Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories from the American south. He writes in a variety of genres such as science fiction, horror, mystery and young adult. He has been published in several online and print journals. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his first novel.
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 want no more surprises.” “Aye, sir.” “We don’t seem to be able to pull away, sir,” Anderson told him, his voice a mix of frustration and growing alarm. “Are you giving it everything? Hyperdrive and impulse?” “Everything, sir.” “Can we polarize the tractor beam and push away from the center of mass?” the captain asked. “That’s just the problem, sir,” Jordan said. “It’s really like a hole. It feeds on anything we send its way. There’s nothing to push against.” “Sir, there’s a small planetoid ahead. It’s in a higher orbital plane. Our thrust plus the tractor beam may enable us to pull ourselves out.” “Do it,” Mundy said, wiping his brow and pushing his blond hair back up on his head. Longer than regulation but in space, who cares? He watched while Anderson flipped switches and dials expertly at his consol. He’s just a kid, Mundy thought. At 21 David Anderson had zoomed through the Academy and now was on his first space mission. “Put it on visual, Karen.” On the large view screen, they could see an irregularly shaped rock, two 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. We were pulled into its gravity well and are working on plans to get out. Engine two is temporarily out. No casualties or injuries in the 20 ship personnel. Captain out. *** “Karen, get this and my last five log entries encrypted and sent to Earth Command.” “Aye, Captain. It may take some time. I can’t send it via any media except subspace. Nothing else can overcome the gravity well.” “How does subspace do it? Maybe we can use that technology to our advantage.” “Not unless we can make ourselves microscopic. Subspace uses quantum entanglement to overcome 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 it will 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 probably 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 eggheads are getting a bit skittish. I need to know if me and Jorgenson are going to have a riot on our hands.” Donovan and Lieutenant Kevin Jorgenson, the other marine, had been attached as their “security team” although he wasn’t sure how much security 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 had come to stand by Anderson’s chair, bent over, his head close to the second lieutenant. “At the halfway point, we flip the tractor and switch polarization at the same time, locking onto the new asteroid. No second chances.” Everyone sat quietly as the seconds elapsed. “Now, Davie!” Mundy was amazed at how quickly the young man’s hands flew over his console. “Target acquired, and… traction.” “Captain, I’m warning you. The engines ain’t liking this one bit,” Jones called almost immediately. “I’m not asking them to like it. Just do their jobs. Give me fifteen more seconds.” “We got maybe 20. No more.” “Come on, Davie. Pull!” “Grappling hooks away,” Anderson said. “And contact. Cut engines.” “Reel us in and lock it down. Well, done, Mr. Anderson.” He patted the young man’s shoulder. Anderson sat back, somewhat pleased with himself. ***
The bridge door opened, and First Officer Commander Jennifer Newly strode in. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun and everything about her looking fresh and pressed. She had served nearly five years with Mundy. She repeatedly made sure to be assigned as his second. She knew he had the makings of a great captain and wanted to learn from him. And she had decided he wasn’t that hard to look at, either. She felt that, together, they made a formidable team. Mundy was inclined to agree. “Reporting for shift, Captain. You may be relieved if you wish.” “Good to see you, Jen. Take the con. Mister Anderson, brief the commander. Lieutenant Jordan, with me. We have a scientist to go see.” He and Jordan left the bridge, with Jordan wondering what this was about. *** Despite its name, UES Superior was not a large ship. An inelegantly shaped floating box, it was fifty meters long, ten wide and twenty deep. It resembled two old style mobile home units, one stacked atop the other. It was divided into a small bridge, science labs, five closet sized cubicles for the scientists who had to double up, and six for the crew. Only Mundy had a private room. Or private closet as he called it. There was also a small workout area crew were required and scientists were “recommended” to use to maintain their muscle mass while in space. Finally, a dining area/meeting room that would accommodate all twenty of them, with a little crowding. The scientists worked in shifts, five sleeping while five had the labs. Similarly, Captain Mundy and Commander Newly traded off, as did engineer Commander Casey Jones and his assistant Lieutenant Digger Emory. The other four crew, Jordan, Anderson, Cain and Dr. N’dutu also rotated as needed. *** It took nearly two days to find another large body to use. At least they assumed it was two days. None of the chronometers worked in the event horizon vortex. They could determine