Future Tense

“Assists”

A new short story about a revolutionary sport in 2071.

Colorful poster of a women's soccer team.
Brian Miller/Smithsonian | Download PDF

How can portraying the future help us prepare for it? As part of the Smithsonian’s upcoming FUTURES exhibition, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together museum experts, cultural and research centers, writers, and artists to help answer that question. Then acclaimed sci-fi writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby wrote eight stories—four each—based on that work. In the story below, Ashby imagines the world of 2071 with a new sport that allows athletes of all abilities to compete on an equal playing field.

Advertisement

Join Future Tense, AIB, and the Center for Science and the Imagination on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at noon Eastern to discuss the exhibit, the pieces, and the roles museums play in depicting future narratives. RSVP here.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The thing about trauma,” the Veterans’ League recruiter told Darryn, “is that you can lose all sense of where your body is in space.” Then she’d frowned. “I mean like physical space, not space-space. Not deep space. I mean, I guess it’s a problem there, too, but they’ve got other problems. Apparently they have vertigo for reasons completely unrelated to trauma, up there. Unless you count going to space as traumatic, which I guess you could.”

Darryn had no real desire to engage in the conversation. He’d agreed to a smoothie with the recruiter out of pure politeness, and because he had nothing better to do. The Veterans’ League recruiter was a woman named Marci, and she piloted a telepresence drone from her home out in Wichita, where she examined wearables data from everyone in Darryn’s post-combat athletics program in Boulder. According to that data, Darryn was worth further investment. He could be rehabilitated, or so the numbers seemed to indicate. He could relearn where the limits of his body were, get back his full balance and proprioception, go on to inspire other vets and Assisteds and the like.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“I don’t have any big head injuries,” Darryn felt compelled to say. “I just saw some people die.”

Advertisement

“You were the target of a sonic weapon,” Marci said, as though he somehow needed reminding. “You have some issues with balance, right?”

“My ex-husband sure thought so,” Darryn said.

To her credit, she laughed. Some of his physical therapists didn’t—especially the robots. Most of the time the robots just tried to follow up in their painfully sincere way: If he mentioned Tomas even in passing, the robot would say something like “And where can he be reached?” as though their marriage was still a thing. The human nurses remembered. Some of them. His doctors always forgot. But he only ever saw them remotely, for a few minutes at a time. Not that it mattered—it’s not like he knew the state of their marriages, either. But his social worker kept saying that his chance of inflammatory disease was up now that he wasn’t married, and it factored into his total risk profile.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“I just mean it wasn’t a neck injury,” Darryn said. “My body wasn’t hurt.”

“Is your inner ear not part of your body?” Marci asked.

Darryn focused on his smoothie. It looked green. It tasted green. After so much clinical food, he had forgotten how bitter real plant matter could be. He felt like a cat eating grass in hope of throwing up later.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“We would fit you up with a haptic suit, as an Assist,” Marci went on, having made her point. “It would help you correct your posture, and warn you if you were likely to fall, and help you detect objects in your path. And you’d be allowed to wear it during League play.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

“I don’t even know how to play soccer,” Darryn said.

“Football,” Marci corrected him. She frowned. “Wait, do you want to play the other kind? Is that why you mentioned head injuries? Because you’d need a significant Enhancement—”

“No, it was just a slip of the tongue,” he said. “Old-fashioned guy, I guess.”

He had indeed played the old-fashioned kind of football, as a kid. It was a stupid thing to do and he knew it, which was exactly why he’d done it in the first place. After all, as he frequently told his mother, people used to feel the same way about skateboarding. At least with American football, there was no property damage.

“Your brain isn’t your property?” his mom would ask. “Your memories aren’t your property?”

Advertisement

But his brain didn’t really feel like it was his property, any longer. Not entirely. After the sonic attack, after his time in the clinic and after all the hours spent in various simulators relearning all the words for everything, his brain felt like it belonged, at least a little bit, to the software developers who’d helped him rewire it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“Football is the world’s game,” Marci was saying. “It’s actually a more full-contact sport, when you think of it. There’s more touching.”

“You’re really selling it,” Darryn said.

“There are only a handful of other players with injuries like yours in the League,” Marci continued, blithely ignoring his sarcasm. “There’s still so much stigma around sonic weaponry and the damage it causes. You’d really be representing a whole segment of people who still don’t even have the language with which to describe their experiences.”

