Sunday, October 3, 2010

Best in the Game

“Ladies and Gentlemen, in the last game of his carrier, please welcome legendary first baseman, Number 31, Jay Hernandez!”

The crowd broke out into chants and shouting, crying out “Jaaaay” over and over again. Jay, meanwhile, crossed himself, kissed the crucifix around his neck, shook his head and ran out onto the field. He was thirty-nine years old and tired. But as he ran out, the crowd’s cheers and applause got louder. This always brought new life to him. He smiled. He would miss this part of it all. What he wouldn’t miss was al the ice packs after the game, or the long road trips away from his wife and two daughters. Road trips that were so long, his wife finally left him last year. Today, his carrier ended. In a week, his marriage of twenty years would be officially over. He intended to celebrate tonight and not think about next week.

He shook his head again to clear if of those kinds of thoughts as he took his place at first base. Focus, he though, on the here and now. The inning started, and he played to his usual standard, getting two batters out at first easy. He waited in the dugout for his turn, and when it came, he calmly stepped up to bat. This was where he really shined. He was fourth in the lineup, and his team managed to get a man on second during the inning. But beyond the chance to score was the Record. It was very early into this game, but it was never far from Jay’s mind. If he could hit one more Home Run, he would beat the all time carrier home run record. He stared down at the pitcher. He was determined to end his carrier on that high note.

He looked the pitcher up and down. He was a younger man, the other team probably hoping that a young man could throw some heat at Jay that the older player couldn’t hit. Jay, however, wasn’t looking at the man’s age. He was looking for those signs; the little tells that all pitchers gave that broadcast to Jay what the coming pitch was. When he saw it in this younger pitcher, he smiled. The man wound up and threw his pitch. Jay watched as everything slowed down. The ball made its ponderous way through the air, aligning to just where Jay knew it would go, and he swung hard. As his bat connected wit the ball, everything snapped back to normal time. The ball flew, screaming through the air, but Jay didn’t even look at it. He was taking his victory lap. A few seconds after he hit the ball, everyone else came to realize what he already knew, and the crowd burst into cheers, having just witnessed history.

The rest of the game passed by as a blur, at least as far as Jay could remember later. He knew that at some point he had hit a second homer, cementing his record. And after the game, he signed both balls, dating them as well, for the lucky fans that had caught them. He remembered feeling good, too, better than he had in years. He was going into the history books, and was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. He distinctly remembered the drive home, though. He had been thinking about his future. Just the week before he had accepted a job as a commentator at ESPN, but before that would start, he was taking a year off. He was going t take his daughters on a summer tour of Europe, and then spend the rest of that year working on his new house in the woods. Unfortunately for those plans, he never made it home.

At the time he wasn’t quite sure what happened. All he saw was a bright blue light and the feeling that his stomach was trying to crawl out through his throat. From his perspective, the event was instantaneous, but when the light receded, he found himself not in his car, but laying flat on some kind of surgical table. Above him was a creature out of nightmare. It was a rust red color, and had multiple mouths set about its head at odd angles. In the middle of this mass of mouths was a single, massive eye that blinked every few seconds. Adding to the nightmarish appearance was the twenty of so tentacles waiving above, wielding knives covered in blood. Jay screamed.

“Excellent, you’re awake,” the thing said. Or at least, Jay understood what it said as that. What he actually heard was a strange gargling sound.

“Are you hungry? Thirsty?” the thing said.

“What?” Jay asked, his mind still trying to grasp the reality of what he was seeing. “Where am I?”

“Ah, good,” it said. “You are cognizant. No doubt, you are also slightly afraid. My appearance is probably disturbing to you. It usually is to bipedal beings.”

“You can say that again,” Jay muttered under his breath.

He could swear that several of the things mouths smirked.

“My name is Nyss,” it said. “I’m the team doctor. I’ve helped you recover from the transport as well as installed the translator into your head.”

Jay reached up instinctively to his head and felt a slight scar on his temple. He sat upright, but felt slightly dizzy after doing so. Nyss reached out with several tentacles and helped Jay steady himself.

“You’re recruiter should be here shortly to answer more questions than that,” Nyss said. “In the mean time, if you desire any food or drink, simply press this green button here.”

He pointed with one tentacle at a panel on the side of his bed that had four buttons, each a different color. Then, several of Nyss’ mouths smiled, and left Jay to contemplate his surroundings. It seemed like a pretty normal hospital, although all the writing was in a strange cuneiform he had never seen before. Just like when Nyss talked, though, he seemed to understand what the writing said. Most of it was typical hospital stuff. He scratched his head. Is it possible that he got into an accident? That must be it. He was blinded by that light, swerved off the road and hit a tree or something. It must have scrambled his brain, and now he’s seeing and hearing things. He’d have to ask the doctor when he came back.

In the mean time, he did feel pretty hungry. He pressed the green button. A vaguely female voice came over the speaker, speaking in that same gargling sound Nyss had used. “Yes?” was what he understood her to have said.

“Uh...” he hesitated. “I’d like some food?”

“Of course sir,” the voice on the other side said. There was a slight pause, and then she said “I see that we have a tray of food that matches your biological needs as well as providing a pleasurable taste. It will be delivered to you shortly. Please press the green button again should you need anything.”

Jay blinked. He hoped that there was a cure for whatever he had done to his head, because this was going to get annoying. A few seconds later, the curtain around his bead opened, and a man walked in. At least, he looked like a man, for the most part. He was about six feet tall, had two legs and arms and a very human looking face with brown hair and a beard. The only thing odd about him was the single eye in the middle of his head.

The man put what appeared to be a shiny metal briefcase on the table next to Jay’s bed and opened it to reveal something that looked like a computer. He punched a few buttons and a file came up that showed a picture of Jay.

“Mr. Hernandez,” the man said, turning his massive eye on Jay, “I am Rogert Dazall, but you may call me Daz. All my clients do.”

He stretched out a hand, and Jay took it after a few seconds. The grip was strong, but not crushing. Somehow, the simple gesture made Jay feel more at ease.

“Mr. Hernandez, I’m here to ease you through your transition and make things easier for you. We’ll start by explaining what is going on,” Daz said. At this point, Jay realized that the man was actually speaking English.

“Oh, thank God,” Jay said. “I gotta tell you, Daz, I’m beginning to think I’m going out of my mind.”

Daz smiled, showing some very sharp teeth. “Let me first assure you that you are not going insane. Everything you have seen and heard was completely real. You’re doctor is in fact an octopus like creature and I, indeed, have one eye.”

“What?” Jay said, pushing himself backwards somewhat in his bed.

“Oh, yes,” Daz said. “You are in space. Orbiting the world you call Pluto, to be exact, in a small station used for just this purpose. You see, I am a recruiter for the galaxies most popular sport, Shatterball. I find the best talents from all manor of planets, and hire them to play for my team, the Alpha Centauri Crushers. Normally, we don’t recruit from pre-contact worlds such as yours, but when I saw you play your last game this evening, I knew you were prefect. You have a rare talent, Mr. Hernandez. Few in this galaxy would be able to match your skill, and you would be come an instant star.”

“Wait,” Jay said. “Let me get this straight. You’re an agent? And you want to hire me to play sports?”

“Correct,” Daz said, his single eye blinking slowly.

“I’m sorry, Daz... but I quit,” Jay said. “I just retired. I’m old, man, and I’m tired. As much as I would love to hear the roar of the crowd again, I just don’t have what it takes to play against the younger guys anymore. Plus, I don’t know the first thing about this sport of yours... what did you call it?”

“Shatterball,” Daz said. “And as to your age... you underestimate our level of medical technology. I believe if you check yourself out, you will find that your good doctor did more for you than make it so you can understand everyone. The ache in your bones? Gone. Those muscle sprains in your shoulder? No more. And that hip joint you were afraid was going to cause you trouble for the rest of your life? All better. Get off your bed, Mr. Hernandez. Check yourself out.”

