The Fourth Reich

          Amended again. I reviewed what I posted and found a few typos and one exceedingly embarrassing lapse of perspective. I made a few word changes here and there. I seem to do that every time I go back and reread one of my stories. I think I’ve got everything fixed now.

  I was just thinking one day about temporal distortions, anomalies of time and space, just the general stuff we all daydream about. Actually, I think I’ve seen too much Star Trek. People my age were raised on it. I was a kid, determined to be an astronaut when it was a weekly tv show. By the time I was in high school and college, you could usually find it as an afternoon filler between game shows and the news. I’m one of those people who can identify the entire story within seconds of the opening scene. Yeah, I’m a nerd.

            But I’ll also admit that many of the Star Trek episodes were dreadful on science and heavy on fiction. I liked the more intelligent ones. That’s what I’ve tried to write. And no, Captain Mundy is NOT James Kirk. My knowledge of physics is spotty, but I do know a little bit. I was watching an old SF movie last night from 1965 and its howlers were awful. The writers were seemingly unsure of the difference between a galaxy and a planet. And the meteors in space were flaming. And when they walked (gravity?) into an open airlock on an alien ship, there was an alien making vocal noises (vacuum and absolute cold of space). When he attacked they shot him with a pistol. I’m pretty sure a pistol won’t work in a vacuum. Nor be heard. And they found a wandering moon (with an atmosphere, plants, oceans and sunshine?) “near the Triangulum galaxy”. Say what? It actually got worse as it went on. I hate crap like that. There’s a difference between camp and speculative fiction. I’ve tried to keep everything in this story within the realm of what could happen. It’s one of my longer stories, 23 pages. Anyway, I enjoyed writing it. Hope you enjoy reading it.

The Fourth Reich

            “Incoming gravitational pulse, Captain!”

Almost as soon as Science Officer Karen Jordan got these words out, the ship jolted with a mighty shudder.

            “Sorry, sir. It was traveling near light speed. The signal reached us only seconds before the surge.”

            Suddenly the red beacon on the wall began flashing and a loud klaxon signaled the ship’s computer had initiated a red alert.

            “Computer. What’s going on?” Captain Mundy shouted to be heard over the alarm.

            “The gravitational pulse indicates a black hole in the local star system. Its attraction may overcome ship’s thrust. Event horizon imminent,” said the dispassionate voice.

            “Captain, our engines are struggling to get free of the pulse,” Helmsman Anderson reported.

            “Divert more power to engine.”

            “I’m giving her all I’ve got, sir.”

            Captain Mundy hit the comm button on the arm of his captain’s chair.

            “Jones. I need more power. Divert it from everything but life support if you need to.”

            “Diverting,” Jones called back. “I’m sending you all I’ve got. I’ve cut off everything but the kitchen sink.”

            “Well, cut that off too if you need to. I need all the power we’ve got sent to my engines.”

            “Still sluggish, Captain,” Anderson said.

            “Set a course along the line of the gravitational pull and see if you can peel away. And Karen, see if you can turn off that damn bell,” the captain ordered. The shrill alarm ceased.

            “How did we stumble in this hole anyway?” the captain groused.

            “It’s not on our charts, sir. Remember we are charting new territory. We’re farther out in the Sagittarian Arm than any ship has been. Our sensors had swept this area. The computer should have notified us that space was warped in this area.”

            “Well, log it and report it back to Earth Command. And find out what’s wrong with that computer. I don’t want any more surprises.”

            “Aye, sir.”

            “We don’t seem to be able to pull away, sir,” Anderson told him, his voice a mix of frustration and growing alarm.

            “Are you giving it everything? Hyperdrive and impulse?”

            “Everything, sir.”

            “Can we polarize the tractor beam and push away from the center of mass?” the captain asked.

            “That’s just the problem, sir,” Jordan said. “It’s really like a hole. It feeds on anything we send its way. There’s nothing to push against.”

            “Sir, there’s a small planetoid ahead. It’s in a higher orbital plane. Our thrust plus the tractor beam may enable us to pull ourselves out.”

            “Do it,” Mundy said, wiping his brow and pushing his blond hair back up on his head. Longer than regulation but in space, who cares?

            He watched while Anderson flipped switches and dials expertly at his consol. He’s just a kid, Mundy thought. At 21 David Anderson had zoomed through the Academy and now was on his first space mission.

            “Put it on visual, Karen.”

            On the large view screen they could see an irregularly shaped rock, a couple of miles long and maybe a third as wide. It was slowly pinwheeling like a thrown bowling pin. A fat bowling pin. They could hear the hum as the tractor beam locked onto its target and began pulling. The rock appeared to grow in size, indicating they were getting closer. Anderson’s plan was working.

            “Captain, our engines can’t sustain this much strain. If we don’t cut back soon they may blow. Then we won’t have any power.” Jones was shouting on his comm over the alarm that had begun clanging in the engine room.

            “And if we don’t keep it up, we’ll be having our dinner at the center of a black hole. Keep it coming, Jonesie.” Mundy could visualize Jonesie in the engine room – overalls, stained tee shirt, graying hair sticking up in all directions. In his estimation the best damn engineer in the fleet.

            With an electrical crackle, a spark flew out of one of the dials on Anderson’s consol. He jumped back to avoid being shocked.

            “Captain, we just lost engine two. We’re starting to lose altitude.”

            “See if we can lock onto the rock with our talons. That should give us some room to catch our breath.” Anderson folded his six foot two frame back into the helmsman’s seat.

            As they were near enough to the asteroid the ship shot out several grappling hooks. They reeled the ship in and drove pitons into the rock to secure the ship. The asteroid continued pinwheeling on with the ship along for the ride.

            “Jonesie. How long until the engine is back online?”

            “I dunno, Captain. Maybe never.”

            “Not acceptable. Get my engine running. That’s an order.” 

            “Will do, Captain.” If anyone could fix a broken engine in space, it was Jonesie, he thought.

            “Suggestions, gentlemen?” Captain Mundy said, looking around the bridge.

            “Sir, once we get engine two back online we can wait until the planetoid is between us and the black hole. We could polarize the tractor beam as you suggested and push ourselves toward a higher orbital plane. Once there we could look for other masses to pull or push against. We might be able to crawl out by stages that way.”

            “Mister Anderson, remind me to give you a raise,” the captain smiled. He clicked his comm button again. “Jones, I need that engine.”

            “Working on it, Captain.”

***

Captain’s Log

United Earth Ship Superior

Captain Robert Mundy

Star Date 3428.7

Earth Date April 20, 2316

Our exploratory and mapping mission into the Sagittarian Arm of the galaxy has been interrupted by discovery of a black hole. We were pulled into its gravity well and are working on plans to get out. Engine two is temporarily out. No casualties or injuries in the 20 ship personnel. Captain out.

***

            “Karen, get this and my last five log entries encrypted and sent to Earth Command.”

            “Aye, Captain. It may take some time. I can’t send it via any media except subspace. Nothing else can overcome the gravity well.”

            “How does subspace do it? Maybe we can use that technology to our advantage.”

            “Not unless we can make ourselves microscopic. Subspace uses quantum entanglement to overcome the issues with gravity, speed of light and distance. That only works on the subatomic level. However, if we don’t get out of this black hole’s grasp, we will soon be the size of those subatomic particles.”

            “Explain,” the captain asked. His forte was military, not science and he had no problem deferring to Karen Jordan’s obviously immense intelligence and vast store of knowledge.

            “Yes, sir. As we get closer to the center of mass our bodies will be subjected to greater and greater gravitational pressure. The ship’s force field will protect us for a while. That won’t last long as the force increases. It will give away and we will be crushed. Then the ship will collapse like an old-style aluminum can. Our mass will remain the same but our volume will continue decreasing as we fall into the hole. But the radiation may kill us first.”

            “What happens when we hit bottom?”

            “No one knows. There may be hundreds of star systems already in the hole. The pressure will be so great that eventually the atoms will collapse. When the electrons connect with their nuclei there will likely be a tremendous release of energy but our equations fail us. Einstein theorized an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, what some people call a wormhole.”

            “Time travel, Karen? Surely you don’t believe in that.”

            “If Einstein believed it, it’s good enough for me. He said it would open a portal to another place and time, possibly another universe. Unfortunately, we won’t be alive to see it.”

            “Unfortunately,” Mundy echoed.

            “Our complement of scientists is having a field day with this. No one has ever been able to study a black hole this closely before.”

            “I wonder why,” Mundy said sourly.

            “They understand that we are in trouble, but you know how scientists are. They are feeding the computers data as fast as they can to be encrypted for shipping back to colleagues on Earth. Gloria was just telling me about the anomalies she has spotted just outside the event horizon.”

            “What kind of anomalies?”

            “We don’t know. Wrinkles or tears in the space/time continuum.”

            “Space/time continuum? I think you just exceeded my pay grade, Lieutenant. Carry on.” He watched as she headed back to the labs to ride herd on his “resident eggheads” as he called the ten scientists on the mission. As her superior officer he maintained a friendly distance. As a man he admired how her rear filled her uniform and undulated, creating the infinity sign as she walked, her short blond cut bouncing gaily. She’s twenty-five and I’m twenty-nine, he thought. She’s beautiful and I’m somewhat handsome (he knew some of the female scientists had their eye on him. One of the male ones also according to his First Officer). Any other place and time, he mused. If only we could drop into that wormhole. He smiled ruefully as Major Donovan approached.

“Smiling at your science officer’s ass, Captain? Hardly regulation, but I have to agree with you.” Ben Donovan was a rugged man of thirty-five, decorated and proven on many occasions. He had earned distinction but then was reassigned to a desk. War horses aren’t needed in peace time. He had requested to come along on this mission as security. He said his other option was to put a laser pistol to his head.

“What’s up, Major Donovan?” Mundy asked. As a military man himself, he trusted Donovan as much as anyone on his bridge team.

“A minute of your time, if I may.” Although Donovan technically outranked Mundy, as he was Marine to Mundy’s Navy, he always deferred to Mundy as the commanding officer of the ship.

“Shoot.”

“I want to know if our situation is as dire as it sounds. Some of the eggheads are getting a bit skittish. I need to know if me and Jorgenson are going to have a riot on our hands.”

Donovan and Lieutenant Kevin Jorgenson, the other marine, had been attached as their “security team”, although he wasn’t sure how much security a couple of jarheads could provide. But who knows what they were likely to encounter, and a few hired guns might come in handy.

“We have a plan, such as it is. If it doesn’t work, well, yeah, we’re in dire shape. Jordan doesn’t think our scientist friends will cause much trouble. They’re having fun with their toys and the black hole right now. If worst comes to worst, we can lock’em down.”

“I wanted to make sure I have authorization to keep order.”

“Just use non-lethal force, and only as necessary. I’d hate to get out of this at the last second and have to explain dead scientists to Earth Command. My ship, my responsibility.”

***

“Captain, I’ve got engine two running again. It’s jury rigged but it should hold. Unlessen you try to get it to do more than a ship this size is supposed to do. These are small engines, Captain. Not what you’re used to in the Navy. Fortunately, the failsafe knocked if offline before it had a chance to go kapow.” Jones’ voice sounded weary.

            “Mister Anderson. Do we have a target?” the captain asked.

            “Yes, sir. We do. Another large asteroid. Fortunately, we are passing directly under it while our little rock is between us and the center of mass of the black hole. On your mark, Captain.”

            “Mister Jordan, let me know when we are in optimum position,” he ordered, using official Navy terminology for the lieutenant.

            “Aye, Captain. Position coming up. In three, two, one. Now.”

            “Engage,” the captain ordered. Since the ship’s artificial gravity remained constant and overrode all external stimuli, the only indication that they were moving was a faint rumbling from within the ship.

            “Thrust at maximum, Captain. Tractor polarized repulsion also at maximum. We seem to be gaining ground,” reported Anderson.

            “Alright, Davie,” Mundy had come to stand by Anderson’s chair, bent over, his head close to the second lieutenant. “At the halfway point we flip the tractor and switch polarization at the same time, locking onto the new asteroid. No second chances.” Everyone sat quietly as the seconds elapsed.

            “Now, Davie!” Mundy was amazed at how quickly the young man’s hands flew over his console.

            “Target acquired, and … traction.”

            “Captain, I’m warning you. The engines ain’t liking this one bit,” Jones called almost immediately.

            “I’m not asking them to like it. Just do their jobs. Give me fifteen more seconds.”

            “We got maybe 20. No more.”

            “Come on, Davie. Pull!”

            “Grappling hooks away,” Anderson said. “And contact. Cut engines.”

            “Reel us in and lock it down. Well, done, Mr. Anderson.” He patted the young man’s shoulder. Anderson sat back, somewhat pleased with himself.

***

            The bridge door opened and First Officer Commander Jennifer Newly strode in. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun and everything about her looking fresh and pressed. She had served nearly five years with Mundy. She repeatedly made sure to be assigned as his second. She knew he had the makings of a great captain and wanted to learn from him. And she had decided he wasn’t that hard to look at, either. She felt that, together, they made a formidable team. Mundy was inclined to agree.

            “Reporting for shift, Captain. You may be relieved if you wish.”

            “Good to see you, Jen. Take the con. Mister Anderson, brief the commander. Lieutenant Jordan, with me. We have a scientist to go see.” He and Jordan left the bridge, with Jordan wondering what this was about.

***

Despite its name, UES Superior was not a large ship. An inelegantly shaped floating box, it was fifty meters long, ten wide and twenty deep. It resembled two old style mobile home units, one stacked atop the other. It was divided into a small bridge, science labs, five closet sized cubicles for the scientists who had to double up, and six for the crew. Only Mundy had a private room. Or private closet as he called it. There was also a small workout area crew were required and scientists were “recommended” to use to maintain their muscle mass while in space. Finally, a dining area/meeting room that would accommodate all twenty of them, with a little crowding. The scientists worked in shifts, five sleeping while five had the labs. Similarly, Captain Mundy and Commander Newly traded off, as did engineer Commander Casey Jones and his assistant Lieutenant Digger Emory. The other four crew, Jordan, Anderson, Cain and Dr. N’dutu also rotated as needed.

***

            It took nearly two days to find another large body to use. At least they assumed it was two days. None of the chronometers worked in the event horizon vortex. They could determine very little except that there was a violent maelstrom of matter and energy surrounding the ship.