Advertisement

“They don’t have the language to describe it because their language centers got fried,” Darryn said. “My joining the League won’t do anything to help with that.”

“That’s not true,” Marci said. “If you tell your story, you’ll be giving them the language.”

Darryn had nothing to say to that. The words felt like an explosive device going off in a nearby building. They didn’t quite knock him off his feet, but he felt two distinct reactions, akin to hearing the roar and feeling the rumble of an explosion. His eyes filled. His vision swam. He wasn’t entirely sure why what she said would do this to him. It was one of the side effects of the attack: everything was close to the surface, but he still couldn’t grasp it. His feelings were like fish darting through a pond. He couldn’t grab them without some part of him going still and numb.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“They used a suit like this on the Moon recently,” Marci was saying. “For that woman with the baby? Remember? She helped start the Space U.N.?”

Darryn nodded mutely.

“You would have to be broadcast,” Marci continued. “I mean, your suit would be broadcast. The data from the suit. That’s part of the normalization, I think. I know a lot of people think it’s weird to share that kind of thing, that really granular data in real time, but you’d be sharing a lot of baseline info with the public that they could then share with doctors. You know how people will do anything to avoid seeing the doctor until a celebrity encourages them to go. You could be the person who gets people to talk about events that might have been seizures, or suicidal ideation, or even just a heart murmur. It all counts.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Again, he nodded.

“Darryn, are you listening?”

He raised his eyes to the cartoon avatar on the telepresence robot. “You’re part of the League?” he asked. “Did you ever play?”

“I can’t. Full-remote isn’t an Assist and it isn’t an Enhancement. I’m in limbo. I can’t really field myself in competition until the League settles where I fit, definitionally. But I’m really good at the math side, though. The metrics, I mean. I was, um, what you might call a high roller.”

Advertisement

“You were a gambler.”

“Sort of. I mean, gambler makes it sound like card games. I did sports betting. I covered the spreads. I made good money, too. I mean, what were the other guys gonna do, break my legs?” She laughed, and he wished he could see her face. He wasn’t sure she still had a face. He wasn’t sure if her voice was really her voice.

Advertisement

“So now you’re on the team management side,” Darryn said.

“Yeah. Gambling is fun, and I was good at it, like I said, but you don’t really develop a relationship with a team. Or if you do, you get kicked out of the system. Someone in the League spotted me, and said I’d be better off picking players and guiding them. And that I’d know better than most if those players actually have what it takes to get back out on the field.”

Marci was physically incapable of throwing down a gauntlet, but she’d just done so all the same.

“And you think that’s me,” Darryn said.

“I know it’s you.”

“How do you know?”

Advertisement

“I know the numbers,” Marci said. “And the numbers don’t lie.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Darryn sighed. “Are you going to do a background check?”

Advertisement

“It’s standard. We’ll speak to the people in your life. Most of it’s already in your VA records, honestly. But the League takes its representatives pretty seriously. Again, we don’t want to be like football. Well, old-fashioned football. You know what I mean. Our league is full of people who’ve had serious injuries, who are dealing with serious traumas. We understand that those things can throw you off course. You can feel like a different person. Not a better or worse person, just different. And we know you might have made some mistakes. But it’s better if we can incorporate that into your narrative from the very beginning, not after the fact. OK?”

Advertisement

“You’ll talk to my ex.”

“Is that a problem?”

“No. It was amicable, the split. I was a mess. He just couldn’t take it anymore. Simple as that.”

“I doubt that’s the case,” Marci said. “Not that I think you’re lying, I mean. I just don’t think things are ever that simple between two people. But I do think he’ll be proud of you for joining.”

Darryn drank down the last of his smoothie. “Maybe.”

“Definitely,” Marci said. “Besides, don’t you want to make him just a little bit jealous? Once he sees you scoring every game?”

“Pun intended?”

“Pun intended.”

“Well,” Darryn said, “you got me there.”

This story is a piece of near-future science fiction, but is inspired by the real-life work and research being conducted today by Jeffrey Brodie, Arthur Daemmrich, Sharon Klotz, and Monica Smith at Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History and Rayvon Fouché at Purdue University.

Read the rest of the AIB-inspired stories on Future Tense here, and download the poster here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement