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by Mike Resnick

When one of your oldest friends invites you to watch a football game with him, it’s usually a very pleasant gesture. But when he’s Howard McKeever and he owns the Impalas and he’s offering to share his private, enclosed, air-conditioned booth with you, you don’t even think twice, you just mutter the equivalent of “Yes, please!” and make sure you show up in the right place at the right time.

“Hi, George,” he greeted me when I arrived ten minutes before the opening kickoff on game day. “Been a long time.”

“Six years,” I replied. “You’re looking good.”

“I’d look even better if these bastards would start earning their salaries,” he said. “Second highest payroll in the league, and we’re three-and-seven.” He snorted in frustration. “Go figure.” Suddenly he noticed a KR233 robot standing in the doorway. “That yours?”

“No, not really,” I said. “It belongs to the stadium, my son-in-law is avataring into it at the moment.”

“Big Nick Kurumbu?” he said. “Yeah, I heard about that. Kid’s got my sympathy. How long’s it been?”

“A little over two years. He was driving home from practice his senior year, and some drunk jumped the center strip and collided with him.”

“It’s a real shame,” said Howard. “Two-time All-American. Hell, I was hoping he’d play for the Impalas when he got out of college.”

I sighed and shook my head. “He’s not playing for anyone from the neck down, not now, not ever.”

“I wish you’d stop talking about me as if I wasn’t here,” said KR233.

“You’re not here,” said Howard. “Your robot is.”

“My avatar,” said KR233. “We’ve got a brain-machine interface, so I have complete control of this baby.”

“Robot, avatar, same damned thing,” said Howard.

“Not really. In fact, if it’ll make you feel more at ease, call me Nick. After all, that’s who you’re talking to.”

Howard stared at KR233 for a long minute, then shrugged. “Have it your way. I’ll be damned if I’m going to argue with a robot.” He held up a hand. “Yeah, I know—an avatar.” He turned to me. “So, what’s Metal Nick”—he jerked a thumb in the avatar’s direction—“doing here?”

“The Impalas aren’t on TV,” said KR233, “so I’m joining you via my avatar body.”

“Yeah, we’re blacked out,” growled Howard. “We didn’t sell out, so no local telecast.” He stared at KR233. “Maybe I ought to have you playing fullback,” he said. “I’ll bet you don’t go in for knee surgery the first time you’re hit.”

“Yeah, I read about that,” I said.

Howard made a face. “A seventeen-million-dollar-a-year free agent, and he blows his knee out on the third play of the season opener.” He shrugged. “What the hell. Bring Metal Nick into the booth. Leave him standing outside the door and you can bet someone will walk off with him.”

I turned to KR233. “Come on in,” I said. Then, to Howard: “He won’t be a distraction. He’ll just stand or sit, whichever you prefer, and not bother us. He’s just here to watch the game with me.”

“Once we’re down a score or two, which usually takes all of ten minutes, I could use a little humor up here,” said Howard. “Can the robot tell jokes?”

He can’t do anything,” I said. “But Nick can tell jokes.”

“Especially if you like dirty ones,” added KR233.

Howard turned back to the field. “Damn, those Archdukes have great uniforms. I’ve got to talk to our board about that. If we can’t thrill ’em with touchdowns, we should at least be able to please ’em with our uniforms. There’s nothing distinctive about them. I mean, take one look at the Rams’ or the Bengals’ helmets and you know what team they belong to.”

He pressed a buzzer for a steward, for all I knew the only one in the whole stadium, and ordered a whiskey sour. “You want anything, George?”

“I’ll have a beer, thanks,” I responded.

“And I assume Metal Man doesn’t drink.”

“Actually, this unit has full taste receptors,” said KR233. Or, to be more accurate, said Nick through KR233. He smiled through his avatar. “I’ll have a single malt, on the rocks.”

“Great,” said Howard. “Just what we need up here, a drunk robot.” He looked down at the field. “About time,” he muttered as the teams lined up for the kickoff. The Archdukes’ kicker drove the ball into the end zone, and the Impala receiver caught it.

“Take a knee!” muttered KR233.

But instead of kneeling down and having possession start on the 20-yard line, the receiver elected to run the kickoff back. He got all the way up to the 12-yard line before he was tackled.