            They attempted the maneuver just as before. However, shortly after starting, Karen shouted “Gravitational wave!” Everyone grabbed onto whatever they could as the wave slammed into the ship. It sent them tumbling along the orbital path. Fortunately, the shielding was strong enough to keep them from being crushed as they bounced around the orbital zone like the ball in an ancient pinball machine. By the time they had established a modicum of control over their ship Anderson shouted, “Holy moley, we’re headed straight into the hole!”

            “Pull out, pull out!” Captain Mundy ordered, keeping the panic he felt from his voice. Because of Anderson’s quick thinking and sharp reflexes, they managed to pull the ship up and it shot across the surface of the waves of hot gases like a stone skimming across a lake. They had lost a significant amount of altitude, although they had no way of measuring how much. They could hear the groans and growling of the ship hull as the force field tried to shield them from the crushing gravity this deep in the black hole. They had swung around the hole like a rock in a sling around a hunter’s raised hand.

            “Captain, I can’t get an accurate gauge,” said Anderson. “But it would appear we’ve been slung into a superfast eddy. We’re spinning around the hole like crazy. Maybe as much as 0.9 light speed. This ship isn’t built for such speed. If it weren’t for the force field and gravitational pressure we’d have already spun apart.”

            “So, if we hit light speed we’ll start going back in time and can avoid this mess?” Captain Mundy joked.

            “I wish. Even our school kids don’t believe that anymore,” Commander Newly said.  Considering the predicament they were in, she had taken to remaining on the bridge during her down time. “There’s no going back in time.”

            “Except maybe through a black hole,” said Lieutenant Jordan winsomely.

            “That’s pretty much that, then,” said Mundy. “We’ve got no more aces up our sleeves. Karen, can we get a last dispatch off to Earth Command?”

            “Negative, Captain. We’re so deep in the hole even the quantum realm is affected.”

***

            Over a few days they successfully attached themselves to several larger bodies caught in the same super-eddy and gained a little more distance from the black hole, but were unable to move further. Their velocity made it impossible to grab large bodies outside the eddy. Lieutenant Jordan said it was just as well. The sudden jolt of the reduction in speed would probably tear the ship apart.

            The crew spent a week maneuvering the ship to the upper edges of the eddy only to have the gravity drag them back down. It required constant monitoring to keep them out of the black hole’s hungry maw.

            “I doubt we can do this much longer,” Mundy said, speaking to the entire crew and scientists. “The toll on the superstructure of the ship is too much. It will eventually give. I suppose we have a few more days, less than a week before the hull is breached. I imagine it will be a quick, but quite painful death. I will authorize desensitizing pills for all military personnel who want them, but I expect everyone to be at their stations from now on. We will meet this like a disciplined team. N’dutu, as medical officer, could you take over distributing suicide pills to the scientists who may want a quick exit?”

            “Sure thing, Captain.” She left the bridge to carry out her assignment.

            “I guess this is where I’m supposed to say it’s been an honor to serve with you. It sounds so trite, but actually it sums up how I feel. It has been an honor. Thank you, sir,” Karen said. Mundy could hear the held back tears in her voice.

            “Same here, Karen. Chin up. Best damn science officer ever. I’ll put that in your permanent file,” he said with a grin. She gave him a tremulous smile.

            After Karen left the bridge to confer with the scientists Jennifer Newly came up to Mundy’s chair.

            “I just wanted to echo what Karen said. It truly has been an honor to serve with you. Five years now. We know each other so well. I can almost anticipate your orders before you give them. It’s just awful that it has to end this way. If there’s anything like an afterlife I guess I’ll see you on the other side, Rob.”

            “Yeah, feels like we’re an old married couple. See you too, Jen. If we both go the same way,” he said with a smile.

***

            For the rest of the day they all sat at their stations, pretending it was like any other day. Most of them had no family back home. That was why they had chosen a multi-year mission into space. Anderson kept Mundy apprised of what the psi on the outer hull was, and how much it could withstand. He also reported that radiation inside the ship was reaching critical levels.

            They were near to breaking and another gravitational surge like the last two would flatten the ship. Their hearts barely had time to leap into their throats when Karen yelled, “Gravitational surge, but it’s coming from …”. That was all she managed to get out before the wave struck the fragile little craft.

***

Admiral’s Log

WAF ship Konigsberg

Reich-Admiral Zariah Als

15.13.578 Anno Imperium

The crew has become restless as we have been weeks without a prize. My research into ancient records indicate a ship was lost in this area over 900 years ago, back during the United Earth years. There is no record of another ship salvaging it so it should be somewhere in this star system. I’ll check the black hole first. A smart captain would have devised a way to park himself at the event horizon if he were captured by it. Perhaps that ship is circling there still, with near thousand-year-old corpses guarding their treasures. Admiral out

***

            The scuttlebutt is that we are looking for a ghost ship lost a thousand years ago, thought Bunde Christophe Verhoven. If I’m in a boarding party and come up against a skeleton, I hope I hold my shite together better than poor Bujonjoe did. I had befriended him, although I’ve had to act in the past few weeks as if I never did. I feel like I deserted him. I’m most ashamed of that. Such a sensitive soul as him should never have been in the military. He was not cut out for it. But his family forced the issue. His old man was a hard-core Nationalist. He swore his son would serve and advance or die honorably. Well, Buj did neither. He stuck his laser pistol in his mouth on wide dispersal and vaporized his head. When we found that freighter a couple months ago Buj had been on the boarding party. He stumbled and fell into a partially decomposed body. He screamed and scrambled back, spewing vomit all over himself. Even worse, he pissed himself. The men laughed at him. But they felt he had cracked under pressure. He could not be trusted. He was no longer part of the team. He started getting hazed pretty hard. I saw the bruises from the beatings he was getting. The dark circles under his eyes told me he wasn’t sleeping, or wasn’t being allowed to sleep. He avoided messhall and hardly ate a thing. He confided in me the last time I saw him alive that the three guys who everyone knew were the worst of the sadistic bundesleiters had gang raped him. He was frantic and didn’t know where to turn. It was even worse luck that he was serving with an old pirate like Als. And I don’t use the word pirate lightly. Als, with his one eye and broad girth is much like the lawless brigands that sailed the oceans of old Earth some two thousand years ago. But the Supreme Leader and the Empire turn a blind eye to his activities as long as he gets results. Als pays as little attention to his men as to the law so the worst of the bullies run the barracks. They had identified Bujonjoe as a weak link and he was being removed. As far as he was concerned, he took the only path he could see. I just feel sorry for him.

***

            “So tell me, Reichsmagister, what do you see?” Admiral Als asked his science advisor.

            “There might be something there, might not. If it’s beyond the event horizon we won’t be able to see it.”

            “I’m aware of that. But our quantum entanglement device can detect telltale signs at the quantum level if there is something in there worth pursuing.”

            “Yes, but at the cost of a huge expenditure of energy which we are already running low on.”

            “But think what we might find? The records say a science ship was lost in this area. It may have had those sun charged batteries we lost the technology for. Just think if we found those. An endless supply of energy for me. And for the Empire at the right price of course. And a science ship. No telling what surprising technologies it may hold. So much was lost in the Glorious Revolution.”

            “If it is your command, mein Herr.”

            “It is.”

            “As you wish. Heil!” he gave his admiral the straight arm salute.

            “Heil.”

***

            Poor Buj. Being raped was the ultimate dishonor. Man on man sex was nothing new. On spacing ships with a hundred men and no women it was common. Some barracks had men who liked it and provided for their platoon. In others, the weaker men were just taken and forced. Even that had a modicum of honor since they were providing for the esprit de corps. But to be raped for no other reason than to show that you could be signifies the victim is no man. He is no more a man than is a slave. He is as low as a woman and used as one. I am not sure if that message is what sent Buj over the edge or if it was just a cumulative effect. I’m not sure I could handle it as long as poor Buj did. God, I hope I hold my shite together if I’m on that boarding party.

***

            “Mixed news, mien Admiral,” said the Reichsmagister as he entered the bridge. He stopped and sketched a short bow before continuing. “It appears from the QED signature that a ship is hiding in the jersa surrounding the hole.”

            “Not hiding, Reichsmagister. Just the victim of a power beyond its ability to control. Just as we would be if we ventured too close.” Then, as if just making sure, he turned to the helmsman. “Helmsleiter, be sure to keep a respectable distance from the event horizon or you will feel the sting of my laser baton on your back.”

            “Jawohl, mein Admiral.” Helmsleiter Kell’s eyes grew wide and round at the thought of the Admiral’s laser baton.

            “That sounds like good news, Reichsmagister. Can we get a fix on it?” asked the admiral.

            “Nein. It moves around the black hole at nearly the speed of light. May as well try to capture an electron as it speeds around its nucleus.”

            “That is not acceptable Reichsmagister. A thing that can be measured can be captured. I will not come this far and be denied my prize. It is your duty to determine how we will acquire it. I will give you until this time tomorrow to work it out. Dismissed.”

            “Heil!” said the Reichsmagister with his straight arm salute.

            “Heil.”

***

            It looks like I may be off the hook, after all. Even if there is a derelict to be salvaged we apparently can’t get to it. The admiral gave the Reichsmagister until today to figure it out. The guys say he’s got nothing. The admiral doesn’t like hearing no. The Reichsmagister will at least wind up in the brig and we may be rounded up to see a public torture. It’s been a while since anybody pissed off the old man that much. Word gets around. They say the Reichsmagister was on the bridge till late last shift. He supposedly had some animated conversations with Commandant Michaelik Smits. I don’t know what that was about, but I bet he was trying to work out how not to end up in the torture booth. I don’t particularly like the Reichsmagister but no one deserves the torture booth. And I don’t like being forced to watch the agony of a man as he is tortured. An object lesson, Als calls it. Als is a savage bully who likes hurting people. Unfortunately, he is just the kind of man the Empire breeds and promotes. I hate this whole stinking culture. I hate what they did to Bujonjoe. And I hate what they are trying to make me become.

***

            “Heil, mein Admiral. I believe I have devised a method of extracting the derelict ship from the cloud of jersa.” The Reichsmagister looked haggard from his sleepless night.

            “Oh? Enlighten me.”

            “Commandant Smits. If you would be so kind. Please bring up the black hole with the suspected orbit of the ship as predicted by the QED.” A black sun appeared on the screen, blacker than the black background. It was most visible as a black circle in the group of background stars. A red dot circled the black sun so rapidly it seemed to be a solid line. It was at a forty degree angle to the WAF Konigsberg, only partially visible from their angle.

            “Now, Herr Kell,” he spoke to the helmsman. “Please realign the ship’s orbit by fifty degrees longitudinally.” The helmsman looked to the Commandant.

            “Do it,” he said. Once they had established a new orbit the Reichsmagister said, “You see now that our orbit is perpendicular to the salvage. Bring us to this point in our orbit, Herr Kell,” he said, pointing to a spot on the small map in front of Kell. “Now show us a ship’s view of the orbit of the salvage.” The diagram on the large screen showed the same black spot. But now the red dot was circling the back spot in a wide flat circle, always in sight.

            “We can capture what we can measure, you said, mein Admiral. But to measure it we must see it. From this vantage we can figuratively see it or at least detect it continuously. That will allow us to capture it. I propose to polarize our tractor beam to a circular pattern, set it to detect only metal, turn it toward the orbit of the salvage and see what fish we catch.”

            “Masterful and logical. Just as I expected of you, mein Reichsmagister,” said Als with sincerity in his voice.  “Helmsleiter, make the changes the Reichsmagister has recommended.”

            “Jawohl, mein Admiral.” The young helmsman’s fingers flew over his control panel. He knew Admiral Als had little patience and was not to be kept waiting.

            “Ready, mein Admiral.”

            “Proceed.”  

***

The crew of the UES Superior were near to breaking and another gravitational surge like the last two would flatten the ship. Their hearts barely had time to leap into their throats when Karen yelled, “Gravitational surge, but it’s coming from …” That was all she managed to get out before the wave struck the fragile little craft. “Above,” she barely managed to yell. The hissing, pinging and bonging from the craft moving around the slurry of the black hole increased.

“It looks as if we’re moving against the momentum of the debris, not toward the black hole,” said Anderson peering through a porthole. “That’s not possible.”

“Maybe another black hole has moved into the neighborhood,” offered Jimmy Cain, a helmsman who wasn’t on duty but had decided to meet the end among his friends. He was so young, just out of the Academy, he made Mundy feel like an old man. He was an odd match as Anderson’s counterpart at the helm. At five feet six he was the shortest height a cadet could be.

            “No, we’d have noticed it before now,” said Jordan.

            “Well, we’re definitely moving. And up, away from the black hole. I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.” Anderson was delighted.

            “Well, I don’t like my staff standing around with their collective thumbs up their asses. Something’s going on and I want answers. Pronto!” Everyone scrambled to their stations and managed to look industrious although no one knew exactly what to do.

***

            “We must find a way to slow down the craft. Once it leaves the soupy jersa surrounding the black hole it might fly apart slinging around at nearly the speed of light. Helmsleiter, can you use the tractor beam to retard their speed?”

            “Jawohl, Herr Reichsmagister.”

            “Then do so.”

***

            “Captain. The ship is definitely caught in a gravity wave from above. But the wave is coherent, not natural. It’s as if we’re caught in a tractor beam.” Karen Jordan came up with a theory that seemed hardly plausible.

            “We’re movin’ at near the speed of light. Ain’t no tractor beam can catch you when you’re doin’ that,” Casey Jones gave his opinion. As the expert on what was physically possible with machinery, what he said carried weight.

            “We’re slowing down,” Anderson called from his console. “It’s like our engines are being overridden.”

            “Cut our engines, Davie. Let’s save them for when we need them. Somebody or something has us in a trap. I want to know who or what and why. Give it to me, gentlemen.”

            “I think I know,” said Anderson softly, yet everyone turned. “Look at this.” The screen showed an exterior view from the ship. It was obvious they were rising through waves of gases and energy, star dust and micrometeoroids. And right in the center, possibly light minutes distant was a glowing dot. A dot that the console indicated was a spaceship. A spaceship that was not registered on Earth.  

