This week’s offering is another short story, though it wasn’t inspired by anything European. This one is as All-American as it gets. Feel free to let me know what you think of it in the comments section below. Thanks! (Copyright © 2019 Josh Langston)
The count was two and two. Mason stepped back from the box, adjusted his grip on the bat and wished like hell he could spit. He eyed the bulky figure squatting behind the plate and longed to park a defiant wad near the big bastard’s foot, or maybe even on it, but only a moron would spit in a space helmet.
“That’s good. That’s really good, kid. I know just how he feels,” Cobb said.
Tim wasn’t entirely comfortable with using profanity, but the writing assignment had stressed the need for realism. He let the text scroll on.
Mason squared himself and turned his head to the mound. Despite his polarized faceplate, he squinted at the reflected sunlight glinting from several of the metal fittings on the pitcher’s suit. For the hundredth time he cursed the sweat trickling from his forehead.
“And I know that feeling,” offered Armstrong. “Pure torture.”
One spot in particular, where the foam padding failed to form a seal against his left temple, allowed pooled sweat to drip down his cheek. The resulting itch would have driven him nuts if there hadn’t been so many other things to choose from, like the pitcher. Like all of them: short and heavy with arms a gorilla would envy, except, he noted idly, gorillas were extinct.
Cobb groaned, “Yer gettin’ off the subject.”
“Oh, take it easy.” Neil Armstrong eyed the old ballplayer from Tim’s bed where the lanky astronaut was comfortably sprawled. “He’s got to put something in there to set the stage. Can’t have just baseball stuff if–”
“All I know is baseball. I know it better’n anything. If the kid’s gonna write a baseball story, he oughta stick to the basics and not get sidetracked.” Ty Cobb’s long legs dangled from the front of his straight back chair. It stood a foot or so from the wall and leaned sharply back.
Tim could see the trash can through which Cobb leaned. The ghost-like images of the two men both charmed and chilled him.
“Listen, guys,” Tim said, “I need your help if I’m gonna finish this thing. If all you’re gonna do is argue, then I guess I’ll have to get somebody else.” Even as he said it, Tim knew it wasn’t true. Calling up an Expert on the experimental system was tricky, but not impossible. Finding another baseball player or another astronaut/aeronautical engineer was another matter entirely. There were simply too many professions to be synthesized to allow more than one Expert per field, at least during the developmental stage.
Besides, he had no idea if these particular Experts had been programmed to respond to threats. He doubted it.
The baseball player appeared too intensely interested in the cuticle of his left index finger to comment. Finally, he broke the silence. “What’s this about ‘gorillas’? I thought this was a baseball story.”
“It is,” Tim said.
“On the moon, right?”
“Will you please let him work,” snapped Armstrong. “Our job is to answer questions.”
Tim restarted the scroll.
“Gimme somethin’,” muttered Mason. He dug his cleated boots into the surface.
The wind-up seemed slow compared to the delivery. The last few pitches had all been the same–screamers, high and tight. Except that “screamer” implies sound and without an atmosphere, there wasn’t any. More like meteorites, thought Mason. The next pitch was coming.
“Jesus!” Mason gasped after yanking his head back to avoid the missile. He heard a low tone in his earphone. Full count.
“Low tone?” Cobb asked.
“Yeah. Means the umpire called it a ball,” Armstrong said.
“He didn’t say nuthin’?”
“It isn’t that smart. It just monitors the position of the ball relative to the plate.”
“The umpire’s a machine,” Tim said.
“Reckon I’ve heard ’em called worse.”
“Good call,” Mason said. He watched the catcher return the ball to the mound in a single fluid motion. The creature didn’t even shift position for the throw.
Time for an adjustment, thought Mason, I’ll just ease back from the plate a little. If the next pitch came in like all the others, he’d go for it. Probably have to come around pretty hard, but maybe he could send it down the first base line.
“Okay,” he muttered, “bring it on.”
“What inning is it again?” Armstrong asked.
“Bottom of the ninth,” Cobb said.
The pitcher’s head swiveled on motionless shoulders, taking in the position of the runner at first, a kid named Johnson. The head swiveled back.