“Dumb,” said Howard and KR233 simultaneously.

The first play from scrimmage was a pass that the defensive back batted down.

“Stupid play,” said KR233.

“Nothing stupid about it,” I said. “Just a forward pass that didn’t work.”

“The refs should never have allowed it,” said KR233.

I frowned. “Why the hell not? Since when have forward passes been illegal?”

“The left defensive tackle jumped across the line before the ball was snapped, and the refs should have blown their whistles.”

“Are you sure of that?” demanded Howard.

“I could have you relive my entire experience if you wanted me to send you my avatar experience of the game, but here, this is faster.”

KR233 turned to the one solid wall in the glass-enclosed room, his left eye became a projector, and he cast the play up onto the wall—and sure enough, the Archdukes’ left tackle was moving across the line a fraction of a second before the ball was snapped.

“Son of a bitch!” snapped Howard. “It’s bad enough that none of these milquetoast millionaires can run or hit! Do the goddamned referees have to be against us too?”

The next play was a handoff to the fullback, who ran right up the middle for a gain of three yards.

“Damn!” snapped Howard.

“Jim Brown he isn’t,” I said with a smile.

“Then why do I have to pay him as if he is?” said Howard.

I knew my son-in-law Nick, and I was sure he wanted to lecture Howard as to why salaries had skyrocketed in the century since Jim Brown had played football. I put my finger to my lips in the hope that he’d see it before he spoke, and was much relieved when he had the avatar turn back to continue watching the game.

They sacked our quarterback on the third play, and the Impalas had to punt. The Archdukes got possession on their 40-yard line, ran off half a dozen plays, and settled for a field goal.

Howard checked the scoreboard—not the score, but the official clock. “Well, we made it almost five minutes before falling behind,” he said bitterly. “That’s better than usual.”

The Archdukes kicked off, and this time the ball sailed out of the end zone so the returner couldn’t make the same dumb mistake he’d made on the game’s opening play.

The Impalas went into their huddle, then lined up with the quarterback in T-formation, hunched over the center.

“Not smart,” said KR233.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“The nose tackle is six foot nine or ten,” replied KR233, “and the quarterback is giving away eight inches, possibly nine. He’ll have about one second, one and a half tops, to find his target before the nose tackle’s head, shoulders and arms obscure his vision. He should be standing about five yards behind the center so that he has time to spot his target and find a secondary receiver if the primary one is covered.”

And sure enough, the quarterback took the snap from center and was sacked before he could spot his target.

“Anything you want to tell us about the next play?” I asked.

“They’ll be expecting a run, of course,” said KR233—actually, it was Nick who was speaking, not KR233, but I don’t know an easy way to say his voice was coming out of the avatar’s mouth—“since the passing game has been totally ineffective.” He paused. “The offensive line has been ineffective as well, so the choice is obvious.”

“Not to me, it isn’t,” said Howard.

“Go into the T-formation,” said KR233. “The quarterback takes the snap and backs up quickly. The offensive tackles hit their men just once, enough to buy the quarterback an extra second, and as the defense is converging on him and all the downfield receivers are covered, he throws a short pass, behind the line of scrimmage, to his running back.”

“They’ll see the running back isn’t blocking and will stick a man on him to cover him,” I said, disagreeing with him.

KR233 shook his head. “The running back will be giving up about one hundred pounds to any defensive lineman. They’ll expect him to move out of the way rather than risk injury trying to block someone who’s all muscle and almost twice his size.”

As he was explaining it, the Impalas tried a handoff to their halfback and gained less than a yard.

“Learn how to block, goddammit!” yelled Howard at the top of his lungs. I know the booth was supposed to be airtight, but I couldn’t believe some nearby fans didn’t hear him. (In fact, I had a hard time believing that his shout couldn’t shatter glass.)

The Impalas punted it away again, and the Archdukes took possession at midfield.

“Stupid,” muttered KR233 when both teams lined up.

“What’s stupid this time?” I asked.

“Let them finish this play first,” said KR233. “The way they’re playing they’ll be stupid again next play. You can bet the farm on it.”

The Archdukes ran for three yards, where the huge Impala left guard nailed the runner and damned near took his head off.

