The android revolution changes everything. Businesses shut down; the military undergoes total restructuring; local governments across the country scramble to integrate android civil rights into existing legal structures. Detroit, the epicenter, ends up almost entirely depleted of human citizens.
Yet somehow, the NHL season starts right on time. The only difference that Kent notices is the lack of android workers and the influx of humans manning the janitorial duties and concession stands. There’s no change to the teams themselves. Because while the NFL was falling over itself trying to integrate android super-players into its lineup, the NHL organizations prided themselves on being all-human.
They manage to stay that way for two years following the revolution. Even with androids slowly coming back to work service jobs and even buying a few tickets to hockey games, all 32 NHL teams remain purely human.
And then the Providence Falconers go and sign an android. From Russia.
Just the Aces’ luck, they get to play the Falcs for their second game of the regular season. At least it’s not on home ice.
The atmosphere in the locker room as the Aces get ready for the game is tense.
“Whatever happened to ‘made in America,’ huh?” gripes Carl, four seats down from Kent. It’s just far enough away that Kent can pretend not to hear while he pulls on his socks and skates. Carl doesn’t stop. “This is bullshit. Everybody knows the Russians don’t care about regulations. That plastic asshole’s probably got targeting programs that let it make perfect shots every time. How the fuck are we supposed to compete with a supercomputer that doesn’t make mistakes or get tired?”
Kent yanks his laces and doesn’t respond. Nobody else does, either. None of them know what to expect or how to prepare to play an android. Kent never personally owned an android, but he knows some teammates did. All of the androids either left on their own, were voluntarily freed, or were turned over to the police during the crackdown and never seen again. Probably disassembled or burned in a furnace somewhere.
It wasn’t the same in Russia. Androids always existed in a weird, undefined legal state in Russia. Not quite appliance, not quite citizen. But the Falcs’ new guy has to know it wasn’t the same over here. He has to know about the protests, the riots, the camps. He has to know that in America, his personhood is tenuous at best.
Combine all that psychology with the mechanics of an android body, and Kent has no idea what to expect on the ice.
As it turns out, the android—Alexei Mashkov—is disappointingly normal. Sure, he’s fucking huge, and he skates with the precision of a sushi chef slicing poisonous fugu, but otherwise he blends right in with his human teammates.
Kent had nearly forgotten that the android’s teammates included Jack Zimmermann. Honestly, if he had to pick who was worse to meet in a faceoff circle, Jack or the android, he’d pick Jack every time. At least the android doesn’t refuse to meet his eyes or scrape by him instead of body check him. The android has never talked about Kent in pressers like he’s just a fucking footnote in his life.
The android is nobody, but Jack straight up turned Kent down at a house party and then kissed his twink boyfriend at center ice a year later, as if everything Kent had ever been to him meant fucking nothing.
So yeah. The android is an issue, but not nearly as much of one as Kent’s twisted-up feelings about Jack.
Of course, not everyone shares the sentiment.
Halfway through second period, the Falcs push the puck over the blue line and force the Aces into a corner guarding their net. There’s some passes and a missed shot, and then it Kent sees it happen: Carl checks Mashkov into the boards. The puck isn’t anywhere near.
Despite his size, Mashkov is lifted off his feet. His face smashes into the glass, and then Carl clips him with an elbow on his way down. Mashkov hits the ice on all fours and sneezes blue blood across his gloves. When he grabs his stick and gets up, there are rivulets of blue streaming from his nose and mouth.
Goddamnit, Carl. Just what we fucking need, another penalty to kill, Kent thinks, wincing as he anticipates the whistle.
But the game moves on and the whistle never comes. Kent sees the Falcs’ coach waving Mashkov to the bench while another player hikes a leg over the side, ready to step on the ice and replace him.
“Hey! Hey, ref!” Jack shoots past Kent and sends up a shower of snow as he skids to a stop by one of the refs. “Number eight got our guy, he needs to go to the box!”
The ref shakes his head. “Sorry, I didn’t catch it. But if he’s still walking, it’s a clean hit.”
Jack clenches his jaw. “A clean— He elbowed him in the face! Mashkov didn’t even have the puck!”
Now the ref is frowning, looking annoyed. “Clean hit, no penalty. That’s the call.”
White-faced with shock and anger, Jack starts, “This is blatant, racist discrimination against my teammate, and if you think I will stand for it on my own fucking ice—”
“Watch your tone, Zimmermann, or I’ll slap you and the plastic with ten for unsportsmanlike conduct.”
Jack looks ready to shake apart with fury but holds his tongue. Nearby, Kent notices Carl idly watching the exchange with a hint of a smirk.
Without thinking too much about what he’s doing or why, Kent skates up to Jack and the ref. “Hey, did I miss the whistle? Aren’t we on a penalty kill?”
“No, Parson. No penalty.”
Kent, pretending he doesn’t see Jack’s wide-eyed surprise, continues, “Really? ‘Cause from where I was standing, it looked like Carl got Mashkov in the face with his elbow, totally unprovoked. That’s at least two in the box isn’t it?”
“It was a clean hit, Parson,” the ref says, enunciating like he thinks Kent’s dumb enough to miss the subtext.
“Bullshit,” Kent snorts. “You saw him spit blood on the ice. If you’re gonna let that go, how do I know you’re not gonna turn around and ignore it when one of the Falcs goes after one of my guys?” And he sees, he fucking sees the unspoken reply that nearly falls off the ref’s tongue: That’s different; you’re human.
“So,” Kent says, as casually as he can while his heart is pounding like a freight train. “Carl’s got two in the box, yeah? Illegal hit?”
There’s a long, tense silence.
The ref nods sharply and skates away. After a brief conference with the other ref, and then the Falcs and Aces coaches, the ref turns on his mic and announces a two-minute penalty, to be served by the Aces’ number eight.
Jack is still standing next to Kent. “Thanks,” he says, and it’s embarrassing how surprised he sounds. “You—”
“Shut the fuck up, Jack,” Kent says, and skates away. He’s got a penalty to kill.
Which, thankfully, the Aces manage to do. The score is unchanged by the time Carl gets out of the box. He’s spitting mad, and he makes a beeline for Kent.
“What do you think you’re doing, Parson?” he hisses, getting up in Kent’s face. “You’re not supposed to send your own guys to the box!”
Kent’s emotions are stretched like steel wire. He can feel the whole arena watching. “It was an illegal hit. We’re lucky it was just two minutes. Don’t make us pull your weight again, man. Just play the game.”
Two hands seize Kent by the front of his jersey. “You picked a piece of fucking plastic over your own goddamn teammate, you cocksucking—”
Kent shoves him away so hard that Carl nearly topples backwards, his hands ripped free of their hold. “Just play the fucking game, Carl!” he shouts, and skates for the bench. There’s a roaring in his ears and heat all through his cheeks. He finds an empty spot and falls into it. He doesn’t look at Carl, doesn’t look left or right at anyone around him. He takes a drink from his water bottle and watches the game still playing on the ice.
The Aces win 4-2.
Kent’s post-game in the locker room is a nightmare. All the questions are about what happened with the hit on Mashkov, and where Kent stands on android rights. He keeps his answers and his expression as neutral as he can.
Hours later, after he has changed out of his gear and taken a shower and put his game suit back on and found a seat on the bus and ignored every person who has tried to start a conversation with him, he pulls out his phone.
There’s a new message from an unknown number.
I asked Jack for your number, sorry. Thank you for today. See you in three weeks in Vegas.
Kent doesn’t reply. But as he holds his phone in his hands, tips his head back and closes his eyes, he feels that tension he’s been holding in his chest come loose.