A Pretty Girl

My computer is dead. They could not revive it. They said I could sell its remains on ebay. I’m reduced to depending on this old clunker where the keys cannot be relied on to print and the space bar has all the predictability of a roulette wheel. I’m constantly backspacing to fix things. It makes typing anything exhausting. They seemed to think that my computer was becoming obsolete and I needed a new one anyway. It was only 22 months old. Not even two years. Obsolete? I mean I know it’s not cutting edge after 22 months, but obsolete?

I’ve got my eye on a replacement. I’ll have to wait for the black Friday sale for it to even become close to affordable. But I have to write. And I cannot continue to do it on this clunker. I have another name for what it is but since this is a family site, I’ll stick with clunker.

I should have posted this last week, but well, ya know.

A Pretty Girl grew out of a dare kind of. You may have read Best Summer Ever. It’s posted under 2019 Stories. If not, you should. Anyway, at the end of Best Summer Ever a fan asked me about the female lead. She said the girl sounded interesting, what’s her story. I said I didn’t think there was a story there because I didn’t think I could channel a 15 year old girl. She said “Probably not.” Well, I took that as a challenge. I’m not sure if I really channeled a 15 year old girl, I can’t find one to read it for me. But I had a lot of fun writing it. It’s one of my longer stories, clocking in at just over 10,000 words. So get comfy before you start. I hope you enjoy it.

A Pretty Girl

“I’m coming over.”

“No, you don’t have to do that,” Mandy protested.

“I said I’m coming over. You need a friend.”

“I don’t want to ruin your date. Don’t bother. I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah. See you in about 30 minutes.” Savannah broke the connection.

Mandy sighed. She hated being a pain. So she got stood up. It’s not that big a deal. Not even stood up. Lated? Is that a word?

            Jason was supposed to pick her up at 7 to go to a teen club dance. Savannah called her at 8 to find out why she wasn’t there yet. Mandy babbled something about Jase having no sense of time, but she was worried. He finally showed up at 9. Her mom answered the door and to use her phrase, “sent him packing.”

“No respectable young man shows up two hours late for his date and no self-respecting young lady would tolerate it,” she said. “Besides, I caught a whiff of beer. I don’t think you should keep seeing him if he drinks and drives. We agreed to allow you to go on car dates now you’re 15 because we respect your maturity and responsibility. Don’t make us regret it.”

            Yeah, Mom has a way with words. Lots of ‘em. But she was glad Mom took charge of the door answering tonight. It would have been hard to tell Jase to go.  

Well, alone again on a Friday night. What a loser. When Mandy had related what happened when Savannah called again a little after 9, her response made even Mandy blush. Savannah was her best friend and super-protective. Even more so than Mandy’s body-builder older brother Nathan, whom they both referred to as “the Neanderthal”. Savannah was older and considerably wiser about boys, dating and other important stuff. What a difference a year makes.

            Savannah arrived as promised. Mandy overheard her mother say she thought she’d see Savannah tonight. God, I am such a loser, Mandy agonized. Even my mother knows it.

            “So he bailed on you?” Savannah was livid. Her green eyes shone with fire and her curly brown hair seemed to crackle with energy.

“Not really. I mean he did show up.”

“Two hours late! In some ways that’s worse than not showing up at all. It’s like saying ‘You’ll dance to my tune, bitch’. He is such a douche. You can’t let that go.”

“Well, maybe it was my fault. He seemed distracted at school today. Maybe I did something wrong.”

“Don’t blame yourself. Maybe you’re not the problem. Maybe he is.”

“What? You think we should break up?”

“No. I’m calming down now.” Savannah visibly settled herself. “You should do what YOU want to do. You’re beautiful and smart. You should call the shots, not some nerdy boy. If you stay with him or with anyone, be sure he respects you.”

“Like your Del? You are so lucky. He absolutely adores you. I wish I had a Del.” Savannah’s face softened at the mention of her boyfriend. Senior, biggest guy at school, all-state tackle, bitchin’ car and yes, he doted on Savannah.

“Yes, like my Del.”

“Well, I AM very pissed about tonight. He’s blown me off a couple of times at school, too. But he’s cute as can be and I just can’t resist him when he makes his wounded puppy dog eyes at me. I can’t just break up with him. He’s my first boyfriend since I can go on real dates. And Fall Fest and Homecoming are coming up. I gotta have a date for those.  Everybody will think I’m such a loser if I can’t even get a date.”

“But someone like him? He showed up at the club before we left. He told people you were being a bitch. You want to date a boy who says that about you? There are other fish in the sea. And pretty as you are, they’ll line up to date you. Just take your pick.”

“I don’t seem to pick so well. My last boyfriend cheated on me and now this,” Mandy moaned, covering her head with the comforter on her bed. “What’s wrong with me, Vannah? I feel like I have ‘loser’ stamped on my forehead. Why can’t I keep a boy interested in me?” Her voice was muffled by the comforter.

“I don’t know, babe. You’re a pretty girl and you like pretty boys. There’s nothing wrong with good-looking guys. I mean, look at my Del. But you just seem to always pick the worst ones. A lot of good-looking guys think they’re all that, like the rules don’t apply. Maybe go a little slower. Get to know a guy before you give him your heart.” Mandy sat up and looked at Savannah like she had all the answers. Savannah stroked Mandy’s honey blond hair and looked into her cool blue eyes.

“You make it sound so simple. I thought I knew Jase. I thought he liked me,” Mandy said looking earnestly into Savannah’s eyes.

“Jason Collins only likes one person, and that’s Jason Collins. I haven’t said anything but I’ve been afraid this was going to blow up.”

“What? Tell me.”

“You said I make it sound so simple. Well, it should be, but dicks like Jason are everywhere. They put on this act. They make you think they’re so romantic and nice and into you. Then once they’ve drawn you in, you see the real person, and he’s a shit, but by then it’s too late. I’ve seen him do this before.”

“Oh my god. Jase was so sweet and romantic at the start. You mean now I’m seeing the real guy? That he thinks he can ignore me at school and come and go as he pleases and I won’t say anything? What a dick!”

“That’s my girl,” Savannah pulled her into a hug. “We’ll find you a real boyfriend. The kind of boy you deserve. But for this weekend, you’re with me. Del and I are going bowling tomorrow night. You’re going with us. I’ll bring my cousin Gary to make it four. You remember him?”

“Yeah. He’s cute, sweet, everything I want in a boy except he’s also looking for the perfect boy. Send him over early and we can try on dresses together,” Mandy said through a pout.

“Don’t be homophobic. You could use the help. Your sense of style is terrible.”

“Is not!”

“Is too. Hey, I smell popcorn. Your mom said she was making some. Let’s go gorge ourselves and zone out on Netflix.”

“Now, that I agree with.”

            Per Savannah’s advice Mandy didn’t take Jason’s calls on Saturday or Sunday. She also ignored his texts and emails. As she expected, he caught up with her at her locker Monday morning.

            “Mandy. What’s the deal, babydoll? You won’t talk to me or return my texts. I’m sorry about Friday, okay? I just got caught up with the guys. You know I only think about you.”

“Oh, Jason. We both know that’s not true. We’ve drifted apart recently so I think we ought to take a break from each other.”

“A break? What? Are you breaking up with me?”

“Yeah, I am. I like you a lot, Jase. I just don’t think we belong together. We have other things we want to be doing.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.  She turned quickly to walk away before being ensnared by his hurt puppy dog eyes. She knew she wouldn’t be able to resist them. She heard him gasp, “What the fuck?” After turning a corner she whipped out her cell and texted Savannah, “done”. Savannah would get the rumors started and make sure Mandy’s side was the official story.

Fall Fest was going to be a bust as far as Mandy was concerned. She tried to be open to talking to different guys, trying to get a feel for their character, but mostly it made her seem awkward and stand-offish. Also, Jason was popular so dumping him did her no favors, even though Savannah made sure everyone knew he had mistreated her. So, she ended up dateless for the first school dance. She had planned to sulk at home but Savannah made her come along with her and Del. A few boys asked her to dance, although one got a painful jab in his foot from her spike heel in response to a wandering hand.

An hour or so into the dance, she and Savannah went to the bathroom to freshen their makeup. Afterward, coming down the hallway near the gym Mandy heard off to her left, “Hey, Mandy. Got a minute?” She looked over and saw Jimmy DeVane, a classmate, a cute classmate.

“Hey, Jimmy.” Then to Savannah, “Go on, I’ll catch up in a minute. So, what’s up, Jimmy?”

“I’ve been thinking I should tell you I’m sorry about you and Jase, but I’m really not. He was never good enough for you. Just saying.” He leaned against the wall beside a classroom door like he wanted her to stay a few minutes and talk. She stepped closer.
            “I thought you and Jase were buds. Is that how you talk about your friends?”

“Yeah, we’re amigos. I know him real well. That’s how I know he’s not what you need. I guess you know he was seeing Charlene while you two were dating?” She didn’t know, but wouldn’t admit it.

“Yeah, he’s a douche,” she replied. Jimmy chuckled.

“Let’s not talk about him. How about us?” He stepped closer, into her personal space. She could feel the heat radiating from his chest. He was summer tanned, black haired, moody, sexy. Your basic bad boy. Yep, she thought. He’s got a reputation but he’s the kind of guy she liked. “Maybe we could get together some time,” he breathed huskily. “You know, get to know each other,” another step and he was very close but not actually touching.

She suddenly noticed how dark the hallway was. She edged a little away, saying, “That sounds like…”

He casually put his arm around her waist saying, “What’s the hurry?” She overcame her jitters. After all, they were in school. She was safe here.

“No hurry,” she whispered. He leaned back against the wall, gently pulling her with him. She didn’t resist, but allowed him to pull her into full contact.

“We could have a lot of fun together,” he breathed into her ear. She lifted her head to reply, but his mouth found hers. She went with it and decided Jimmy DeVane was a great kisser. Breaking the kiss, she pushed him slightly back. With a smile she said, “Maybe Jimmy. But not here in the hall.”

“There’s any number of open classrooms. Let’s go.”

“No, Jimmy. Not at school.” His arms had tightened and she realized she couldn’t break free.

“Let me go, Jimmy.”

“Aw, don’t be a tease, Mandy. Jase said you always came through for him.” He pulled her tight against himself. She could feel his arousal. He attempted to kiss her again.

“He said what?” she squeaked as she avoided his mouth. She was so surprised she hardly noticed he had maneuvered her into the classroom.

“Yeah,” he breathed in her ear as she struggled. “He said you were hot for it. Slow to start, but a real tiger.” He covered her mouth with his again. Only then did she notice his hand was under her skirt and felt it slide down inside the front of her panties. Without thinking about it, she bit his lip. As he pulled his face back she slammed her knee up between his legs as hard as she could. His face creased in agony but he refused to let go. As he crumpled to the ground he tried to pull her with him. Getting one arm free she punched him in the face the way Nathan had shown her. This allowed her to break his grip. She fled the room and ran without stopping until she fell sobbing into Savannah’s arms.

