Chapter 13

 

I associate this day, when I can remember it, with games of base-ball played over behind the hills in the russet fields toward Sleepy Hollow.

– Journal, 1856

What is this?” hissed Ngonda.

Sly pulled his floppy hat off and wiped his forehead with it. “Looks like a baseball game, city pants,” said Sly.

The L’ung were in the field; with a sick feeling Spur counted twelve of them in purple overalls and black t-shirts. They must have arrived in the two vans that were parked next to the wooden bleachers. Beside the vans was an array of trucks, scooters and bicycles from the village. There must have been a hundred citizens sitting in the bleachers and another twenty or thirty prowling the edges of the field, cheering the home team on. Match Klizzie had opened the refreshment shed and was barbequing sausages. Gandy Joy had set up her communion tent: Spur could see billows of sweet white smoke whenever one of the villagers pulled back the flap.

With many of the younger baseball regulars off at the firefight, the Littleton Eagles might have been undermanned. But Spur could see that some old-timers had come out of retirement to pull on the scarlet hose. Warp Kovacho was just stepping up to home base and Spur spotted Cape sitting on the strikers’ bench, second from the inbox.

Betty Chief Twosalt shined the ball against her overalls as she peered in at Warp. “Where to, old sir?” She was playing feeder for the L’ung.

Warp swung the flat bat at belt level to show her just where he wanted the feed to cross home base. “Right here, missy,” he said. “Then you better duck.” They were playing with just two field bases, left and right. The banners fixed to the top of each basepole snapped in the stiffening breeze.

Betty nodded and then delivered the feed underhanded. It was slow and very fat but Warp watched it go by. The Pendragon Chromlis Furcifer was catching for the L’ung. She barehanded it and flipped it back to Betty.

What’s he waiting for?” grumbled the High Gregory. “That was perfect.” He ignored Spur’s icy stare.

Just a smight lower next time, missy,” said Warp, once again indicating his preference with the bat. “You got the speed right, now hit the spot.”

Young Melody Velez was perched at the end of the topmost bleacher and noticed Spur passing beneath her. “He’s here!” she cried. “Spur’s here!”

Play stopped and the bleachers emptied as the villagers crowded around him, clapping him on the back and shaking his hand. In five minutes he’d been kissed more than he’d been kissed altogether in the previous year.

So is this another one of your upsider friends?” Gandy Joy held the High Gregory at arms length, taking him in. “Hello, boy. What’s your name?”

I’m the High Gregory of Kenning,” he said. “But my Walden name is Lucky, so I’d rather have you call me that.”

Citizens nearby laughed nervously.

Lucky you are then.”

Gandy Hope Nakuru touched the pink bandana knotted around his neck. “Isn’t this a cute scarf?” The High Gregory beamed.

Spur was astonished by it all. “But who told you that they’re from the upside?” he said. “How did they get here? And why are you playing baseball?”

Memsen brought them,” said Peace Toba. “She said that you’d be along once we got the game going.”

And she was right.” Little Jewel Parochet tugged at his shirt. “Spur, she said you flew in a hover. What was it like?”

Maybe next time you can bring a guest along with you?” Melody Velez said, smiling. She brushed with no great subtlety against him.

Spur glanced about the thinning crowd; citizens were climbing back into the bleachers. “But where is Memsen?”

Peace Toba pointed; Memsen had only come out onto the field as far as right base when Constant Ngonda had captured her. He was waving his arms so frantically that he looked like he might take off and fly around the field. Memsen tilted her head so that her ear was practically on her shoulder. Then she saw Spur. She clicked her rings at him, a sly smile on her face. He knew he ought to be angry with her, but instead he felt buoyant, as if he had just set his splash pack down and stepped out of his field jacket. Whatever happened now, it wasn’t his fault. He had done his best for his village.

So this was what you were keeping from me.” His father was chuckling. “I knew it had to be something. They’re fine, your friends. You didn’t need to worry.” He hugged Spur and whispered into his ear. “Fine, but very strange. They’re not staying are they?” He pulled back. “Prosper, we need your bat in this game. These kids are tough.” He pointed at Kai Thousandfold “That one has an arm like a fire hose.”

No thanks,” said Spur. “But you should get back to the game.” He raised his arms over his head and waved to the bleachers. “Thank you all, thanks,” he called to his well-wishers. They quieted down to listen. “If you’re expecting some kind of speech, then you’ve got the wrong farmer. I’ll just say that I’m glad to be home and leave it at that. All right?” The crowd made a murmur of assent. “Then play ball.” They cheered. “And go Eagles!” They cheered louder.

Can I play?” said the High Gregory. “This looks like fun.” He straightened the strap of his overalls. “I can play, can’t I? We have all kinds of baseball on Kenning. But your rules are different, right? Tell them to me.”

Why bother?” Spur was beginning to wonder if the High Gregory was playing him for a fool. “Looks like you’re making them up as you go.”