very little except that there was a violent maelstrom of matter and energy surrounding the ship. They attempted the maneuver just as before. However, shortly after starting, Karen shouted “Gravitational wave!” Everyone grabbed onto whatever they could as the wave slammed into the ship. It sent them tumbling along the orbital path. Fortunately, the shielding was strong enough to keep them from being crushed as they bounced around the orbital zone like the ball in an ancient pinball machine. By the time they had established a modicum of control over their ship Anderson shouted, “Holy moley, we’re headed straight into the hole!” “Pull out, pull out!” Captain Mundy ordered, keeping the panic he felt from his voice. Because of Anderson’s quick thinking and sharp reflexes, they 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, we’ll start going back in time and can avoid this mess?” Captain Mundy joked. “I wish. Even our school kids don’t believe that anymore,” Commander Newly said. Considering the predicament they were in, she had taken to remaining on the bridge during her down time. “There’s no going back in time.” “Except maybe through a black hole,” said Lieutenant Jordan winsomely. “That’s pretty much that, then,” said Mundy. “We’ve got no more aces up our sleeves. Karen, can we get a last dispatch off to Earth Command?” “Negative, Captain. We’re so deep in the hole 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. Lieutenant Jordan said it was just as well. The sudden jolt of the reduction in speed would probably tear the ship apart. The crew spent a week maneuvering the ship to the upper edges of the eddy only to have the gravity drag them back down. It required constant monitoring to keep them out of the black hole’s hungry maw. “I doubt we can do this much longer,” Mundy said, speaking to the entire crew and scientists. “The toll on the superstructure of the ship is too much. It will eventually give. I suppose we have a few more days, less than a week before it breaches the hull. I imagine it will be a quick but quite painful death. I will authorize desensitizing pills for all military personnel who want them, but I expect everyone to be at their stations from now on. We will meet this like a disciplined team. N’dutu, as medical officer, could you take over distributing suicide pills to the scientists who may want a quick exit?” “Sure thing, Captain.” She left the bridge to carry out her assignment. “I guess this is where I’m supposed to say it’s been an honor to serve with you. It sounds so trite, but actually it sums up how I feel. It has been an honor. Thank you, sir,” Karen said. Mundy could hear the held back tears in her voice. “Same here, Karen. Chin up. Best damn science officer ever. I’ll put that in your permanent file,” he said with a grin. She gave him a tremulous smile. After Karen left the bridge to confer with the scientists, Jennifer Newly came up to Mundy’s chair. “I just wanted to echo what Karen said. It truly has been an honor to serve with you. Five years now. We know each other so well. I can almost anticipate your orders before you give them. It’s just awful that it has to end this way. If there’s anything like an afterlife I guess I’ll see you on the other side, Rob.” “Yeah, feels like we’re an old married couple. See you too, Jen. If we both go the same way,” he said with a smile. *** For the rest of the day they all sat at their stations, pretending it was like any other day. 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 shite together better than poor Bujonjoe did. I had befriended him, although I’ve had to act in the past few weeks as if I never did. I feel like I deserted him. I’m most ashamed of that. Such a sensitive soul as him should never have been in the military. He was not cut out for it. But his family forced the issue. His old man was a hard-core Nationalist. He swore his son would serve and advance or die honorably. Well, Buj did neither. He stuck his laser pistol in his mouth on wide dispersal and vaporized his head. When we found that freighter a couple months ago, Buj had been on the boarding party. He stumbled and fell into a partially decomposed body. He screamed and scrambled back, spewing vomit all over himself. Even worse, he pissed himself. The men laughed at him. But they felt he had cracked under pressure. 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. He was frantic and didn’t know where to turn. It was even worse luck that he was serving with an old pirate like Als. And I don’t use the word pirate lightly. Als, with his one eye and broad girth is much like the lawless brigands that sailed the oceans of old Earth some two thousand years ago. But the Supreme Leader and the Empire turn a blind eye to his activities as long as he gets results. Als pays as little attention to his men as to the law so the worst of the bullies run the barracks. They had identified Bujonjoe as a weak link and he was being removed. As far as he was concerned, he took the only path he could see. I just feel sorry for him. *** “So tell me, Reichsmagister, what do you see?” Admiral Als asked his science advisor. “There might be something there, might not. If it’s beyond the event horizon, we won’t be able to see