“Oh god, baby. What’s wrong?”

“Jimmy DeVane, he just tried, he tried to force me, he tried to rape me,” she barely managed to get out.

“Oh my god. My poor baby,” she crooned wrapping Mandy even more tightly. “Are you okay?”

“No. I mean yes, I got away. But I wanna go home.”

“Del,” Savannah said. “Get the principal.” He nodded and left.

“No, Savannah. I don’t want to cause trouble. He’ll say it’s my fault. It sounds like Jason’s been saying I’m easy.”

“What? You told me y’all never did it.”

“And we never did. You know I wouldn’t keep that from you. But he’s telling people we did. Jimmy wanted in on it.”

“They are both fucking low life scum!” Savannah swore.

Principal James came up with Del. “Miss Barrett, Miss Smalls. Del here tells me there has been some problem?”

“Yes,” Savannah said. “Jimmy DeVane just tried to rape Mandy.”

“Oh my. Miss Barrett, is this true?”

“Yes,” she barely managed to whisper. Now that the immediate shock was wearing off she was beginning to shiver and couldn’t stop the tears.

“That’s a very serious allegation, Miss Barrett. Are you sure it wasn’t just teenage fooling around?”

“He forced me in a classroom and tried to rip off my panties,” she gasped.

“Oh, well, yes. That’s terrible. Now, I’m sorry to have to ask this but I must. Did you at any time say ‘no’ or indicate that you were unwilling? Or did you lead him on?”

She had been afraid they’d paint it as her fault. She raised her tearstained face, surprising even herself with the force in her voice, “I screamed no, bit him and kicked him in the fucking balls. Is that enough of a no for you?” The principal seemed a little shocked at her vehemence.

“Well, yes. But it’s over now. You’re safe.” Turning to another teacher he told him to scout around and find Jimmy DeVane.

“Mandy! Mandy! Are you okay?” Nathan came running up. “What’s going on?”

“DeVane attacked her,” Savannah told him, passing Mandy into his arms.

“That punk. I’ll kill him!” Nathan roared.

“You’ll do nothing of the sort, Mr. Barrett. I suggest you settle down and call your parents to come collect your sister.”

“I wanna go home,” Mandy moaned.

“I can take her home,” Nathan told the principal.

“I’ll release her to your parents. We’ll let you leave when your parents arrive, Miss Barrett. I’ve called the school nurse. She will want to have a look at you. Perhaps we can resolve this without involving the authorities.”

Savannah, who had been whispering with Del, whipped her head toward Principal James and said, “A fucking whitewash? Are you kidding?” As she gaped at the principal, Del slipped away.

“Language, Miss Smalls,” the principal glared at her. One of the chaperones came up. “Ah, Mr. Johnson. Have you found him?”

“Yes, sir. We got the DeVane boy. Looks like the girl got in some licks. Bob’s holding him in your office. Want me to call his parents?”

“Yes, please.” There was sudden shouting and shoving on the other side of the gym. It looked as if a fight might break out.
            “Oh, Lord. What now?” the principal worried as he and several other teachers headed toward the disturbance.

After Principal James left, Del came up. In the crook of his massive arm was the neck of a very frightened looking Jason Collins. Although there were no visible injuries, the state of Jason’s hair and clothes showed that Del had not used gentle persuasion to get him to come along.

“The boys are causing a ruckus to keep the teachers occupied. You only got a few minutes, Savannah,” Del said. A small crowd of students had gathered around them to see what was happening.

“Well, Jason,” she began. “I’m happy to let you know that you and your best friend’s plan to rape Mandy didn’t work.”

“Mfft?” was all Jason could get out from under the huge arm holding him captive. Savannah gave Del a short nod and he released the boy with a look that advised him to stay where he was. “I didn’t do nothing,” Jason whined.

“The police already have DeVane in custody and are probably looking for you,” she coolly lied. “He told Mandy how you said you two had been having sex and she was hot for it. Maybe you helped him plan it or maybe you just set them both up. Either way, you’re an accessory to a felony, Jason. Y’all are sixteen. You can be tried as adults. DeVane will be expelled and do prison time. You will at least be expelled. Maybe prison also. A pretty boy like you won’t do well in prison,” she sneered.

Jason’s crimson face blanched. He began sobbing, “Oh god, no. I didn’t think he’d do anything. It was just talk. Just guy talk. Oh god, oh shit. I can’t go to prison. Mandy, don’t let them send me away. Please.”

“You mean you and Mandy weren’t intimate?” Savannah asked innocently.

“No! No, no, no. We never did nothing. She wouldn’t. I mean I wanted to, but no. Not ever. I just said we did ‘cause Jimmy was bragging about the girls he’s done. It was stupid. I’m so sorry, Mandy. I’d never do anything to hurt you.” It seemed as if he were pleading for his life, which in a sense, he thought he was.

“All right, everyone, break it up,” Principal James said pushing through the milling students. “Mr. Collins. I might have known I’d find you mixed up in this. Where Mr. DeVane causes trouble, Mr. Collins is sure to follow. Mr. Johnson, take him to the vice principal’s office and call his parents, too.”

Within a few minutes the principal had cleared the area and Savannah, Del and Nathan took Mandy to sit on the bleachers to wait for her and Nathan’s parents. Nathan kept his arm around her and she leaned in as if drawing strength from him. The doors nearby flew open and her parents came running in, her dad outstripping her mom. He rushed towards them shouting, “Where’s my baby, where’s my little girl?”

Mandy, feeling like she was seven again, cried, “Daddy” and ran to his arms. He was built big like Nathan and totally engulfed her. Being enfolded in his arms was the safest place she knew. Her mother came up and began fretting over her as her dad turned to Principal James.

“I want that boy locked up or I swear I’ll kill him myself.”

“Now, Mr. Barrett. Calm yourself. Everything’s under control.”

“Control? Where were you when that bastard tried to rape my daughter?”

Principal James sputtered, “We’re dealing with it.”

“See that you do! Come on, honey,” her dad said to Mandy. “We’re taking you home.”

Principal James grabbed him by the arm. “She needs to see the nurse first.”

Mr. Barrett looked pointedly at the hand on his arm, then the principal. “I’ll ask nicely only once. Take your goddamn hand off me. I’ll take care of my daughter. You obviously can’t.” James quickly raised both hands in surrender and the little group – father, mother and two children left. Savannah leaned into Del and whispered, “Go, Mr. B!”

“So what was the deal with terrifying Collins?” Del asked.

“A little bit payback and a little bit cleaning up Mandy’s reputation. Jason’s been saying she’s a slut. Now he’s publicly admitted he’s a liar. We have plenty of witnesses.”

“Remind me never to cross you,” Del smiled.

The attorney Mandy’s family consulted advised against any action. She said that the school would probably not be held responsible and it would be an awful experience for Mandy, especially considering what she had already gone through. Jimmy DeVane was not expelled but allowed to transfer to another school in a nearby school district. His father, the largest contractor in Middleton, coincidentally made a huge contribution to the athletic fund. And Jason basically got yelled at and told to keep his nose clean. Mandy felt like the only one who received any real consequences. Her parents decided she was not ready for car dates. They would reconsider when she was sixteen. WTF? she thought. I’m the victim here. Even my own parents are acting like I did something wrong. She felt like the point was moot anyway. None of the guys were exactly lining up to ask her out. While they all got a laugh out of the public shaming of Jason, it was as if she had broken some taboo in reporting Jimmy. Even though everyone considered him a basic boyslut, none of the boys wanted to see him called on it. Her parents also wanted her to talk to a counselor, but she adamantly refused. She was not going to talk to some shrink about something as embarrassing as this. She didn’t want some pointy headed guy with a goatee poking around in her head. She just wanted to forget the whole thing.

“Maybe I should have just let it go, not told anyone. It was all my fault anyway. I shouldn’t have been alone with him,” she moaned to Savannah.

“What? Hell, no! You were in school for Christ sake. You should expect to feel safe there. It was not your fault. Don’t ever say that. It was just a matter of time before he did that to somebody. You probably have saved someone else from getting raped by standing up to him.”

“Then why do I feel like the bad guy? Everybody’s acting like I did something wrong. Maybe I did. I did let him kiss me. If I hadn’t he wouldn’t have thought I’d let him do anything else. Maybe I did lead him on. I didn’t mean to, though. I feel like such a zero. The guys only want me if they can get in my pants,” Mandy agonized.

“Girlfriend, look at me. You did nothing wrong. NOTHING! He is low life scum and those bastards let him off scott-free. You were totally right in everything you did. And if others can’t accept that, then fuck ‘em.”

“Easy for you to say. It’s not about you. I feel like that Hester girl in that stupid book we had to read in English last year. The difference is I didn’t do anything! It’s like everybody hates me, including me.” Mandy just wanted to scream.

Homecoming came and went dateless. Mandy went to the game to see Del terrorize the other team, but skipped the dance. Savannah tried to get her out of her funk but couldn’t seem to get Mandy interested in anything. She vaguely hoped her life might start back up when she could date again at sixteen. Maybe. If she could find someone.

The mild Georgia winter came in softly and it was in a warm January when disaster struck again. Del was contacted by a PAC-10 college which offered him an experimental scholarship plan that would allow him to finish his senior year at college while taking in college level courses. This would allow a lighter load during his first football season, when a number of athletes find out they can’t keep up. He explained to Savannah that this was his big chance. She bravely kissed him good-bye and let him go. Then completely broke down in Mandy’s room.

“I always knew he might go off somewhere after high school. I just kept this small dream that he might get a scholarship in-state. Somewhere close enough that we could stay together. Even if that didn’t happen, I was hoping to enjoy at least six more months of the best relationship I ever hoped to have. It’s just not fair. This world sucks. Football sucks. Everything sucks.”

Mandy didn’t know what to say, so she just held Savannah’s hand and passed her Kleenexes.

“I’ve got big news,” Savannah said as she joined Mandy at their regular lunch table on a rainy February Monday. “Guess who is back on the market?”

“I don’t have to guess. I’m sure you’re going to tell me whether I care or not,” Mandy replied nonchalantly.

“Well, my intel is that Brad Jessup is a free man.”

“No way! He and Carol have been basically married for the last year.”

“Well, apparently there’s trouble in paradise. There was a scene at a party at Jordan’s on Saturday. You know. The one we weren’t invited to. Mostly couples or couple wannabes. A parents out of town party,” she said with raised eyebrows. “It seems Carol got into the liquor. You know how she gets when she’s had a few.” Savannah loved to repeat gossip. Fortunately, Mandy loved to hear it.

“I’ve heard she gets a little crazy,” Mandy confirmed.

“Yeah. Seems she was getting flirty with some of the guys. Brad and her got into it a few times. He was mad she was drinking, and she was mad he was a ‘party poop’ as she called it. They weren’t speaking to each other and avoiding each other most of the night. Then Carol went off the deep end. She went shrieking through the house that she caught Brad in a back room making out with Nicolette Sheridon. She said he had his tongue halfway down her throat.”