            “Oh shit,” thought Mundy. “First contact.”  

***

“Captain. I really must demand that you let me speak with the aliens. As the only one aboard with diplomatic experience it is only reasonable,” scientist Harry Albright said. “No offense, but with your military background and military thinking you are liable to cowboy us into an interspecies war.”

            “No offense taken,” Mundy said gritting his teeth. He really hated dealing with these people. That’s what he had Karen for.

            “Harry, you know NASA and World Council protocol is very clear on this. The commander of the ship that makes first contact is to represent Earth unless an actual credentialed diplomat is on board,” Jordan chided him.

            “That’s ridiculous. This is too important a moment to be left to amateurs.”

            “We haven’t even determined if they are friendly or hostile. Before I let you invite them in for tea and crumpets I want to know a little bit more about them.”

            “It’s attitudes like that which get us into wars. I wish to file a complaint.”

            “Take it up with Earth Command.”

            “Hmph! If you are going to continue to refuse to see reason on this, at least agree that Dr. Righter and myself will sit on the committee that receives them. There’s no telling what kind of faux pas you may commit.”

            “Dr. Albright. Let me put this as diplomatically as I can. No fucking way!” He knew Earth Command would be all over him about this, but the momentary satisfaction was worth it. He strode out.

***

            “Karen, is it possible for them to hold us in a tractor beam at this distance?” Mundy asked.

            “I don’t think possible is the question. They undoubtedly do have us in a beam.”

            “Well, they saved our asses. We need to thank them. Establish communication. And give us a little push with impulse, Anderson. I want to at least give the impression that we are coming to them of our own will.”  

            “Captain, I’ve done some scans on them. They don’t have any kind of shield up to prevent scans.” Commander Newly said.

            “So, either their shields are down to show friendly intent or they don’t fear us enough to put up shields or they just don’t have shields. Keep our shields up, Jennifer, until we know more about them. What did your scans find?”

            “A mixed bag. Their engines seem more primitive than ours, but they do have hyperdrive, obviously. They are also heavily armed. I doubt our shields would last more than a couple of salvos. Heat signature would indicate there are warm-blooded creatures inside.”

            “Good. I really didn’t want to meet up with any lizard people. I hate lizards,” said the captain, only half joking.

            “Or bug people. The movies about bug people give me nightmares,” admitted Anderson.

            “Alright. Let’s keep our wits about us. Anything yet, Karen?”

            “Negative, Captain.”

            “Send everything we know so far to Earth Command. Do it subspace. If they detect the message they may mistake it for hostile intent, or they may trace it to Earth. No need in announcing where we’re from until we know more.”

            “Will do, Captain.”    

            “Captain!” Commander Newly called. “I’ve got something on my system. It looks like a message. It’s an old style system of amplitude frequency modulation, we haven’t used it in decades or even hundreds of years.”

            “Good. Feed it into the computer to start working on a translation. Is it directed at us?”

            “No, sir. It was sent in the other direction. I guess back to its base or fleet.”

            “Holy shit,” Jimmy whispered it so only Anderson heard it. “Captain, Captain, you gotta hear this.”

            “What, Jimmy?” asked Mundy.

            “Well, you know I’m a technogeek, right? I mean I have a kind of skill with computer systems. I can hack into just about anywhere. I think I just hacked into the intership system of the aliens. They’re speaking English.”

***

            “Commandant Smits,” called Helmsleiter Kell. “The salvage appears to be assisting our tractor beam.”

            “What do you mean ‘assisting’?” asked the Commandant. Admiral Als walked over to stand near the helmsman.

            “The salvage seems to be pulling away from the black hole, as if trying to come toward us.”

            “That ship has been stuck over 900 years and has accreted a ton of sludge and spacemud. It was probably just stuck and then broke loose. No chance of us losing it?” the Commandant asked, seeking assurance. Losing Admiral Als’ salvage ship would send them all to a prison planet.

            “No sir. We have a good grip and our beam is strong. And as I said, it’s not fighting us. It’s trying to come toward us.”

            “Interesting,” said the Reichsmagister from a nearby console. “I’ve noticed the ship’s energy signature. Its systems seem to be still running. Imagine that. After 900 years. They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

            “Yes. A worthy prize,” gloated the Admiral from his perch above all the others on the bridge.

            “Commandant! I am getting a communication from the salvage ship,” the communications officer said. “It is a regular signal, I don’t recognize the frequency. I can’t tell if there is any message imbedded, just a regular pinging.”

            “Bah. It’s probably an automated distress signal. It’s probably motion sensitive, set to start if the ship is disturbed. You are all as nervous as my maiden aunt. Herr Kell. How long until we get the ship into our cargo bay?”

            “Four hours, mein Herr.”

***

            “English? What the hell? Are you sure about that, Jimmy?”  The captain was out of his chair and standing beside Lieutenant Cain, looking at his console.

            “Their system is primitive. My little sister could hack into this. But look at these interoffice messages. English. Some of the wording is a bit off, but that’s what it is.”

            “Ok. Keep looking. Karen, Jennifer. Thoughts?”

            “Not a clue,” Jennifer said.

            “I’m stumped, too,” Karen said, shaking her head so that a lock of blonde escaped her band and fell in her eye. She absentmindedly brushed it away.

            “Captain,” Jimmy called again. “I can get into the log of where the ship’s been, cargo, armament, registry, personnel. Everything but the captain’s log. The encryption there is more sophisticated. It may take me a while to break it, but I’m sure I can,” he said with a sniff of pride.

            “What have you found out.”

            “Nothing that makes sense. It says it left Earth a couple of years ago. They have 90 personnel, mostly soldiers. Heavily armed. Under an Admiral Zariah Als. A lot of the titles involve ‘reich’. And the system of dates is weird. Apparently, it’s the year 578 AI. And, uh, well there was something about being involved in the Martian uprising. The ship was instrumental in causing the collapse of the dome over the Martian capital, causing everyone inside to die. That was like a million people. My gramma lives there,” there was a note of worry in his voice. “It matches nothing in our computer’s data base.”

            “None of that makes a bit of sense.” Mundy was perplexed as anyone.

            “Ship’s registry is WAF Reichsboot Konigsberg”

            “WAF?” asked Mundy.

            “Uh, it says World Aryan Federation.”

            “Oh my god. Neo-Nazis? That explains all the pseudo-German crap. I didn’t think there were enough of them to make a difference,” Newly said. “Have they taken over while we were gone?”

            “No. We’ve been in contact with Earth the whole time, except when we were in the event horizon. Wait a minute. I noticed something earlier but didn’t follow up. The stars are wrong,” Jordan said.

            “Stars?” Mundy asked.

            “Computer. Analyze star field and match with current star charts,” she ordered.

            “Complete,” said a disembodied voice.

            “Based on star position what is the date?”

            “Star date approximately 5739.”

            “That’s not possible,” said Mundy. “Computer. Recalculate.”

            “Working. Star date 5739, unable to calculate decimal based available data. Earth date 3220, unable to calculate month and day based on available data.”

            Anderson said what everyone was thinking. “But that’s like 900 years difference, in the future.”

            “No. The computer must be malfunctioning, taking in some erroneous information,” Newly said. “Or affected by the black hole’s radiation. Either that or we have to believe that we have time traveled into the future. Which isn’t possible.”

            “I wonder,” said Jordan. “I have a theory. Let me get to my console.” Once sitting at her station, she began typing and bringing up various charts and queries. “Damn. It works out. I never would have believed it.”

            “Karen, what’s going on? What have you figured out?” Mundy asked.

            “Maybe a rational answer. It involves relativity. Science has found that Einstein was correct in most of what he theorized. One of the effects of relativity is that the faster a ship moves, the slower time passes within the ship. A ship going from Earth to Alpha Centauri at half the speed of light could get there in 8.5 years to outside observers, but the crew will have only experienced it as a year or so. Experiments have proven this is correct. Well, we were in that black hole for what, a week, maybe two? Davie said we were accelerated to .9 the speed of light in the super-eddy. According to my calculations and Einstein’s calculations back it up, what we experienced as ten days, at .85 light speed the rest of the universe would experience as 900 years.”

            “No. That can’t be right,” Mundy stated.

            “The math is correct, Rob,” she almost never called him by his first name while on duty.”

            “Ok. I got into their history files. It says the World Aryan Federation defeated United Earth 578 years ago, 2642 CE – old style, hence the date of 578 Anno Imperium – ‘in the year of the Empire’. Shit. Pardon, Captain. It really happened. They’re not aliens. They’re us. We’re in the future. And from what I’ve seen in their files, we’re fucked.”

***

            “Commandant. Come quickly.” Kell motioned to Smits. “Look,” he said once Smits was at his station. “Heat signatures from within the vessel. There are warm blooded creatures inside.”

            “Unbelievable. How many?”

            “Impossible to tell. I’d say maybe 15, certainly no more than 25.”

            “You sure it’s not just mold growing on the decomposed bodies?”

            “No, Herr Commandant. It has to be actual warm-blooded creatures.”

            “Interlopers. Someone may have salvaged it before we got here? How unfortunate. For them,” said the Admiral. “We will have to relieve them of their burden. Anyway, they were stuck in the event horizon. I’m sure they will be very grateful for our rescue.”

            “Communications officer. Can we contact them?”

            “I believe so, mein Admiral. At least I can send a message to them. Whether they answer is the question.”

            “So be it,” barked Als. “Send them this. Attention to anyone who may be on the vessel we have in tow. I, Admiral Zariah Als, have claimed this vessel under Space Salvage Laws of the World Aryan Federation, Third edition. Under Chapter 2, section 7 of said regulations I claim possession of the vessel and all contents. The vessel will be brought into our cargo bay. Resistance will be met with overwhelming force and perpetrators will be dealt with harshly. You will be apprised of your disposition at a later date.”

***

            “That doesn’t sound very friendly,” commented Mundy upon hearing the message from Als. I would like to be ‘apprised of my disposition’ before I deliver myself into his hands.”

            “Sir, I found their Space Salvage rules while digging through their library,” Jimmy said. “It says that any abandoned or stranded space vessel may be taken for salvage only by a military commander. All cargo and contents become the property of the salvager. Section 7 states that any ship that is not registered with the Federation is contraband and any personnel taken are considered criminals and may be sold as slaves.”

            “Slaves?” Jordan exclaimed. “No civilized people allow slavery.”

            “Maybe not in our world. But it looks like we’re not in our world anymore,” Jimmy said. “And it’s worse than just that. Women have no rights. They are the property of their father or husband. They aren’t allowed any kind of public life. Most never leave the house.”

            “Keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant. Isn’t that what they used to say,” said Newly. It wasn’t really a question. Her tone of voice showed it was a condemnation of the whole system.

            “We’re not going to just give up to them are we, Captain,” asked a wide-eyed Anderson.

            “Hell, no,” growled an angry Jonesie. “Gimme a blaster and I’ll take out a dozen or more before I go down. And I can set off a couple of neutron grenades for good measure. Jonesie ain’t nobody’s slave!”

            “But this is a science ship. We have no weaponry,” worried Dr. Harry Albright. He and Dr. Gloria Righter were called in to represent the ten scientists on board. “Surely they can be reasoned with.”

            “Dr. Albright, I’m a reasonable man and I’m all for reasoning with our new friends, but I’m beginning to think that ship has sailed. I’ll make nice for now, but I’m not opposed to letting loose a little of our force against them. Jimmy, how many are on that ship?”

            “Infrared imaging indicates 90.”

            “We have 10 warriors here. Each of us have to take out nine bad guys. I like our odds” Major Donovan said with a grim grin.     

            “Captain, you’re going to get us all killed, or worse,” complained Albright.

            “Maybe Dr. Albright. But I don’t fancy being a slave to some latter-day Nazi. You and the scientists can hang back if you want, but I’m going in with a plan.”

            “What’s the plan, Cap,” asked Jonesie.

            “Well, I think we need to tread softly for now. Much as I’d like to, we don’t need to go in with guns blazing. We’ve determined that their technology is way behind ours. I guess they must have lost a lot of it in some war. They don’t need to know that. Jimmy said even his sister could hack their system. He and Anderson and Jorgenson are tech whizzes. If we can get them into the bad guys’ ship system we could throw a few curves. I imagine they’ll want to keep us together at first. Albright, Righter, you keep your scientists together as much as possible. If we’re going to make a break it needs to be early on. I don’t want to leave anyone behind but if it’s between that and getting everyone else out, I will leave your ass. If I say move, your people need to move.”

“We’ll be ready, Captain,” said Righter, while silencing the blustering Albright.

“Good,” Mundy continued. “Dr. Righter, tell your people to encrypt access to everything they have. If this goes sideways, I don’t want to give them anything easily. My team. Make nice. Get them comfortable. Encourage them to brag about their system. The more we know, the better. Jimmy, encrypt all ship’s documents.”

            In the meantime, Mundy sent Admiral Als a neutrally worded response saying that his crew were a science team and posed no threat to him or the Empire. He said they were stuck in the black hole, but not derelict. He indicated that they were duly registered with United Earth which he assumed was no longer dominant. He asked for asylum for the eminent scientists on board who could undoubtedly provide new and valuable technologies to the Empire. He got no reply.

***

            The Konigsberg quickly became visible out the portholes. It bristled with antennae and what were undoubtedly guns. It was obviously a warship. And it was huge. They later discovered the majority of its size was made up of the large cargo bay. It yawned before them like the maw of some ravenous beast of prey. Soon they were completely engulfed. Their ship settled in the artificial gravity of the bay and their gauges showed the air pressure was quickly approaching Earth normal.

            “Looks like it’s showtime, people. Look lively. We want to make a good impression,” Mundy smiled, hoping to cheer up the somber group.

            His officers all had on their dress uniforms and the scientists, well, they were still a motley looking crew. Through the porthole he could see the main gate into the bay open. A detachment of about twenty soldiers trotted in and fanned out to keep the ship under armed guard.

