Read an Excerpt
Maa–ni–la Navy Yard
March 9, 1944
Lieutenant Commander Matthew Reddy, High Chief of the Amer–i–caan Clan, Supreme Commander (by acclamation) of All Forces United Beneath (or Beside) the Banner of the Trees, and Captain of the old Asiatic Fleet four–stacker destroyer USS Walker (DD–163), loved baseball. He loved football too, and just about any team sport, as a matter of fact, but unlike many of the dwindling survivors of Walker, Mahan, and the old submarine S–19 on this world, he’d never closely followed the professional variety. He couldn’t recite team rosters or quote stats. He didn’t much care about all that and never had. He did care about the ball games between the various ships’ teams, however, and today hisWalkers were playing the “Eastern League” champs from the Fil–pin shipyards: the Inaa Araang, or, roughly, “Rivet Drivers.”
For just a while, Matt’s anxious mind could concentrate on something besides the vast war raging across the known reaches of this “other” earth. He could suppress his revulsion over the treachery and barbarism on the eastern front across the broad Pacific, or Eastern Sea. He could worry about something less tragic than the dreadful losses and strategic setbacks plaguing the war in the west. He could let his own plans—and painful wounds—sink back away from his foremost consciousness, if only for a brief rejuvenating spell. For a few hours, he could enjoy himself and all the people around him, human or Lemurian, who took the same pleasure and comfort from an admittedly serious contest, but one not designed to end in slaughter.
The big game was underway in the main Maa–ni–la ballpark (one of three), in what had become the heart of the city. Once the area had been a kind of buffer between the city and its already impressive shipyards, almost a Central Park like Matt remembered in Manhattan. It was unlike the similar zone in Baalkpan, though, that pulsed with a never–ending bazaar. The closest thing in that distant city was the Parade Ground around Baalkpan’s Great Hall, which had become a peaceful refuge for those come to visit the war dead buried there. Again like Central Park, this had been a common area anyone could visit and use. The same still applied, but now there was a dirt diamond and impressive bleachers. The seats were protected by a backstop of woven wire from the new barbed–wire works—minus the barbs—and there was no wall on the far end of the field, just a chalky line no one dared cross on pain of eviction. Still, just as many Lemurians clambered for good spots beyond the outfield, hoping to catch one of the still–rare balls, as did those who packed the bleachers.
It was a full house, and even the area around the ballpark was packed. Matt had grown accustomed to surrealistic scenes on this earth, but this was really weird. He was watching a genuine baseball game, played mostly by very feline–looking creatures covered with fur of every color or combination of colors imaginable. The sea of spectators reacted as any baseball crowd would, even if they were just as wildly colored and the sounds weren’t exactly right. Beyond the crowd, the shipyard had grown to a sprawling, all–encompassing thing no buffer zone could ever tame again. Masts of ships and coiling smoke and steam from mighty engines practically blotted out any view of Maa–ni–la Bay or distant Corregidor, and the Maara–vella Advanced Training Center, or ATC, couldn’t be seen at all.
Matt knew the city behind him had expanded just as much. Already bigger and more populous than Baalkpan, Maa–ni–la had exploded. Initially flooded with “runaways”—people from other lands and seagoing Homes threatened by the ravening Ancient Enemy (the furry/feathery, reptilian Grik) who only wanted to escape the war, there’d been some . . . difficulty when Maa–ni–la joined the Grand Alliance. Most eventually realized they’d have to fight sooner or later, because after the Fil–pin Lands there was nowhere else to flee. This grew even more apparent when they discovered new allies across the great Eastern Sea—but more enemies as well. There were few “runaways” left, and, bolstered by its industry and broader resource and population base, ,all the Fil–pin Lands, and Maa–ni–la in particular, became a powerhouse. Baalkpan, where Balikpapan, Borneo, should have been, had done very well for itself as well and remained the “first city” of the Grand Alliance. But there could be no offensives without Maa–ni–la—and its high chief, Saan–Kakja.
Saan–Kakja was a remarkable Lemurian. Her black–and–gold striated eyes were utterly mesmerizing, and though still young for her job, she’d taken hold with an iron hand of the chaotic mess the Fil–pin Lands had been. Actually considered somewhat authoritarian for the tastes of some Lemurians, she’d united and directed her Home toward membership in the Grand Alliance. She’d done it without any personal ambition. She had no desire to lead anything but her own Home, and wanted equality, not dominance, for her people—and, ultimately, for all people everywhere. Given that ideal, Matt recognized she was worldly enough to have ambition for her people. She wanted all who opposed the evil Grik, and now the Dominion, to live free and prosper—but if her people were a little more prosperous than others, that was okay by her.