it.” “I’m aware of that. But our quantum entanglement device can detect telltale signs at the quantum level if there is something in there worth pursuing.” “Yes, but at the cost of a huge expenditure of energy which we are already running low on.” “But think what we might find? The records say 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. Being raped was the ultimate dishonor. Man on man sex was nothing new. On spacing ships with a hundred men and no women it was common. Some barracks had men who liked it and provided for their platoon. In others, the weaker men were just taken and forced. Even that had a modicum of honor since they were providing for the esprit de corps. But to be raped for no other reason than to show that you could be signifies the victim is no man. He is no more a man than is a slave. He is as low as a woman and used as one. I am not sure if that message is what sent Buj over the edge or if it was just a cumulative effect. I’m not sure I could handle it as long as poor Buj did. God, I hope I hold my shite together if I’m on that boarding party. *** “Mixed news, mien Admiral,” said the Reichsmagister as he entered the bridge. He stopped and sketched a short bow before continuing. “It appears from the QED signature that a ship is hiding in the jersa surrounding the hole.” “Not hiding, Reichsmagister. Just the victim of a power beyond its ability to control. Just as we would be if we ventured too close.” Then, as if just making sure, he turned to the helmsman. “Helmsleiter, be sure to keep a respectable distance from the event horizon or you will feel the sting of my laser baton on your back.” “Jawohl, mein Admiral.” Helmsleiter Kell’s eyes grew wide and round at the thought of the Admiral’s laser baton. “That sounds like good news, Reichsmagister. Can we get a fix on it?” asked the admiral. “Nein. It moves around the black hole at nearly the speed of light. May as well try to capture an electron as it speeds around its nucleus.” “That is not acceptable Reichsmagister. 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 enjoy 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 had decided to meet the end among his friends. He was so young, just out of the Academy, he made Mundy feel like an old man. He was an odd match as Anderson’s counterpart at the helm. At five feet six he was the shortest height 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.” Anderson was delighted. “Well, I don’t like my staff standing around with their collective thumbs up their asses. Something’s going on and I want answers. Pronto!” Everyone scrambled to their stations and managed to look industrious although no one knew exactly what to do. *** “We must find a way to slow down the craft. Once it leaves the soupy jersa surrounding the black hole, it might fly apart slinging around at nearly the speed of light. Helmsleiter, can you use the tractor beam to retard their speed?” “Jawohl, Herr Reichsmagister.” “Then do so.” *** “Captain. We are definitely caught in a gravity wave from above. But the wave is coherent, not natural. It’s as if we’re caught in a tractor beam.” Karen Jordan came up with a theory that seemed hardly plausible. “We’re movin’ at near the speed of light. Ain’t no tractor beam can catch you when you’re doin’ that,” Casey Jones gave his opinion. As the expert on what was physically possible with machinery, what he said carried weight. “We’re slowing down,” Anderson called from his console. “It’s like our engines are being overridden.” “Cut our engines, Davie. Let’s save them for when we need them. Somebody or something has us in a trap. I want to know who or what and why. Give it to me, gentlemen.” “I think I know,” said Anderson softly, yet everyone turned. “Look at this.” The screen showed an exterior view from the ship. It was obvious they were rising through waves of gases and energy, star dust and micrometeoroids. And right in the center, possibly light minutes distant was a glowing dot. A dot that the console indicated was a spaceship. A spaceship that was not registered on Earth. “Oh shit,” thought Mundy. “First contact.” *** “Captain. I really must demand that you let me speak with the aliens. As the only one aboard with diplomatic experience it is only reasonable,” scientist Harry Albright said. “No offense, but with your military background and military thinking you are liable to cowboy us into an interspecies war.” “No offense taken,” Mundy said gritting his teeth. He really hated dealing with these people. That’s what he had Karen for. “Harry, you know NASA and World Council protocol is very clear on this. The commander of the ship that makes first contact is to represent Earth unless an actual credentialed diplomat is on board,” Jordan chided him. “That’s ridiculous. This is too important a moment to be left to amateurs.” “We haven’t even determined if they are friendly or hostile. Before I let you invite them in for tea and crumpets, I want to know a little bit more about them.” “It’s attitudes like that which get us into wars. I wish to file a complaint.” “Take it up with Earth Command.” “Hmph! If you 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.” Commander Newly said. “So, either their shields are down to show friendly