Ring of FireEric Flint



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American Past TimeDeann Allen and Mike TurnerBilly stood on the mound and sweated in the glare of the afternoon sun. His game was on and he knew it, but he couldn't help feeling a little nervous. It wasn't from checking the stands to count the major league scouts with their laptops and cell phones—not anymore. He had just never pitched in front of so many people.It was the Fourth of July, the first big baseball game since the Ring of Fire, and it seemed like half the town had turned out to watch, refugees included. He hadn't expected that. The Americans heading toward the high school had attracted notice, and now the refugees formed their own crowd along the fence surrounding the athletic field.Or maybe it wasn't so surprising. The Germans had been working like bees, putting up new shelters and other projects in the town, and working the nearby farms to make sure the crops survived. They needed the holiday as much as the Americans. And they seemed to grasp the game of baseball.That was no surprise, either. It really was a simple game: you throw the ball; you hit the ball; you catch the ball. Simple. It didn't even surprise him that everyone was pretty well-behaved, despite that things were getting rather drunk out. What did surprise him was that every single refugee was completely and vocally behind the UMWA!* * *Conrad had never seen anything like this baseball. The numbers being posted on the large board outside the fence had something to do with the players' actions, but he did not quite understand what they meant. It didn't seem to matter, though. The little ones especially were having a grand time, cheering whenever anything happened on the field, shouting encouragements to the miners that Conrad doubted most of them understood. He was surprised at the grin plastered on his own face. The UMWA team needed all the encouragement it could get, facing the young man throwing for the school team.The young man—boy? he was certainly no older than Conrad—was tall and thin, but threw the white leather ball with the force of an arquebus, and far more accurately. It was deceptive, for he moved with a casual and easy grace until he released the ball, which seemed to explode from his hand in a blur that ended in a loud thwok! into his teammate's glove that Conrad could hear even over the noise of the crowd.He wondered what it would be like, trying to hit that ball. It was fast. Oh, it was fast! But not so fast he couldn't see it, couldn't track it with his eyes as it flew across the field. He looked at the man now trying to hit it—trying and failing. He digs his toes into the dirt, shifts his weight as he swings the club. It's not all in his arms. Thwok! The ball was past the man before he'd even begun to swing. He stood straight and stepped outside the lines drawn on the ground with white powder. He bumped his club against the ground, seeming to mutter to himself. Then he spat in the dirt, stepped back inside the lines, and readied himself.The young man leaned forward and looked intently toward the . . . plate. He nodded at something and stood upright. A moment's pause, then he kicked out a long step while pushing off with the rear foot, snapping his hips around as his hand arched over his head, his wrist snapping to loose the ball just as his body reached its full extension. The miner swung, and Conrad knew he would miss. That throw was slower than the others. It looked the same, but it was slower! The loud thwok! came again and the older man crouched to the rear of the group around the plate stood and shouted something.Players from both teams swarmed onto the field, shaking hands and patting backs. The people who had been watching from the tall, scaffold benches also moved out on the field, smiling and talking loudly. The game was over, and everyone seemed to be still having fun.Conrad certainly was. I could have hit that ball. I know I could! * * *Billy wiped the sweat from his sunburned neck, heaved the last sack of vegetables onto the bed of the pickup, and waved to the scrawny German in its cab. The truck lurched forward with a loud grind of the gears that made Billy mentally deduct a good fifty bucks from its Blue Book list price, then it roared off toward the rutted dirt road by the farm Billy and his crew had spent most of the day harvesting."You folks done here?" Mr. Hudson's voice came from behind Billy, and he nearly jumped. The old farmer stood across the dirt track, looking pleased."Yes, sir, I think we are."Mr. Hudson nodded. "We'll have the crops in in plenty of time. I didn't think we'd do nearly this well. Gather your crew up for me, would you, please?"Billy dutifully gave out a whoop and circled his arm over his head, and the mixed group of Americans and refugees who had been working the field began to gather around. A couple of the older refugees and not a few of the Grantvillers looked about wiped out."Nice work, folks," Mr. Hudson said. "Most of the other crews are finishing up, too, so go ahead and take the rest of the afternoon off. I'd say you've earned it."A tired cheer went through the group. The man in charge of the crew read haltingly from his cheat sheet of German phrases to fill in the local workers, and another quiet cheer went up. After days on end of the breakneck pace of the harvest, both the townsmen, who were unaccustomed to the work, and the refugees, many of whom were still recovering from borderline starvation or old injuries, welcomed the unexpected break.Billy grabbed up his backpack with the remains of his lunch and other such necessities as his folks insisted he take with him when out "on crew," and headed along the windbreak of trees lining the field toward the forested hills beyond. This patch of woods was pure Grantville for quite a ways, and Billy was glad of it. There were a lot of things he missed from before the