Gone

Cardinals spring training resonated across space and decades. (Photo via Jeff Marquis)

This piece is appearing as part of a fiction series here at The Hardball Times. We’re thrilled to highlight the baseball-related fiction of seven talented authors and think you’ll enjoy these works, curated by Jason Linden and Amy Ryan, as much as we did.

EARTH: March 28, 2089 AD

A giant red cloud descends over Jupiter every spring. I used to sit there, in the thick of it, imagining how this swirling mass must look from space. That year, we were two rows up along the third-base line, surrounded by a sea of Cardinals fans who had filled Roger Dean Stadium for the last day of spring training. Behind us, a group of college students on spring break hailed the beer vendor and ordered another round. A retired couple sat in front of us, in seats they had occupied every game for the past three weeks. She kept score, he pontificated on the glories of the champions of ’59. When he proclaimed Jackson’s Game Four home run was the key to the title, I cringed.

“Jackson missed Game Four, hun,” his wife said, marking another single in her program, “You mean Game Five.” I relaxed, relieved that someone had corrected him. I leaned back and stared out at the field.

“Why did you pick today’s game?” Julie asked between bites of her second hot dog. “If we’d gone yesterday, we could’ve watched Henke pitch? Most of the starters played, too. I haven’t heard of anyone out there today.”

I turned toward my niece. She was wearing last year’s birthday haul: a Henke jersey and a blue and red replica cap from Musial’s last championship team. Looking at her, I realized how well I had indoctrinated her; she already cared more about baseball than her parents.

“You may not have heard of them yet,” I began, “but by the time I get back you will.”

Julie frowned. She refused to talk about my imminent departure. Though only seven, she understood she’d be seventeen by the time I returned from the Achilles–one of the dozen space stations deep in the Oort Cloud. For me, the job would take fewer than four years: a little over a year hurtling through space in one of the NATF’s massive near-light speed cargo ships, an eighteen-month term on the Achilles, and then another year on the return. To Julie, though, I’d be gone nearly a decade.

Julie didn’t say anything. She watched the game as the Sun beat down on us. It was the bottom of the sixth. The Marlins had men on first and third with no outs. Seven Cardinals in their grey and red away uniforms were arranged behind Sal Gonzalez, the young lefty. The fielders were shifted slightly toward first base.

Gonzalez stood at the mound waiting for a sign he liked. He threw from the stretch. The batter hit a low line drive down the third base line. If it stayed fair, it likely would be a double, possibly a triple. In either case, two runs would score. Suddenly, Tommy Orter–the Cardinals’ twenty-year-old third base prospect–was there. He dove left and stretched his glove: somehow he snagged the ball. Rolling to his feet, Tommy stepped on third. The third base ump confirmed the double play; the runner at first returned to his base. The crowd roared.

I smirked at my niece, “That’s why I wanted to come today. I wanted to see Orter and Gonzalez, Smithurck and George. These guys are going to be all that’s left when I get back…” I grabbed the backpack at my feet.

“Here,” I said, handing Julie a magazine, “read this. The Cards have the best farm system they’ve had in fifty years. Maybe more.”

Julie began to flip through the magazine as Gonzalez got the clean-up hitter to pop a fly ball foul down the third base line. Orter made an easy catch, ending the inning.

“Tommy, Tommy,” I heard my niece shout. She tossed the magazine in my lap, grabbed her glove and stood. “My uncle says you’re going to be great. Can I have the ball?”

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Orter heard her. He turned to Julie and smiled. Without a word, he tossed Julie the ball and ran into the dugout. She caught the ball with her mitt and hugged it tight against her chest. It was the first time she’d gotten one at a game.

Julie and I spent the final three innings of the game flipping through the magazine and talking about prospects. I didn’t mention my work again until we were in the car driving back to her parents’ house outside Ft. Lauderdale. She promised to send me news of their fortunes in eighteen months.

NATF CARGO SHIP

There wasn’t much to do in the twelve and a half months it took to reach the Achilles. For this outbound flight, the ship was filled to capacity. It had more than a year and a half’s worth of supplies for the Achilles, replacement equipment and parts for an expansion to the station so it could serve as a launch point for interstellar travel, and mining equipment owned by each of the groups with a team on board. Our equipment alone would have filled more than two dozen city blocks.

The NATF ship was immense, but we didn’t get to see much of it. My team and I were among the hundred or so passengers quartered in the middle of the giant cargo ship–kept safe so long as we didn’t leave the living area. The space was limited to a few narrow, poorly lit corridors with low ceilings connecting the passenger cabins, two common areas, the mess, and the gym.

My cabin was a small, sterile box with the latest conversion modular furniture. The walls were white. The ceiling’s appearance changed as the day passed. It was meant to help us adjust to life in space and, each day, it mimicked the sky near our home. I spent a few hours a day in there, reviewing our projections for element prices more than a dozen years out, trying to see if we’d missed anything. In the eleven months prior to launch, I had created the analysis as part of a team of 25 of the bank’s sharpest quants. It was as solid as any projection I’d ever seen.

Aside from poring over the financial data, I had no responsibilities. I took my meals in the corner of the mess with my team of four men and three women. Upon arrival, they would launch and monitor our diligence probes and set up mining operations on the various properties purchased by the team we were relieving. The food itself was fine, if unremarkable. Re-hydrated meals representing many of Earth’s cuisines. Their smells quickly started to blend together, repeated week after week.

After eating and working, I was left with around ten hours a day to fill. By the time we reached the Achilles, I was in the best shape of my life. I lost track of the amount of time I spent in the gym. I read two books most days.

It was a dream existence for the first month. By month three, I no longer thought of the voyage as a yearlong vacation. Twice, I had a drink with my competitors to break the monotony. But with everyone trying to glean small specs of confidential information, those conversations were awkward and guarded. I preferred boredom to that company. By month eight, I would have given more money than I’d made in my life for any new activity. When we at last docked with the Achilles, the opportunity to do something different had me giddily looking forward to a year and a half of eighteen-hour days.

ACHILLES STATION: April, 2093 – October, 2094 AD

I exited the ship to meet the man I was relieving. Like me, he was a Managing Director. I was mildly jealous, though. His service was near its end. All he needed to do was compare his purchases with the latest projections and help me settle in on board. He gave me a brief tour. The station was a formidable monstrosity. Gray beams crisscrossed overhead, with some no longer serving any purpose. Cargo containers took up most of the free space.

The Achilles had been expanded a number of times, and as a result there was little coherence to its layout. At times, it took me an hour navigating labyrinthine passageways to reach rooms my cabin shared a wall with.

My predecessor took me to the section we leased. I would be living and working there during my time on board. The cabin was significantly larger than what I’d had on the cargo ship. It did have the same white walls and ever-changing ceiling. He then showed me the work and office space my team had been allotted. We also were granted use of the common passenger areas throughout the station.

We found our office empty. He poured me a cup of coffee–at least they hadn’t skimped on the quality with that–and we sat at the conference table. We compared his purchases against the newest analysis I had brought. For a Managing Director, a term on the Achilles guaranteed a comfortable retirement–such was the promise for years in space and the loss of nearly a decade of Earth’s history. And a comfortable retirement was the bare minimum. Much more was possible if certain targets were met or surpassed.

We instantly realized he had blown by his targets. On a hunch, he had bought a few more methane deposits than his projections had suggested. With methane now on the Scarce Element list, he had purchased them at a fraction of the price they would be selling for during my term. As a result, he would be returning to Earth as one of the richest men alive–his bonus likely the highest on record since the earliest days of mining in the asteroid belt.

While we met in the office, our teams worked together to remove the bank’s mining equipment from the ship. They filled the empty space left behind with the results of the bank’s mining operations, after paying the NATF its share.