“Eww,” Mandy didn’t care for that mental picture.

“It went downhill from there. It seems the most family friendly thing she called him was a goddamn fucking son of a bitch. She went on that he was a pervert with a tiny dick, lousy in bed and slapped women around because he’s not man enough to hit men. She really laid it on. And, get this. Nicolette wasn’t even there that night. She must have imagined the whole thing. They said Brad was just ice cold. Stared at her and didn’t say a thing. He just left. She had to find her own way home.”

Mandy looked around the cafeteria. Brad was sitting over at a table with the tennis team. Carol was sitting with the cheer leaders. Even her extra heavy makeup couldn’t hide that she was recently hungover or crying, or both.

“You know how they are. They’ll be back together in a day or so. They can’t live without each other. They say it all the time,” Mandy reasoned.

“Not necessarily so. I have intel from a source, a guy, who said Brad told him he was getting tired of Carol’s shit. He said this was the last straw and there was no going back. He even put on Facebook that ‘Brad is NOT in a relationship’.”

“Wow, maybe it is over. And they were such a beautiful couple, not.” Mandy thought Brad was gorgeous and Carol was just too easy to hate.

“This might be my big chance,” Savannah said.

“Chance for what?”

“To get Brad.”

“As if. He doesn’t even know you exist. He’s out of our league.”

“Of course he knows me. We went together, once.”

“In fifth grade!” Mandy exclaimed. “Y’all were going steady in homeroom and broke up by recess. It lasted what, three hours?”
            “But a quality three hours,” Savannah sighed. “I’ve got a class with him next period. Wish me luck.”

“Go for it, girl,” Mandy said through a smile.

Savannah related over the phone to Mandy that night how well she had played Brad in class and that he would be joining them for lunch the next day. And sure enough, Brad came strolling up with his lunch tray shortly after she and Savannah had sat down. Savannah was bright and flirty, trying to keep Brad engaged, but Mandy got the feeling his attention was elsewhere. Poor Savannah, she thought. She’s trying so hard and it’s so not happening.

As they went back to their lockers before the next class Savannah admitted it wasn’t working.

“Well, that sucked,” were her exact words. “But I’ve got another 50 minutes to work on him. It’s double or nothing.”

“That’s the spirit,” Mandy cheered her.

That’s why it was almost surreal when she found Brad falling into step beside her as she headed out of school later that day.

“Remember me?” he asked playfully.

“Oh, hey Brad.”

“You a walker or a bus rider?”

“Oh, I live just a few blocks. I walk when the weather is nice. It’s overcast but not too cold today.” Mandy sensed she was babbling.

“It may start raining any moment. How about I give you a lift home? It’ll let me make up for monopolizing your friend at lunch.” She noticed he didn’t mention Savannah’s name. Crap. What should I do, she wondered. Savannah has staked her claim, but he’s definitely not interested. She’ll hate me if she thinks I screwed things up for her, though. But he’s driving a BMW. And he’s gorgeous. And he’s nice. Savannah said I should look for nice. Maybe if I let him drive me home, it’ll give me time to tell him what a great girl Savannah is, she rationalized.

“If you’re sure it’s not too far out of your way.”

Mandy knew that word would get around fast and she needed to get ahead of it. So she called Savannah that night.

“You did what!” was Savannah’s response.

“I tried to tell him how great you are. To build you up.”

“I’ll just bet you did.” Savannah was having none of it.

“Vannah, don’t be that way. I didn’t go after him and I’m not going to go out with him or anything. It was just a ride.”

“Mandy, get real. It was not ‘just a ride’. He’s cozying up to you. I know you’ve been desperate for a boyfriend but I never thought you’d stab me in the back like this.”

Mandy was sobbing now. “Vannah, don’t say that. You’re my best friend. I promise I’ll never even look at him again. I’ll do anything, just don’t shut me out. Vannah. Vannah!” but Savannah had hung up.

Mandy couldn’t face Savannah the next day. She packed a lunch and ate it in the library. Maybe Brad and Savannah can work things out without me in the way, she decided. And just to be sure, she left the school by a different exit that afternoon so Brad couldn’t find her. If he was looking.

Mandy was sitting in the library the next day eating a dry sandwich when someone flopped down in the seat beside her. It was so sudden she jumped. She turned to find Savannah looking at her.

“This sucks,” Savannah said by way of greeting. “I can’t be mad at you. It’s like telling a fish not to swim. And it’s so cliché, letting a guy get between us. We should be better than that.”

“I’m sorry, Vannah,” Mandy said timidly.

“Nothing to be sorry about, babe. This one’s all on me. It wasn’t going anywhere. I was just being jealous. Will you forgive me?”

“Of course. You’re my bestie.”

“Are we good?”

“Better than good.”

Brad wasted no time in pursuing Mandy. Giving her the full court press according to Savannah. He met her at her locker, drove her home from school nearly every day. He asked to pick her up in the mornings but her parents didn’t know he was driving her home (he let her off down the street), and since she wasn’t supposed to have car dates she didn’t want to push it. Valentine’s Day was chocolates and a dozen red roses. She felt like she was getting the royal treatment. Mom noticed and raised her eyebrows. “Not that Collins boy, I hope,” she commented.

Mandy had told Brad about the sixteen-years-old rule for dating and he had already had made plans with her for February 20. He wanted to be her first official date. She had glossed over her few actual car dates with Jason.

Mandy tried not to gush about him to Savannah, but it was hard. She felt all glowy when he was with her and felt his presence with her all day after he kissed her at her locker. It was like she could smell his cologne on her all day long. It wasn’t long before Savannah said, “Yep, you got it bad. Just be careful. You give your heart too easily. Make sure he deserves it.”

Their first date was to a very nice restaurant. Mandy knew his family had money but didn’t know much more. He told her that both his parents were successful attorneys so he was raised by a succession of nannies. His parents assuaged their guilt by buying him pretty much whatever he wanted. He said he earned extra spending money doing filing in his dad’s office on weekends.

“Weekends?” Mandy moaned. “When will we see each other?”

“Well I couldn’t very well do it during the week. I do have school work you know. But it’s only some weekends. Some Saturdays, hardly ever a Sunday. We’ll work around it. You won’t even miss me.”

“I miss you whenever you’re not with me,” she said.

“You’re such a romantic. Just one of the things I love about you,” he said, reaching over to stroke her cheek.

What!? flared in her brain. Did he just say the L word? Wow!

It frustrated Mandy that for most of March it seemed Brad was more unavailable than not on weekends. He said spring was a busy time in his dad’s office. He also didn’t pick up her calls and rarely responded to texts when he was working. He said it was frowned upon to carry around a cell at work. He was there to work. Dad wanted him to make a good impression.

The dates they did have were wonderful to Mandy. She loved how all the girls looked at her enviously. And Brad was so romantic most of the time. Whenever he was snappish or petulant he blamed it on problems at the office. But, sometimes it was something she had done wrong. She always promised to do better. He always forgave her. And she could always pull him out of his funk.  

When they would find a secluded place for parking things got even better. Although he pressed as far as she was willing to go, he always backed off the moment she asked him to. They had progressed rather quickly and there wasn’t much they hadn’t tried as Prom approached.

Mandy talked with Savannah about going all the way with Brad at Prom. Well, not at Prom, but at the after party. Savannah told her what she felt she needed to know, what to expect and so forth. By this time she and Brad were fairly familiar with each other’s bodies and she joked with Savannah that Carol wasn’t lying about only Nicolette.

“She got the tiny dick part way wrong, too,” she giggled to Savannah.

“More information than I wanted, thank you very much.”

“And next weekend I’ll see if she lied about the lousy lover part. She must have. He’s so romantic and the way he can make me feel with just his hands is so, so…”

“TMI, girl. Let’s talk about protection.”

“Well, I’m on birth control pills for my irregular periods.”

“And were you taking a nap the day they talked about STDs in health class? You’re not just sleeping with Brad, but every person he’s ever slept with and that they’ve slept with. You’re sleeping with Carol. And I know for a fact that she was balling Jackson on the football team before she hooked up with Brad. And football players are worse than alley cats. Who knows how many girls Jackson’s been with. And those girls probably did other football players. It’s a geometric progression. You’ll probably be screwing half the school. You tell Brad, no condom, no nookie.”

“Well, now that you have totally killed the romance…”

“Just trying to keep you safe, babe.”

“Hey, Mand. Dreamboat is here!” Nathan yelled up the stairs. Well, what’s Prom without a little brotherly embarrassment, she thought? She had waited upstairs so she could make a big entrance. Both boys watched as she slowly walked down the curved staircase. Mom had gone dress shopping with her and had wanted her to pick a blue monstrosity that Mandy thought looked like a wedding cake. She ended up picking a shimmery emerald sheath that may as well have been painted on. A slit up the side to her thigh allowed walking and dancing. A plunging neckline accentuated Mandy’s well-developed chest. Her swept up hairdo accentuated her long neck. Brad’s mouth actually fell open. Mandy beamed, noticing he looked especially sexy in his tux.

“Yep, little sis cleans up pretty well,” Nathan bragged.

“You look pretty nice yourself, for a Neanderthal and all,” Mandy razzed him. Nathan did look dapper in a black tuxedo. It fit well over his massive chest and muscular shoulders. He was doing a super dooper brotherly favor for Mandy by taking Savannah to Prom. Mandy wouldn’t want to go without her best friend.

“Wow,” said Brad, finally finding his voice. “I knew you were beautiful, but wow, just wow.”

“I think you need to work on your patter, bud,” Nathan said. Brad gave him a brief glare.

“He’s doing just fine,” Mandy crooned. “Feel free to continue.”

Dad did his dad thing with Brad, but ended up just saying “you kids try to get home before the sun comes up.”

Mom took about a thousand pictures and cried.

 Prom was everything she dreamed it would be. She was the envy of every girl. She felt like she glowed. She was at the event of the year with THE Brad Jessup. It didn’t get much better than this.

The after party was at Jordan’s. His parents were home, but confined themselves to their room. Mandy barely registered she was there before Brad was hustling her upstairs. He found the bedroom he was looking for and locked the door.
            “Alone at last,” he said. “I’ve been wanting you all night. You’re all I think about. The way you look in that dress is driving me wild. Every boy at Prom wanted you tonight. But you are here with me. You are mine, and nobody else’s.”

He embraced her and started kissing her face and neck. Mandy just reveled in the sensual feeling of it. Within minutes they were on the bed. The assertive way she pulled open Brad’s pants sent the message that she was all in. Ready to go for it.

Because of her discussions with Savannah, her familiarity with Brad’s body and a little internet porn (just for research purposes of course) Mandy felt she was well prepared. They left the light on because Brad said he wanted to see her when he took her. She saw him pull a condom from his pocket. Good, one embarrassing thing not to have to ask about. When he finally entered her it didn’t exactly hurt, but was damn uncomfortable. Then it got better. A lot better. Then Brad stiffened, groaned and rolled off her. What? Is that it? she almost asked out loud. Was this the big mystery everyone is wild about? Yes, once she got past the discomfort it felt nice, but really? That’s it?

