The time: The 2030s. The place: Friday night lights, in a small town in South Carolina.
Meet Damon Grace. Damon is a giant of a sophomore in high school. He stands six foot four and weighs 225 pounds. He can throw football after football through a tire at forty yards. He can do from a diagonal sprint half the time. And he can crash through defensive lines like a fullback.
There’s only one problem: He’s got the arms and legs that came with him when he was born. In this league, that’s not going to get you on the field.
Tonight, under the lights, Damon will get his chance to shine.
It might be his last.
Damon watches from the sidelines, as the Vikings play the Cavaliers. These days, there are two classes of high school football. Unmodified athletes play club. Since most are too poor to afford the augmentations, most play club. Only the most exceptional of “naturals” even get a varsity uniform.
Most of the spots on varsity are taken up by children of families who can afford the various enhancements required to take their sons’ aspirations to the college level and beyond. Not all have the cash on hand; some take out mortgages. Others get the work done on credit.
Damon Grace has resisted the pressure. His native talent is sufficient to hold his own in practice. No one on the team dares hit him too aggressively in practice. It is understood: Coach is looking out for him. However, he’s been slow to take the hint that natural’s no longer enough.
Lately, the hits in practice had been harder. The pressure had been coming at Grace faster. The sacks are starting to bruise ribs. Next week, they’ll start to crack. Then, everyone quietly smiles at one another, we’ll have a proper backup quarterback, maybe one worth some PT – playing time.
Damon rubs his left side, through the mesh armor underneath his white and gold jersey, with his right hand. He winces. He knows the salad days are over. No one’s going easy on him.
Still, Damon smiles grimly, I can take it. He can throw better than Sims, the starting QB, already. However, Sims has the embedded weave under his epidermis, the nano-reinforced bones throughout his body. The synthetic muscle, ligaments and tendons that enable him to take the punishment from his opponents… and from his own teammates in full-speed practice sessions.
Sims can handle the training. The same level of pounding would put Grace in a hospital… or a grave.
The crowd cheers. Sims has just heaved a sixty-yard pass to Stuart Lester, who jumps a full five feet off the turf to pluck it from a near-interception by one of two Cavalier players. He is promptly slammed to the ground by the second defender, but retains possession of the ball. Referee rules it a fair catch. Hillard Sims races both his arms as he walks from midfield to the reset line of scrimmage. More cheering from the home fans.
“That should be you, Grace,” Coach Evan Westley whispers behind his statistics pad.
“Yes,” Grace agrees.
“It will be when you step up,” Westley adds, and steps away, clapping his hands. “Come on, Sims!” he yells.
Sims calls for the ball. The center passes it back one-handed as Sims calls a single-wing trick play. Ideally, the left side of the offensive line should have fallen back, drawing in the defensive, opening up left-side receivers for short pass reception and easy five yards, maybe close to ten.
The play, a high-risk high-reward experiment in retro football tactics, goes badly. The defensive secondary reads the play correctly and dashes forward. Sims has no receivers open. He has perhaps half a second to throw or run. He stands still sixth-tenths of a second.
It is more than enough time for the dark blue uniform to swamp Sims’ view of the field. Then blackness.
From the stands, a loud cry of dismay, from fans of both teams.
Sims is alive; his vital organs are thoroughly protected. However, there is no mistaking the backward bend of his spine. This is the kind of injury that requires a stretcher, even for augments.
“Oh, man!” Westley cries out, throwing up his hands. With the official time-out called, he waves over his squad on the field. When they gather by the sideline he starts talking. “Alright, no more tricks. Linebackers – strong pocket. Receivers – go deep and disperse. Backs – Help protect the thrower.”
“We got Jones’s back!” a chorus of players cries out.
“No,” Westley says. “You’re protecting Grace.”
“What?” “No way!”
“Coach, you saw what they did to Sims! He’ll be crushed out there!”
“My call stands. Grace – time for the big time. Throw – and throw fast. Use the speed of your receivers to get under your passes. Do not try anything sexy. It’ll put you in the hospital, too.”
Damon nods and throws down his helmet. “I’ll bring it home, Coach.”
Westley nods. “I know.”