Matt smiled at the Lemurian leader seated on the other side of Sandra. Sandra was his wife, doctor, primary advisor, and the Minister of Medicine for the whole Alliance. Saan–Kakja grinned back, her perfect young teeth sharp and white. She was really enjoying the game, Matt realized. Well, so was he. It had somewhat unexpectedly become a nail–biter.
Lemurians had taken to baseball like ducks to water. The game was superficially similar to an ancient ’Cat (Lemurian) game in which contestants whacked a lobbed coconutlike object with a long, flat bat, the object being to attain the greatest distance. That translated easily enough to baseball, but the added complexity, strategy, and teamwork appealed to them as well. Initially dismissed by humans—and themselves—as somewhat unimaginative (except when it came to architecture!) Lemurians discovered a love for strategy that rivaled their blossoming interest in gizmos. They related structured strategy with rigid rules—like chess, which was also catching on—to complicated machines, and they loved it. Lemurians universally excelled when all the parts were there or all the pieces were on the table, but some—like Lt. Colonel Chack–Sab–At, his beloved General Queen Safir–Maraan, General Lord Muln–Rolak, and even CINCWEST Keje–Fris–Ar, to some degree, were learning to use initiative and imagination.
Chack’s plan for the reconquest of New Ireland had been good, but the way he’d reacted when it fell apart was actually rather brilliant, in Matt’s opinion. With the exception of Safir and Rolak, there hadn’t been any experienced Lemurian war leaders before the war, and there’d been an adjustment period while they had to shift mental gears as a people. Now quite a few ’Cats were starting to shine on the battlefield, quickly adjusting to unexpected situations and generally doing at least as well as any human commander might in the same situation. That was good, because their enemies were getting uncomfortably better too. Matt was proud, but still a little sad that it took this damn war to show the Lemurians their true potential.
A bat cracked and the crowd roared around him. Matt and Sandra had some of the best seats in the house, there with Saan–Kakja and her advisors. Still, as the others jumped up, Matt lost sight of the ball and tried to rise as well. A stabbing pain in his right thigh and lower abdomen put a stop to that—as did Sandra’s restraining hand. She knows me so well, he thought, his inner smile masked by the grimace on his face.
“It’s a line drive, right over the shortstop’s head!” she said. “Yes! Pack Rat snagged it! She’s out!”
Gunner’s Mate Pak–Ras–Ar, or “Pack Rat,” played left field and had a hell of an arm. He used it then, winging the ball home. The bloated catcher and ship’s cook, Earl Lanier, took it on the bounce and only had to glare at the runner a step beyond third base before the ’Cat dove back at it. The stocky female Rivet Driver batter flipped her bat to the ground in disgust and strode sullenly to the dugout. Jeek, Walker’s small air division chief, was the ’Cat pitching for Walkerthat day. Her starting pitcher had been killed in action against the rogue Japanese destroyer Hidoiame, and Jeek had been designated his relief when they formed the team in the New Britain Isles. He was older and his fastball wasn’t as strong, but with age came guile, and he might’ve been the first ’Cat in the Navy to master a curveball that struck like lightning. He grinned and waited for the next batter to approach the plate.
Understanding things like curveballs was one of the few things that kept humans competitive in the game they’d brought to this world. Lemurians generally had greater upper–body strength, particularly the former wing runners who came from the great seagoing Homes. They could throw and hit harder and farther. Humans were better sprinters, though, and their slightly quicker reflexes let them hit more of the high–velocity fastballs they always expected—even if they couldn’t hit them as far. Far enough was good enough when the ball landed on the other side of the chalky line, however, and not every ’Cat who’d grown up with his or her own game thought that was quite fair. Human destroyermen were better at turning singles into doubles and triples too.
Right now, after a somewhat bitter game, the Walkers were magically only three runs down at the top of the ninth. That this seemed magical was because they’d had only a few days to prepare—and their most recent practice had been weeks before on Respite Island. The Walkers were also a “mixed” team, while the Rivet Drivers were all ’Cats, and that alone gave them an edge. They’d also had a lot of practice and were very, very good. The bitterness came from the age–old rivalry between “real” sailors and “yard apes” that was quickly transplanted here. Add the fact that USS Walker had been given priority over every ship in the yard, and her crew—particularly Tabby (Engineering Officer Lieutenant Tab–at), and Walker’s exec, Spanky McFarlane—had lorded it over everyone in the yard and criticized half the rivets they drove. That got very old, because in addition to repairing battle damage, they were basically reriveting the entire hull. The rivets used rebuilding Walker after the Battle of Baalkpan hadn’t been satisfactory at all, and Spanky felt responsible. That made him short–tempered with himself and everyone else.