intent or they don’t fear us enough to put up shields or they just don’t have shields. Keep our shields up, Jennifer, until we know more about them. What did your scans find?” “A mixed bag. Their engines seem more primitive than ours, but they do have hyperdrive, obviously. They are also heavily armed. I doubt our shields would last more than a couple of salvos. Heat signature would indicate there are warm-blooded creatures inside.” “Good. I really didn’t want to meet up with any lizard people. I hate lizards,” said the captain, only half joking. “Or bug people. The movies about bug people give me nightmares,” admitted Anderson. “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 they detect the message, they may mistake it for hostile intent, or they may trace it to Earth. No need in announcing where we’re from until we know more.” “Will do, Captain.” “Captain!” Commander Newly called. “I’ve got something on my system. It looks like a message. It’s an old style system of amplitude frequency modulation, we haven’t used it in decades or even hundreds of years.” “Good. Feed it into the computer to start working on a translation. Is it directed at us?” “No, sir. They sent it in the other direction. I guess back to its base or fleet.” “Holy shit,” Jimmy whispered it so only Anderson heard it. “Captain, Captain, you gotta hear this.” “What, Jimmy?” asked Mundy. “Well, you know I’m a 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 two 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,” Newly said. “Have they taken over while we were gone?” “No. We’ve been in contact with Earth the whole time, except when we were in the event horizon. Wait a minute. I noticed something earlier but didn’t follow up. The stars are wrong,” Jordan said. “Stars?” Mundy asked. “Computer. Analyze star field and match with current star charts,” she ordered. “Complete,” said a disembodied voice. “Based on star position, what is the date?” “Star date approximately 5739.” “That’s not possible,” said Mundy. “Computer. Recalculate.” “Working. Star date 5739, unable to calculate decimal based on available data. Earth date 3220, unable to calculate month and day based on available data.” Anderson said what everyone was thinking. “But that’s like 900 years' difference, in the future.” “No. The computer must be malfunctioning, taking in some erroneous information,” Newly said. “Or affected by the black hole’s radiation. Either that or we have to believe that we have time traveled into the future. Which isn’t possible.” “I wonder,” said Jordan. “I have a theory. Let me get to my console.” Once sitting at her station, she began typing and bringing up various charts and queries. “Damn. It works out. I never would have believed it.” “Karen, what’s going on? What have you figured out?” Mundy asked. “Maybe a rational answer. It involves relativity. Science has found that Einstein was correct in most of what he theorized. One 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 .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’. Shit. Pardon, Captain. It really happened. They’re not aliens. They’re us. We’re in the future. And from what I’ve seen in their files, we’re fucked.” *** “Commandant. Come quickly.” Kell motioned to Smits. “Look,” he said once Smits was at his station. “Heat signatures from within the vessel. There are warm-blooded creatures inside.” “Unbelievable. How many?” “Impossible to tell. I’d say maybe 15, certainly no more than 25.” “You sure it’s not just mold growing on the decomposed bodies?” “No, Herr Commandant. It has to be actual warm-blooded creatures.” “Interlopers. Someone may have salvaged it before we got here? How unfortunate. For them,” said the Admiral. “We will have to relieve them of their burden. Anyway, they were stuck in the event horizon. I’m sure they will be very grateful for our rescue.” “Communications officer. Can we contact them?” “I believe so, mein Admiral. At least I can send a message to them. Whether they answer is the question.” “So be it,” barked Als. “Send them this. Attention to anyone who may be on the vessel we have in tow. I, Admiral Zariah Als, have claimed this vessel under Space Salvage Laws of the World Aryan Federation, Third edition. Under Chapter 2, section 7 of said regulations, I claim possession of the vessel and all contents. 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?” Jordan exclaimed. “No civilized people allow slavery.” “Maybe not in our world. But it looks like we’re not in our world anymore,” Jimmy said. “And it’s worse than just that. Women have no rights. They are the property of their father or husband. They aren’t allowed any kind of public life. Most never leave the house.” “Keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant. Isn’t that what they used to say,” said Newly. It wasn’t really a question. Her tone of voice showed it was a condemnation of the whole system. “We’re not going to just give up to them are we, Captain,” asked a wide-eyed Anderson. “Hell, no,” growled an angry Jonesie. “Gimme a blaster and I’ll take out a dozen or more before I go down. And I can set off a couple of neutron grenades for good measure. Jonesie ain’t nobody’s slave!” “But this is a science ship. We have no