“Okay,” I said, when the Archdukes went back into their huddle. “They held him to a three-yard gain. What’s so stupid about that?”

“Number 67”—the Impalas’ huge left guard—“keeps lining up just a foot or two to the left of the Archdukes’ center. There’s no rule that says you can’t have an unbalanced line of scrimmage, that both the Archdukes’ guards or both tackles can’t move to the same side of the center.” KR233 paused for a moment. “And if they don’t present an unbalanced line, number 67 alone will deny them the middle of the field all day long.”

They tried another run, to the side of the line opposite where Number 67 was charging, and gained a couple of yards. They then completed a 12-yard pass on third down, which bought them a new set of downs. When they lined up this time, number 67 found himself facing an unbalanced line.

They can learn from their mistakes,” complained Howard. “Why the hell can’t we?”

The unbalanced line provided the necessary protection, and the Archdukes ran off tackle for 14 yards and another first down.

If an avatar could look smug, it would. So it did, its face exactly mimicked every facial expression Nick was making back home a thousand miles away. It was also delivering perfectly every hand gesture and body motion Nick imagined in his mind, even though his human body back home was fully paralyzed. His mind interface made this body a fully articulated one for him.

Howard turned to me. “Wanna buy a team—cheap?”

I smiled. “How many hundreds of millions of dollars is cheap?”

“Less than it was this morning,” he said bitterly. “Maybe I will put your robot into the game in the second half. He can’t be any easier to catch and tackle than the running backs I’ve already got.”

“I rather suspect it’s against the rules of the game,” I said. “And I’m sure it’s against whatever rules govern avatars when they come off the assembly line.”

“Actually the avatar laws allow us to do anything we want with an avatar body, but the league has yet to catch up with the times. Otherwise, I would be out on the field right now,” confirmed KR233.

“What the hell do you guys do anyway?” asked Howard, groaning as the Archdukes ran the ball inside the Impalas’ ten-yard line. “What’s more important than winning a football game before 60,000 impassioned fans who shelled out good money to watch them?”

“Avatars can do anything the people running them can do. A surgeon’s avatar can perform microsurgery, an artist’s avatar can create an oil painting, a handyman’s can fix a broken furnace,” replied KR233. “There are limits to what they can do, of course, but for the most part those limits are defined by what the human directing the avatar can do. As I said, if his human counterpart is a painter, an avatar can create an oil painting—but he can’t create a Mona Lisa.” He paused. “An avatar can also give a normal life to a paraplegic. That I can vouch for.”

“Enough,” growled Howard. “I’m properly impressed. I read about you guys in the papers, and every now and then I see you acting as superheroes on video.” He sighed deeply. “Now if you could just play quarterback, or maybe middle linebacker …”

“You know,” I said, “actually, if they change the rules to keep up with the times, Nick’s avatar could play on either side of the ball. Of course, the league would have to install a limiter, so that it couldn’t run any faster or hit any harder than Nick could before the accident.”

“Too bad,” replied Howard. He turned to KR233. “I’ll bet you’d have enjoyed it.”

“To get back on the field again?” replied the avatar, his metallic tone suddenly almost wistful. “Hell, I’d kill for that.” A long pause. “But I’ll settle for this. I have, for all practical purposes, my life back, I can act and feel through this body, just as if it was my own. I hate to think how people had to suffer before avatars were created, or before the brain/avatar interface that allowed them to use them.”

“I’m sorry,” said Howard. “I spoke without thinking.”

“It’s all right,” said KR233. “I might wish otherwise, but things are what they are.” He held his hand in front of his face and wiggled his fingers. “I know it sounds crazy, but I can actually feel through these fingers. They feel completely like my own, obeying my every thought and impulse. It’s my real fingers that are dead to me. Through this body I am fully alive.” A pause. “They tell me next year they will add smell receptors to go along with the taste ones.”

“Make your lips a little softer than metal and you can even kiss a cheerleader,” said Howard.

“I’m a married man,” said KR233. “But when they learn to make ’em softer, I’m going to make up for lost time kissing my wife, and much much more.”

(I crossed my fingers and hoped he was right.)