The Achilles, and the cargo ships that brought us there and back, was owned by the North American Trade Federation, the NATF. Following the ugliness of the Kuiper Mercantile Wars, Earth’s nations had decided that all colonization and mining of the Oort Cloud would be conducted in a more organized fashion. Enforcement was easy. The need for near-light-speed ships to cross the vast distances left various international trade federations as the only parties with the resources and technology to make the journey profitably.

In exchange for building a space station in the Oort Cloud, a federation was granted title to every object within a designated zone. Private actors, like me and the bank I worked for, paid a fee to travel out on a federation cargo ship and lease space on the station. As temporary residents, we were permitted to send out probes to investigate various objects, bid on their purchase, and conduct mining operations. For every object purchased, the NATF would receive an agreed-upon lump-sum cash payment and half of everything mined, in perpetuity. The NATF used most of the latter to meet the immense power needs of the Achilles and their cargo ships; the rest was sent back to Earth for sale.

My job on the Achilles started in earnest a few hours after the cargo ship left on its return trip to Earth–carrying home the men and women we were replacing. Per mission protocol, our first act was to launch thousands of investigative probes. Many would take months to reach their destinations and send back the results of their diligence activities. Some would take more than a year. At that point, we would analyze the data and value each object investigated based on its composition, structure, and distance. If we didn’t send them now, the results would arrive too late to be of use during the bid process.

Under the agreement everyone signed with the NATF, we were required to share all raw data with the NATF. In the event our probes found the presence of elements included on the most recent list of Scarce Elements, we also were required to share the data with everyone on board, including our competitors. This often worked to our benefit, because if another company purchased the object containing scarce elements, we would be paid a significant finder’s fee.

A month before the end of our term, we were required to provide initial bids to the NATF. Unlike our competitors, the vast majority of the time the NATF immediately accepted our bid. A small percentage of the time, the NATF would counter-offer, and we would either negotiate a price or withdraw our bid. This process could take the remainder of the term. In the simplest terms, we made our money by predicting which materials would be valuable on Earth when they were brought more than a decade later.

After we launched the probes, I led my team’s deployment of the mining equipment brought from Earth. We needed to monetize the new projects quickly. We lost a handful of drills and two shuttles, well under the expected loss factor. However, because of the diverse portfolio my predecessor had purchased for the bank, this process took nearly fourteen months. That left me three months to allocate the two-point-seven trillion dollars I’d been tasked with spending.

Weeks and months flew by. Work, sleep, and eat. Work, sleep, and eat. There was no time for anything else. During the week leading up to the bid date, I slept less than twenty hours–all on the cot I had had moved into the conference room. I hadn’t put in a week like that since my second year as an analyst. It was much easier than I had remembered it being; knowing that in five weeks I’d be on my way home to an early retirement helped the hours fly by. Finally, seventeen months after arrival, we submitted our bids. I slept for twenty-two hours straight.

For the last few weeks, my team had been busy collecting and storing the materials mined at the bank’s properties since arrival. The NATF was given its cut from each. As they did this, I was left largely to myself. I tried to study our forecasts so I would be prepared for any counter-offers. There was little point; I had memorized our projections months earlier. I learned the ins and outs of the station and spent hours staring out into space. One of the station’s common rooms had telescopes pointing into the solar system, and I must have spent hours studying each planet and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. I was counting down the days.

The NATF sent out its bid responses midway through the last most month. They had accepted most of my bids outright–even a few I had thought were way too low. Of the ones they countered, I accepted or negotiated a dozen and rejected twenty. I was left with a few hundred billion to spend. I went over the Scarce Element list and significantly upped the offers on three asteroids containing platinum deposits. I won all three. I was done.

The second cargo ship arrived a little under thirty-one months from the day I first left for the Achilles. It had launched from Earth eighteen months after I’d started my journey. When it had left Earth’s atmosphere, I wasn’t even half-way to the Achilles.