weaponry,” worried Dr. Harry Albright. He and Dr. Gloria Righter were called in to represent the ten scientists on board. “Surely they can be reasoned with.” “Dr. Albright, I’m a reasonable man and I’m all for reasoning with our new friends, but I’m 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’re going to get us all killed or worse,” complained Albright. “Maybe Dr. Albright. But I don’t fancy being a slave to some latter-day Nazi. You and the scientists can hang back if you want, but I’m going in with a plan.” “What’s the plan, Cap,” asked Jonesie. “Well, I think we need to tread softly for now. Much as I’d like to, we don’t need to go in with guns blazing. We’ve determined that their technology is way behind ours. I guess they must have lost a lot 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 showed that ship’s credentials duly registered them 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 were crowded together and frightened looking. They stopped short in front of Admiral Als. The man was Mundy’s height, broad and dressed in a uniform with many medals and stripes. His greasy gray hair was pulled back in a queue. A black patch over one eye gave him the look of a pirate. Mundy suspected it was more than just a look. He had a short, grizzled beard and appeared to be a hard worn fifty. The man beside him was shorter, younger and dressed in a black uniform. The insignia on his uniform denoted Commander rank. Looking at Als, Mundy brought up his right hand, offering a military salute. Als just looked at him and sneered. “My name is Captain Robert Mundy, commanding the United Earth ship Superior.” Als gave him a backhanded slap. There was 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. 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’dutu looked down her nose at the admiral with disdain. Mundy hoped she didn’t actually emit the “hmph” that her look entailed. 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 Newly. “We might as well work on the assumption they are listening in,” he whispered in her ear. “Agreed,” she whispered 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 Mundy’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 Karen was returned. She was being dragged by two soldiers. They opened the door and unceremoniously threw her in. Mundy and N’dutu rushed to her side. She was badly beaten and still bleeding from several wounds, some serious looking. Her uniform was in shreds. They applied what first aid they could. When she could talk, she said her right arm might also be fractured. They formed a sling with Mundy’s overshirt. “Apparently slaves are also used for sexual pleasure. That is what Smits wanted. I went along for a while, trying to be nice, but put him off. He got a little too personal so I let him have it, and I don’t mean my body.” Mundy smiled grimly, considering this. Karen was the best hand at martial arts on his ship. She regularly handed Mundy his ass at sparing. “Yeah, I kicked his ugly ass good until the guards got into it. It took three of them to take me down but I got some good licks in. Two of the guards are in sick bay because of me. And that slimy bastard in black will be walking funny for a few days. Donovan said we each needed to take out nine. Only six to go for me, Cap,” she grinned weakly through swollen, bloody lips at Mundy. “You guys need to catch up.” *** A germ of a plan took root in Mundy’s brain. When they brought Maynard back, several soldiers arrived with food. It wasn’t anything fancy, just bread, thin soup and water, but they were all famished. Mundy had noticed that when Smits had dismissed him as too old for his sexual tastes, von Hoek’s eyebrows raised. He also noticed after that how von Hoek took a long last look at him. Von Hoek was supervising the soldiers setting out the food. Mundy stood close to him and made eye contact. He smiled seductively and licked his upper lip with the tip of his tongue. With a smirk he strolled away, rolling his hips. Newly once told him when drunk that he had the “best damn ass in the navy”. Message delivered, he thought. After the meal, the soldiers took Larry Bostwick for testing. When he returned several hours later, the lights dimmed. There were eighteen blankets piled by the door. They huddled on the floor, seeking comfort in each other. They had only been down a short while when the door opened and von Hoek and four soldiers entered. “You,” von Hoek pointed at Mundy. “And… that one,” pointing at Jimmy. They were both quickly grabbed and hustled out of the room. They were taken down a corridor but then separated. “Where are you taking him?” Mundy asked. “Silence, slave. You do not speak unless your master addresses you. Aren’t you concerned for yourself rather than this other slave?” von Hoek asked. “Jimmy is my responsibility. You’re in a command position. You should understand,” he reasoned. “Oh, tut. We’re past all that. You have no responsibilities other than pleasing your master. And right now, that’s me. Smits may have thought you were too old, but he likes little boys anyway. I understand the bitch he pulled kicked his ass. She’ll be severely disciplined for that. The admiral ought to have her whipped or throw her to the troops for sport, but