Ring of Firereal baseball most of allbut at least his personal favorite swimming hole wasn't one of them.If anything, the displacement had improved the place. Before, the hole in the creek bed with its sheltering boulder would have been half-dry this late in the summer, but now a new and larger stream fed into the creek. It might cause some excess flooding, come spring, but it kept the water flowing nicely.Billy stepped around the fallen hickory tree that edged the pond and looked at the sun-drenched boulder that held back the clear stream water, forming the surprisingly deep little pool. The sun twinkled invitingly off the water as he hung his pack on a root sticking out of the tree base like a coat hanger. Grinning in anticipation, he bent to untie his shoes.The icy chill of the water was welcome after all that hot work, but it didn't encourage him to stay too long. After a short bask on the sunny rock to dry himself, Billy got dressed and set out for home. He hopped over a narrow place just downstream, and trudged up the opposite hillside to cut a corner off the path to his house on this, the now-south side of town. As he descended the far slope, he heard voices ahead. It sounded like kids playing.He came out of the woods into a hay field on the edge of town, and found the kids. They were refugees, and they were playing ball on the stubble of the freshly mowed hay. Billy grinned in amazement. Nearly two dozen Germans, most about his age, were playing by-God baseball! Or at least making a good go at it.They were playing gloveless, with a sturdy club making a reasonable bat and a largish ball made of what Billy guessed was brown leather. Flat stones marked the bases. The pitcher was throwing overhand with great enthusiasm, but seemed to be having trouble finding the plate. No one was umpiring, at any rate, each batter getting three swings or hitting the ball. There was much argument and confusion, the boys jabbering loudly in German and having a lot of fun. It looked just like the sandlot games Billy had played when he was ten.He joined a group of boys alongside the field, recognizing several of them from the work crews. They were smiling and shouting what sounded like advice to the players. A few girls were in the group, paired off with boys or watching over some younger kids who were playing under the trees along the field's roadside edge.One of the boys smiled at him as he joined the group, and stuck out his hand. "Hallo. Ich heisse Conrad."Billy took his hand and shook it firmly, feeling slightly foolish, and said "Billy."The German boy grinned at him, and motioned to two of his companions who promptly joined them. Conrad introduced them with broad gestures and a clear "Karl" and "Wilhelm," along with a gabble of fast-paced German that Billy could not quite catch, despite the fact that every kid in Grantville was struggling to master the language. Billy would hear a familiar word and miss ten more while he tried to place the first. The gestures came across much easier.The Germans conferred together for a moment, then Conrad shouted something out onto the field. Several of the players shouted back. Conrad turned to Billy and said, "Please," and motioned toward the field. All eyes turned to him and the action stopped. Billy felt oddly exposed as the boy pitching motioned him forward, and Wilhelm trotted out to join him. Billy put his backpack on the ground, and ambled onto the field. He wasn't exactly sure what they wanted, but he was beginning to suspect. Wilhelm conferred for a moment with the younger boy who had been pitching, who then nodded eagerly and handed the ball to Billy.It was leather, like boot leather, and very soft—stuffed with rags, maybe. A few threads dangled from the unevenly stitched seams. It was slightly larger than a softball.It's a good thing it's so soft. They'd tear their hands up with a regulation ball. Billy had seen kids play bare-handed occasionally when he was little, and he knew the only way to catch a hard ball that way was on the bounce, and not always the first. This one they could probably catch straight off the bat—assuming anyone could get something that size over the plate in the first place. But it's what they had. So . . .Billy nodded. The two boys smiled, jabbered happily, and went to stand with Conrad. Karl picked up the bat, and stepped up to the makeshift home plate.Billy approached the mound with the ersatz baseball in hand, and felt his slightly smug pitcher's look coming onto his face. The smugness was fully justified. Few high school juniors grabbed the interest of even one major league scout, much less several. For him, Yankee Stadium had been both a dream and a definite possibility.Now he had a hay field, and a ball the size of a grapefruit—with the consistency of one gone past prime. What the hell, the thing's brown. They won't be able to see it worth a damn, anyway. He stopped at the low clear place the Germans had been pitching from, and carefully kicked some stray dirt into a pile in the center of the area. Stepping onto the mound, he turned to face the batter.Karl grinned at him with the loglike bat hitched over his shoulder. One of the younger boys stood a few feet behind him, ready to field the pitch. Billy pointed to him and made motion to back up. After the youngster had retreated several feet, Billy signaled that he was fine, and started his pitching motion.He opened with an easy side-arm throw, sort of a fastball but not too fast, to see how the ball handled. The ball went far to the side of the plate. Fortunately, the outside, and the catcher fielded it on the bounce and sent it back.Billy nodded to himself. "Okay. I can throw this ball. Nothing fancy. Just a clean throw." Kicking off easily, he unleashed another side-arm fastball. Right down the pipe and a little high, but Karl swung mightily at it, eyes shut and shoulders straining, and managed by sheerest accident to