Mason swallowed. He watched the now-familiar, easy rocking motion that heralded the next launch. The pitcher came to a full stop, his glove hiding the ball in front of him. He held the pose briefly before stepping back, his throwing arm scribing the lower part of an arc.
Suddenly, the pitcher became immobile, like a robot that had just lost power. It stood motionless for a moment, then straightened up, arms falling to either side.
“Balk!” Cobb yelled. “It’s a balk.” He looked at Tim and rocked his phantom chair forward until it stood upright. “The runner advances. It’s automatic.”
“That’s not what I had in mind,” Tim said.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s a balk.”
Armstrong’s see-through figure sat forward, too. “Cobb, you’ve gotta be the most hard-headed, ill-mannered–”
Cobb crossed his arms. “Rules is rules. All I–”
Tim stabbed two fingers at the control console. Instantly, the two historical figures froze, then dissolved, along with their argument.
Tim tried to rub the headache from his temples; it didn’t work. With the program canceled, there was no need to continue the power feed to the neural net. He flipped one more switch on the console. The text was safely stored in his own computer which he also powered down. It was late. He should have returned the machine to his mother’s office hours ago, but since no one else was home he’d used the extra time to his advantage.
The machine was small but extremely heavy. He said a silent thank you to his mother for having the foresight to mount the experimental unit on casters. He rolled it out of his room then down the hall and into her office.
“Five,” he groaned, and the clock went silent for precisely 300 seconds. When it started up the second time, it was louder than before. Tim decided whoever came up with that concept should be put to death. Immediately.
“Okay,” he mumbled, but not loud enough to satisfy the clock. The mechanical bee continued to buzz.
“Okay!” This time the command was met with silence.
After a quick shower, Tim fixed himself a bite to eat and rolled the workstation back into his bedroom.
Though his mother usually spent her waking hours at the university, she would occasionally come home unannounced. She often brought an administrator or two. Therefore, Tim had no intention of leaving the machine out of position. Not that Dr. Thomas would be angry, she generally allowed him considerable latitude when it came to his studies. The problem was the school officials. The university had lavished hard-won grant money on the neural net. The bean counters wouldn’t be happy to learn that a professor’s son was using it to do his homework.
“Time to wake up the Experts.” He reached for the controls.
Until the advent of the neural net, the term “Expert program” had only one meaning. In the traditional sense, it was a program which “learned” and then acted on the new knowledge. Most often employed in manufacturing and monitoring situations, the programs adjusted to varied input and chose appropriately from sets of responses provided by humans.
Tim powered up the net and linked it with the University system. Security was nonexistent since no one could gain access unless they were equipped with one of the heavy, super-cooled devices at Tim’s feet. His mother was the unit’s principal designer, and only a dozen prototypes had been built.
A single cable allowed command strings to be fed from Tim’s computer to the net. He kicked off the retrieval sequence for Tyrus Raymond (“Ty”) Cobb.
In moments the ghostly, three-dimensional image of the feisty ballplayer from the previous century was projected near the wall beside Tim’s desk. The image was based on photos taken of Cobb late in his career. Though dressed in his Detroit Tigers uniform, he carried a straight back chair instead of bat, ball, or glove. Tim wondered what the programmers who did the simulacrum had in mind.
Cobb promptly sat in his chair and rocked backward until it rested on phantom back legs against the wall. He looked in Tim’s direction and nodded a silent greeting.
“Mornin’,” Tim said.
The ballplayer began his never-ending inspection of the cuticle on his left index finger. Tim hoped the programmers had supplied his other Expert with a few more mannerisms or at least made him more sociable. He keyed in the retrieval sequence for Neil Alden Armstrong.
The second apparition came into focus as quickly as the first and walked directly to Tim’s bed and sat down. Of course, the image had no mass and could not really interact with its surroundings, but that hadn’t stopped the programmers from devising a method of scanning the projection “surface” and calling up routines to allow the image to appear to interact. Armstrong stretched out, his head floating slightly off the pillow.