I met briefly with my successor while our teams loaded and unloaded equipment and cargo. She gave me the good news: Our projections underestimated certain market growth. My purchases were expected to beat expectations. Best of all, platinum had remained on the Scarce Elements list. I gave her the lay of the station, said my goodbyes, and boarded the ship in a mood to celebrate.

NATF CARGO SHIP

Upon entering my cabin, I noticed a blinking red light. I told the ship to play all messages. My parents wished me a speedy return. A number of friends told me to contact them when I got home. There were a few short messages from co-workers and subordinates, some of whom would likely be my bosses. Lastly, my sister’s face appeared.

“Hey buddy!” she started, “Congrats on making it through. We put together a collection of things to keep you busy on the return trip. Everything you’ve missed: movies, news…”

She turned her head to the left, “Don’t worry, Julie. I’m getting to that.” She turned back to me, “Julie included every Cardinals game played since you left. She hopes you’ll be all caught up and ready to watch tomorrow’s playoff game with her when you get back. The NATF rep said it should all be loaded up for you. Anyway…we’ll see you when you get back. Love you.”

I clapped my hands together. Julie had followed through on my request by sending two full seasons: 324 regular season games plus at least some playoffs. I would be able to watch nearly a game a day on the return trip. And Julie had done more. She had made sure my room would be filled with images of home and quite a bit of team memorabilia. Despite spending more than a year living in one already, I hadn’t even realized you could customize the cabin’s decor. She also had included monthly updates on the Cardinals farm system. By the three-month mark of the voyage home, it was clear she knew far more about the prospects than me.

Between the games and the other goodies supplied by my sister and her daughter, the trip home was a pleasure. No longer competitors, I spent a lot of time mingling, drinking, and playing cards with the other passengers. By the fourth month, I had a group of seven or eight baseball fans to watch games with. It was college again. In month five–as I was pulling out my hair during a 3-10 streak that saw the Cards fall a full five games back of the Reds and Cubs–I was incessantly mocked for caring so much about a season that would be more than eight years gone when we landed. Remarkably, the mocking stopped just as the Cards made a miraculous push to win the division.

I watched all sixty-two hours of the Cardinals’ playoff games over three days. The four-game victory over the defending-champion Cubs was exhilarating; the seven-game war against the Dodgers, draining; and the epic seven-game World Series victory over the Red Sox, stunning. I watched the last four innings of their Game Six win five times before I believed it was real. And, when they won Game Seven, 2-1, to win their first title in thirty years, I cried tears of joy.

The next morning, I ate breakfast and watched my niece’s preseason report on the team. Julie was in the blue-and-red cap I had bought her and a Memphis Redbirds jersey. I couldn’t see whose. She told me the plan was to start bringing up some of the prospects by midyear–including Orter, Gonzalez, and George.

Gonzalez was the first to make an impact in the majors. Two members of the Opening Day rotation went down with injuries in early April, and the lefty made his debut early in the seventh month of my flight home. He was as good as advertised and helped the Cardinals stay within striking distance.

Orter and George’s promotions didn’t go as smoothly. George was sent down once at midseason. Given a second chance, George didn’t disappoint. By season’s end, he was already one of the top five shortstops in the National League. Orter wasn’t called up when rosters expanded in September. His impact on the race was limited. His arrival, though, was more dramatic. Orter hit a massive home run in his first at-bat. It was a titanic blast to dead center that showed his potential as a hitter. He played well for a week until a tweaked hamstring limited him to pinch-hitting duties. The team continued to excel in spite of his injury.

Day by day we approached Earth. And day by day the Cardinals marched closer to a playoff berth, then closer to the World Series. Three days from home, I watched the final game played before my current ride had left Earth: a 4-1 Cardinals victory over the Cubs, which tied the National League Championship Series at three. For the last three days in space, I bounced off the walls impatient for Game Seven.

