then opened a line to my partner.
She took her time to answer. “It’s Sunday, you asshole,” Leslie Vann said to me, when she finally picked up.
“Sorry,” I said. “I think we’re about to get some overtime.”
“I think something bad just happened to a player at the Hilketa match,” I said.
“Jesus, Chris,” Vann mumbled. “That’s the whole point of the frigging game.”
“Not this time,” I said. “I think this one may be a special case.”
Vann grunted and hung up. She was on her way. I went back into the skybox to see the PR people begin to deploy on the would-be investors.
Copyright © 2018 by John Scalzi