“Welcome back,” Tim said. “Ready?”
“Roger,” Armstrong said.
Tim pressed a few keys, and the text of his story materialized in the center of the room.
After a matter of seconds, the pitcher restarted his wind-up.
“I still say it’s a balk,” Cobb said.
“Give it a rest, will you?” Armstrong turned to Tim. “Go on kid, you’re doing fine.”
Mason had no idea what the pitcher was up to but guessed it had something to do with the way he addressed the plate. He stepped forward.
The pitcher’s mound seemed miles away due to the field’s exaggerated dimensions. Mason knew he’d have a hard time spotting the ball, especially if it arrived on an absolutely flat trajectory, but he was as ready as he’d ever be.
“I don’t get it,” Cobb said.
Tim looked at the grizzled ballplayer. “Get what?”
“Nobody can throw an absolutely flat pitch. I know, and I’ve seen some of the best. Fastballs, sliders, curves, hell, it don’t matter. The ball’s gonna move. Maybe down, maybe away, maybe inside. But not flat.”
“Oh, really?” Armstrong asked. “Have you ever thrown a rock on the moon?”
“‘Course not. Have you?”
“The kid’s right,” Armstrong said. “The ball would move faster, but you can forget about curves and sliders.”
“No air. There’s nothing for the surface of the ball to react against. Knuckleball? Forget it. It’d float out there like it was hung on a string.”
“Might work, but it’d get to the plate in slow motion, just like a knuckler.”
“A hitter’s dream.” Cobb sighed.
Tim advanced the text.
Mason saw the wind-up, but not the ball, since the grey-white blur was nearly camouflaged by the pitcher’s suit. He tensed, held his swing for a fraction of a second and then whipped the bat around for all he was worth. He made contact over the outside of the plate, his swing carrying him full-circle.
The coach’s voice in his headset screamed at him to run. The bat drifted slowly away as he began the marathon charge toward first base some 165 meters away. He had no idea where the ball was. A homer maybe? He couldn’t tell; the leveled edge of the crater which served as the outfield fence was beyond the horizon.
“Now just hold on here,” Cobb drawled. “I’d kinda like to know when the fence got shoved into another state.”
Armstrong’s eyes and nostrils flared in unison. “It’s because they’re playing on the moon, you idi–”
“Uhm, I can explain,” Tim said. A fight might be interesting, assuming the programmers had coded some hand-to-hand combat routines. He made a mental note to check that out later. “I had to stretch the size of the field because any decent hit would almost put the ball in orbit.”
“He’s right again,” Armstrong said.
“So, how far is it to the center field fence?”
“I’m picturing the crater’s edge at about 700 meters from home plate,” Tim said.
Cobb looked dubious. “What’s that in real terms?”
“He means feet and inches,” said the astronaut.
Armstrong looked at Cobb with an absolutely straight face. “Guess you’d call it a ‘ballpark’ figure.”
Tim ignored him. “If a field on Earth is around 400 feet, it’d be around 2,400 on the moon, assuming one-sixth gravity. I didn’t figure in any differences for atmosphere.”
“2,400?” Cobb whistled. “Tough park.”
Mason lumbered toward first with a modified skip-step. He glanced to his left to check on the runner moving to second. He still had no idea where the ball was.
“Hustle, Mason!” The coach’s voice in his headphone was insistent. Precious little distance remained between Mason and first base when the coach yelled again, “Go for two!”
Mason rounded the bag and clumped toward second; his teammate headed for third as the ball sailed in on a shallow arc. The shortstop took it chest-high, whirled, and fired it toward third.
Mason watched in horror as the runner took a last, exaggerated step toward the base while twisting to look over his shoulder at the same time. The ball streaked in and careened off his faceplate; the third baseman followed it into left field. The runner crumpled.
From second, Mason screamed, “Time!” and raced toward the downed man who grabbed at his facemask.
“Smart,” Cobb said. “Can’t leave base without callin’ time first.”
“What an incurable romantic,” Armstrong said.
Mason reached Johnson, dropped to his knees and looked up at the players from the other team for assistance. They offered none. The third baseman strolled over and touched them both with the ball.