catch the bottommost corner of the ball. Which sent the ball back over the catcher's head and into a nearby clump of bushes.That was the highlight of the next few batters. Karl took two more swings but never got close to the ball again. The next batter, a younger boy Billy had never seen before, tried to hit the ball while diving backward out of the way. At least he kept his eyes open. Billy decided to slow down on the smaller kids a little, but the next still proved no match.Then the teams traded places, but Conrad motioned Billy to stay on the mound. It seemed fair enough to him. One of the older boys from the work crews led off and Billy increased the speed a little. The boy took a swing late and Billy decided to try a curve. The big soft melon ball broke only about six inches, but the German youth still had no luck hitting it. Nor did the younger boy who followed him.The bright core of fun at playing started to fade. These guys are no challenge. They're pathetic. My arm will turn to spaghetti before one of them hits me. He looked around the outfield. The dozen or so kids in it were standing talking in pairs, or sitting on the ground playing with straws or with their chins on their fists. Looking next to the batter's box, Billy saw Conrad step up to the plate. He perked up a bit. Conrad was as big as he was and probably older. With shoulders. Hmm . . . Maybe. Billy tried another curve. Harder. This one broke better and Conrad swung at it hard but awkwardly. Flatfooted. Billy noticed he never took his eye off the ball, but the curve flummoxed him and the ball sailed past.Billy motioned his catcher back a few more feet on the next pitch. Conrad had set up a little closer to the plate, but Billy had a feel for the ball now. He let loose an overhand fastball a little inside, and watched Conrad jerk the bat inward and down, grazing the top of the ball and bouncing it to the catcher.Billy threw the next pitch almost exactly the same except half speed. Conrad, now set up a little more off the plate, over-swung and missed entirely.After one more desultory inning, most of the kids had had enough and the game more or less broke up."Well, that was fun," Billy muttered under his breath as he watched the German kids moving away in small clusters. He guessed baseball was not much of an attraction anymore. Well, no one but a hardcore fan liked a pitchers' duel. Especially with only one pitcher. And I'm the only hard-core fan or player left. Yippee. He slumped over to where he'd left his pack. Conrad waved to him from a cluster of the bigger kids, who did not look like they were leaving just yet. The big German kid approached him with a strained look on his face."How?" he began in uncertain English. "You . . . ?" and completed the question with a throwing motion. Billy sighed and nodded, holding out his hand for the ball. Maybe if I show them some stuff, and they have the gumption to practice it, they won't be so totally hopeless. He beckoned them all into a semicircle, and began to demonstrate baseball pitching mechanics in mime. He showed both his usual overhand delivery, and the sidearm throw he used sometimes when he was tired or the other team had him figured out. They watched him intently, pointing to something he'd done and arguing with each other, or trying to catch his attention and mimicking his movements to see if they were doing it right.He pulled his baseball out of his pack and handed it around, showing its hardness and how he gripped the seams, then switched to their cloth-stuffed ball, and mimed out his approval of its density from a fielding standpoint. He showed them his glove, removing it from its usual place nestled snugly in his pack. They oohed and ahhed as if he'd pulled a rabbit out of a hat.Then a couple of them started arguing over something, which got the rest jabbering again, most eagerly nodding, a couple still looking a bit puzzled. Then they all moved out to take positions and try out what they'd learned from Billy's impromptu baseball clinic. He put his ball and glove back in his pack, slung it over his shoulder, and got out of their way.Conrad stopped him before he left, though, gesturing toward the plate. What now? Batting lessons? But the German boy wanted something else. He made it clear when he crouched behind the catcher, then looked back at Billy and pointed to the ground where he stood. Billy couldn't help but chuckle. Now they want me to be the bad guy! Standing back there, trying to judge balls and strikes, it didn't take him long to realize that batting lessons were also needed. But what the hell, it was sort of like playing baseball. And it was better than going home.* * *"And then they had me umpire!" Billy said. His mother laughed and handed him another biscuit. "I bet it wasn't easy explaining strike zones to them.""No, it wasn't. I could only think of about one word in ten that I needed. I really—""Then you should have paid more attention to your language lessons in school," his father said, frowning.Billy gritted his teeth. "That's what I was going to say.""You need to get your head around reality, Billy. Playing baseball is no excuse for not being here to do your chores.""What chores? Polishing cars that no one'll buy because they nationalized all the gasoline? I did my chores for the day! I worked my butt off on that farm and earned some time off! You got a problem with that, take it up with Mr. Hudson! What were you doing all day?" He knew that was a mistake as soon as he said it. He looked at his plate and started shoveling food into his mouth."What was I doing? I was trying to find some way to make a living, to keep food on this table and a roof over your ungrateful head, that's what I was doing! I have two trucks from the army that need suspension work, and I needed you here to help with them, not gallivanting off in some hay field, pissing away time that could be spent helping this family!""Then