with her looks, she’s worth too much. She’ll bring him a fortune on the open market. You probably will, too. But for now, you’re just my type. And don’t worry about your little friend. A couple of the guards I owe a favor to saw him and thought he was cute. They asked for some playtime with him. He’ll be fine. They know not to permanently damage the property of the Admiral.” Mundy felt sick at the fate of poor Jimmy. The guards deposited Mundy in what he supposed was van Hoek’s quarters. Deposited was the best term seeing as they walked him in, dropped him on the single bed and walked out. “Now, slave. Let’s review. The guards are just outside. One word from me and they will beat you senseless. I can also recommend having you gelded, take the fight right out of you. Make me happy and I’ll see about cutting short your little friend’s time with the guards. I’ve seen the looks you gave me. Let’s not pretend. You can begin by taking off your shirt.” The thought of even touching van Hoek made Mundy’s skin crawl. The man was skinny, had bulging eyes and receded hair. The officer’s uniform did little to improve the image. Still, Mundy had a plan and enough experience to know how to remove his undershirt seductively. “Nice,” purred von Hoek. “I like a man with a little hair on his chest.” He came close and slid his hand along Mundy’s chest, allowing hairs to slip between his fingers. Stepping back a pace, he quickly removed the tunic of his uniform. It repulsed Mundy at the sallow, sunken chest that was revealed. Then von Hoek was back on him, kissing his neck and mouthing the area around his ears and where his neck joined his shoulders. Mundy slid his hands up von Hoek’s chest, slowing to caress his nipples. Von Hoek hissed an intake of breath and then groaned his pleasure. He grabbed Mundy’s head and kissed him on the mouth, his tongue seeking entrance. Mundy slid his hands up to cup von Hoek’s head as well. Then, with a violent wrench, he twisted it until von Hoek could see his backside. But by then, von Hoek could see nothing. He was dead. Mundy allowed himself a momentary shudder to rid himself of the essence of von Hoek. Then tapping his earlobe he whispered, “Donovan. You there?” “Been waiting on you, Cap. What’s the situation?” “Where are you and Jorgenson?” They had stayed behind in a hidden compartment when the crew went out to meet Als. “Still in the Superior. We went out and got the guards. There were four of them and three techs. Those disposal chutes are really neat. Anyway, we have new uniforms and weapons. And sorry about Dr. A. We were watching from inside the ship.” “Good, just outside the cargo bay is a map of the ship. I’m in a private quarter on deck B, number 25. Think you two can get here on the double?” “Sure thing. See you in five.” “I think there are two guards on my door.” “No problem.” While he waited, Mundy put von Hoek’s body in his closet. If anyone were to casually glance in the room, they wouldn’t notice anything amiss. A few moments later there was a sizzling sound of an energy blast, as if from a laser weapon outside and then a quiet tap at the door. It opened to reveal Donovan and Jorgenson in WAF uniforms with a dazed soldier held up between them and two more lying apparently dead in the hallway. Mundy raised his eyebrows at Donovan. “Mr,” he glanced down at the soldier’s name tag, “Zmeckis here got a little too interested in our presence. We cocked him and the next soldiers we met we just told we were taking him to sick bay.” Jorgenson had already dragged the two dead soldiers into the room as Donovan talked. He ripped the cover off the bed and tore strips from it. They securely gagged Mr. Zmeckis, tied his arms and legs and loaded him in the closet with von Hoek. It was a tight fit. They loaded the other two into the small bath. “Von Hoek is, or rather was officer level so he must have some kind of security clearance. See if you can get onto the ship’s systems from his connection, Jorgenson,” Mundy said. “Security on this system is for shit,” Jorgenson said disdainfully. “It’s an open book to me.” He went over the ship systems and conferred with Donovan. After a short time, Donovan sat on the bed with Mundy. “Ok, Cap. Here’s the plan. Jorgenson is going to divert all bridge control to engineering. He’ll have to do if from engineering, though, so you and Jorgenson head on down to engineering. Here’s a view of it.” Jorgenson showed him a screen that was apparently a live feed from engineering. They could see three guards and two engineers. “You two will need to neutralize those guys. Jorgenson then can lock all control systems into engineering. Bridge will notice it immediately, but I will create a diversion so don’t worry about them.” “Still, it won’t take the eighty or so soldiers left long to get there and break in.” “No, it won’t. That’s why Jorgenson 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 fifteen 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?” Mundy asked. “Seriously? I’d say slim to none. You got any better ideas?” Mundy had to shake his head that he didn’t. “Let me bring Jennifer up to date.” He tapped his lobe again and talked softly to his second in command. She reported that everyone else was in the cell