Mason glared at him.
Air boiled out of a crack in the thoroughly fogged faceplate of Johnson’s helmet. Mason could only imagine the terror on the player’s face.
“Stand by.” The voice of the trainer rang calmly in Mason’s ear, though the calm was not intended for him. “We’re on our way.”
Mason looked over his shoulder and saw several figures headed in his direction. They carried an inflated medevac tube and auxiliary life-support gear. Mason pressed gloved hands on the damaged faceplate hoping to cut off any more escaping air. The effort seemed futile.
Cobb grunted. “Believe I’d be gorilla huntin’ on my next slide.”
“Bad idea,” Armstrong said.
“Why? Ya gotta look out for your own; can’t just let ’em beat the crap out of ya’.”
“I meant sliding would be a bad idea. Might tear the suit.”
“I don’t think so,” Tim said. “The fabric used in suits nowadays is pretty tough.”
“Too bad he can’t file those cleats—make ’em a little more interesting.” Cobb glanced back at the text.
The emergency team pushed Mason out of the way and quickly zippered the injured player inside the medevac tube. Once sealed, the interior was pressurized and flooded with oxygen. The injured man was hastily carried off the field.
Mason got to his feet.
“Back to second.” The coach’s voice was tense, “Game’s not over yet.”
“Who’s runnin’ for Johnson at third?”
“Nobody. Johnson’s out.”
“They’re gonna count that tag?”
“Sure. Cameras had him from two different angles. He never touched the base.”
“Wonderful. Will he be okay?” Mason didn’t know him well; the player had just joined the team.
“Dunno, probably. Just concentrate on the game. We only need one run.”
Mason passed the shortstop on his way back to second. Like the others, it crouched motionless between pitches. Mason wondered if it was even alive.
The last of the text scrolled out of sight.
“That’s it so far,” Tim said. “I wanted to finish it this afternoon and then have you two look at it.”
“Fine with me,” Armstrong said.
Cobb nodded. “It ain’t like we’re going somewhere.”
“It’s just…” Tim’s voice trailed off.
“What?” asked the astronaut.
“I’m not sure which way to go with the ending.”
“Can’t help you there,” Cobb said. “Rules is rules.”
Tim shrugged. “I know. It’s gotta be my own work.”
He reached down to the console and flipped a switch. The images of the Experts faded away. Cobb’s response neither surprised nor disappointed him. The assignment was typical of a mid-term for courses leading to a Holistic Liberal Arts degree.
Everything about the program was interdisciplinary. Tim was expected to meld diverse ideas in unusual settings. The baseball story was his attempt to do just that.
Tim completed the story by mid-afternoon. Unless the Experts found major problems with it, he figured he’d have something suitable to turn in by the following morning’s deadline. The phone hummed just as he prepared to summon Cobb and Armstrong. He thumbed a switch on the edge of his desk, and his mother’s image appeared on his monitor.
“Hi,” he said. “Another long weekend?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “More problems with the net. Some of the Experts have been acting a little less than professional.”
“Oh? Anything serious?”
“Probably not. Anyway, I remembered you wanted to give the system a try and thought I’d warn you not to take anything an Expert says too seriously.”
“Now there’s an interesting piece of advice.” Tim laughed. “I know they aren’t real.”
Dr. Thomas smiled at him from the screen. “Wish I could be home sooner, but–”
“I know, ‘duty calls.'”
“It also pays the bills. Love you. Don’t wait up.” Her image faded.
Tim smiled and shook his head. He tapped in the codes for the ballplayer and the astronaut. In moments the three were reviewing Tim’s text.
Mason eased off the bag toward third. He wasn’t about to be fooled by the power in the catcher’s throwing arm, so he kept close enough to get back if the need arose. He watched as the first two pitches blistered past the batter: strikes. Both appeared high and inside. Damn strange strike zone, thought Mason, but if arguing with an umpire was futile, arguing with a mechanical one was downright stupid.
