Lambs To The Slaughter
(Inspired by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror)
The message pinged onto his screen. He could barely suppress the yelp of excitement that left his mouth from the anonymous isolation of his workstation. Having been registered on a waiting list from birth, Eric Blair had finally been selected by the random generator to become a Manager. He was thirty-five years old.
All he now had to do was ensure that he picked the right team every Saturday and Wednesday whilst executing the inevitable victories with sufficient technical flourish in order to maintain or add to his Supporter Ratio. A life of celebrity stardom would hopefully follow as a consequence.
Eric had only once come into close proximity with a Manager. The man occupied a corner of the coffee house Eric visited before his shift started every morning. His youthfully old face bore the effects of excessive alcohol abuse bursting with blood capillaries and gnarled nose. His hands would tremble clasping as they did the warming coffee-substitute aimed at diffusing the fumes of another broken evening at his local public house, quiet tears slowly trickling their way down his sallow cheeks. “No regrets,” would be the barely decipherable mutterings coming from the corner of the emporium he occupied. “Should have put Zidane on the tab over Pelé, ‘s all”. He was generally ignored, forgotten, as patrons checked their phones’ stats for the upcoming round of fixtures and gabbled on about which Manager’s match they were going to channel into and follow that weekend.
Eric had no tangible frame of reference for the names of those players the ex-Manager wistfully rued. They were merely computer-simulated avatars to be selected alongside the likes of Messi, Maradona, Bale and a whole catalogue of other squad players Managers could ‘purchase’ with their allotted game tabs. Once assembled, the Manager’s squad would take on generic, faceless teams of ‘Lambs’. Lambs were embedded into the game matrix of the Host Computer to facilitate a tokenistic barrier for Managers to see how many goals they could score in ninety minutes but more importantly, it was the manner in which goals were scored that generated sponsorship deals from equineburger and powdered coca drink manufacturers that in turn ratcheted up the number of Supporters a Manager boasted.
A Manager whose Supporter Ratio fell below ten thousand, would be summarily relegated back into the obscurity from whence he or she came and a new Manager would be inducted into the League. Eric was fully aware that his call-up signalled the demise of somebody else but he felt no overwhelming sense of guilt for this. If a Manager did not have the requisite nous or skill to execute a twenty-six pass sequence involving George Best, Carlos Alberto, Stanley Matthews and Daniel Passarella culminating in a back-heel finish from Gerd Müller, then it was hardly surprising that people would choose to follow another Manager on another channel frequency.
Eric sometimes had vague childhood recollections of visiting his grandfather in the gated home for elders he had been admitted to, once his mental faculties began to dissipate. Amongst the fragmented shards of memory his grandfather desperately clung onto, were the fantastical reveries of a time when football was apparently a game physically played out by two teams on grass pitches in stadia that housed thousands. Eric would listen to these fairy tales as he distractedly played with his touchscreen.
According to his grandfather, football ceased being a contact sport when a succession of high-profile suicides committed by traditional managers dogged by the fear of failure and absence of trophies, prompted the Qatari-owned football governing body to abolish the notion of unpredictability. Driven by a thirst for perpetual success, the outcome of matches would only result in victory for the participant. Endorsed by the public who were now afforded the opportunity to be Managers themselves with an emphasis on popularity and fuelled by a marketing campaign that promoted aesthetic, metronomic passages of play, football evolved into the game so enthusiastically devoured by Eric and his contemporaries.
“What you youngsters don’t understand,” his grandfather would abstractedly murmur, “is that football without unpredictability, where the underdog doesn’t have his day, on any given day, ceases to be football. You can’t tell a computer to lose and then celebrate as if something exceptional has happened. Where’s the glory in that? The romance…”
Eric would just look out of the window and see a small group of eccentric geriatrics kicking a ball around on a muddy field surrounded by naked trees in the dusky twilight. It was true that people did still play this outmoded variant of football but it was slowly dying out and not really of interest to anyone under the age of fifty.
The day duly arrived when Eric would make his debut in the World Football League. Assigned Channel 905 (previously occupied by Guy Montag), he was ushered into one of the darkened cubicles at Football Association headquarters by an Official. The airless, sterile barrenness within his box felt uncannily like that of his workstation and perhaps that was its purpose; to make the Manager feel at home in his natural place of habitation. The room housed a giant screen, from which the match would be played and simultaneously transmitted to the electronic devices of an international audience of potential Supporters who could send messages to Managers during gameplay. There was inevitably a huge amount of interest whenever a new Manager made his debut. It was now up to Eric to maintain the interest with his first selection.
The synthetic leather of the armchair crinkled as he sat on it. He took a measured sip of powdered coca from the bucket that nestled in the chair’s arm and lowered the telegoggles that would allow him to make his selection and keep a check on his Supporter Ratio. He ‘purchased’ his squad with tabs to spare, chose his favoured weather condition and attendance capacity and blinked play, his heart pounding with the anticipation of the adulation that would build in momentum as his career as a Manager flourished.
After ten or so minutes however, it dawned on Eric that something was awry. Johan Cruyff had been brutally scythed down by one of the computer’s Lambs. He was forced to take the unprecedented step of making a substitution. Surely a glitch; not a common occurrence but not beyond the realms of possibility either.
Eric’s team were 23-nil up by the half hour mark but this would be the last time his team would score. Seemingly from nowhere, the computer’s centre-forward Lamb scrambled a goal past Peter Schmeichel after a goalmouth melee. Eric held his breath. The tackle on Cruyff may have been a fluke but there had been no occasion within living memory that resulted in a Lamb scoring. From that point on Eric sat frozen, powerless to stop the computer’s eventual victory as goal after goal went in with each passing minute, knowing that his life was essentially worthless once the buzzer signalled the end of gameplay.
He looked to the top left hand corner of his telegoggles towards his Supporter Ratio. It had gone through the scale, breaking all records. But the comments he was receiving from Supporters weren’t in support of him. He was rendered as insignificant as all the Managers who had played football in the past. It was the Lambs who were basking in the adulation, Eric had so craved.
A new message popped up on his screen: You can’t tell a computer to lose and then celebrate as if something exceptional has happened. Where’s the glory in that? The romance…if there is hope, it lies with the Lambs.
The phrase sounded familiar to Eric but he could not quite place its point of origin.
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