you should have damned-well said something about it!" To hell with supper; he'd go hungry before he put up with another second of this. Dammit, Dad, you used to be proud of me! He shoved back from the table to leave."Billy, sit down and finish your supper," his mother said. "After working the farm all day, you should know we can't afford to waste food. And don't swear." She turned to his father as he sat back down. "Keith, that is enough. He did his work for the day. He earned his afternoon off. If you didn't tell him you had things for him to do, that's your fault, not his.""He should know there are always things to do," his father grumbled, but stuffed a large bite in his mouth, and chewed it angrily."Be that as it may, he was doing other things we've been told need to be done. Working on his language skill, for one. Do you think he can be teaching those boys, and playing with them, and not pick up more German? For another thing, he's finding common ground with them, which may be even more important here and now than working on those trucks. The more things we can find—or create!—in common with the people around us, the less the army will have to defend us against, and the more people it will have to do it with. So don't think of it as wasting his time. Think of it as . . . improving foreign relations."His father swallowed his latest over-large bite. "I still need him here!" He jabbed his fork at his plate for emphasis."Well then, I suggest you put him on the payroll and pay him for the work he does for you, since that will be time taken from other useful things he could be doing. You can make up a work schedule, and go over it with him in the mornings before he leaves."Billy smothered a snicker at the look on his father's face—if he hadn't just swallowed, he might have choked. He looked like he might, anyway. Billy's mother smiled much too sweetly. "That will, of course, also serve several purposes. It will teach you to talk to Billy, and schedule things, instead of just assuming he can read your mind, and taking his help for granted." She turned that smile on Billy. "And it will teach you the discipline and responsibility that comes with having a real job."Billy looked at her, looked at his father, thought of having him as an actual employer, and quickly swallowed the bite he was chewing before he choked on it.* * *The work on the trucks took up three evenings, and even with the mechanics from the mine workers to help, it was just as heavy and dirty as the work in the fields, if not more so. They wound up dog-robbing heavier leaf-springs from old farm equipment to support the armor hanging on the trucks. The shocks were a hopeless cause—no matter what they put on, the extra weight and nearly nonexistent roads would soon trash them. The army would be in for rough rides in the near future. But the contract was done, and Billy's evenings would be free until his father found another.Billy and his mother watched as his father dutifully entered Billy's pay into the account books, then they went to the bank to transfer the money into Billy's savings account. His father goggled a bit at the amount already in there from Billy's work on the harvest crews. Billy suppressed a smirk until he noticed his mother wasn't suppressing hers, at all.They left the bank with his father shaking his head. His mother looked across the street, smiled to herself, and said lightly, "Excuse me. I'll meet you back home." She started across the street. "Miss Abrabanel? Could I have a moment of your time, please?"Billy looked at his father; his father looked back. They both shrugged, two men together, baffled by the ways of women.After dinner, Billy called some of his teammates and arranged for them to meet at the hay field after the work crews knocked off. With gloves, balls, and bats.* * *The next day, Billy, Vern, Steve, and a couple other team members gave a clinic on the fine art of baseball, passed out gloves, and coached two separate games on opposite ends of the hay field. The refugees were joined by several of their Grantville peers. Strangely, Billy's mother and Miss Abrabanel showed up and watched for a while, talking and occasionally gesturing at the players. They didn't stay long, and Billy soon forgot about them. The games went on until it got too dark to see the ball, and the youths found themselves walking home in the near-inky blackness of night.Even with his father having a claim on his time, and the abysmal lack of talent among the Germans, the remainder of the summer passed much easier for Billy. Something like baseball was better than nothing at all.* * *"Pass the sausage, would you, Billy?""Sure, Dad." He handed the platter across the table. "Oh. I was talking with Mister Kinney, today. He's worried about Joey, what's going to happen to him, and I was thinking . . . well, Todd's working out okay, isn't he?""Yeah, he's a good worker. Why?""I thought that since Todd's doing well, maybe there might be a job that Joey could do? He's going to need to be able to support himself, too. I mean, he's nowhere near as smart as Todd, and he probably couldn't help with actually making the nails, but maybe he could dump them in the barrels, or bring bar stock, or help Todd keep the shop cleaned up? There's a lot of stuff to do that doesn't take any real skill."His father sighed. "What do you want me to do, hire every Special Ed kid in the area?""You've hired one, already," his mother commented. "Why not another?""Martha, I am not a charity! Georg had a lot of doubts about hiring a 'simpleton' like Todd. He'll give me hell about even thinking of hiring someone he'd class as the village idiot! I may supply the building, but he's the one who actually runs the business.""Surely a used car salesman can sell him on the idea. . . .""If you'll recall, one thing I like about this new business is that I don't have to feed people lines of bullshit anymore, so