"As much as Scalzi has the scientific creativity of a Michael Crichton, he also has the procedural chops of a Stephen J. Canell to craft a whodunit with buddy-cop charm and suspects aplentymost of them in someone else's body." USA Today
John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.
Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.
Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.
Is it an accident or murder? FBI agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truthand in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.
About the Author
JOHN SCALZI is one of the most popular and acclaimed SF authors to emerge in the last decade. His massively successful debut Old Man's War won him science fiction's John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His New York Times bestsellers include The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts; which won 2013's Hugo Award for Best Novel. Material from his widely read blog, Whatever, has also earned him two other Hugo Awards. Scalzi also serves as critic-at-large for LA Times.
He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
I ALMOST MISSED SEEING Duane Chapman die.
I didn't know it at the time. All I knew was that I was running late for the "special exhibition game experience" that I was supposed to be having along with my mother and father. The North American Hilketa League really really really wanted my dad to be a minority investor in the league's upcoming Washington, D.C., franchise, and thought wooing him in a luxury skybox would do the trick.
I was doubtful about this — Dad knew his way around skyboxes, as both a former NBA player and current real estate billionaire, and didn't see them as anything particularly special — but I did know that my flatmates, Hilketa fans all, were glowing green with envy that I was attending the game. This had been literally the case with the twins, Justin and Justine, who for the last three days had set the LED piping of their threep to pulse green at me anytime I walked past them. I thought that was overdoing it, personally.
I had left the house in time to make it to the start of the game, but public transportation had other plans for me. I spent the first half of the game in a tube, surrounded by increasingly agitated passengers.
Where are you, my mother had texted me, once the game had started.
Stuck on the Metro, I sent back. The train stopped fifteen minutes ago. We're all looking at each other deciding who to eat first.
I think you're safe, she replied.
Don't be too sure, I sent. I can see some of them sizing up my threep to part it out for battery power.
Well, if you survive, try to hurry up, Mom texted. Your father is being swarmed by German businessmen and I'm being condescended to by PR flacks. I know you won't want to miss any of that.
I hear there's a game going on too, I sent back.
A what now? she replied.
Eventually the train decided to move again, and ten minutes after that I was heading into the stadium, threading my way through other Metro stoppage victims, rushing to see the second half of the game. Some of them were in Boston Bays white and blue, others were wearing the Toronto Snowbirds purple and gray. The rest were wearing Washington Redhawks burgundy and gold, because this is Washington, D.C., and why wouldn't they.
"I can help you," a gate attendant said to me, waving me over. She had very little traffic because most of the attendees were already in the stadium. I flashed my ticket code onto my chest monitor and she scanned it.
"Skybox, very nice," she said. "You know where you're going?"
I nodded. "I've been here before."
The attendant was about to respond when there was a commotion behind us. I looked over and saw a small clot of protesters chanting and waving signs. HILKETA DISCRIMINATES, read one of the signs. LET US PLAY TOO, read another one. EVEN THE BASQUE DON'T LIKE HILKETA, read a third. The protesters were being shuffled off by stadium security, and they weren't happy about it.
"I don't even get that sign," she said to me, as they were being hustled away.
"The Basque one." She pronounced the word "baskee." "The other ones I get. All the Hilketa players are Hadens and these guys" — she waved at the protesters, none of whom were Hadens — "don't like that. But what does that other sign even mean?"
"The word 'Hilketa' comes from the Basque language," I said. "It means 'murder.' Some Basque people don't like that it's used. They think it makes them look bad."
"I don't know. I'm not Basque."
"Everyone's got a word for murder," the attendant said.
I nodded at that and looked back at the retreating protesters. Some of them saw me and started chanting more forcefully. Apparently they were under the impression that because I was a Haden, their grievances were my fault. A couple of them had glasses on and were looking at me in the fixed sort of way that indicated they were either storing an image of me or trying to call up my public information.
Well, this was a new threep and I didn't keep my information public when I wasn't working, so good luck, there, guys. I thanked the gate attendant and headed in.
The particular skybox I was going to was a large one, designed to fit a few dozen people, a buffet, and a full-service bar. It was basically a hotel conference room with a view of a sporting field.
I glanced around, looking for my parents. I found Dad first, and this was not entirely surprising. As a former NBA player, he towered above most other people in most rooms. And as Marcus Shane, one of the most famous humans in the world, he was generally thronged.
As he was here — two concentric rings of admirers arrayed themselves around him, holding drinks and looking up at him raptly as he related some story or another. Dad's natural habitat, in other words.
He waved when he saw me but didn't wave for me to come over. I knew what that meant. He was working. A few of the people who were thronging him glanced over to see who he had waved at, but seeing only an anonymous threep, they turned their attention back to Dad. That was fine by me.
"Oh, good. Here, take this," someone said, and shoved a glass at me.
I looked up and saw a middle-aged suit. "Pardon me?" I said.
"I'm done with this," he said, waggling the glass.
