It often amazes me the effort and determination some athletes invest into becoming the best. I wondered how far they might go…
It’s About Winning
“I’m tired of losing!”
“So am I Gee, but what you’re suggesting is crazy!”
“And getting whipped out there every week isn’t? Enough. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stormed out.
That was the last conversation I had with Gee. Or at least Gee when he was still baseline human. He was, is maybe, my best friend. We went to school together, played our first lacrosse together and ended up joining the same teams, until finally we made it, both professionals. He is an attack, I’ve always been defence. It made us great practice partners, and avoided much of the competition which can kill friendships in professional sports.
Gee is a big guy. Life of the party type. When he wants to be. He’s actually a bit shy, and covers it up with drinking, or cracking stupid jokes, or both. But he’s also all about winning. He wants to be the best, score the most, and never lose. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like losing, but being a defender is a bit different. In some ways it’s totally nihilistic; the best you can do is to stop a goal being scored. If you’re really good no one will know you’ve done anything because you’ll have stopped a shot early enough that it never really got started. Lacrosse is fast. If an attack move has even half started your chance of stopping it is almost zero, you need to be ahead of their moves. And so do the other defenders. A good defence unit has to be solid all round.
Attack however is different. You can be a hero, you often don’t need help, and many teams have done well with just one good attack supported by some chaff. Which is not to say Gee is selfish. He isn’t, as can be shown by the number of assists he gets, but when the opportunity presents itself, he scores. And occasionally he runs out of patience, takes the ball and goes for a drive, sometimes with spectacular success.
He wasn’t enough though. We’d lost twelve games in a row. The fans hated us, I hadn’t even bothered looking at my fanfeeds for weeks. While the invective had initially been inventive, it had now just degenerated into banal abuse.
Gee had decided he could save the day. And win of course. He’d mentioned it to me a few weeks earlier.
“JJ, look at this?”
I looked over at the screen. “What is it? Some kind of techno porn? You’re sick Gee!”
“No man, it’s the latest prosthetic. It’s an arm and eye combination. The military have been using it to get their marksmen up to perfection. Apparently one of their guys hit the centre of the target ten thousand times in a row using this.”
“Wow, cool, I mean really. So it is techno porn then.”
“Dude, stop being an ass. This is how we can get back to the top.”
I have to admit to being confused here.
“What, hire some cyborg soldier to kill our opponents?”
Gee laughed really hard. When he’d recovered he said, “You know, sometimes I don’t know if you’re stupid deliberately. No I mean, imagine the shots I could get with that rig.”
“But, but don’t you have to be injured first or something? Wouldn’t you have to give up your arm and eye?”
“No, they keep them on ice for you, you can change back whenever you like.”
“Of course not dumb bell!”
He looked at me pityingly, then went on, “Just imagine the angles you’d see.”
Scoring goals in lacrosse is all about the angles, if you can come round the goal and shoot as flat as possible, then neither the goalie nor any gadfly defender – such as myself – will have much chance to stop you. Even better, if you can step back and judge the shot past the defender you can use them to distract the goalie. The angles are always moving in the game, and a good defender is closing them down, while an attacker is constantly looking to exploit those which open up.
I laughed at him then. “Gee-man, you are being stupid now. We’re having a slump, but it’ll pick up.”
It didn’t. The games passed. I stopped even counting how many shots were going past. I’m not going to blame it on the other guys, we were all to blame. Gee wanted to fix it. He collared me again.
“JJ, guess what?”
“You’re an idiot?”
Ignoring me, he went on, “The Lacrosse Federation does not ban prosthetics.”
“Ha, as if the rules matter. The umpires spend half the time looking the wrong way, and the other half having discussions to try and agree on what it was they just missed.”
“Totally, but that’s not what I mean. I could get the prosthetics and they wouldn’t be able to stop me playing!”
I stared at him. This was starting to get worrying, what if he was really serious?
“Er right Gee. But if you lose an arm and eye, you’re going to be in recovery for like years. Your playing days will be long over before you can do anything.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” He smiled, and then changed the subject.
We’d talked about it a few times since, and I was getting more and more concerned he was actually going to do it, and he was becoming more and more frustrated by my ‘lack of vision’.
He went for the operation. Right arm and right eye. The med company was so eager to get him to do it they didn’t even charge him. Sure he wasn’t a superstar, but he was still a professional lacrosse player, so it was a celebrity endorsement of sorts. Or at least that’s what I thought. But I think they had bigger plans even then.