Brad went into the bathroom to discard the condom. He came back and stood by the bed dressing, looking at her cockily, like she was a prized possession. She laid there with her dress shoved up around her waist, tits hanging out, panties around one ankle, legs splayed and suddenly felt like a Saturday night whore. She couldn’t help the tears of disappointment that started rolling down her cheek.

“Hey, what’s this? No need to cry.” He sat beside her and caressed her cheek.

“I’m just so happy,” she lied.

Savannah promised her that it gets better.
            “That’s what they tell the gay kids.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Yeah, I think Carol was right about the lousy lover part.”

“It was your first, and his first with you. The next time will be better. Less pressure. Trust me.  I know these things. Me and Del had a terrible time at first. He was so afraid he was gonna hurt me. It’ll be okay.”

The next week didn’t go so well for Mandy. She missed meeting Brad after school one afternoon. She was sure she had told him she had a meeting and couldn’t see him. The next day he was mad, and remained moody despite her efforts to cheer him up. He flared up once and called her ‘stupid’. She felt as if he had struck her. He was immediately conciliatory.
            “I’m so sorry baby. It’s just when you do things like that it makes me think you don’t care about us. I hate it when you make me yell at you.”

“I’m sorry, too. I’ll try to do better,” she said, but wasn’t really sure what she was sorry about.

Possibly the biggest surprise ever was when Savannah announced she had a date with Nathan.

“Like a date date?” Mandy was dumb struck.

“Yeah. We had a good time at Prom. And the good night kiss was excellent.”

“Eww, I don’t wanna hear that. Yuck.”

“Maybe we can double some time.”

Mandy tried to decide if that would be awkward. No, what could be better than having the three people she most loved in the world all together?

Brad didn’t agree.

“Being around Savannah would be weird for me. She’s still got a thing for me. I can tell.”

“She does not have a thing for you. She’s dating my brother.”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. Don’t you think it’s kinda creepy the way she’s sticking herself in your life? She’s all you talk about and now she’s got her claws in your brother. Kinda like she’s stalking y’all or something.”

“Brad! You take that back. Savannah is my best friend in the whole world and I won’t hear you talking bad about her.”

Brad grabbed her by her arms and pulled her against him.

“You’re my girl. You’re supposed to stick up for me, not put me down. We’re good for each other, babe. Don’t screw it up. And don’t take that tone with me.”

“Oww, Brad! You’re hurting me!” He released her.

“Sorry. Guess I don’t know my own strength.  It’s just sometimes you make me crazy jealous.” And he walked away. Mandy rubbed her arms, knowing there would be bruises.  Well, at least it was cold weather so she could cover them with long sleeves.

Mandy was worried about Brad’s mood swings and tendency to suddenly lash out. She didn’t think she could talk about it with Savannah because it felt too personal, and it was probably all her fault anyway. But, she decided to have it out with him on Friday. As soon as she opened her locker Friday morning, Brad popped up beside her.

“Good morning, beautiful.” He was holding out a gorgeous, full red rose. “I was an arrogant jerk yesterday. I’m sorry.”

Her plans to ‘have it out’ flew out the window.

“Mom and Dad are on a business trip. I gave Rosa Saturday night off. We can have the whole house to ourselves. Wanna play house?” He wiggled his eyebrows, making Mandy laugh.

“You know I’ll do anything you want.”

“That’s my girl.”

Mandy had smoked pot with Savannah a few times. She liked how it made her feel. She was amazed when Savannah told her it was a cure for hangovers also. Mandy had been slipping booze from her parents for about a year. It helped her forget when Brad was a jerk. She never had hangovers, but it was good to know. Savannah also told her sex while high was the best. So she stuck a joint in her purse when Brad picked her up on Saturday. When she pulled it out later Brad was all in. They were reclining in his king size bed watching some forgettable flick on his 50 inch HD TV, drinking champagne (honest to god champagne!) from long stem glasses. He lit the joint for her. He was being very romantic. The champagne buzz, the pot buzz, their natural chemistry all flowed together and she fell into a very warm and happy place. Brad began to leisurely caress her. Before long, they were both nude. He took his time with her and when he finally entered her she already felt on fire.

When the fireworks finally died down she realized now that’s what it’s supposed to be like. Wow! Old Carol was wrong about the lousy lover part, too.

When he took her home he apologized that he had to work on Sunday but would see her at school next week. She floated in and up to her room. She had no memory of anything else until she woke with a smile on Sunday morning.

The next week at school was more of Brad’s Jekyll/Hyde transformations. He was even more jealous than ever of Savannah. Mandy just made sure she didn’t mention her around him. It seemed like every day he was in a bad mood and relied on her to pull him out. It was frankly exhausting. And she felt like she was walking on eggshells, trying not to set him off. When he hadn’t said anything about weekend plans by Thursday she timidly asked if he wanted to do anything. He morosely said he had to work Saturday afternoon and night. Something about an important client and a lot of paperwork. She’d see if Savannah was available. She made sure not to mention that to Brad.

It turned out Savannah was going out of town. An extended family member had died and she was attending the funeral on Saturday. Well, that means Nathan will be around, she thought. We can binge on Netflix.

Late Saturday afternoon Mandy’s mom asked if she and Nathan would go pick up the enlargements of the pictures she had taken of them dressed up for Prom.

“I never see you two all dressed up so I wanted to make some frameable portraits. They’re at the Kinko’s in the mall in Middleton.”

“Mo-om,” she whined. “That’s like an hour away. Why’d you take it there?”

“Because a friend recommended it. I wanted a professional job done.”

“C’mon, sis. I’m driving,” Nathan called from the foyer.

“Because I don’t have my stupid license, yet,” she muttered.

There was a line at Kinko’s. A long line. Why did everyone have to show up at the same time on Saturday she wondered. Then the man said the pictures weren’t ready quite yet. She played around on her phone until he told her they were almost ready and he would go get them. She realized she had been waiting nearly a half hour. Nathan was waiting in the car. He probably thought she got lost. She realized she should have texted him. She saw there was a Starbucks beside the Kinko’s so decided to get him a latte to make up for the wait. When the clerk gave her the bag she took it to a nearby table to make sure the prints were right. She had to smile at how great they came out. Mom could be a professional photographer. There were nice portraits of her and Nathan. Mom had also sent the photo of her and Brad they had received from Prom labelled “Midnight Fantasy, April 14” for extra copies. Probably so she could brag to relatives, Mandy decided.

Mandy slipped the pictures back in the bag and headed out. The Starbucks was in a semi open area by the food court. She suddenly stopped in her tracks. Was that Brad at a table? Yes, and who was the young lady with him? Maybe a client? No, too young. Maybe a co-worker? That’s it. They must have stepped out to have a coffee break together. The girl laughed at something Brad said. He reached out and wiped a dab of whipped cream off her nose and stuck it in his mouth. She leaned into him and they kissed.

What!? This couldn’t be happening. Not again. Just when everything was going so well. Okay, not so well. In fact, pretty crummy the past week. But, hell, not again. Her world came crashing down. It was all a lie. Why her? Why again? She realized that she must truly be worthless. No guy could stay true to her. Her first impulse was to run home and cry all night. She leaned back on a large planter and felt the beginnings of a sob form in her throat.

No! she thought to herself. He just isn’t worth it. This relationship is more trouble than it is worth anyway. She suddenly realized she had been getting to the point where she didn’t look forward to seeing Brad, but treated each occasion with trepidation. What kind of relationship was that?

 And she was sick of playing the victim. She felt a fire burning inside.  She needed to have it out with that goddamn fucking son of a bitch. And a public place was just fine.

She slipped into the Starbucks, keeping out of Brad’s sight and ordered a latte. Once she had it, she walked up to Brad’s table and sat down.

“Hey, babe,” she said cheerfully. Then she turned to the girl.

“Hi, I’m Brad’s girlfriend, Mandy. I’m sure he’s mentioned me. You must be his cousin Sally. You’re much prettier than he described you.”

Mandy wished she had a camera to capture the absolute look of horror that ran across Brad’s face.

“Brad, who is this?” the girl asked with a voice Mandy would classify as shrill.

“Um, it’s just a girl I used to date. I’ve tried breaking up with her, but she keeps pestering me.”

“Oh? When did we break up, Brad darling? Last week after I left your bed? Or yesterday when you kissed me good morning? I must have missed something,” Mandy said in a falsely bright voice. Brad was turning very red.

“Brad, what’s she talking about?” Definitely shrill, Mandy decided.

“Nothing, hon. She’s just delusional. If we ignore her she’ll leave,” the last two words were directed at Mandy with a threatening look. Mandy just winked at him.

“So,” Mandy said conversationally. “How long have you two been together?”

“A few months, uh who are you?” the shrill girl was getting annoyed.

“Mandy, stop it!” Brad demanded, slamming his hand on the table. People stopped talking and were looking at them.

“Maybe I should leave,” the shrill girl said.

“No,” Brad grabbed the girl’s wrist. “Mandy was just leaving.”

“Brad, you’re hurting me,” the girl said.

“You’ll get used to it,” Mandy said. “And by the way, Brad. Mom said to be sure to give you one of the pictures.” She pulled the Prom photo of the two of them with their heads together, looking in love and dated a little over a week ago. She put it down in front of the girl.

“Brad?” Shrill girl said tremulously, then yanked her arm away and ran out.

“You fucking bitch,” Brad snarled at Mandy. He swiped at her, knocking the coffee from her hand onto a patron at the next table. The old lady gasped and made to get up. Brad turned on her, “Sit the fuck down.” She squeaked and sat back down.

“Leave her out of this!” Mandy demanded. She had never seen him this wild but she was pretty livid herself. Where was Mall Security when you needed them? The place had a fair number of customers but mostly women with small kids and senior citizens. People Brad would have no problem bullying.

Brad turned back to her.

“You just had to push it. You just couldn’t let it go. No, you just had to go and FUCK IT UP! Are you really this stupid? You think because it’s a public place I won’t kick your skinny ass?  My parents are lawyers. No one can touch me. I can do whatever I want. They could buy this whole goddamn mall without batting an eye. And you think you’re good enough for me?” His backhand slap was so fast she never saw it coming. Her head snapped back leaving her dazed. There was a muffled, shocked “oh” from the people watching. He picked up and threw his luke warm coffee in her face. “You’re pathetic. Not even worth the time it took to fuck you. I was about done with you anyway.”

“You bastard,” she gasped as coffee dripped down her face. She snatched the old lady’s coffee and dashed it in his face. If possible his face got even redder. He grabbed the tiny table and threw it aside ignoring the noise as it clanged against other tables and chairs. Mandy had stood up to face him. She turned to her left, pivoting on her left foot as if to flee. As she expected, he lunged forward to grab her arm. She continued her pivot bringing her right foot around and directly into Brad’s unprotected crotch. Just like Nathan had taught her. He doubled over, clasping his hands over his genitals with a groan. Mandy used the brief moment to reach into her purse. She pulled out a small canister and sprayed pepper spray into Brad’s face. He screamed like a girl and began clutching and wiping at his face. He ripped off his shirt and began wiping his face with it. Some in the rapt crowd laughed.