Grace’s heart races. He walks out onto the field. He hears the surprised clamor out in the stands. He sees the body language of his Viking teammates on the field. They are worried, for the game and for him. He sees the postures of the opposing Cavaliers, their menacing grins. They know who he is, and what he is not. Fresh meat, they’re thinking.
Before getting in position, he pulls Campbell Frye, one of the receivers over. “Go 10-20, just in case.”
“Coach said deep…”
“I don’t know if I will have enough time to set for a deep throw. I need insurance.”
Frye glances back at the sideline. Westley eyes the impromptu chat suspiciously.
“Five seconds, hurry it!” He yells. He worries that Grace’s first act in varsity play will be drawing a delay of game penalty.
“OK, you got it.” Frye answers.
Damon settles behind the center. He glances to this right. The ref is just dying to call that penalty, he thinks. Not this time. “Hike,” he barks, and the ball is in his hands.
He had figured he’d have a one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-and-change count before the pressure was on him.
The Cavalier rushers are on him in one-one thousand, two-and-change. A second and a half. Damon Grace throws a medium pass toward the left side. Frye’s side.
Fry has to dash back and dive headlong and back toward the line of scrimmage to save the completion.
“12 yards. Third and six!” When Sims had been sacked, the team had lost yardage.
Damon hears the call. He does not see the play. He is noticing how the field’s light towers seem to converge as they rise into the night sky. Hmm, perspective. We learned about this in art class last year.
“Welcome to varsity, meat!” Growls the Cavalier who brought him to the ground, heaving his weight down on Damon’s diaphragm, forcing out a whoosh of air.
Damon struggles to breathe for a moment. A referee comes over. “Are you okay, son?”
“Damn clubbie. You shouldn’t be out here at all!” The old man shakes his head with disapproval and steps away.
Damon stands up. A sharp pain in his side agrees with the official. He glances up at the clock. Awesome. Halfway through the third quarter. Sure, I can finish the game…
“Hike,” he calls. The rush comes again. The defenders have sized up Damon as having “no arm” – no long pass under pressure. They have also sized him up as “stiff” – a slow stationary quarterback who depends on protection. Since he is an unmodified – a clubbie as they see him – what else would they expect?
Sensing weakness, the Cavaliers rush the pocket even harder this time. A full blitz.
Damon takes full advantage of their prejudice. Even unmodified, he is faster than any of the huge linemen charging his way. And he has no intention of providing them with a stationary target the rest of the game.
Swinging out of the pocket to his left, Damon gains a full second. He tosses to the far left corner of the end zone. Of course, leaving the pocket introduces me to the cornerbacks. Cornerbacks tend to be short, strong and very fast.
Damon hears the cheers for a touchdown. This time he does so with grass turf in his mouth. He spits out brownish-green blades.
“Lucky,” the cornerback curses, and gets up.
The Viking squad rushes over to Damon and lifts him off the ground. Hoots and high-five gestures abound. Damon is half-carried off the field.
“Where’s my helmet?” He asks.
“I’ve got it!” Skye calls out, handing it to him.
Coach Westley crosses his arms, mock-disapprovingly. “You ignored my call.”
“I had to adjust to circumstances.”
“On what grounds, ‘Coach’ Grace?”
“They were going to kill me.”
Coach Westley nods. “Regardless… Jones!” he calls over his shoulder. “You’re in for the rest of the game!” He wheels back and holds up a finger. “You had your moment in the limelight. You were smashed into the turf twice in two plays. I put you out there for the remainder of the game, how many offensive downs do you think you’ll live through?”
Damon glances out at the field. The Cavaliers are returning the ball. They are so fast, so strong. I never saw my tackler until I was already on the ground. He gulps.
“Yeah. You thought you knew before. Now you know.”
“How’s Sims?” Damon asks.
“Oh,” Westley glances at his stat pad. “Lower spine was shattered. He’ll recover… but not this season. He’ll walk.. run.. hunt and fish and hike like he likes. But I think his football dream is done.”
“Just like mine.”
“Yours has not even begun. It won’t until…Well.” Westley glances up at the clock. “We’ll talk more .”
Damon steps back from the line of teammates cheering on the Vikings defensive squad. He turns and looks up at the stands. Sylvia Grace, his mother, waves at him. She calls out something. He can’t hear her words but he can lip-read “You were awesome!” easily enough.