EARTH: November 30, 2098

I bid high to be first in line for the shuttle that brought us planet-side to the NATF airbase. I was processed quickly, received my first lump-sum payment, and was brought to a small, private room. I found my family waiting happily. My parents had aged only a little in the nearly ten years I’d been gone. A little less hair on my father’s head; glasses that were a tad thicker on my mother’s. My sister had aged more. She had new wrinkles, and her body had changed. Her smile hadn’t.

My mother rushed forward. Welcoming me home with words spoke too quickly to understand, she hugged me tight. “You look so good,” she said releasing me, “space treated you well.”

Over her shoulder, I saw a teenage version of my sister sitting in a chair near the window. It took a moment to process, and I stood slack-jawed. My father, sensing my confusion spoke up, “Julie looks a hell of a lot like her mother, doesn’t she?”

Julie…she’d been seven when I left and about eight and a half in the last video. I’d known intellectually that she would be seventeen when I finished, but seeing it was something else. “My god,” I said, “you’ll have to forgive my starting, Julie. This is going to take some getting used to.”

“Yeah,” she said, “she told us already.” She nodded in the direction of a woman in a white coat who walked over, hand extended, “Jake, I’m your re-entry therapist.” I shook her hand. “I’ve already discussed how time dilation might make your return a challenge. The world changes more than you think in decade. I’m available to help you address any issues that arise.”

“Thanks, doc,” I said “I think I’m okay. I really just want something to eat and to watch a game. My niece has been waiting to watch it with me a long time.”

“Son,” my dad said, “we’ll get to that. The doctor is here so we can tell you something important first. I think you might want to sit down.” I sat and he continued, “Your cousin Frank was killed in an accident four years ago.”

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t speak. The doctor put her arm on my shoulder and told me that most returnees face the loss of a loved one.

At last I found my voice, “Who’s cousin Frank?”

I heard my sister suppress a laugh. My mother’s eyes narrowed, “You remember Frank. My mother’s cousin’s oldest grandson. You and he went to preschool together before we moved. He was at your uncle’s wedding.”

“Oh, right. Cousin Frank,” I pretended to remember. “That’s a terrible shame?”

“Should we talk about it?” my father asked the doctor.

“Really,” I interrupted, “that’s not necessary. I’ll be okay. We hadn’t talked since I was a kid.”

“You sure?” my mom asked.

“Positive. I swear, I’m okay. Besides, Julie’s been waiting eight years to watch Game Seven with me, right?”

Julie stood up slowly, “Yeah, but I may have to bail early. I’ve got homework.”

My parents were about to object, but thankfully the doctor cut them off saying I could call her when I was ready. We thanked her and left the building. Seeing sky above my head was a shock. I felt exposed and rushed to the car. Driving to my sister’s, my father asked if I wanted to eat outside. I used the game as an excuse and said, no, I’d prefer to eat while watching.

The second we were inside, Julie started the game. I followed the smell of drunken noodles and green curry to the kitchen–they hadn’t forgotten my favorites. I filled a plate and plopped down on the couch. Julie joined me a minute later with her own plate. I tried to talk baseball. She refused, saying she didn’t want to accidentally spoil anything for me. So instead we talked about other things: briefly about my journey; at length about the decade of her life I’d missed; and at even greater length about how I could make that up to her now that I was rich beyond comprehension.

The game stayed scoreless into the top of the sixth. Then three straight singles gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead. They doubled the lead an inning later just as Julie excused herself to homework.

The Cardinals failed to get a baserunner in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings and found themselves down two entering the bottom of the ninth. Smith struck out on four pitches for the first out, and Suzuki popped up for the second. Up came George. He fell behind 0-2 before working a nine-pitch walk.

With the pitcher’s spot up, Orter was brought in to pinch-hit. He dug in on the left side. The Cubs’ closer threw the ball toward home. Orter brought his front leg up. If I live to be two hundred, I’ll remember what followed.