I didn’t go and visit him in the hostpital. For two reasons. Firstly I was kind of annoyed he’d gone ahead with it, and secondly, they wouldn’t have let me anyway. Apparently he was in some form of ‘intensive’ recovery, which meant he couldn’t be distracted. Clearly whatever it was they did worked, as only ten days later he played his first game. Ten days! The drugs they’d pumped in to him had accelerated his healing, but even so it was astonishing. The drugs must have been clean however, otherwise he’d have been picked up for them in our pre-season anti-doping tests. He was still a little red around the face and arm, but the kit and helmet covered it up.
The first few moves he was involved in didn’t come off, and he seemed a little off centre. And then it was like a switch was turned on for some goal scoring machine. Every time he got the ball, and I mean every time, he scored. He didn’t even need to get that close. For the first shot he just stopped, watched the defence and the goalie for a couple of seconds and his right arm whipped forward. There was confusion as everyone looked for the ball, and then the whistle of a goal scored. He did it again and again, sometimes just stopping, other times jogging, and a few times running round from behind the goal. We won. In fact we crushed the opposition, who up to that point were in a ten game winning streak.
After the game Gee seemed subdued and took a long time to get out of his kit. I went over to see him and saw there was some blood seeping out of the bandages around his arm.
“Gee, you need to get someone to look at that. You’re crazy man!”
“Oh, JJ. Yeah they said there might be a risk. But still. We won.” His emotions seemed flat, he was neither worried about the blood, nor elated by the win. Whenever he’d scored a goal in a game before he’d be almost drunk with the excitement, and insist on telling me again and again exactly how he’d scored.
“Let’s go out for a drink to celebrate – after you get your arm checked.”
“Sure, yeah. See you at the bar.” He never showed.
The media went crazy. Our opposition cried foul and complained to the Lacrosse Federation. Our own team responded and pointed out the rules specifically allow prosthetics, something introduced some years before to ensure open access to the game. There’d been some players with blades, but they tended to come and go. This was different. Or was it? The LF couldn’t decide, and so said Gee could keep playing.
Which was good, because while he was playing, we were winning. The next three games were complete walk-overs. Our opponents barely got the ball, and whenever we got it the new tactic was pass to Gee, and watch him score. After each game he still seemed down, better than the first, though he kept passing up chances to go out. Eventually I managed to drag him to the bar, it was his birthday after all.
“Happy Birthday Gee, and congratulations on changing the game!”
“Uh, yes. Thanks. And thanks.”
“What’s up man, you really don’t seem to be enjoying yourself.”
“To be honest JJ, I’m not really supposed to talk about it. But…”
“Come on man, you can trust me.”
“Sure yeah. Well, it’s the drugs I’m on.”
I looked shocked.
He saw my face and kind of half smiled. In the past I think he’d have laughed at me. “No no man, nothing illegal, all fully cleared with the LF. These are anti-depressants. They help with the brain to machine connection. Or brain to brain really.”
“Well you see, I didn’t just get a new eye and arm, I also got a new bit of brain. It’s wired up to the old one, I mean my real one.”
“Ouch, that sounds gross.”
“No. Yeah. I know what you mean, but I had to have it. I needed something to interface between my brain and the new parts of me. It takes my slow thoughts and makes them fast. But it takes a while to deal with strong emotions, or at least that’s what they tell me. So I have to take these drugs. They wash some of the colour out of the world. But it’s worth it. It is.” Another ghost of a smile from him.
“Well I hope it isn’t for long, you need to get the full buzz from being the top scorer in the league as of tonight!” It was true, in just four games he’d gone to number one, mostly because he’d scored almost every one of our goals.
The last two games of the season were almost processions. For the penultimate game our opposition barely bothered to turn up, and we kept a clean sheet for the first time in a long time. Our last game was against our local rivals, the Tigers. They were on course to win the league, but in order to do so they needed to beat us. Normally this would not be a problem for them. Gee made that different. It was one of the most brutal games I’ve ever been involved in. They threw everything at us, particularly targeting Gee as they wanted to shut him out of the game. Each time he got the ball they’d immediately try to double team him, usually fairly brutally. This didn’t help the rest of us though, as they also hit out at anyone else they could close to. Wipe outs, punches, kicks, everything was going on, and I’ll be honest, it wasn’t one way traffic. We really hated those smug assholes. The umpires completely lost control of the game. But despite all the dirty play the Tigers threw at us, none of it made any difference. We still thrashed them.
These wins had been too late in the season to get us to the top, but we still finished mid-table. Our best result in years, and it was all down to Gee. The whole team was jubilant. Well except for Gee. He raised a cheer or two, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.
Off season was usually a time when we went home, and Gee and I would hang out. This year we’d be heroes, but Gee didn’t come home. He sent some excuse about needing additional physiotherapy. I hoped they were tailing off his meds as well.