The man peered at my threep. "You're catering, yes?" "Not really." I considered flashing my FBI identity information at the suit and then enjoying the fumbling that would follow. Before I could, someone in a white blouse and an apron appeared. "Let me take that," he said, taking the suit's glass.
The suit grunted. "And bring me another. Jack and Coke." He walked off in the direction of Dad.
"Sorry about that," the catering staffer said.
"Not your fault." I looked around the room. "Interesting, though."
"A skybox full of non-Hadens, here for a game played by Hadens, and the first thing that dude does when he sees a threep is hand over his drink glass." I nodded to the glass the caterer had in his hand.
"I better go get him another one," the caterer said.
"Do. Try not to spit in it." The caterer grinned and walked off.
I walked over to the glass wall partitioning the inside of the skybox from its balcony and went through the door there, going to the balcony railing and taking in the roar of the spectators. If the size of the crowd was any indication, the league wasn't wrong to want to expand into Washington. The stadium was jammed to the upper decks.
"I still don't know what's going on," a man said, next to me, to another man standing next to him.
"It's not complicated," the second man said, and pointed at the field, to a threep whose head was ringed with flashing, blinking red lights. "That threep's the goat. That's the player the other team wants to rip the head off of. They try to take his head, while his team tries to keep him from having his head ripped off."
"And when the head is taken, they try to punt it through the goalposts."
"Punt it, toss it, or carry it through, yes."
"And everyone has swords and hammers and bats —"
"They have those because that shit's just fun."
The first man stopped to consider this. "Why 'goat'?" The second man began to expound on this, but I went back inside to find Mom.
Who I found in the seats facing toward the field, drink in hand, smiling tightly while some young and overenthusiastic dude chatted her up. I recognized the smile as the one Mom used as an alternative to murdering someone. I went over to her, to save her from the overenthusiastic dude, and to save the overenthusiastic dude from her.
"Chris, finally," Mom said as I came up. I bent over to receive a peck on the cheek. She turned, acknowledging her seatmate. "This is Marvin Stephens. He's with the league's PR department."
Stephens stood and held out a hand for me. I shook it. "A thrill to meet you, Chris," he said. "I'm a big fan."
"I didn't know FBI agents had fans," I said.
"Oh, well, not of your FBI work," Stephens said, and then produced a slightly startled look. He was worried he'd made a faux pas. "I mean, I'm sure your FBI work is good."
"Thank you," I said, dryly.
"I meant when you were younger."
"Ah, you meant when I was famous for being famous."
"I wouldn't put it that way." Stephens's startled look was back. "I mean, you were a symbol for Hadens everywhere."
I thought about poking at Stephens a little bit more, and finding out just how many permutations of his startled look I could get out of him. But it wouldn't have been nice.
And anyway, he wasn't wrong. When I was young, I was a symbol for Hadens everywhere, the poster child for an entire group of humans, all locked into their bodies by a disease and using machines and neural networks to get through the world, just like I did, and do. Being a poster child was a nice gig, until it wasn't. Which is why I stopped doing it and went to work for the FBI instead.
I could have explained this all to Stephens, who was still standing there, looking increasingly worried that he'd just stepped in it. Stephens was just trying to be complimentary, just like lots of other people who unintentionally blurted out a reminder I currently resided in the "where are they now" category of fame and then thought it was a bad thing, instead of something I hoped for and planned to happen.
But that would have taken time and it would have meant having a long conversation of the sort that didn't mix well with a sporting event.
"I was," I said. "Thank you for noticing."
Stephens relaxed and sat back down.
"Marvin was explaining the game of Hilketa to me," Mom said, waving toward the field, on which the Bays and the Snowbirds were currently going after each other with melee weapons. "In detail."
"It's an amazing game," Stephens said to me. "Are you a fan?"
"Chris was more into video games growing up," Mom said.
"Hilketa is a video game too," Stephens said. "In fact, the NAHL sponsors several virtual leagues to help train our athletes and to find new talent. Hadens and non-Hadens both."
"I ran into some non-Hadens protesting outside," I noted. "They didn't seem to feel they were well represented in the league."
"Well, there's a skill gap," Stephens said. "Non-Hadens still lag behind in piloting threeps. It's a reaction-time thing."
"That's the official response, anyway." Stephens got that startled look again. He realized what he'd said and how he'd said it. I wondered how long he'd been in his job. "I mean, it is the reason. It's not just an excuse. The NAHL is open to qualified athletes regardless of Haden status."
"Good to know."
"It's just that piloting threeps is tricky. You know ..." He motioned to me, or more accurately, my threep. "Without a neural network, getting around in a Personal Transport requires a lot of skill and attention." Stephens pointed out toward the field, to a Toronto tank threep that was pounding the hell out of a Bays player with its fists, to cheers. "When I started this job, they put me in a VR getup and had me try to pilot a tank threep around an open field, so I could get a feel for how the players did their job."