Her Grace, Jacqueline Kristof, put an arm around his shoulder. “The ball is soft, so no gloves,” she said, as she led him onto the field. “No tag outs either, you actually have to hit the runner with the ball. That’s called a sting. No fouls and no… ”

As the spectators settled into their seats, Spur found his way to Ngonda and Memsen. She wasn’t wearing the standard L’ung overalls, but rather a plain green sundress with a floral print. She had washed the phosphorescent paint off her arms and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. But if Memsen was trying to look inconspicuous, then she had failed utterly. She was still the tallest woman on the planet.

Talk to her,” said Ngonda. “We had an agreement… .”

Which you broke,” said Memsen. “What we agreed was that the High Gregory would visit Littleton and you’d let him make whatever luck you are destined to have. You promised to give him the run of the village — ”

” — under Spur’s supervision, Allworthy,” interrupted Ngonda.

Betty Chief Twosalt delivered a feed and Warp watched it go by again. This did not sit well with the L’ung. “Delay of game, old sir,” someone called.

Memsen turned from Ngonda to Spur. “As we were explaining to the deputy, the L’ung and I see everything that the High Gregory sees. So we know that you’ve introduced him to just two of your neighbors. You promised that he could meet the citizens of this village but then you’ve kept him isolated until now. He needs to be with people, Spur. Barns don’t have luck. People do.”

It was my decision,” said Spur. “I’ll take the respon-sibility.”

And this was ours.” She waved toward the field. “So?”

Ngonda snorted in disgust. “I need to call Concord. The Office of Diplomacy will be filing a protest with the Forum of the Thousand Worlds.” He took a step away from them, then turned and waggled a finger at Memsen. “This is a clear violation of our Covenant, Allworthy. The L’ung will be recalled to Kenning.”

As they watched Ngonda stalk off, Warp struck a grounder straight back at the feeder. Betty stabbed at it but it tipped off her fingers and rolled away at an angle. Little Senator Dowm pounced on it but held the throw because Warp already had a hand on the right base stake.

Maybe I should’ve introduced the High Gregory to a few more people.” Spur wondered if standing too close to Memsen might be affecting his perceptions. The very planet seemed to tilt slightly, as it had that afternoon when he and Leaf Benkleman had drunk a whole liter of her mother’s prize applejack. “But why are we playing baseball?”

Memsen showed him her teeth in that way she had that wasn’t anything like a smile. “Tolerance isn’t something that the citizens of the Transcendent State seem to value. You’ve been taught that your way of life is better not only than that of the pukpuks, but than that of most of the cultures of the Thousand Worlds. Or have we misread the textbooks?”

Spur shook his head grimly.

So.” She pinched the air. “Deputy Ngonda was right to point out that landing a hover on your Commons might have intimidated some people. We had to find some unthreatening way to arrive, justify our presence and meet your neighbors. The research pointed to baseball as a likely ploy. Your Eagles were champions of Hamilton County just two years ago and second runner-up in the Northeast in 2498.”

A ploy.”

A ploy to take advantage of your traditions. Your village is proud of its accomplishments in baseball. You’re used to playing against strangers. And of course, we had an invitation from Spur Leung, the hero of the hour.”

Livy Jayawardena hit a high fly ball that sailed over the heads of the midfielders. Kai Thousandfold, playing deep field, raced back and made an over-the-shoulder catch. Meanwhile Warp had taken off for left base. In his prime, he might have made it, but his prime had been when Spur was a toddler. Kai turned, set and fired; his perfect throw stung Warp right between the shoulder blades. Double play, inning over.

I invited you?” said Spur. “When was that again?”

Why, in the hospital where we saved your life. You kept claiming that the L’ung would offer no competition for your Eagles. You told Dr. Niss that you couldn’t imagine losing a baseball game to upsiders, much less a bunch of children. Really, Spur, that was too much. We had to accept your challenge once you said that. So when we arrived at the town hall, we told our story to everyone we met. Within an hour the bleachers were full.”

Spur was impressed. “And you thought of all this since yesterday?”

Actually, just in the last few hours.” She paused then, seemingly distracted. She made a low, repetitive pa-pa-pa-ptt. “Although there is something you should know about us,” she said at last. “Of course, Deputy Ngonda would be outraged if he knew that we’re telling you, but then he finds outrage everywhere.” She stooped to his level so that they were face to face. “I rarely think all by myself, Spur.” He tried not to notice that her knees bent in different directions. “Most of the time, we think for me.”

The world seemed to tilt a little more then; Spur felt as if he might slide off it. “I don’t think I understand what you just said.”

It’s complicated.” She straightened. “And we’re attracting attention here. I can hear several young women whispering about us. We should find a more private place to talk. I need your advice.” She turned and waved to the citizens in the bleachers who were watching them. Spur forced a smile and waved as well, and then led her up the hill toward town hall.

Ngonda will file his protest,” she said, “and it’ll be summarily rejected. We’ve been in continuous contact with the Forum of the Thousand Worlds.” Her speech became choppy as she walked. “They know what we’re doing.” Climbing the gentle hill left her breathless. “Not all worlds approve. Consensus is hard to come by. But the L’ung have a plan… to open talks between you… and the pukpuks.” She rested a hand on his shoulder to support herself. “Is that something you think worth doing?”

