“That was most of the tour, Coach Dean,” Morgan, the Dynamic Robotics technician and the employee assigned to him for his visit said, “but your interest isn’t in the tour, I know that. We'll make our final stop now - the resting quarters of Heuristic Quarterback Modification 5. We call him Huey.”
“Finally!” Dean said, rubbing his hands together. “The anticipation's making my old heart flutter. Go easy on me.” He flashed the smile that had bought him many a bouncing bed in his day, but this time received only an annoyed twitch from the young woman who’d been gracious thus far, if aloof. Now he was aware of her distaste for him.
She can’t even pretend!
“I think you'll find Huey has a winning personality and steel and guts, all the things a fine young football-playing person should have," Morgan said. She smiled, and it looked forced.
Dean smiled back. Never mind if she thought he was a sea slug; this moment was what he’d been waiting all afternoon for - heck, all year for. He was finally going to get to see and interact with, in person (so-to-speak), his team's new quarterback.
“So, maybe you can tell me,” he said, as they walked, "I’ve been reading on football tech rumor sites about the improvements you guys made to the model. Features to prevent the kind of thing that happened in the AFC Championship game last year. Last year's model was good, but it cracked right when we needed it most.”
Morgan frowned. "Well, the league gives us guidelines for how...mechanical a player can be. We can't just modify a knee joint in such a way that it's indestructible - but we have done some redesigns that would make the specific sort of failure Harry experienced less likely to occur."
"Good, that's what I was hoping to hear." Dean smiled at passing technicians, men and women in white coats who looked right at home against the curved corridors and vaulted ceilings of the company's artificial intelligence research and player development wing, which reminded him of one of those ridiculous factories in some kind of back of the cereal box maze.
"You know, I watched that game," Morgan said, clearing her throat. "It was a shame your team lost, we were all rooting for Harry. At one point during the first quarter I and others here watching could tell his knee joint needed repair. You noticed too, right? You have a technician on staff, don't you?”
Her voice rose in pitch and quavered with emotion. With weakness, Dean thought.
”You should have taken him out then. If you had taken him out and attended to the issue, he'd still be around to help your team."
Dean spread his hands. "Hey, okay. I’m sensing some hurt feelings here. Yeah? And I can’t say I’m not responsible. Mistakes were made. Harry paid the price. I’m sorry. We should have done a better job with it -- him. But I’ll defend my decision. Leaving him in was the only way to win."
Morgan’s lips curled. She seemed wary of him and dismissive, but was she actually angry? Dean couldn’t see how.
"Do you know what happened to Harry after the playoff loss?" she asked.
"Well," Dean said, "we lost the game, we all had our own ways of getting over it, and then the front office returned the robot, and after that I don't know." Dean was incredulous. Of all the things he thought he'd experience here today, he hadn't expected a lecture.
Morgan looked down. Her eyebrows furrowed.
“Maybe you caught me earlier when I said our football quarterback prototypes are fragile. Harry, after losing the game and his leg, went into a spiral of despair and severe depression. He disassociated from his friends here, stopped talking, stopped responding to any of the stimulae he'd previously loved growing up. It was like he’d been actually, truly broken. At that point what happened can only be described as a regression, or downgrade.”
“He got sad and couldn't play football anymore?” Dean asked, knowing he was pushing her buttons. He couldn’t stop himself.
"Harry stopped being alive," she choked out. "Regression is the robotics equivalent of brain death in humans. Harry in essence became a vegetable. Below calculator level.”
Dean closed his mouth.
"I had no idea. Wow.”
They were both silent, then Dean thought of something. ”There was no way to save him? You don’t have his brain backed up somewhere?”
"Oh, Mr. Dean, you misunderstand. I think, on the highest level you misunderstand. The AFC Championship debacle forced us to take a long look at the program and our business ethics, and our own personal senses of justice and morality, beyond that. Each of our technicians has individually spent time with these personalities, building them, teaching them, interacting with them. They’re living children to us. And then...someone like you comes along. Now he's gone. There are no backups of who he was.”
The rest of the way to the robot's holding quarters, Dean didn't say anything and the tech offered neither apology nor quippy segue.
Finally they were there. "Just treat him like a person, okay?" Morgan said. "Humor us. Me."