Jay stared at the alien for a moment. Was it possible? He moved his right arm at the shoulder, and the normal stiffness and pain wasn’t there. He moved it faster, a smile coming to his lips. His elbows didn’t hurt either, and neither did his knees when he bent them. He jumped off the bed and stood, bending and twisting. He felt fantastic. He looked at himself in a nearby mirror. He still looked liked he did at the end of the game, but he felt better than he had in ages. In fact, he hadn’t felt this good since he was twenty.

“Imagine,” Daz said, coming up behind him,” Not only playing at peak performance again, but with all the skill and knowledge you’ve gained over the years. And not only do you get to be a star, entering the stadium to the roar of the crowd, but you get to be the first human to witness true extraterrestrial life. Can you really tell me that going to space hasn't been a dream of yours, Mr. Hernandez?”

Jay thought it over. It was a very compelling offer. He really didn’t want to quit playing, but he had been so tired. Now, he wasn’t tired in the least. And space... aliens! He had dreamed about something like that since he was a kid. Combining both dreams, space and sports... that was something he hadn’t ever considered before.

“Okay, Daz,” he said, turning around and offering his hand a shake. “I’m in.”

“Excellent,” Daz said. “Let’s get you out of here and we can head to the Crusher’s training facility. We’ll get you a uniform, equipment and introduce you to the rest of your teammates.”

The cyclopse cheked Jay out, got him a clean, blue jumpsuit to wear and led him down a hallway.

“Are we going to take a space ship?” Jay said.

“Oh, no,” Daz said. “Ships are fare too slow. They’re only used in exploration or the transportation of nonperishable materials. We’re going to use a transporter, much like the device that brought you to this station. Here we are.”

Daz pointed to a large white disk that was recessed into the floor of an alcove. The disk looked like it was large enough to hold a full sized SUV on it. Next to it was another octopus like creature, manning the controls. Overall, Jay was rather unimpressed with it.

“This is it?” he said. As he watched, a group of four aliens, two blue skinned humanoids with four arms, a green blob like thing with three eyes on the ends of thin stalks and something that looked like R2D2, all got onto the disk. The blob gave a destination to the tech, who punched some controls on his screen. There was a blast of light and when Jay could see again, the foursome was gone.

“What the hell happened?” Jay asked.

“A wormhole,” Daz replied. “The device opens a wormhole and sends you through it. The light is to prevent you from being disoriented while traveling through what is essentially a very unnatural way to travel. Without it, most beings get sick at the best and go mad at the worst.”

“Ah.” Jay said, feeling less like he wanted to go this way. “You sure we can’t take a ship?”

Daz laughed, a comforting human sound. “Come, Mr. Hernandez,” he said. “It is time to go.”

He lead Jay onto the disk, and turned to the tech. He spoke in that same gargling sound the octopus’ used, but Jay still understood him. That was going to take some getting used too.

“Alpha Centauri, Crusher’s Training Facility, please,” he said. The tech moved his head in a way that Jay assumed was a nod. He pushed a few buttons, and then Jay was blinded by a flash of light. He felt the world slip away from beneath his feet, and then just as quickly it was back. He stumbled forward some, his eyesight returning.

“Careful, Mr. Hernandez,” Daz was saying, helping him steady himself. “Transport does take some getting used to, but it’s best of you stand still during the whole process.”

“I’m okay,” Jay said, getting himself back on his feet. They were standing in a alcove that looked identical to the one they had left, except that the tech here was one of those blue skinned four armed people. Daz led Jay down some more hallways, but this place was far different than the hospital he just left. The walls were decorated in what looked like hard wood paneling, and the floors were covered in a comfortable carpet.

Hanging from the walls hung several pictures, all of them were instantly recognizable as sports team. Beyond that, however, they were the strangest pictures Jay had ever seen. All of them were holographic, like some kid of 3-D movie. And the players depicted in them were very alien, consisting of strange beings that varied in shape and size beyond anything Jay had seen yet. The only thing they had in common was purple and blue uniforms. They looked like something between a baseball uniform and a football uniform, with shoulder and elbow pads (where those existed) and helmets that looked like batter helmets. It also looked like some of the uniforms had chest padding. Jay stopped at one picture, pointing.