except Jimmy. “Keep trying to open his frequency. We’ll do what we can to find him.” “Problems, Cap?” “Jimmy Cain is missing. Some guards grabbed him the same time they got me. He could be anywhere. Jennifer’s trying to raise him.” “I don’t like to leave anyone behind, but if it’s between getting 18 people off this ship and zero, I know where I stand. You’re the Cap, though. I’ll leave it up to you.” Donovan handed him the laser pistol he’d pulled off a guard. “Jorgenson, ping me when you’re in place.” “Roger.” *** They only encountered two soldiers on the way to engineering. They shot them both and gained two more hand weapons. Mundy hated killing indiscriminately, but this was a battle situation. Jorgenson tugged his earlobe when they were in place. He palmed open the door, and they went in all four guns blazing. They quickly had engineering under control and Jorgenson got to work on the controls. Mundy pinged Jennifer and told her to get their people moving. He told her Digger could open the door and she and Anderson could neutralize the guards. The scientists would have to help Jordan. He specifically reminded her that lethal force was acceptable. By the time he finished giving orders, Jorgenson was grabbing him and heading for the door. By this time, the red alert lights and horn were blaring. As they were exiting the control room Jorganson lobbed a couple of neutron grenades behind him at the engine core. The entire ship lurched when they went off, detonating one engine with them as well. They fought their way to the cargo bay. Resistance was light seeing as the ship was caught off guard and chaos reigned. Donovan had apparently disrupted their chain of command by destroying the bridge. As they were getting near their destination, they ran up with Donovan. His eyes were bright. It was clear he was in his element. Mundy’s ear pinged, and he heard Jennifer saying they had heard from Jimmy. He said he was in bad shape and disoriented. He doubted he could make it to the cargo bay on his own. She gave them his coordinates. “I’ll get the boy. You two get to the ship,” Donovan said. Mundy wanted to disagree, say Jimmy was his responsibility, but the reality was that Donovan had the better chance of getting himself and Jimmy to the ship alive. As they approached the bay, they heard laser pistol fire and a familiar roar. “Take that, you filthy Nazi scum!” Jonesie was giving the Nazis what for. With Mundy and Jorgenson coming up on their rear, we quickly dispatched them. No time for prisoners. “Good work, Cap. Any more of them filthy buggers?” Jonesie asked. He seemed eager for more action. “I believe we’re in the clear for the moment. You help get all the passengers in the ship. And I want my engines ready to go, pronto.” “On it, Cap.” He ran for the ship. Jennifer was warming the engines when Jorgenson pushed Mundy toward the ship. “You go. I need to be able to give covering fire for Donovan if the baddies beat him here. Then I’ll open the bay.” “No, both of us can give more cover. Then we can all get on the ship. The fifteen second delay…” “There’s no delay. We just said that to brook argument. Donovan’s plan all along was to get us all on the ship and open the bay himself. He’s got enough neutron grenades in his bag to destroy the entire ship and he plans to do it. So if he doesn’t make it, I need to open the door. I’m not about heroics or any of that shit. I just have a job to do and I do it. It’s the Marine way.” Mundy remembered when the mission began he had wondered if two Marines would be of any use if the situation got hairy. Now these two Marines had together saved all their lives. And willingly gave theirs in doing so. Mundy was not a man given to much emotion, but damn, he thought, that was brave. He got to the ship. Jennifer already had the engines ready. All he needed was to engage, and they’d be on their way. He saw several laser shots hit the door above Jorgenson and he returned fire. Then Jorgenson turned and looked at Mundy through the portal and hit the ‘emergency open door’ button. Inside the cargo bay, you could hear the great whoosh as all the air rushed out of the opening door. He saw Jorgenson crouch on the other side of the door and return fire again. The bay door was about halfway open when it stopped. Then slowly it began to close. “Oh, shit. Als’ people found an override,” Mundy said. He had to think quick. “Jennifer, shields on maximum. Davie, on impulse power, back us up as far from the door as possible.” “Captain, you’re not thinking…?” “Damn straight. Full power forward. Engage!” To tell the truth, he wasn’t sure if the ship would survive breaking through the cargo bay door. But he didn’t see any reason to stay behind. It was now or never. The Superior was a tough little ship and survived crashing through the door, leaving twisted metal in its wake. They flew clear of the larger ship. Anderson yelled “Yeehaaa!” as they burst free. Their spirits all soared with the little ship. *** Donovan had planned on lobbing two neutron grenades into the bridge. If Als was there at the time, he was a goner. Good, Mundy thought. With the havoc they created in the engine room, he doubted they would ever leap to hyper space again. Hell, impulse might even be