            A burly man and a slimmer one came in last and looked expectantly at the ship. Mundy unlocked the hatch and a short ramp opened. He led his group out, the crew marching orderly, the scientists crowded together and frightened looking. They stopped short in front of Admiral Als. The man was Mundy’s height, broad and dressed in a uniform with many medals and stripes. His greasy gray hair was pulled back in a queue. A black patch over one eye gave him the look of a pirate. Mundy suspected it was more than just a look. He had a short, grizzled beard and appeared to be a hard worn fifty. The man beside him was shorter, younger and dressed in a black uniform. The insignia on his uniform denoted Commander rank. Looking at Als, Mundy brought up his right hand offering a military salute. Als just looked at him and sneered.

            “My name is Captain Robert Mundy, commanding the United Earth ship Superior.”

Als gave him a backhanded slap. There was the sharp intake of breath among Mundy’s officers but no one moved.

            “You have no name unless I say so. You are a slave and are only to speak when spoken to. You all live and die at my pleasure. Do you understand?”

            “Yes, Admiral,” Mundy replied tightly. No man had ever hit him and walked away unscathed. Als would not be the first, he vowed.

            “As part of the cargo of the salvaged vessel you are my property. Please me and you will be kept in my service. Displease me and there are unpleasant alternatives. Eighteen of you. Is that your full complement?”

“Yes, Admiral.” Als motioned to his soldiers and four trotted up the ramp to search the ship. A moment later they came out and the leader nodded to Als.

“Where is the ship you came on? Did you jettison it into the hole?”

“The Superior is our ship.”

Als grabbed Mundy by the throat and lifted him to his toes.

“You lie! You have slipped onto the ship I have claimed like vermin. My Reichsmagister has ways of extracting information. You will tell me what you know, in time.” He lowered Mundy who had begun to turn blue. As the captain massaged his throat, Als strode over to look at the scientists who cowered before him.

            “I hope you creatures have brains for your bodies are no good for work or sex. I probably couldn’t get fifty credits for the lot of you. The crew is more promising, especially the females. And a negress. There aren’t many out here this far from Earth. I feel certain I can earn a healthy sum selling you.” Dr. N’dutu looked at the captain nervously.

            Dr. Albright shakily stepped forward.

            “Admiral. I represent the scientists of Earth. At least the old Earth.” That was all he got out before Als grabbed him by his mouth.

            “A representative are you? That makes you a leader. Leaders don’t make good slaves. Always troublemakers. Smits,” he said. The man in black drew his pistol-like weapon from his waist and handed it to Als. He turned it and fired a short blast of energy at Albright’s midsection. He immediately crumpled to the floor. Several of the scientists cried out. Mundy made a move to approach him but was stopped by Als’ hand on his chest.

            “I usually don’t waste my resources but I believe this one has more value as a lesson than on the market. You need to reconcile yourselves to your new status. Speak out of turn to a free man and you will get a severe and painful reprimand. Cross me and you will get the same fate as this slave. Take him to the disposal,” he said to Smits.

            Smits crouched over the man. “He lives still,” he said.

            “All the better. To the disposal.” Smits signaled to two soldiers to come and help. They lifted Albright with one under each arm. Though grievously wounded Albright managed to raise his head and mutter unintelligibly. They drug him to a chute marked ‘Disposal’. The soldiers hefted him up and tossed him in head first. They closed the chute. There was a suctioning sound. Several of the scientists gasped.

            “That slave is now free. Free to roam the void as he floats about in space. Anyone care to join him? No? Good.” Turning back to his companion he said, “Smits, see to the disposition of my new slaves.” With that he walked out.

***

            In their holding cell it was pandemonium. Most of the scientists were wailing. Others were throwing recriminations at Mundy for bringing them into such a dangerous situation. One seemed catatonic.

            “Shut up, damn you!” he cried. “You know the situation we’re in. You can work with it or die. I’d suggest you grow a little steel in your spines and show these savages what you can do. If you don’t, they are liable to throw you out the disposal like Albright.” There was silence as they all stared at him as if he were the enemy. He had only told them the truth. He sat down on the floor beside Newly.

            “We might as well work on the assumption they are listening in,” he whispered in her ear.

            “Agreed,” she said quietly without moving her lips. “Then again, their technology is primitive.”

            “You and Karen get around to everyone, including the scientists, without making it obvious. Maybe get Anderson to help. Remind them that they are to cooperate for the time being and keep their eyes and ears open. We need to gather as much intel as possible.”

***

            Mundy had no sense of time. They were in a windowless room with constant lighting. Jimmy had already whispered to him that with a pick Digger had secreted in his shoe either of them could easily disengage the ancient lock on the door. Good to know.

            After what seemed like hours the man in black came in followed by an assistant and four armed soldiers. He carried what looked like an old-fashioned riding crop. Mundy rose and stood in front of his people indicating he was the one to speak to. He didn’t try to speak first. He had learned that lesson.

            “Good,” sneered the man. “You wait for your master to speak. That is the first and often the most difficult lesson for former free men to grasp. I am Commandant Smits. It is my unenviable task to advise you in the ways of slavery, to ease you into your new situation, as it were. This is Bundesleiter von Hoek. You will address us as master at all times.

            “As you may have surmised, while you are the property of Admiral Als, you are to submit to questions and directions of all officers on the Konigsberg. Officers only. You will be advised if you are to entertain the troops.” He leered evilly at this remark. He stepped forward, moving Mundy out of the way with a wave of his hand and looked over the scientists.

            “Mein Admiral wishes to know if his property has any scientific value. You,” he said, pointing the crop at Vince Rhodes. “Yes, you will do to start. Guards, take this one for testing.” Two of the armed soldiers grabbed Vince by either arm and marched him out of the cell. He looked back over his shoulder, terrified.

            Smits casually strolled back toward Mundy and his officers. He stopped and used his crop to lift Mundy’s chin. “If you were five years younger I might use you. You’re definitely attractive enough. But a little older than what I like. Now you, on the other hand,” he said looking at Karen and running the crop down her arm. “You are also just what I like. Guards, take her to my quarters.” He turned and left with von Hoek in his wake as the other two guards grabbed Karen. Mundy and Anderson tried to intervene but were clubbed into submission by the soldiers.

***

            Vince was returned what seemed like many hours later.

            “I was terribly frightened but they just wanted to test my level of knowledge. I quickly outstripped anything they knew. They are terribly backward. I’m amazed that at their level of physics that they are actually spacefaring. They are much like us back at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

            They pulled Maynard Johnson next.

            At long last Karen was returned. She was being dragged by two soldiers. They opened the door and unceremoniously threw her in. Mundy and N’dutu rushed to her side. She was badly beaten and still bleeding from a number of wounds, some serious looking. Her uniform was in shreds. They applied what first aid they could. When she was able to talk she said her right arm might also be fractured. They formed a sling with Mundy’s overshirt.

            “Apparently slaves are also used for sexual pleasure. That is what Smits wanted. I went along for a while, trying to be nice, but put him off. He got a little too personal so I let him have it, and I don’t mean my body.” Mundy smiled grimly considering this. Karen was the best hand at martial arts on his ship. She regularly handed Mundy his ass at sparing. “Yeah, I kicked his ugly ass good until the guards got into it. It took three of them to take me down but I got some good licks in. Two of the guards are in sick bay because of me. And that slimy bastard in black will be walking funny for a few days. Donovan said we each needed to take out nine. Only six to go for me, Cap,” she grinned weakly through swollen, bloody lips at Mundy. “You guys need to catch up.”

***

            A germ of an plan took root in Mundy’s brain. When they brought Maynard back several soldiers arrived with food. It wasn’t anything fancy, just bread, thin soup and water, but they were all famished. Mundy had noticed that when Smits had dismissed him as too old for his sexual tastes, von Hoek’s eyebrows raised. He also noticed after that how von Hoek took a long last look at him. Von Hoek was supervising the soldiers setting out the food. Mundy stood close to him and made eye contact. He smiled in a seductive manner and licked his upper lip with the tip of his tongue. With a smirk he strolled away, rolling his hips. Newly once told him when drunk that he had the “best damn ass in the navy”.  Message delivered, he thought.

            After the meal the soldiers took Larry Bostwick for testing. When he returned several hours later the lights dimmed. There were eighteen blankets piled by the door. They huddled on the floor, seeking comfort in each other. They had only been down a short while when the door opened and von Hoek and four soldiers entered. “You,” von Hoek pointed at Mundy. “And…that one,” pointing at Jimmy. They were both quickly grabbed and hustled out of the room. They were taken down a corridor but then separated.

“Where are you taking him?” Mundy asked.

“Silence, slave. You do not speak unless your master addresses you. Aren’t you concerned for yourself rather than this other slave?” von Hoek asked.

“Jimmy is my responsibility. You’re in a command position. You should understand,” he reasoned.

“Oh, tut. We’re past all that. You have no responsibilities other than pleasing your master. And right now, that’s me. Smits may have thought you were too old, but he likes little boys anyway. I understand the bitch he pulled kicked his ass. She’ll be severely disciplined for that. The admiral ought to have her whipped or throw her to the troops for sport, but with her looks, she’s worth too much. She’ll bring him a fortune on the open market. You probably will, too. But for now, you’re just my type. And don’t worry about your little friend. A couple of the guards I owe a favor to saw him and thought he was cute. They asked for some play time with him. He’ll be fine. They know not to permanently damage the property of the Admiral.” Mundy felt sick at the fate of poor Jimmy.

The guards deposited Mundy in what he supposed was van Hoek’s quarters. Deposited was the best term seeing as they walked him in, dropped him on the single bed and walked out.

“Now, slave. Let’s review. The guards are just outside. One word from me and they will beat you senseless. I can also have you gelded, take the fight right out of you. Make me happy and I’ll see about cutting short your little friend’s time with the guards. I’ve seen the looks you gave me. Let’s not pretend. You can begin by taking off your shirt.” The thought of even touching van Hoek made Mundy’s skin crawl. The man was skinny, had bulging eyes and receded hair. The officer’s uniform did little to improve the image. Still, Mundy had a plan and enough experience to know how to remove his undershirt seductively.

“Nice,” purred von Hoek. “I like a man with a little hair on his chest.” He came close and slid his hand along Mundy’s chest, allowing hairs to slip between his fingers. Stepping back a pace he quickly removed the tunic of his uniform. Mundy was repulsed at the sallow, sunken chest that was revealed. Then von Hoek was back on him, kissing his neck and mouthing the area around his ears and where his neck joined his shoulders. Mundy slid his hands up von Hoek’s chest, slowing to caress his nipples. Von Hoek hissed an intake of breath and then groaned his pleasure. He grabbed Mundy’s head and kissed him on the mouth, his tongue seeking entrance. Mundy slid his hands up to cup von Hoek’s head also. Then with a violent wrench he twisted it until von Hoek could see his backside. But by then von Hoek could see nothing. He was dead.

Mundy allowed himself a momentary shudder to rid himself of the essence of von Hoek. Then tapping his earlobe he whispered, “Donovan. You there?”

“Been waiting on you, Cap. What’s the situation?”

“Where are you and Jorgenson?” They had stayed behind in a hidden compartment when the crew went out to meet Als.

“Still in the Superior. We went out and got the guards. There were four of them and three techs. Those disposal chutes are really neat. Anyway, we have new uniforms and weapons. And sorry about Dr. A. We were watching from inside the ship.”

“Good, just outside the cargo bay is a map of the ship. I’m in a private quarter on deck B, number 25. Think you two can get here on the double?”

“Sure thing. See you in five.”

“I think there are two guards on my door.”

“No problem.”

While he waited, Mundy put von Hoek’s body in his closet. If anyone were to casually glance in the room they wouldn’t notice anything amiss. A few moments later there was a sizzling sound of an energy blast, as if from a laser weapon outside and then a quiet tap at the door. It opened to reveal Donovan and Jorgenson in WAF uniforms with a dazed soldier held up between them and two more lying apparently dead in the hallway. Mundy raised his eyebrows at Donovan.

“Mr,” he glanced down at the soldier’s name tag, “Zmeckis here got a little too interested in our presence. We cocked him and the next soldiers we met we just told we were taking him to sick bay.” Jorgenson had already dragged the two dead soldiers into the room as Donovan talked. He ripped the cover off the bed and tore strips from it. They securely gagged Mr. Zmeckis, tied his arms and legs and loaded him in the closet with von Hoek. It was a tight fit. They loaded the other two into the small bath.

“Von Hoek is, or rather was officer level so he must have some kind of security clearance. See if you can get onto the ship’s systems from his connection, Jorgenson,” Mundy said.  

“Security on this system is for shit,” Jorgenson said disdainfully. “It’s an open book to me.” He went over the ship systems and conferred with Donovan. After a short time Donovan sat on the bed with Mundy.

“Ok, Cap. Here’s the plan. Jorgenson is going to divert all bridge control to engineering. He’ll have to do if from engineering, though, so you and Jorgenson head on down to engineering. Here’s a view of it.” Jorgenson showed him a screen that was apparently a live feed from engineering. They could see three guards and two engineers. “You two will need to neutralize those guys. Jorgenson then can lock all control systems into engineering. Bridge will notice it immediately, but I will create a diversion so don’t worry about them.”

“Still, it won’t take the eighty or so soldiers left long to get there and break in.”

“No, it won’t. That’s why Jorgenson is going to do his stuff in two minutes, tops. Then you two are outta there. He’s going to release the clamps on the ship and disable the tractor beam and weaponry. Then scuttle the whole system.”

“We can’t get the ship out without the bay door open and if the door is open we can’t get to the ship.”

“I got it covered. Jorgenson said there is a fifteen second delay function on the air lock. Once y’all are in, I press the button and run like hell for the ship.”

“What are our chances of pulling this off?” Mundy asked.

“Seriously? I’d say slim to none. You got any better ideas?” Mundy had to shake his head that he didn’t.

“Let me bring Jennifer up to date.” He tapped his lobe again and talked softly to his second in command. She reported that everyone else was in the cell except Jimmy.

“Keep trying to open his frequency. We’ll do what we can to find him.”

“Problems, Cap?”

“Jimmy Cain is missing. Some guards grabbed him the same time they got me. He could be anywhere. Jennifer’s trying to raise him.”

“I don’t like to leave anyone behind but if it’s between getting 18 people off this ship and zero, I know where I stand. You’re the Cap, though. I’ll leave it up to you.” Donovan handed him the laser pistol he’d pulled off a guard.

“Jorgenson, ping me when you’re in place.”

“Roger.”