Time seemed to slow down. His foot fell to Earth. He swung–a perfect, beautiful swing straight through the strike zone. The bat met the ball waist high, resulting in a thunderous crack. What a sound! The bat launched the ball deep into the night sky, his bat ending high behind his head, held there by one hand.

Time seemed to return to normal. The ball landed well beyond the Cardinals’ bullpen. Orter had tied the game on a blast to left-center. I danced and jumped around. On screen, Orter took a curtain call.

Alas, it was the last hit the Cardinals would muster. They lost the game, 3-2, after the Cubs scored in the top of the tenth following an error, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly. Deflated and disappointed, I went to the kitchen for more to eat. “We’ll be back,” I said to myself. “This was a rebuilding year. Imagine what we’ll do with a full season of the young guys.”

I placed another helping of noodles on my plate. The screen had moved on to Game One of the World Series. I stood, my back to the screen, and poured water into a glass from the freezer door. I could hear the voice of Wrigley Field’s announcer, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we ask that you please rise and join us for a moment of silence in honor of Thomas Orter who was killed in a car accident late last night…”

I don’t remember anything else the announcer said. I carefully put my glass and plate in the sink. I turned and saw Orter’s face on screen with the words “Thomas Orter, 2077-2098” underneath. I slunk down to the floor, my back against the fridge. I couldn’t believe it. He was only 21. Tears streamed down my face, and I let out an audible sob. I sat unmoving for ten minutes lost in my own head, then pulled up news about Tommy’s death. I read tribute after tribute.

When I finished, I walked upstairs, then down the hall to my niece’s room. Her door was open. She was sitting at her desk; her back to the door–watching Tommy’s Game Seven home run over and over again.

She heard me walk in, “I watch this whenever I think about Tommy,” she said turning. “You remember the ball he gave me? From that day on, he was always my favorite.” Julie pointed to the ball, which was sitting on her dresser in front of a picture of the two of us at the game. Tommy was in the background playing third base. Orter’s Memphis Redbirds jersey hung above the picture, framed.

“Fuck,” was all I could say.

“Fuck,” she said back nodding.

“If only the last run…”

She stopped me, “I know, I’ve been over all the what-ifs a hundred times. Don’t dwell on it. So many things had to happen in that game to put him in that car, that night.”

That night, I thought. “It’s been almost nine years for you since that night, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” was all she said.

“How did you deal with it?”

She laughed and her lips curled with the hint of a smile, “I’m still dealing with it. Why do you think I’m watching this?”

We sat in silence. She spoke first. “Did you watch Game One of the World Series yet?”

I shook my head. “Just the moment of silence.”

Julie stood and left her room. “C’mon, then. You have to watch how Vanderbrook honored Tommy.”

“Who’s Vanderbrook?” I asked.

“The Cubs’ rookie pitcher. You’ll fear and hate him soon, but for one game you’ll cheer him as if he was one of our own.”

We walked downstairs and watched the game in silence. Vanderbrook took the mound with Orter’s initials and number written on his hat. They’d gone to high school together three years prior. As the game unfolded on screen, we talked about the day we’d spent in Jupiter watching prospects.

And as Vanderbrook pitched to the last batter in his three-hit masterpiece, I looked at my niece and said, “Earlier today. With the doctor. Why didn’t they tell me about Tommy’s death?”

“They aren’t fans,” she said. “Their memory of Tommy and his death ended when I stopped bringing it up.”

“What about you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

She didn’t answer immediately. “Because…” she said pausing, “I wanted you to have one more chance to just enjoy watching him hit.”


Joshua Pheterson is an attorney and St. Louis Cardinals fan. He lives in a Rochester, New York with his wife and two children. He and his son agree that hot fruit it disgusting.
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creativereason
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creativereason

Thank you for an enjoyable read!

trapjohnson
Member
trapjohnson

If there is a chance to edit this piece, the time dilation seems to come and go.
In TO’s tribute,he would have been aged 12 at the Spring Training game witnessed.