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” he threatened through a voice rasping from the effects of the pepper spray. “When I’m through with you no guy will ever look at you again without disgust.” His eyes, red, distorted and undoubtedly blurred had a murderous gleam in them.

Mandy realized she was in trouble. She had used up all her tricks. Brad was still between her and the mall opening. She knew she probably couldn’t outrun him anyway. Well, she’d go down swinging. She grabbed the little cocktail chair she had been sitting on and brought it up like a lion tamer. She jabbed it at Brad, making him take a step back. She aimed it at his face making him put his arms up protectively. On about the third or fourth jab he grabbed it and tore it from her grasped. He threw it behind him. It went clanging out into the main mall walkway.

“You bitch,” Brad said in a low voice, apparently his pronouncement before carrying out her sentence. That was all he got out before a blur to her left tackled Brad. They tumbled to the floor and Mandy saw an enraged Nathan pummeling her former boyfriend. He gave him two quick right jabs to the face.

“You piece of scum!” Nathan shouted. “How dare you touch my sister! I’m gonna kill you! You son of a bitch! He punctuated each sentence by slamming Brad’s head into the floor.

“Nathan,” Mandy cried. “Stop. He’s not worth it.”

Nathan pulled himself together. “You sure? I’d love to fuck him up, but good.” He looked down at Brad with murder still in his eye. He continued banging Brad’s head against the tiled floor.

“If you ever (bang) touch my sister (bang) again (bang), I will (bang) rearrange that pretty face so much even your mama (bang) won’t recognize you (bang). Got it? (bang)”

When Brad didn’t say anything Nathan banged his head against the floor again.

“I said got it?”

“Understood,” Brad muttered.

Nathan let Brad up.

“Now go get in your fancy ass car and leave. If I ever see you again you will regret it. That I promise.”

Trying to regain some semblance of dignity, Brad looked down his nose at the attentive Starbucks audience. Then he quickly turned and limped away. The entire crowd began applauding Nathan. A barista ran up to her with a towel.

“That was so impressive,” she gushed. “We called Security. I don’t know why they aren’t here yet. Let me get you a replacement for your latte. And another coffee for you too, ma’am,” she added looking at the elderly lady Brad had threatened.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” Mandy apologized to the elderly lady. “And I’m sorry I took your coffee.”

“That’s fine, dear. You put it to good use. You’re a real spitfire. The boys better watch out for you. And your brother’s a real cutie.” The old lady winked at Nathan making him blush.

“You okay, sis? I can’t believe that bastard hit you. Why didn’t you tell somebody he was like that?”

“I didn’t realize how bad it was, it just kinda snuck up on me,” she was trying to make some sense of it all. “I guess I got what I deserved, though. How much did you see?”

“Pretty much all of it. I just waited to let you take care of it. You were way outgunned but stood your ground. Pretty gutsy. I’m so proud of you. Now, let’s get you home.”

As it turned out, the mall security cameras captured the entire scene at Starbucks. The mall authorities banned Brad from the mall. When his parents were shown the video they were so furious with him that they took the keys to his car, grounded him for the rest of the school year and ordered Rosa to enforce it.

And, it was hardly surprising that someone at Starbucks had whipped out their phone and recorded the whole sorry scene and posted it to the web. Of course, it went around school like wildfire.  Brad’s former friends began avoiding him, some of the jocks jostled him roughly in the halls and the girls jeered him. Suddenly everyone seemed to care about Mandy and how she was doing after such a terrible ordeal. Several people, guys and girls, approached her with raised palms for a high five.

“Good afternoon, Mandy.”

“Good afternoon, Dr. Foster.”

“Oh, please, call me Edna. I want us to be able to talk freely in these little sessions. You calling me doctor sounds so formal.”

Mandy couldn’t believe she was in a counselor’s office. But Mom and Dad had insisted. Even Savannah said that after the year she’d had, talking to someone might help her process it.

Um, no. But I’ll be polite and listen.

“I’ve talked to many teens like yourself who have been through traumatizing, confusing situations. It really helps to talk about it. No drugs, no needles, no head shrinking. Just let’s talk.”

Mandy didn’t want to talk but Dr. Foster, no Edna, had a way of drawing things out of her.

In their second session Edna came to the point.

“Mandy, according to what you’ve told me, you have had some horrific experiences in the past year, all centering around your relationships with boys.”

“You could say that,” she said with the condescension only a teen can muster.

“You’ve been cheated on, lied to, nearly raped, physically and mentally abused. Is that the kind of relationship you want?”

“What? Of course not.”

“Okay. Is that the kind of relationship you deserve?”

Mandy opened her mouth to deny it but nothing came out. She wanted to deny it. But, maybe, down deep, she knew it was all her fault. Brad had once said she could even ruin a wet dream. She was worthless. She was a loser. Maybe she didn’t deserve better.

“I see,” said Edna. “I think this is something we need to talk about. A lot.”

By the end of the school year Edna cut her loose, as Mandy described it. The first Monday she didn’t go to see Edna seemed odd. She realized she would miss the good doctor. Edna was no miracle worker; Mandy was not healed of whatever it was that was wrong with her, at least in her estimation. But she did learn a few things. She leaned on Savannah too much. She needed to be her own person; make her own decisions. And she should stop second guessing herself, afraid of what others, Savannah, Nathan, her family would think of her. She needed to own her actions and decisions. And she needed to respect herself. Edna said if she couldn’t respect herself, why expect others to? Good point. Edna told her that when it came to boys, she didn’t need to remake herself into what they wanted. The face she presented them was what they would come to expect. And how long could she keep up the façade? She would never be happy that way. She needed to be herself and not measure her worth by what a boy thought. Either a boy would like her or not, but at least she was being honest. And if he had problems with her being herself, then she needed to respect herself enough to walk away.

“Basically, if they don’t like it, fuck ‘em,” Mandy paraphrased.

“Er, that’s one way of putting it,” Edna stammered.

There was one strange coda to the whole year that Mandy and Edna discussed. Jimmy DeVane had attacked her just the same as Brad, yet the school’s reaction was radically different. Was it because Brad’s was visual and Jimmy’s was out of sight? Brad had left physical damage, Jimmy only psychological. Edna helped Mandy to understand the difference was the type of attack. There remained the subtle impression that what happened with Jimmy was her fault. The simple fact is that whenever there is a sexual assault, people rush to say what the woman should have done to prevent it. It’s her fault that she let it happen. At first that realization infuriated Mandy. But in the end, it just made her very sad.

“I am so glad this school year is over. I hope to never have another one like this,” Mandy whooped.

“Cheaters, rape, abusive boyfriends. Just another day at the office,” Savannah was the only one who dared joke about this with Mandy. But it helped her put it in perspective.

“Really, what’s next year? Serial murder and cannibalism?”

“Yeah, typical high school.” They both laughed. Mandy’s mom came in the room.

“You girls all packed? We leave early tomorrow.”

“All set, Mom. Sun, sand and sea, here we come.”

Mandy’s parents had rented a cottage in a small NC beach town for the summer. Her mom had heard they had a good fireworks display and was looking forward to it. After that she and her husband largely left the teens to themselves as they toured the area, visited historic sites and played lots of golf. They frequently were gone overnight, but told Nathan he was the chaperone. Mandy almost choked the first time they said it.

A summer at the beach was just what she needed. Total relaxation and a perfect tan for the next school year. A few days after the Fourth holiday she and Savannah and Nathan had staked out their spot for the day. They were right in front of the cottage, a Low Country style with a huge wrap porch, side sun deck and wooden walkway right down to the beach. Nathan had found a group of kids with a Frisbee. He was just a big kid himself and they were soon whooping it up.

 Mandy laid on her stomach and unclipped her top.

“Vannah, put some lotion on my back, please.”

“Such good manners,” Savannah teased as she squeezed lotion on Mandy’s back and rubbed it in.

“Mmmm,” Mandy purred and closed her eyes. She heard Savannah rattle the cooler, putting ice in a cup and the sizzle of pouring soda.

“Heads up!” she heard Nathan yell. She felt Savannah jump and suddenly her back was covered in ice and soda. She was so startled that she shrieked and jumped up, belatedly realizing that her bikini top was still on the blanket. She looked up into the face of a cute boy, who was staring at her tits.

“Pervert!” she yelled at him. “Are you just going to stare at my tits or help?” He immediately threw his towel around her. She clutched it tightly and ran for the cottage, Savannah in her wake. In the background she could hear Nathan laughing his ass off.

DWTS 5

Apparently the magic of Disney missed my house. Bah humbug. Mostly pedestrian dancing at best all round with a few exceptions.

First off JAZZ IS NOT A BALLROOM DANCE. They go on and on about it being a ballroom competition. Well JAZZ IS NOT A BALLROOM DANCE.  WTF guys. Get with the program. Nextly, CONTEMPORARY IS NOT A BALLROOM DANCE. Why can’t they get that through their thick heads? And I imagine throughout the season we will be continually subjected to this awfulness and they will add in Broadway, and Charleston, and Bollywood. Why not add in tap, pointe and ballet? They call it a ballroom competition. Then do freaking ballroom dances.

Three of the celebrities scored a DNP for the night. That’s Did Not Participate. That’s better than what would happen at a real dance competition. They would get a big D for disqualified.

Ally and Sasha. Meh. She did a lot of what she was supposed to do.

Kel and Witney. It was jazz.

Kate and Pasha. I liked the QS and polka parts. The rest was just jazz.

The dance of the night for me was Sailor’s VW. And that was mostly because of Val. That man knows how to shape a dance. It was the only dance that moved me to chills. Softer than air, a well done VW like that just captures my heart. I loved it.

JVDB and Emma. Yeah, everybody loved it. It missed the sharp edges and life of a real PD. You want PD look at this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHdBpB1A7iM  Possibly the best PD ever on DWTS. All the things he did, JVDB missed. Watch the two side by side and there’s no comparison. What JVDB didn’t do is make me believe it. Simple as that.

Turn Alan loose on a smooth dance and you usually get a thing of beauty. He is so much like Val in that respect. This was no exception. Hannah was lighter than air. It was dreamy and soothed me. I could have done without all the smoke. I’d like to see the dancers’ feet. Hannah is beautiful and dances beautifully.

Finally, a samba and a good dancer. Lauren’s samba was passionate and had a lot of wow factor but something was missing. I kept glancing at my arm waiting for the chill bumps but they never came. I’m not sure what it was. Cool moves. We even got a samba roll although we had a weird camera angle at the time. And what was Gleb yelling about during the dance?

