The Visitors at Wriggly Field
It was the bottom of the ninth—Bull Schmidt's ninth Old Style, that was. The 2012 World Series logo at the bottom of his plastic cup hove into view like a rising moon as he drained the last of the beer. He hadn't taken a day off from the Northwestern University Department of Interdisciplinary Endeavors in months, and it felt good. A day where he didn't have to be a hero. A day where he could lay waste to suds instead of techno-thugs. A day without worrying about political correctness for Professor Ecdysiast's sake.
He'd even taken the comm-bead out of his ear and left it at the office.
"Ahhhh," he said with gusto, letting his long legs stretch into the aisle. He stashed the cup under his bleacher seat with the eight other empties. One per inning, and he hadn't once left his seat.
Bull squinted over the roaring crowd at the diamond far below. It was a cold but cloudless Saturday afternoon in the nosebleed seats at Wrigley Field. He pointed his square jaw at the scoreboard and tried to focus on the swimmy numbers. Cubs down by three as they came up to bat? He squirmed, pressing his heroic thighs together. Whatever happened, he hoped the game didn't go into extra innings. He was already plotting his dash to the men's room when it was all over.
The unmistakable crack of a solid hit brought the crowd to its feet. Bull struggled up too. The excitement in the stands was as palpable as he'd felt at a Cubs game in all his forty years. His wobbly eyes picked out a grounder between first and second. Detroit's right fielder scooped it up, but the runner beat the throw to first.
The crowd went nuts.
Unaccountably heavy, Bull's chin fell to his chest. As he struggled to raise it again, a pair of clean white sneakers at the ends of shapely brown legs appeared in the aisle beside him. His eyes found involuntary purchase and climbed a clingy, thigh-length Cubs practice jersey on which, happily, none of the pinstripes seemed to run in a straight line. The logo on the left breast ballooned cartoonishly.
"What a lucky little bear," he said.
The heel of a palm smacked his forehead. "Stop objectifying me, Ferdinand," said a familiar voice.
Bull's head snapped up to meet the burning gaze of a beautiful woman. Beautiful and terrible, like a charging lioness. Except that Bull wasn't afraid of a charging lioness.
"Professor Ecdysiast!" he exclaimed. "I didn't—"
"Save it," said Elaine Ecdysiast with a toss her lustrous black hair. That her eyes were encased behind yellow-tinted AR goggles didn't make them any less lethal. "I need you, Ferdinand. Now."
The beer made him dangerously bold. "As long as I've been waiting to hear you say that, professor," he said, "does it have to be this instant? When the Cubbies could take it all for the first time in a hundred and four years? I mean, they haven't even made it to the Series since 1945!"
In answer, Elaine seized Bull by the arm. Her hand didn't go halfway around his bicep, but still she managed a respectable yank. He stumbled after her down the aisle, barely keeping himself upright. He scowled at each blurry stair, his bladder shrieking with the impact of each footfall.
Around them, the fans groaned at something down on the field. Bull tried to see what, but the professor shoved him into the passage at the bottom of the stairs.
"I tried calling you, Ferdinand," she said.
"Bull," said Bull, smoothing his unruly blond hair.
"I most certainly did, and you didn't answer. I was monitoring the scanners back at the Northwestern University Department of Interdisciplinary Endeavors when—"
Bull rolled his eyes. "I don't know why you can't just be like everyone else and call it—"
"Don't you say it," Elaine said, waving a finger in his face. "My position as a professor of semiotics and women's studies is not merely cover for our government jobs, and I will not tolerate a hostile work environment."
He threw his hands up. "The Department, was all I was going to say!"
The professor dragged Bull out onto the upper concourse just as the crowd went wild again.
"We don't have time for this," she said. "I picked up readings of some kind of anomalous interdimensional energy bleed on the North Side, a massive one, and it seems to be centered here at Wrigley Field. I can't be sure, but it might have something to do with the club's mysterious new management."