The crowd suddenly erupted in strenuous screams and boos, and we turned to look at the field, where the Archdukes were all celebrating and congratulating each other as the scoreboard proclaimed that the score was now 10 to 0.

“Still, you’d have made a helluva ballplayer,” said Howard regretfully.

“I was a helluva ballplayer,” said KR233, unable to keep the bitterness out of his mechanical voice. “Before the accident.”

The Impalas ran the kickoff back to their own 28-yard line, actually got a couple of first downs, then had to punt. The Archdukes called for a fair catch, and took over possession on their own 20. The offense lined up, and the quarterback began calling the signals.

“He just changed plays,” announced KR233.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I can read his lips,” replied KR233. “‘Omaha, Boise, Pittsburgh, Tampa,’” he quoted. “Omaha is meaningless. He begins every call with Omaha. Boise means he’s changing plays from the one he called in the huddle. Pittsburgh means it’s a pass, and Tampa identifies the receiver.”

And sure enough, it was a pass to the tight end.

“So what else can you tell us?” asked Howard.

“From now on,” said KR233, “at least until he thinks the Impalas have figured it out, Tampa signifies the tight end.”

“And you could see that from up here?” demanded Howard. “With no binoculars, no telescope, no nothing?”

“I can see using various enhancements that have been built into what you would call my eyes, yes,” replied KR233.

“Could you get that information to the idiot head coach?” continued Howard.

“We’re enclosed in a booth up here,” replied KR233. “I suppose I could use hand signals, if he’s got a clear view from the floor of the stadium. But if course, if he can see me, so can the opposing coach.”

“Have we got a line from here to the bench?” asked Howard. Neither I nor the avatar knew, of course, so he opened the door and signaled to a security guard.

“No, not to the bench, sir, not directly,” replied the guard. “But you can contact the offensive coordinator, who’s three booths down from you, and have him contact the bench.”

Howard shook his head. “No, it’d take too long.”

“Too long for what, sir?”

“Never mind,” said Howard, closing the door and facing me and the avatar. “We’d only have a second between you reading his lips and us adjusting our defense,” he explained unhappily. “It’ll take longer than that for you to pass the word to the coordinator, him to contact the sidelines, and then to get word to the men on the field.”

“Too bad,” I said with a shrug, because to me, unlike Howard and Nick and 60,000 fans in the stadium, football is not the be-all and end-all of my existence.

The rest of the first half went pretty much the way it had started. Nick kept talking to us through KR233, telling us what plays and formations had been called as opposed to which ones should have been called, which tricks—all of them legal—the opposing coaches and players were going to try, the kind of analysis you expect to hear in the locker room the morning after the game, not while it’s still being played.

We were five minutes into halftime, and KR233 was explaining why certain plays which the Impalas hadn’t tried yet would almost certainly work, when Howard held up his hand.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ve heard enough.”

KR233 immediately froze and fell silent.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Of course something’s wrong!” snapped Howard. He pointed to the scoreboard. “We’re losing 24 to 3, for Christ’s sake!”

“I hope you’re not blaming Nick or the avatar,” I said.

“Don’t be a fool!”

Howard opened the door and summoned a security officer. “I want to see Bill Traynor, now!”

Coach Traynor?” repeated the guard, surprised.

“You know any other Bill Traynor who’s likely to be on the sidelines on a Sunday afternoon?” demanded Howard.

“No, sir,” said the guard uneasily.

“Send two men down to get him, just in case he wants to spend halftime telling the team that he’s got faith in them and 21 points is nothing to make up.”

“Yes, sir,” said the officer, saluting.

“That’s not all,” said Howard. “Tell our offensive coordinator to vacate the booth he’s in and join the team down on the field for the second half.”

“Yes, sir,” repeated the officer, looking at Howard as if he’d gone a bit crazy, but saluting anyway.

“What’s this all about?” I asked.

“You can’t possibly be that stupid, George,” he said. He turned to KR233. “Nick, KR, whichever the hell you are, before the start of the second half I want you to go three booths down from here, where the guard is telling the offensive coordinator to leave, and sit down wherever you have the best view of the field. The microphone you find there will connect you to the sidelines. I’m not sure who you’ll be talking to yet, but you’ll be calling all the offensive and defensive plays. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”

“Yes sir!” replied KR233. “Thank you! I’m very excited!”