***

They only encountered two soldiers on the way to engineering. They shot them both and gained two more hand weapons. Mundy hated killing indiscriminately, but this was a battle situation. Jorgenson tugged his earlobe when they were in place. He palmed open the door and they went in all four guns blazing. They quickly had engineering under control and Jorgenson got to work on the controls. Mundy pinged Jennifer and told her to get their people moving. He told her Digger could open the door and she and Anderson could neutralize the guards. The scientists would have to help Jordan. He specifically reminded her that lethal force was acceptable.

By the time he finished giving orders Jorgenson was grabbing him and heading for the door. By this time the red alert lights and horn were blaring.  As they were exiting the control room Jorganson lobbed a couple of neutron grenades behind him at the engine core. The entire ship lurched when they went off, detonating one engine with as well.

They fought their way to the cargo bay. Resistance was light seeing as the ship was caught off guard and chaos reigned. Donovan had apparently disrupted their chain of command by destroying the bridge. As they were getting near their destination they ran up with Donovan. His eyes were bright. It was clear he was in his element. Mundy’s ear pinged and he heard Jennifer saying they had heard from Jimmy. He said he was in pretty bad shape and disoriented. He doubted he could make it to the cargo bay on his own. She gave them his coordinates.

“I’ll get the boy. You two get to the ship,” Donovan said. Mundy wanted to disagree, say Jimmy was his responsibility but the reality was that Donovan had the better chance of getting himself and Jimmy to the ship alive. As they approached the bay they heard laser pistol fire and a familiar roar.

“Take that, you filthy Nazi scum!” Jonesie was giving the Nazis what for. With Mundy and Jorgenson coming up on their rear they were quickly dispatched. No time for prisoners.

“Good work, Cap. Any more of them filthy buggers?” Jonesie asked. He seemed eager for more action.

“I believe we’re in the clear for the moment. You help get all the passengers in the ship. And I want my engines ready to go, pronto.”

“On it, Cap.” He ran for the ship.

Jennifer was warming the engines when Jorgenson pushed Mundy toward the ship.

“You go. I need to be able to give covering fire for Donovan if the baddies beat him here. Then I’ll open the bay.”

“No both of us can give more cover. Then we can all get on the ship. The fifteen second delay…”

“There’s no delay. We just said that to brook argument. Donovan’s plan all along was to get us all on the ship and open the bay himself. He’s got enough neutron grenades in his bag to destroy the entire ship and he plans to do it. So if he doesn’t make it, I need to open the door. I’m not about heroics or any of that shit. I just have a job to do and I do it. It’s the Marine way.”

Mundy remembered when the mission began he had wondered if two Marines would be of any use if the situation got hairy. Now these two Marines had together saved all their lives. And willingly gave theirs in doing so. Mundy was not a man given to much emotion, but damn, he thought, that was brave.

He got to the ship. Jennifer already had the engines ready. All he needed was to engage and they’d be on their way. He saw several laser shots hit the door above Jorgenson and he returned fire. Then Jorgenson turned and looked at Mundy through the portal and hit the ‘emergency open door’ button. Inside the cargo bay you could hear the great whoosh as all the air rushed out of the opening door. He saw Jorgenson crouch on the other side of the door and return fire again. The bay door was about halfway open when it stopped. Then slowly it began to close.

“Oh, shit. Als’ people found an override,” Mundy said. He had to think quick. “Jennifer, shields on maximum. Davie, on impulse power, back us up as far from the door as possible.”

“Captain, you’re not thinking…?”

“Damn straight. Full power forward. Engage!” To tell the truth, he wasn’t sure if the ship would survive breaking through the cargo bay door. But he didn’t see any reason to stay behind. It was now or never. The Superior was a tough little ship and survived crashing through the door, leaving twisted metal in its wake. They flew clear of the larger ship. Anderson yelled “Yeehaaa!” as they burst free. Their spirits all soared with the little ship.

***

Donovan had planned on lobbing two neutron grenades into the bridge. If Als was there at the time, he was a goner. Good, Mundy thought. With the havoc they created in the engine room, he doubted they would ever leap to hyper drive again. Hell, impulse might even be a challenge. Without controls the weapons were offline, as was the tractor beam. Now for the really crazy part of my plan, he thought.

“Captain, we’re being followed,” reported Anderson.

“What? How?”

“Apparently it’s a shuttle craft. It doesn’t have much range, but it’s fast and sensors show it’s armed.”

“Shields aft, full power!” Mundy yelled, expecting a proton torpedo or laser cannon blast.

“Sir, we’re being hailed,” Karen told him.

“Patch it through.”

The connection was tenuous and the words were scratchy but the message came through loud and clear.

“Got room for four hitchhikers, Cap?” Donovan crowed.

“You old devil. I thought sure they got you,” Mundy said, overjoyed.

“It’ll take more than a few dickhead Nazis to take me out. I got a couple of presents for you. See you in five. I just have a couple of torpedoes to get rid of.”

“Karen. Aft screen,” Mundy commanded. Before them they saw the little shuttle craft and the huge Konigsberg looming in the background. Two tiny missiles shot out of the back of the speeding craft, headed for the mothership. Both were direct hits, setting off a chain reaction of other explosions. Within moments the ship was shambles. Ironically, there was little left to salvage.

Within five minutes the shuttle had come up alongside the Superior. Anderson connected it with the grappling hooks. Donovan said they had four space suits so they could tether and walk over. The airlock was small so they had to come in one at a time. The first one in and out of his suit was Jimmy Cain. No one was more glad to see him than Anderson. He wrapped Jimmy up in his long arms.

“Bud. I so thought I’d lost you.”

“I so thought you had, too,” Jimmy deadpanned. His face was badly bruised but he seemed to be holding up well, until suddenly he collapsed, weeping.

“I’ll take him to our quarters,” Anderson said. He helped Jimmy out of the room. Dr. Vera Jong, who had an extensive background in counseling followed them. Jimmy might need to talk with her a few times.

Second through the door was Jorgenson. Mundy hugged him and slapped him on the back.

“Our other present is coming next,” Jorgenson said.

An unknown man took off his suit next. He was young, pleasant looking and seemed very frightened.

            Jorgenson said, “Meet Bunde Christophe Verhoven. He found Jimmy, shot three guards who had Donovan pinned down and asked for asylum. I didn’t see how we could turn him down. He said he couldn’t stand anymore of Als, the Nationalists or the Empire. I think the guy finally found his moral center.

            They all cheered when Donovan came through the door.

“Mundy,” he said. “Against all odds, that crazy plan worked. I never thought it would.”

            “Well, pretty much anything is possible with two leathernecks and an old squid. Hell, I’ll even say Semper Fi.”

“Ok, the testosterone’s getting a little thick in here,” said Jennifer.

            Anderson appeared in the doorway with fire in his eyes.

            “You filthy bastards!” he raged at Verhoven. “You freaking assholes! Your soldiers raped Jimmy. I swear I’ll kill every one of you. He lunged at the soldier but was intercepted by Donovan and Mundy.

            “Easy, cowboy,” Donovan crooned softly.

            “Stand down, Anderson. That’s an order. This man saved Jimmy and Donovan’s lives and has been offered asylum. We can’t blame him for what the others did.” Mundy held on to Anderson as he cried in his arms.

            “I’m so sorry for what they did,” pleaded Verhoven. “The Empire breeds violence like that. That’s what I want to get away from.”

            “Well, we may be a lonely little outpost of civilization, but welcome aboard, soldier,” said Mundy.

             “I hate to break up the party, but we still have a huge problem. We’re nine hundred years from our time in the middle of an evil empire.” Jennifer looked at Mundy expectantly.

            “Speaking of improbable plans, I have an idea,” Mundy announced. “Before we got deep into the black hole Karen and I had a talk with our physics expert Dr. Righter. Her calculations show that the anomaly she found at the black hole was most likely a wormhole.”

            “Most likely as in really might be or wishful thinking?” asked Jennifer.

            “Somewhere in between,” admitted Karen. “Einstein theorized they would be in the center of a black hole, but Gloria’s equations and data indicate this to be an extra-solar temporal distortion, i.e. a wormhole not in the center of a black hole.”

            “Is that even possible?” Jennifer wanted to know.

            “Who knows what’s possible? Gloria says she’s convinced her math is correct. If we fly the Superior into it there’s a good chance the shield would keep it from crushing us. It would probably be navigable and should deposit us somewhere and sometime else, not sure where or when.”

            “Good chance, probably, might? Why don’t we just follow the yellow brick road while we’re at it? Maybe we’ll end up in Kansas,” Jennifer was unconvinced.

            “At this point, if I found a yellow brick road, I’d follow it. We know what this time in this universe holds for us. I don’t want to stick around. This wormhole is a chance to escape. There’s no guarantees. But if we survive, it will put us somewhere, sometime, in some universe. Odds are, whatever we find, it will be better than what we’re leaving. It would be hard pressed to be worse.”

            “I’m in,” said Donovan, with Jorgenson nodding.

“If our friends are going into the black hole, I guess we should, too,” said Jorgenson.

            “What?” asked Mundy.

            “While we were in the engine room, I entered a new flight plan and gave the ship a push. It’s set to drift right for the middle of the black hole. I decided that a black hole was a nice resting place for their black hearts.” Donovan raised his fist, grinning, and Jorgenson bumped it.

            Dr. Gloria Righter spoke up. “The scientists have decided we want to go, also.”

            “I think we all want to go, Captain,” said Karen, and Jennifer nodded.

            “Alright. Everybody buckle in. It’s going to be a rough ride.”

Over the next few minutes everything in the ship was battened or stowed. The scientists buckled in and the crew took their places.

            “Dr. Righter gave me the coordinates for the anomaly. All laid in. Awaiting your orders, Captain,” Anderson said. He decided it felt good to be able to say that again.

            “Engage.”

The Visitors

I imagine just about anyone in the western world will recognize the eerie “dee dee, dee dee” tinkling sound of the opening of the Twilight Zone. The reboots were terrible, but the original stands untouched. No one can touch the ultimate coolness of Rod Serling, standing like he just walked out of a cocktail party to have a smoke. And the stories ranged from campy to crazy to totally wild. I especially loved the ones involving space aliens and space travel. I think one of the most iconic lines from the Twilight Zone has to be “It’s a cookbook!”

That said, when writing The Visitors I had TZ in the back of my mind. All I’m missing is Rod and his cigarette.

“Picture this, if you will…”

The Visitors

            The Visitors arrived nearly a year ago. It seems longer. It’s amazing how quickly the astounding becomes the commonplace. We just take it in stride and keep on going. Astounded hardly encompasses the world’s reaction to the knowledge that other sentient beings inhabit our universe. We were all taken by surprise. Contrary to the conspiracy nuts the government had no knowledge of aliens nor were we keeping extraterrestrial bodies in cold storage in some secret government bunker. From the clearance I have in my job with the Global Security Department I know these things.

            As you are surely aware, we have been watching the sky for ages looking for signs of other life. Since the modern era we have used radio telescopes and electronic imaging to test for evidence in the night sky. Ironically, the Visitors were not detected until they were nearly upon us. Their ship’s small size, low reflectivity, and we suspect, stealth technology, rendered them invisible to our instruments. Once our astronomers detected them, it was apparent they were headed toward us and only a few weeks out.

            There was general hope that the news might encourage holdouts to join the world body. We have been marching steadily since the advent of the technological age toward one world government. It is only common sense considering the global marketplace controlled by trans-national corporations. Nationalism has become old-fashioned, even quaint. All the democratic republics and constitutional monarchies, basically the western hemisphere, quickly merged. The totalitarian regimes, whether philosophical or religious, refused to cede their limited power. By the time the Visitors were detected, some 80% of the world’s population were allied with the World Union. We kept the olive branch extended to the holdouts. Of course, as you can imagine, they were intransigent. The world was quickly leaving them behind, but they refused to budge. There was hope that the knowledge that there were aliens, possibly hostile, might move them to join in the common defense.

            Because that was the major concern. Were the newcomers hostile?  A few days out we began receiving radio signals from the craft. We put our best people on it, but it remained unintelligible. It repeated; the same message over and over. There was general hope that the message was “we come in peace” and general fear it was “throw down your weapons and keep your hands where we can see them”. Commerce slowed to a standstill, the markets plummeted and the world waited. Troops were called up and all our military capabilities were primed but were we really any match for a civilization that could send ships across the galaxy? 

            The visitor craft took up an orbit farther out than one might expect. Our strategists quickly surmised that this was to place them outside the range of our most advanced missiles. Neither a hostile nor peaceful move. Simply prudent.

            Our cryptologists had not been sitting around wringing their hands. They had begun streaming linguistic information to the Visitors. It was hoped that between their linguists, ours, and the common language of mathematics, a dialogue could quickly be opened.

            Our space-based telescopes were all trained upon them, scanning them in every way devisable – visible spectrum, x-ray, infrared, ultrafrequency, even with newly discovered gravitational waves. Not much was revealed. The craft was outwardly inelegant, at best. But I guess that really isn’t a concern in interstellar space. It was the general size of an ostentatious house. You know, the kind to prove to the neighbors that you aren’t struggling like everyone else.

            Then our astronomers received a message that we could understand. It simply said “Meet us” and listed geographic and time coordinates. It turned out these were the coordinates of the newly established world capital. And the time was high noon. The Visitors had apparently learned enough about us to know we were politically aligned and that our Union spoke for the majority of the world.

            My position did not get me a place on the dais at the first encounter with an alien species, but I did have a closed-circuit feed that was more than what the networks could air. The crush near the capital building was incredible as the meeting time approached. I imagine every video device in the civilized world was tuned to this historic moment. The astronomers were reporting that a small craft had detached from the original ship. No larger than our largest automobile, it was dropping toward the meeting coordinates. Our monitoring stations reported that the module was circumnavigating the globe, perhaps to allow some of the heat of entry to the atmosphere to subside. Suddenly people started pointing to the east. All the cameras swiveled to that direction. Telephoto lenses could just make out a white dot approaching. More detail became visible as it neared. We could detect small wings, probably more for stability than lift. It glided with very little sound directly over the cheering crowd and came to a standstill hovering over the landing coordinates. Then it gently lowered. Standing on legs instead of wheels, it looked for all the world like a commuter plane, just with smaller wings and lower to the ground. A doorway on the side popped open and a small set of steps automatically folded out. A hush fell over the crowd. The momentous occasion was upon us. First contact.