"I admit," Bull said, "firing the whole team and bringing in all unknown players was a pretty bold move on their part. But it doesn't make them supervillains, and it seems to have worked wonders." He looked wistfully over his shoulder at the passage to the bleachers. "You know, I paid a scalper a week's salary for my ticket. How in blazes did you get in?"
"Ninth inning? Outfit like this?" The professor swept a hand down in front of her jersey. "Who's going to keep me out?"
Except for vendors in their stalls, the curving concourse was nearly deserted. Elaine glanced around, then tapped a few buttons on her watch. Her Cubs jersey stretched and morphed into a black vinyl catsuit that covered her from the neck all the way down. Her white sneakers turned into low black boots.
"Now let's go see what's up," she said.
With little mincing steps, Bull started toward the nearest men's room. He was starting to curse the way the team's new owner had pressed for repeal of the statute prohibiting the sale of beer after the seventh inning. "Gimme a sec here."
The professor grabbed his arm again and dragged him along. "No time, Ferdinand! We're close to the energy source." Her head swiveled like a radar dish. "Everyone in this stadium may be in mortal danger."
Bull looked over his shoulder at the receding men's room with something much stronger than wistfulness.
They passed a condiments stand where a sturdy man in a Cubs sweatshirt was doctoring his hot dog. Bull squinted at him as he lurched along after the professor. The man looked up furtively, then down again.
"Hey, what's with that guy?" Bull slurred.
"What guy?" Elaine asked, stopping.
"Him," Bull said, nodding.
The professor turned her yellow goggles toward the man. Bull wondered what the augmented-reality overlay was showing her, especially because she suddenly started dragging him toward the guy.
"Good spotting!" she said. "Come on."
When the man saw them coming, he left his hot dog on the counter and slipped through a gray steel door. He moved strangely, undulating a little.
Bull mustered enough coordination to snag the hot dog in its ruffled paper sleeve as they passed. When Elaine reached the door, she rattled the handle. It was locked.
"No time for subtlety," she said. "Stand back."
What Bull did was more like swaying than standing. He watched as the professor pointed her goggles toward the handle. After a few seconds, the curve of metal glowed red and lost its shape. Elaine kicked the door open.
Inside was a concrete stairwell. As Bull climbed after the professor, a gust of fresh cheering reached them. He mourned all the wondrous things he was leaving behind—things like community, championship glory, plumbing.
"How'd you know there was something wrong about that guy, anyway?" Elaine asked.
Bull looked at the monstrosity in his hand. "He was putting ketchup on his dog," he said, tossing the nasty thing down the stairs. "A hell of a thing to do your wiener."
"Well, great work. That may have been just the break we needed."
It was not at all the break Bull needed.
The professor reached another gray door at the top of the stairs. She held up a hand for silence. Bull, breathing through clenched teeth, tried to do so quietly.
The door swung suddenly inward. The man from the condiments stand appeared, holding a large, complicated, and deadly-looking raygun. That almost distracted Bull from the fact that the guy's skin seemed a little ... squirmy.
A smirky voice called out from inside, "If it isn't my old nemesis, Professor Elaine Ecdysiast! And her trusty sidekick, Ferdinand 'The Bull' Schmidt! Won't you please come in?"
The gunman gestured with his weapon and stepped out of the way. Entering, Bull and Elaine found themselves in a skybox thirty feet square at the very top of the stadium. Windows on three sides gave a stunning view not just of the field itself but of the buildings all around it with their ranks of crowded rooftop seating, and of the sidewalks jammed with fans who couldn't score tickets to the game. Below the windows, control consoles bristling with gauges and flashing lights filled the remaining space, while in the middle of the room, above a low metal pedestal, a ring of purplish energy the size of a child's hula hoop hummed and crackled in a horizontal plane in midair.