do tell me why I should feed a line to my partner. And I sold new cars, too!""Nobody says it has to be a line, Dad. Just see if there's anything he can do. Todd really likes Joey, and when Joey's around, I've never seen Todd lose focus like he does around other people. It's like he's looking out for someone who's worse off than he is. So it might even make Todd a better worker.""And if you or someone else can't find a job for Joey," his mother said, "the churches are going to have to set up a charity for him. Or the government will have to start a welfare program. His parents aren't going to be around forever. Which would be better, for him to be a productive citizen, or a charity case?""All right, all right, quit ganging up on me! I'll talk to Joey's parents and see what he can do. If he's got the ability to hold a job, I'll bring it up with Georg." He snorted, then muttered angrily, "Hell, I'll even put it in terms of charity. Christian charity. It's about time all this religious hoo-hah was good for something besides an excuse for killing people.""Thanks, Dad.""Don't thank me, yet; I haven't done anything."Billy shrugged. "You said you'd look into it. That's all I asked.""I . . . um . . . hmm . . . You're welcome." He cleared his throat, then turned back to his plate with a puzzled frown.Huh. Weird reaction. Billy wondered about it for a second, then shrugged it off. He reached for the bowl of porridge, and served himself some of the ubiquitous glop, when he saw his mother glance at him with a pleased, and rather proud, smile. Wondering what in the world had brought that on, he started eating, bending over his bowl with a puzzled frown on his face.* * *WHACK! Conrad hammered the ball with a swing of the white ash bat worthy of a Teutonic war god. Billy's head tracked up and over his shoulder. Quickly. The ball wobbled as it arced high into the air. The crowd of children roared in astonished approval as, despite its great altitude, it cleared the tree line to the north for a home run.Vern's head was shaking in disbelief, and Billy grimaced at the grinning teenager rounding the base paths at a lope. The locals seemed to be learning baseball all right. Too darn fast. That was the second solid hit Conrad had had off him today, and the longest hit Billy could remember seeing off anybody, anywhere. What's he been doing, sneaking lessons with the army from Mr. Simpson? Wilhelm was still off in the trees looking for the ball when Conrad crossed home plate.As the storkish Saxon was mobbed by his elated teammates, Wilhelm finally emerged from the forested slope. Billy held up his glove to signal Willi to throw the ball in, but the outfielder held onto it and trudged up to Billy in the diamond's center. He drew near, and silently held out the baseball. One seam was split down an entire side, and its yarn insides trailed out like some soldier's innards after a hard battle. From the pale look on Wilhelm's face, it might have been a soldier.Vern ambled up to the plate, took one glance at the split ball, and said, "I have another in my game bag.""This was my last one that isn't autographed," Billy said. "How many are left?""Some, I'd guess, around town."Billy frowned and said nothing. There was nothing to say.Vern put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, we're aiming for eighteen-hundreds tech, right? The game got started back then, so we just roll the equipment back to match." He grinned. "Walter Johnson started on dead balls, and you pitch like him, so you'll match, too!"Yeah, right. Go back to dead ball days, go back to sandlot games. Glorified Little League, that's all it'll be. Ever. He stifled a sigh and nodded, forcing a smile for Vern's sake, knowing his friend would be hurt if Billy didn't at least pretend he'd been cheered up.* * *The day had started bad enough. "I will not accept any 'the dog ate my homework' excuses!" Miz Mailey had said at the beginning of the year. How about a "the cat shredded my report then used it for a litterbox" excuse? He'd even brought the two pages that weren't fouled to prove it.Then the day got worse. The bus passed huge smears of blood all over the road, and what he could swear was a pile of bodies just off the shoulder. Someone on the other side of the bus had seen a dead horse. What the hell was going on?He found out soon after arriving at school, and suddenly the shredded report wasn't very important anymore.* * *The line moved up. Billy heard the younger students pounding up the stairs. No one called them down for running in the halls today. Desks and cabinets screeched across the floor—metal to barricade the stairs. Metal to block bullets. The line moved up. Another senior took a baseball bat from Mr. Trout. A club to fend off swords. Wood to block bullets. The line moved up. Smooth wood pressed into his hands. Snakes started crawling in his stomach."Herr Trout!" Conrad's voice came over his shoulder. "I take the bat; he takes the balls." The lanky German eeled past Mr. Trout into the athletic equipment locker, reappearing the next moment with the bucket of baseballs. He plucked the bat from Billy's hand, and hung the bucket over his arm. The snakes quit crawling. "Conrad, are you nuts?" Mr. Trout said. "They'll be wearing armor and helmets!""Open-faced helmets, sir," Billy replied. "No, he's right. Randy Johnson keeps a bucket