"How did you do?" I asked.
"I walked it into a wall," Stephens admitted. "Several times. I just couldn't get the hang of it. So it doesn't surprise me that we don't have non-Hadens playing the game at a professional level yet. It's the one place Hadens have the advantage over the rest of us." The startled look returned. "Well, I mean, not the only place. ..." Mom glanced over at me on that one and then tinkled the ice in her glass at Stephens. "Would you be a dear and top off my drink for me," she said, and Stephens practically fell over himself to grab the glass and extricate himself from the situation.
"He seems nice," I said, watching as he sprinted toward the bartender.
"He's clueless," Mom said. "I'm sure he was assigned to me because he was the only apparatchik the league could spare to babysit the spouse of the man they wanted to extract money from." She motioned with her head to Dad, who'd grown another ring of admirers. "I'm sure they thought he'd be relatively harmless."
"Do they not know who you are?" I asked.
"They know I'm Marcus' wife." Mom did a hand movement that was her rather more elegant version of a shrug. "If they missed out on what else I am, that's their problem."
Mom, that is, Jacqueline Oxford Shane, on the board of Shane Enterprises, executive vice president of the National Haden Family Association, ferocious fund-raiser, and scion of one of Virginia's oldest and most politically connected families, who dated the current vice president before she met and married Dad. Rumor was the VP still regretted ever letting her go. I didn't regret it. I wouldn't be here if she'd stayed with him.
I tilted my head at Dad. "So how's he holding up, anyway?"
"He's fine," Mom said. "He's doing his thing."
"His 'special exhibition game experience' is apparently being mobbed by international businesspeople."
"You didn't think we were invited to this because the league was trying to impress your dad, did you?" Mom said. She waved at the businesspeople. "We were invited so he could impress them."
"Does that mean Dad is going to invest in the new franchise?" I asked.
Mom did her shrug wave again. "We're looking at the numbers."
"How are they?"
Before Mom could respond, two gentlemen appeared, gave slight bows, and then one spoke in Japanese.
"Mr. Fukuyama apologizes for the intrusion, and wishes to know if you are a player in the Hilketa game," the second man said, clearly the translator.
I had known what Mr. Fukuyama said because my onboard translator had given me a translation as soon as it recognized Fukuyama was not speaking English at me.
I stood and gave a small bow. "Please tell Mr. Fukuyama that I regret that I am not."
"This robot is not a player," the translator told Fukuyama, in Japanese.
"Damn it," Fukuyama said. "I was promised that I would get to meet players on this trip. Why they think I will invest in an Asian Hilketa league when they can't even show me the goods is beyond me."
"Perhaps you will meet a player after the game, sir," the translator said.
"I better." Fukuyama nodded his head at me. "Get this robot's autograph anyway. I promised my grandson I would get one from a player."
"But this is not a player," the translator said.
"My grandson won't know the difference."
The translator reached into a suit pocket and produced a small notebook and a pen. "Please, an autograph?" he asked, in English.
"Of course," I said, taking the pen and signing the notebook with it, adding "I am not a Hilketa player" in English below the signature. I closed the notebook and handed it and the pen back to the translator. He and Fukuyama bowed and departed.
"You're famous," Mom joked to me.
"It's a step up from when I came into the skybox and someone shoved a drink glass in my hand."
"Who did that?"
"That one —" I pointed to the suit, now in the outer ring of my father's admirers.
"Oh, him," Mom said. "I've met him. Smarmy little jerk."
"You were talking about the league numbers before we got interrupted," I reminded her, to get her off the topic of the smarmy suit. "You were about to tell me how they were."
"Ah, that good," I said.
"The NAHL likes to call itself the fastest-growing major sport in North America, but all the other major sports are decades old, so that's just marketing," Mom said. "Hilketa's attendance and merchandising are growing but the league spends a lot. Your father has questions about the value proposition of investing in a franchise."
"You mean, you have questions about it."
"We both have questions about it," Mom said. "The league just doesn't appear to realize your father and I talk to each other."
"That's going to end well."
"We'll see." Mom looked up at me as if she suddenly remembered something. "Where's Leslie?" she asked. "I thought she was thinking of coming with you."
"She's busy," I said. "Leslie" in this case was Leslie Vann, my partner at the FBI, where we were part of the Haden affairs division.
"She's busy? Doing what?" "Avoiding sunlight. It's a Sunday, Mom."
Mom snorted, delicately, at this. "Leslie needs fewer late nights, Chris."
"I'll let her know you've volunteered to be her life coach."
"I just might take the job. Leslie is lovely" — and here I did an internal smirk, because in the year I'd been partnered with Vann, "lovely" was an adjective used about her exactly once, right now — "but she's aimless."
"She likes aimless."
"Yes, well. If it makes her happy, I suppose. Look, here comes the problem child again." She pointed to Stephens, who returned with Mom's glass.
Excerpted from "Head On"
Copyright © 2018 John Scalzi.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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