The third pitch started like the previous two, a missile headed unerringly for the plate. For some reason, the catcher flinched. The ball glanced off his glove and angled away with only slightly less speed than it had on impact. Instantly, the catcher was up and in pursuit.
Just as quickly, the coach’s voice rang out. “Run, Mason, run!” he screamed. Mason ran.
Taking giant, loping strides, Mason prayed he’d be able to stop without overshooting the target or having his headgear shattered by an angry throw.
The third baseman was crouched, arms extended toward home, blocking his path. Mason had too much momentum to stop standing up. He’d have to slide.
“Hot damn,” Cobb said. “Hope he gets those cleats up!”
Armstrong frowned. “Is it true you played with Attila the Hun?”
“Not that I recall. There was a big Swedish kid played for us one year. I forget his name, but he had a hell of an arm.”
“Couldn’t hit shit in a sock–”
“I said never mind!”
After seeing Johnson’s faceplate damaged, Mason had no intention of trying a head-first slide. He shifted his weight and leaped, legs outstretched.
He didn’t see the catcher release the ball, but he saw the blur as it headed for the base. Mason hit the surface and slid behind the defender.
He rolled to his left and flung out an arm to anchor himself to the bag as he went by. During one of those insane, adrenalin-induced moments of lucidity that seem to slow time to a crawl, Mason wondered what would happen if he pulled the bag loose and kept on sliding. Would he be safe as long as he hung on?
“Never thought of that,” muttered Cobb.
Armstrong squinted at him. “Amazing.”
“What would happen?” asked the ballplayer.
Tim grinned. “I’ve no idea. Besides, you’re the Expert.”
Cobb suddenly rediscovered the cuticle on his left index finger.
Third base held. Mason waited until the defender threw the ball back to the mound before he got up.
Despite tremendous advances in technology, space suits still weren’t as supple as sweatsuits. He got to his feet, but Mason was still winded.
“Good job,” said the coach.
“Thanks.” Mason eyed the brute roaming toward him then glanced back at the batter. The count was displayed in colored lights above the umpire: one green, two red.
While everyone concentrated on the scene between the mound and the tableau at home plate, no one saw the third baseman step down on Mason’s foot, pinning him to the bag. He was too startled to cry out, which was all the time it took for the defender to step away from him, the picture of innocence.
“That’s low,” Armstrong said. “Could he get away with something like that?”
Cobb grimaced. “Only once, if I was in the game.”
Mason was capable of only one thought: PUNCTURE! “Coach! Oh gawd. Coach–” he called, staring down at his boot, expecting to see a mixture of blood and air boiling out into the vacuum. Which is when the batter laid a perfect bunt down the third base line.
“Wake up, Mason!” screamed the coach.
“But my–” he started, then realized there was no damage. “I–“
As he left the base, Mason elbowed the third baseman in the gut. There didn’t seem to be any reaction, but he hoped it might at least slow the creature down. Mason surged toward home with the defender close behind.
The pitcher scrambled toward the ball which shot down the base path. Mason leaped to avoid him. The coach’s voice in his earphone urged him on.
All knees and elbows in his mad dash for home, Mason thought briefly of how Johnson had been cut down only minutes before. He shook it off and ran harder.
He was dimly aware of the ball sailing past his shoulder and saw it smack into the catcher’s mitt. He narrowed his focus to a single objective. He was going to the plate whether the catcher stood in his way or not. If that meant taking parts of the big monkey with him, then so be it.
The catcher had the ball and faced Mason flat-footed. The distance between them evaporated. Running hard, Mason put his head down.
The catcher braced himself for the impact.
The collision occurred in silence.
The last of the text rolled off the screen.
“Bravo,” Armstrong said. “A bit Zen for my tastes, but well done.”
“That’s it?” Cobb asked. “You’re gonna leave it like that?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Well, because ya’ just can’t! It– It ain’t finished.”
Tim smiled, reached down to the console and touched the control studs. Cobb and Armstrong evaporated.
Standing beside his desk, Tim stretched and yawned. He almost looked forward to his next midterm and even had a few ideas. Indeed, he couldn’t help but wonder how Peyton Manning and Jacques Cousteau would get along.