f balls beside his bed for home security and never had a break-in. Nobody wants a ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastball in the teeth."Mr. Trout nodded shortly. "All right, if you think it'll do you more good. Just don't hit anybody standing in front—" He stopped with his mouth open, then closed it. "Never mind. You don't hit anything you don't aim at." He turned to hand out the last two bats, and the boys headed for the gym.Conrad looked at Billy. "This is true? You hit only where you aim?"Billy smirked slightly. "Yeah, pretty much.""Ah. So the time you almost took off my nose was deliberate?"Looking at Conrad standing there with a bat in his hand, Billy took the better part of valor. "That . . . was one of the not-quite times."Conrad cocked an eyebrow. "Try not to have any not-quite times today."This time the snakes didn't crawl; they simply bit. Billy jerked his head in a nod. "Yeah."* * *Half a dozen students ran the north bleachers out from the wall with a rumble like distant thunder. Or the pounding hooves of approaching cavalry. The gym doors shut behind them with a hollow boom, then came the rattle-clatter of Jeff Higgins setting the top and bottom catches, and running a chain through the handles to padlock them shut.Mr. Trout chivvied kids up to the top levels of the bleachers, looking like he was herding cats for a second as Gena bounded off the end of the middle level and into a corner behind a different set of bleachers. She returned shortly with the long, heavy handle from one of the janitor's big push brooms. Mr. Trout motioned her upward when she took a lower level. She turned a narrow-eyed look at him and spun the broom handle so it hummed."Brown belt, sir. Remember?""Okay, front row of the top, but top! Please?"She nodded and backed up three more rows. That left Billy standing between her and the bigger boys armed with bats.Shouts sounded outside in the foyer, followed by gunfire from another part of the building. Mr. Trout hurried the students upward. Jeff stepped back toward the center of the room and jacked a round into his shotgun's breech.Then the distant shooting stopped. The shouts moved closer. The noise just outside increased. Glass smashed. The doors shook as something started bumping into them. More shouting. The bumping stopped. The smashing sounds didn't. Then . . .Boom! The doors shuddered as something slammed into them. Some of the kids started yelling. Vern, Conrad, and others stood on the lower rows of seats, bats in hand, between them and danger. Ka-boom! Billy clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering, crouched down, and started sorting through the balls in the bucket, shoving the hardest ones into his pockets and shirt. If . . . when they get through, I can't be stooping down to get these. He just wished he'd thought to go to the bathroom before all this started. He really needed to pee!Ka-boom! The doors bent inward. More kids started yelling, shoving their way toward the top of the bleachers. Mr. Trout went to stand with Jeff and readied his pistol. Ka-boom! Gena twirled the broom handle, swallowed hard, and stepped down to stand behind Vern and Conrad. Billy gripped a ball and made sure his others were in easy reach.Ka-boom! Ka-boom-crack! Boom-crack! Crack-slam! The doors splintered and burst. The shouts rose to a triumphant shriek as the Croats poured into the gym.The racking boom of Jeff's shotgun filled the gym with sound and emptied the front line of Croats with torn and dying bodies. He stepped back to reload and Mr. Trout started firing.Billy threw at one man on the edge of the crowd—the rest were too close to Jeff and Mr. Trout for a clear throw—but his foot slipped on the slick wood and the ball went wide, bouncing off the wall and rolling into a corner. He swore and grabbed another. This time it flew straight, but bounced off the chest armor of the man it hit. He grabbed a third ball and looked up just in time to see a saber come down on Mr. Trout's head. The next one went into his neck and he fell, blood flying.Jeff took down that man and many others in a roaring storm of gunfire that ended all too quickly. He turned the shotgun into a club against the Croats' sabers, bashing one in the face as another came at his back. That one caught a major-league-grade fastball square in the head that knocked him flat.But there was nothing Billy could do about the new group that came howling in through the broken doors, nor the Croat on the other side who sent his saber smashing into Jeff's shoulder and drew back for the killing blow.Then there was nothing for Billy to do at all but watch in sick fascination as the new group began taking the Croats apart, starting with the one standing over Jeff. The giant in the lead of the new force split the man's head like a cantaloupe, and stood there shouting to his men who quickly drove the Croats into the back corner of the gym, while some made a protective line in front of the students on the bleachers.And then the slaughter began. It didn't end even when the last two dozen or so Croats threw down their weapons and held up their hands. They just went down to savage cries that sounded like "Hack 'em all!" When the last Croat lay dead on the blood-smeared floor, then it ended. Only then.And Billy quietly walked over to the end of the bleachers, knelt down looking at some part of the floor that wasn't covered with blood, and was not so quietly sick all over it.* * *"What happened?!" Steve stared in wide-eyed horror at their bloody clothes."Hey, bro, settle down," Vern said. "It ain't ours. Jeff Higgins got cut really bad, and we had to do first aid on him." He looked down at himself, then closed his shaking hand into a fist. "Damn, I'm glad I took that EMT course!""Certainly I would never have known to do most of that," Conrad said wonderingly. "You are sure he will not be crippled from it?""Nah, the docs will stitch him up and he'll be fine.""But Mr. Trout . . ." Billy said hollowly. "God damn those bastards!""Mr. Trout?" Steve looked back and forth between them.Vern nodded heavily. "They killed him.""They damn-near cut his head off, is what you mean!" Billy said, wiping sudden tears from his eyes.Steve swallowed hard, then squeezed his eyes shut. "Dammit, I should have been in there with you. I could've done something!""No, you didn't want to be there, Steve," Vern said. "Believe me, you didn't!""And you wouldn't have been able to do anything," Billy said. "They came