Karamo needs to go. I like him. He’s funny. We finally get a samba and he gives us this? I’ll be kind and call it a valiant effort. But about as wooden as my desk. No bounce, no hips, no rolls. Len called it right when he called it “stompy”.

Sean’s quickstep should be renamed the slowstep. Simple and a mess. Yet it was his best dance yet. And the sad fact is, he will probably win this season. Trump has tweeted his support so the Trump crazies are all going to vote for Sean. Just like last season when a no talent disc jockey won because the entire state of Arkansas voted for him or the season before when that stumblebum baseball player came in second. Having the judges decide who gets saved may protect the show from travesties such as Juan Pablo di Pace, but it won’t prevent idiot voters from making some clown the winner and turning the show into a circus. If they can ever finagle Sean into the bottom two they need to jettison him when they have the chance. I’m not sure they’re going to have the chance. I’m pretty sure he’s going to win. For the people who care about dance, watch who comes in second. That will probably be the best dancer. It’s gonna be a throw down between JVDB, Ally, Lauren and Hannah. Maybe Sailor. I don’t believe she’s got the legs, but she does have Val. There’s a lot to be said for that. An Ally/JVDB final would be fun. Pit husband against wife – Sasha vs. Emma.

The Fourth Reich, final version

I’ve not posted this week because my computer is still in the shop. I posted recently that I had gotten it back after taking it in, but it seems they did not correct the problem. They have now decided that the only fix is to kill it and then bring it back to life. Wipe it clean. Then reinstall everything. I was assured on Wednesday that this would be done by Tuesday; Friday latest. On Thursday they said Friday; Saturday latest. Today, Saturday they say by end of day i.e. 9 pm. We’ll see. I need it back. I’m currently working on an old laptop that seems like it’s run by a hamster on a wheel. Keys don’t register unless I press them hard and the space bar hardly works at all. Typing any type of document is wrought with frustration. I had a new story idea but have only done a little work on it because it’s such a pain to type. My fingers get tired.

I threatened it last time so this go round I’m bring back The Fourth Reich. It is a blend of the first and second, keeping what I liked most about each. Dr. N’duru has more to do than just stand around looking cool. Jonesie gets a chance to shoot some more Nazis and there is a hint of a simmering love story. Plenty to explore in a possible sequel. As I said, in the first version I had included where they ended up at the end of the wormhole, but finally decided the story should end before then. Leave the reader wondering. Spoiler alert: they survived the wormhole journey.

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,” Karen said. “It really is 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, showing 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 dial 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 the discovery of a black hole. The ship was pulled into its gravity well and we 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 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, it will subject our bodies 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 crush us. 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 computer 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 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 peacetime. 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 will 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 two 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 worse 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 sign 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.

            “All right, Davie,” Mundy stood 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 thirty 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, quite 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 looked 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 Karen left the bridge, with Karen 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 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’duru 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 pulled 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 super-fast 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 maybe 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 Karen 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 it affects even the quantum realm.”

***

            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 could not move further. Their velocity made it impossible to grab large bodies outside the eddy. Karen 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 continue at their stations as usual. We will meet this like a disciplined team. N’duru, 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 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. Jennifer liked his smile. She thought it was one of his best features. He was attractive in so many ways, and she thought she could go for a guy like that, but she knew his interest was elsewhere. Oh, he may leer at Karen’s rear, but his real love, his true love was this ship. It claimed every minute of his day, every bit of his patience and every trace of his energy. But she liked rugged men like him and like Major Donovan. Now he was a man she’d like a chance to get close with. He’d held the starring role in a few of her fantasies.

***

            For the rest of the day they all sat at their stations, pretending it was like any other day. All the scientists had rejected the suicide pills, saying they would run their experiments to the very last, hoping that someone might eventually pick up their data. Like the officers, 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 got 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 it captured him. 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 shit 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. They felt they could not trust him. 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 mess hall 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, and the bruises on his body attested to the truth. 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 Buj was concerned, he took the only path he could see. I just feel so 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 they lost a science ship 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. We lost so much 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. The bullies put a dress on him and made him walk around the ship wearing it for a day. Being raped was the ultimate dishonor and now this public dishonor. Man on man sex was nothing new. On spacing ships with a hundred men and no women it was not uncommon. But wearing the dress signified that he is lower than even a slave. He is a man no more. He is as low as a woman and is to be used as one. I am not sure if that disgrace 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 shit 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. We can capture a thing that can be measured. 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 they may round us 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 until 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 they torture him. An object lesson, Als calls it. Als is a savage bully who enjoys 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 got out before the wave struck the fragile little craft. “Above,” she barely yelled. 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 who wanted 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 the Academy would accept.

            “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.” It delighted Anderson.

            “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 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 said, coming 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 showed was a spaceship. A spaceship that was not registered on Earth.

            “Oh shit,” Mundy said. “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,” Karen 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 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 will 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.” Jennifer 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 have hyper-drive, 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.

            “All right. 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 these aliens 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!” Jennifer 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 hundreds of years.”

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

            “No, sir. They sent it in the other direction. I guess back to their base or fleet.”

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

            “What, Jimmy?” asked Mundy.

            “Well, you know I’m a techno geek, 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 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 database.”

            “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,” Jennifer said. “Have they taken over while we were gone?”

            “No. We’ve been in contact with Earth the whole time, unless we were in the event horizon. Wait a minute. I noticed something earlier but didn’t follow up. The stars are wrong,” Karen 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 on available data. Earth date 3220 AD, 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,” Jennifer 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 Karen. “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 effect 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 that this is correct. Well, we were in that black hole for what, a week, maybe two? Davie said it accelerated us to as much as .9 the speed of light in the super-eddy. According to my calculations, and Einstein’s calculations back them 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’. Damn. 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 screwed.”

***

            “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. I will bring the vessel into our cargo bay. Resistance will be met with overwhelming force, and perpetrators will be dealt with harshly. I will apprise you 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?” Karen 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 Jennifer. 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 had been 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 thinking 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 has to take out nine bad guys. I like our odds, ” Major Donovan said with a grim grin. 

            “Captain, you will 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 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 ‘em a few curves. I imagine they’ll 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 behind. 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 most 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. He had pulled his greasy gray hair 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 a 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 struck 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 I will keep you 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. Most unpleasant ways. You will tell me what you know, in time.” He lowered Mundy, who had turned 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’duru looked at the admiral disdainfully. Mundy hoped she was smart enough not to say what was obviously on her mind.

            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 rarely 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 raised his head and muttered 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 Jennifer.

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

            “Agreed,” she murmured 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 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 six armed soldiers. He carried what looked like an old-fashioned riding crop. Mundy rose and stood in front of his people, showing he was the one to speak to. He didn’t 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 Jennifer’s chin. “If you were five years younger, I might make use of you. You’re definitely attractive enough. But a little older than what I like. Pity. 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 two guards grabbed Karen. Mundy and Anderson tried to intervene but were clubbed into submission by the remaining soldiers.

***

            They returned Vince 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 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, they returned last Karen. She was being dragged by two soldiers. They opened the door and unceremoniously threw her in. Mundy and N’duru rushed to her side. She was badly beaten and still bleeding from several wounds, some serious looking. Her uniform was in shreds. They applied what first aid they could. When she could talk, she told them 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 butt 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 walk 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 a plan took root in Mundy’s brain. He whispered it to Jennifer, and she was all in.

            “Jen, I hate to ask you to do this. If I could, I would, but I’m not exactly built for it. Are you sure?”

            “If it would get us out of here, I’d hump old ugly Als himself,” was her reply.

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 Jennifer 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 her. Von Hoek was supervising the soldiers setting out the food. Jennifer stood close to him and made eye contact. She smiled seductively and licked her upper lip with the tip of his tongue. With a smirk she strolled away, rolling her hips. Donovan once told her when drunk that she had the “best damn ass in the navy”. Message delivered, she 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 Jennifer.

“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?” Jennifer 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,” she 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 girls, anyway. I understand the slave he pulled beat him soundly. She’ll be severely disciplined for that. The admiral ought to have her whipped and 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 playtime with him. He’ll be fine. They know not to permanently damage the property of the Admiral.” Jennifer felt sick at the fate of poor Jimmy.

The guards deposited Jennifer in what she supposed was van Hoek’s quarters. Deposited was the best term seeing as they walked her in, dropped her 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 recommend having you branded, that would 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 Jennifer’s skin crawl. The man was skinny, had bulging eyes and receding hair. The officer’s uniform did little to improve the image. Still, Jennifer had a plan and enough experience to know how to remove her top seductively.

“Nice,” purred von Hoek. “I like a lady with a slim build.” He came close and slid his hand along Jennifer’s chest, splaying his fingers. Stepping back a pace, he quickly removed the tunic of his uniform. Jennifer was repulsed at the sallow, sunken chest that was revealed. Then von Hoek was back on her, kissing her neck and mouthing the area around her ears and where her neck joined her shoulders. She slid her hands up von Hoek’s chest, slowly as if caressing him. Von Hoek hissed an intake of breath and then groaned his pleasure. He grabbed her head and kissed her on the mouth, his tongue seeking entrance. Jennifer slid her hands up to cup von Hoek’s head also. Then with a violent wrench she twisted it until von Hoek could see his backside. But by then von Hoek could see nothing. He was dead.

Jennifer allowed herself a momentary shudder to rid herself of the essence of von Hoek. Then tapping her earlobe she whispered, “Mission successful, Captain.”

“Good work, Jen. You okay?”

“I feel like I need a shower, but yeah, I’m good.”

“Okay. I’m patching in Donovan.”

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

“Where are you and Jorgenson?” Mundy asked. 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. Jennifer, where are you?”

“In a private quarter on deck B, number 25. Think you two can get here on the double?” she said to Donovan, meaning him and Jorgenson.

“Sure thing. See you in five.”

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

“No problem.”

While she waited, Jennifer 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. She raised her 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,” Jennifer 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 moment Jorgenson caught Donovan staring at Jennifer while she conferred with Mundy.

“You’re hopeless,” Jorgenson whispered. “When are you going to say something to her?”

“I just can’t stand that Nazi bastard had his hands on her,” Donovan murmured.

“The commander can take care of herself. You need to make your move.”

“Get us out of this mess, and I might. Now soldier, we need a plan.”

***

After a short time, Donovan sat on the bed with Jennifer.

“Ok, Commander. Here’s the plan. Jorgenson will divert all bridge control to engineering. He’ll have to do if from engineering, though, so you and Jorgenson head on down there. Here’s a view of it.” Jorgenson showed her 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 seize control and lock all control systems into engineering. Bridge will notice it immediately, but I will create a diversion so don’t worry about them.” He patted a bag at his side with several neutron grenades.

“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 will do his stuff in two minutes, tops. Then you two are outta there. He will 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 thirty second delay function on the airlock. Once y’all are in, I press the button and run like hell for the ship.”

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

“Seriously? I’d say slim to none. You got any better ideas?” She had to shake her head that she didn’t.