But now I know. It’s dangerous out there. Somewhere along the way, having the arms and legs you were born with stopped being enough. It’s like this in all sports now.
Damon bends his left elbow. He flexes his bicep and looks down. I can bench press 300 pounds 10 times. I’m stronger than an ox… and even that’s weak sauce today. Raw talent’s not enough. Skills are not enough. It’s become an arms race. You have to have the guns to compete.
He turns from the stands and sees the backs of his teammates, a sea of random jersey numbers running the length of the football field. He thinks of the number pi. We learned about pi in geometry this year, a number that goes on and on and on.
I want to go on in football, with all my heart. But Mom can’t afford the augmentations. Dad…like he has that kind of insurance. And agents? There are people who will buy promising kids their “gears”, the internal machinery that turns talent into recruitable talent. What if I get hurt, anyway? Sims was just carted off the field like a mix of meat and junk. Getting one’s gears repossessed was worse than death. What was left did not live long, or well.
He closes his eyes. He remembers something that Coach Westley had told the team a month ago.
“What if we get hurt on the field?”
“School insurance covers that. You paid for coverage when your families paid your registration fee.
Even equipment – the internal stuff, I mean?”
“Yes, gears are replaced. And if your unmodified parts are ruined… they’ll get swapped out, as well.”
All the players had eyed one another. It was a clear incentive to play hard, very hard. For some, so-called injuries would be an affordable way to get upgrades, even get out from underneath “gear sharks”.
The Cavalier guys coming at me were probably figuring they were doing me a favor, Damon muses. Maybe that’s just what I’ll get them to do.
Damon hears a shout of joy from the stands. The Viking defense is good. They have intercepted the ball. Viking possession again.
He dashes to Coach Westley’s side. “I want back in. Strike while the iron is hot, I say.”
Westley shrugs. “I just put Johnson in. Here, Fred,” he says to his offensive coordinator. “Take over for a series.”
“You got it, Coach.” Fred replies, taking the stat pad.
Westley ushers Damon over to a spot of relative privacy. “Son, you know what happens if you are out there again?”
Damon shudders. “Yes, sir. But right now, I’m still walking… and I scored a touchdown. And everyone watching that last series knows I can hold my own.”
“Ok, let’s share your desire with Coach Olsen.” Coach and athlete walk back to Fred, the offensive coordinator. “Fred, how’s Jones holding up.”
“Oh, he’s getting rolled back. We’re 2nd and 15 as of that last play.”
“Grace here likes the limelight. He wants back in.”
Fred Olsen coughs. “He had a couple of nice downs but, really…” he waves at Damon’s chest. “They know what he can do now.”
Westley peers conspicuously over Olsen’s visor at the field. Jones is sacked again for another loss 3rd and 19. He signals for the kicking team to take over.
“I think they have Jones’s number, too.”
Olsen sighs. “You got that right.” He turns to face Damon. “You want another shot at this?”
“You really want them to have another shot at you?”
Damon takes a deep breath. “It’s time to step up.”
Olsen’s eyes flash at Westley, then back at Damon. He scratches the left side of his nose. “Yes. I suppose it is.”
“It’s his request, Fred.”
It could be his last! Fred thinks. What a horrid game this has become! “My advice out there? Don’t let more than one of the defenders get a hold of you. If two do, the physics get much more complex.”
Damon blinks in confusion. “Sorry, sir?”
Olsen shakes his head. “Never mind. If you see more than one defender coming at you and you can’t break out of the tackle, ground yourself and the ball. Survive tonight, and this season, and you can get the upgrades in the off-season and really contribute next fall.”
“And if I can’t keep free…and more than one rusher comes my way?”
Olsen shrugs. “Don’t do that. That’s precisely the thing to avoid. Do you understand what I am saying?”
Olsen’s just told me exactly what will injure me badly enough to require augmentations…and covered his ass by saying ‘don’t do that thing’. “I understand, Coach.”
Damon glances up at Coach Westley, who is tapping out notes on his stat pad. “Alright, son,” Westley says. “You’re in on the next offensive series.”
“Thank you for the chance, coach.”
Once again, Damon Grace steps onto the field. Jones passes by. Their eyes make contact. He knows, Damon thinks.
He arrives at the huddle. No words are said. Their eyes are saying it. They know, too. They’ve all seen this before.
