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ALL STAR PLAY by Brian Behr Valentine

Five-hundred-thousand screaming InterWorld Football League fans undulated in the two-kilometer-long stadium, like windblown grass—waves into waves, around, and up-and-down: waves not colliding with, but passing through, each other. Lights bright as mini-suns blazed in multiple arcs across the domed ceiling. Announcers squawked and the team bands blared. Melba, a sleek chrome-and-red cyborg defensive tackle, tuned it all out. She was a cyborg player’s player, sometimes wearing her full football mech-gear (which went on over her cyborg body) around the house, feeling naked without it. She lived and breathed football.

Now she glared across the line of scrimmage at her chrome-and-blue opponent, the right offensive tackle. He sneered while shaking his head in disdain at her rookie status, and therefore inadequacy (he was an All Star), but also eased back off his toes as he did so. The sneer had been meant to cover that slight adjustment in his stance, she was positive of that—she might be a rookie, but she was a tireless student of the game and of her position within the field of play.

Melba’s on-board semi-artificially intelligent neuro-net computing system, whom she called “Art,” ran through every scrimmage ever played in the InterWorld Football League where the right offensive tackle eased back on his center of gravity seconds before the snap of the ball. The answer was both easy and confusing. Easy, because it took Art less than a millisecond to structure the statistical data on the 40,823 similar situations.

There was an 89.3% chance her opponent would fake a block then fall back, allowing her own momentum to carry her too far forward, thus leaving a gap in her team’s line a meter wide. A gap the opposition’s fullback could charge through carrying the ball. There were twenty-eight other possibilities, but nothing worth considering. You just went with a number like 89.3%.

It was confusing however, because she felt it was wrong, and it was the human hunch that made cyborg football players so much better than androids. The “gut feeling” in human decision-making had never been successfully duplicated in artificial intelligence.

Now, milliseconds before the snap of the ball, Melba released a bit of the hydraulic pressure in her mechanically articulated feet. A minute adjustment some players would not have taken the trouble for. Melba had something to prove, though. She was the only female playing on the line today. The first female lineperson the team had ever started—and a rookie at that. Social mythology said women didn’t have the mental brutality needed for bashing it out on the line.

Melba could have been a quarterback, and that would have made her an immediate IWFL star, but screw that. She wanted to be right here, giving and taking blows on the line of scrimmage. This was where the game was really won or lost: blood, busted titanium, smoking electronics, and leaking hydraulic fluids were the trademarks of professional football’s trench warriors, and she lived for it.

When the ball was snapped, she faked a forward rush then held up, stopping before she was drawn too far forward. Wham! Instead of drawing her forward, her opponent hit her hard and low. Damn! Her hunch had been right! Screw the percentages, she had been right! Damn! Damn! And triple damn!

The standard adage among the players said rookies always fail to go with their hunches. It infuriated her to be arbitrarily placed in any category, and therefore it hurt when the placement turned out to prove correct. She hated failure and hated her opponent now for exposing her as the team’s weak-link.

Even before she hit the ground, Art checked those other twenty-eight possible play actions for one that matched this scenario, and discounted them all. It also calculated her new standing with the team and readjusted her salary and bonus probabilities, taking into account she had just been knocked flat on her titanium ass.

Her blue-and-chrome opponent was lying on top of her, grinning like a tyrannical idiot through the permaplast face shield. She shoved at him viciously, but he didn’t let go. Oh no you don’t, you won’t psych me out! She head-butted him and shoved again. He rose up off her, squeaking like the tin man in that old Earth flick that was making the rounds at C-20 revival festivals.

Opposing IWFL players were forbidden to communicate vocally or electronically during a game—so she opted for an old-fashioned hand signal. Walking away, he glanced back over his shoulder, and his grin broadened as he returned the gesture behind his back.

Now that the play was over, the communication circuits were opened so the coaches could briefly talk to their teams. She was startled to learn there was no possible tactical or strategic reason for the offensive tackle to have faked her out during that particular play. None! He was probably getting his mechanical ass ground into iron filings right now by his own coach, they informed her.