“Robots don’t get excited,” said Howard.

“I am not a robot. I am—”

“I know, I know,” said Howard wearily. He turned to me. “I don’t want any misunderstanding or potential revolt on my hands, so I’m going down to the locker room to explain what’s happening and to designate someone to talk to Nick and pass his calls on to the field.”

He walked out the door, turned to his right, and was soon out of sight.

“This should be interesting,” I said to KR233.

“Challenging, anyway.”

I frowned in puzzlement. “Challenging?”

“The Impalas are down by 21 points with only 30 minutes left to play. I don’t know if I can make them 22 points better than the Archdukes in that span of time.”

“Too bad it’s not like horse racing,” I said. “We could make the better team carry lead weights in their shoulder pads.”

He made no reply. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and finally I turned to him. “If you’re concentrating on the second half and I’m distracting you …”

“Not at all,” he said. “I know what plays I’m going to start with, and I’ll make adjustments as the other side does … and if they make no adjustments I won’t have to.”

“You expect it to be that easy?”

“Like I said before, there is nothing easy about overcoming a 21-point deficit in 30 minutes. I’m going to be responsible for calling the right plays and formations. I am not responsible for executing them.”

“That sounds just a bit egomaniacal,” I said. “Meaning no offense.”

“If a man with no feeling and no movement from the neck down can call the plays for a pro football team, isn’t he allowed just a bit of egomania?”

“Certainly you are,” I said. “And I apologize.”

“No need to. It’s easy to see this me”—he tapped his metal chest with his metal forefinger—“and forget who the real me actually is.”

We sat in silence for a few more minutes, each with his own thoughts. Then Howard returned.

“Okay, move,” he said to KR233. “The half starts in about three minutes.”

My son-in-law the avatar stood up and walked out the door without a word.

“I hope to hell I haven’t just flushed the franchise down the toilet,” said Howard grimly.

“We’ll know soon enough,” I said as first the Archdukes and then the Impalas emerged from their dressing rooms and took the field.

“Here we go!” whispered Howard as the Impalas kicked off. “Keep ’em crossed!”

Well, you’ve all seen the papers by now. We intercepted two passes, caused and recovered three fumbles, and outscored the Archdukes 42-3 in the second half, winning the game 45-27. The crowd went crazy, tearing down the goalposts, lifting half a dozen Impalas onto their shoulders and marching them around the field, cheering wildly when Howard opened the booth’s window and waved to them.

Finally, Howard summoned a guard.

“Get me that robot from three booths away!” he said excitedly.

KR233 was marched into our booth a moment later, and Howard threw his arms around the avatar’s lean metal body.

“You’re my head coach from this day on!” he bellowed enthusiastically.

“He’s not yours,” I pointed out gently.

“He will be!” said Howard. “I’m paying Traynor, that idiot he’s replacing, eight million a year, and he’s got five years left on a seven-year contract. If I can pay fifty-six million dollars for a loser, you can bet your ass I’ll pay whatever your son-in-law is worth for a winner.” He paused. “I know he can’t move. The real him, I mean. Can he speak?”

“Only through the avatar,” answered Nick.

“Then it’s settled. I can’t have a coach who can’t communicate. Whatever they want for the damned machine, I’m buying it. If there’s a better one on the market, I’ll buy it for him.” He turned to the avatar. “What do you say, Nick baby?”

“I’m thrilled and honored,” was the answer.

“Okay,” said Howard. “I’ll let your father-in-law make all the arrangements for getting you a place near the stadium, and you tell us what you’ll need in your office and the locker room, and within a week we’ll supply it.”

“I don’t need anything. The avatar is my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my body. My participation will be the same whether I’m with my wife in our apartment or living alone ten states away.”

Howard frowned. “Are you sure?”

“I—that’s me, Nick, not KR233—am a thousand miles from the field right now as we’re speaking,” was the answer.

“Okay,” said Howard. “One more thing.”


“I can’t have every player calling you KR233. It sounds like a goddamned comic book, and it lacks respect. And no one remembers who Nick the All-American is—or was. So from this minute forward, your name is Coach.”

“I like that name,” said the avatar. (Excuse me. That should be “said the coach.”)

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