“You got me wrong, Morgan, I promise,” Dean said. “I can see it from where you are. But you should see it where I am. You’re telling me what we put on the field last year was a child? Well, certainly, that does put everything that happened in a much different light. But if I’m the bad guy who let a kid play in a game, you’re the bad guys who are growing and selling children into slavery. How clean are your hands?”
Morgan didn’t answer. Instead, she opened the door to Huey's room. The robot was there, lanky and spindle-limbed, it was laying in the corner on a bed, and an array of lights on its face blinked in various configurations as it repeatedly tossed something up and caught it again. A baseball.
"Good morning, Huey," Morgan said, entering the room. Dean held back. His stomach dropped when he saw the robot's head swivel toward him. He had the same feeling watching spiders walk - not quite revulsion until it started to move, because it moved too well.
"You know what today is, Huey?"
The robot caught the ball and didn't throw it again. He swung his legs over the side of his bed and stood up, nodding.
"Of course. Today is my meeting with the coach of the San Diego Rift, Donald Dean, fifty-eight years old. The man you've brought along seems to match the physical description the FBI database provided."
Dean bit his lip. FBI database? What? Either he's a hacker or they're using him for secret missions. I knew-
"Huey," Morgan scolded. "What did we talk about?"
The robot laughed and waved its arms for silence. It put its left hand forward for a shake.
"Just kidding, Coach Dean. I don't have access to FBI files. But I have seen you in streams. And can I just say, you're much larger in person."
Dean knew his face was probably red, but he faked a laugh.
"Nice to—uh—hello there," he got out, shaking Huey's hand. It didn't feel as cold or stiff as he'd expected.
"So, I want to thank you for making the trip up to see me today, I know how busy guys like you are. You have to keep a whole team together."
"I'm excited to talk about how I can help your team win this year. I've been waiting to meet you for a long, long time."
Dean nodded. "Uh huh."
They followed Morgan into the hallway. Dean tried to keep Huey on the edges of his vision as they walked, tried not to look at him straight on.
"Where to now?" Dean asked. He was hoping Morgan would answer.
"My play pen," Huey said, laughing, then dashed forward out of sight. The machine was lithe, he almost couldn't hear it making contact with the floor as it loped away.
"What Huey's referring to is the testing facility we've built for him and his eventual brothers," Morgan said.
"Eventual? Don't you have a litter of the things ready to spit out?"
Morgan checked to see how far Huey was from them, and must have determined he was out of earshot.
“We only develop one quarterback at a time. Each artificial intellect needs an attentive group of technicians to nurture and raise it. Current techno-cortical systems aren't as stable as human brains—emotionally. You won't have any of the concussion-like injuries. The extra care ensures a better experience for him as well as a better team outcome for you."
"The extra care ensures only a couple of the richest teams gets a quarterback.“ Dean said.
"I know about supply and demand, Coach Dean. Our Heuristic Quarterback line is all about long term life, and quality of life for our AI. Unfortunately we can't control what goes on beyond these doors." She looked ready to cry.
Dean didn’t know what to do.
"Listen, I want to apologize for everything that happened with Harry. I promise we had no idea about the regression thing. We'll do better this time. Everyone at the San Diego Rift has committed to providing Huey with everything he needs to succeed. We've looked at ourselves too, and we're making changes and moving forward."
"I appreciate that.”
They had come to a pair of metal double doors. Printed on a sign above the card reader were the words "Activity Facility." Morgan pulled an ID card from her pocket but didn't swipe.
“You're about to see Huey's playground. We designed this facility to show off Huey's athletic capabilities. You'll have a few minutes to work out with him here, but what he was really hoping was that you'd take him to a real field and work him out there. It's important to him that he be on grass.”
“Grass, got it.”
“I hope you have a good workout with him. Regrettably, this is the end of my time with you. After you're done, you and Huey are all set to go. Just remember to come by and pick up his charging station on your way out.”
"Thanks. I’ll do that.“ Dean pushed through the door. The "play pen" was a large white room with several apparatuses - it reminded Dean of the gyms of his youth. The only thing missing was a trampoline, but he figured Huey weighed most of a thousand pounds and would go right through one of those.
