Better Ballers ~ fiction by Salvatore Difalco

Johnny Quanta stared at his shattered prosthetic leg in disbelief. A
full bot had speared him in the knee. It was a cheap shot.

“Johnny,” Dr. Fagan said, “we have no replacements left.”

“What are you talking about? There were three good ones last week.”

“What can I tell you? You play hard.”

“The game is close. I need to get back in there.”

“Don’t worry about it. They put in the kid.”

Johnny bowed his head and shut his eyes. This thing called the kid
was a full bot that could run a 40 yard dash in two seconds flat and
throw the football 100 yards on a rope. Even with Johnny’s
enhancements, he could never crack the three-second mark in the 40,
and although he could fling the ball as far as any bot, his accuracy
had become suspect, notwithstanding corrective eye surgery.

“All due respect, doc,” Johnny said, “that kid and his like spell
curtains for us half-and-halfs.”

Dr. Fagan smiled and touched his stethoscope. “You’ve had a good run,
Johnny. You’re rich and famous. Be grateful. We can’t put brakes on
the future.”

It was true. Quarterbacking the Silicon Valley 49ers from 2045 to
2055, Johnny Quanta had shattered every existing NFL passing record
and had won six Super Bowls and worldwide acclaim. After the disaster
of 2025—when, on live television, a player was decapitated in a
freakish end zone play—the NFL, under unremitting pressure from
government, legal bodies and human rights organizations, essentially
closed shop.

But not everyone was horrified by the incident. After a 20 year
hiatus, and an exponential leap in human enhancement technologies,
wealthy nostalgists restarted the NFL with six teams, including the
Silicon Valley 49ers.

Manning these teams were human footballers with significant
technological augmentation—half-and-halfs as they came to be known.
Johnny Quanta, for instance, had been outfitted with two pneumatic
prosthetic legs and carbon fiber deltoid replacements, among other
tweaks. Thus the startling 40 times and throwing power. Still, despite
initial worries about the possible lack of character intangibles
common to elite human athletes, the newly introduced robots outclassed
all half-and-halfs and demonstrated a fierce competitive spirit.
Spectators, needless to say, relishing speed and violence, delighted
watching the machines perform.

“Tell me something, doc,” Johnny said. “I see the writing on the
wall. Change is here. But what will become of this league if it goes
full bot? I mean, if the half-and-halfs get replaced will people still
be interested? Will they really want to watch a bunch of tin cans jack
each other up?”

Dr. Fagan nodded reflectively and rubbed his chin. “That’s a good
question, Johnny. As you know, until now there have been team quotas
on robots, but I’ve heard rumors they’re lifting them altogether.”
Johnny couldn’t believe his ears.

“The owners, ticket-buyers and media platforms want more robots,” Dr.
Fagan said. “They may keep a few half-and-halfs for optics and
nostalgia, but let’s face it, the bots are better ballers. Period. The
way they run and tackle—the collisions! My word.”

Johnny shut his eyes and sighed with resignation. The idea of robots
taking over a sport he had helped revive after two dormant decades
sickened him. Sure, this bot they called “the kid” could play. But it
had no soul. Didn’t really care if it won or lost. How would fans bond
with something incapable of returning their affection, of responding
to their worship? He heard a crowd roar and for a moment thought he
was imagining it.

Dutchie, the trainer, galloped into the locker room.

“The kid did it! Threw a bomb last second! Touchdown!”

Dr. Fagan raised his arms and made a guttural sound. His stethoscope
fell off his neck. Johnny picked it up for him, but he had followed
Dutchie out to the field.

Wonderful, Johnny thought. A new hero for the masses; a heartless one.
Celebrations continued in the dome. Soon the players would file back
inside black-slapping and trading high-fives. Desiring solitude,
Johnny quickly fitted his walking legs and donned his street clothes.
He wore a hat to disguise himself and exited.

Chanting and banner-waving fans huddled round the locker room.
Security bots cantilevered to keep them at bay. Johnny pulled his hat
low and skulked through the crowd without drawing stares. Then as he
stepped through the gates and started for the players’ auto-lot, a
little boy wearing a 49ers jersey with his number 7 stopped him.

“Hey,” the boy said, freckled face squinting. He turned around,
raised his hand over his shoulder and pointed to the name on the back:

Johnny was moved. He took out an old school Sharpie he kept for such occasions.

“Let me stop you right there,” the boy said. “I know what you wanna
do. Daddy said first thing you’ll wanna do is sign my jersey.”

Speechless, Johnny watched the boy start pulling off the jersey. His
head got stuck.

“Help me,” he said.

Johnny tugged the jersey over his head. It was warm in his hands.

“Thanks,” the boy said, bare-chested, peameal-fleshed.

Johnny tried handing back the jersey.

“Nah,” said the child. “Don’t want it. You’re history.”

“I’m what?”

“Daddy said you’re history.”

The boy shuffled off, not once looking back.

Johnny continued toward his auto, crestfallen. As he approached it,
he spotted a spindly parking enforcement bot noodling around the
charging units. This enraged him. What the hell was it doing? Rather
than call it out, Johnny got down in a three-point stance, powered up
his haunches and burst for the bot.

Thing didn’t see him coming at all. He knocked it uglily into the
humming capacitor, where it folded up like a cheap metal chair.

“Suck on that, bitch!” Johnny shouted as the bot whirred and popped,
but in his heart the words rang hollow and the entire episode gave him
little satisfaction.

Salvatore Difalco splits time between Toronto and Sicily. His work has appeared in many print and online journals. He is the author of four books, including The Mountie At Niagara Falls, an illustrated collection of flash fiction.

Show Salvatore some love via PayPal at sammydifalco(at)gmail(dot)com.