Meanwhile the Lacrosse Federation was going into meltdown. Half the members wanted the results scrapped, especially the Tigers who’d failed to secure the championship. The other half wanted to be allowed to ‘upgrade’ some of their own players. The biggest problem they had was that the ratings were up. Gee had turned a niche sport into something which millions wanted to watch. The LF had no idea how to deal with the pressure, and the money. Two months before the season start they came up with a compromise. Gee could continue to play, but anyone else who deliberately upgraded would be barred. As you can imagine this satisfied nobody, however, as is often the case with bureaucratic organisations they decided to dig in.
The new season was approaching, and when I heard the news I couldn’t believe it. The sense of betrayal, both of the team, and personally, was immense. I had to call him up, and I didn’t even give him a chance to speak.
“You bastard. How could you go to the Tigers! How could you do this to me. To us!”
Silence. I couldn’t say anything I was so angry.
“Look, I was going to tell you. I was going to call. They offered me so much. This season sets me up, and means my folks can retire. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
I still couldn’t talk.
“I did ask them about you. But they said. Well ignore what they said. But they didn’t say yes.”
“And I wouldn’t have gone. Damn them and damn you Gee.” I slammed the phone down.
Gee and I had a sacred pact. It had two parts to it. One was that we’d never play for the bastard Tigers, and the second was that we’d always play for the same team. I knew that we’d have to break it eventually, but I never thought that it would be the first part.
A few days before the first friendly game a call came through at nine in the morning. Off season this is considered early. Criminally so. I ignored it, until the third time whoever it was called. I was so hungover I was unable to express my outrage when I answered, and barely managed a grunt.
“Mr JJ Sims.” A female voice. Crisp, professional.
“Are you JJ Sims?”
“I knew Lacrosse players were inarticulate, but this is surprisingly bad.”
“Sorry, I’ve only just woken up“, cough, “give me a second to drink something.” I fished around and found a half empty cup of beer. Best I could hope for, I swallowed it, and my mouth stopped feeling like it contained a squirrel’s tail.
“Right, so who are you, and why are you waking me up in the middle of the night?”
“I represent GalMed Devices. And it is morning. Working time. I am a busy woman Mr Sims.”
“I am a busy woman, JJ.” I could hear a slight hint of distaste when she used my name.
“Yes, right, so how can I help, or at least get you off the phone so that I can go and deal with the jackhammer which is trying to escape my skull.”
“I would like to offer you the chance to upgrade.”
I went cold. The devil was on the phone.
“But the LF…”
“Are about to make a ruling which allows, in certain circumstances, anyone to upgrade. However, due to the timeline for the new upgrades we need to act fast to get players in shape for the new season.”
“Really? That must be a record turnaround in decision making. Still, well, why me?” Why was I continuing to talk to her?
“You had firsthand experience of our prototype. You know what it can do.”
“Yeah, it depressed my best friend, and turned him into a whore!”
“Now Mr Sims. I believe you all work for money, and I can assure you that we’ve resolved many of the issues which have caused your friend to stay on the meds for longer than anticipated. Not that you should know that.”
She pursed her lips. Oops, I might have got Gee into trouble there. I thought I’d string her along a bit in the hope she’d forget.
“Anyway, I’m a defence. It ain’t going to help me.”
“Imagine being able to pluck a shot out of the air. You’ll be fast enough to do that. Every time.”
“Can’t afford it.” Please go away. I don’t want this.
“But Mr Sims.”
“JJ.” I barked.
“JJ. We’ll pay you. A signing bonus shall we call it. You stay with your current team, we would not ask you to move, but we give you an extra salary, and you become the defence poster child for our new upgrade.”
“How much?” I’m a whore. But, what will I do when I stop? I needed to think of the future, and it’d be nice to give my parents something back after all they’ve done for me. Supporting lacrosse, or any small but spread out sport, involves a lot of travel, a lot of waiting around, and a depressing amount of bad weather.
She mentioned a number. It was more than I could say no to. So I said yes. The next day I went to the white, sharp building with the very subtle GalMed Devices logo on it. Signed some wavers. I can’t talk about the rest.
I had more work done than Gee. I had the arm and the eye. The LF ruling had said that only an arm and an eye could be upgraded, no legs, and not both of either. They hadn’t managed to get round to limiting the internal changes. GalMed Devices abused that as much as they could. I was round two in their real life prototype process. The additional brain was bigger, faster, and could activate my adrenal gland and produce endorphins. In effect it could make me aggressive, or happy, or both, and help reduce the impact of pain.
It also changed some other ‘choices’. If I did less than two hours of exercise a day I started getting cramps, more than two hours I got a nice endorphin hit. Depending on the cycle up to the game different foods would provide rewards or failures. I became fitter. Faster. Meaner.