“Let me bring Mundy up to date.” She tapped her lobe again and talked softly to her captain. He reported that everyone else was in the cell except Jimmy.

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

“Problems, Commander?” Donovan asked.

“Jimmy Cain is missing. Some guards grabbed him the same time they got me. He could be anywhere. Captain’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. He’s the Cap, though. I’ll leave it up to him.” Donovan handed her the laser pistol he’d pulled off a guard. If she noticed his lingering touch, Jennifer decided it wasn’t the time to mention it.

“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. Jennifer hated killing indiscriminately, but this was a battle situation. Jorgenson tugged his earlobe to signal Donovan 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. Jennifer pinged Mundy and told him it was time to get their people moving. She reminded him Digger could open the door and he and Anderson could neutralize the guards. The scientists would have to help Jordan. Mundy specifically reminded her that lethal force was acceptable.

By the time she finished relaying to Mundy, Jorgenson was grabbing her and heading for the door. Suddenly, the red alert lights and horn came to life. As they were exiting the control room Jorgenson lobbed a couple of neutron grenades behind him at the engine core. The entire ship lurched when they went off, detonating one engine with them as well.

***

“All right, folks. It’s time to move. Davie, N’duru, Digger. Form a front line with me. Jonesie, help Jordan. You scientists get behind Jones and keep up. I’m not coming back looking for stragglers.”

“Not to worry, Captain,” Dr. Albright said. “I’m bringing up the rear to make sure everybody moves their asses.” Mundy decided there was a reason he’d always liked Albright.

“C’mon, lassie,” Jonesie said to Jordan. Instead of trying to support her, he just picked her up to carry like a baby.

Digger quickly disengaged the lock. Mundy and Anderson overwhelmed the two guards who’d been napping. Mundy took one weapon and passed the other to Dr. N’duru. He saw Anderson’s questioning glance.

“She’s the best shot on the ship. Regularly kicks my ass at sharpshooting.” N’duru took the weapon, giving Anderson a sly smile. The alarm bells suddenly came on and a moment later they felt the ship lurch.

“Seems like Jennifer and Jorgenson have made their presence known. Step lively now,” Mundy said.

The holding area was on the same level as the cargo bay, but it was on the opposite side of the ship. 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 tossing some grenades on the bridge. They were almost upon the cargo bay when they ran into a group of soldiers who thought it wise to form up and protect Admiral Als’ salvage. They had picked up three more pistols along the way so the five of them–Mundy, N’duru, Anderson, Digger and Jonesie had the job of taking out the squadron. Once the soldiers were dispatched Mundy led his group into the cargo bay.

“I expect we’ll have company pretty soon. Anderson. You’re with me. Jonesie, you and Digger get my engines warmed and ready to go. N’duru, get Karen strapped in and do what you can for the pain. You scientists get in and get out of the way. Now go!”

Jonesie passed Karen into Diggers arms. “It don’t take but one to start up them engines, Cap. I want to stay and kick some Nazi butt.” Mundy was amused by Jonesie’s spoiling for the fight. He hadn’t seen action in over forty years and apparently missed it. He was forever telling stories about his part in putting down the Zendu uprising. Peace had reined since then across the Alliance aligned star systems. They heard the noise of approaching troops, so the three dropped into defensive positions.

***

As they were getting near their destination, Jennifer and Jorgenson ran up with Donovan. His eyes were bright. It was clear he was in his element. Jennifer’s ear pinged, and she heard Mundy 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. Mundy gave her Jimmy’s coordinates.

“I’ll get the boy. You two get to the ship,” Donovan said. Jennifer wanted to disagree, say Jimmy was her 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 Jennifer and Jorgenson coming up on their rear, they were quickly dispatched. No time for prisoners.

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

“I believe we’re in the clear for the moment,” Mundy said. “You two help get all the passengers in the ship. And make sure my engines are ready to go, pronto.”

“On it, Cap.” He and Jennifer ran for the ship.

Mundy heard the whine of the engines when Jorgenson pushed him toward the ship.

“You go. I need 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 thirty 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 were willing to give theirs in doing so. Mundy was not a man given to much emotion, but damn, he thought, that was brave.

When he got to the ship, Jennifer already had the engines ready. Anderson was in place at the controls. All he needed was to engage, and they’d be on their way. Looking out the port window he saw several laser shots hit the door above Jorgenson’s position and he returned fire. Then Jorgenson turned and looked at Mundy through the portal, nodded and hit the ‘emergency door open’ 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 over 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…?” Jennifer said.

“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 yelling “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 those Nazis would ever leap to hyperspace 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,” Jennifer 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. He noticed that Jennifer also had a catch in her breath.

“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 some torpedoes to unload.”

“Jennifer. Aft screen,” Mundy commanded. Before them they saw the little shuttle craft approaching and the huge Konigsberg looming in the background. Two tiny missiles shot out of the back of the speeding craft, headed for the mother ship. Both were direct hits, setting off a chain reaction of other explosions. Within moments the ship was a 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 hold 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 Dr. Righter, joining the conversation. “Einstein theorized they would be in the center of a black hole, but my equations and data show this to be an extra-solar spatial/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? I’m convinced her math is correct,” said Mundy. “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,” Mundy said. “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’re 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. Righter spoke up. “The scientists have decided we want to go, also.”

            “I think we all want to go, Captain,” said N’duru, and Jennifer finally nodded.

            “All right. Everybody buckle in. It will 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 say that again.

            “Engage.”

DWTS 4

DWTS 4

What a great night! Full of hooting and hollering, laughing and chills and loving the dancing. And not a dud in sight (I’m being kind here). I’ve always considered Leah Remini one of the more unpleasant celebrities to don the shiny shoes. I guess she’s something of an acquired taste. I think I love her as a judge, though. Anyone who’d stand up and yell at Len for a 4 paddle is okay by me. I loved the madcap ambience she lent to the ballroom. Len may never be the same. Maybe they should adjust his meds.

My full on favorite of the night had to be Ally and Sasha’s jive. Hot dang, that’s how it’s done! She was channeling Tina Turner for all she was worth and getting it. I was totally covered with chills from the moment the silver dress came off. Oh my god! So good. I had a flashback to 12 year old me sitting up past midnight on a Saturday night with the TV turned low to watch them on the Midnight Special. I was enthralled with those four women spinning like dervishes, only a suggestion of a dress, hair in the wind. Wow, it got my blood up. Still does. Here’s a flashback. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzQnPz6TpGc If that don’t make you dance, you got no soul.

My other full on chill blade moment was Lauren and Gleb. OMG how good was that? So flowy, with shaping and swaying. Lines and stretches galore. A Classic. I always liked that song anyway. Hey, I’m southern. So sue me. And kudos to Gleb for not waxing. He’s the only male dancer on the show with the cojones to show a little chest hair.

Then there was Sailor and Val. Someone needs to tell him the manbun is really not working for him. But on the ballroom floor it was a wow performance. Fun and fringy. I love her joyous smile and legs for days. As Len would say, a proper cha cha. Mom crying in the audience was so touching, but could her boyfriend look any more like a goober?

JVDB and Emma had one of the better QS in a while. He kept it smooth and moved with confidence. You always had the sense he was steering and knew where he was going. Not seeing that in the other men yet. Again a great rondé. He was robbed. It was much better than Kel. A point of order. I hate people who say “We’re pregnant.” No, your partner is pregnant. As the guy, you have done your part. You are not pregnant. Now she does her part. She is pregnant. Ain’t no we about it.

I liked Karamo and Jenna’s tango. It looked mostly like a paso doble, but it did have intensity. He totally owned it, no doubt about it. From the wink, he had me hooked. Hmm. That didn’t come out right. Anyway, phooey on Carrie Ann for her lift obsession. But Karamo needs to stand up straight.

Hannah and Alans paso was so fierce. She knew what she was about and she went for it. There was a deadly calmness to her reminiscent of an assassin or, even better, a black widow spider. But she kept letting the grin slip out. It kinda ruined if for me. She’s got it going on. Just needs to control that face.

I seem to be the only one not blown away by Kel and Witney’s cha cha. It was competent and workmanlike. I didn’t see the Cuban motion the judges claim they saw. I think they were fooled by the wiggling around in non cha cha moves. Where’s Len when you need him to call them on stuff like that? Not bad at all, but I’ve seen comparable in Greensboro. Sorry for the inscrutable comment.

I assumed Kate would grow on me. Seems I was wrong. I’m just not liking her. I was trying to subsume myself into a sexy tango and all I could think was “fat legs” “bad hair” and “pinched face”. Len and Bruno called it. She missed the character. Sorry maybe it’s just me. I’m not a fan. But still, not a bad dance.

I gotta say I am a Sean Spicer fan. I’m so pulling for him. Three times out and all he gets is latin. The man can’t catch a break. His body just ain’t built for latin. Let him try a waltz or foxtrot. Tonight he was so entertaining. Lindsay was dancing like nobody’s business keeping the attention off him. And it mostly worked. He walked around like the General on inspection like he usually does. But there were hints of paso in there. My favorite part however was the faces he made. Just like the ones he made when he had to lie for Trump.

Lamar. Thank goodness he’s gone. He didn’t even do one full measure of VW in hold. It was his best dance and I’ll give him props for gracefulness and lyricism. He’s just not a dancer.

Next week is Disney Week, God help us.

Looks like Ally, Hannah, Lauren and JVDB are the odds on favorites for the finals. That’s my prediction.

Best comment of the night: Lauren “No more sixes, praise the lord.”

Best face. The look of surprised befuddlement on Lindsay’s face when she heard she and Sean were safe. It totally said “how the hell did that happen?”

Mea Culpa

I owe a big mea culpa to Lauren and Gleb. I said she dallied with 20 men on TV. That was Hannah. Lauren was on some singing show.

I was out for a medical procedure yesterday and my computer was out for one today. We are both recuperating. Thus, no new story this week. I did spend a good bit of time editing three versions of The Fourth Reich today. I have the original and the “clean” version for submitting to a website that wanted clean sci fi. I liked some of the clean version changes so I now have a revised version. I kept all the cursing. Let’s face it. That’s more realistic. I kept von Hoek’s prey as Jennifer. The captain can’t have all the fun. Dr N’duru (changed from N’dutu) shows her marksman chops and Jonesie gets to kick more Nazi ass. I like the extra scenes. You also find out who Jennifer fantasizes about. It ain’t the captain. I’ll post it once the editorial changes are more than ink stain and lemonade on paper -I had technical difficulties at Panera. Their tables are just long enough for three piles of paper and a pick two. But the lemonade didn’t want to share. According to the web the story has way passed short story and is about to pass from novelette to novella. The length will hinder getting it published anywhere unless I serialize it or make it a part of a book of short stories. I guess I could add more episodes about where they land next. That was actually in my first version but i liked better the idea of ending it with the dive into the wormhole. Spoiler alert: They survive.

And best news of the week, I now have 3, count ’em 3, short stories picked up for publication. Two will be in Ariel Chart Literature Review, an online only mag and my third will be in Down in the Dirt which has a hard copy distribution. No money changed hands. From now on I’m only submitting to paying mags. I got my validation now.