            As the world held its collective breath, a figure emerged from the dark interior of the craft. It was tall, much taller than us and more slender. However, it was vaguely humanoid. It had two lower limbs for locomotion and two upper limbs for handling things. The round protrusion on top was the approximation of a head. It was dressed all in silver, but the ‘head’ was bare. It was ugly. No doubt about that. Beyond just alien, it was incredibly ugly. Also, quite hairy. Its skin appeared to be rubbery, almost like a mask. What appeared to be eyes were too close together and with oddly shaped pupils. What I assumed were ears were too large and set at an awkward angle. It had some sort of metal register in front of its lower face. I found this was a device that amplified its voice and translated its words to our language. Our President bravely strode across the space separating them. The light flickered as dozens of cameras recorded the historic moment. When they met you could tell that the visitor was a full head taller than the President, and the President was considered tall. The President hesitated, not exactly sure of the protocol. The Visitor looked at him and raised its right forelimb, hand extended. I could see it had an extra digit. The President smiled and grasped the hand. The cheering was deafening. The following day’s newspaper headlines summed it up. “It’s official: they come in peace!” crowed the Chronicle. “We are peaceful, says spaceman”, reported the Monitor.  I, along with everyone else in the world, breathed a sigh of relief.

            I pulled every string I could to get myself into meetings and on panels working with the Visitors. Not only was I curious, but it definitely would boost my career prospects. That is how I became privy to information that many will never know.

            It turned out the Visitors were new to spacefaring, only having recently developed a hyperlight drive. The leader was a bit cagey about how it worked and was unwilling to give our engineers access to his ship. He glibly advised that they could provide us some scientific help but did not want to disrupt our development by dumping technology we were not prepared for into the marketplace. They said their home was far out in the Sagittarian Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. There were ten of them and they were enroute to explore a world near Epsilon Eridanus when a previously undetected black hole had slung their ship off course. They detected our radio waves and came to explore our solar system. There was some damage to their ship and they asked our help. Our President offered the world’s resources. Undoubtedly, this would open up many avenues for new technologies.

            Our ethnologists and biologists were intrigued by the Visitors. There were apparently two genders like us, they reproduced sexually and brought forth their young live. They seemed like us in many ways. But there were also the differences. Something about them was incredibly repulsive, almost like an innate dread of their appearance. I was surprised to find such xenophobic bigotry within myself, but soon found many of my friends felt similarly. They were just so, well, alien.

Their leader made his first appearance alone. However when the President wanted to honor them with a state dinner, eight came. Their leader said someone always had to be monitoring the ship. Also, the leader sent down ahead of time food for him and his compatriots. He said our food was unpalatable to his kind. The President’s chef was crushed. He was hoping for world headlines and appearances as the chef who served dinner to the Visitors.

            Their leader toured around a bit, making appearances, speaking of a new age of cooperation between our people. His subordinates were assigned to select factories to retool them to coordinate the repairs on the alien ship. No one factory got all the business. It was spread out so that the technology could not be held secret. The Visitors said this was their gift to the planet.

            It seemed to be going so well. First Contact had been made and we would all be great friends. At least that is how it appeared. Although I am bound by confidentiality rules to never disclose my part, I like to feel that I had some hand in saving us from certain invasion.

            I have a lifelong friend who must remain nameless who is extremely adept with technology and doesn’t mind operating on the shady side of the law. He boasted to me that he had hacked into the old Department of Defense back before the World Union. And he covered his tracks so they never knew. He couldn’t prove it but I had no real reason to doubt him. I had yet to see a system he couldn’t break in to. He came to me to tell me of a discovery he had made. He had hacked into one of our space-based telescopes near the Visitors’ ship so he could take a look at it. Simple curiosity. He discovered what he considered a major flaw in the Visitors’ security. Their ship-wide intelligence network was not shielded. He could detect the radio waves much like our internet. I scoffed that he could link into an alien system when my two brands of office computers can’t even talk to each other. He said it was simple engineering. Physicists like to proclaim that we cannot know if the basic laws of mechanics are the same everywhere in the universe. But he said engineers know that there are only so many ways of packing information and sending it electronically. The simplest, most elegant design is a binary system. He was determined to find how the Visitors’ technology worked. I strongly advised against it, but owing to our long friendship, I wouldn’t turn him in.

            When he returned to see me the next week I could see he was upset. He told me he had uncovered disturbing information. He said I should probably take it to the President. I asked him to walk me through what he had found. He said that hacking into the Visitors’ system wasn’t very hard for someone as adept at him. This was not an idle brag. I’d say he is the best at what he does. But the initial flaw he discovered wasn’t exactly a flaw. Once into the system, he found all the important files and documents were encrypted. Even he had failed at breaking the alien encryption. Technology, logs, mission notes, everything was off limits. Except the library. We assumed the library was not encrypted to allow crewmen to easily browse the collection. Using a translation app which had been leaked onto the internet, he translated some titles and downloaded a few books.

One was a general history of the Visitors. He showed me the translation and I was astonished. The Visitors were at best vicious marauders, nearly like locusts that pick an area clean and move on. Every civilization they have encountered they have enslaved, robbed and subjected to genocide. They had nearly destroyed their home world and were now searching for new ones to rape. That was likely to be the fate of any unfortunate world around Epsilon Eridanus. And now they had found us. I used every bit of capital I had to call a special meeting of the President and military chiefs that night.

            The President and his men were aghast at our claims, saying there was no way the Visitors were lying to us as we were saying. They said my friend could have easily created fake documents to deceive them into believing the Visitors were working against us. In the end, the President arranged for several of his most adept technology people to sit with my friend. He opened up his computer, hacked into the space telescope platform and then intercepted the Visitors’ intranet. He browsed into the library and downloaded several documents. Even a few pages of the most innocuous seeming book immediately illuminated the Visitors’ credo of taking what they wanted by force. The President and his chiefs were all there to witness this. It was a somber group that reconvened in the Situation Room in the early hours of the morning.

            Many hours later we were agreed. It seemed the Visitors had been thrown off course and their home world was unaware of their location. It was imperative that they not leave or find any way to contact their home. The fate of the world was at stake. One of the President’s tech advisors asked for a private moment. They huddled and eventually seemed to come to a decision. The President cleared the room of everyone except the four top military generals, his technology advisor and me. I was allowed to remain because I had brought the Visitors’ perfidy to light. My friend had to leave.

            The President outlined an audacious plan that if discovered could be disastrous, but no less disastrous than the Visitors revealing our location to their home.

            Several weeks later the repairs were finished and the Visitors said their time with us was at an end. The President ordered a big farewell banquet in the capital city. Once again eight of the Visitors attended. Speeches were made, toasts were returned and the camaraderie seemed genuine.

            After the final speech the President joined the Visitors and prepared to walk them out to their landing module. Suddenly a shot was fired. The secret service men swarmed the President and ushered him and the Visitors quickly into a protected area. The protected area was filled with soldiers who quickly mobbed the Visitors and got them into shackles. The leader seemed to recover his wits quickly and tapped the communication device on his lapel.

            “Blake, it’s a trap. Get the ship out of orbit. Now! Come in. Come in.”

            “I’m sorry, captain,” the President said. “Your ship is no longer available. We have discovered what you are and cannot let your people destroy us as they have countless others. The parts that we repaired for you, several contained explosives. We detonated them at the same time we arrested you. I regret the loss of your two crewmen, but the rest of you may remain as our guests. Perhaps we can find ways to work to our mutual benefit.”

            “You lying, lizard-faced son of a bitch,” the leader growled.

            “Perhaps, but I have saved Darzha from the plundering and pillaging that the history of your Earth is rife with. Hopefully, our history will remember me kindly for that.”

Changing of the Guard

            As I said, I sometimes like to go back and revisit a character from a former story for various reasons. This story does just that. If you haven’t read La Duchessa, stop and read it now. If you don’t have the background from that story, this one will not make much sense. So stop. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

            I home that La Duchessa left you wondering. If so, Changing of the Guard should answer some of your questions.

Changing of the Guard

            “Come,” the Grand Prince called in response to the urgent knocking on his bedroom door. It was not yet seven o’clock in the morning, when he usually arose. His personal assistant, Andre entered looking concerned.

            “Your Serene Highness, I apologize for awakening you at this hour but we have a ‘situation’. It seems her grace La Duchessa has passed away. Her maids say they have been unable to rouse her.”

            Grand Prince Giovanni sighed. La Duchessa, who in reality was Prince Sergei of Romania, had said he did not know how long he would live but expected it to be very long. He said he had been subjected to Soviet experiments before the last World War. Experiments on prolonging life. The Grand Prince was unsure how a royal had managed to run afoul of the Soviets but Sergei in person was proof enough. His documents showed he was born before the turn of the century. The twentieth century. Now in 2010 he was at least 110 years old. Not that he didn’t look it. Even in his makeup and disguise as La Duchessa you could see he was at a very advanced age.

            “Send for the palace doctor. I’ll meet him at La Duchessa’s rooms.”

            “He’s already on his way, your Serene Highness.” Andre was always one for efficiency and calm action. I need to give him a raise, Giovanni thought.

            The palace doctor, Dr. Longini, was examining La Duchessa’s body, in his bed, when the Grand Prince arrived. His two maids stood cowering in the anteroom, weeping.

            “Well, he’s dead alright,” was his greeting. “Looks as if he died in his sleep. All in all, not the worst way to go. Must have been early in the evening judging by the low body temperature. Unusual there’s no lividity but that sometimes happens in the very old. No rigor yet, either.”

            “Sergei thought he might live forever,” the Grand Prince mused. “Sorry he missed it. He was a great friend to me and to San Giorgio. I know Carlo will be upset. The two of them have been quite the odd pair of late.” Someone would need to tell his son. Well, I guess I’m the logical choice for that, Giovanni thought. Currently he, the Grand Princessa, his four children, the doctor, Andre and the two maids were the only ones who knew that La Duchessa was actually a man. Even the maids did not know the man was over 110 years old.

            “I’ll have the body transported to the palace morgue. I know it was Sergei’s wish to be buried in your family vault, without embalming. A bit old fashioned, but when you’re over 100, I guess you can have whatever you want.,” Dr. Longini said.

            “Yes, see to it. I’ll have Andre make the announcements and set up arrangements. Dress him up as best you can, as a man. The funeral will be closed coffin, per his request, but he said he wanted to meet his maker in his original state. Well, not totally original state. He does want to be clothed. But as a man. He has a suit selected. I’ll have Andre deliver it to you. I need to go talk with Carlo.”

            “So he’s really dead. I can hardly believe it.” Carlo, with his morning stubble and still only dressed in the t-shirt and gym pants he slept in looked sadly at his father. “I don’t think I really believed he was near immortal, but on the other hand, I guess I always hoped it was true. Old as he was, he always seemed so full of life.”

            “Yes, it will be strange without him, always available for consultation. And so valuable. He seemed to be a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge of how a monarch should be,” Giovanni agreed. He eyed his son, now 28. He had grown into a fine man. Well-built, intelligent and compassionate. He decided his son will be good as the next ruler of San Giorgio. He had already assumed a number of tasks for his father in preparation.

            “Thanks for throwing him at me, Father,” Carlo said somberly.

            Giovanni grinned. “You were not so sure about working with him at first, I’ll admit. But it’s done wonders. He’s molded you into the man I always hoped you’d be.”

            “I was scared as hell of him at first. So severe. And that scowl! Once we got used to each other I realized he was just an old softie, though.” Carlo smiled at the memories.

            “Don’t mistake love and loyalty for softness, son. He taught you better than that. He could be a formidable adversary. I would not call him cruel, but I’ve seen him do some things people might call vicious. He was not one to be crossed. He was a man of strong emotions. He loved you like a son. It’s a love you earned. You should be proud of that.”

            “I am so proud to have known him and had the opportunity to learn from him. I’m going to miss working with him. He was so keen; had such sharp insight. Paolo and Kat thought I was nuts when I told them how much I respected him. They just knew him as ‘the Spook’, the crazy old Duchessa.”

            “He played the part well. None would guess the machinations he was involved in. The stories I could tell. Ah, well. He told me he has a will, I guess it’s in his papers. I’ll have to put that into motion. He has or had I should say quite a considerable fortune.”

            “Yes, he told me he’s left most of it to someone named Orloff,” Carlo said.

            “Orloff? I knew a Count Leopold Orloff once. But he was killed along with the Ceausescus back in what was it, 1989? Poor Nicolae and Elena never deserved what happened to them. They were just victims of the Communists. I never heard Orloff had relatives. I assumed the line ended with him.”

            “Well, I guess we’ll know soon enough.”

            “Yes, we will. Dr. Longini is preparing Sergei for burial. It will be a closed coffin funeral at his request. Will you join the doctor and me for a private farewell tonight? Also at his request, he will be dressed as a man. I don’t believe you have seen him as such, have you?”

            “No, I haven’t. I guess I’ll always remember him as a sharp-eyed old lady. But I would like to say good bye. And see him as he really was. Thank you, Father.”

            Three men, Grand Prince Giovanni, Crown Prince Carlo and Dr. Longini stood in the palace morgue gazing at the man in the coffin.

            “It’s just the three of us Antonio,” Giovanni said, addressing Dr. Longini. “You didn’t need to go overboard with the makeup.”

            “I used very little makeup. Just a little rouge to relieve the pallor of death.”

            “But you must have done more. He hardly has a wrinkle. If it weren’t for the gray hair, I’d swear I was looking at a younger man. Much younger than 100 years.”

            “That sometimes happens. You remember how he always held his face in a scowl? The famous Duchessa Scowl? Now that the muscles have relaxed, perhaps the skin has fallen back into more normal lines. I’ve seen many corpses with very few wrinkles. It is sometimes a bit unnerving. And perhaps it is due to the anti-aging experiments. Who knows?”

            “He looks as if he could get up and speak to us,” said Carlo wistfully.

            “Anyway, farewell old friend. Till we meet again,” Giovanni said as Dr. Longini closed the coffin.

