The air was still thick with smoke and the tang of burning machine oil when Kenny shambled up from the on-deck circle, aluminum bat in his pudgy, nine-year-old hands, wearing the mask of nervous concentration that’s a near-universal element of the Little League uniform. Ah, God bless the kid, Bob thought, watching his son from the bleachers. This won’t be pretty.
Bob’s wife Mildred bounced eagerly in her seat. “Go, Kenny!” she chirped. Her hands kneaded the neck of a paper bag filled with juice boxes and cheap testosterone supplements; today was their family’s turn to supply the fifth-inning refreshments. “Knock one out of the park!”
That doesn’t seem likely, Bob thought. The pitcher for Watkins Widgets must have had parents with actual honest-to-god paying jobs because he’d had some splicing done. The thing dangling from his shoulder was more tentacle than arm — it had suckers on it and everything — and when he brought it around in an arc, the ball shot forward, dipping over the outer edge of the plate at the knees. The umpire’s laser marked the ball’s path, and on the back end of its titanium carapace, the red light lit up with a buzz. Strike one.
The stands on the left-field side of the backstop exploded in a torrent of abuse. “Hey, ump! Is your rule book written in braille?” shouted Pete Mallister. Two rows below Bob and Mildred, Elmo Nguyen chimed in: “Call the organ farm back! Those eyes are broken!” It wasn’t much of an insult given that the ump didn’t have eyes. It sat behind the plate amidst still-smoldering metallic fragments, a squat rectangular titanium structure on caterpillar tracks, cameras mounted forward and red and green lights facing the crowd, relaying the latest bad news to the parents of the last-place boys of Calero’s Bar and Grill.
The pitcher let fly again, a sharp-breaking curve that nicked the inside corner. The bat never left Kenny’s shoulder. The light buzzed red, and the crowd let loose. Somebody hurled a tin can, which clanged off the back of the ump, and shouted: “Serves you right, ya piece of Ubie trash!” The comment was hypocritical. Pretty much every Calero’s parent was on Universal Basic Income; they were all “Ubies”. They’d signed the contract and knew the price they’d pay. Centuries of post-mortal service awaited them, their consciousnesses guiding processes too simple to merit expensive AIs. Bob’s brain was signed up for service on a freighter on the Great Lakes, hauling ore in tedious trips from one bank to the other. Whatever, he thought. It’s not like anyone’s hiring. A man who can’t care for his family is no man at all.
Still, the anger swelled in him, and he cupped his hands. “Hey, ump!” he shouted. “Bend over and use your good eye!” The comment earned him a round of raucous laughter from his neighbors, and he even heard a chuckle or two from the hoity-toity bunch opposite.
The pitcher wasn’t fiddling around anymore. The next fastball hummed directly over the heart of the plate. Kenny swung with his eyes closed; yet, sometimes, luck finds a way. Ball met bat with a PING, then rose on a line towards right field, over the drawn-in outfielder and up against the fence on a single hop. Bob and the whole Calero’s crowd rose shouting as Kenny’s stumpy legs pistoned away, carrying him in a tottering dash around the bases.
A home run seemed certain until Bob noticed that the right fielder had a cannon for an arm. Not one of the cheap, grafted-on ones, but a full implant, four rails, and EMP-powered. He chased down the ball and, as Kenny rounded third, placed it in the aperture and let fly. Kenny and the ball arrived simultaneously, but his outstretched left hand reached beneath the catcher’s glove and made contact with the plate a split second before the tag.
There was a brief pause. Then the ump’s back end lit up with a crimson buzz. Out.
The park went silent, the fans staring shell-shocked. Then came the madness. Bob grabbed the crowbar from under his seat and rushed the field. He wasn’t the first to hop the fence, but he was first to the destination, and first to strike a blow, sparks flying as the bar met metal. And then there were others beside him, battering away; he heard a resounding CLANG as the carapace sprung open. Amidst the circuitry, hooked by crude electrodes to the optics and the mainframe, was the ghost in the machine; three pounds of crinkled cranial tissue marinating in a jar of squamous fluids. Bob paused for a fraction of a second. Then he brought his weapon crashing down.
The Calero’s fathers marched back into the stands, sated, amidst boos and catcalls from the stuck-up prigs on the right-field side. En route, Bob caught his son’s eye and offered the boy a reassuring nod. Maybe I can’t give him the tech or the training he needs, or the toys he sees on the vids, Bob thought. Hell, I can barely feed and clothe him. But I can back him. A father who doesn’t stand up for his son is no man at all.
At his seat, Mildred awaited him, arms folded. “Oh, honestly, Bob!” she scolded. “Twice in two innings!”
Bob let the crowbar drop from his grimy fist, his face still speckled with petroleum and grey matter, and lowered his weight onto the creaky pine seat. “Ubi’ll cover it,” he muttered.
Down on the field, the remains of the umpire were being towed away, down the well-worn path leading to the scrapheap behind the left-field bullpen, and a new one trundled out to replace it. Kenny’s coach had him by the shoulder and was ushering him back to the dugout. But the nine-year-old still stared up into the stands at his father.
He sees a man, Bob told himself. My son is no fool. He knows a man when he sees one.
Steve DuBois is a high school teacher from Kansas City and the author of numerous works of speculative fiction and drama. He has been shortlisted for the Baen Fantasy Adventure and James White Awards. His author site is www.stevedubois.net.