My recovery time was a little longer than Gee’s, and I missed the first game of the season. We lost. Our fans realised we still stank without Gee. The abuse started to ramp up again, even on my feed and I hadn’t even played. Then the fact I’d been upgraded came out. There was confusion. Had I decided to become an attack? What was the plan? The speculation was fevered.
Meanwhile the buzz was that only Gee and I had gone for upgrades. Some said no one else had been offered, others claimed to have refused. I knew they must be lying. No one could say no to this.
I turned up for the second game. We won. With a clean sheet. Nothing could get past me. It was almost as if I could see the trajectory of the ball even before it had left the opponent’s stick. If I was anywhere near it then I could get my stick out in time to catch it. Every time. With the long defence stick that’s a pretty wide arc of defence, and the opposition were weak, with only a couple of decent attack players. I even scored a couple of goals. My accuracy wasn’t great as I’d never bothered practising, but it didn’t seem that hard. This only fed the speculation online.
The third and fourth games went the same. The fans were going crazy for the upgrades. We were getting as many spectators as the Tigers, and everyone else was getting the same number they used to, which now seemed rather pathetic. The cable companies were desperate to secure the video rights, which had always been something the LF had been forced to pay people to carry in the past. The bidding was as fast and furious as the games. Suddenly all the moral objections were put aside and all the other teams were approaching GalMed Devices demanding they allow them to upgrade their players. GalMed refused, saying they were still working on the next version, and that I needed to finish the testing on the latest tweaks.
Our fifth game was against the Tigers. It was me against Gee, just like the old days. In fact, it was more or less just the two of us, the rest of the teams were irrelevant. He couldn’t miss, and a ball couldn’t get past me. The look of shock on his face when I caught his first shot was a treasure. I stopped his second, third and fourth as well. Then he got wise, and his team got dirty. I was wiped out, long enough for him to get the ball and shoot. We fought back just as hard, and he was wiped out and I got the ball and scored. Back and forth, but his greater accuracy meant that more of his shots went in, unless I was near enough to stop them. Adrenaline surged through my veins again and again. The game went red, and I went berserk on one of the attackers who slammed me. I just turned around and slammed him back. And broke his leg. I didn’t mean to, I think. I was just so angry, and I just needed to get through him to stop the shot. And, well, I wanted to return the favour of the slam.
The player was carted off, I was red carded. The Tigers won. I expected to be banned.
I was not. I was warned that such a display in future would be subject to a ban, but my team had pointed out that the umpires had been allowing so much that my only crime was in having connected at the wrong angle. In fact the umpires had been completely out of it, mine was the only card given in the game. Watching the replays it was clear that they simply couldn’t follow the action if Gee or I had the ball.
The rest of the season was much the same. We won. The Tigers won, but by more, and in the end they won the championship. I managed to avoid breaking any more bones, but it was so hard with the adrenaline keeping me wired. I didn’t speak to Gee once.
I also didn’t enjoy the victories. I wasn’t taking anything, but I suspect my new extra brain was doing something to keep my emotions level, except when playing. I asked the GalMed Devices guys, but they somehow managed to answer the question without giving me any more information.
After that season pretty much all the players were upgraded. The season after that it was every player, and most of the umpires. I retired. So did Gee. We’d made a lot of money, but more than that, the newer upgrades made both of us redundant. We just weren’t fast enough to catch the shots, or make them past the new defenders. The whole game had stepped up in intensity, and aggression.
I was visiting my parents when there was a knock at the door. My mum answered, and called me. It was Gee.
“Look, I wanted to say sorry. I was wrong. I didn’t know what was going on, and with the meds and everything.”
“Hey man, water under the bridge. I guess I should’ve realised it was happening, it was just…”
“I know. The Damned Tigers.” He laughed. Then went on, “I got my ‘upgrade’ reversed.” He waved his hand at me. It still looked like a prosthetic, but was much more natural looking, and clearly less powerful.
“Cool. And the second brain?”
“Couldn’t take it out totally, but much reduced. And I’m off the meds.”
“Good news! Same deal with me, though it’s taking a long time to properly release me. It had been in control so long I still struggle to choose my own food.”
He looked confused at that, and I told him about what my upgrade included. He laughed at me, and reminded me that I was the one who’d said he was crazy. I told him he was, but it looked like such a rush I’d had to join him. That’d had always been our excuse for the mad stuff we’d done as boys. It was great to have my friend back. We talked for ages, and agreed to meet up the following day for a beer and a proper catch-up.
As he left he said, “Have you heard? Some of the fans are getting eye upgrades, they reckon it’s the only way to follow the action now!”