Her defensive coordinator and the playbook advisor were arguing heatedly when the head coach, a former player, limping around in worn, outdated mech-gear, cut them off. “Screw it! Just a goddamn fluke!” Melba tuned the coach out as soon as she heard his, “Back in my day…”

The players assembled on the new line of scrimmage. Her opponent sneered at her again then startled her by winking. What the hell? She asked Art for more information on the guy. His name was Havarti, Art told her, and he wasn’t particularly bright. Maybe he thought her gender made her gullible, Art suggested.

She snarled at Havarti, and on the snap of the ball, charged forward with malice in mind. The two lines of metal and plastic players came together making a noise not unlike a space-freighter crash landing. The play ended with her lying on top of Havarti this time, him still grinning like an idiot as she shoved up off him.

He had let her knock him down and she knew it. He let her! Once again, when the circuits opened, her coaching staff informed her there was no possible gain for his team through his actions. No loss either, since the ball had gone the other way. They were wondering if this confusion was exactly what the other team wanted, her being a rookie.

Since All Stars weren’t supposed to get knocked on their asses, it made her look good to have done so, and Art was asking her a question about stock options, now that she’d redeemed herself somewhat. She mentally waved it off and gave the incongruously grinning Havarti a hand up. She was notified immediately by the IWFL Consulate’s AI that she was receiving a bonus for good sportsman-like behavior. Screw that. Her Publicity Agent had just popped in to let her know the word on the electronic street said Havarti was acting on his own and not following orders.

Immediately, Art informed her that thirty years back two opposing players had thwarted all the anti-collusion systems that monitored players on and off the field by using simple body language. Unable, by league law to communicate outside the game, they had looked into each other’s eyes and each known a fellow sinner. A certain number of nudges and winks later, they were throwing games where they played opposite each other and making a fortune betting on the outcomes.

She immediately alerted her coaching staff of this possibility. It didn’t fit Havarti’s former behavior, psychological profile, or historical life attitude, they responded, forwarding an info file on him to her. She usually avoided knowing anything about opposing players personally—it confused the matter—but the file showed her that, while Havarti was definitely not a new Einstein, he was a solid performer both on and off the field.

He had seventeen high-performance years under his belt and had announced his imminent retirement at the end of this season. He gave a considerable amount of his income to charities and was known as a shy, stay-at-home type, a rare trait in an IWFL player these days, and one Melba grudgingly appreciated.

Like her, Havarti loved to collect old C-20 mechanical items. Melba liked old kitchen equipment, from the time when people actually cooked their food down from a raw state. Her mind’s eye played pleasantly over her collection of antique blenders, waffle irons, and toasters she didn’t have a clue how to use.

Havarti, it seemed, collected old C-20 yard items and restored them, things called lawnmowers, weed-eaters, and garden tillers. Across the line of scrimmage, Havarti grinned and Melba shook her head angrily, to which the damned fool winked again. Kindred spirit or not, this was a football game, and Melba called her personal shrink for an opinion on Havarti’s odd, unbalanced-seeming behavior. She remembered there was a cheese that went by the name of havarti and wondered if this fool’s brain hadn’t softened into a curdled milk product with seventeen years of bashing.

The ball was snapped before the old AI psychiatrist came online, though. As soon as it was in play and until it was ruled dead, all communication with the outside world was shut off by the Play Controller AI. Havarti played no tricks this time, but still he grinned at her and winked yet again. It was driving her nuts! When the play was over, the circuits opened and her shrink was waiting.

He was a very old Artificially Intelligent being whose software had undergone some rather suspect algorithmic changes back when that kind of thing wasn’t regulated well. Personality, and its inherent potential for problems—neuroses, psychoses, etc.—were the reason why most Artificially Intelligent beings were shorted an “ego” and were thus Semi-Artificially Intelligent. Even now, the old AI psychiatrist projected himself as cubist artwork, something a “Semi” would never do.