Huey was hanging from a bar doing pull-ups. "Check me out, coach."
“Does that do anything for you?” Dean asked.
Huey dropped from the bar with a clack and came to a crouch in front of him.
“Not really, no. What would be better?"
“Okay. Well, uh, is there some kind of training program you can run that will show me all your capabilities? Like a tutorial mode or something?”
Huey laughed. “I’m not really pre-programmed like that. You could ask me to do some things, and I’ll try my best.”
“Okay, sure. Show me what you can do."
"I'm not sure. Football-type drills, preferably."
Huey nodded slowly.
"Okay, okay. Well, this place is more suited for me showing you stuff like how fast I can run, or how hard I can throw. Drills that will look the same every time. If you want to see me doing football things, making decisions, completing passes, then...you have to put me on a field. With real players."
"So you're not going to do anything."
Huey looked down, an electronic mimic of shame.
"Get me on a real field. Let me play."
Dean sighed. "Fine. I'll get you on a field.” He started walking toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
He turned around. “Be on the field in an hour."
"Which field, Coach?"
"There's a high school about a mile from here, or there was the last time I was here. See if you can figure it out. I have to call some local high school coaches and make sure you have some guys to play with."
"An hour? Okay, yeah. I can do that, Coach.” Dean could almost hear the smile in its canned voice.
He waved to Morgan on his way out. She nodded, and he left the playground.
In his truck, Dean conferenced with the coach of Silicon High, a man named Marty.
"You mean my kids get to actually play with next season's quarterback!?"
"That's what I mean, yeah."
"I can have twenty guys on the field in forty-five minutes, does that work?"
"That'll do fine," Dean said, and hung up.
He got himself a rib sandwich from an ice cream stand and sat eating it in the parking lot of the high school.
Players started showing up, the first packed three to a minivan. Dean had forgotten how high school football players were. Average, fat or lanky, none quite able to tone their bodies into anything good because none of them had good bodies to start with. Silicon Valley had to take what it could get from its student population.
The kids came up to talk to him, to ask about being a coach, to talk about the AFC game, to look at him with their young eyes. Dean didn't mind; the kids were all losers. Weren't old enough to know any better, which made them the most annoying fans.
After 30 minutes Marty arrived, three hundred pounds of enthusiasm, and made the rounds telling the kids what was going on.
Marty came over to Dean. "Man oh man! I just want to thank you. This is really unusual, but what was I doing at home? Weeding? This is obviously better.”
“You’re welcome. Promised my quarterback he'd get to practice with real players before we get on the road.”
"Well that's real nice. I can tell you, each one of our kids is just the biggest fan of yours."
Dean checked his watch and shifted his body away from the high school coach. Huey was due in about 5 minutes.
The robot showed up carrying a football and what looked like a pair of Rift-themed pajamas. As it came closer Dean saw it was a rubber suit.
"Whoa," the kids were saying, circling around Huey as he came up.
"Hey, you guys. You ready to play some catch?"
"Yeah!" The kids were bright-eyed, each full of and rippling with more energy than Dean thought he could expend in a week. But then, he wasn’t a young man anymore.
"I can't believe we get to play with a robot,” one of them was saying.
"Don't let him tackle you,” said another, a lineman, “I hear he's programmed to grind us into meat.” One of his teammates cuffed and shushed him.
"Hold up a minute," Huey said, having picked up on the slight. "I'm programmed to grind you into pepperoni. Let's get that straight."
Some of the boys laughed, some of them gasped and a few others made murmurs of general awe. None of them seemed to be afraid. Huey tossed the football to one of them, a tall kid who was probably a receiver.
“You guys play catch, I’ll be right back, okay?"
Huey left the players and Dean saw he was walking right at him. Powerful gait, lithe, liquid metal, what does it want?. Then Huey was in front of Dean. The robot held the rubber suit in front of him.
"I wanted to show you this. One of my technicians, Albert, made it special for today. I would be proud to wear these colors for you, Coach Dean."
“It’s like…yeah. Pads and a jersey, mixed together. Can I put it on?”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
Dean stood near while Huey put on the suit. When it was all the way on, it made the machine’s previous slight build look like a normal player with pads, and techno-sleek.