a challenge. Without controls, the weapons were offline, as was the tractor beam. Now for the really crazy part of my plan, he thought. “Captain, we’re being followed,” reported Anderson. “What? How?” “Apparently it’s a shuttle craft. It doesn’t have much range, but it’s fast and sensors show it’s armed.” “Shields aft, full power!” Mundy yelled, expecting a proton torpedo or laser cannon blast. “Sir, we’re being hailed,” Karen told him. “Patch it through.” The connection was tenuous, and the words were scratchy but the message came through loud and clear. “Got room for four hitchhikers, Cap?” Donovan crowed. “You old devil. I thought sure they got you,” Mundy said, overjoyed. “It’ll take more than a few dickhead Nazis to take me out. I got a couple of presents for you. See you in five. I just have some torpedoes to get rid of.” “Karen. Aft screen,” Mundy commanded. Before them they saw the little shuttle craft and the huge Konigsberg looming in the background. Two tiny missiles shot out of the back of the speeding craft, headed for the mothership. Both were direct hits, setting off a chain reaction of other explosions. Within moments, the ship was shambles. Ironically, there was little left to salvage. Within five minutes the shuttle had come up alongside the Superior. Anderson connected it with the grappling hooks. Donovan said they had four space suits so they could tether and walk over. The airlock was small, so they had to come in one at a time. The first one in and out of his suit was Jimmy Cain. No one was more glad to see him than Anderson. He wrapped Jimmy up in his long arms. “Bud. I so thought I’d lost you.” “I so thought you had, too,” Jimmy deadpanned. His face was badly bruised, but he seemed to be holding up well, until suddenly he collapsed, weeping. “I’ll take him to our quarters,” Anderson said. He helped Jimmy out of the room. Dr. Vera Jong, who had an extensive background in counseling, followed them. Jimmy might need to talk with her a few times. Second through the door was Jorgenson. Mundy hugged him and slapped him on the back. “Our other present is coming next,” Jorgenson said. An unknown man took off his suit next. He was young, pleasant looking and seemed very frightened. Jorgenson said, “Meet Bunde Christophe Verhoven. He found Jimmy, shot three guards who had Donovan pinned down and asked for asylum. I didn’t see how we could turn him down. He said he couldn’t stand anymore of Als, the Nationalists or the Empire. I think the guy finally found his moral center. They all cheered when Donovan came through the door. “Mundy,” he said. “Against all odds, that crazy plan worked. I never thought it would.” “Well, pretty much anything is possible with two leathernecks and an old squid. Hell, I’ll even say Semper Fi.” “Ok, the testosterone’s getting a little thick in here,” said Jennifer. Anderson appeared in the doorway with fire in his eyes. “You filthy bastards!” he raged at Verhoven. “You freaking assholes! Your soldiers raped Jimmy. I swear I’ll kill every one of you. He lunged at the soldier but was intercepted by Donovan and Mundy. “Easy, cowboy,” Donovan crooned softly. “Stand down, Anderson. That’s an order. This man saved Jimmy and Donovan’s lives and has been offered asylum. We can’t blame him for what the others did.” Mundy held on to Anderson as he cried in his arms. “I’m so sorry for what they did,” pleaded Verhoven. “The Empire breeds violence like that. That’s what I want to get away from.” “Well, we may be a lonely little outpost of civilization, but welcome aboard, soldier,” said Mundy. “I hate to break up the party, but we still have a huge problem. We’re nine hundred years from our time in the middle of an evil empire.” Jennifer looked at Mundy expectantly. “Speaking of improbable plans, I have an idea,” Mundy announced. “Before we got deep into the black hole, Karen and I had a talk with our physics expert Dr. Righter. Her calculations show that the anomaly she found at the black hole was most likely a wormhole.” “Most likely as in really might be or wishful thinking?” asked Jennifer. “Somewhere in between,” admitted Karen. “Einstein theorized they would be in the center of a black hole, but Gloria’s equations and data indicate this to be an extra-solar temporal distortion, i.e. a wormhole not in the center of a black hole.” “Is that even possible?” Jennifer wanted to know. “Who knows what’s possible? Gloria says she’s convinced her math is correct. If we fly the Superior into it there’s a good chance the shield would keep it from crushing us. It would probably be navigable and should deposit us somewhere and sometime else, not sure where or when.” “Good chance, probably, might? Why don’t we just follow the yellow brick road while we’re at it? Maybe we’ll end up in Kansas,” Jennifer was unconvinced. “At this point, if I found a yellow brick road, I’d follow it. We know what this time in this universe holds for us. I don’t want to stick around. This wormhole is a chance to escape. There'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. Gloria Righter spoke up. “The scientists have decided we want to go, as well.” “I think we all want to go, Captain,” said Karen, and Jennifer 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.”