Maybe.” He could feel the warmth of her hand through the thin fabric of his shirt. “All right, yes.” He thought this must be another ploy. “But who are you? Who are the L’ung? Why are you doing this?”

Be patient.” At the top of the hill she had to rest to catch her breath. Finally she said, “You spoke with the High Gregory about gosdogs?”

In the truck this morning.”

It was at the instigation of the L’ung. Understand that we don’t believe that gosdogs think in any meaningful sense of the word. Perhaps the original Peekay intelligence rating was accurate. But if they were found to be more intelligent, then we could bring the issue of their treatment here to the Forum. It would require a delicate touch to steer the debate toward the remedy the L’ung want. Tricky but not impossible. The Forum has no real power to intervene in the affairs of member worlds and your Chairman Winter has the right to run Walden as he pleases. But he depends on the good opinion of the Thousand Worlds. When we’re finished here, the L’ung will propose to return the gosdogs to a preserve where they can live in their natural state.”

But there is no natural habitat left. The pukpuks destroyed it.”

Ah, but ecologies can be re-created.” She gestured at the lawn stretching before them, at the rose hedges along its border and the trees that shaded it, their leaves trembling in the summer breeze. “As you well know.”

But what does a gosdog preserve have to do with the pukpuks?”

Come away from the sun before we melt.” Memsen led him to a bench in the shadow of an elm. She sagged onto it; Spur remained standing, looking down at her for a change. It eased the crick in his neck.

The preserve sets a precedent.” She clicked her rings. “In order for it to be established, the growth of the forest must be controlled, which means the Transcendent State will be blocked from spreading across Walden. Up until now, the Cooperative has refused to negotiate on this point. And then comes the question of where to put the preserve. You and the pukpuks will have to sit down to decide on a site. Together. With some delicate nudging from the Forum, there’s no telling what conversations might take place at such a meeting.”

But we can’t!” Spur wiped the sweat from his forehead. “The Transcendent State was founded so that humans could live apart and stay true to ourselves. As long as the pukpuks live here, we’ll be under direct attack from upsider ways.”

Your Transcendent State is a controversial experiment.” Memsen’s face went slack and she made the pa-pa-pa-ptt sound Spur had heard before. “We’ve always wondered how isolation and ignorance can be suitable foundations for a human society. Do you really believe in simplicity, Spur, or do you just not know any better?”

Spur wondered if she had used some forbidden upsider tech to look into his soul; he felt violated. “I believe in this.” He gestured, as she had done, at Littleton Commons, green as a dream. “I don’t want my village to be swept away. The pukpuks destroyed this world once already.”

Yes, that could happen, if it’s what you and your children decide,” said Memsen. “We don’t have an answer for you, Spur. But the question is, do you need a preserve like gosdogs, or are you strong enough to hold onto your beliefs no matter who challenges them?”

And this is your plan to save Walden?” He ground his shoe into the grass. “This is the luck that the High Gregory came all this way to make?”

Is it?” She leaned back against the bench and gazed up into the canopy of the elm. “Maybe it is.”

I’ve been such an idiot.” He was bitter; if she was going to use him, at least she could admit it. “You and the High Gregory and the L’ung flit around the upside, having grand adventures and straightening up other people’s messes.” He began to pace back and forth in front of the bench. “You’re like some kind of superheroes, is that it?”

The L’ung have gathered together to learn statecraft from one another,” she said patiently. “Sometimes they travel, but mostly they stay with us on Kenning. Of course they have political power in the Forum because of who they are, but their purpose is not so much to do as it is to learn. Then, in a few more years, this cohort will disband and scatter to their respective worlds to try their luck. And when the time comes for us to marry… .”

Marry? Marry who?”

The High Gregory, of course.”

But he’s just a boy.”

Memsen must have heard the dismay in his voice. “He will grow into his own luck soon enough,” she said coldly. “I was chosen the twenty-second Memsen by my predecessor. She searched for me for years across the Thousand Worlds.” With a weary groan she stood, and once again towered over him. “A Memsen is twice honored: to be wife to one High Gregory and mother to another.” Her voice took on a declaiming quality, as if she were giving a speech that had been well rehearsed. “And I carry my predecessor and twenty souls who came before her saved in our memory, so that we may always serve the High Gregory and advise the L’ung.”

Spur was horrified at the depth of his misunderstanding of this woman. “You have dead people … inside you?”

Not dead,” she said. “Saved.”

A crazed honking interrupted them. A truck careened around the corner and skidded to a stop in front of the town hall. Stark Sukulgunda flung himself out of the still-running truck and dashed inside.

Spur stood. “Something’s wrong.” He started for the truck and had gotten as far as the statue of Chairman Winter, high on his pedestal, when Stark burst out of the doors again. He saw Spur and waved frantically.

Where are they all?” he cried. “Nobody answers.”

Playing baseball.” Spur broke into a trot. “What’s wrong? What?”

Baseball?” Stark’s eyes bulged as he tried to catch his breath. “South slope of Lamana… burning… everything’s burning… the forest is on fire!”