Despite the abuse, most of the yard apes thought Spanky had the right to be critical. He was Minister of Naval Engineering, and revered as a font of almost mystical wisdom. But Tabby had made quite the ranting pest of herself, and the yard apes had grown to resent her in spite of her obvious competence (and equally obvious beauty). Her fur had mostly covered the old steam scars, and those still visible to the crusty yard apes added an exotic dash to her appearance. Her appearance only went so far, however, and she wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than what she considered perfection. Even worse than Tabby, the weird little human Chief Isak Rueben had made everyone miserable with his shrill insistence that Walker’s ancient boilers come out of the yard even better than new. It was too much.
Adding insult to injury, even though the Rivet Drivers were the home team, the crowd’s clear favorite was the team from USS Walker. Sure, they were heroes and they’d just been in another terrible fight, but that stung and made them want to punish the Walkers—only it wasn’t working out that way. They led 9 to 6, but it should’ve been a blowout.
“It’s all up to Jeek,” Matt said. “If he can pick off this last batter, we might have a chance. Uh oh.”
Striding to the plate, his tail held high, a heavy bat twirling in his hand, was the Rivet Drivers’ “cleanup” batter. He was the best they had, and with runners on first and third, all he needed was a hit to widen the gap.
Jeek watched him come and take his stance. He knew he’d allowed too many runs, but he’d had to pace himself. He hoped he’d saved his very best, sneakiest pitches for last. He blinked at Earl Lanier, and caught a nod in return. Even if Earl had ever taken time to learn ’Cat blinking, Jeek couldn’t have seen his reply through the mask and helmet he wore. Finger signals hadn’t been used before because all the pitchers were ’Cats, and so far all they knew to do was throw the ball like hell and hit the catcher’s glove. Any finger signal then might’ve tipped off the batter that something new was on the way. Besides, they’d planned for this. Jeek’s pair of blinks meant only “Okay,” but they also told Earl to be ready.
Jeek wound up and launched. The ball looked way outside—until it veered right into Earl’s waiting glove.
“Strike one!” cried Meksnaak. Saan–Kakja’s High Sky Priest might not be as popular with his flock as those of other Lemurian leaders, but his impartiality in this new game he adored was beyond question. The batter blinked, trying to reconcile what he’d seen with the crack of the ball slapping the glove right in the center of the strike zone. He shook his head.
The next pitch came, and looked just like the first. For an instant, the Rivet Driver considered reaching for it, but let it pass.
The crowd was on its feet again, wondering what they were seeing. How could Jeek do such a thing?
“Help me up, wilya, honey?” Matt asked Sandra, and reluctantly his wife helped him to his feet.
“Lean on your cane, Matthew,” she cautioned.
Jeek was staring hard at Lanier now, ball behind his back. To Matt it looked like he was wondering whether he could get away with the same pitch one more time. Finally, he wound up and let fly. With an audible whoosh, the Rivet Driver practically whirled out of the batter’s box. Strike three! Now Walker was up!
The Rivet Drivers’ pitcher was deadly accurate and as fast as a cannon shot. He also threw a little inside; his own “new” tactic he thought no one had noticed. Taarba–Kar (Tabasco), Walker’s assistant officer’s steward, managed a single, but Chief Quartermaster Paddy Rosen and Chief Bosun’s Mate Carl Bashear both struck out. Tabby got a pop–up single that the right fielder took on the bounce. Min–Sakir (Minnie), Walker’s diminutive (even for a ’Cat) bridge talker, almost had her head knocked off by a wild pitch; only her helmet saved her life. Due to the speed of the pitches and some of the hits, all batters and every infielder but the pitcher wore a combat helmet to play baseball on this world.
With a dazed Minnie making her way to first, the bases were loaded when Earl Lanier waddled to the plate.
“Oh no,” Sandra muttered, and there was a collective groan. Earl was a good catcher and surprisingly quick, but his enormous gut was kind of in the way when it came to batting. “He shouldn’t even be out there,” Sandra said, a little hot. Earl’s belly had been laid open pretty badly a few weeks before.
“He’s okay,” muttered Chief Bosun Fitzhugh Gray on the other side of Matt. Gray was past sixty and now officially Chief Bosun of the Navy. He was often referred to as Super Bosun, or just SB, but was even more than that to Matt and Sandra. He was their friend, and commanded the Captain’s Guard. He took Matt’s orders and served as chief damage control officer aboard ship, but was no longer confined to any normal chain of command. To Matt, he was just “Boats.”
“He might split a seam, but it’ll be worth it. Watch,” Gray said.
