Athena Scalzi
Isabella Biedenharn
June 19, 2017 AT 12:02 PM EDT

John Scalzi is returning to the universe he created in his 2014 novel Lock In with his forthcoming book, Head On. Head On is part near future sci-fi, part murder mystery, part sports novel — and EW can exclusively reveal its cover and a sneak peek inside in advance of the book’s April 17, 2018 release.

But first, in an introduction written exclusively for EW, we’ll let Scalzi himself tell you a bit more about the world, what kind of beings populate it, and the brand new sport they play. (Trust us, this is no Quidditch.)

Introduction from John Scalzi

Head On takes place in the near future when a worldwide pandemic called Haden’s syndrome has locked millions of people worldwide into their minds, until technology in the form of “threeps” – android bodies – is developed to let them interact with the rest of the world. As time goes on, threeps become commonplace, and those with Haden develop their own culture – including a popular sport called “Hilketa” a cross between American Football and ancient Roman gladiatorial combat, played with specialized threeps, in which teams score points by carrying an opponent threep’s head through goal posts.

Chris Shane is an FBI agent with Hadens, assigned to cases involving those with the syndrome. In this exclusive excerpt from Head On, Chris takes in a Hilketa game, between the Boston Bays and the Toronto Snowbirds, watching as the action takes a violent turn. It’s a seemingly ordinary moment in a pre-season game that turns into the first step of an investigation, one that will take Chris into backrooms of a league that’s on the verge of a popular breakthrough… a breakthrough that it won’t let anyone, not even the FBI, get in the way of.

Tor Books

Excerpt from Head On, by John Scalzi

Duane Campbell’s head was ripped clean off. A roar went up from the stands.

My mom grimaced. “I hate when that happens.” She pointed to the field, where Duane Campbell’s headless threep now sprawled. His head, carried off by the opposing team, was making its way down the field. “It’s disturbing.”

“Why?” I asked. “It’s just a game.”

“Because I think about you and your threep,” mom said. “Threep bodies aren’t supposed to have body parts removed.”

I waved at the field, where the Toronto Snowbirds and the Boston Bays were going after each other with swords and war hammers. “Those threep bodies are,” I said. “Decapitations and severed limbs add to the drama.”

As if to accentuate the point, one of the Snowbirds slashed a sword at a Bay, who immediately lost an arm. The Bay responded by bringing a mallet down on the Snowbirds’ head. Then they both ran off in the direction of Duane Campbell’s head.

Mom grimaced again. “I’m not sure I like this sport very much.”

“All my flatmates do,” I said. “When they found out I was coming to the game they plotted about how to kill me and take my ticket.”

“But you don’t like it very much, do you?” Mom asked.

Well.

That’s a question, isn’t it.

I have Haden’s Syndrome. Having Haden’s means you are locked into your body — your brain works fine but your body doesn’t. Haden’s affects about one percent of the global population and about four and a half million people in the United States.

You can’t keep that many people trapped. So the United States and other countries funded technologies to help, including implantable neural networks to let Hadens communicate, and android-like “personal transports,” aka “threeps,” that we can walk around in and use to interact with non-Hadens on a near-equal basis.

I say “near-equal basis” because, you know. People are people. Regrettably many of them aren’t going to treat someone who looks like a robot the way they’d treat standard-issue humans. Not only that, but threep bodies are machines, so threeps in sports are generally a no-go. Have a co-worker in a threep for your office softball team? Fine. Playing shortstop for the Nationals? Not going to fly.

So here’s Hilketa, an actual sport designed to be played by people in threeps — Haden athletes. And it’s popular, especially with non-Hadens, which means Hadens have become bona fide celebrities, earning millions and becoming posters on kids’ walls. That matters for Hadens.

Of course, I thought as I watched Duane Chapman’s head sail through the goalposts, giving the Snowbirds eight points, the reason that Hilketa is so popular is that the players score points through simulated decapitation, and go after each other with weapons. It’s all the violence every other team sport wishes it could have, but can’t, because people would actually die. So that makes Hilketa players something other than fully human. And that matters too.

Basically, Hilketa is both representation and alienation for Hadens.

So: It’s complicated.

Well, for a Haden.

For non-Hadens, it’s just cool to see threeps pull each other’s heads off.

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