in a rush, went right at Jeff and Mr. Trout. You'd have been standing up there with the rest of us, holding nothing better than a bat. I had baseballs, and I couldn't really hit the ones in the middle, and those were the ones that . . . did the damage."Then it didn't matter who could've done what, because those other men came in. What's-his-name . . . Captain Gars' men. They shoved the Croats back against the wall and cut them to pieces.""Yeah," Vern said. "Screaming something like 'hack them to paté,' and that's just what they did." He started to shake, and whispered, "Even after they tried to surrender . . ."Billy reached up and put his hand on Vern's shoulder. "And that's why you didn't want to be there, Steve. I saw that and lost my breakfast."Vern took a deep breath and straightened. "Well, I know what I'm going to do—start paying more attention to those militia training sessions. There's no way in hell I'll ever stand there again with nothing but a bat in my hands when some pack of bastards is trying to kill us all.""A gun is well and fine," Conrad said. "But a saber will not run out of bullets. I intend to speak to Colonel MacKay about lessons on that, as well."Billy reached into his pocket and pulled out a ball. He turned it in his hand, looking at it. "I think I'll join you," he said quietly."Are you crazy?" Steve exclaimed. "You said you never wanted to be in the Army, just like me!""Yeah, that was before I realized that a baseball is a really piss-poor weapon to be holding when someone's shooting at you, or coming at you with a big friggin' sword. If you really want to be able to do something next time, Steve, you'll go to those training sessions, too, 'cause that's the only way I can think of to do anything but die.""Your parents are gonna have a cow, y'know," Vern said."Let 'em. Me, you, Gena, Conrad, and a couple of others were the only kids in there who weren't screaming their heads off and trying to hide in the woodwork. If my folks can't see that it's better for the many to defend the few, than the other way around, that's their problem. I'm eighteen, now. I can join the militia or the Army on my own say-so. Don't know that I'll ever sign up, for real, but I do want to know how to use something besides this. . . ." He bounced the ball in his hand. "When the shit hits the fan, again."* * *Billy rolled his head, trying to relieve some of the tension in his neck and shoulders. His elbow felt like someone had tried to dislocate it. Someone had. Himself. The last two pitches—a curve and a slider—had been murder this late in the game, but they'd psyched Conrad out, coming from opposite directions to cross the plate cleanly in the strike zone.Billy grinned wanly as Karl waggled two fingers wildly around for the sign. He did not have much left and the call was perfect. His high kick obscured the plate for a moment as he reared back to let go what was to all appearances a screaming fastball that looked to sail up high in the strike zone.Conrad swung hard, only to nearly stumble as the ball fell almost vertically into Karl's mitt. The gangly German stared, perplexed, as Mr. Simpson called strike three. A perfect fade-away.Billy blew a sigh of relief. Conrad had gotten two hits off him this game—a single to center field, and a triple when the ball took an utterly crazy bounce into the far right-field corner. With him gone, Billy's biggest worry was gone, as well. In the bottom of the ninth, with one out, one man on second base, and his team up by only one run, he'd had to go all out to keep the German from driving in another run and tying the game. Or worse, getting a home run, as he had a disturbing tendency to do.A big German started toward the plate, a man Billy had never seen before. Conrad stopped on his way back to the dugout and spoke to him quietly. Billy used the time to move his arm around, working out some of the soreness. The audience did a somewhat ragged wave. For which side, he couldn't tell. The once-wooded dell where they now played did weird things to cheers, but the school field bleachers wouldn't hold everyone who'd wanted to see the game—people had come from other towns. So an area that had been cleared for building materials and firewood had been chosen, and boards set across the stumps for seating. The slope let everyone see the field, and had room for even more people than had showed up.The batter stepped up to the plate. Billy rolled his shoulders one more time and stepped up to the pitching board. One more out and he'd be done. Three pitches. He could do three pitches. The man on second didn't look like he was going to try anything. Billy looked for the sign.Heat. Good. I could throw that in my sleep. Karl wasn't as experienced a catcher as Vern—who now sat in the Army dugout—but he was shaping up fast. Good call. Get the guy thinking about the ball's speed, instead of its location and direction. Billy wound up and let fly with a fastball right up the center.Then shoved his glove in front of his face as the ball came screaming off the bat straight at his head.Or so it seemed. He missed catching it by a foot, and quickly turned to watch it sail into the middle of the center outfield seating, causing a mad scramble among the audience.The guy on second gave a whoop and headed for home. The batter loped around the bases with the world's most surprised grin on his face.Billy stood on the mound with his head back and his eyes closed. The only thoughts in his mind were things that would get his mouth washed out with soap by his mother, if he ever said them in her hearing.He felt a hand on his shoulder. "Ach, bad luck," Karl said. "That's all it was. You threw a good game."Billy let his breath out in a sharp hiss, but still couldn't think of anything to say that wasn't foul. What was the use? He was the only real pitcher in existence, and with the piss-poor—hell, practically nonexistent!