Bull wanted to see how the North Siders were faring against the Tigers, but across the room a padded swivel chair spun, commanding his attention. A smiling, silver-haired man with thick glasses rose from the chair and limped toward them. He wore a Cubs uniform and windbreaker instead of his usual white lab coat, but still he was unmistakable.
"Doctor A. Dell Vice!" Elaine exclaimed. "I should have known the Partnership for Research into Unusually Diabolical Enterprises was behind the energy leakages we've been monitoring."
Dr. Vice sketched a modest bow. "At your service," he said. "But may I request, now that I'm the majority stakeholder in a major American sports franchise, that you address me by my preferred new handle, 'D-Vice'?"
The professor sighed impatiently. "Far be it from me to marginalize a fellow human being, even an evil genius, by addressing him by a name not of his choosing."
"You never call me Bull," grumbled Bull.
"I appreciate your consideration, Double-E," leered Vice. He slapped his game leg. "I find it especially heartwarming in light of how you left me at our last encounter. And now, before my henchbeing disposes of you both, I presume you'd like an explanation of the diabolical enterprise about to achieve its final consummation here today?"
"If it'll make you happy to crow," Elaine seethed, "we'll listen."
"I do so appreciate your enthusiasm," said Vice. He clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace and clomp before the purple energy ring. "Your organization, my old friends, which represents the most advanced secret technology the U.S. government can muster, has always been outmatched by my own advances. Even so, I'm about to enter an interdimensional alliance that will give me access to technology an order of magnitude beyond my own."
"Good grief," Bull groaned, bouncing on his toes, though it was not a response to the doctor. His eyeballs were swimming.
"Please, keep up your excitement!" Vice said, gesticulating toward the energy ring. "This wormhole, maintained by a device of my own invention, is powered entirely by the positive emotional energy of my brain, and those of others nearby."
"You have any positive energy?" Elaine scoffed.
"Professor Ecdysiast, I'm hurt," said Vice. "I'm overflowing with happy thoughts of world domination, thanks to my arrangement with my friends in our neighboring dimension. Right now, the wormhole connection is sufficient only to permit one interdimensional visitor every fifteen minutes or so, but that won't continue to be the case for long."
As if on cue, the ring flashed blue. A fat green wormy thing a foot long dropped from it onto the pedestal. One end of the thing rose up like a periscope and seemed to survey the room before it wriggled down onto the floor. Bull and Elaine each took a step back.
"Ugh," said the professor. The thing was slithering more or less her way.
"Oh, that's not the only one of its kind in this room." Vice indicated the unsmiling gunman. "Individually, the visitors aren't much to look at, but in concert they're capable of the most remarkable feats. They're a hive mind, really."
The green thing squirmed past Elaine and touched the shoe of the gunman guarding her. Immediately it was absorbed, sucked up like water by a paper towel. The man's skin undulated before settling into stillness again.
"Over the last couple of years," Vice went on, "as I've secretly maneuvered to bail the Cubs out of bankruptcy, I've accumulated a large enough army of these fellows to field an entire team of them."
"What?" Bull gasped. "The Loveable Losers are really—?"
"Yes," said Vice, nodding in delight. "The home team are actually visitors! And interestingly, they make the best players the game has ever seen."
"I can't imagine it's civic pride that's motivating you," the professor said, eyes narrowed. "What's your angle?"
Dr. Vice smirked. "What you see before you is nothing. I've rigged this entire ballpark as a giant wormhole generator. It's one of the few remaining stadiums that occupies an actual neighborhood, and when my extradimensional ringers win this game, the density of the resulting waves of municipal triumph and pride will power a gate large enough to admit an entire army at once. There are already a hundred of these composite soldiers interspersed throughout the stands. They'll join forces with the army to seize this city as their slaves, and I will serve as their chief technology officer!"
Elaine exclaimed, "What a cunning plot, D-Vice!"
Bull couldn't see straight. He was crouched over like a catcher, hands pressed to his crotch. "A little overelaborate, don't you think?" he huffed.