“Well . . . but he’s still on report for taking a swing at Campeti, isn’t he?” Sandra demanded.
Matt shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, Campeti said it wasn’t a swing after all. Lanier was just grabbing for something as he fell. The sea was pretty heavy.”
Sandra glared at him, and he felt like squirming. “Campeti took it back!” he insisted. “What can I do? I didn’t see what happened!”
“You’re in on this! If he gets hurt . . .”
“Oh, he’s gonna get hurt,” Gray interrupted, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “Think of it as takin’ one for the team—for his sins,” he added.
Earl suddenly struck a comically heroic pose by the plate and pointed upward at an angle of about 45 degrees past center field. The crowd roared and the bleachers thundered with stamping feet.
“Oh, my God,” Sandra said, raking away a few sandy brown strands that had escaped her ponytail. “I can’t watch!”
Earl stepped into the box and pointed his bat at the pitcher. Then took a couple of grim practice swings before bringing the bat back, high, his fists behind his right ear.
The first pitch sizzled past and Meksnaak called it a strike. Earl stepped back, stunned.
“Scoot back up there an’ take yer dose, you big, fat, turd!” came a nasally shout that reached them even over the thunder of the crowd. Isak Rueben was on deck, shaking his bat at the cook. Isak was one of the “original” Mice, two extraordinarily squirrelly firemen who’d finally been forced to accept a wider—and different—world beyond their beloved fire rooms. The other original, Gilbert Yeager, was chief engineer in USS Maaka–Kakja (CV–4), off with Second Fleet supporting operations around the Enchanted Isles. Tabby herself had been a third “mouse” before her promotion. Isak and Gilbert were half brothers—less of a secret than they thought—and they’d never been on the ship’s baseball team before the Squall that brought them here. It wasn’t because they weren’t any good; they just didn’t like anybody. Things were different now, of course, and if Isak still didn’t much like anyone, he loved his old Walker. He’d play for her.
Lanier glared at Isak and yelled something back that Matt couldn’t hear, but moved back in position, waving at the crowd. Finally, he was ready: bat high, helmet low, staring intently at the ’Cat pitcher. Here it came. In the mere instant the ball was in the air, Earl seemed to like what he saw. He started to swing, his great, fat body gaining momentum as it turned. The bat came around farther, faster, then stopped short as he checked the swing—just as the speeding ball vanished into his prodigious midsection. There was a stunned hush, until the ball popped out on the ground.
“Aaggghhh!” roared Earl, slamming the plate with his bat. “ Goddamn, that hurt!”
Meksnaak took off his own helmet and stared at Earl, blinking amazed consternation. Then he saw the blood beginning to stain the tight, grungy T–shirt. Finally, he snorted and waved Earl toward first base.
“I can’t believe he did that!” Sandra shouted in Matt’s ear when the bleachers shook.
“What? You think he took a hit like that on purpose?” Matt hollered back. Saan–Kakja caught his eye, and he saw her amused blinking.
Tabasco trotted home—without notice by Meksnaak or the Rivet Driver’s catcher, who were both watching Earl lumber to first.
Isak Rueben shuffled to the plate. He was a little guy, wiry, almost scrawny. Most of the Rivet Drivers knew him well. He’d been flown in from Baalkpan to oversee the first steps of a scheduled overhaul on Walker even before the old destroyer limped in after her fight with Hidoiame, and he’d been driving them hard on other projects. No one thought he was a weakling, but he obviously wasn’t a power hitter. They suspected he knew what he was doing, though, and the outfield moved in to prevent another scoring single.
Matt looked nervously at Gray, who stood with his arms crossed, wearing an expression of supreme confidence. Bashear was team captain, but Gray was the manager and chief strategist. Matt knew he’d conceived all sorts of schemes for this game to deal with any number of variables. One such was clearly unfolding now . . . but pinning all their hopes on Isak Rueben seemed a little nuts.
The first pitch blew past Isak and he just watched it go, as if studying it. He did the same for the second, and another huge groan rumbled in the park. The third pitch was way inside and probably would’ve shattered Isak’s bony elbow if he hadn’t jerked back. Okay, Matt thought, Isak can read a pitch. But they can’t be counting on a walk—not with this pitcher! The fourth pitch came, and with a fluid, almost nonchalant ease, Isak Rueben slammed it high in the air and deep into the crowd behind the center–field line.
Matt looked at Gray, stunned, as the whole city of Maa–ni–la seemed to erupt. Gray shrugged. “I seen the squirt bat before,” he shouted. “Back on Tarakan, after the fight with those three Grik ships. He was showin’ some of the ’Cat Marines.” He grinned. “I ain’t sure Isak Rueben didn’t invent baseball on this world!”