“Hey, this guy looks like you,” he said, and Daz came up behind him. The cyclops smiled.

“Yup,” he said. “Third Dynisty season. I only played for that one season before home life took me out of the game, but I never forgot it. That’s why I work as a recruiter now.”

“Cool,” Jay said. “So, tell me about this Shatterball. How’s it played? It looks rough from those uniforms. How does an old first basemen like myself fit into this?”

“Oh, it’s quite simple, Mr. Hernandez,” Daz siad.

“Jay,” Jay said. “Please, call me Jay. You keep saying Mr. Hernandez, and I keep expecting my father to appear.”

Daz blinked blankly, clearly not understanding the joke. I guess somethings don’t translate, Jay thought.

“Very well, Jay,” Daz said, smiling. “Shatterball is a very simple game, which is partly responsible for its popularity. And while it can be a little rough, the padding on your uniform makes it so it’s about as rough as your American Football.”

Jay nodded, indicating not only that he understood but that he wanted Daz to continue.

“There are eight players on the field, four forwards, two defenders and two goalies. There’s two different balls, three smaller ones, about the size of a baseball, called cudgels. There is a larger one, about the size of a basketball, simply called the ball, or sometimes called the shatter. This refers to the first balls used in the game, made from the shell of a creature called a Shatterspike. They are, of course, not made from them anymore.”

Jay nodded again.

“The object of the game is for the forwards to get the shatter and throw it into the opposing side’s goal. Some roughness is allowed, such as slamming into your opponent with your body. No fisticuffs, mind you. Also, the forwards and the defenders are allowed to use the cudgels to throw at the other players. The defender’s job is to protect the forwards. They do this by carrying around bats, almost identical to the ones you use in baseball. You can hit other players with these bats in the chest area only, where the most padding is. But, more importantly, you can hit the cudgels with them, and try to either get the cudgel out of the park, or to hit an opponent with it. The goalies are only allowed to stay on their half of the field, and they have a bat as well. Their job is to prevent the shatter from entering the goal.”

Jay nodded. This seemed simple enough.

“I take it, then, that you want me to be a defender,” he said.

“That would be correct,” Daz said. “And we’re here. Jay, welcome to the Crushers.”

Jay looked at his new team. There were about twenty... “guys,” though he used that term loosely. Several of them looked to be women, and several more he wasn’t even sure had genders, at least not that he could recognize. He had trouble pronouncing most of the names, never mind remembering. The only ones he could remember were the team captain and one his fellow defender. The captain was star forward Glarg, who was one of those blob things he saw earlier, though Glarg was blue. The blob had a feminine sounding voice, and Jay took to thinking of her as a woman as a result. He would find out later that he was correct, and color was how they distinguished genders among that species.

His fellow forward was a creature that looked surprisingly human. He was tall, but not much more than Jay, and well built, but in the way of a runner rather than a weight lifter like some of the forwards were. He had green eyes and short cut black hair. The only thing that gave Jay a clue as to his alien heritage was the fact that he only had three fingers and a thumb, all slightly larger than a humans. His name was Deff’vindel O’ven, and Jay took to calling him O.

Jay found out that he was replacing a lost player, who died when the station he was on got hit by a meteor. He would be taking the second string place, which suited Jay just fine, as he still had no idea how to actually play this game. But, that waited until the next day. In the mean time, he got a uniform and a room, and took the opportunity to rest and recover form the many shocks from this day.

The next day, however, training not only started, but it started in earnest. He learned that the season was starting in a few weeks, and they didn’t have much time to bring Jay up to speed, as he was scheduled to play in the third game. Glarg was both hard on Jay, and encouraging, something Jay hardly saw in a team leader. He ran Jay through his paces, and Jay not only had to learn how to run laps again, but how to swing at a moving ball while running. It turns out that the second skill wasn’t as tough as Jay thought it would be. Often, he would have time to stop and swing at the ball. After the first week, he was blocking cudgels at a rate of 70%, unheard of in a rookie. After those initial weeks, he got to watch some live games from the bench, which helped him tons. Seeing his team work, he saw how the game was really meant to play. He also got to see that he was playing with a top ranked team. After two games, the Crushers had lived up to their names and were in first place, 2-0.