            The royal family gathered outside the small chapel where the Duchessa’s funeral was to be held. She was a little-known figure among the nobility so there would be no star-studded cast of mourners, probably very few people would turn out at all. But Giovanni demanded that the entire royal family attend to show their respect for such a remarkable person and good friend. He got no dissention from anyone. Even Kat flew in from Sweden, her new home.

            Giovanni nodded for Andre to precede them into the chapel and make the announcement.

            “Their Serene Royal Highnesses the Grand Prince Giovanni and the Grand Princessa Diana of San Giorgio.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Carlo and Crown Princessa Carolyn.

            “His Royal Highness Colonel Prince Paolo.

            “Her Royal Highness Princessa Victoria.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Prince Carl Gustav and Princessa Katarina of Sweden.”

            They marched in, headed for the royal box. Giovanni visibly started and Carlo was heard to softly gasp. The chapel was filled with people, taking all but the royal seats and standing several deep along the back and sides. It seemed La Duchessa had a loyal following. By their dress you could tell none were noble. To the nobility, La Duchessa was simply a forgotten old woman who served no purpose. Someone best forgotten. But to the hundreds of workers, staff, dependents and others surrounding the crown, she was revered.

            As was expected the royals formed a receiving line for the mourners exiting the chapel. Giovanni was touched by the sincerity of the grief he saw. One elderly lady said that in all her time at the palace La Duchessa never forgot to ask after her sickly husband and sent flowers when he died. Another recalled that when her child was ill, La Duchessa came in person with a tonic that worked like magic. An old gardener said when his wife was ill and he couldn’t afford the medicine, the pharmacy sent it, saying it had been paid by a friend. He found that La Duchessa had paid the bill. Again and again, Giovanni was told the simple kindnesses Sergei had visited upon these common people that had endeared La Duchessa to them forever.

            “I knew he had an extensive network but never expected that kind of turn out,” Carlo said later, after the funeral reception. “Sergei told me that he secretly employed scores of servants to keep him in the loop on everything going on. He told me knowledge was the currency of a monarch. But he also drove home that one couldn’t just collect information and sit on it. Intelligence should be acted upon. The simple kindnesses he was able to give these people cost him very little, took little effort but reaped immense benefits. He had a very loyal following. And it was true. Nothing happened in the palace that he did not know. He taught me all of this. I only hope I can be half as incredible as he was.”

            Finally, La Duchessa was interred and her apartments were sealed pending the dispositions of the will. Life in the palace went on.

            There were few surprises when the will was opened. Sergei left all his considerable collection of jewelry to the San Giorgio crown. Diana and Carolyn were delighted. His library and personal papers were left to Prince Carlo along with a hefty endowment. As crown prince, Carlo had a palace allowance, but the endowment made him wealthy indeed. The rest of the estate was left to Count Franz Orloff. No one knew who he was. Andre said the attorneys were searching for him.

            About a month later Grand Prince Giovanni was meeting in the throne room with his cabinet. They were all gathered around a long table spread with papers. San Giorgio was a well-run principality, but there were always little snags that needed attending to. Prince Giovanni prided himself on keeping tabs on as much as possible in his little domain. He was much loved by his subjects for his personal touch.

            The chamber door opened and Andre waited to be addressed.

            “Yes, Andre, what is it?” asked the prince.

            “Your Serene Highness. May I present his grace, Count Franz Orloff.”

            A thin but strong looking man strode into the chamber.  His dress was formal, and faintly military. He had several medals, perhaps insignia of his noble rank on his lapel. He walked directly to the chair where the Grand Prince sat and sketched a short bow.

            “Your Serene Highness, I am Orloff.” Giovanni was shocked. The smiling man, with the slightly bulging eyes, sharp cheeks, luxurious raven hair and brief mustache was nearly identical to the man he had buried not two months ago. He finally found his voice.

            “Yes, Count. We have been expecting you.”

            “My apologies. Matters in my estates have detained me. However, now I am at your disposal. I bring you belated greetings from my late mother Contessa Andrea. She spoke well of you. She and I barely escaped the madness in Yugoslavia many years ago, that claimed my father. I was just a child at the time.” He stared at the Grand Prince steadily. Giovanni felt as if a daze swept over him. No, Orloff didn’t look all that familiar after all. Just a trick of the light.

            “Yes. I met Count Leopold and the contessa a few times. It was so long ago.”

            “Perhaps when there is time, you could tell me more of my father. All I have are the memories of a child.”

            “I’d be delighted. And let me introduce you to my son and heir, Crown Prince Carlo.”

            Count Orloff turned in the direction of Carlo, gave him a large smile and bowed.

            “I am honored to meet you, your Royal Highness.” Carlo just stared as if entranced by a snake.

            “Uh, likewise.”

            “You seem preoccupied, Highness?” Orloff noticed.

            “What? No, it’s just that you remind me of someone,” Carlo said. That was an understatement. If he had not seen Sergei’s coffin interred he would swear that this was him brought back to life, albeit not much older than himself.

            “I have been told I have a passing resemblance to the royal Romanian line. The Orloffs descend from a second son. That must be it.” With this he caught Carlo’s eyes. They stared at each other momentarily. Carlo broke the stare and put his hand to his head as if trying to clear a dizzy spell.

            “Yes, that must be it,” he said.

            “Yes, of course,” smiled Orloff.

            The following week Grand Prince Giovanni vested even more of his ceremonial powers in his son, saying that he wanted to enjoy a little peace in his ‘twilight years’.  In light of his new duties, the Crown Prince needed to appoint a chief of staff. Everyone in the palace was surprised when he named newcomer Count Orloff to the important position. The Count quickly began reorganizing the Crown Prince’s offices. In reviewing present personnel he brought one in particular to the attention of Carlo.

            “Highness. This man, Khanis Zaytoun. He is Turkish, yes?”

            “Yes. He’s been my press secretary since I was invested at 21.”

            “He will need to be dismissed.”

            “What? Khanis has proven to be an asset to us.”

            “Nevertheless. He will need to go. I do not care to work with Turks.”

            “Franz. Remember, I’m the Prince, I make the decisions,” Carlo did not like the tone the Count had been taking with him.

            “My apologies, Highness. No disrespect was intended. However, I believe I can be of great benefit to your household. I see the makings of a great monarch in you and see many ways I can help you get there. But you must trust me in the decisions I make. I have found time and again that Turks are untrustworthy. I cannot and will not work with them. If Khanis must remain, I ask that I be re-assigned.” Count Orloff stared at the crown prince as he made this statement.

            Carlo felt a momentary dizziness, but shook his head to clear it. Orloff was right. He needed to trust his chief of staff. And it was the chief of staff’s duty to fill the positions in the Crown Prince’s office.

            “Well, if you think we should rearrange my staff, go ahead and do it. That’s what we hired you to do,” Carlo said.

            “Of course, your Royal Highness. I will take care of everything.”

Inna Gadda da Vida

I was once listening to a comic and he said that linguists studying ancient texts discovered there had been a mistranslation from Hebrew to English in the King James Bible. Instead of “In the beginning…” it should have read “Once upon a time…”  I laughed a bit but it got me to thinking about how much of Genesis seems like a fairy tale – giants, talking animals, magic apples, unicorns, dragons. It’s about one beanstalk away from going on the shelf between Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm.  

So I wrote my own parody. It is fairly profane, so be forewarned. If you are offended with God being described as a bumbling dick, sorry. And any fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle will catch the allusion in the subtitle.

When casting around for a title I felt this was the perfect one. The story around it may be total urban legend but it is a great one. The story is when Iron Butterfly went to record their anthem “In the Garden of Eden” the lead singer was stoned. He belted out “Inna gadda da vida”, the best he could manage in his state. They liked it and decided to go with it. Like I said, I don’t know if that is true, but I love it.

Anyway this is my third title with an allusion to music. Enjoy.

Inna Gadda Da Vida

A Fractured Fairy Tale

In the beginning… oh hell, forget that. There was no beginning. Gods are eternal beings. We always were. At least that’s what I think. The Big Guy says he created me, but he says a lot of things that ain’t necessarily so. Anyway, after an eternity of sitting in darkness doing squat, he got the idea of creating a universe. I don’t know why it took him so long to come up with it. Being all-wise and so forth, but refer back to the disclaimer above.  My memory of fourteen billion years ago is a bit hazy, but we were all here then; me, Michael, Gabriel, YHWH and the rest. Yeah, he calls himself YHWH. As the lord of all creation you’d think he could buy a vowel. But he’s so touchy about things like that.

So, his followers have a book that says he made the entire universe in six days. Nope. In usual YHWH fashion he dicked around for five days and then pulled an all-nighter. That’s why he did such a shit job. I mean platypuses and penguins? Give me a break. This universe has amateur night written all over it. And if you’re a cosmologist, yes this is the first iteration. It definitely could use a reset. His followers say there was a reset a few thousand years ago with a big flood, but no, that was a local thing. It was just a big oops on YHWH’s part anyway. He’s like a bull in a china shop. No finesse. But I digress.

            Anyway, he created everything. And as his book says, he created man, “male and female created he them.” Basically they were golems. Look it up. He decided to call them Adam and Lilith. Then he created a ton of animals and told Adam he could name them. So, Adam named them Harry, Joe, Eugene and so on until YHWH stopped him and explained that’s not what he meant. Adam wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. So he started over, “dog, cat, fly”… No one seemed to care what Lilith wanted to call them. Her job was to tidy up the garden and sweep out the elephant shit. “Emu, lion, blue tailed skink”…

            YHWH liked to come to the garden and sit with them in the cool of the evening. He’s always had a problem with the heat. Fortunately, it never bothered me. He liked things as they were. He’d sit, Lilith would fawn over him and Adam was still naming animals… “mosquito, mouse, wombat”.

            Things were slow in the ether one day so I decided to drop by Eden to see how things were going. I caught up with Lilith carrying a huge load of elephant shit down to the river.

“Let me help with that,” I said.

“Thanks.” In the background I heard… “monkey, cobra, antelope”…

“You know, it would be easier if you wove some of those grasses into a basket, or we could take some poles and make a travois. Something like that would work better.” She just looked at me blankly. Seeing as she was buck naked I figured out they hadn’t gotten around to inventing things yet. So, I went more basic.

“How about fire to cook your food, or for warmth?”

“It is always warm here. What is cook? Our food is the fruit, berries and nuts all around us.”

“How about tools to help you do your work?”

“We do no work. Adam names the animals and I clean up. That is how it has always been.”

This was worse than I’d thought. YHWH was keeping them totally ignorant. Buck naked, no tools, no art, totally vegan, not a lean steak in sight. It was just wrong. These talking animals had so much potential. It was just a waste.

“Hey, Lilith,” Adam interrupted us. “I gotta go to the beach. YHWH wants me to name all the animals in the ocean. I’ll be back in a few days. By the way, I just named gorilla and he shit all over the place. Be sure to clean it up.”

Okay, I thought. This is just ridiculous.

“Lilith, girl. I need to show you something,” I said. “Let’s go to the center of the garden.”

When we got there Lilith shouted, “Shit! That freaking gorilla got crap on everything. It’s going to take me all day to clean this up.”

“Not to worry,” I said. I pulled a little power from my center, waved my hands and the gorilla crap all faded away.               

“You can do that?” she cried incredulously.

“No prob,” I bragged.

“Show me how.”

“Uh, I can’t. I can do it, you can’t.”

“Oh.”

“But come with me over here. We have these two trees. The tree of knowledge and the tree of life,” I showed her.

“Yeah, YHWH said not to mess with them. They’re deadly.”

“If YHWH said you could eat whatever you wanted, then why would he put something deadly right here in the middle of the garden?”

“I don’t know. YHWH moves in mysterious ways?”

I walked up to the tree and picked off a piece of knowledge fruit. It was golden, luscious and ripe. “Here, taste this. I think you’ll see things differently.”

She took a bite, golden juice dribbling down her chin. She giggled and wiped it off. In a few more bites it was all gone. She looked around with her eyes wide. “What a fool I’ve been. I’ve been working like a slave here while Adam sits around on his fat ass and does nothing but call out stupid words like kangaroo or boomslang or tell me to fetch him a bunch of grapes. And YHWH just watches and laughs. I’ve been so stupid.”

“Not stupid. Just ignorant. There is a difference.”

“Just wait till that jerk gets back. He’s going to get a piece of my mind.”

Not so good for Adam, but maybe Lilith could kick start humanity toward its destiny.

            When Adam got back Lilith was waiting for him. She uttered for the first time the four words that have forever struck fear in the heart of every man – “we need to talk.” It didn’t begin well, never got better and ended worse. “Fuck this shit. I’ve had it with you, YHWH and the whole garden thing. I’m packing my fig leaf and leaving. The Nephilim are having a rave over in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Gabriel’s my ride. I’m outta here!” was how she left.

“Fig leaf?” Adam asked.

            Sometime later I came upon YHWH wandering around Heaven glowering. He’s always had a hair trigger temper and is generally cranky, but today he looked really perturbed about something in particular, not just his general unpleasantness.

“What up, Big Guy?” I asked.

“Don’t call me that. And I’m pissed at Lilith. That shameless hussy has gone and left Adam. He’s been moaning that he has too much work without Lilith to help him. He said she took off with Gabriel. Said she called him a sadistic son of a bitch and a dickless man. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she’s been eating off the tree of knowledge. I probably made a mistake making them out of equal mud. I’ll fix it though. I’ll make Adam a new helper and I’ll make sure she knows her place.”

So he did, and called her Eve.

            Adam finally finished naming all the animals. YHWH let him skip the big lizard looking things because they weren’t going to survive anyhow. Now he could devote more of his time to lying about the garden and directing Eve in what needed doing.

            Lilith eventually heard that Adam had a new maid so she sneaked back to Eden for a look see. She was not surprised. Adam was lying on a bed of leaves, hand in his lap, fondling his balls. He was getting a little thick around the waist. Eve was looking a little worse for wear fetching him food and keeping the animal shit in the garden cleared. When Eve was out of sight of Adam, Lilith grabbed her arm and said, “Girlfriend, we need a heart to heart.”

It didn’t take her long to get Eve to the tree of knowledge and eat a piece. Eve, now a smart cookie in her own right, decided to bring Adam into the fold so she took him a piece of the fruit.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s knowledge.”

“Isn’t a little knowledge a dangerous thing?”