She gave him the rundown of Havarti’s behavior while waiting for the next play to start. She wanted an opinion on his mental state: a profile she could use to understand Havarti’s uncharacteristic actions, then anticipate his next move and counter it.

Before the old psychiatrist answered, the ball was snapped back to the quarterback by the opposing center, communication was shut off, and Melba was charging Havarti. At the same time, she studied him. The imposed weight limit on linemen meant that any part of yourself you wanted beefed up forced you to give up something elsewhere. Her sleek, evenly proportioned body was also good on moving plays like punt returns and kickoffs, as well as being the solid defensive tackle she was.

Havarti, however, had sacrificed height to gain shoulder and chest size. He’d opted for strength over speed and also gave up a great deal of flexibility. It meant he was only good for this one position, but he was very good for it. Even out of his mech-gear uniform he would be a massive bull-like stud, a cyborg that even other mechanically enhanced humans would tread carefully around, cyborg construction workers and all. He was a blocking monster really, with the kind of no-nonsense mind that fit the position. So why’s he up to nonsense now?

They crashed together again. Being taller, she lifted as she hit him, and it pushed Havarti back half a meter, but now he was set and she couldn’t budge him. Arms struggling, legs pumping, Melba pushed, slapped, and shoved, seeking an advantage. Behind Havarti she saw the quarterback hand the ball off to the halfback, who turned and headed her way behind the line. He would be running a yard past her position. Havarti, however, was occupying that yard. She fought to get a hand on the halfback as he swept past.

Art calculated his telemetry against Melba’s possible interfering actions. The metrics came up negative. Not one trick showed a possibility of getting past the monolithic Havarti in time. Then he slipped. He did it on purpose, and Melba knew it. Possibly no one else would, but then no one else was locked in a crushing steel embrace with him at the time. It left her with an opening she charged through. She was just able to barely touch the halfback. Her metal fingertips desperately raked the back of his titanium uniform, scratching the paint, but he got away.

If Havarti had let her go a millisecond earlier, she would have been able to affect the game’s outcome, but he hadn’t. He’d faked a slip that didn’t hurt his team, but made her look good! What the hell was going on here? She opened a line to her shrink again and added this bit of information. Why, she demanded, would he do that? The old AI shrieked with laughter, his cubist form re-patterning with every guffaw—something no off-the-shelf product would have the capability of.

“What? What am I missing?” she pleaded, placing her metal-covered knuckles on the line of scrimmage, but avoiding Havarti’s eyes. “Stop laughing!” she yelled electronically at her shrink. “You don’t even have the equipment for it!”

“Laughing, har-har-har, my dear, has more to do with the head, har-har, than the ‘equipment.’” He chuckled down to a grin. “But anyway, I think I know what’s up. You spend too much time being a robot…”

“Cyborg!” she corrected angrily.

“…and not enough being human!”

“What the hell does that mean?” she demanded, looking up into Havarti’s eyes, just inches across from her.

“He likes you, my dear! He’s flirting with you! You said he’s retiring soon. Looks like he’s making a play for you, darling girl. Just think—” He giggled rudely. “—the two of you could get together and make toasted-cheese sand—” Melba cut the line.

Havarti raised his eyebrows suggestively a couple of times—as if he’d heard the old AI—and Melba’s eyes went round. She felt giddy and dizzy, thrilled, frightened, and off-balance all at once. Not many men wanted a mechanical girlfriend, not even the mechanical men, and so you got used to a life of lonely professional friendships. But then, Havarti loved mechanical things, didn’t he? And he was an impressive man! Why, a man with such a massive upper-body could easily cradle her in his lap, couldn’t he? He winked as the ball was snapped. The play was in action. Boy, was it in action!

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “All Star Play”

We saw this story first up for critique in the Silver Pen workshop. Since it is football-themed, we thought it would be a perfect addition to the January issue, so we worked with Brian Valentine to tweak it. There’s no earth-shattering literary premise here, just a well-written, amusing piece that surprised us with where it went. In under 2500 words, the author manages to portray his future world and to tell a good story, not an easy task in sci-fi. All in all, a successful piece. Excellent job, Brian.