Then came the third game of the season, where Jay was up, and he was nervous. Not really fearful, but excited. The announcer called his name.

“And introducing, in his first professional Shatterball appearance, rookie and human from the planet Earth, Number 16, Jay Hernandez!”

The crowd went wild as Jay ran out onto the field. O had been telling him that the team was spending a lot of money to promote Jay, and it had apparently paid off. The stadium was full to capacity, and most of them seemed to be there to watch the human rookie. It had been a very long time since Jay was a rookie at anything, but it felt good. There were expectations that he would do well, but no one would be truly disappointed if he fumbled and fell on his face a few times during the game.

Similar to a football coin toss, the team that started with the shatter was chosen randomly, with the loosing team getting the cudgels. Jay’s team lost the toss, but that was okay with Jay. Defensive was what his position was all about, and he was anxious to give it a try. Glarg tossed him one of the cudgels and told him to stick to a particular forward. He was one of those four armed blue guys, and Jay thought his name was K’rok, but he wasn’t sure. He stuck close to K’rock, who was aiming at getting the shatter through a tackle. Jay watched the opposing team’s forwards, and when he saw one, a small, dark skinned creature that looked like a cross between a snake and a platipus, crawling across the field towards K’rok.

Jay initially thought that species would determine position, but he found early on that thsi wasn’t the case. While some species were better suited due to physiology (bipeds, for example, were usually better at being defenders), skill accounted for far more. So the small size of the snakeapus didn’t cause Jay to discount him. Without much thought, he set up, tossed the cudgel in the air, and hit it with his black bat. The ball soared across the field and hit the little creature in his helmet covered head, causing him to stumble to the side as K’rock pushed passed him. The crowed cheered the move.

Jay didn’t hesitate to smile at his good shot, instead rushing to catch up to his forward. When he got there, he saw K’rock smash into the side of the opposing forward, a massive brute of a creature at least eight feet tall and appearing to be made of solid rock. The tackle, however was well placed, and the giant rock man fell to the ground, landing hard and taking a few moments to get back up. While he fell, he dropped the shatter, and two other opposing forwards rushed to get it. Jay thought there was no way that K’rock could get up in time to get the ball, and no other forwards were around. Then he saw a long, red, gooey protrusion come out of seemingly nowhere and grab the shatter.

Glarg! Jay screamed his approval, and the star forward proved why he was the star by quickly sliding across the field, dodging the two opposing forwards. Jay moved up quickly and took a defensive position in front of the team captain, hitting an incoming cudgel, knocking it away. He followed Glarg down field, knocking down another forward by hitting him with the bat in what would have been the stomach on a human. Glarg got up to the goal, and threw the shatter in a curve that would have made any human pitcher jealous with the skill. The large ball twisted in the air, moving around both goalies and passing between them to enter the goal.

Jay jumped up in a scream of victory. There was nothing quite as exciting as scoring a point. This was what Jay loved about playing sports. Any sport. This excitement was what he lived for. He knew right at this point that he had made the right choice in going with Daz. He turned to celebrate with Glarg when he saw the big stone giant coming up behind the blob. He shouted a warning, but it was too late. The opposing team member jumped and fell flat, right on top of the Crusher’s team captain. When he stood up, Glarg was as flat as a pancake.

A ref blew his whistle, and doctors were called out to the field. The game was paused as they administered to him. Glarg was badly hurt, apparently the strange internal organs of the blob creatures were sensitive to being smashed, and the tackle seriously injured him. He would be out for the res of the team.

Back at the dugout, the Crusher were despondent. Even in games where Glarg wasn’t the starter, he was always there to help coach and lead the team on. Now, he was gone, apparently the first time in Glarg’s twenty year career he had been this injured. The opposing player had been suspended for unnecessary roughness after the play and ended, but that did little to bolster the Crusher’s morale.