DWTS 3

Oh, good grief. Already with the gimmicks. Movie Night. Then there’ll be Latin night (hello, Latin is half of ballroom dancing). And Disney Night, which is just movie night all over again. I mean what else could they do; put a big dress on someone and say she’s Space Mountain? And the ever popular My Most Miserable Memory Night. At least with the fall season we’ll get Halloween. My guess is October 28. And who doesn’t love a Halloween party where the costume budget is unlimited?

Last night could have subbed for Latin Night. Only one non-Latin number: Quickstep. And what’s with all the rumbas? 40% of the dances were rumba. Okay, so let’s take the rumbas in order best to worst.

Ally and Sasha. Total redemption from last week for Sasha. He was working that rumba. But so was Ally. Only one performance separated it from Hannah, and way to smack her in the face and throw down the gauntlet. So much light and dark and shading. It actually had texture. She so rocked it. But what’s with Len’s “Don’t touch me”? Who made him God?

JVDB and Emma. This is the point in the competition I wait for. When the male celebrities actually start leading. You could see it all over that dance. He was so strong and pulled out real moves instead of all the acrobatics. One great rondé. Maybe he should have done the splits instead of Emma.

Hannah and Alan. Yesterday’s news. Ho hum. It was fairly hot, but not really rumba. All she did was spin and split. Over and over. Alan knows better than that. I did have to laugh at his sexy cop thing. Had to be the unsexiest cop ever.

Kel and Witney. He’s got those second position breaks down. Did them three times. Loved the confused look when he couldn’t find her leg for the assisted developé. Carrie Ann called it tight. That was a good word for it. And how come Witney wasn’t wearing the blue pendant from the movie? I mean it was Movie Night.

It’s hard to call a winner for the night. No one gave me chill bumps. Kate and Pasha did a very nice QS. Much better than we usually get this early. But her costume made her look fat. Reminded me of Hazel, that maid from the 60s. And those white legs. Did she miss her spray tan session? The glare was blinding.

Sailor and Val. Who’s the producer who doesn’t know what a tango is? This is two weeks in a row with the wild tangos. Way too much smiling going on. It didn’t sound tango; it didn’t look tango. Val grounded it and slowed it down, but it was fighting the music.  And the practice session. What is it with guys who wear hoodies with the hood up while dancing? He looked like some mad dancing monk.

Lauren and Gleb. Interesting how she so easily walked into the character of a hooker. But then she was dallying with about 20 men on national TV. Just sayin’. A whole lotta scrambling going on. She seemed surprised by some of Gleb’s moves. It’s been done before and much, much better. Look here to see how it is done. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHPY0oRfYzM

And it went downhill from there.  

I like Karamo and I hope he’s around for a while. He’s a hoot. But, what the hey, dude? The song title was prophetic. Except instead of still standing it should have been “I’m just standing”. That’s all he was doing much of the time. Jenna was jiving for all she was worth, and he just stood there. Even when he did dance it was so slow. Instead of fun it was more like walking my grandma around the mall. Two shuffles was all we got in the way of synchronized kicks so as far as I’m concerned it wasn’t a proper jive.

The night’s two cha chas were bad and badder. Hard to pick. I guess I have to go with Lamar for possibly worst cha cha ever. And I’m even including Master P, Billy Ray Cyrus Buzz Aldrin and Tom DeLay. Those are the big guns of badness to go up against and he held his ground. There were two actual cha cha moves and both vied for worst ever. After his outing as the Jolly Green Giant last week and this misbegotten mess he really needs to go. The show had the perfect opportunity for a double elimination last night. Losing him and Ray in one night would be a blessing. And as for the song, that also has been done before and much better by Jake Pavelka. See it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onmqBp0hZ_o

Let’s see Lamar shake it like that. I miss Miss Chelsea, as her rodeo celebrity called her. His great line was “I just do what Miss Chelsea tells me.”

And Sean, Sean, Sean (slapping him lightly on the cheek). What can I say? It was good until he started dancing. In actuality it was an order of magnitude better than Lamar, but still several orders of magnitude away from being presentable in public. At least he’s a good sport about it. Give him a few drinks to loosen him up. I hear he’s a real party boy.

The entire night can be summed up in my favorite police line.

“Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.”

Do It Again

As you may have guessed from an earlier post I have been sending my stories to magazines hoping to get one published. Some of the stories have appeared on this blog, some haven’t. I’ve received mostly rejections, as expected. But the rejection letters have been so nice. I had expected them to be terse, get lost letters. Instead they let me down gently and encourage me to keep trying. And the fact that one got accepted really gave me a lift. It gave me the feeling that I truly have said something worth listening to rather than just spitting into the void. One story that has appeared here before, Do This One Thing, was sent to a contest. It didn’t get chosen, but I got a message that for $15 they would give me an in-depth critique. Why not? I always welcome anything that can make my writing better. The critique ran almost two pages. They liked the story and they liked my writing. Their main issues were with the structure of the story and after reading what they said, I saw it also. An early comment was about the 3 items an opening paragraph needs to establish. Here they said something I found very nice:

(3) in a well-defined time and place. This opening hits a home run with #3, because I think it does a great job making me feel like the story’s environment is both distinct and believable.

So, I sat down and rewrote the story, using the critique as a guide. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to weave in the part of my original story that they liked so much. Maybe I’ll just save it and use it in another story. This is the new version. I guess you could call it Do This One Thing Again.

Do This One Thing

            I pulled off my straw hat and mopped my face with my damp bandana. Squinting, I looked up. The bright August sun appeared to be nearly directly overhead. Near enough to take our lunch break, anyway.

            “Time,” I said loud enough for both Sam and Lonnie to hear. They were both within a few yards, chopping cotton like me. We were in the big field north of the Bass Woods. Off to the south, just beyond the hedgerow was Sam’s house. We could have gone there to eat, but we saw no sense in walking all that way. Closer by was Miss Alice’s home, the old Garris place. While a simple two-story farmhouse, it boasted details that made it stand out among its peers. Things like delicate curlicues on the porch columns, fresh painted clapboards and shutters, a clipped privet hedge surrounding the front yard. Old Miss Garris didn’t get around much anymore, but she made sure her home reflected the style she had always embodied. It was near sixty years after the Great War and a couple after what they were calling a World War, but Miss Garris was still the lady of the manor, ready to serve tea on the verandah. Surely, she wouldn’t mind the three of us stopping to eat lunch under the shade of one of her elms. I figured I should ask before we drew water from her well, just to be polite.

            Lonnie, my wife’s Uncle Lonnie, trudged over to sit under the shade of a tree at the edge of the yard. At 40, he was getting too old to work in the fields all day. My cousin Sam and I, both in our 20s, each did twice the work of Lonnie, but he needed to feel useful. Sam sat beside Lonnie.

            “Let me pay our respects to Miss Alice before we pump the water,” I said to them as I headed up the back porch steps.  

Getting no reply to several raps on the door, I was unsure if I should look in. Miss Garris was a little hard of hearing and I didn’t want to alarm her. Or if she was on the chamber pot, it would be embarrassing. But she was very old and might have fallen and need some help. I knew a colored girl comes in about once a week to help with cleaning but wasn’t sure when that was.

Lonnie and Sam were near enough that I could talk to them from the porch without shouting.

“When’s the last time you saw Miss Garris?” I asked them.

“She won’t at church on Sunday,” Sam said. “Somebody said she was feeling poorly.” For some reason I suddenly felt a shiver run down my spine.

“Reckon we ought to go in and look,” I said. There are no locked doors in our

neighborhood. We all trust each other. I opened the door a crack and spoke into it.

“Miss Garris. Can you hear me? You all right?” After a few minutes with no answer, I pushed the door open wider. As soon as I got the door open, I ran back into the yard and threw up. She was definitely dead and after several days in the August heat she was smelling. As I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, I heard Lonnie and Sam muttering to each other. 

Dammit, I thought. I’m sorry old Miss Garris died, but it would also make us lose a day of work.

“I guess one of us needs to go fetch either the doc or Sheriff Stephenson,” I said, rejoining them under the elm.  

“Why break off work? Let’s finish the field and then go get the doc. The old lady ain’t going nowhere.” Sam’s comment was practical if cold hearted.

“Naw, that ain’t right,” I told him. “That old lady deserves more respect than that. Plus, I don’t think I could work knowing a dead body was just a few yards away.” Lonnie nodded his agreement. He and Sam gathered our tools to take back to my barn. I headed off to Gumberry. It was only a mile or so through the woods and there was a telephone at the general store.

            They had her funeral the very next day. The preacher told me she had been dead at least three days and was far gone. He said he didn’t know if they would ever get the smell out of the house. They even had the funeral out by the graveside instead of inside the church. Prim old lady that she was, I know she’d have been embarrassed by all the mess.

***

            That night was hotter than ever. Mollie and I didn’t have any covers on the bed and all the windows were open. We even had the front door propped open to catch any breeze it could. Mollie had insisted that I install screens in the windows and a screen door at the front of our cabin so we could open it up at night without letting in mosquitos and other varmints. On nights like this I was happy I had listened to her.  

From where I was lying in bed, I could look through the door and down the long lane to the main road. I could see low-lying mist down by the end of the lane. It just drifted back and forth with whatever breeze caught it. After a bit it seemed the mist was drifting toward the house. As I watched it, it seemed to get thicker. Suddenly it took form and I could see it was a woman in a white dress standing outside the house. I froze in terror. I saw her put her hand on the doorjamb, lift her skirt and step into the house, walking through the screen door as if it weren’t there. I immediately recognized it as old Miss Garris.

            She stood there looking at me a minute. Then she walked over to the bed and reached down and touched my hand. Her hand was so cold. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move or make no sound. She said, “Lloyd, they didn’t find my will. It’s in the Bible in my study. You need to tell them. Do this and you won’t ever see me again. You don’t do it, I’ll be back. I’ll haint you.” She disappeared suddenly, and it released me. I set to squalling.

            Mollie said I liked to have scared her out of ten year’s growth. She said I was yelling and wrenching around; raving about ghosts. She soothed me, saying I just dreamed it.

“There ain’t no such thing as ghosts, sugar,” she murmured to me, stroking my brow as she held me. Even drenched with sweat in the hot August night, I still shivered in fear.

“But it was so real.”

“Dreams usually are, honey. Just go back to sleep. I’m here and won’t let nothing happen. You’ll see. In the morning, it’ll all be gone.”

            “But she said she’d come back and haint me,” I whimpered.

            “Shh, honey. Mollie’s here. Go to sleep.”

***

The next day, I went to the general store, and Doc Moore happened to be there. I told him a lie. I said Miss Garris told me before she died that her will was stuck in a Bible in her study. I knew he wouldn’t believe me if I said her ghost told me. It turned out there was a second will in a Bible in her study. And like she promised, I’ve never seen her again. And I want to keep it that way.