"What do you know, Schmidt?" snapped Vice. The energy ring crackled and fizzled and lost some of its color. "You're just a musclebound has-been with the brain of a nematode. Now, if you'll permit me, the count stands at—" He whirled to check the scoreboard far below. "—two strikes and three balls, with two men out and three men on. This, my friends, is the moment of truth!"
Bull groaned. He couldn't believe he was missing this game.
Vice snatched up a P.A. mike from one of the consoles. "How about we do The Wave, Chicago!" he shouted. "Let's show our Cubbies how proud we are!"
"The Wave?" Bull said incredulously. "You can't be serious."
Shouts of "Shut up!" and more improbable suggestions rose from the crowd. Vice frowned. The ring lost more color.
"Ferdinand," hissed Elaine, "stand up straight! We have to do something!"
Bull was torn. A city of slaves—that would no doubt be bad. But other the hand, a World Series championship was at hand!
"I'm sorry, professor," he wheezed, fingers shaking as they fumbled with his zipper. Oh, why did he always wear his pants so tight? "I'm going to have to ask you to turn away."
He didn't wait to see if she complied. He couldn't. He simply turned to the wall, heedless of the gun trained on him, and let fly.
"Look at that swing!" cried Vice at the window.
"What's that smell?" Elaine said in disgust.
"That's our grand slam hit!"
"Is that ... beer?"
Bull tried to follow the volley of words, but the blessed relief gushing out of him left him indisposed. As his outflow swirled around the feet of his captor, the man hissed like a cat and dropped his gun. Sizzling smoke poured up from his shoes, and his body lost its shape. He collapsed suddenly into a mound of fat green wormy things that writhed and shrieked as they tried to flee the sudsy torrent.
In the chaos, Elaine sprang toward Dr. Vice, even as he leaped up onto the pedestal to avoid the foaming tide.
"You animal!" the doctor cried. "You foul beast!"
Green visitors wriggled and flailed across the floor, making an unholy racket as they crackled and shriveled. Elaine bumped Vice with her shoulder as she charged past the pedestal. He lost his balance. "Nooooo!" he screeched as he tumbled into the energy ring.
He vanished. And the ring did too.
The professor snatched up the microphone Vice had dropped. The crowd outside was roaring approval, and the first hint of a purplish glow appeared around the top of the stadium.
"Old Style invites you to rush the field, Chicago!" Elaine shouted into the mike. "Let's douse our world-championship Cubs with a world-championship beer! If you can't get to the field, pour your beer on your neighbor! That's just how Chicago rolls!"
His tap at last run dry, Bull sagged against the wall. He reholstered, then surveyed the carnage in the skybox. Nose wrinkled, he splashed his way carefully to where the professor stood at the windows. He was too mortified to look at her.
Elaine swept a hand at the vista below. "A real containment mess on our hands," she said. "But it's better than an alien invasion, wouldn't you say?"
Bull took in the chaos on the field and in the stands as beer-drenched fans kicked at, stomped on, and ran away from the smoking, sizzling, wriggly creatures thrashing in their death throes. Around the rim of the stadium, the dull purplish light sputtered and went out.
He glanced at the pedestal. "Is Dr. Vice dead, do you think?"
"If I know D-Vice, he'll be back when we least expect it."
"At least he broke the Cubs curse," Bull said. "I'd like to thank him for that." He wrung his hands. "Speaking of which, I, um, suppose I should tender my resignation. Considering my entirely inappropriate, um, display here. Which, you know, showed hostility toward your workplace."
"Nonsense. That was an impressive, er—" Her eyes flicked briefly downward. "—piece of work. Bull."
Bull hadn't blushed since the Carter administration, but he did now, looking down at his sopping shoes.
"Just tell me one thing before we clear out of here," said Elaine, tilting her head. Her hair spilled quite enticingly over her shoulder. "How'd you guess how to defeat the visitors?"
"Oh, I don't know," Bull said with a grin. "I guess I'm just a whizz that way."