The game went on, but it looked like the Crushers would be dealt their first loss of the season when the opposing team scored a goal and brought the score up to 1-1. It was nearing the end of regulation time, and Jay realized that something needed to happen or his team would lose. And they wouldn’t just lose this game, they would lose their spirit. He looked over at the other team and saw one of their defenders, a green octopus thing, practicing hitting the cudgels with his bat. And that’s when Jay had an idea.

“Guys,” he said, calling everyone over to him in the dugout. “I got a plan to make the winning score. Do you all trust me?”

Everyone looked at each other and then back to Jay. He got a lot of positive responses.

“Good,” he looked around, and found a bipedial fish man that was one of the forwards. “You... I forget your name.”

He said something that sounded like it was said underwater, but Jay vaguely understood it as Rogg, or something. “Rogg, great. You’re our fastest forward, I need you to get that shatter as quickly as possible. K'rok, I want you to get your ass down to the opposing goal. Don’t worry about the shatter, just get to that goal.”

“Oh, I get it, you want me to pass to K'rok,” Rogg said.

“No,” Jay said. “I want you to pass to me.”

Everyone paused. Then, Rogg looked Jay straight into the eye.

“Are you mad, human?” he asked. “Defenders aren’t allowed to handle the shatter.”

“I know,” Jay said. “We’re not allowed to drop our bats. But, as far as I know of, there’s no rule preventing me from hitting the shatter with the bat.”

Everyone paused again, only this time they looked like they were contemplating things. The team coach, another cyclops who looked positively ancient, nodded at Jay.

“You’re right, son,” he said, “in fact, it’s happened in the pass. Forwards have used the shatter as a cudgel and the defenders have hit it back. It’s not against the rules.”

“Great,” Jay said. “They won’t be expecting it. You throw the shatter to me, I hit it to K’rok and he throws it into the goal before anyone on their team even knows what happened.”

Everyone looked at Jay for a moment, and then nodded. He put his hand in the center, and encouraged everyone to put some kind of appendage in with him. On the count of three, they all shouted Crushers and went out on the field. They were energetic again. Jay smiled. This would work.

Play proceeded as normal, and for a while there, the other team looked like they woldn’t give Rogg an opportunity to get the shatter. But, everyone took their positions, and eventually, he managed to get a cudgel and throw it in the gut of the snakeapus, dropping the small creature and getting the shatter. He picked it up and ran down field briefly, looking as if he were going to run with it to the goal. He was drawing the defenders and forwards towards him, and away from both Jay and K’rok. Great, Jay though. That’s even better than he had planed.

Then, in a quick turn, Rogg shot the ball through the air, straight at Jay. It was a fantastic throw, a fast ball that even Nolan Ryan would envy. Everything slowed down. Jay skidded to a stop in the path of the ball, and judged it’s incoming angle compared to where he wanted it to go. As it slowly tumbled through the air at him, he set up his bat. He swung just at the right angle, hitting the big, heavy ball as hard as he could. It went up and threw the air, rising above the other players on the field. Home run, Jay though.

Everything went back to full speed, and Jay saw as K’rok jumped up and grabbed the shatter. He then turned and elbowed one of the gollies in the shoulder, knocking the man aside, and threw the shatter into the opposing goal. The sirens flashed. Goal. He had done it. He had come up with the plan that won the game! The crowd went wild, and the replay was showing on dozens of large screens across the stadium. Jay just stood there, soaking it all in. This was it. This was what he lived for.

When the game died down, he went and had a long talk with Daz and the coach. He knew that he wanted to stay, but there wold need to be some slight alterations to his contract. And they agreed to everything. Jay would be given leave every Earth summer, which was usually the period of about four games, not a big loss in the eighteen game season for shatterball. During that time, Jay would get to spend time with his friends and, more importantly, his daughters. He swore that he wouldn't reveal anything, and came up with a story that he had taken up playing baseball in some foreign country that was paying him well do to so.

He moved into space full time. He was here, living the dream. Though he had thought he was ready to retire at the end of his last baseball, he discovered that he was in fact ready to take up a new carrier. Just as he had mastered one sport, he would master shatterball too. It may take him a while, but once again, he would be the Best in the Game.

The End

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