“Don’t be cute. Just eat the damn thing.”

Once both their eyes were opened they realized how empty their lives had been. They’d had no purpose, no dreams, nothing to look forward to. Now they did. Especially the sex, which they explored enthusiastically. Eve remembered how Lilith had worn a grass skirt. She realized that a little near nudity was more erotic than total nudity. It’s all about the tease. So, she fashioned leaf skirts for both of them. Adam was dubious but when Eve threatened to cut off the sex he immediately complied.

All this time YHWH had been dealing with a black hole situation over in the Andromeda galaxy. Remember this was his first shot at universe making. He wasn’t a physicist; didn’t know dark matter from Darth Vader and the galaxy was in a mess. He finally got everything back in order. He came back and just wanted a quiet evening in the garden. When he got there, no one was around.

“Where is everyone?” he wondered. Usually they ran to meet him. He wandered around until he heard giggling coming from some bushes.

“Adam, Eve. That you?” he called. There was hurried whispering and then the two crept out of the bushes, blushing and their hair in disarray. The little leaf skirts did not hide Adam’s rapidly dwindling erection.

“What’s going on here? What were you doing in there?” YHWH demanded.

“Uh, nothing,” Adam said.

“And what’s with the skirts?”

“Well, it was kinda drafty here in the garden and…”

“Bullshit!” roared the Almighty. “You’ve been eating from the tree of knowledge, haven’t you!” he accused.

Then came the first ever case of someone being thrown under the bus.

“It’s all Eve’s fault. She made me eat it,” Adam babbled. Eve’s eyes flew open wide.

“What?” she screeched. “You blame me? You’ve been happy enough to fuck all day long. I think you get a little responsibility here, too, Bucko.”

“Eve, who told you to eat from the tree of knowledge?” YHWH demanded.

For about a nanosecond she thought of ratting on Lilith but she was better than Adam. There is such a thing as female solidarity. She cast about for ideas and noticed a snake walking by.

“It was the snake. Yeah, the snake. He told me to do it,” she exclaimed pointing at the snake.  

YHWH whipped around and pointed his finger at the snake. Lightning came from his fingertip and suddenly the snake was on the ground, his legs turned to ash.

“What the fuck did I do?” whined the snake. YHWH pointed again, yelling “Silence!” and the snake’s tongue split in half and all he could say was “Ssssshit.”

YHWH was having an old fashioned hissy fit.

“From this day forward the three of you will be enemies. The snake will be poison and seek to bite you wherever he finds you. Man and woman will beat his head in with clubs. Men will no longer understand women, nor women men. Their minds will be made to think differently. And since you like sex so much there will be consequences. You will do it to create more people to be slaves to my whims. And you will bear them in intense pain.” He was on a roll.

“What’s Adam’s punishment?” Eve asked.

“Um, I don’t know. I’ll think of something. Maybe he has to cut off a piece of his dick and if you kick him in the balls it’ll hurt real bad. Yeah, and he can only come once a day. Now get the hell out of my garden!”

            So, there you have it. That’s how I helped man escape the slavery of the garden. YHWH has bumbled along a few millennia since then. Fucking up one thing after another. Couldn’t even keep his son from being killed, although that was an idiotic plan from the get go. Spends a lot of time slandering me. And my name? Oh, I’ve had many names. Morning Star, Light Bringer, Prometheus. But my favorite is Lucifer.

La Duchessa

This story is just a flight of fancy I got watching an old sci fi movie one night. Some guy noticed the same face kept showing up in photos of disasters. I don’t remember the rest but that part stuck. The whole plot of this story is built around how photos are all around us, but who actually pays any attention?

As a personal peeve, when reading the story, please use the Italian pronunciation of La Duchessa. It is doo-KAY-sa.

La Duchessa
Mont Azure
San Giorgio
2000
“So, what’s up, Sis?”
“Yeah, what’s this big discovery you said you have?”
Kat’s two brothers had gathered with her in the study after she told them she had big news. Although Carlo at 18 was older and Paulo at 15 was younger than her, they were like two peas in a pod. No one would mistake them for anything but brothers. They had their father’s Mediterranean coloring while Kat more closely resembled their Scandinavian mother.
“I’ve uncovered information about the Spook,” she said in a heavy whisper. ‘The Spook’ was the nickname they had given to Duchess Demidova. La Duchessa, as she wished to be addressed, cut a striking figure in the San Giorgian court. She was whip thin, jet black hair always pulled back in a tight bun, slightly bulging eyes in a sharp, severe scowl for the world. She always dressed in black and crept about the palace quiet as a spider. No one knew how old she was.  It was said she came to the palace when their father was a boy, a minor royal displaced by Communist expansion. The three children felt she was extremely creepy. Paolo once referred to her as ‘the Spook’ in jest and it just stuck.
            Kat had a mass of books and photos on the table.
“I found all this in some chests in the west wing. I think it’s fascinating.”
“You know we aren’t supposed to go there. Papa said it’s dangerous. A floor or roof could collapse at any moment,” Carlo said. As heir he often felt he should lead them on expeditions and chide them when they did something he deemed dangerous.
“It looked pretty safe to me. I’m wondering are there other reasons they want us out of those rooms.”
“You and your conspiracy theories. You’re always trying to make normal things seem mysterious and just cause a stir,” Carlo said.
“Yeah,” Paolo echoed, as he did most things Carlo said.
Kat just rolled her eyes and began to show them what she had found.
“Here’s Papa and Mum’s wedding photos. He looks so dashing in his uniform and Mum’s dress was just the best. Here are some of the crowd scenes from the reception.” The boys looked at the color pictures from before they were born with interest. Grand Prince Giovanni’s wedding to Sweden’s Princess Diana was the social event of the season some twenty years ago. Some smirked or made whispered comments that the groom was more than twice the age of the bride but they had always seemed happy together. His first wife had died after giving birth to a girl, their half sister Victoria. If Giovanni did not have a male heir the entire country would revert back to a Papal State. Mum had done her duty providing an heir, a ‘spare’ and Kat.
“So?” Carlo said.
“Look, here in the back of the crowd. It’s the Spook. Notice anything?”
“She’s wearing black and looks pissed off. That’s how she always looks.”
“What else?”
“I don’t know. She just looks like she always looks,” Carlo said exasperatedly.
“Exactly,” Kat crowed. “She hasn’t changed a bit in twenty years. Here are some closeups I made. Not one bit of difference.”
“Well, that’s probably make up. And it’s not like she actually does anything, other than haunt the palace,” Carlo said. This caused Paolo to giggle.
Kat looked down her nose at him.
“And this is a picture from Papa’s first wedding, thirty years ago.” The color photograph
was a bit faded but the boys could see where Kat pointed was the scowling face of the Spook.
“Once again, no change.”
“And this photo from Papa’s coronation over forty years ago. Back here in the back of the crowd. The Spook.”
“So, what are you saying? She’s some kind of immortal?” Carlo wasn’t sure whether to just laugh in his sister’s face or go on to more interesting activities. Paulo however, was rapt.
“I’ve done some research. La Duchessa Natalia Michailovna Demidova. Supposedly Romanian nobility of Russian extraction. I cannot find any record of her before 1950.”
“Isn’t that when the Communists took over? I remember Papa talking about it. He was just a kid.”
“Close, 1948. The royal family and most of the nobility fled Romania. But no word about la Duchessa.”
            “Yeah, well many records were lost or destroyed. What do you want? A birth certificate?”
“Actually, that would be great.”
“Yeah,” Paolo joined in. “Duchessa Demidova, born 1700.” He and Carlo snickered.
“Okay. So this is what really got me going,” Kat said, opening a large book. She turned to a marked page. “Recognize the picture?”
“Uh, not really.”
“I’m not surprised. The caption says it’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie taken moments before he was shot. It started World War I in 1914.” The boys looked at the old photo of a couple in an open car. The man was portly, wearing a big hat with feathers. The lady had on a white dress and large bonnet. Kat turned the page. There were several more photos.

“Here in the car behind them were the king and queen of Romania. Who’s that in the car with them?” Kat produced an enlargement of the photograph. The angle showed the backs of the king and queen and a fairly good shot of the person sitting opposite them. The boys both audibly gasped.

“I’ll be damned,” said Carlo. It looks like the Spook. But it’s a man. Her father maybe?”
“Best I can find is he’s one Count Sergei. Cousin to the king. He apparently disappeared sometime after World War I. He wasn’t with the royal family when they escaped. It doesn’t say if he had a wife or family,” said Kat.
“You know I like history and look at old picture books a lot. I stumbled upon this one.” She opened another book. Anyone who had ever seen pictures of old royalty would recognize the picture of the round huddled woman in black as Queen Victoria of Great Britain. “It says this was taken at Balmoral at Christmas in 1888. It is a group picture of them leaving for church services. And look here at the back of the group.” Once again, the boys were faced with a picture of a man who was the living image of La Duchessa. “The text says some of the Romanian royal family was visiting the Queen for the holidays.”
“And finally this.” She took out a print of a photo showing a man in a turban with a large gem in the front and a feather sticking up. He had bulging eyes and an impressive mustache. “Here’s a photoshopped image where I removed the mustache.” Once again it was the image of La Duchessa.
“I have to say I’d recognize that scowl anywhere. Who is this?” asked Carlo.
“Vlad Tepes Dracul.”
“Count Dracula? Are you kidding? Sis, you have lost your freaking mind.”
“But it all makes sense,” she argued. “And he was King of what would become Romania in 1450.”
“Yeah. The Spook is a vampire? That makes a whole lot of sense. I think you’ve been watching too much ‘X-Files’.”
“You know how she is. She creeps around like a ghost at night. Suddenly appearing in a dark corner of a room. Never going out in the daylight.”
“Those pictures in the car were in daylight. And you said they were going to church. Don’t vampires explode or something if they enter a church?” Carlo challenged her.
“Well, I haven’t figured that part out yet,” she admitted.
“So you want us to believe she’s like Dracula in drag?” asked Paolo.
“Yeah, Count Dragula,” said Carlo, causing Paolo to laugh.
“Well, not when you say it like that.”
“Like what? You mean sanely?” countered Carlo.
“I never should have told you. We could have a monster right here in our midst and you don’t even care!”
“A monster? Really?” came a deep, even voice from a dark corner of the room. La Duchessa stepped into the light as Kat gave a little squeal of surprise. So did Paolo but he would forever deny it.
“Have you been spying on us?” Kat asked hotly.
“No. I just came in a moment ago to get a book. Did you not notice me?” La Duchessa said calmly. “Do you really think me some kind of monster?”
When Kat noticed the look of hurt on her face she was immediately ashamed.
“I’m just an old relic of a bygone era that no one needs anymore. We royals are becoming more and more irrelevant.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve hurt your feelings but the pictures and you’re so mysterious and all,” Kat realized she was babbling. La Duchessa walked over to the table and looked at the pictures. With a wry grin she then said, “Well, I guess you’ve found me out. Let me tell you the real story.”
“Shit! You’re really a vampire?” Paolo squeaked.
“Paolo! Language! And no, I most definitely am not a vampire or any other creature your silly science fiction movies portray. But I’m also not La Duchessa Demidova. She is just a fiction your grandfather and I created.”
            “Count Sergei was my father, a cousin of the King of Romania. My mother was a commoner so we weren’t recognized by the family. My real name is Wotilja Hunyadi. Many say I am the image of my father.”
“You really are a dude?” asked Carlo, amazed.
“Yes, Carlo. When the Communists invaded Romania the royal family fled. Father had disappeared, mother was dead and I was left behind. I was not totally a babe in the woods, so to speak. I had seen the end coming and had taken certain steps that weren’t necessarily inside the law. I was the last to flee just moments before the Communists broke into the palace. I escaped with only the clothes on my back and a suitcase.”
“Wow,” whispered Paolo.
“Of course, the suitcase contained the crown jewels and financial notes that allowed me to transfer most of the national treasury into a private Swiss account.” It was obvious that Hunyadi was quite pleased with himself.
“I lit out of the country like a bat out of hell and didn’t stop until I got here. Your grandfather was a friend and agreed to give me asylum. We knew the KGB would be after the money and might connect me so we decided Wotilja should disappear. La Duchessa took his place.”
“But the KGB is no more,” said Carlo. “You could go back to being a man.”
“I have been La Duchessa for 50 years. I’m not sure what I would be without her. It would raise too many questions and draw unwanted attention. I am content as I am.”
            “I sleep much of the day because I have insomnia. I stay indoors mostly because the bright light hurts my eyes and ages this old skin. And what else have I to do to fill my time? There are many secret passages and short cuts in old palaces like this. Over my fifty years here I have found most of them. As to being ageless, posh child, I wish. You would scarcely believe the horror I am faced with each day at my dressing table. The makeup it takes just to make me presentable. Sometimes the Spook spooks herself.”
“You aren’t supposed to know about that,” Kat looked mortified.
“Dear child, I know everything that goes on in this palace. I have eyes and ears everywhere. It is how a monarch survives. Prince Carlo, as the next leader of this country you should be creating such a network. I will be pleased to offer assistance.”
“Uh, thank you.”
“And you, Princessa. You have discovered what has eluded KGB for fifty years. Brains and beauty all in one package. Now, it would honor me if you would keep this to yourselves. I would like to spend my final few years in relative peace, as I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course, Duchessa,” Carlo spoke for them all. “We’ll keep your secret.”
“And now my children, the wolves are gathering on the hill and the children of the night are calling. It is time for this vampire to retire to her coffin.” She gave them a big grin and Paolo looked closely to be sure there were no fangs. Just to be certain. Chuckling to herself, muttering “vampire my ass”, La Duchessa shuffled out of the room.
The boys looked daggers at Kat. She shrugged.
“It was an honest mistake. Anyone could have made it.”
Later La Duchessa knocked on the door of the Grand Prince’s private study.
“Enter.”
As she opened the door the Grand Prince called out heartily, “Duchessa, come on in. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
“They know, Vanni. The children know about me.”
The Grand Prince dropped his smile. “How much?” He took on a look of concern.
“Only what they need to,” La Duchessa smiled.
“Whew, Sergei. That’s a relief.  Don’t frighten me like that.” And La Duchessa added silently to himself just as you know only what you need to know.