The Vikings line up. The Cavaliers are already set. Damon sees it in their eyes. They are focused – resolved. Like executioners…or Civil War doctors about to perform an amputation.
The opposing nose guard glances left and right, then makes eye contact with Damon. He smiles grimly and nods. They know, as well. They’ve done this favor before.
Damon recalls Coach Westley tapping onto his pad. On impulse, he looks to his left at the opposing team coach. The man is rubbing his chin worriedly. They all know. And they are all aboard with this.
Damon Grace wonders how quickly it will happen.
“Hike,” he says.
He gets his answer.
Two years later on ESPN newsfeed...
"Damon Grace, the Viking standout quarterback, has today announced his intention to sign with the University of South Carolina. In two years as starting quarterback, the Spartanburg phenom tallied up an average 500 yards per game and an astonishing 74 percent completion rate. Fellow Viking wide receiver Campbell Frye will be joining Grace under Coach Eason, giving the rebuilding Gamecocks hopes that this coming 2035 season might be the year they reclaim the SEC crown, and make another run at the national title."
"What's so amazing is that Grace started varsity play with zero - nada - augmentations, scoring a touchdown in his first and only series as as a sophomore."
"Well.. first complete series. He was taken on at the very start of his second one."
"Oh, I recall the Youtube upload: The Cavalier rush went through the Viking offensive line like butter. Here's the clip... yes... here you see center Jason Stiles - he was Auburn's Defensive Player of the Year contender - making a gap through the offensive line. Ends Mark Pelham and Jalen Bryce join the sack from both sides."
"I'm not sure if 'beautiful' is the word. Effective, for sure."
"Yes, unfortunately for Grace at the time. He shattered left legs, both sides of his pelvis, even both arms where he'd brought up his elbows instinctively to protect his head."
"Well, he certainly recovered, and then some!"
"I'll say. And we all want to say to Damon Grace: Congratulations, and we wish you every success at the next level."
Later, in Summer 2035...
"You wanted to see me, Coach Eason?" Damon Grace asks. The Columbia humidity is as unbearable as ever. It seems impossible to get cool. Everyone throughout the SEC is enduring the same misery, he reminds himself.
"Son, you're looking a step slow out there. Are you drinking enough fluids?"
"Eating and sleeping properly?"
"And the supplements?"
Eason reads his player's hesitation. "Son, you know what it takes to compete at this level. Gear augmentations aren't enough. You need the rest of your muscle mass to synthetics." He smiles. "You can research the NCAA by-laws yourself; this is deep inside the rules."
Damon nods. "I know, Coach."
"It's also for your own safety, not just your career in football. If I put you out against SEC rushers without taking every precaution, you're going to get put in a hospital or worse."
The new backup quarterback for the Gamecocks sighs. "It's just... "
"You're worried you'll end up a robot. That you won't really be human anymore."
"Remind me who Nelson Smith is dating." Smith was the star wide receiver.
"Miss South Carolina."
"Hmm hmm. How human is she?"
Damon blushes. He laughs, showing brilliant white teeth. "As human as it gets." He frowns. "Wait...isn't she pregnant?"
Coach Eason nods. "Yes. THEY are. And they're getting married next month. Nelson's quite the responsible young man. Pretty 'human' of him, don't you think?"
"Yes. Thanks, Coach. I've been slow following the regimen. I'll get on it right away."
Eason half-scowls, half-smiles. "Yes, you do that, Grace." He watches his freshman sensation trot away.
Assistant Coach Emily Bourne saunters up to Eason. "What was that about?"
"Oh, another frosh freaked about becoming a cyborg if he takes his supplements."
Bourne coughs. "Well, they show up as cyborgs, don't they?"
Eason hums affirmative. "My thoughts, exactly." As an afterthought, he asks. "How is Nelson?" The wide receivers were Bourne's bailiwick.
"A bit shaken, sir. Looks like Laney's pregnancy isn't going to work out after all." She winces. "It's one of the bad ones. Ultrasound's not pretty at all."
"That's too bad. But she'll need to keep it until the season's over. Or fake it."
Bourne blinks in disbelief. "Sir?"
"I just talked Grace into taking his conversion pills. We can't spook him out of it now!"
"I hate what this game has become," she snarls and walks away.