Dean shrugged. "It's nice, but it's missing all the ads they're going to plaster on you. Netflix. Tumblr. SpaceX. Tesla."
The robot looked down, looking like a fidgety embarrassed human. "It doesn't have to be that way, you know. I just want to be a player like anyone else."
"I can’t make you that promise. What do you think is paying for you? Ads and revenue. One buys the other, and the other helps us buy you."
"I would come play for you for free. I've been a fan of the Rift ever since I was born; I've watched every game in your history; I've even compiled a list of plays you've used over time and their frequency, depending which group of players are on the field - I know everything about you, coach."
"Listen kid, that's flattering, but if I go home telling my boss that you'd play for us for free, he's not exactly going to be crazy about the fact that we just spent half a billion dollars on you. You don't own you. It's great that you have a personality and everything but we didn't ask for that. We asked for something that could play football really well. We asked for something—“
"Specialized?" Huey supplied.
Huey looked away. Dean thought it would cry if it could.
"A few of my technicians were like you," it said. "They couldn't help it. No matter what, they couldn't or wouldn't see me as anything more than electricity running through an avatar, a program mimicking behavior. It made me want to show them and everyone else like them out there that I'm not everything they think, that I'm just a little bit more than that. So don't think of me as something you can own or buy. Think of me as my own man, a guy with hopes and dreams and goals. Playing for you would fulfill a lot for me."
Dean spread his hands in front of him and smiled. "We can do the free will discussion some more or you can get warmed up with the guys out here, what do you say? I've got to get driving back to San Diego here pretty soon, or I'm not going to make it back for Utopia. And my wife Emily hates to be alone during Utopia." He was about to say something about rubbing her feet, but stopped himself.
"Get on the field with you now, all right? Come on now, let's go." He clapped his hands. He reached for his neck, where a whistle usually hung. It wasn't there now - they'd taken it from him when he'd entered the facility and he'd forgotten to bug the doorman on the way out. He'd gotten caught up.
He made a whistle with two of his fingers jammed into the sides of his mouth.
"Hey guys, we're gonna do a little scrimmage! We're gonna play eight on eight, and Huey's gonna take turns quarterbacking for each team after every score. All right?"
The kids cheered, and Huey bounded toward them.
"GO LONG!" he pantomimed as he threw an imaginary football the length of the field.
Dean had Marty run the scrimmage. The robot had done well. Even as fat and slow as some of these boys were, Huey had provided them all with catchable balls for reasonable gains. He'd eluded the slow tacklers with grace, of course, and moved impressively.
Afterwards the kids all hugged Huey and piled back into their vans and left. Marty shook Dean’s hand and said, “if you ever need an assistant coach,” and Dean smiled politely.
“You’ll be first on my list.”
The sun had traipsed down between the trees at the edge of the field, and drops of dew stained his leather shoes a bleaker brown. Huey and Dean were alone again.
“You did good, real good. I just want to see one more thing.”
“Run down there, to the end of that end zone. I’ll stand here, at the back of this end zone. And you’ll throw it to me here. I’m not even going to move, but I should be able to catch it. Can you do that?”
"I could injure myself trying to throw that distance. It's windy out here."
“Can you do it?”
Huey looked down.
“I’ll really try.”
Huey turned and ran across the field. Once there, he pantomimed a few throws without letting go of the ball. Then it was in the air, and high. It wobbled, it tumbled, and Dean stepped out of the way just as it found his spot.
Huey bounded over, had been running under the ball during its time in the air, watching it, laughing in disbelief.
"I did it! I did it and it didn't even hurt that much. And that's the best I've ever calculated a momentary pressure system, due to how tough predictive fluid dynamics can—“
Dean was smiling widely, and Huey made to hug him.
The man felt around behind Huey’s back, touching just under the robot's occipital ridge. He flicked open a panel with his thumb and pushed down on the button inside.
Just like Harry.
HEUQB5 fell to its knees for a slow ten seconds, legs hissing as its hydraulics lost pressure.
Dean wrapped the machine with a tarp and bungee cords from the back of his truck and strapped it in. He'd forgotten to pick up the charging station, but Utopia, and besides, he was pretty sure the charging station they still had was backwards compatible.
The San Diego Rift had a quarterback again.