—competition around here, he was losing his edge to the point where any schmuck could hit him. Screw it. Baseball is dead. I'm just going through the motions out of habit. Someone came up on his other side. Conrad. Who stood there with a crooked grin on his face. "You were careless, Billy. You were ready for me, but you thought no one else could hit you, and so you were not ready for my student!"Student. Great. Bad enough my talent's rotting on the vine, now he's training other people how to embarrass me by proving it. "Aw, blow me," he said, and turned toward his dugout. Karl followed. So did Conrad.Mr. Simpson came ambling over from home with a kind of wistful grin on his face. As he drew abreast of the younger men he laid a hand on Billy's shoulder, resting its mate on Conrad's. "Gentlemen, that was a good game. Come on down to the Gardens, I'm buying the first round.""Thanks, sir, but I don't really—" Billy began, as the others accepted eagerly."Don't tell me you're going to mope about it! So you lost a game. Big deal!" Mr. Simpson snorted softly. "If we were keeping stats, your earned run average would be . . . one-point-oh-oh-what? So come on and have a free beer."Billy shrugged and nodded. "Okay. Thanks.""Great! I'll meet you all there!" He patted their shoulders and went off to talk to Captain Heinrich.Billy packed up his gear and headed up the footpath leading out of the dell. As he reached the top, the lowering sun shined straight into his eyes, and he stopped and turned away for a moment to let the dazzle subside. There was still quite a crowd down there, milling around and talking. From here, the board seats didn't look as ratty—he could barely see the stumps—and nearby trees threw shadows across the field. If he squinted his eyes, he could almost imagine it was a real stadium.He shook his head and started the walk home, wondering what he'd do for the rest of his life. Nailmaking was okay, but, geez, it was boring!* * *Billy sat in the chair Karl pulled out, and nodded thanks to the waitress as she handed him the promised free beer. He still didn't really want to be here, but Karl had been waiting for him outside his house, and had practically dragged him to the Gardens. It didn't help that Conrad was sitting at the same table, laughing and accepting congratulations for his team. "Great, everyone's here!" Mr. Simpson said loudly. Some of the noise died down. He lifted his mug. "To the Army!" Everyone cheered and drank the toast. Everyone but Billy, who drank because it was expected, but couldn't muster more than a weak smile he was sure looked fake."To Viktor!" Conrad called, and led the cheers that followed.The German batter stood up from another table and waved the noise down. "Nein! Not for me. I was only doing what Conrad taught me. Give him the credit, for it is his, and well-earned!"When that round of cheers died down, Coach Benton stood up. "And to Billy, who is not only the best pitcher in the United States, but has added another two miles an hour to his fastball!"Billy's head whipped up so fast he almost cricked his neck. "What?!"Coach leaned over the table. "Ha! Didn't know I'd clocked you, did you?" he said with a huge grin. "I even bet you thought you were losing your edge for lack of competition, didn't you?""I . . . ah . . . yeah.""Because Conrad and now Viktor can hit you? Because you're so blasted arrogant that you think you must be getting worse instead of them getting better?" There didn't seem to be any way to answer that, but the narrow-eyed look and quiet snort Conrad gave him told Billy the truth was plain as day on his face."Billy, if Nolan Ryan never had batters who could challenge him—and beat him, now and then—he'd have been nothing but a circus freak. If baseball is going to be popular, we'll need German superstars, too. And here's Conrad, the very first!" The crowd cheered again. "Two teams don't make a league!" Billy growled. "Nobody else is playing, so it isn't very popular, is it?"Coach stood up and looked at him. "I guess you haven't heard, then." He turned and looked over his shoulder. "Hey, Tom!" he called to Mr. Simpson. "Billy here says two teams don't make a league!""Well, I admit Badenburg isn't ready, yet, but Jena wants a game with Army next month. Every one of them was at the game, today, checking out what they'll have to face."Do four teams make a league . . . ? Yeah, they do. Damn. Baseball isn't dead! Billy stared at his beer, knowing the voice inside himself whining that he didn't want to be one star among many was just a lingering remnant of brat. I'd have had to share the spotlight with lots of others, if none of this had ever happened. Shared it and been proud of it. The beer pitcher appeared in his view as someone refilled his mug. Conrad set the pitcher down and lifted his own mug, smiling. "I get the bat, you get the ball," he said quietly. "And perhaps someday, between us, we'll find or create the one who gets the glove."Billy looked at him, saw the sincerity and enthusiasm shining in his eyes, the love of the game that Billy had known so well for so long, and had almost given up on. The new flag of the United States hung on the wall behind Conrad. The same stripes, but fewer stars. It really did look better with more than just the one star off in a corner by itself. One state doesn't make a new U.S. One person doesn't make a team. Or a sport. He remembered that last look back at the field where they'd played. The crowd still milling around, the low hum of their voices reflecting from the dell's bowl to wash over him. The way the board seats fell away in a seemingly smooth sweep. The long, pillarlike shadows from the trees that lay across the infield. And if you look at it just . . . so . . .He grinned, lifted his mug, touched it to Conrad's, and drank to future superstars. How about that? Maybe Yankee Stadium isn't impossible after all.  
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