"That was an order, Coach!" Eason calls after her.
She flips him the finger.
"That's a yes in sign language, right?" He laughs.
Coach Bourne doesn't respond.
"Right?" Eason calls after her again. He sighs. "Yeah. Emily will take care of it..."
Four years later... Green Bay, Wisconsin
"You wanted to see me, Coach Jensen?"
"Yes... Grace... your reaction times out there are several hundredths of a second slow."
Damon Grace, first-round draftee for the Packers, shrugs. "I'm responding within five hundredths of a second, better than twice human baseline."
"In this league, if you are not under three hundredths, you're eating astroturf every down. Take a seat, Damon."
A silvery-skinned Damon Greene settle down in the chair offered. "What are my options, Coach?"
Jensen pulls out a thin silvery ringlet. "This will refine your mental focus, give you that last edge you need."
"So I wear that, and it will improve my reaction times?"
"Your completion rates, your peripheral vision, everything you need to keep from being fertilizer for my practice field."
Damon rubs his chin. A pointless gesture. There has not been stubble there since he was a freshman at South Carolina.
"And I will be in constant contact with my teammates - the way they are already?"
"Yes. You'll compete as a completely coordinated unified squad. Just like every other team in the NFL."
Jensen offers the ringlet to his player. Damon takes it.
"You look hesitant, son." Jensen says.
"And... off the field? I mean, I like the guys but I don't want to share dreams and... other parts of my private life with them."
Jensen laughs. "Don't worry. It comes with an off switch. Believe me, no one wants to know what you read on the john, either."
Damon smiles. "Alright. I'm sold. Where do I wear it?" Damon asks.
Jenson points to his temple. "In here."
Damon sighs. "I'll go see Dr. Berry as soon as she's available."
"Thank you, Damon. And Damon?"
"Welcome to varsity."
Damon remembers the last time someone had said that to him. He had been lying on his back. Looking up at the stadium lights, astonished at the speed and strength of the opposing Cavalier players. He could have carried 10 defenders while sprinting a seven-second 100 meter dash, if he had all the advantages then that he has now.
And that's still not enough in this league. Damon is not going up against single stronger, faster players. Each team he faces is a single hand with many fingers, that closes into a mailed fist and strikes quickly and perfectly every time.
It's not enough to be a paragon. I must now become a part of a greater whole. He thinks. And there is no "I" in team. And now I must take the next step in my career ...or walk away from the game.
Damon glances down at his metallic hand. I wonder if they can reverse all this? He ponders, as he turns and leaves the coach's office.
Coach Jensen calls up Dr. Berry. "Grace is on his way now."
"Let me know when its done so I can call the lawyers."
Once this had been a publicly-owned team. It was in private equity hands now. "The new owners have spoken: 'We don't pay out contracts to robots once the come online.'"
"Greedy trolls," Berry says.
Jensen lets the team doctor's comment pass. "Let me know the moment it's done." Every day saved was tens of thousands of dollars saved. And fully-converted player drones did not exactly lead expensive lifestyles. Some token amounts were sent to parents but they were far less in aggregate than if full salaries were paid out to the players. And it had been a long time since the players' union even existed.
Nor could the super-strengthened players be allowed off the premises save for competition. They were an profound public safety menace left untended. Too many reckless driving incidents. Too many one sided bar fights. Too many...Jensen preferred not to think of the, ahem, dates and relationships gone badly.
That was not even the worst of it. The pregnancies when the couples worked out were the most horrifying. We opened a dreadful can of worms there, Jensen rues. We've even taken that from them...all to stay competitive.
Not for the first time, Jensen is reminded of the old nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. When will enough be enough? When will we say: 'This suffices?' He fears the answer is never.
"I hate what this game has become..." Dr. Berry's voice hisses and then cuts off the conversation.
Jensen sighs as the line goes dead. "Me, too." Then he calls up a holographic grid and starts to review all the plays that will work well, once Damon Grace is fully integrated into the Packers organization.
He pauses to consider a a scheme that uses defensive depth to set up not one but three possible deep passes to the red zone. He had recruited Grace to get his third passer. By the end of the day, he will have his man. Er, passer, Jensen corrects himself.
"Yep... this might be the year we start winning Superbowls again..." He sighs contendedly. We might win this arms race thing, after all...